Traverse City Record-Eagle


Trashing organized religion

Ed HahnenbergIn one of my theology graduate courses, the assignment was to pick a theologian and research his/her contribution to the subject. I chose Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), a Swiss priest who is considered one of the most influential theologians of the past century.

His name came up in an interesting article about British soccer team owner and prominent philanthropist Ilyas Khan, a Muslim convert to Christianity who credits von Balthasar for his conversion.

Reading the story of Khan’s life, I was struck by his comment, “if there was a push away from Islam or a pull, it was much more the pull of Christ.”

Kahn relates that he has received his fair share of hate mail and threats of violence because his apostasy from Islam. “I must admit that I do have a great deal of sadness in my heart when I contemplate people who use Islam to justify their actions. These actions aren’t just un-Islamic — they are inhuman and have nothing to do with my view of Islam as a religion. Sadly, there appear to be a very large number of Muslims for whom anger and violence seem intuitive first responses to anything they don’t agree with.”

Kahn’s dual experience with Islam and Christianity made a connection for me with a recent article in Newsweek “Christianity in Crisis.”

The first anniversary of the Arab Spring has revived the medieval conflict between Christianity and Islam. Christianity certainly was in serious crisis then, so my first thought concerning the Newsweek article was, “What’s new about that?” For more than 2,000 years the Church has been in trouble, from within and without. The writer of Revelation had words of warning to the Seven Churches about following false teachers. St. Paul wrote epistles on the same theme.

The new theme for Christians according to Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek’s article is “Let’s just trash organized religion and follow Christ.”

Dennis Byrne, writing for the Chicago Tribune, comments on how convenient and easy it is to echo the preferred secular narrative: Religious institutions are not to be trusted. Sinful bishops trying to tell everyone else, even nonbelievers, how to live. You’re better off separating yourself from organized religion for a purer, simpler faith, unfiltered by hierarchies of self-serving clergy, secretive curia and stagnant traditions.

In short, go it alone.

That sentiment seems reasonable to some. However, Byrne counters that going it alone hardly seems to have been Jesus’ example. He gathered multitudes. He proclaimed the creation of a church, a community of people united by common belief. Not going it alone seems to me to be the entire point of organized religion. Jesus made it pretty clear that our relation with him is defined by the quality of our relations with others.

Byrne continues, “It strikes me that it’s a lot harder to get to where you’re going when you’re alone. And the church provides the structure that facilitates that trip.” Which is precisely why I think organized religion is important. Maybe the larger a church community gets, the less personal it becomes.

Adjacent to my property is a community church founded by one of my former religion students. It proclaims to be “gospel-based,” and I have no doubt it is. But so are mainline organized Christian religions. There are Christian “community churches” everywhere, popping up like spring mushrooms. They might be one-story structures, built with less concern about art and beauty, but more on a tight budget to serve a local group of 30 or more congregants. Perhaps it is social interaction rather than doctrine that explains this phenomenon.

Byrne agrees. “We all are quite aware of current polls that show that Americans, especially younger ones, are turning from traditional and mainline religions to a more ‘individualized and private’ faith.”

I’m with Byrne when he writes: “I’m more familiar with the Catholic Church than other Christian denominations. Its not-going-it-alone statistics are: more than 600 Catholic hospitals accounting for 12.5 percent of American hospitals and more than 15.5 percent of all U.S. hospital admissions. Four hundred health care centers and 1,500 specialized homes. Some 235 are residential homes for orphaned and other children. Emergency food, clothing, financial, shelter, medical and other assistance for more than 6.5 million people annually. Millions of students of all denominations in Catholic schools. Such is the essential nature of Catholic belief.”

Byrne concludes that the Church itself acknowledges that it is a human institution as well as a creation of God. Therefore, like all humans, it struggles and sins. So, it is constantly in crisis. But not because it reaches outside of itself. It is precisely because it reaches outside of itself that it has survived 2,000 years.

Perhaps this is the “pull” that former Muslim Ilyas Khan felt as he read the writings of Cardinal-designate Hans Urs von Balthasar. Perhaps, too, that is why von Balthasar is on my top-10 theologians list.

  • Mbcasey60

    Excellent article, as I am accustomed to. I have always been fascinated by people who are “for spirituality but against (organized) religion”. It seems that is like being for water but against plumbing! Working down here on the Mississippi Gulf Coat post-Katrina, the aid from church-based organizations was the first and most consistent immediate aid given. All denoniminations were represented. There was even a hippie group, but they spent most of their time smoking dope, and besides, you wouldn’t want them working on your house!

  • GenePH

    Ed, As kids we used to listen to our minister quote from the theologian Fosdick, and roll our eyes because all we knew was Fearless Fosdick. Now as an adult, I find learn he was a liberalizing force in Protestantism. There is always something more to learn when studying the history of religious beliefs. 

  • Anthony

    Ed, Good article.  I grew up in a pretty strict Catholic family in a small community.  As I became older, I began to have a sour taste in my mouth about religion, since the priest was extremely judgemental and gave the hellfire and brimstone sermon almost every Sunday.  Even the Christmas Eve mass was usually a sermon about damnation and not being right with God.  I left the church for many years because I saw that I wasn’t getting anything out of going to mass except another guilt trip for not being right with God, according to the priest’s sermon.  I now live in a city and began attending mass again about five years ago.  I found priests and bishops that were more educational as far as explaining the Bible readings.  Now I feel that I understand much of the message of Jesus, where before I was beat over the head with never being good enough in God’s eyes.  Every person that leaves the church has his or her own reasons for doing so, but in my case, I felt that the priest didn’t know how to teach people about Jesus, relying on guilt and fear instead and driving people away in the process.

    • Ed Hahnenberg

      Anthony…As a cradle Catholic, seminarian, and now parent and grandparent, I have seen exactly what you describe. Those entrusted with leading parishes may or may not have the skills to act as compassionate, sensitive leaders, and biblical scholars. I guess I have learned to live with that. Priests come and go, but the life-size crucifix still adorns the church of my youth, and has been there for a century. Ultimately, that Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for the future. His presence in the Eucharist, in the Word, and in my neighbor has never left me wanting. I know, too, that I have failed both God and neighbor, so God isn’t finished with me yet.

      • Anthony

        Just like you Ed, I know that God isn’t finished with me yet either.  About four years ago, the retired bishop of my parish gave a sermon that made everything clear about the purpose of Jesus in our lives.  I had never heard a sermon like that before and it hit me like cold water being dumped over my head.  Afterwards, I approached the bishop and told him how his sermon put everything into perspective for me.  He said to me that he’s only the messenger and that God gives him all of the words that I heard in the sermon.  This has stuck with me and ironically, I gave a speech about three years ago before a crowd of 1,000 or so people.  Even though I had a prepared speech in front of me, I didn’t look at it at all when I spoke.  I believe that every word that came out of my mouth was from God, just like what the bishop had told me that day.  God gave me exactly what I needed when I needed it.  I struggle to fully trust in God at times, but I know that I have been blessed with everything I need to carry out God’s purpose for my life.

  • Marcia L. Couturier

    I enjoyed your blog today as usual Ed.  Keep them coming as they are all information.  Thanx!

  • citizenkane123

    to contrast religion and spirituality or even faith is easy, but downright wrong.  religions are also human realities, but we seem to forget that everything that is human is, at least initially, good.  religions are human products, but they are to be explained by the fact that what is human is created by God.  Of course, creation does not say everything about the world and its relationship with God.  There is too the history of sin and the history of redemption.  Still, religions are divinely permitted and even inspired.  The point is that every human religion (by definitiion a search for the ultimate ground of reality) finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, who presupposes, corrects and perfects human religion…

    • rumsfelds_rules

       human religion?  Jesus said: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Kane, or is it Cain?,  you obviously are a lost soul. And therefore unaware of the power and authority of the Holy Spirit and the angels in this world to minister to the church and the body of Christ. And is spite of all the difficulties in Christendom the work of redeeming souls goes on unabated.

  • jeff4

    Just going to go out on a limb here Ed.  Was von Balthasar a spokesman against women in the catholic church?  Did he feel that men were superior to women? 

    • Ed Hahnenberg

      J4…Why in heaven’s name would you ask such a question? I have no idea. He was an extraordinary theologian who wrote on the Trinity in a profound way.  A distinctive thought in Balthasar’s work is that our first experience after birth is the face of love of our mothers, where the I encounters for the first time the Thou, and the Thou smiles in a relationship of love and sustenance. In delivering his eulogy, Benedict XVI, as a cardinal called Balthasar, “perhaps the most cultured man of our time.”

  • jeff4

    just googled von balthasar and women and about 20 hits came back “the case against women priests”

    • Ed Hahnenberg

      J4…Which of course you didn’t take the time to read…Here’s a quote from von Balthasar in 1997:

      “It should give woman a feeling of exaltation to know that she—
      particularly in the virgin-mother Mary—is the privileged place where God
      can and wishes to be received in the world. Between the first
      incarnation of the “Word of God in Mary and its ever new arrival in the
      receiving Church, there exists an inner continuity. This and only this
      is the decisive Christian event, and insofar as men are in the Church,
      they must participate—whether they have an office or not—in this
      comprehensive femininity of the Marian Church. In Mary, the Church, the
      perfect Church, is already a reality, long before there is an apostolic
      office. The latter remains secondary and instrumental in its
      representation and, just because of the deficiency of those who hold
      office (Peter!), is so made that the grace transmitted remains unharmed
      by this deficiency. He who has an office must endeavor, as far as he
      can, to remove this deficiency, but not by approaching Christ as head of
      the Church, but by learning to express and live better the fiat that
      Mary addressed to God one and triune.”

      We’ve been down this road before, Jeff,… 4,957 times or so. Women priests will not happen in the Catholic Church, fair or unfair. If one accepts St. Paul’s writings as divinely inspired, a case can be made for the continuance of this apostolic tradition. See 1 Cor 14: 34-35. On the other hand, Paul’s attitude toward women is somewhat mixed…even naming one of them an apostle in Romans 16: 7.

      At the end of Romans, nestled amid a series of greetings which Paul
      extends to various women and men, one finds this salutation, “Greet
      Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are
      prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.”  However, being called an apostle for Paul had the equivalency of being an important “helper” in spreading the Gospel.

      Women, in the CC, commonly serve as lectors, ministers of the Eucharist, altar servers, spiritual directors, theologians, etc., not as ordained, however.

  • jeff4

    and, unfortunately, Ed we’ll keep going down it until women are recognized as men’s equal.  women ARE equal to men, with the ability to do anything they aspire to do, unless it is a catholic priest.  sorry to beat this dead horse again Ed, but geez it really bothers me.

    • Anthony

      Jeff – How about looking at it this way, without Mary, there would be no immaculate conception and no birth of Jesus.  Mary (a woman) is held in the highest esteem by God.  Peter and the rest of the apostles had to be taught by Jesus, while Mary had a direct link with God.  I’m not a Bible scholar, and Ed may be able to respond to this better, but it seems to me that the apostles were all students of Jesus and served him.  So you could come to the conclusion that these apostles, all men, and their successors (pastors, bishops, popes, etc.) are charged with the work of spreading the teachings of Jesus and none of them had a direct relationship with God like Mary did.  Mary is the queen of heaven, so the male clergy are like the worker bees serving the queen bee.  I would say that women are held in even higher regard than men in the church, so why would you want to downgrade the status of women by allowing them to become clergy (worker bees)?

  • Ed Hahnenberg

    J4…If, as Christ taught in Matt 16:18, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” Pope John Paul II, as Peter’s successor, taught the following in his 1994 declaration “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis”, that’s good enough for me. Sorry if it bothers you.

    “Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men
    alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church
    and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents, at the
    present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate,
    or the Church’s judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is
    considered to have a merely disciplinary force.

    “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of
    great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution
    itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I
    declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly
    ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the
    Church’s faithful.”

    You can find the complete text at

    • Rumsfleds_rules

       I affirm your position Ed.

  • jeff4

    Well, it used to be tradition that you kept the spoils of war in the bible too Ed.  Keep the children and enslave them.  Keep the women and rape them.  Lots of traditions do not stand the test of time.  The catholic church’s tradition of keeping women OUT of positions of power is the next big change for the catholic church.  I’ll give you 3-4 more years and it will go the way of the church’s going against evolution.

    Nice try anthony but not close.  Women are NOT even close to equal to men in the catholic church, let alone more powerful.  bring on a catholic woman pope and i’m converting.  wait, i’m agnostic, i can’t.

    • Ed Hahnenberg

      J4…I don’t think 2000 years of doctrine consistency will fade in 36-48 months. Your choice of tradition’s examples are disgusting. BTW, RR, I appreciate your comment.

    • Anthony

      Gee Jeff, I guess you never heard of women such as Mother Theresa, Mother Angelica, and all of the women saints that were leaders or role models in the church.  Mother Angelica has several books out and I’ve read them all.  Go to your local bookstore or order one of her books online.  She is quite the business woman and has lived with chronic health problems for pretty much her whole life but still gets up every day and goes to work (as much as she can with her health problems).  Mother Theresa is probably more well known than almost any pope in modern times.  She is an icon, even though she would not want to be in that category.  I’m curious what you would have to say about the recent issue with allowing women to become members of the Augusta golf club with The Masters a couple of weeks ago.  Being a men only club for Augusta is based on tradition.  Or what about all male or all female schools or fraternaties/sororities?  Why not force them to bury all of their traditions?

      So Jeff, are you saying that Hillary Clinton is any less powerful because she didn’t become the president like her husband did?  I think the evidence suggests that she’s been more powerful with her staying power becoming a senator, running for president, and becoming the Secretary of State.  Not that I’m a fan of Hillary, but she is still in the game more than a decade after Slick Willy left office.  What other former first lady has similar credentials?

      I suppose you’ll be picking on the Boy Scouts next.

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  • jeff4

    it always seems more interesting when the WEBMASTER has to get involved.

  • jeff4

    it always seems more interesting when the WEBMASTER has to get involved.

  • jeff4

    and, no, anthony i’m not saying anything about Hillary or boy scouts.  I’m talking about my daughter being able to be an astronaut, a pilot, a general, a president, a doctor, a lawyer, anything she wants to be BUT a priest in the catholic church.

  • jeff4

    and, no, anthony i’m not saying anything about Hillary or boy scouts.  I’m talking about my daughter being able to be an astronaut, a pilot, a general, a president, a doctor, a lawyer, anything she wants to be BUT a priest in the catholic church.

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