Relentless Love: Trócaire, Tearfund Ireland and Integral Mission

In chapter 11 of Relentless Love I compare and contrast how the Bible is used within two approaches to social justice in Ireland – that of Trócaire and of Tearfund Ireland. Trócaire (established 1973) is the overseas development agency of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. Tearfund Ireland was launched in 2008 and is a sister organisation of Tearfund UK, a global relief and development agency operating within an evangelical ethos.

The chapter was originally published in Anderson and Kearney Ireland and the Reception of the Bible (2018). The broad theme was the Bible and social justice in Ireland. As I was trying to figure out what angle to take I knew it needed to engage with Catholic thinking and practice and not just the ‘minority report’ of Protestant/evangelical thinking and action on social justice. And so a comparative analysis of how the main relief agencies of those two communities approached social justice seemed a good way in to the subject.

In terms of budget Trócaire dwarfs Tearfund Ireland. It takes in c. €30 million each year in donations alone during its annual Lenten appeal. But my interest was more in the two organisations theology and practice of social justice.

On the surface, they have much in common: Both:

  • are professional and experienced faith-based development organisation which depends to a significant degree on support from local churches across Ireland,
  • prioritise aid to the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world
  • offer resources and training for churches in Ireland to engage with issues of social justice.
  • recognise that the causes of poverty are complex and that bringing justice involves both aid to relieve suffering and action to address the root causes of injustice.
  • place significant emphasis on sustainability and empowerment at a local level.
  • root their call to action in God’s love for all people and the God-given worth of each individual

But under the surface some significant differences emerge. Below is a summary of the argument.

Trócaire

From its beginning Trócaire was focused on global economic justice – ‘no nation has a right to build its own prosperity on the misery of others.’ What emerged in the analysis is a tension running through Trócaire’s work between its identity as a Catholic relief organisation set up by the Irish Bishops and informed by Catholic Social Teaching (CST), and its largely secular approach to establishing justice through human rights legislation within a firmly ‘this worldly’ political framework.

To illustrate: the organisation’s six core themes (sustainable livelihoods; human rights; gender equality; HIV; climate change; emergency relief) are framed within a general theme of justice rather than being developed around specific biblical themes.

So there is little talk in Trócaire’s many publications, as far as I found, of themes such as the kingdom of God; future hope; the New Testament’s eschatological structure for Christian ethics; themes of sin; forgiveness, the uniqueness of Christ; new life in the Spirit; the church as the people of God and so on.

The three elements of CST that Trócaire highlight are dignity (all people are created in God’s image and are therefore due respect); option for the poor (putting the poor and vulnerable first); and the common good (everyone is included with a right and responsibility to promote the community’s good and benefit from it). These are applied in ways to support (good and valuable) development objectives of helping practically those in need.

The same can be said in general for how the Bible is used. Verses used include classic “justice” texts such as Isa 58:6, 10 (fasting as loosing the bonds of injustice), Mic 6:8 (do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God), Prov 31:8-9 (speak out for those who cannot), Luke 4:18-19 (good news to the poor), and Luke 10:25-37 (parable of the Good Samaritan). These texts are applied within a broad creational framework to support general rights-based teaching on the value of all human life which compels those with resources to help those without.

The overall impression is of a highly professional aid organisation, but one in which its Christian identity is largely in the background. The approach is primarily political and legal and sits comfortably within the values and goals of secular aid agencies. On the ground, Trócaire is a non-missionary organisation, its primary focus is a rights-based approach to global development.

Tearfund’s theology of integral mission

The critical difference between the approaches of the two organisations, in my view, is Tearfund’s commitment to integral mission. I’m not commenting here on the merits of either – just observing that it is Tearfund’s explicit attempt to integrate mission and social justice that distingushes it from Trócaire.

Within integral mission, mission is framed within the biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption and consummation. The church exists ‘between the times’ of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, Pentecost and the consummation of all things when Christ returns.

This means that the call of the church is to declare the good news (gospel) of forgiveness of sins but also new life under his lordship in the power of the Spirit for all aspects of life.

This leads to the most significant different between the two organisations. Integral mission has the church “as a caring, inclusive and distinctive community of reconciliation reaching out in love to the world” (Dewi Hughes) at the centre of Christian mission. Hughes argues that

“[t]he church is not the means by which Tearfund can deliver ‘development’ to the poor but the most convincing evidence that we now have of the outworking of God’s purpose to redeem his creation.” While churches are frequently broken and imperfect, it is Tearfund’s “privilege to be continually looking for such churches within the worldwide evangelical community that we may encourage them in their integral mission” since “showing mercy and acting on behalf of the poor belongs to the essence of the church. . . . a church that does not care for its poor is not a true church. (Dewi Hughes, ‘Theology of Integral Mission”)

And so an integral vision for mission is to knit together Christian mission, development and the local church into a coherent rationale for praxis. This means that integral mission embraces practical needs being met, increasing participation and empowerment of the poor, advocacy to challenge structural injustice, personal understanding of individuals as made in the image of God, local church engagement in service to the poor alongside worship and witness.

This sits very much within the Micah Network’s Declaration on Integral Mission

If we ignore the world we betray the word of God which sends us out to serve the world. If we ignore the word of God we have nothing to bring to the world. Justice and justification by faith, worship and political action, the spiritual and the material, personal change and structural change belong together. As in the life of Jesus, being, doing and saying are at the heart of our integral task.[1]

From the Micah Declaration on Integral Mission: http://www.micahnetwork.org/integral-mission.

And this issues in a different perspective on human rights and the goal of a Christian relief agency. Tearfund say human rights legislation needs to be viewed through a Christian lens. It may be the calling of Christians to accept injustice and violation of their rights, but simultaneously be committed to seeking justice for other people’s rights. A motivation of love rather than law.

Reflections

First, the comparison between Trócaire and Tearfund revealed some fascinating distinctives in their theology and praxis. Perhaps this is best summarised in Trócaire having more of a ‘top-down’ rights-based approach to development and Tearfund having more of a ‘bottom-up’ emphasis of change at a local level in partnership with local communities of Christians.

Second, more broadly, given the negative legacy of so much of ‘Catholic Ireland’, the work of Trócaire, and many other Catholic organisations committed to serving the poor, is a reminder of a ‘thread of grace’ woven into the fabric of Christianity to serve those in need.

Third, the motive for engaging in social justice is crucial. Within Ireland, (some) Protestant relief work during the Famine fatally tainted an astonishing range of aid by multiple organisation. Within Catholicism, the enormous contribution of the Church to social action in Ireland has tended to be lost today. Not only because of scandals, but because it tended to be pragmatic – as a means to an end (the dissemination of the Catholic faith) rather than out of a ‘no strings attached’ love or desire to reform embedded injustices in Irish society. All churches today – of whatever hue – need to love and care for people as people rather than ‘care for the poor’ becoming, however subtly, a means to an end, whether church growth, praise from others or as a means of attracting funding.

Fourth, in an era of unrestrained capitalism that is wrecking havoc on the world’s ecosystems and harming the poor most of all, the call for Christians is to reflect the character of God. He is a God of the poor in whom there is no partiality. His church is called to loving action in his name.


Murder your Darlings : a footnote on justification

This is basically an out-of-control footnote in something I was writing – making the case for incorporated righteousness or union with Christ as the best way of thinking about justification by faith. It got edited out because it was too long and not central to what I was writing about.

As Stephen King the horror writer says, you have got to Murder Your Darlings when writing! I confess to finding that hard to do and so need a ruthless editor.

—————————-

Roman Catholic theology (The Council of Trent’s ‘Decree Concerning Justification’ is still the most authoritative pronouncement) teaches infused righteousness whereby justification is not participation in God’s or Jesus’ own righteousness but is an imparted gift of our own righteousness (through the sacrament of baptism). This righteousness grows with our cooperation with the Spirit in the form of good works. Justification is therefore an ongoing process that culminates in demonstrating sufficient righteousness for final salvation.

But this fails to take account of how in Paul, justification is based on God’s once-and-for-all declaration of Jesus as righteous and that believers share in that verdict by faith union in Christ. Trent does get right, however, Paul’s absolute expectation that initial justification will lead to a transformed life of holiness pleasing to God.

Within Reformed and Lutheran theology, imputation of Christ’s righteousness has been the dominant way of understanding justification. The idea is that believers are instantaneously ‘covered’ in righteousness that is not theirs but Christ’s. God ‘sees’ us through the ‘alien righteousness’ of Christ.

While right in affirming Christ’s righteousness and not our own, there are problems with this view. ‘Justification alone’ tends to be virtually equated with the gospel and salvation. Sanctification tends to be artificially defined as a subsequent distinct category from justification and a transformed life in the Spirit as merely a secondary consequence of prior justification. This fails to account for how justification has past, present and future elements and how the systematic distinction between justification and sanctification cannot be maintained through exegesis of Paul. The Bible does not distinguish in importance between our initial justification through faith-union in Christ and our subsequent life of righteousness through the empowering presence of the Spirit. Both are essential for salvation. Nor can the overly transactional and somewhat artificial notion of imputation as just described be found clearly in any text in the NT.

The idea of incorporated righteousness affirms that our righteousness is not our own, but Christ’s. It is by faith alone, and only due to God’s grace, that believers are declared righteous in Christ and are united in him through the Spirit. It also stresses union and relationship as the lens through which any sense of imputation needs to be viewed. His righteousness becomes ours as we have faith in Christ. Faith here is much more than mental assent, but a whole life lived in continuing union with the Lord that issues a transformed life.

Ireland and the Reception of the Bible

Reception of the Bible in IrelandJust received a copy of this book, edited by Brad Anderson and Jonathan Kearney of Dublin City University.

The full details and list of 21 chapters can be seen here . I’ve pasted them in below as well.

Congratulations to Brad and Jonathan on bringing this big project to publication. I look forward to browsing the diverse range of chapters.

Chapter 11 is one I did on the use of the Bible by two Christian relief organisations – Trocaire and Tearfund Ireland: one Roman Catholic, the other Evangelical.

It took the form of a comparison and contrast of how each organisation uses the Bible in articulating their mission and practice.  I found it a fascinating topic – hopefully some readers will too! A lot of overlap and significant areas of difference. Perhaps a blog post on this to follow ..

WIth a price tag of €95 I guess it is a book primarily aimed at libraries and specialist collections.

Introduction: Situating Ireland and Socio-Cultural Reception of the Bible –– (Bradford A. Anderson, Dublin City University, Ireland and Jonathan Kearney, Dublin City University, Ireland)

Part One: Ireland and the Transmission of the Bible
1. The Multifaceted Transmission of the Bible in Ireland, A.D. 550-1200 CE — (Martin McNamara, Milltown Institute, Ireland)
2. The Bible and ‘the People’ in Ireland, c.1100-c.1650 — (Salvador Ryan, St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland)
3. Translating the Bible into Irish, 1565-1850 — (Fearghus Ó Fearghail, Mater Dei Institute of Education, Ireland)
4. ‘The Little Ones Called for Bread and there was None that Would Break it for Them’: Some Notes on the Use of the Bible in the Sermons of Bishop James Gallagher — (Ciaran Mac Murchaidh, Dublin City University, Ireland)
5. Irish Catholic Bible Readers before the Famine — (Brendan McConvery, St Patrick’s College Maynooth, Ireland)
6. The Catholic Lectionary: Its Creation, Reception and Challenge — (Kieran O’Mahony, Diocese of Dublin, Ireland)

Part Two: The Bible and Identity in Ireland
7. ‘This Booke hath bred all the quarrel’: The Bible in the 1641 Depositions — (Bradford A. Anderson, Dublin City University, Ireland)
8. The Last of the Milesians: In Search of Ireland’s Biblical Past, 1760-1900 — (Brian Murray, King’s College London, UK)
9. Between Ulster and the Kingdom of God: Uses of the Bible by Evangelicals in the Northern Ireland Troubles — (Joshua Searle, Spurgeon’s College, UK)
10. Dancing Like David and Overcoming Enemies: Scripture and Culture in Christ Apostolic Church Dublin — (Rebecca Uberoi, independent scholar)
11. God’s Preference for the Poor: The Bible and Social Justice in Ireland — (Patrick Mitchel, Irish Bible Institute, Ireland)
12. How Sacred Text Becomes Religious Artefact: A Cultural Geography of the Book of Kells — (Eoin O’Mahony, University College Dublin, Ireland)

Part Three: Ireland and Beyond: Reciprocal Influences
13. Toland, Spinoza, and the Naturalization of Scripture — (Ian Leask, Dublin City University, Ireland)
14. Irish Travellers to the Dead Sea: The Interplay and Impact of Empirical Investigation and Biblical Exegesis — (Thomas O’Loughlin, University of Nottingham, UK)
15. The Chester Beatty Biblical Collection: A Treasury of Early Christian Manuscripts in an Irish Library — (David Hutchinson Edgar, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland)
16. ‘Casting Bread Upon the Water’: A Voyage of Discovery — (Carmel McCarthy, University College Dublin, Ireland)

Part Four: Cultural and Artistic Appropriation: Imagery, Music, and Literature
17. The Book of Kells and the Visual Identity of Ireland — (Amanda Dillon, independent scholar)
18. Imaging the Bible in Stained Glass: Five Stained Glass Windows by Michael Healy in St. Brendan’s Cathedral, Loughrea — (Myra Hayes, Mary Immaculate College Limerick, Ireland)
19. The Bible in Music during Dublin’s Golden Age — (Siobhán Dowling Long, University College Cork, Ireland)
20. Scripture, Music, and the Shaping of Irish Cultural Identities — (Róisín Blunnie, Dublin City University, Ireland)
21. James Joyce and the Study of the Bible — (Geert Lernout, University of Antwerp, Belgium)

Barna: Finding Faith in Ireland (1) – or ‘An investigation into the legacy of Irish Christendom’

Barna Finding Faith in IrelandFor a blog called FaithinIreland, Finding Faith in Ireland: The Shifting Spiritual Landscape of Teens and Young Adults in the Republic of Ireland is a publication that invites some comment.

It is a Barna Report produced in partnership with Youth in Christ. Both are American organisations and the researchers, coming mostly from outside Ireland and working with people here, have done a very good job getting to grips with the complexities of the Irish religious landscape. It is a thoughtful, careful and objective summary and analysis.

A summary of the main findings is highlighted on the Barna website here. (I won’t repeat that much here but will just comment on some things that stood out to me).

It is well worth reading and for people in ministry to reflect on their implications.

The methodology is important to know – this is what was done (from the Barna website)

To understand the state of faith among Irish youth, Barna conducted a study that approached the question from several angles. In the first phase, Barna and Christ in Youth gathered youth workers from a variety of denominations for focus groups. In the second phase, four Irish interviewers spoke to young people and their youth leaders. Youth leaders who weren’t interviewed in person also had the opportunity to respond to the same survey online. The online youth study was distributed to young people in the Republic of Ireland, ages 14–25. A total of 790 youth participated in this research study. Based on this sample size, the sampling error for this study is 3.5 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level.

Some of the key groupings for data purposes included:

  • Practising Christians (with those identified as Christians, sometimes broken down between Catholic and non-Catholic Christians).
  • Non-Practising Christians
  • Non-Christians
  • With many of the findings divided between 14-18 yrs old and 19-25 yrs old groups.

A critical issue in interpreting the data (for me anyway) is what these terms actually mean. In the report a ‘practising Christian’ is defined by Barna as

those who identify as Christian, say their faith is very important to their life and have attended a religious service in the past month (p. 8)

Which, of  course, is a very broad category, especially in a culture where ‘going to church’ now and then is still part and parcel of Irish culture. But you have to start from somewhere.

I may have missed it, but I couldn’t find definitions of what a ‘non-practicing Christian’ was. I assume someone who self-identifies as a Christian but does not tick necessary boxes to show visible sign of actual Christian practice? (To me, in effect this equals non-Christian. Christianity is not a non-practising faith).

Non-believers are identified, I assume, via self-identification.

Having two daughters in the age bracket born and raised here and educated in a local secondary school (not a private Protestant one which a sub-culture of its own), it’s interesting talking over findings with them. Their sense is that the broadness of the categories masks a much lower engagement with even basic Christian claims, let alone a personal response of faith, repentance and living a Christian life.

This report could be called: ‘An Investigation into the Legacy of Irish Christendom’.

Some years ago I did a couple of posts on comments from Archbishop Diarmuid Martin on the devastating failures of Catholic Christendom – here and here.

It’s worth repeating some of what he said then on the disaster of Christendom assumptions.

If faith centres on a personal relationship with Jesus, this will have radical implications for the rule-bound approach of traditional Catholic  catechesis.

If a mature faith in Jesus requires knowledge of the Scriptures, this will have revolutionary consequences within Irish Catholicism where most families do not possess a Bible.

If young people are going to develop in a personal authentic faith there will mean “revolutionising all our structures” including a fundamental reordering of the reliance on school-based religious instruction in Ireland to a rediscovery of the role of the local parish and of parents.

This will need “a new group of lay people” to be voluntary catechists in their parishes.

All this is needed because “we can no longer assume faith on the part of young people who have attended Catholic schools” or who come from Catholic families.

Ireland is today undergoing a further phase in a veritable revolution of its religious culture. Many outside of Ireland still believe that Ireland is a bastion of traditional Catholicism. They are surprised to discover that there are parishes in Dublin where the presence at Sunday Mass is some 5% of the Catholic population and, in some cases, even below 2%. On any particular Sunday about 18% of the Catholic population in the Archdiocese of Dublin attends Mass.  That is considerably lower than in any other part of Ireland ….

… That the conformist Ireland of the Archbishop McQuaid era changed so rapidly and with few tears was read as an indication of a desire for change, but perhaps it was also an indication that the conformism was covering an emptiness and a faith built on a faulty structure to which people no longer really ascribed.   The good-old-days of traditional mid-twentieth century Irish Catholicism may in reality not have so good and healthy after all

… The change that has taken place in Irish culture requires radical change in the life of the Church of such an extent that in the face of it even experts in change management would feel daunted …

So the report is effectively putting flesh on the bones of the Archbishop’s words. It does not paint a pretty picture.

Nor are the findings surprising to anyone living here. After decades of being one of the most Christendom countries on earth, the findings show deep confusion over the even the most basic ideas of Christianity, let alone the shape and basis of the Christian life.

The 19-25 age group will be more significant and realistic because the 14-18 yr olds’ attendance at church events will be influenced by parental practice and how religion is still embedded in the school system.

I’ll focus on actual practices because they are somewhat more telling than abstract questions about belief in this or that doctrine which may or may not be understood.

  • 80% of 19-25 yr olds are non Christian / non-practicing. (And that remaining 20% merely represents those whose faith is important to them and have been to church in the last month)
  • Yet 70% of the sample of 14-25 yr olds identify as Christian.
  • Traditional Catholic practice is in deep trouble – only 13% and 14% of 14-25 yrs olds have prayed the rosary or go to Confession in the last 6 months. This will be lower again for 19-25 yr olds. This represents virtual abandonment of Catholic piety.
  • 11% of 14-25 yr olds have read the Bible on their own in the last 6 months (again this will be lower for 19-25 yr olds). (The Bible is pretty well a closed book to the vast majority of young Irish people. Virtually nothing can be assumed about the basic outline of the gospel story or the storyline of Scripture).
  • 8% of 14-25 yr olds have attended a Bible study in the last 6 months (again will be lower for 19-25 yr olds).
  • Even for Communion – only 42% of 14-25 yr olds have participated in the last 6 months. For many this will be have been in school or at events like Easter of Christmas. For 19-25% it will be much lower I guess. Since the vast majority of these figures are for Catholic youth, even Mass attendance, the core of Catholicism’s sacramental theology, is in crisis.

Overall there is a strong sense of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, a term coined by Christian Smith and Melina Denton in the USA which goes something like this:

1) God created the world and watches over humans. 2) God wants people to be good, nice, and fair. 3) The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself. 4) God doesn’t need to be involved in one’s life except when there’s a problem 5) Good people go to heaven when they die.

The Barna Report calls this a “morality of self-fulfillment” (p. 33). This is not surprising – after all we are all Americans now are we not? 😉

In terms of moral values, the report asked a couple of questions:

“I personally can’t live by the Church’s teaching on sexuality”

Which is a question that raises more questions than answers: What Church? What aspect of its teaching on sexuality? (e.g. if Church = RCC [as it would for most] then I would be in the 31%). That only 31% of those identifying as Christians could endorse Church teaching fully does say a lot – but it would need teased out more specifically.

“I think the Church’s teachings on sexuality and homosexuality are wrong”

A slightly less broad question. Throwing in ‘sexuality’ in again muddys the waters a bit. I suspect most answered on the issue of homosexuality.

  • ‘Christians’: only 20% said this was ‘not at all true’. 37% ‘completely true’
  • ‘Non-Christians’: 16% ‘not at all true’. 65% ‘completely true’.

This is as expected: – it is in the areas of sexual ethics, individual choice, liberation from oppressive religion, and that ‘nothing should stand in the way of love’ that contemporary Western culture is coming into sharpest conflict with historic Christian sexual morality. [For more on the beliefs behind these developments see this post]

There’s lots more in the report. And, just to be clear, I’m not at all ‘throwing hands up in despair at the youth of today’. I have a vested interest in at least two 🙂 – and admire them and their friends as they navigate life with love and courage in a very different Ireland.

Christendom in many ways was far more corrosive in its enforced hypocrisy and fusion of politics, identity and religion in an all-embracing package deal.

Again and again in this report, the sense comes over of how ‘Christianity’ is little more than external behaviour, arbitrary morality and irrelevant beliefs. I wouldn’t believe in that sort of religion either.

There is a lot more clarity and honesty being expressed as the fog of Christendom lifts. Post-Christendom is in many ways good news for Christians and Christian mission. Increasingly there is no comforting social and political bulwark for churches to rely on, let alone control.

And that is not a bad place for the church to be – a place of weakness and humility and having to think anew about its mission within a culture that has less and less connection with its Christendom past.

In the final section there are some suggestions around the need for spiritual guides and mentors.

I’ll come back with some thoughts on responses to the findings in the next post …

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

What have evangelicals to learn from Catholics?

 

vaticanI’ve been working my way through a very thorough book by an evangelical scholar on Roman Catholic doctrine and practice in order to write a review of the book for a journal.

This post isn’t primarily about that book, but it did raise a question. The structure of the book was a point by point assessment of official Catholic doctrine. It was fairly done. The author brought out commonalities as well as differences. There were substantial numbers of both.

Overall, the approach was to analyse and assess RC doctrine from a particular (Reformed) evangelical perspective. The thrust of the book was to conclude that despite many areas of agreement, there are multiple substantial areas of disagreement that should preclude any notion that the Reformation is over or that evangelicals and Catholics should cooperate in mission and witness.

Again, that conclusion is not what this post is about. It is more about a lingering question I was left with. It wasn’t asked in the book because it tended to be assumed that evangelical doctrine and practice is the yardstick by which to evaluate other systems. The critique was all flowing one way.

What has evangelical faith and practice got to learn from Roman Catholic faith and practice?

This is a self-critical question. It assumes that ‘we’ haven’t got it all right. It is open to learn from others. It implies a certain humility as we look at ourselves, our level of Christ-likeness, our churches, and our often disunited factions.

Despite that last sentence, this is not asking for a long list of the failures or weakness of evangelical faith and practice, nor is it asking for a similiar list of Catholic weaknesses. It’s framed postively …  So another way of asking this is

What for you are the ‘best’ aspects of Catholicism from which evangelicals can learn and be reformed by?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

The Song of Songs, love, sex and hidden meanings (4): contemporary attitudes to celibacy

Aharon_April_Song_of_Songs-Last-1

Two strands of teaching on love, sex and the body

STRAND ONE:  a good gift to be enjoyed

In the last few posts we’ve sketched how the Song of Songs does not need to be interpreted allegorically in order to have a rich theology of love, sex and the body (somatology). It is a celebration of an exclusive, monogamous, heterosexual union of husband and wife in a relationship of intimacy, joy, play, and love. We might say that it is a picture of idealised love between an archetypal couple.

This, if you like, is strand one of the Judeo-Christian theology of love, sex and the body.

( I should add that the Song, being about two lovers coming together for the first time, has no mention of children. The book is not really about marriage per se, more about human love. Within wider Jewish and Christian theology, one of the key ‘goods’ of marriage and the central purpose of sex is the making of children who are raised within the security of a covenant relationship between the man and the woman. So this can be added to strand one).

STRAND TWO: an inextricable link to sin and shame

We’ve also jumped forward into the New Testament and early church history to note how the death and resurrection of Jesus was the catalyst for a radical re-thinking of sex, marriage and the body, so much so that celibacy became the highest expression of Christian spirituality for over a millennium.

Strand two is predominantly Augustinian – taking the examples and teaching of Jesus and Paul seriously, but with a deep ambivalence about sex and the body, a somewhat reluctant endorsement of marriage, and with celibacy the idealised state. Sex and body are tied to shame and sin. The less sex the better and the fun, play and delight of the Song of Songs is definitely off limits. This is the strand of sexual asceticism – a hugely influential distortion of the New Testament’s positive teaching on celibacy / singleness.

A more balanced view is that both sex and singleness are good gifts (charisma) of God’s grace (charis). Paul makes this clear in 1 Cor. 7:7

Each man [or woman] has his [or her] own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

There is no hierarchy of status or merit or achievement here – both are gifts of God.

FLUCTUATING FORTUNES

These two strands have in other words, had fluctuating fortunes in church history. To paint with a very broad brush, strand one has made a big comeback since the Reformation, to the point where it re-emerged as the overwhelmingly dominant model of a Christian ethic of love, sex and body. The fusion of marriage, sex and children long ago eclipsed celibacy as the ideal state, particularly within Protestantism with its married clergy and rejection of enforced celibacy. Indeed, it is the nuclear family which has become the Christian ‘ideal’ regarding sex, love, relationships and children and it is that ‘norm’ that churches are often structured around.

However, within both strands, it should be noted that sex is a good gift and belongs within the domain of heterosexual marriage. Sex outside that domain is a misuse of God’s good gift. This is the orthodox and agreed teaching of the Church catholic since the earliest days of Christianity and should not be lightly dismissed.

All this sets the scene for another big jump forward in this post to sex in the 21st Century West.

THE MARGINALISATION OF BOTH STRANDS WITHIN CONTEMPORARY WESTERN CULTURE

ATTITUDES TO CELIBACY TODAY

My suggestion, dear reader, (with which you are welcome to disagree) is that the second strand (the ideal of celibacy) is already completely incomprehensible to the modern mind. When I say modern mind I mean us Westerners – whether Christian or not.

Within the church, in my opinion, the ideal of marriage has been assumed and reinforced in a thousand ways. The strong biblical support for celibacy in Jesus and in Paul, as well as the early church, has been overwhelmed by modern romanticism. Singleness (and therefore celibacy according to Christian teaching) is implicitly viewed as a failure; to be regretted and rarely talked about. Single people in multiple ways are left on the margins.

‘Outside’ the church, attitudes to celibacy are less ambiguous. The 40 year old virgin is a buffoon, an immature idiot, a source of comedy and pity, who must at all costs, get laid belatedly to enter adult life. Sex is the rite of passage into autonomy and self-respect. Sex is an essential part of our identity and self-expression. Sexual identity is who we are – whatever our place on the spectrum of human sexuality. To deny that identity is to deny our core being. Celibacy becomes therefore virtually a form of self-harm; it is evidence of a lack of self-respect. This is why in the movie Steve Carell has to be rescued first and foremost from himself.

If sex is essentially our culture’s idealised form of adult entertainment, a playground of pleasure and enjoyment, then those that refuse to partake in its delights must be victims of a distorted vision of human flourishing. Celibacy, on other words, is not only an idiosyncratic life choice, it is positively harmful.

And when you connect this wider cultural attitude to images of Catholic Ireland, paedophile priests, abuse, repression, and hypocrisy, you can see how celibacy is now understood to be a very dangerous idea indeed.

It was not that long ago that having a son go into the priesthood was a mark of status and honour for an Irish family. No more … just think of the brilliant scene in Calvary where Brendan Gleeson happens to walk with a young girl on her way to the beach. All is charmingly light-hearted and friendly until her father screeches up in a car and tears her away from the insidious danger of a priest – any priest. Gleeson’s despairing slump of his shoulders as the car drives away spoke volumes of a fatally tarnished ideal. The point of the film’s (very) black humour is various residents’ pathological antipathy towards the Church and its representative – a hatred that leads to the climax of the movie.

This post was going to be the last, but it is already too long so we’ll look at contemporary attitudes to marriage in the (really) final one inspired by the Song of Songs.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Transforming post-Catholic Ireland

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).

9780198745785

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’?

Christianity as life-lite and other defeater beliefs

In Northern Ireland there is a phrase that someone is ‘good livin‘. I don’t think it exists south of the border* (I’m not sure if it exists anywhere else actually).

There’s a lot of meaning and history in that wee saying.

It’s shorthand to describe someone who is ‘born again’ or ‘religious’. What that means in practice is rather vague, God doesn’t really come into it – he is only there in the background. The good living person is perceived not to be into certain behaviour as they try to live a good life.

Some guys I spend time with sometimes apologise to me when they swear more profusely than usual because I am perceived to be ‘good livin’. It’s sort of assumed ‘good livin’ people are different in that they don’t swear, tell dirty jokes, sleep around, drink too much etc and might get offended or shocked by such behaviour.

This is Christianity as vaguely moralistic, mildly negative and mostly inoffensive. A bit of a boring normal life. Life-lite if you like.

And at the same time the good livin person is trying to be better than others who are aren’t good livin.

The motive to be ‘good livin’ is left unexamined. Being Northern Ireland, with its embedded evangelical history, there is enough familiarity with born again salvation stories to know that some people, for whatever reason,  ‘get religion’ and are not the same again.

Seeing Christianity as merely an attempt at ‘good livin’ is a peculiar Northern Irish version of what Tim Keller would call a ‘Defeater Belief’. A belief, once held, that means those who hold it are innoculated against authentic New Testament Christianity. There is an inbuilt resistance to the gospel because it has already been dismissed as implausible before being seriously considered.

For Christianity as merely a mixture of being nice, bland, yet vaguely superior to those who aren’t good livin, isn’t exactly very compelling or attractive is it?

 What are some defeater beliefs that you encounter?

* I guess there is a parallel to Catholic culture and talk of ‘the Religious’ – which refers to nuns and priests; the religious professionals in it for life at the expense of all worldly distractions like sex and marriage and making money. Religion here is for the really serious types who are willing to sacrifice all to God. Normal people are only religious amateurs who need to (or at least should) turn up to Mass on a reasonably regular basis. The phrase ‘the Religious’ reveals the gulf between laity and clergy in Irish (Catholic) Christendom. In the past of course this calling was admired and venerated. There was nothing more to be proud of than a son going into the priesthood. Now a religious life is (for most?) an incomprehensible waste of a life.

St Finbarr’s Pilgrim Path

Over the Easter break I got away for a couple of days to beautiful West Cork to fulfil a long held ambition – to complete St Finbarr’s Pilgrim Walk from ‘Top of the Rock’ nr Drimoleague to Gougane Barra over two days. It’s about 40km over some of the most spectacular scenery in Ireland. But more than that, it’s been developed as a Christian pilgrimage route – part of a wider movement to re-discover and re-develop Ireland’s rich legacy of Christian pilgrimage.

St Finbarr's wayIt’s been partly developed by friends, David and Elizabeth Ross, who have now just opened a wonderful walking centre on their farm, complete with a ‘pod pairc’ – cosy cabins designed from the Gallarus’ Oratory in Kerry. Read a good piece in the Irish Examiner here.

Pilgrimage has been defined as “a meaningful journey to a place of spiritual significance.” The idea is to provide a space and place for spiritual reflection – walking in beautiful countryside, following in the footsteps of 7th Cent St Finbarr.

I can’t speak highly enough of the facility (loved my pod!), the Rosses’ warm hospitality, the lovely weather, the whole idea of a pilgrimage walk (the idea didn’t take into account my hiking shoes falling apart, but I’ll come back to that).

 

Pods at Top of the Rock
Pods at Top of the Rock

The walking centre has been carved out of earth and stone and wood – those elements getting rearranged from an old quarry surrounded by fir trees into the wooden pods, crushed gravel yard, stone buildings and walls. This is culture-making: – taking the raw materials of God’s creation and imaginatively re-ordering them into something beautiful and yet also functional – done with much love, prayer and a ton of hard work.

David and Elizabeth are the third generation of Rosses to live at Top of the Rock. David’s grandfather lost both legs in his 60s but kept persevering – and the family think he’d like the idea of the farm he worked so hard to establish being used as a walking centre.

 

 

 

These boots are('nt) made for walking
These boots are(‘nt) made for walking

Day 1

Day 1 was a 22km hike, about 8.5 hours. David sent me on my way with a prayer from Top of the Rock viewpoint (looking north at Castledonovan and the mountain of Mullaghmesha beyond over which the path goes). From its summit you can see the Mizen, Sheep’s Head and Beara Peninsulas snaking their way into the Atlantic.

The beginning
David at Top of the Rock

The route follows Finbarr’s journey north to Gougane Barra (the lake is the source of the River Lee) where he established a monastic settlement. He later founded another monastery where the Lee met the tide – which became Cork city.

From first to last, the thing that struck me was birdsong – incessant, loud, joyful, beautiful. I heard far more birds than I saw and wish I knew how to identify songs – the ones I saw included blue tits, chaffinches, thrushes, wrens, robins, coal tits, pheasants, kestrals, wagtails, martins, some swallows just arriving from South Africa, and up higher in the hills, larks.

This was a warm spring day, with hardly a breath of wind and the land bursting forth with life – hedgerows sprouting, primroses blossoming, fushia hedges budding, sheep lambing, cows calving, the gorse exploding in colour and scent …

 

Castle Donovan
Castle Donovan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rock on the Road
Rock on the Road

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rest at Coonamore lake
Rest at Coonamore lake

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just after this the sole of my (admittedly 20 yr old) right boot chose to remain in the bog rather than attached to my shoe – this with 10 km still to go. I ended up tying the sole onto the shoe with the laces from both feet. A temporary fix that sort of worked if I walked like Quasimodo. [Eventually the loose left boot helped to develop a nice blister on my left foot, and with a couple of miles to go the right boot fell apart altogether and I finished the last section walking the road in my socks ….]

So that’s how to lose your sole on a pilgrim walk 🙂

The last section follows the Meelagh Valley and then up over the hills and down to Kealkil – passing the Megalithic wedge tomb (c. 2500 BC) near the Meelagh River and the Kealkil Stone Circle (c. 1400 BC) above the village.

Kealkil Stone Circle
Kealkil Stone Circle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 2

Day 2 began at Carriganass Castle in Kealkil. This was a beautiful walk up the valley, past the ancient Moughanasilly row of standing stones and remote farms.

Moughanasilly stone row
Moughanasilly stone row

The route then cuts across boggy heathland before winding its way past the Kealkil wind farm and up towards Conigar mountain.

The light was diamond clear to begin but the weather began to close in on the mountain as showers developed. The views from the top were marvellous, looking across to Kerry and the Magillycuddy’s Reeks on one side, Knockboy on the other and Bantry Bay lying behind. And also, looking down, the welcome view of Gougane Barra, the final destination, set like a jewel in the valley floor.

The final descent, I don’t mind admitting, was tough going with weary legs, and soaked feet (in runners since the boots had done their last walking). About 5.30 hours in all.

 

 

Gougane Barra
Gougane Barra

Magillacuddy's Reeks
Magillycuddy’s Reeks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some Reflections

These were a fantastic two days: pristine air, magnificent scenery, extravagant beauty and all in the context of warm hospitality.

Pilgrimage has an integral place within Roman Catholicism, tied closely to devotion to saints. Because of this, Protestants and evangelicals have tended to shy away from pilgrimage – which is a shame. I don’t know about you, but I think more and more are rediscovering the value of a journey: a walk, time to reflect, to pray, to enjoy creation, to go in company, to slow down, to be physically stretched out of your comfort zone, to get away from the incessant clamour of capitalism, 24 hour news and the tyranny of the urgent.

In saying this, it is not as if God is somehow only found in ‘retreat’ and silence – he is there in the ordinariness of everyday life and work. But, sometimes we need a shift of gear, a change from ordinary routines to create space for spiritual refreshment. I can’t say I had a blinding mountain top ‘spiritual experience’, but I do know that I returned physically tired but with renewed joy and peace in my soul ….

Have you a place you go to or a pilgrimage you have done where you have experienced God in a different way?

Two words come to mind after the walk, both talked much about in Psalms of praise – which have most to say about God and creation:

Beauty: Walking gives time to pay attention and to hear creation as well as see it; to get in tune with the surrounding world in a culture of terminal distraction and noise … The words of Psalm 98 of the rivers clapping their hands and the mountains singing for joy at the justice and goodness of God took on new meaning for me in West Cork.

Journey: St Finbarr’s pilgrim path is only two days – it is not quite the Camino yet. But it is a physical reminder of how the Christian faith itself is a pilgrimage – a journey towards a known eschatological destination – a renewed creation where God will be with his people.

At times the path gets hard (a mountain or bog in the way), there are self-made diversions (getting lost by not following the map), unexpected obstacles and temptation to give up (soles falling off),  opportunities to help others (being asked to herd cattle along the road), weariness (physical limitations / getting older!) … but the good news is that Jesus promises rest for the weary and burdened.

And that final destination is where beauty and journey meet – and there is no more powerful image for this than the breathtaking valley of Gougane Barra …

Gougane Barra
Gougane Barra

Irish Inter-Church Meeting and post-Vatican II Catholicism

Not much time to blog recently. Last Thursday I was invited to speak at the Irish Inter-Church Meeting (IICM) in the beautiful Dromantine demesne near Newry.

The IICM began in 1973 during some of the darkest days of violence in the North and also a time of new openness to ecumenical dialogue in the post Vatican II era.

The IICM is a place where the Roman Catholic Church and members of the longer established Irish Council of Churches (ICC) meet. There are about 14 member churches of the ICC. The IICM is made up 50% representatives of the Irish Episcopal Conference and 50% representatives from the ICC (various non-Catholic churches).

So it was a novel experience to address a group including a Cardinal, Catholic and Anglican archbishops & bishops and representatives from many other churches. I wore a purple shirt to try to fit in 😉

The theme was Vatican II fifty years on. In the morning, Jim Corkery, a Jesuit scholar, gave an excellent talk on ‘Vatican II and its reception in Ireland’, focusing on Vatican II’s ‘continuity and discontinuity’ with what preceded it and how this has led to ongoing struggles and tensions between progressive and conservative strands of post Vatican II Catholicism. A response was given by Archbishop Richard Clarke, the new Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.

In the afternoon I was up on ‘Vatican II in Contemporary Ireland: a Protestant Perspective’ and a response was given by Brendan Leahy, Roman Catholic Bishop of Galway.

I nicked the idea of structuring the talk around a number of ‘theses’ from my ex-Prof of Christian Doctrine, Tony Lane (who is celebrating 40 years at London School of Theology formerly London Bible College) from when I heard him give a talk on RC-evangelical relationships a few years ago. Here are the nine (not 95) I used:

THESIS 1: THERE IS A FUNDAMENTAL ASYMMETERY IN TALKING OF ‘PROTESTANT RESPONSES’ TO POST-VATICAN II ROMAN CATHOLICISM

The point here is that no-one can speak for Protestantism. I could only speak from a personal perspective as a Christian, a Presbyterian, an evangelical.

THESIS 2: PROTESTANTS NEED TO REMEMBER WHERE THEY COME FROM

Protestants have a unique theological and historical relationship with ‘mother church’.

THESIS 3: ANY PROTESTANT ASSESSMENT OF CATHOLICISM NEEDS A WORD ABOUT MOTES AND BEAMS

Protestants and evangelicals have lots to be self-critical of (and there is a lot of critical self-reflection going on)

THESIS 4: VATICAN II REPRESENTS A MAJOR THEOLOGICAL SHIFT WITHIN ROMAN CATHOLICISM

While the Catholic Church may not disown the past (Trent for example) it has reinterpreted the past quite radically in Vatican II

THESIS 5: POST-VATICAN II CATHOLICISM IS FLUID, FLEXIBLE, AMBIGUOUS, and DIVERSE

Contemporary Roman Catholicism has multiple strands, some in tension with each other; for example an inclusivity that tends to universalism alongside an exclusive claim to be the one true Church.

THESIS 6: THERE HAS BEEN A SEA-CHANGE IN THE NATURE OF PROTESTANT-CATHOLIC RELATIONSHIPS SINCE VATICAN II

Especially in the USA, but increasingly elsewhere including Ireland, there are all sorts of overlap, dialogues, partnerships, use of common resources etc.

THESIS 7: VATICAN II HAS BEEN ONE OF SEVERAL CONTRIBUTORY FACTORS TO TRANSFORMED PROTESTANT-CATHOLIC RELATIONSHIPS

Other factors are changes in society, increased personal choice, changes in global Christianity, changes in evangelicalism.

THESIS 8: THERE ARE A VARIETY OF PROTESTANT NARRATIVES CONCERNING CONTEMPORARY ROMAN CATHOLICISM

i.                   Narratives of rejection

ii.                 Narratives of irrelevance

iii.               Narratives of constructive critical partnership

iv.               Narratives of Conversion (the Reformation is over)

THESIS 9: THE GREATEST CHALLENGE FOR IRISH CHRISTIANS IS ‘RE-MISSION’ IN A POST-CHRISTENDOM CONTEXT

Christendom assumptions for Protestants or Catholics just won’t cut it in a post-Christendom context. What’s needed is emphasis on the gospel of Jesus Christ, Scriptures, personal faith and a willingness to engage in a radical rethink around church and mission.

Some comments:

Thanks to the IICM committee and esp Mervyn McCullough for the invite and warm welcome.

Some evangelicals get nervous about engaging in ecumencial discussions with the Catholic Church in particular. Some I guess for theological reasons – a refusal to dialogue and so somehow ‘legitimise error’? Some I guess for practical reasons – the ‘gap’ is too large to bridge and there are more pressing priorities? Some I guess over concerns about a (hidden?) goal of visible structural unity? Some I guess over a worry that truth is sidelined at the expense of a superficial unity?

All I can say is that there isn’t any great reason to fear ‘being ourselves’ and being open to listen and learn in robust discussion with others different from us.

Truth and grace are not mutually incompatible!

Comments, as ever, welcome.