Barna: Finding Faith in Ireland (2): Musings on some political implications

Barna Finding Faith in IrelandOne page of the Barna report Finding Faith in Ireland: The Shifting Spiritual Landscape of Teens and Young Adults in the Republic of Ireland previously discussed here, has a list of words used by Irish youth workers across the denominational spectrum to describe young people (14-25) in Ireland today.

 

Roughly speaking, in order of weighting given they are listed below with more ‘negative’ characteristics on the left and more ‘positive’ ones on the right :

Anxious and Pressured               Passionate

Lost                                                  Searching

Apathetic and Bored                    Gifted

Insecure                                          Open to Ideas

Cynical                                            Hopeful

Aggressive                                      Curious

Image-Conscious                           Creative

Tech-addicted                                Campaigners for social justice

Susceptible

Self-Centered

Fragile

Confused

Entitled

Lazy

Busy

Now these are only anecdotal comments by youth workers. If you live here, do they describe your perception of Irish youth culture?

Class and social location is not discussed in the Report – a church in the leafy suburbs of South Dublin is going to have a very different youth profile to one in the streets of Tallaght a very few miles away. And then there is the urban / rural divide that splits the country.

But let’s go with the descriptions above, coupled with the statistics on religious attitudes and behaviour peppered throughout the report discussed in the previous post. What emerges in very broad terms? (and this obviously is just my reading with its own interpretative bias!).

There is a major ongoing generational shift from Christendom to post–Christendom attitudes and behaviour. It is fast and it is deep, and has not finished yet.

  • individualist morality (moral therapeutic deism) vs Christendom’s communally enforced morality
  • a late capitalist culture vs Irish Christendom’s fusion of church and state
  • lack of job security (high competition; self-promotion; extreme inequalities between older and younger generations) vs Irish Christendom’s limited opportunities and resultant high levels of emigration
  • high levels of uncertainty about the future (jobs, cost of housing, environment) vs Christendom’s modernist assumptions of ongoing progress
  • deep scepticism towards authority (political and religious in particular) vs Irish Christendom’s extreme authority structures
  • embrace of ‘flat’ communities of modern tech (Facebook, Google, Twitter) vs Irish Christendom’s numerous hierarchies [it remains to be seen when or if the ‘dark side’ of the new tech will be recognised and or resisted. It seems to me anyway that so far it has been uncritically embraced.)

None of this is that unusual in the West. But a few things make Ireland different.

1, Just how quickly it has shifted to become very similar to other liberal secular democracies. Tolerance, inclusion, individual freedom, pluralism etc.

2. Its particular relationship with Irish Catholicism, and how young people’s abandonment of that Church is all mixed up in redefining Irishness, rejecting their experience of Christianity per se, and embracing libertarian freedom (we know what we are running from, we are not sure where we are running to, but it has to be better than the past).

3. Its recent experience of capitalism. For a while it seemed to be Ireland’s new saviour, but it is proving to be a ruthless taskmaster for a young post- 2008 Crash generation.

4. Its delayed ‘sexual revolution’. Rather than the 1960s, it is only in recent times that Irish culture has ‘caught up’ with the rest of the West. My sense is that there is deep exhilaration felt at throwing off the past – almost a type of ‘liberation theology’ at work – in the adoption of same-sex marriage and in the upcoming Abortion referendum in 2018. (The Barna report did not ask about abortion – my guess is that it will be supported by a high % of 18-25 year olds in the referendum).

All of this describes, I think, a culture in ferment, uncertainty and confusion.

With the collapse of old certainties, identity politics (political positions based on the interests and perspectives of social groups with which people identify) is beginning to exert more and more influence. The problem with such politics is that young people become focused on the battle for narrow political and social agendas that marginalise a wider sense of pluralism and the common good.

Take Katie Ascough’s recent impeachment as President of the Student Union in University College Dublin. It seems pretty clear that the reason she was voted out was that pro-life views were deemed unacceptable to hold by a student president. This is not democracy or tolerance or doing the hard work of actually debating and persuading people who hold different views to you. It is identity politics that denies your opponent the right to hold views that you find intolerable and so you seek to silence or remove them.

This is the paradox of illiberal liberalism.

My sense then is that post-Christendom Ireland is heading in the direction of increasing fragmentation, intolerance and divisiveness since when there is little to hold a centre together all you are left with is competing power groups.

What do these implications these cultural changes have for Christians in Ireland? I’ll come back to that question in the next post (dramatic pause).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

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.

 

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.

Patrick – an ancient voice against slavery

Recent figures estimate that there are about 46 million slaves in the world today. The Global Slavery Index says that slavery exists in 167 countries. India has the highest number of slaves and North Korea the highest percentage of slaves per capita.

One oft overlooked aspect of St Patrick’s legacy is that he was one of the very first voices of the post-biblical Christian world protesting against slavery. (It would be an interesting piece of research to trace the development of Christian opposition to slavery. I’m sure it exists).

slaveryHis Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus can be read at the Irish Academy website. In it, Patrick tells the story of how the soldiers has brutally attacked a group of new baptised Christians, killing many and kidnapping others to sell on to ‘apostate Scots and Picts.’

Patrick had a letter delivered to the soldiers, asking for the return of the prisoners. The soldiers scoffed at his request.

Several things stand out from Patrick’s letter.

First, rather than stand idly by, he gets involved. He does so out a moral obligation to stand up for those with whom he is ministering.

I have a part with those whom God called and destined to preach the gospel, even in persecutions which are no small matter, to the very ends of the earth. This is despite the malice of the Enemy through the tyranny of Coroticus, who respects neither God, nor his priests

He is willing to confront Coroticus and asks for help from others in doing so.

I ask insistently whatever servant of God is courageous enough to be a bearer of these messages, that it in no way be withdrawn or hidden from any person. Quite the opposite – let it be read before all the people, especially in the presence of Coroticus himself.

How might Patrick’s actions be a challenge for us today to get involved for slaves who cannot act for themselves?  Organisations like IJM and Tearfund act on the behalf of slaves. Maybe the best way we can celebrate St Patrick’s day is to give to their work.

Second, as a pastor and a leader he grieves with those impacted by violence and injustice.

That is why I will cry aloud with sadness and grief: O my fairest and most loving brothers and sisters whom I begot without number in Christ, what am I to do for you?… I grieve for you who are so very dear to me.

How does Patrick’s compassion for victims speak to us today?

Third, he begins to articulate a theological critique of slavery. It takes this form:

  • No-one has a right to enslave another human being for whom Christ “died and was crucified.”
  • It matters how wealth is made.

    Riches, says Scripture, which a person gathers unjustly, will be vomited out of that person’s stomach.

  • God will judge those who act unjustly. Violence will reap its reward

So where will Coroticus and his villainous rebels against Christ find themselves – those who divide out defenceless baptised women as prizes, all for the sake of a miserable temporal kingdom, which will pass away in a moment of time. Just as cloud of smoke is blown away by the wind, that is how deceitful sinners will perish from the face of the Lord.

  • In contrast, Christians can have hope even beyond brutal injustice and death.

This unspeakably horrifying crime has been carried out. But, thanks to God, you who are baptised believers have moved on from this world to paradise. I see you clearly: you have begun your journey to where there is no night, nor sorrow, nor death, any more.Rather, you leap for joy, like calves set free from chains, and you tread down the wicked, and they will be like ashes under your feet.

And, remarkably, but in authentic Jesus fashion, he even holds out the offer of forgiveness to Coroticus and his men if they repent and release the captives. It seems as if they were at least nominally Christian. God’s grace is available to all, but it needs a response of faith and a turning to a new life.

However late it may be, may they repent of acting so wrongly, the murder of the brethren of the Lord, and set free the baptised women prisoners whom they previously seized. So may they deserve to live for God, and be made whole here and in eternity.

This is a remarkably rich Christian response to injustice and slavery within a short letter from the 5th Century. Part of this may be because Patrick was, of course, a slave himself. He knew first hand what it was to be torn away from his home and family and trafficked to a foreign land. Indeed, Patrick is the only person we know of in the 5th century who was enslaved and lived to tell the tale.

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’?

John Mitchel, impervious ideologies and the value of doubt

The other night in the Linen Hall Library in Belfast Anthony Russell gave a lecture on ‘John Mitchel; less revolutionary than the average English shopkeeper?’. [for other posts on this most remarkable of relatives see here, here, here and here)

Russell has just published Between Two Flags: John Mitchel & Jenny Verner and it is a very good book indeed.

This year is the 200th anniversary of the rebel’s birth but it is passing largely unremarked. Mitchel, once one of Pearse’s ‘four gospels’ of Irish nationalist literature and inspiring hero to De Valera, has long since become an embarrassment for nationalist and republican Ireland – and in his lifetime of course was already an embarrassment for his Protestant and Unionist kin whom he tried, vainly, to win over to the republican cause.

Russell’s lecture title is taken from a critical assessment made by Emile Montegut exactly 100 years ago. At first glance it seems a rather preposterous notion.

Not sure what the politics of an average English shopkeeper are these days, but let’s assume Montegut had in mind a quiet, no-nonsense, small businessman happy to make a modest living  from a local market of loyal customers.

What would such an icon of the status quo have to do with Mitchel the romantic, impetuous, ferocious, physical-force republican man of letters who rebelled against just about everyone and every movement he ever worked with? Who sacrificed his own life as well as two sons killed and one maimed in the uncompromising pursuit of political ideals in Ireland and Confederate America?

Well maybe more than you’d imagine at first glance.

What Russell brought out convincingly was how it was Mitchel’s fierce and violent tunnel-vison hatred of English rule in Ireland that was the driving force behind his elevation to rebel hero. At heart however he was no social or political revolutionary.

His was a classicist mindset of fixed hierarchies. Mitchel belonged in Rome where slaves remained slaves and social boundaries were maintained by a ruthless lack of sentiment. It was no accident that in his writings the English were the enemies of Rome – the Carthaginians

So negro slaves were to remain negro slaves – it was the good and right and proper order of things. The Confederacy’s way of life was to be preferred and defended (whatever it cost Mitchel and his family) against the industrial barbarian North. Likewise, lower-class convicts in Van Diemen’s land would be better off hanged. Epidemics were inevitable and natural ways to rid the world of the weak and the sick.

The Ireland he dreamt of seeing one day ‘free’ was, as Russell puts it,

“a rural hierarchical Ireland, peopled with fair landlords and well-treated tenants, an Ireland were crime and misdeeds were to be punished with the lash, if necessary.” (212)

This unlocks why Mitchel so despised capitalism and industrialisation. His vision of an independent liberated land was a romantic, classical, rural and simple pre-Enlightenment Ireland of “innumerable brave working farmer rising from a thousand hills” who would never trouble themselves about “progress of the species” and such worthless ideas. (213) Sound familiar? De Valera’s famous 1943 St Patrick’s Day speech is pure Mitchel. It was no accident that De Valera went on pilgrimage to visit Mitchel’s cell on Spike Island in Cork Harbour – the last place he was imprisoned before his transportation.

Anthony Russell described Mitchel’s one ‘moment of doubt’. As the Confederacy stared defeat in the face in 1864, it was proposed that slaves could be conscripted to fight. Later in the Confederate Act of Congress freedom was allowed to be a reward for faithful war service.

Mitchel’s entire worldview was threatened by such notions. With typical relentless honesty he reasoned

Now, if freedom be a reward for negroes – why, then it is, and always was, a grievous wrong and a crime to hold them in slavery at all … If it be true that the state of slavery keeps these people depressed below the condition to which they could develop their nature, their intelligence and their capacity for enjoyment, and what we call “progress,” then every hour of their bondage for generations is a black stain upon the white race.

But this wasn’t so much a moment of doubt as self-reinforcing rhetoric. Mitchel knew (as always) the answer to his own question. The black slave should remain a slave because he is not fit for freedom or equal in value to a white person. Case closed.

He was a man entirely free of the awkward encumbrance of doubt. To his dying day he despised any form of negotiation or compromise on England’s presence in Ireland.

Now I don’t know about you, but as I have grown older, I value doubt more.

To be without doubt is to be like Mitchel – never wrong, completely sure of your own rightness whatever the cost, impervious to other’s opinions (and often feelings), not needing to say sorry, and certainly not to repent (turn around) from actions, attitudes or words. (Mitchel had no time for Christianity’s call to confession, humility and forgiveness. The life and teaching of Jesus, as far as I am aware never appears in any considered way in all of his many writings). An inflated sense of self-importance coupled with a lack of self-depreciating humour make the no-doubter someone who will continually fall out with anyone who does not agree with him (and it usually is a him and that’s a whole other discussion).

Do you know some no-doubters? I suspect you do. In figuring out who I can work best with it is the no doubter I will avoid like the plague (if I can!).

No doubters can be personality driven – they are just right about everything by default. Mitchel, there is good evidence, was engaging, loving and loyal. He was more an ideological no doubter – and they are the most dangerous of all.

For an ideology without doubt can become a truly monstrous thing.

‘Hot’ nationalisms are a form of ideology that allow no doubt, no questions, no complicating alternative points of view that dilute their pure and simple utopian vision.

We’ve had our fair share in the last couple of centuries or so – British imperialism, American exceptionalism, German national socialism and the Holocaust, Serbian ethnic cleansing, Hutu ethnic genocide, Turkish genocide of Armenians, Communist eradication of millions of people in China and USSR for the greater good of the state, IS ethnic cleansing of Shia’s and any others outside their version of pure Islam, American and European no doubters who arrogantly thought they could bring Western democracy to Libya, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Afghanistan, and various tribal, ethnic and religious cleansings in Africa, Asia and India …

Just to be clear, I’m not equating these morally. There are different temperature levels within and consequences of no doubt ideologies.

Back in Ireland, Mitchel helped to inspire Pearse and his ‘pure’ blood-sacrifice for Ireland on Easter Sunday 1916 – a centenary that I for one will not be celebrating next year.

Notice that the one thing in common with all political no doubt ideologies is violence. ‘No doubt’ legitimizes physical force. it did for Mitchel, it does for all others as well.

So, what do you believe in? How deeply and passionately do you believe? What room is there for doubt in your beliefs? What is doubt good for? Where does it become damaging?

When it comes to Christianity,  believers are to proclaim and share the universal ‘gospel truth’ that Jesus is Lord of all. What place is there for doubt in how Christians engage in this task? In how they read the Bible? In other words, is Christianity just another ‘impervious ideology’ or something else?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Faith, hope and love in South Tipperary

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a profoundly Christian funeral.

The beautiful church was packed with all sorts of people – including family, friends, colleagues, carers from the local hospice, local people whose lives had been touched by the remarkable woman whose life we were remembering and celebrating.

There were tears, there was fond laughter, there were songs, there were prayers, there were wonderfully well-spoken words.

Framing all of this, for me anyway, was a deeply tangible sense of St Paul’s great triumvirate of the Christian life: faith, hope and love.

Faith

In focus was the faith in Jesus and subsequent life of the lady whose earthly life had drawn to a close earlier this week: a vibrant, active, transforming faith that motivated her life.

As someone said, “she walked the walk” right to the end. Everyone who spoke, from young to old, talked of the impact she had had on their lives – nurturing, encouraging, caring, daring and challenging. A faith that trusted God, took risks, lived boldly and fearlessly fought injustice wherever she saw it.

Linking to the last post, here was faith made manifest in a life of good works. There was even a standing ovation by the congregation. And while she would have been horrified at the thought, it seemed perfectly right and fitting to applaud such a life.

Hope

Yet this was a funeral with a coffin and a grieving husband and children. Hearts were heavy with the damage that death does to those closest. There had been weeks and months of suffering and caring culminating in a final parting.

In John 11 we are told that ‘Jesus wept’ at the grave of his friend Lazarus. Verses 33 and 38 tell us that Jesus was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. The Greek has a sense of his indignation, outrage or anger at death – that bringer of grief and loss.

This, I think, carries with it a profound and deep hope. Jesus has just told the grieving Martha that he is the resurrection and the life. Yet a moment later he is in tears. This Lord of Life is not some dispassionate force or distant Deist God. He is with his friends in their grief and sadness. Paul talks about death as the last enemy; it is not a thing to be welcomed and embraced.

The whole Bible can be read as the story of God conquering death and its root cause, sin. The good news of the gospel is that the one who is the Resurrection and the Life undoes the power of death once and for all. At the cross he atones for sin and dies in our place. And at the resurrection he is shown to have defeated sin and death decisively and completely.

All this means that at the very core of the Christian faith is a deep and sure hope – the hope of resurrection life to come. Yes, Christians, like anyone else, cry out in lament and pain when death comes calling. But they can also look forward to, and pray for, the ultimate healing and restoration of a broken painful world. For such ultimate restoration is precisely God’s agenda.

It was this specific Christian hope that pervaded the service. Death did not have the last word.

Love

The third thing so powerfully evident during the funeral was an overwhelming testimony of love.

Moving words of love from a dying woman to her husband; words of love from husband to wife; a deep and tenacious mother’s love that so obviously sustained, formed, empowered and liberated three children to be who they had been created to be; love of grandchildren for their grandmother; love of a pastor for a friend; love of a woman for those in need whoever they were; love of colleagues for a nurse who needed care herself after a lifetime of care for others; tender and sacrificial love of hospice carers for a mortally ill patient; self-giving love of a daughter nursing her mother to the end.

It is for good reason Paul says love is greater than faith and hope. I like to call him the apostle of love. Love pervades his teaching and ministry, but that is only in keeping with the whole witness of Scripture. Love is lifeblood of the Christian faith. God himself, John tells us, is love. Love fulfils the law. Without love, all the good works in the world done in God’s name are a waste of time. The evidence of the Spirit’s presence is love. The call of God’s people, OT and NT, is to love God wholeheartedly and love their neighbours as themselves. Love alone is eternal – it is the language of the new creation to come.

Christians are taught by their Lord to pray ‘May thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.’ What I witnessed just a little bit of yesterday was a slice of kingdom-come life here on earth.

There were also stories of her sheer love of life, including love of the natural beauty of South Tipperary in particular. After the funeral, on the way home, I was passing the lovely mountain of Slievenamon. It was a sunny warm afternoon and, unplanned, I stopped and took a couple of hours out to climb the mountain and soak in the familiar scenery of a place that I used to know well.

Here are a couple of pictures of that walk.

Near the top someone had etched a simple prayer on a rock in the path – I can’t think of a better tribute to a truly Christ-like life.

 

IMG_4532IMG_4521

IMG_4511

IMG_4513