This past Tuesday, the 115th Congress of the United States was called to order. Speeches, oaths, votes, and parties throughout Washington, D.C., marked the inauguration of another session of the first branch of government.
Having a parishioner re-elected to Congress afforded me an invitation to the festivities. It was a unique behind-the-scenes experience of the American government. So, this is how the engine room works! This is how the sausage is made.
It’s interesting how oddly normal and approachable government seems when we know someone in it — when the person taking the oath of office is a person we pray with, laugh with, or join with for a beer after a long week of work. The whole massive machine becomes very human.
Now, it might surprise some people that a member of Congress would invite his priest to such a governmental function. It might further surprise these same folks that I wasn’t the only religious leader invited to the opening of Congress.
Yes, there were a few of us, including the official House Chaplain, who happens to be a Jesuit priest.
Is there cause for surprise? In a truly human society, should it really shock us that a civil servant wants his religious leader – whether that’s a priest, rabbi, imam, or other spiritual authority – with him during an oath and the taking on of weighty public duties?
I would argue that there is something very refreshing and appropriate, something very human, in acknowledging transcendence just as one is assuming responsibilities to the common good that will require abnegation and a service before and beyond oneself.
Isn’t this confession of one’s spiritual identity the very heart of what it means to be human, to be alive, to desire to make a contribution to civilization, and the basis of the drive to serve the common good and enrich culture?
Religious expression, however, has a twin. Wherever there is spirituality, there is a competing secularism.
In the public forum, secularism presents itself as a neutral space, a type of safe answer to the challenge of pluralism. In truth, however, secularism is just one of many philosophical systems which seek to influence the human family.
Beyond its own marketing, secularism is a partisan system which is intolerant of transcendence and lacking in true acceptance of religious creed or spiritual experience. There is nothing unbiased in the secular system.
Secularism claims to possess a new way forward for humanity. It identifies rational thought, empirical investigation, and social harmony solely with itself. It casts a shadow on religion, ostracizes it, and identifies religious belief with violence, ignorance, and fantasy.
This juxtaposition can almost be summarized as “reason versus superstition,” with faith and religion absorbed under the designation “superstition.”
Secularism tells the human person that she can live a completely good and happy life without God or spirituality, and the only narrative that she really needs is the one that she is writing for herself.
More pressingly, secularism asserts that it is the true destiny of humanity. It argues that only as humanity “grows up” and sheds its superstition, can it enter a new era with exalted things for all.
Tragically to the holistic nature of the human person, religion and her spiritual nature – so sacred and important to human life and such a source of its richness – are completely discredited and seen as useless holdovers of an antiquated and dark past in human history, which no longer has any relevance and can contribute nothing to human development.
Such a worldview seems partial to a will to power. It comes across as such a small world, impoverished of human transcendental aspirations and the capacity for virtue. In its supposed neutrality, it has no room for the depths of the human soul and the multi-tiered expressions of its beauty.
The world today doesn’t need a will to power. It doesn’t need extremism disguised as religion. It doesn’t need the emptiness or intolerance of secularism.
The pining of the human family today needs the panorama of love, truth, beauty, goodness, kindness, compassion, and gentleness. It needs all the avenues which point it to this elevated way of life, including religious belief and spiritual expression. And sometimes humanity needs a reminder, a simple witness, to this truth.
Perhaps something as simple as a religious leader standing with a Congressman as he assumes public office.