Faith and religion

by Rev. Stephen J. Lampe, Ph.D., S.S.L., S.T.D.
Associate professor, biblical studies

Yesterday afternoon, I baptized four children into the Catholic Church during Mass at St. Joseph Parish in Grafton, Wisconsin. As the ceremony began, I asked the parents, “What is the name you have given to your child?”
The parents announced their children’s names aloud for the first time, making their identity known before God and the congregation. The congregants listened intently, knowing that these children were becoming a part of us and assuming a new part of their identities just as we each do when we join a family, a group, or a community. These parents chose baptism for their children because they wanted them to be part of something bigger than themselves and joined with a community that shared their values and beliefs.
In that ceremony, I asked the parents if they were ready to raise their children in those values by loving God and their neighbor. And after they had said, “Yes,” I asked everyone else if they were ready to help the parents in their task. As I knew they would, everyone responded with an enthusiastic and resounding “YES!”
What does all of that tell me about the group of people, whom I call my fellow Catholics, and for whom I serve as a spiritual leader and guide?
From an academic perspective, I could say that Catholics Christians are a branch of Christians that trace their origins to the first disciples of Jesus Christ. Like nearly all world religions, Catholics look with special devotion to their founder, they revere the sacred writings that tell the story of that founder, they draw values and teachings from those sacred writings, and they have developed rituals and structures that allow the group to grow and flourish.
Because of its nearly 2,000-year history, the institutional structure of the Catholic Church has had high points and low points. Catholics currently form the single largest branch of Christianity in the world, with nearly 1.3 billion members worldwide, and Catholics are found in all countries of the world. Although the Catholic Church joins many other Christians in its commitment to a strong creedal tradition, the Catholic Church is widely diverse in its cultural and ritual expressions, since it reflects not a national identity, but rather an international one. The Catholic value statement might be found in the creedal statement: to be one (i.e., united), holy, Roman (in union with the Bishop of Rome), and Catholic (i.e., universal) Church, as well as the baptismal formula cited above: to love God and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
So “what shapes a person’s identity?” As a Catholic priest and as an associate professor of biblical studies at Stritch, I am constantly considering that question. While I am deeply grateful for my Catholic faith and for the ways that it has formed me, I also am in awe at the ways that religion has shaped the lives of my students and my parishioners. If the teachings of each religious tradition are important for answering questions, the enduring strength of religious identity comes from its relationship with God (the Divine, the Great Other, the One Beyond, etc.), and from its relationship with fellow believers. Part of that identity for Christians, Jews, Muslims, Baha’is, Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus, Native Americans, and countless other believers, is to make a difference in the world as a force for good.
It is a privilege for me to explore the ways that religion can form and shape us, inspire and motivate us, and impel us to action. It begins, of course, with a respectful and reverent openness to the positive power of religion, as well as an honest and sober recognition of the destructive impact of unhealthy religion. But with honesty and knowledge comes the power to be the force for good that the world needs. Anselm of Canterbury said that theology (which is what I teach) is “Faith seeking understanding.” As a person of faith, I have an insatiable desire to understand religion’s power for good, and I hope my students do too. That, too, is who we are: those who seek understanding.