Over at her blog Gladys Ganiel has a summary of a book launch event ‘author meets critics’ (of which Gladys had invited me to be one) in TCD about her recent book, Transforming post-Catholic Ireland: religious practice in late modernity (OUP).
My sense from reading Gladys is that she is arguing that present religious practice in post-Catholic Ireland is an improvement on the past. Three big arguments of the book are that:
- Increased diversity in the religious market gives increased space for personal transformation; space is created on the margins where people can work for religious, social and political transformation.
- The prevalence of extra institutional religion counters hard secularisation theories: it exists as an intermediate space between pure individualism detached from church all together and institutional religious expression. Extra-institutional religion is not totally free-floating, it happens in relationship and community, often with a concern for social justice.
- Gladys argues extra institutional religion has potential to contribute to reconciliation more than other traditional institutional Christian churches.
Stories of individuals told in the book ring true to the diverse, blurred and sometimes contradictory religious landscape of contemporary Ireland. They brought to mind some very recent conversations with friends
- someone who while still involved locally in a church that he gives thanks for, describes himself as an ‘exile’ within the institutional church. It is an alien place; he is a ‘stranger’ in the midst.
- two recent separate conversations with friends who both struggle with the irrelevance gap between church and their high pressure, competitive and intense worlds of work. Spirituality, for both, is found ‘extra-institutionally’
- a friend brought up in a conservative Protestant denomination, with little or no natural contact with Catholicism, Irish culture or identity – now finding a richness and depth within Catholic spirituality and enjoying a silent retreat in a Jesuit centre near Dublin
- friends who have journeyed away from the Catholic Church, drawn to a more personal, warm, inclusive and less sacramental expression of Christianity within an evangelical community church
How would you describe your relationship with institutional Christianity I wonder? Or, to put it another way, where most do you find authenticity, spiritual refreshment, spiritual growth and learning? Where most do you find space for building relationships across boundaries and opportunities to work for justice?
However you read Gladys’ book, the trends and stories within it pose questions to historic denominations in particular – and whose membership is in relatively rapid decline.
One response may be to decry ‘extra-institutional’ spirituality as a sign of an individualism shaped by consumerism – religious shopping for the I-generation. A spirituality that all too comfortably side-steps the demands of Christian discipleship – accountability, community, costly mission, a willingness to be rejected and marginalised?
But such a response locates the ‘problem’ externally – with those pesky individualists who don’t go along with the status quo. It ignores their passion for serving others, for social justice and a pursuit of community.
The better response to a book like this (for churches) is to look within; to listen; to reflect on practice that, in Christendom, meant that churches became what Gladys calls religious ‘public utilities’ dispensing services to all while relegating personal faith and authentic living of the Christian life to the background.
I think there are fruits of such self-examination, listening and reflection on practice within some churches in Ireland. Perhaps you know and have experience of some. Places where there is space for diversity; personal transformation; community; a passion for social justice.
And it’s here that I find sociological categories too general and abstract. For behind such descriptions of behaviour lie beliefs that motivate and shape that behaviour. That’s why contemporary debates about the nature of the gospel and how it plays out within the Christian life are so important ….
Sociological analysis can helpfully describe and interpret trends, but as a Christian I want to argue that spiritual renewal and authenticity comes from a nexus of things like grace, the good news of the risen Lord Jesus Christ, the empowering and transforming work of the Spirit, repentance, faith, humility, love, self-sacrifice, care for the powerless and oppressed and so on.
In other words, is the search for authentic spirituality within extra-institutional spaces really a quest and longing for ‘the church to be the church’?