Religion West and East
In these early years of the 21st century it would seem that interest in religion in the Western World has receded greatly while interest in spirituality has increased at an exponential rate. This movement, it can be argued has been under way here visibly in the West from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One might feasibly argue that the roots of this movement go back to the Enlightenment, and this thesis is undeniable. However far back the roots go, the real decay happened in the 20th century with the growth of modern society with all its concomitant attributes – the massive increase in technologies of all kinds, the explosion of knowledge in science and the consequent myriads of choices available to modern human beings. Indeed we often flounder in a sea of a confusion of choices that lie before us. There is often information overload, and we in the West often need other more educated voices to guide us through this quagmire. Western humankind may have shuffled off the outer garments of religion, but it may be consequently lacking in direction.
For sure we are more materialistic, and maybe the price we pay for this is the consequent feeling of lost-ness and alienation etc. A huge paradox in all of this would be the equal growth of interest in religion in the East. Here I’m speaking mainly of Islam. Probably Islam has always been strong and is only shown up in relief against the continued demise of religion in the West. Most Westerners see Islam as threatening us, that is, threatening the very basis of our materialistic, technocratic society. Islam sees the materialistic West as being godless and soul-less and even heathen, to use the term the historical Christian West used of it from antiquity.
And yet to add to what I have said above, the picture is not that cut and dried, not that black and white at all. Why? Paradox of paradox the West is still Christian in many ways. Do we not have President George W. Bush, a born again Christian, constantly quoting God in Messianic terms, almost as if he has been speaking to the Godhead on a daily basis? On the Late Late Show last evening (29th September) Pat Kenny interviewed George Galloway (See his marvellous homepage at http://www.georgegalloway.com/. I’m also sure that RTE will have their own interview up on its site shortly at http://www.rte.ie/tv/latelate/archive.html ) who alluded in marvellously passionate words to the Messianism of both Mr Bush and Mr Blair and how their misguided double act has set world peace back years. I’m inclined to agree with the Scottish M.P. and Respect Member of Parliament for the London constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow. So the West can be equally as religion-besotted as the East. Politics will use religion all too often if it can benefit in so doing at the ballot box. The religious card is one of the many in the hands of an able and astute politician. If there are votes in it he or she will play that card, and play it well. Cynicism often rules.
Undoubtedly there are many committed Christians in the West; though I would argue that the evidence shows that there numbers are fast diminishing. Also, I should also like to add here that quite often their message has been garbled in and by the media. Institutional Churches speak well when they promote peace and justice issues. This can never be denied. One only has to think of the likes of the late great martyr bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Martin Luther King, Brother Roger of Taizé, The Dalai Lama, Pope John XXIII, Pope John Paul II, Mahatma Gandhi etc. The list of religious figures who proclaim this great message is long and impressive. (I have deliberately added as many as come to mind from all the different world religions as I can to be inclusive. One or two of those I’ve mentioned obviously don’t come from the West, but they were often inspired by Western Christianity, e.g., Gandhi, who once when he met the missionary E. Stanley Jones said "Oh, I don't reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It's just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.") None of this thrust for peace and justice by figures of organized religion can ever be denied.
The reality in the West is that religion is in the decline – official religion that is. What we need is for organised religions to speak out vehemently and clearly on justice issues. Unfortunately they are not doing so. Are the mainline Churches in the USA criticising Mr Bush on the blatant injustices of his warmongering in Iraq and elsewhere? Are they openly condemning the Guantanamo Bay situation? Religions to be good and pure cannot afford to be beholden to any political entity or State. My argument is that the decline of religion in the West owes a lot to this loss of courage in speaking out. It is often too timid and sickly and sycophantic in approach to politicians. Also many religions often confine themselves to many irrelevancies like the Roman Catholic Church’s preoccupation or unhealthy celibate obsession with matters sexual. What is needed is a strong person-centred spirituality at the heart of the Church or rather Churches. Another reason for the on-going decline in institutional religions is the lack of spiritual support its members get from their official churches. Hence there has been a rapid and exponential growth in modern spiritualities of all kinds along the lines of what may be termed the New Age Movement. One has only to go into any shop to see the wide range of materials available in what is generally called the Body Soul Spirit or Popular Psychology Sections. In one such section I saw versions of the Bible, the Koran, books on Angels and angelology, books on positive thinking, consciousness, Tarot cards, meditation, Buddhism, etc - what an amorphous collection of disparate alternatives, a pudding into which the cook had thrown everything including the kitchen sink. Is it any wonder that we so called modern men and women in the West are somewhat confused?
Yes, indeed it is good to have left the narrow, restrictive and often soul-destroying and spirit-breaking and crushing certainties of the past and more recent past behind. But, on the other hand, there is the rather insipid diet of anything goes and the consequent sense of being alienated and lost on a sea of confusion. Here is where real spirituality that has been thought about, pondered and meditated on can help. Our crisis in the West is one caused by the desertion of the spiritual path within official organized Churches and the obvious lack of spiritual sustenance being offered by our Churches.
Against this background how can we possible begin to understand the concerns of Islam? I have recently bought 4 books on Islam and hope to read the Koran to see if I can come to some personal understanding of it. That’s what we in the West must do. Let’s be open to our brothers and sisters in the East and try to understand where they are coming from. Maybe in that way we may be able to begin to understand, and possibly live in peace with them on this little blue piece of rock hurtling through the immensity of seemingly infinite space. Let’s get real Let’s get a perspective!
Above I have placed a picture I took of the Christ Pantokrator at the Cathedral of Monreale, just outside Palermo, Sicily. I took this picture Easter 2006