A mission of Sightings and the special mission assigned me here is to relate faith and faiths, as mediated by media, to public life.
My sub-mission is to keep suggesting that many, if not most religious “happenings” occur away from polls, “pols” and policies, though we respect and, of course, notice and report on them.
The acts, ideas, thoughts, beliefs and communities that do not make headlines and often go unnoticed are “located” where what most people think of as “religion” happens.
For example: Lately, the concept of confession (allied to “repentance,” which I associate with “a change of heart”) is much in the climate these days.
I was alerted anew to this when I read Mark Edmundson’s “Test of Faith” in the Autumn 2015 edition of “The American Scholar.”
The author, a notable English scholar, wrote autobiographically about his growing up in the Catholic Church of the bad old days, when effective (or not) confession of sins to a priest was the opener or closer of heaven’s door.
Much of the essay was an understandably angry, if not raging, blast against the church’s misdeeds, for example, the clerical sex-abuse crisis. Why would “The American Scholar” waste space on such over-addressed themes?
Then – surprise! – in his last five paragraphs, Edmundson turns and says he now remains “grateful for the education the Church gave me” and the vocabulary for dealing with moral and substantive issues.
It reminded me of the much-talked-about recent columns, essays and book chapters by David Brooks.
Like Edmundson, Brooks is not writing from within a believing community, but he points to cultural consequences when serious religious discourse leaps or does not leap from old-book pages to the heart of the human city and the public square.
Neither of them is asking for a return to old-style confession. Andrew Santella’s faith-based blog, “The Sin Box,” talks about the near disappearance of the confession-booth practices Edmundson suffered.
Note Santella’s line: “It’s strange that so many lay Catholics should have abandoned the confessional even while secular culture is increasingly awash in confession … of every sort.”
Santella accounts for post-Vatican II changes but now looks for more, again, for example, “I know one [Catholic woman] who says she’ll go back to confession when she can confide in a female priest.”
Many practices and cultural changes occurred away from “the sin box” in Catholicism, most other forms of Christianity and many kinds of religions.
I recall Catholic kids who unthinkingly ate meat on a Friday at a picnic, then thoughtfully and fearfully ran up the hill to Guardian Angels to confess to a priest, fearing hell if they died unconfessed and unforgiven.
Historian colleague Arthur Mann and I agreed that we ought to write a story of what happened when fear of hell cooled. My Ingersoll Lecture at Harvard I called “Hell Disappeared: No One Noticed.”
None of the people I cite or read with favor elsewhere are asking for the old-time-fear-of-hell approach to faith and life.
But more and more serious lay people as thinkers and spiritual leaders are advocating “confession” and “forgiveness” as elements of great potential in our cultures of chaos.
Oh, I forgot to mention a problem that priests experienced when they had to hear the drone of confessions in the booth.
Archbishop and TV star Fulton J. Sheen was autobiographical when he observed – and I apologize to nuns – “Hearing nuns’ confessions is like being stoned to death with popcorn.”
At their spiritual best, nuns had demonstrably positive views of education for the moral and meaningful life. So do many clergy and counselors today.
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. A version of this article first appeared on Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and is used with permission. You can follow Sightings on Twitter @DivSightings.