What’s Belief Got to Do with It?

Angela Bonavoglia, “Why Go To Church if You Don’t Believe Anymore?” Religion Dispatches (4/6/2015) http://religiondispatches.org/why-go-to-church-if-you-dont-believe-anymore/.

This week, just after Easter, Religion Dispatches published a rather moving personal essay by Angela Bonavoglia, a writer and journalist whose work focuses on Catholicism and women’s issues (see her webpage).

The essay describes the author’s Easter habit of doing the stations of the cross at the (Episcopal) Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. The question asked by the title of the essay, “Why Go to Church if you Don’t Believe Anymore?” receives no explicit answer. But by standing at the top of the post, it does serve to help shape how the reader might understand Bonavoglia’s own self-proclaimed identity as “a Catholic lapsed and lost, an unaffiliated spiritual seeker,” a person who once did but no longer attends church, except “every year at this time.”

Bonavoglia’s reflections on the brutal death of Jesus as depicted by the “Stations of the Cross” are poetic and moving. The Stations is a ritualized narrative tour of the Cathedral space (the church classifies the event as “liturgy-worship”) existing apart from ordinary Sunday services. At each “station” the walkers hear texts read aloud by volunteers; as she describes them they are texts “about love and loss, sin and goodness.” Placing herself among the walkers, Bonavoglia says they pray: “we pray for the sick and healers, the powerful and the powerless, the good and the evil, for ourselves.”

She lights a remembrance candle for her mother, and places it in the “American Poets Corner,” beneath the words of Walt Whitman, “I stop somewhere waiting for you.” Having done this, Bonavoglia says that she cries, and closing the essay, claims the following series of actions: “I pray to my mom. I thank her. I ask for forgiveness. I tell her I love her. Then I head for home, to await the resurrection.”

The article’s title turns out to be disingenuous, an editor’s click-bait. Bonavoglia doesn’t use words like “believe” or “belief.” Not once. If we, the readers who happen to study “religion,” wanted to hypothesize about what she “believes” (everybody has beliefs as I understand the term), I suppose we could indulge that impulse. But doing so would involve speculating about the contents of another person’s psyche. One could argue that active participation in the institutional Catholic “religion” can fall by the wayside, while atavistic practices and habits continue to be articulated in the life of “a Catholic lapsed,” but that grants too much power to a construction of—to a set of assumptions about—normative versus abnormative “Catholic” practice. And in any case we cannot neglect the fact that she’s written up the piece at all, to be published in Religion Dispatches, and that the author is a writer concerned with “all things Catholic” (to quote her personal website).

I’m trained not just to accept the author’s self-representation at face value, as a window into her soul. Essays like this function much more so as self-positioning speech in a social matrix rather than as perspicuous self-disclosure. The title of the article turns on the idea that “belief” is an essential component of religion. But the essay, implicitly, and correctly, I believe, suggests that belief is beside the point. Her reflections force us to allow for a more complex and nuanced understanding of what religion is and how it functions. The fact is that the student of religion will never really know what other people believe, but can only see what they do, and hear what they say. Even then we normally see and hear only what people want us to observe, as they construct their own selves before our gaze (and in turn participate in the complex interpellation of our own selves).

what do you think?

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