The Lure of Religious Goulash
As my oldest daughter nears her teen years and learns more about science, I find myself talking to her about the opening chapters of the Bible. The Catholic Church does not want us to read them as a scientific textbook, yet these Scriptures are not to be dismissed as mere fairy tales, either. Rather, the Church asks us to be sensitive to the various genres of biblical texts, including the opening chapters of Genesis. These are best viewed as God-inspired poetic accounts of our origins – accounts that offer us truths which are not only very real but of momentous importance.
One such truth is contained in humanity’s primordial temptation. It is well worth our time as Christians to prayerfully meditate on the first trap laid by God’s enemy. Why? Because this same temptation is often experienced in our lives too:
But the snake said to the woman: “You certainly will not die! God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5)
This original demonic temptation centers on the promise of accessing secret knowledge – even though it means disobeying God. This is the ancient temptation, and one we see our enemy return to unrelentingly. In St. John’s letters, for instance, the sacred author is distressed by individuals who have fallen into this temptation and claim to have an elite version of Christianity not shared by run-of-the-mill disciples. By the second century, the Church gave a name to this error: Gnosticism, based on the Greek word for “knowledge” (gnosis). And if you want proof that the allure of Gnosticism is still alive in our culture, look no further than the enormous popularity of The Da Vinci Code, which blasphemously reproposes the Gnostic lie that Jesus married and had children with Mary Magdalene. Today, even in Christian circles, Gnosticism is often disguised by the term “New Age spirituality” -- a trend which is analyzed on the Vatican website in the document, “Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life.”
One of the tragic aspects of our first parents’ moral fall is that by giving into the devil’s temptation, they were essentially saying: “God, you and this paradise you created are not enough for us.” Similarly, when Catholics today fall into the temptation of trying to adopt novel spiritual knowledge or practices from other world religions – or even pagan philosophies – the underlying message is: “Jesus, you are not enough for me. The spiritual treasures of the Church you founded on Peter are not enough for me.
The Bible, the sacraments, adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, prayer methods like lectio divina and Ignatian meditation, the spiritual wisdom of the saints – none of this is enough. I want something new!”
Someone told me about an elderly man who stopped a brand new priest after his Ordination Mass. The gentleman whispered: “Remember, Father – novelty is the seductress of every priest.” I would say the same is true for many lay Christians, as well. His words speak to the perennial nature of the Gnostic temptation, and it is certainly woven into this technological age. I’m preaching to myself here…but when we choose to scroll through an iPhone looking for new but useless facts rather than paying attention to God or our loved ones, we are falling into this same temptation. I suppose the phone’s symbol should be a sufficient reminder of this ancient Gnostic trap – an apple with a bite taken out of it.
The Catholic Church sincerely engages in dialogue with other world religions, which Vatican II stated is a praiseworthy goal). However, out of concern for our spiritual health, the Church does not want us to start making our Catholic Faith into a spiritual goulash by mixing in concepts and practices from non-Christian religions. “For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus…who gave himself as ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:5-6). Christ is unique. He is the Divine Bridegroom, and so his bride (the Church) is called to be faithful to him and him alone. It’s fine to learn about other religions and pagan philosophies; but from the biblical perspective, a Christian who dabbles in Buddhism, Hinduism, pantheism, etc. risks falling into spiritual adultery.
The growing trend of adopting elements from non-Christian religions – or mixing different religions into a kind of spiritual goulash – is of urgent concern because of the times we are living through. Christians are once again in an apostolic age – similar to the time of the first apostles who had to evangelize in a non-Christian culture. Simply maintaining what we have done in the recent past as a Church is no longer enough since many people are abandoning the Christian Faith, or they never grew up practicing it. It should not be a surprise, therefore, that the Holy Spirit is now guiding the Church to prioritize the basic proclamation of the Risen Christ – the Good News that Jesus is both God and Savior and has come to set us free so we can receive eternal life. (The Greek term for sharing the core of the Gospel is the kerygma.)
We need to proclaim Jesus and the most basic aspects of the Love Story that is the Christian Faith. It would be a victory for the enemy if, at this crucial moment, confusion was introduced by Christians who adopt and promote non-Christian practices and concepts. For example, if a Christian embraces the Buddhist doctrine that our personal identity is forever lost when we die, then the meaning of Christ’s resurrection – and our own future resurrection – is totally lost. As St. Paul reminds us, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then neither has Christ been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then empty [too] is our preaching; empty, too, your faith” (1 Cor 15:13-14).
This same saint also shows us how to keep our focus. Known as “the apostle to the Gentiles,” St. Paul insists on the priorities of putting on the mind of Christ and proclaiming Christ crucified. We all know that the world already has enough confusion; it does not need religious goulash. To borrow the lyrics of a ‘60s classic, what the world needs now is love – the sweet and saving love of Jesus Christ.
Dr. Dan Osborn is the Diocesan Theologian and Coordinator of Permanent Diaconate Formation & Ministry for the Diocese of Saginaw.