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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (10) what is good preaching?

This is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This is an excerpt from the final chapter (8) on Preaching, Praying and Primary Christian Langauge.

Some questions discussed below are: What do you consider good and bad preaching? What form should sermons take? How should the sermon relate to the text? Should the preacher bring in personal stories or generally keep them out of the sermon? What assumptions should the preacher make about his / her listeners in a post-Christendom context? How critically should listeners listen to sermons? 

I always am trying to remind students in class that the purpose of good theology is, to use a phrase from J I Packer, for ‘doxology and devotion’. In other words, there is no artificial boundary between a life of worship and theology (thinking about God, faith, and what means to be a Christian in the modern world).

One of the many things I like about Hauerwas is his lifetime of resisting modernist epistemological dualism – the notion that there is the detached objective world of knowing and the subjective world of values, beliefs and feelings. In his life and work he has consistently prioritised prayer, preaching, theologically reflective writing and some biblical commentary. He is on record as saying this is the work he cares most about and see as most significant.

I’m focusing in on their discussion on preaching. Brock creatively identifies common themes from Hauerwas’ sermon material – which provokes this from Hauerwas on preaching on the relationship between the sermon and the biblical text:

Those are extremely interesting observations. I  always take the text very seriously. I am against idea-sermons. What you say in the sermon always has to be dependent on the text you’ve been given. One of the things I also try to do is work very hard not to exclude the Old Testament text. So I try to preach, as much as I can, in a manner that the text of the Old Testament is seen as crucial for what we’re saying in the New. So there is a certain sense that I  hope my sermons are really exegetically responsible. That involves why it is that I believe Christianity is a form of Judaism and that I don’t say that but I try to show what the implications are for the reading of the text we have before us.

To this I want to shout AMEN! Preaching, if it is to be authentic, has to engage well with the text itself – doing the work of exegesis that underpins what is being communicated. What has a preacher to say if he / she is not preaching the text? I’m sorry, but far too much preaching is ideas merely hung on a handy text. Such preaching is dismaying. The Scriptures are powerful and Spirit inspired – the preacher’s job is to let God’s Word speak.

And I’m with Hauerwas completely on how the text is best located within the wider biblical narrative.

… sermons cannot be what they are without being embedded in the story of “Out of all the peoples of the world I have chosen you, Israel, to be my promised people.” (251)

He adds this caution that while all texts are located somewhere within the biblical narrative, sermons themselves are best not stories. Because our stories can be anthropocentric distractions :

But that doesn’t mean that the sermon itself tells a story. I worry that, for example, when preachers tell the story of “When me and my wife . . .” I always think, “Oh no.” That’s just an invitation for the congregation to think, “Isn’t our preacher clever?” I don’t like that at all. I try to stay away from any self-revelations or stories that have shaped my life. (251)

Do you agree with SH here? Is the preacher best to keep personal stories out of his / her preaching?

Preaching is a wonderful privilege but also a great source of temptation. Human nature being what it is, it is so easy, even unconsciously, to be motivated by the basic human desire for affirmation, praise, admiration and respect. And so, to present a particular story about ourselves to our listeners that feeds into those desires.  The best practice I think therefore is to keep stories of ourselves and our lives out of the frame. A sort of ‘And lead us not into temptation’ sort of ethic. Yes, let’s have creative illustrations and relevant stories that illuminate the text, but let’s keep the ‘me’ out of those stories.

At one point Brock asks Hauerwas about his oft quoted proposal that sermons should be argumentative.

What’s at stake in your insisting that “sermons should be arguments”? And what kind of arguments do you mean? You elsewhere suggest that the sermonic form is a better form of argument than theoretical argumentation. (252)

Hauerwas’ point here is that sermons must engage the hearers and proposing, unpacking and defending an argument is the best way to do this. Again this is helpful – a basic argumentative form invites listeners into a conversation that ideally is relating to their lives and their world.

There is much more in this rich conversation that I can capture here. Here’s is an intriguing aside:

This is why preaching in our time is fundamentally shaped by the assumption you are preaching to people who are only half Christian. Apologetics takes over. (254)

Absolutely right. The reality of church life in a post-Christendom world means that very little can be assumed of what people know and believe. My hunch is that many sermons assume far too much and that we might be very surprised at what many listeners actually believe.

I think a good approach to this is to preach about the Christian life / gospel in a way that avoids WE and US language as much as possible. This presents the gospel and demand of the Christian life and leaves but space for the listener to be reflecting on where they are. It makes no assumptions of the listeners.

Yes, by all means stress the corporate nature of the Christian faith, but WE and US language all too easily makes a dangerous assumption that everyone present is ‘IN’. And this slides comfortably into US switching off – while there might be something interesting to think about, nothing much is at stake in the message; it is really just about helping us to do a little bit better in our lives rather than a message that calls us to come and die to ourselves and live to the Lord.

On critical assessment of preaching, Brock asks Hauerwas this:

BB: … do you have any advice on whether we should allow our critical mind to start chewing on what the minister is doing in church?
SH: No, I think that’s exactly what we should do.
BB: Why’s that?
SH: Because the sermon isn’t the property of the one preaching it. The sermon is the congregation’s reception of the Word of God. You sure better be ready to think that that word should invite some critical response. The idea that the congregation is just passive recipients of the word means that you don’t get what the word is about. (255)

This is wise counsel. The worst response to a sermon I guess is that it creates no reaction at all – just indifference. A sermon should be expecting and receiving critical response. And depending on the context, that response may welcome the Word and at other times fiercely resist it. Both responses can be reactions to what the Spirit is saying – one good soil, the other perhaps stony ground.

That critical response can also be, as Brock’s question implies, reflection on the sermon itself. The challenge here I think is for the preacher / leader not to be defensive but to take the initiative to welcome critical feedback by setting up structures in which a learning loop can happen with a small but diverse group of trusted people. However good and experienced a preacher, everyone always has more to learn.

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’?

Musings on the value of (self) doubt 2

The previous post, prompted by the utterly uncompromising figure of John Mitchel, ended up musing on the value of (self) doubt.

Mitchel took his lack of self-doubt all the way to the sacrifice of, in effect, most of his family and his own (prematurely shortened) life.

By doubt I had in mind a ‘space’ in our convictions that gives room for alternative interpretations of reality; other points of view; corrective voices and / or critical self-reflection. Which leads to not taking yourself too seriously – which leads to self-depreciating humour.

Self doubt is a willingness to acknowledge that we might have it wrong; a self-awareness that all we know is finite, limited and culturally conditioned. That we have much to learn from others.

This is well captured in a famous series of pictures about The Illustrated Guide to a PhD by Matt Might who has kindly allowed their reproduction from his site here via creative commons).

Imagine a circle that contains all of human knowledge:

By the time you finish elementary school, you know a little:

By the time you finish high school, you know a bit more:

With a bachelor’s degree, you gain a specialty:

A master’s degree deepens that specialty:

Reading research papers takes you to the edge of human knowledge:

Once you’re at the boundary, you focus:

You push at the boundary for a few years:

Until one day, the boundary gives way:

And, that dent you’ve made is called a Ph.D.:

Of course, the world looks different to you now:

So, don’t forget the bigger picture:

Keep Pushing!

So, all those years of hard work to produce a tiny pimple 🙂

I guess pimple creation is inspiring in its own way. But even in that act of creation, the bigger picture brings even the successful PhD candidate to a place of humility and self-awareness of his / her own narrow and tiny area of expertise.

Without that sort of self-doubt a student becomes unteachable because they know it all already.

A celebrity begins to believe his / her own publicity (not a pretty sight).

A politician boringly and predictably keeps banging the party drum. (When’s the last time in a political TV debate you heard someone pause, reflect and say ‘That’s a good point, I’ll have to think about that’?) The political party line is defended at the cost of any real learning and genuine debate. I guess that’s one reason for voter apathy – impervious ideologies are all just so predictable and self-interested.

And, as Michel Foucault would have said, ‘no doubt’ narratives can easily become tools of power and violence – be like me, believe what I believe or there will be negative consequences.

But, to return (finally!) to questions at the end of the last post, isn’t the Church a place where narratives of power and even violence have often been sanctified and blessed? Where there have been very negative consequences for those who have dared to doubt the party line?

I think any honest reading of history would have to admit ‘Yes – Christianity can and often has taken the form of a narrative of power, of control, of squashing dissent and silencing alternative voices.’

Most often this happened when the Church got mixed up with political power, status and money.  And that’s a pretty large chunk of church history.

So, some implications of these musings:

1. Self-doubt is not only useful, it is necessary for individual Christian growth and maturity

2. Self-doubt fosters characteristics of humility, co-operation and sober self-assessment. It is a pre-requisite for repentance, confession, learning and change.

3. St Paul was a classic ‘no doubter’ willing to use violence to eliminate those who transgressed his boundaries. Yet it was Paul who wrote these words. He knew too well the damage a lack of self-doubt could cause and the need for God’s grace to break human arrogance and self-sufficiency.

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. Romans 12:3

4. We need, as Hauerwas likes to say, to speak the truth; to face our humanity and limitations honestly. And, as he would also say, we need to counter narratives of power, control and violence within the church with the upside down, weak and apparently foolish nature of the kingdom of God. (Well Jesus said that, Stan the man is just saying it again).

5. Prophets were often voices of doubt among the people of God. They were usually ignored, rejected, isolated and unpopular. Voices of doubt challenge the comfortable status quo that usually benefits the rich and powerful.  Luther was a voice of doubt that changed history. At the very least this should give us evangelicals, who by definition are passionate about gospel truth, pause to do some self-critical reflection when we are critiqued by alternative voices.

6. To value self-doubt is not to promote a lack of leadership or celebrate uncertainty as a goal in itself. I think this is where people like IKON over-react against what they perceive as neatly packaged impervious ideologies of traditional Christianity. I guess this is what they are getting at with their ironically titled  (anti-Alpha) ‘Omega course’ of how to ‘exit’ Christianity.

7. I guess this is why, at heart, I am a Christian first, secondly a Christian of evangelical convictions and lastly a Presbyterian. I find it hard to ‘get’ Christians who seem not to doubt their particular confessional distinctive – often in defensive and excluding ways – yet those distinctives are at best highly debated.

8. Self-doubt should foster a posture of listening and dialogue with the wider culture: combining a humble confidence in the gospel of God with appeal, reasoning, love and invitation: a distinct political community that is also willing to suffer persecution and weakness and rejection.

9. That willingness to suffer comes from having enough self-doubt to not want to be in power, to control the culture or believe that it is either possible or desirable to do so.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Suggestions for rediscovering the weirdness of Christianity

Canterbury Cathedral Jesus
Canterbury Cathedral Jesus

Dictionary definitions of “weird” explain it as “very strange” “bizarre” or “peculiar”.

Maybe you disagree, but strangely enough, even in these post-Christendom days, I don’t think too many people in Ireland think of the Christian faith as bizarre, very strange or peculiar.

Let me suggest that it would be a good thing for the health of the church if both Christians and non-believers were able both to understand and experience more of just how weird Christianity really is.

The picture of Canterbury Cathedral captures something of what I’m getting at – the strange ‘Otherness’ of Jesus.

I’m by no means saying I’ve got this all sorted (!), but the longer I am a Christian and the more I have thought about the gospel, about the ultimate story of the Bible, about the life and mission of Jesus, about the atonement, about what it means to follow Jesus, about the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, and about the nature of Christian hope – the stranger and stranger Christianity becomes.

There is, to put it differently, a deep and profound ‘Otherness’ to the gospel of God.

In Ireland, and many places in the West, Christianity remains deeply embedded in history, culture and popular perception. Church spires puncture the skylines of every town and city. A declining, but significant proportion of the population still attend church for some sort of reason.

I’m speculating here (hey isn’t that what blogs posts are for? Please correct me if I’m off base here) but I suspect that for many people in Ireland, Christianity is seen as a mixture of:

(i) a code of rules for religiously-minded people who like to get out of bed on a Sunday morning to assuage their guilt

(ii) an irrelevant and boring institution

(iii) a malign force of religious conservatism that has no place in a pluralist Ireland.

However you cut it, it isn’t seen as particularly bizarre or radical. It remains, for the time being, socially acceptable and unremarkable. It’s part of the furniture, even if of the dusty antique sort in the ‘good room’ that is used for polite conversation with visitors.

I also wonder how ‘weird’ Christianity is for many professing, committed Christians, many of whom have grown up in church: Sunday mornings, singing hymns, prayer meetings, preaching, Bible studies and such. For such people (and I am one) it is a familiar, predictable and largely unsurprising world (especially if you are an Irish Presbyterian 🙂 ).

If I’m even partly right on this description, why is this the case?

What, for you, is most ‘Other’ or ‘weird’ about Christianity?

And where most has the sheer ‘otherness’ or ‘weirdness’ of Christianity been diluted or domesticated?

Comments welcome – I’ll add some more thoughts in the next post.

Same-sex marriage in Ireland and the purpose of the law

wedding ringsIn the latest edition of Studies, Patrick O’Riordan SJ, who teaches political philosophy at Heythrop College in London, writes about impending (inevitable?) same-sex marriage legislation in Ireland and the purpose of the law.

The narrative for same-sex marriage goes something like this:

– Same-sex relationships used not to have society’s approval; now, increasingly, they do. This represents significant social progress.

– The law should be changed to reflect society’s approval and to affirm the right and legitimacy of such relationships

– This should include the right of same-sex couples to marry

– Change in the law will bring equality of treatment to same-sex couples. Current law discriminates unfairly against them.

Marriage in this sense is located in the realm of individual rights. Change in the law will bring into being a new social institution of same-sex marriage, declared to be legally equivalent to heterosexual marriage. To do this in Ireland will require a change to the 1937 Constitution which has a major place for marriage as a union between a man and woman.

O’Riordan notes how this narrative raises some significant questions around the purpose of the law and the institution of marriage:

‘What interest does a liberal democratic state have in the private relations of its citizens?’ ‘Is the legal concept of marriage necessary?’

He traces the arguments that some have made (he names Baroness Hale of Richmond, a judge in London’s new Supreme Court) that marriage as a legal institution has no real unique value. In England, there are no distinct legal consequences of marriage that are not already covered elsewhere. Children are equally protected under the law whether of married or non-married parents. Marital status is effectively irrelevant with regard to taxation and welfare provision – it could just as easily be co-habitation or civil-partnership. With the drive to equality, the distinctiveness of marriage as a legal category is undermined.

This means, in effect, that the state has no special investment in marriage. These developments reflect a minimalist view of the functions of a liberal democratic state.

Ireland’s Constitution is most definitely not minimalist. Our debates are going to be around those who see it as the role of the state to invest in and promote marriage by law for the good of society (current Constitution) and those arguing for a minimalist role of the state in redefining marriage around equality and personal liberty.

The Church’s Response

Where O’Riordan gets really interesting is in his advice to the Catholic Bishops. The self-understanding of the Irish RC Church has been forged in a profoundly Christendom context (my comment) – and this has led to the Church understanding itself as a guardian of political and social values. Such assumptions are no longer credible in post-Christendom Ireland.

But why, he asks, should the Church take a position on two competing views of the function of the law? Both have strengths and weaknesses. Both have ‘unobjectionable social values as a basis for legislation’ . Yes, the debate will be a lively one, but he urges the Bishops not to campaign beyond highlighting the values at stake.

Another reason not to campaign is that they will almost certainly lose. Arguing for the abstract notion of the social value of marriage over against a narrative of equality, overcoming discrimination, the right to marry for those in love of whatever gender, a better more inclusive Ireland … well you get the picture.  It’s a no win.

O’Riordan argues that once understood that the debate is effectively about the appropriate role of the law in a liberal democracy, rather than the nature of marriage or moral truth, then the Church is best to keep its powder dry for other occasions and higher priorities. Fighting a whole series of losing battles in the public forum over the last few decades has had a deeply demoralising impact.

If the bishops were to take on a losing fight, they would compromise their capacity to perform their essential mission – to preach the Gospel …. No-one is encouraged in faith, hope and love by preachers and teachers who are anxious, demoralised or depressed. In another sense, the core message of the faith has been drowned out by a predominance of moralising in the Church’s communication. There has been too little of the joyful proclamation of the presence of the Risen Lord and of his Spirit in the midst of our messy and broken world.

What the Catholic Church needs to recognise, is the new context in which it exists. Christian marriage will not cease to exist – the sky will not fall in if (when) same-sex marriage happens in Ireland. But rather than rely on the state or law to uphold it, the challenge is for the Church ‘to engage in more direct and deliberate preparation of couples for their giving and receiving of the sacrament [of marriage].’

What words would you use to describe this article? Here are some that come to my mind:

Refreshing – focused on the essential mission of the church to preach the gospel

Realistic – discerning the (post-Christendom) times and an appropriate strategy. Not trying to live in the past.  What he says sounds positively anabaptist in his call for the church to be the church whatever wider society is doing to marriage.

Wise – informed, engaged, and most impressively of all, self-critically reflective (all too rare)

Constructive – not fearful or scare-mongering. Able to isolate the underlying issue of changing attitudes around the purpose of the law. Not demonising opponents. Showing how different Christian responses to same-sex marriage legislation does not necessarily equate to diluting or compromising a traditional orthodox Christian view of marriage.

Incomplete – a key issue down the line will be that of religious liberty. If marriage is redefined under law, how will that legislation protect the right of Christians (and other religious faiths) who will resist the practice of same-sex marriage within their faith traditions? At the moment there is clear blue water between marriage and secular civil partnerships performed by a state registrar. A change in the law will need to be carefully crafted if equality legislation does not end up trumping religious liberty. Christians will rightly resist the state over-reaching its power to force the church by law to act against conscience and established teaching.

Comments, as ever, welcome.