The Shape of an Irreverent Spirituality

by Matthias Neuman

Matthias Neuman is professor of theology at St. Meinrad Seminary. St. Meinrad, Indiana.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, Oct. 5, 1983, 874-878. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


One goal of an irreverent spirituality challenges all ecclesial traditions to affirm that the God question can never be closed or fixed. Every church tradition, no matter how extensive or authoritative its dogma, must constantly be subject to a painful examination of its spirituality and theology.

The first episode was reading some commentaries on Current Catholicism offered by various newspapers. That week’s issue of the Wanderer featured an article headlined "A Catholic Loyalist Looks at the Herpes Scourge" (September 23, 1982). In terms reminiscent of the fervor of ancient prophets, the writer proclaimed that the current epidemic of venereal herpes was a direct punishment by God for people’s disobedience of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae. The wrath of God takes painful and ingenious forms, I thought.

Next on the stack of newspapers was the weekly National Catholic Reporter (October 1, 1982). A cursory fingering of its pages revealed the contents to be the usual series of diatribes thundering that true Christianity can be found only in the unique combination of affirming gay Catholicism, fomenting revolution in Latin America, crusading for women’s ordination, and continually hammering away at the banal narrowness of institutional Catholicism.

Well, the mind can take only so much. I sauntered out of the reading room and up to the community bulletin board, where I encountered the latest crisis to invade the peace of the cloister. It seemed that the equipment newly installed in the monastery kitchen was required by contract to be regularly serviced by the company. The serviceman duly arrived and turned out to be -- horror of horrors -- a servicewoman! The spiritual tranquility and perpetual chastity of 150 monks were about to be severely imperiled.

However, all was solved in appropriate hierarchical manner. An abbatial decree posted on the bulletin board announced that the papal enclosure had been "officially lifted" for the areas of the "main corridor, kitchen and pantry" for the specific time of "11:00 AM. to 12:00 noon that day." I wondered what would happen to Cinderella if she hadn’t finished her work by the stroke of noon. (Another monastic wag commented that it would have been easier for the abbot to declare her canonically not a woman.") Honestly, what one has to go through just to be a believing Christian!

And so Jordan grew into his maturity without a God. As a psychiatrist he strove to bring his patients to a freedom which liberated them from the enslaving gods that kept them trapped in the prison of their own fears. But something unexpected happened to Jordan, a series of events which shook him to the depth of his being. One day he happened to glance at a crucifix on the wall of his home (his wife had remained a practicing Catholic). So many hundreds of times before he had glimpsed that same crucifix -- a simple, innocuous religious artifact. In that particular instant, however, an overpowering feeling suddenly swept through him; he felt seized by a mysterious "presence," a Being just beyond the reach of his senses, but absolutely there!

This rush of feeling drained Jordan of all physical strength. As he slumped on the edge of the bed, fearful, weak and aghast at what was occurring, a simple message erupted repeatedly into his consciousness: "Everything will be all right!" This combination of mysterious presence, weakness and consoling message tasted but a few minutes, yet Jordan’s whole life was to be transformed by it. A similar experience occurred a few days later during a quiet moment at his office.

In the weeks that followed, Jordan, for the first time in years, seriously began to reconsider the "God question." Could it be? Is it possible that beyond the projections, beyond the wish-fulfillments and defensive covers, beyond the social conventions divinely legitimated, there may be that "Presence who is watching"? These questions churned for months in his heart and mind and brought Jordan to seek spiritual direction and religious conversation.

The juxtaposition of hours of intense discussion with my psychiatrist friend, the apocalyptic visions of divinely ordained herpes, and the collective monastic angst at a servicewoman’s penetrating the sacred space of the monastery kitchen created for me a psychical religious overload. The human mind may be stretched only so far; then there erupt the beginnings of a strangely different religious attitude. How true it is that to attain to God one must slice through so much distorted drivel that passes for serious religion!

Even in a monastery one has to scream No to the conglomeration of pre-Vatican II trivialities that seem to hang on in the ecclesial body like so many forms of staph become immune to penicillin. However, screaming in the monastery silence is not looked upon favorably, and done too often will result in a forced trip to see my psychiatrist friend with our roles reversed. Instead, the means of survival must be transmuted into another form, into a lifestyle which the anthropologist Paul Radin has shown to be a perennial type in human cultures: that of the skeptic.

In the context of organized churches and ecclesiastical organizations this skeptic might be more accurately named the "irreverent religious." I use the word "religious" in a generic sense; any person, lay or cleric, male or female, vowed or secular, may fit this type. Irreverent religious individuals may be found in universities, suburban homes, monasteries or city parishes. Such people have been appearing more and more in our own day, and it would be profitable to examine the origin, characteristics and shape of the spirituality they practice.

The practitioner of an irreverent spirituality bears a close resemblance to Peter Berger’s man of sociological consciousness. As this individual examines grandiose human motives and ideals, he or she exercises a consistent debunking attitude. The debunking frame of mind is one which, first of all, recognizes that any human choice is composed of a complex mixture of motives and pressures; such is the nature of human motivation and activity. Thus any official or ideal explanation -- even of the most exalted religious positions -- is frequently shot through with motives, desires and intentions that are never acknowledged on the level of explicit interpretation. And frequently these other motives originate in areas that reflect the baser desires of human life.

Along with manifest meanings that are conscious and deliberate functions of social processes, any social action also embodies unconscious and unintended meanings. The debunker aspires to bring these latent meanings and motives to the level of explicit awareness. Oftentimes this involves the unpleasant uncovering of an operative ideology; i.e., an articulated position which espouses high ideals but is actually a rationalization primarily to maintain the vested interests of a particular individual or group. The language of ideology sounds great; it reflects concern for others and notable religious principles, but it also happens to protect a self-seeking, status-quo theory or social practice.

The emergence of ecclesiastical pluralism has served to increase the availability and use of ideological reasoning. Pluralism describes a condition in which differing views and religious practices coexist alongside each other. One may grant the many benefits of pluralism as an ecclesial social policy and still recognize that it has unwittingly increased the common church fund of rationalizing ideology. The current pluralistic situation ripens a harvest of ready-made rationales to support or disprove any prechosen position. Witness such jargon as "gospel obedience to rightful authority," "loyalty to the larger tradition," "a sense of universalism in the church"; or, to justify the other side of the issue, "a sense of the local tradition," "respecting the uniqueness of the local church," "maintaining our individual community charism."

Of course, the same reasonings could be used in reverse order on almost any given issue. The modern pluralistic religious ethos has provided materials for a quantum leap in ideological justifications, and has made the task of honest discernment of social policy more difficult and all the more necessary at all levels of the church.

Needless to say, the irreverent religious who points out possible latent motives in pronouncements by the hierarchy is not appreciated either by the powers-that-be or by individuals adhering to an absolutist position. Their very attitudes require a solemn humorlessness. An irreverent spirituality appears dangerous to such ideologically minded people, for it suggests that pure religious motivation may not be the only factor in publicly stated beliefs and actions -- in fact, might not even be primary.

Since such suggestions obviously relativize or water down the absolute rightness of any single position, the religious debunker will be accused of a lack of faith, a lack of commitment (even worse than a lack of faith), a lack of team spirit, a rebelliousness against divinely established authority and, naturally, an irreverence toward holy and sacred things. An irreverent spirituality has, nonetheless, always had its place in religious history. The true debunker recognizes this and stands firm in the religious value it presents.

Many believers reading Ecclesiastes for the first time are shocked at his attitude and judgments. They find passages concerning the futility of seeking too much religious knowledge (5:1-6), the absurdity of constant effort to push oneself to religious asceticism, the value of not taking religion too seriously or not praying too much, of not straining oneself for any earthly goal, and of not trying to save the world from all the cruelty and injustice in it (3:16-21). The Preacher remains acutely aware of the dangers of ideology; religious leaders and kings don’t always say what they mean, and latent meanings abound in their most solemn statements (8:11-14). Most bureaucracies, including religious ones, are corrupt and primarily concerned with self-perpetuation (5:8-9). All in all it’s better to have nothing to do with them.

Koheleth does offer some positive advice for the irreverent religious, though one naturally expects it to be limited in scope and guarded in attitude. This advice will never spark a wave of religious fanaticism. He advises his followers to cultivate a fundamental reverence for God, but a reverence that maintains a respectful agnosticism about the world God created and God’s plans for it. No one can really explain why so much religious ideology and corruption abounds, so the solution is simply to stay away from it as best one can and appreciate the small, good things we receive from God’s bounty. "The best thing a man can do is eat and drink and enjoy what he has earned. And yet, I realized that even this comes from God" (2:24). Keep your religious practices simple, clean, honest and short! Using too many words or chasing too-lofty ideas usually leads to rash promises, self-deception and ideology. "Avoid extremes. If you have a simple reverence for God you will be successful" (7:18).

One senses a basic healthiness about my friend’s stark religious questioning -- a religious health that flows from confronting the true issues of faith simply, directly and honestly. Much contemporary religiosity, infected with too much piousness, self-righteousness and decaying religious practice, could use a dose of that honest questioning. Hans Urs von Balthasar once commented on atheism’s perennial value to Christian faith: "The frightening phenomenon of modern atheism may, among other things, be a forcible measure of Providence to bring mankind, and especially Christendom, to a more adequate idea of God." The thrust of irreverent spirituality intends the same effect.

To place the issue of radical belief as the central problem of religion permits one to make the evaluation that all the cultural and social expressions of religion -- dogmas, liturgical rituals, moral precepts, ecclesial structures, pious devotions -- are means to an end. They must not be established as authoritative ends (or idols) in themselves, but must always be judged by their usefulness in pointing the believer back to that moment of radical faith. Jordan made this comparison: "Psychotherapy is not mental health; it is a method toward a cure. So a worship service cannot be an obligation, only an invitation to examine one’s faith!" All those involved in the trappings of organized religion would do well to begin each day with a meditation on those two sentences. An irreverent spirituality feels no qualms in deflating the importance of any religious practice that touts itself as absolutely necessary for our faith.

Irreverent spirituality also has a contribution to make in the listing of Christian virtues, though as usual one might suspect that this contribution will be a bit unsettling to traditional religionists. The debunker acknowledges a positive, religious value in anger; there exists an honest-to-God Christian anger, which is a virtue. Sometimes the debunker most vigorously insists that Christianity is being betrayed and perverted by the idolatry shown in some institutions and practices.

Traditional Christian spirituality has always had a difficult time with the emotional response of anger. It seems in such direct contrast to the Greek ideal of the rational human being, the theocratic ideal of the totally obedient churchperson, and the Stoic ideal of the passionless individual -- all of which exerted formative influences on the style and practice of Western Christian spirituality. These attitudes too frequently characterize a sane, conforming, bureaucratic spirituality that bypasses altogether the passionate gospel of Jesus Christ. Precisely because of that contrast the irreverent religious recognizes in anger a positive Christian virtue.

The Christian churches must admit in all honesty that a spirituality may be traditional, ecclesiastical or monastic -- and still not be Christian! Similarly, Christians today need to admit that sin -- a power which separates us from God -- can be as easily encased in official, institutional, approved church structures as in the proud, rebellious, individual will. The severe, revenge-filled spiritualities of the Tridentine era that created legions of scrupulous individuals were sinful. The diocesan structures which allow lethargic and uncommitted priests to occupy important pastorates because of seniority alone are sinful. The monastic policies that, for reasons of traditional obedience, hinder the human maturation and Christian growth of their members are sinful.

The anger which the irreverent religious express through jokes, sarcasm and noncompliance reflects an anger whose Christian roots are found in St. Paul’s fiery Letter to the Galatians. His fervent plea for the emasculation of his opponents stands as a classic expression of holy anger (5:12). This anger qualifies as a Christian virtue precisely because it shocks and jolts those who too facilely accept the prevailing structures of institutional sin. Rightly placed, a bit of scandal can be an awfully good thing.

In this context one goal of an irreverent spirituality challenges all ecclesial traditions: to affirm that the God question can never be closed or fixed. Every church tradition, no matter how extensive or authoritative its dogma, must constantly be subject to a painful examining of its spirituality and theology. We must acknowledge the ever-present tendency to self-deceit, idolatry and institutional pride in its doctrines and practices. An irreverent spirituality has no qualms in affirming that God cannot be only the presupposition of a religion; "God" must also be the last question any religion asks. An irreverent spirituality insists that all aspects of a religion -- all forms of prayer, devotion and ascetical practices -- must be judged as means to prepare one to listen and to ask the hard questions of God’s existence, God’s qualities, God’s presence in human life. No matter how extensive the cultural reach of a religion, its generating power ultimately lies in the search for the simple and honest experience of God. Forgetting that, it dooms itself to a self-serving idolatry.

So, that fateful weekend which brought together divine herpes, prophetic radicalism, papal enclosure and a psychiatrist struggling with the question of God generated for me a renewed appreciation of an ancient form of spirituality. I am amazed at how many people have resonated with these attitudes and thoughts of irreverence. Perhaps Koheleth will become the patron saint of the 1980s. Who knows?