Eugene KENNEDY, Believing. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2013. pp. 157. $20.00 paperback. ISBN: 978-1-62698-017-4. Reviewed by Wilburn T. STANCIL, Rockhurst University, Kansas City, MO 64110
Eugene Kennedy is a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter and a professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University Chicago. Kennedy has written scores of books on psychology and religion, several novels, and a PBS television play on Pope John XXIII. His most recent work, Believing, touches on a wide-range of disciplines, including psychology, theology, literature, and biblical studies.
Kennedy describes his work as a “book of commonplace thoughts, the kind we all have from time to time” (p. 1). While it’s true that the thoughts may be common, Kennedy, as both explorer and guide, provides insights that are far from common. His thesis is that our beliefs must be integrated with our experiences, and that the religious language of the church has failed to speak to those life experiences. Kennedy is not calling for an isolated, privatized religion. Rather, he wants to point out ways in which the institutional church can help us make our experiences open to transcendence.
Modern people often have difficulty believing, Kennedy thinks, because religion provides “too much cement-hardened certainty” without allowing for questions (22). Believing is normal and healthy when it permits uncertainty. When religion insists on “irreducible formulations” (11) and precision of language and content, believing becomes more difficult. The crux of believing has little to do with dogmas. For Kennedy, “the mystery of believing is only understood when we uncover the truth of what we believe in ourselves” (23). The language of belief that best connects with our human experiences is that of symbols, myths, images, and poetry. The subtle ways in which myths and symbols function to awaken the sense of transcendence are neutralized when taken literally and concretely.
For Kennedy, believing involves the whole person. The capacity to believe is closely related to our personal development, conditioned by the initial trust (or lack thereof) we experience as an infant. This is “incarnational faith,” the faith that doesn’t separate believing from our inner experiences. “There is nothing that God asks of us that contradicts or destroys anything that is healthy about our humanity” (68). Kennedy cites the oft-neglected work of psychologist Gordon Allport, The Individual and His Religion, published in 1950, in which he distinguishes “extrinsic religion” from “intrinsic religion.” Religious behavior void of one’s personality is “extrinsic.” Religion is “intrinsic,” however, when it becomes a filter for understanding and a principle for organizing all of our experiences in life.
Doubts and uncertainties are important aspects of believing, Kennedy says. Rather than viewing doubts as temptations or moral failures, Kennedy argues that healthy self-integration requires us to engage, not suppress, our doubts. Though psychologically most of us do not want to disturb our belief systems too much, maturity is gained only as we connect our beliefs more closely with the reality of our own experiences. Kennedy believes that the church must trust people to search and question. “The question is not whether humans believe in the churches but whether the churches believe in them” (94).
Fidelity is a contemporary problem in areas of relationships, institutions, causes, and beliefs. Kennedy thinks that the fundamental problem is we have misunderstood what it means to freely commit ourselves to another, a cause, or an institution. To do so involves a continuing act of believing, not a one-time event. “. . . we do not live on promises made a long time ago but on vows that are deepened with each new day” (102-03). Fidelity in the church should be reciprocal—not blind obedience but “searching believing” (106).
Throughout his book, Kennedy is in dialogue with the church. He believes that the reforms of Vatican II gave the church a clearer vision of the questions being asked by ordinary believers while incorporating their experiences (sensus fidelium). However, he also believes that since the John Paul II era, the church has tried to “reform the reform,” that is, in an act of “religious nostalgia,” to return to the certainties and securities of a previous era. Kennedy argues that the church must search for contemporary symbols and myths that speak to the experiences of modern people. Far from despairing of the institutional church, Kennedy believes that the church is essential in providing an “identity and a unifying tradition for persons of very differing cultural and ethnic backgrounds” (149).
While anyone could benefit from reading this book, Believing could especially be useful for study by small groups in the churches. The theme is perennial, the writing is accessible, and the insights are substantive.