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Ministries: Books

Seeking a faith that lies beyond religion

By Brett Hoover
Paulist Press, 149 pages, $9.95


There is something quite daring and slightly ironic about a Catholic writer encouraging others to embrace their “faith” and reject their “religion.” After all, this was a common theme in some of the classic Protestant theologians of our century. Dietrich Bonhoeffer summed up a sentiment common to Karl Barth, Emil Brunner and other “neo-orthodox” theologians of his day when he speculated from prison in Nazi Germany that religion “was only a garment of Christianity.”

While Brett Hoover uses a similar notion of “religion” to give access to the faith of Catholic Christianity, readers will not find attention to this sort of deep theological reflection in his new book, Losing Your Religion, Finding Your Faith (Paulist Press, 1998). This lack of real attention to the riches of Christian and Catholic theological tradition is both the book’s greatest strength and its signal weakness.

Losing Your Religion, of course, has no need to dwell on theological topics that might only alienate inquirers, as its intended audience is primarily spiritually curious born after the Baby Boom, the under-35 cohorts (“Generation X” and beyond) who are, by almost any measure, not theologically literate -- although if the Lilith Fair and much of popular culture are indications, they are perhaps quite spiritual.

The book’s main task is to help young seekers realize that if they are to foster a lively faith, they need to “lose” -- that is, gain a critical distance from -- their “religion.” As Hoover puts it, “Spiritual growth is always a process of learning and then letting go, of losing our religion and finding our faith again.”

What does Hoover mean by religion? It sounds much like Bonhoeffer’s idea of a mere “garment” worn by faith: The religion that must be let go is “our humanly invented way of looking at God and the world” and “a system of practices and institutions that goes along with our response to God in faith.”

The book’s strategy is to take the “road trip” as a metaphor for emergence into spiritual maturity, from a chapter on commitment (“Getting Out of the Garage”) to a chapter on discernment (“Mapping My Road of Faith”). God’s plan for each life is interpreted by Hoover as a “divine trip-tik,” prayer is a “cell phone to the most high,” community, tradition, and scripture, are “company on the road” and the Holy Spirit is “navigator.”

Here Hoover is updating an image from deep within Christian tradition: the journey as metaphor for finding a way to God. Psalm 84 celebrates, “Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.” But perhaps even more apposite and closer to Hoover’s own background is not the psalmist but Paul, who told the “pagans” at the Areopagus “What therefore you worship as unknown, I will make known to you” (Acts 17:23).

In an analogous way, as Hoover’s book shows, all of the spiritual, psychological, even sexual road-tripping of young adulthood (real and metaphorical) can be oriented toward a fuller life of faith.

The book exudes the authenticity of a common conversation, with a light and often humorous inflection throughout. It includes observations and quotations from various young people with whom Hoover, a Paulist priest born in 1967, has worked. The voices of those he quotes and Hoover’s own voice sound real in a way that someone from another generation could not feign.

And we are definitely post-Vatican II here: Doctrine is not the first concern in the spiritual road trip of life. The bulk of Losing Your Religion is about being able to live a holy and whole life, avoiding the psychospiritual addictions and imbalances that plague the younger generations today (and I’m certain will find resonance with older generations as well): fear of commitment, overcommitment, workaholism, individualism and codependence.

In carrying forward this message of wholeness as holiness, Hoover has a gift for reaching his audience with contemporary metaphors, such as “editing God in” to our lives and going to the “repair shop” when the potholes in one’s road trip render one in need of professional help. Indeed, the prevalence of the “repair shop”-as-psychological approach abounds more than metaphorically in this book. That this road trip of faith is rendered frequently in psychological language will appeal to many readers.

The absence of any critical distancing of the life of faith from this psychological language is disappointing but perhaps necessary in order to reach a generation (such as the one to which Hoover and I belong) that is immersed in psychological self-understandings. The book’s commitment to Catholic sensibilities interpreted in contemporary psychological language makes it similar to the ubiquitous Chicken Soup for the Soul series that has grasped the public’s attention. But Losing Your Religion is more cautious and even more demanding than much of the “Chicken Soup” approach, due to Hoover’s emphases on the importance of community and tradition.

All the same, the nearly complete absence of regular references to “tradition” -- allusion to ideas, rituals, images and so on from the great panorama of Catholic Christianity -- keeps the book from being as daring as it might have been. I say “nearly complete,” because Hoover does often weave in scripture in his invitation to adult faith. But because “faith,” for Hoover, clearly involves life in a community of seekers, past and present, some access to some of the real richness of the Catholic tradition would have been appropriate, not only as information but as challenge to the young spiritual inquirers who will take up this book.

The few real dips into the tradition, such as a quotation from Thomas Merton here and a snippet from Isaac Hecker there, will leave more than just the theologically literate reader wanting more substance.

At the same time, painting the Catholic tradition in an accessible way, attentive to the “signs of the times,” is itself an ancient task. In this sense, Hoover’s book is quite traditional. My own feeling was that more explicit discussion of the richness and the ugliness of the Catholic tradition would end up giving readers a better sense of the “religious” garment they will be wearing (and responsible for helping to mend!) if they choose to take up the Catholic “faith.”

Tom Beaudoin is working on a PhD in Religion and Education at Boston College. He is the author of Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X (Jossey-Bass / Simon and Schuster).

National Catholic Reporter, September 25, 1998