Posted tagged ‘religion’

The burden of history

September 7, 2009

A few years ago I was having a drink with a colleague, a professor of history, when he suddenly declared to me that it was no longer possible to teach his subject. History, he said, was not just about learning dates and names, it was about understanding the era and the people. But this had become impossible for younger people today, he suggested. And why? Because the cultural and social experiences and assumptions of today’s younger generation were so radically different from that of any previous generation that there was now an insufficient link with the past; in particular, he argued, you could not really grasp any period in history beyond the immediate past if you had no concept either of an agrarian economy and rural life, or of religion as a social force. He felt that every time he stood in front of a group of students and asked them to think of some past era from the perspective of those who lived through it, the task thoroughly defeated them.

I think there are two questions worth considering here. First, have the experiences and insights of this new generation really changed so much more than those of any previous one? I have spent a good deal of time reading Victorian fiction, and what comes through the literature of that era is a sense that history had been totally disconnected from the present: the Industrial Revolution changed everything – not just technology, but also lifestyle and outlook. And yet a sense of history could be preserved. I suspect that the generations which preceded and followed the Roman empire must also have seemed also to be at a vast cultural distance from Rome.

Secondly, is it so fatal for students of history to stand outside the societies they are studying? Or perhaps this: surely history is about learning how to bridge the gaps between where we are now and what we are observing in the past, even when those gaps are big? In fact, the bigger the gaps, the more important it becomes for today’s society to develop a sense of what went before.

And then again, is it not true that however much the past seems to be so very different, beneath the surface everything is remarkably similar? Are we not able to watch Shakespeare’s plays and see our own society depicted there? In fact, as we look at the past, are the differences between them and us really that much more profound than less efficient weaponry and baggier clothes?

Not only should we understand history, I think we can.

Religious diversity

August 11, 2009

I was recently invited to a book launch at the Unitarian Church on St Stephen’s Green, Dublin. To my shame, this was the first time I had ever entered this church, and I was struck by it architecture and atmosphere. I was particularly taken with a stained glass window dedicated to ‘discovery, truth, inspiration, love, work’ – not least because it struck me that these values could be used as higher education ideals (not sure how we deal with ‘love’, but you get what I mean).

While waiting for the event to begin, I had a look at some of their literature lying around – the hymn book looked very familiar to the Anglican in me, but with some twists. But as I left, I was aware of the fact that notwithstanding all of that I really knew nothing about Unitarianism. I had been vaguely aware of its origins – a version of Christianity that did not accept the doctrine of the Trinity – but little else. I have also noticed from time to time that around the East coast of America there are many Unitarian churches, but again I didn’t really know what these represented, or even whether they were of the same denomination as the church in Dublin.

Well, I have since read a little more, though I still don’t know many of the answers to these questions. But there appears to be a liberal grouping that has arisen out of Unitarianism and which, on the whole, espouses humanist or more general, interdenominational, principles.

I suppose that one reason why I haven’t heard much about Unitarianism is that they haven’t been known for their pursuit of their own demonology, as have so many Christian groups. I haven’t heard that they have been involved in riots to show their disapproval of people of other religious outlooks, nor am I aware of any attempts by Unitarians to discriminate against other groups. In fact it occurs to me that maybe all of us who claim to be Christians could do with some more anonymity, at times.

Anyway, I am going to read up a little more about Unitarianism.

Separation of church and state

May 22, 2009

In response to my post of yesterday on the report of the Commission on Child Abuse, a number of comments have focused on the issue of the separation of church and state. The concern being expressed, I think, is that the misuse of power and the prevalence of abuse unchecked by any real scrutiny over decades was connected with the failure in Ireland to separate church and state in any meaningful way. It is worth pursuing this further, but in my view (as I shall explain below) this is not the main – or at any rate only – cause of the problem.

The legal standing of churches and religions is regulated under article 44 of the 1937 Irish Constitution, Bunreacht na hEireann. This article provides as follows:

1.    The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion.
2.    1° Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen.
2° The State guarantees not to endow any religion.
3° The State shall not impose any disabilities or make any discrimination on the ground of religious profession, belief or status.
4° Legislation providing State aid for schools shall not discriminate between schools under the management of different religious denominations, nor be such as to affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school. 
5° Every religious denomination shall have the right to manage its own affairs, own, acquire and administer property, movable and immovable, and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes.
6° The property of any religious denomination or any educational institution shall not be diverted save for necessary works of public utility and on payment of compensation.

1.    The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion.
2.    1° Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen.
       2° The State guarantees not to endow any religion.
       3° The State shall not impose any disabilities or make any discrimination on the ground of religious profession, belief or status.
       4° Legislation providing State aid for schools shall not discriminate between schools under the management of different religious denominations, nor be such as to affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school. 
       5° Every religious denomination shall have the right to manage its own affairs, own, acquire and administer property, movable and immovable, and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes.
       6° The property of any religious denomination or any educational institution shall not be diverted save for necessary works of public utility and on payment of compensation.

There have been a number of cases in which the Irish courts examined the meaning of this article, and its impact in practice. It might be reasonable to summarise the findings in these cases as follows: (i) that no religion or denomination may receive special support or financial assistance; (ii) that no denomination can be accorded any special status; (iii) that no citizen can be ‘compelled to act contrary to his conscience in so far as the practice of religion is concerned and, subject to public order and morality, is free to profess and practise the religion of his choice in accordance with his conscience’ (Walsh J. in McGee v. Attorney General).

On the other hand the interpretation of these provisions is undermined by the tone of the whole document including its religious references in the Preamble, which dedicates the constitution to ‘the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred.’ In addition, the original wording of article 44 (repealed by referendum in 1972) provided for the ‘recognition’ of the ‘special position’ of the Roman Catholic Church.

These aspects of the Constitution are significant, not for their legal effect (which, it was suggested in a judgement by one Supreme Court judge, was zero), but because they imply and reflected an ambivalence in the national attitude. Ireland might not have been governed, in strict legal terms, by the Roman Catholic Church, but in practice it was much less clear. When Sean MacBridge was elected to Dail Eireann in 1947, his very first act was to write to the then Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, in the following terms:

‘I hasten as my first act, to pay my humble respects to Your Grace and to place myself at Your Grace’s disposal. Both as a Catholic and as a public representative I shall always welcome any advice Your Grace may be good enough to give me and shall be at Your Grace’s disposal should there by any matters upon which Your Grace feels I could be of assistance. It is my sincere hope that Your Grace will not hesitate to avail of my services.’

When a year later the new Fine Gael-led coalition government, of which MacBride was a member, took office, it sent a telegram to the Vatican in which it proposed ‘to repose at the feet of Your Holiness the assurance of our filial loyalty and of our devotion to your August Person.’ This was reflected more recently, as we have just read, in the unwillingness of the Department of Education to address suspicions or allegations of child abuse in Roman Catholic institutions because of the handicap of the Department’s deferential attitude.

In these periods of Irish history, I suspect what was needed in Ireland was not a better legal framework of separation of church and state, but a more emancipated attitude to the relationship. It is perhaps the case that what we had was a national ambivalence rooted in post-colonial problems, which unfortunately created a large group of victims – not just abused children, but arguably women also. It took the country a long time to escape from this position, but arguably that has now been achieved. What we now need to ensure is that the injustices inflicted duiring this time are recognised and, if possible, compensated.

The final victim of all of this is, perhaps, the Roman Catholic church itself. Throughout this period there were also people (including clergy) of compassion and goodwill in the church. Right now that hardly seems to matter, and as the edifice continues to creak and threaten to collapse few of the good things seem memorable to anyone. The final lesson in this is that a deferential attitude by the state and by society to any church is ultimately destructive for the church also. The church will survive, but its position will never be the same again.

A matter of faith

January 24, 2009

A few years ago a survey was conducted of Church of England (Anglican) clergy which revealed that a majority of them could not accurately list the Ten Commandments. This was seen at the time as deeply symptomatic of the terminal decline of English Anglicanism, because it showed that the keepers of its flame were ignorant of its history, traditions and theology; and if they were ignorant, there was hope for no-one. Given the disputes which have rocked Anglicanism since then, that now probably seems like minor stuff; but perhaps it is rather more revealing than all the blood-letting about gay clergy and women bishops. The latter disputes are about traditionalists setting their face against living in the present age, and to be sure these are fights that will fade away as their generation passes; the former are about the content of faith.

Not that I believe that the Ten Commandments are some sort of touchstone; they seem to me to be rules and prescriptions that were handed down by Moses in his quest for nation building amongst the released people he had brought out of Egypt. They were relevant to their time, and important for us to understand in context; but I don’t see them as a code of conduct for today, taken as a whole. So I am not much disturbed that the clergy were not up to speed with them. But if you believe in Christianity (or really, any form of organised grouping based on ideals and beliefs), then you must wonder about its sustainability  in the absence of a shared knowledge of key principles. If the clergy are so-so in their understanding of their own theology, then how can this theology still shape their congregations? And if it doesn’t, what holds everything together?

This is brought out for me by another survey that was conducted in England in 2007 by the polling organisation MORI (The Times, October 31, 2007), this time of people in general, and I found some of the results startling. This found that those who identified themselves as Christian had what I might describe as a fairly rocky understanding of their faith. Only 63 per cent believed in heaven (so 37 per cent didn’t), and 44 per cent believed in hell; curiously, 1 per cent believed in hell but not heaven. Oh well, that’s fine. But here are the curious bits: 18 per cent of Christians believed the number 13 to be unlucky; 12 per cent believed in witches and wizards; 27 per cent believed that horoscopes told something potentially significant, the same number that attached significance to the spilling of salt. 44 per cent of Christians believed in the practice of crossing fingers to bring good luck.

Of course, the borderline between Christianity and various pagan beliefs and other superstitions was always a little blurred in the ancient history of the faith. But this was a survey taken of a sophisticated population in the 21st century in a highly developed country. And it is hard not to want to ask some questions around that. You could say that it lends support to those, such as Richard Dawkins, who argue that the whole Christian enterprise is superstition and make-believe. Or you could say that it supports the statement (often wrongly attributed to G.K. Chesterton) that the evaporation of traditional faith leads people not to believe in nothing, but to believe in anything. 

This Sunday a declining (but still reasonably significant) number will go to church here in Europe, and a much larger number in other parts of the world. Some will be very unclear about what it is they are subscribing to, some will feel they have clear views that will however (in terms of the official theology) be quite wrong and misguided; some will belong to groups with emphatic certainties that owe little to the age in which they live. And in all of this mix, the sustainability of the faith will be very doubtful.

Christians, it has often been said, are a ‘people of the Book’. It seems to me that the correct approach to the book is one of scholarly insight, of knowing what is there and of understanding what it does and does not (or not necessarily) signify. Ignorance, however, is dangerous, as we load up our prejudices and personal preferences and put a divine stamp and unquestionable infallibility on them. God protect us from that.

The end of days

November 23, 2008

For some (mainly evangelical) Christians, a key aspect of their belief is based in eschatology: that after various horrific events (which they believe are predicted in the Bible) there will follow ‘the Rapture‘, when Christ will appear in the skies and ‘born again’ Christians – both dead and alive – will meet him there, while others will be consigned to hell and eternal damnation.

I wouldn’t wish to comment on this particular set of beliefs; I am a practising Christian myself, and am of the view that we need to be tolerant of other people’s faith and theology. However, I was also made aware of the potential dimensions of such beliefs when, earlier in the past week, I heard a radio interview with an evangelical woman from Alabama who identified the recent US election as a prelude to the Rapture, and who if I understood her inferences correctly seemed to be viewing Barack Obama as the antichrist.

There is undoubtedly (or there must be, I cannot speak from experience) something uniquely comforting in knowing that we have possession of all truth and are certain as to its meaning. But it also places us in a position where we may either gloss over, or misunderstand, or seriously compound the complexities and anxieties of the world. For me, faith is about mystery and discovery, and about trying to understand what we can never quite know. It is also about compassion and tolerance.

There has, over recent years, been a lively debate about whether religion is a force for good or evil in the world. I doubt, notwithstanding the strong views of participants in this debate such as Richard Dawkins, whether that is really a very interesting question, because religion like most things is as good or as bad as we humans make it. But I am inclined to accept that where religion has been used in explicit terms to guide political decision-making it has easily become something dangerous – though to be balanced, the same can be said of atheism.

I genuinely feel for all those who cannot, on the basis of their religious beliefs, be happy about the outcome of the recent US elections. But on the other hand, I cannot help being relieved that this is not how the majority in America assessed matters. Even as a practising Christian (in my case, an Anglican), I feel much more comfortable with the idea that politics must be secular, and that the Kingship of Christ (which Catholic and Anglican Christians celebrate today) is not of this world.

So should our religious principles – where we have them – be private only? I would say, yes and no. I don’t think any of us should be expecting our particular outlook on faith to be reflected in law or government action. But we should live by it ourselves, and apply it to our dealings with others, in tolerance and friendship.

Religion and sex

September 2, 2008

As we all know, US presidential candidate John McCain last week announced his choice of vice-presidential running mate, and it is Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. One of the first things we learnt about her is that she is profoundly religious; and when that was unpacked a little more, it appeared to mean chiefly that she was anti-abortion and held a traditional moral outlook. In fact, at first I was unable to discover anything about her religion that was unrelated to sex, nor could I see anyone asking questions about her religiosity that might have involved, say, her views on poverty or world peace.

I am myself a member of the Anglican Church – the Church of Ireland in my case. And as many will know, the Anglican Communion worldwide has been tearing itself apart of late. The issue is not the meaning and significance of the sacraments, or the reform of the liturgy, or the question whether we are living up to the command by Jesus to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and visit those in prison. The issue is homosexuality.

Church membership and participation has declined enormously in the developed world, and those outside the ecclesial structures must be wondering what on earth (because I don’t think it’s heaven) we are up to. We seem to be obsessed, not just with sex, but with the exact and proper amount of condemnation we want to direct at those whose sexual lifestyles we dislike. We trawl scripture with a tooth-comb to find obscure references to these pet hates so as to justify our obsessions, and ignore the spirit of the New Testament along the way.

I am exaggerating a little, of course. The spiritual lives of many churchgoers are very different from the above caricature, and the work of people such as Desmond Tutu has enriched the world. But we risk losing all of that if we appear to be single issue believers nursing our phobias, rather than the tolerant, charitable people I believe we are meant to be.

It’s time we re-arranged the agenda.


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