Sunday, January 17, 2010

What it Meant to be Secular

Everyone around me loved labels. They still do. I had friends who fit into neat little religious boxes, into their various titled denominations. There was a Mormon, a Lutheran or ten, a Mennonite few, the Catholic crowd, the Baptists, the no-churchers-for-a-reason group, and me. Nobody could stick a label on me. I was raised a sort of generic Christian without a title, a group to belong to, a quick way of identifying who I was to people. Until I decided to become Catholic, the problem persisted. Even now, trying to explain to people (even people who know me well, The Man for example) how I was raised is confusing and time consuming. Armed with a vast religious vocabulary as a result of my two-year-long conversion, I attempted to explain it last night on the drive home from my parents'. This is what I came up with (from the Catholic perspective):

What does it mean to be Catholic? There is The Church, the two-thousand-year history and depth of religious thought. There is The Church, the more than billion people who claim the faith. There is The Church and it's Sacred Tradition, all that is Christianity not summarized in the Bible. Of course, The Bible exists in Catholicism too (yes, really). There is Mystery and devotions and all the little things that support our faith, that make us wonder, that keep us grounded, all the little things that become the lens through which we see our world.

My faith as a teenager was so incredibly different, yet the same at its core. I didn't have The Church. I didn't have history outside of Biblical history or whatever history I learned in public schools (which was surprisingly full since we covered Noah's Ark, David and Goliath, and several other famous stories in class). I didn't have Tradition, and our only traditions included the standard holidays. There was no Mystery, no little things, nothing but the Bible. I was raised a Protestant without a church to call my own. To this day, that's fine with me. I used reason and science to understand my world. I celebrated Easter and Christmas, Halloween and Valentine's Day just like all the other Christians in Hallmarkville. It wasn't blind faith, and it wasn't misunderstood faith.

An example I gave The Man was about how I approached The Bible. Several people have told me that the sum total of all Christian thought and knowledge is contained within the Bible. They tell me I don't need a single book besides that one to live my life. As a high school student attending youth group and hearing this, I balked hard. The pastor and I went around and around about it. I didn't understand how all it is to be human, and all it is to understand grace, and everything I see and do can be contained within one book. There has to be more. I've always known and believed in more. Now, as a Catholic, I get more. I believe in so much more. I get Tradition, Sacred Mystery, and the little things that help me understand my faith beyond The Bible. I get The Church that Christ himself instituted years before the Bible. And I feel like I'm not lying to myself anymore.

Being secular meant I didn't have a label. It meant I didn't go to church every week. It did NOT mean that I didn't know God or that I didn't have faith. It didn't mean I only celebrated Easter because I liked chocolate bunnies and jelly beans (can't stand jelly beans). But to try to explain more than that is more impossible than trying to get a cradle Catholic to explain their devotion to Mary. It isn't a case of "I once was blind but now I see." Think of it more like learning math: as a child and teenager, I new my multiplication tables. I could rattle off the gospel writers, some of the Ten Commandments, and maybe I could recite the story of the Nativity. As a college student, I could do geometry and trigonometry. I could name the reason for Easter and explain the Pagan roots of the holiday. Now, as a Catholic, I have passed Calculus. I've got a handle on some saints, figured out which of the gospel writers I prefer reading, and have contemplated the reasons for liturgical seasons and how they impact my attention span while at Mass. I'm expanding on those multiplication tables, the basics that I learned so long ago in such a different place. Now I have a label, an extension of my secular background, a "Catholic" title with a peculiar history.

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