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6 Paths to God: The Path of Independence

Maybe they find church services meaningless, offensive, dull or all three. Maybe they've been hurt by a church. Or maybe they feel offended by certain dogmas of organized religion.
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There are as many paths to God as there are individuals. This series looks at six of the most well-traveled paths for contemporary believers. Part 1, 'The Path of Belief', can be found here.

Those on the path of independence have made a conscious decision to separate themselves from organized religion, but still believe in God. Maybe they find church services meaningless, offensive, dull, or all three. Maybe they've been hurt by a church. Maybe they've been insulted (or abused) by a priest, pastor, rabbi, minister or imam. Or they feel offended by certain dogmas of organized religion. Or they find religious leaders hypocritical.

Or maybe they're just bored. Believe me, I've heard plenty of homilies that have put me to sleep, sometimes literally. As the Catholic priest and sociologist Andrew Greeley wrote, sometimes the question is not why so many Catholics leave the church -- it's why they stay.
Catholics may be turned off by the church's teachings on a particular moral question, or its stance on a political question, or by the history of clergy sex abuse. Consequently, while they still believe in God, they no longer consider themselves part of the church. They are sometimes called "lapsed," "fallen away" or "recovering" Catholics. But, as one friend said after the sex abuse crisis, "I didn't fall away from the church. It fell away from me." Many feel this way.

Though they keep their distance from churches, synagogues or mosques, many people in this group are still firm believers. Often they find solace in the religious practices they learned as children. And often they long for a more formal way to worship God in their lives.

One strength of this group is a healthy independence that enables them to see things in a fresh way, something that their own religious community often desperately needs. Those on the "outside," not bound by the usual restrictions on what is "appropriate" and "not appropriate" to say within the community can often speak more honestly.

The main danger for this group is a perfectionism that sets up any organized religion for failure.

Not long ago, a friend stopped attending his family's church. My friend is an intelligent and compassionate man who believes in God, and whose family had deep roots in the Episcopal Church.

But he believed his local church was too aligned with the affluent. So he decided to search for a community that recognized the place of the poor in the world.

After he left his church, he toyed with the idea of joining the local Catholic church, which he noticed that many of the poor attended on Sundays. But my friend disagreed with their prohibition on ordaining women. So he rejected Catholicism.

Next he experimented with Buddhism, but he found it impossible to reconcile his belief in a personal God, and his devotion to Jesus Christ, with the Buddhist worldview.

Finally, he ended up at the local Unitarian church, which initially seemed to suit him. He appreciated their broadminded Christian-based spirituality and commitment to social justice, as well as their welcome of people who often feel unwelcome in other churches. But he eventually ran into a problem: the Unitarians didn't espouse a clear enough belief system for my friend. In the end, he decided to belong to no church. Now he stays at home on Sundays.

My friend's experience reminded me that the search for a perfect religious community is a futile one. As the Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain, "The first and most elementary test of one's call to the religious life -- whether as a Jesuit, Franciscan, Cistercian or Carthusian -- is the willingness to accept life in a community in which everybody is more or less imperfect." That holds for any religious organization. Frankly, for any human organization.

This is not an excuse for the problems, imperfections and even sinfulness of religious organizations, but rather a realistic admission that as long as we're human we will be imperfect. It's also a reminder that for those on the path of independence -- believers who have left organized religion -- the search for a perfect religious community will be one that has no end.

(Next: The Path of Disbelief.)

James Martin, SJ is a Jesuit priest, culture editor of America magazine, and author of 'The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life', from which this series is adapted.