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Marin priest discusses hazards of religious individualism

December 10, 2015
Christina Gray

In Marin County, considered by some, he said, to be the most “unchurched” county in the country, a local priest told a capacity crowd in the St. Sebastian parish hall in Greenbrae on Dec. 4 that the familiar local refrain: “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” is the result of not just a cultural growth in anti-institutionalism, but also a misunderstanding of the nature of the church itself.

“The most common form of distorted thinking that leads people away from organized religion, in my opinion, is a failure to understand the theological beauty of the church,” said Father Roger Gustafson, parochial vicar of St. Hilary Parish in Tiburon.

Father Gustafson, a Lutheran convert and former practicing attorney ordained in 2014, was the guest speaker at the December meeting of the Marin Breakfast Club, a lay Catholic fraternal organization that meets at St. Sebastian.

Most critics of the church think of it merely as a human institution, he said. “In short, those who drift away from the church merely see her human blemishes, but fail to see her beauty as the mystical body of Christ and a communion of men and women known as the people of God.”

In his talk entitled, “Spiritual but not Religious: A Deadly Oxymoron,” Father Gustafson said religious individualism and the “sacralization of the individual” has led to belief systems that are “self-constructed, self-affirming and comfortable.”

“Church” can be described as a regular yoga class or a hike in the woods, he said.

Some people with these custom-made belief systems view religious institutions as “cold, impersonal, and empty structures.”

Participation in a faith community is no longer a social prerequisite for a rich spiritual life and church attendance has become noncompulsory in the minds of most Americans, he said.

For much of American history, he said, churches were primary social institutions. But that changed during the 1960s and 1970s. The Watergate scandal was the last straw, launching a tidal wave of anti-institutional sentiment across the American landscape.

“The institutional church has suffered ever since,” he said

Religious individualism and a consumer mindset has turned church into “just one more product among many,” said Father Gustafson. If it doesn’t fulfill a “need” it is just not considered a priority.

But the church is a necessary element in any personal religious experience, said Father Gustafson.

“In an increasingly technocratic and rationalistic world, the church is called to be the leaven and soul of society, he said. “The church therefore is indispensable for any individual’s genuine journey of faith.”

Father Gustafson recalled a recent conversation with the mother of two small children at St. Hilary School who said friends continually questioned her about why she went to church.

“In the years I have been in the Bay Area I have found a profound lack of interest in church attendance and committing oneself to a church community,” he said.

He doesn’t know exactly why this seems to be the case in the Bay Area, but offered a few guesses.

“It could be the effect of libertine moral values that seem to conflict with church teachings. It could be the beauty of nature, which has become for many their ‘god,’ instead of the revelation of the one true God. It could be the great affluence. Whatever the reason, we have a lot of work to do here,” he said.

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