Saturday, September 30, 2006

Religion West and East

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 I’m also sure that RTE will have their own interview up on its site shortly at  ) 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   

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Modern Waste Land

This Modern Waste Land

I have always found poems at different times enchanting, bewitching, moving, magical, mysterious, challenging, comforting and disturbing.  In their mood and tone they run the whole gamut of emotions and in their effects upon the reader they elicit similar and parallel feelings.  It is to poetry that I often turn to be moved in any of the various ways outlined, and T. S. Eliot has long been a favourite of mine in this regard.  The reason is very simple.  My English lecturer at college introduced me to him.  He had tapes of T.S. reading his poems, and quite simply I found his reading voice bewitching.  I did not understand very deeply Eliot was saying, but one thing for sure was that I was spellbound by the feeling in his voice, and the tone of his words.  The same was to happen to me with two other marvelous performers of their own word, namely Dylan Thomas and Randall Jarrell (see my post of 28/01/2006).  

As a young student of 17 years of age I was transfixed by the magic and tone and uniqueness of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.  Much of it was and still is beyond me, but the magic of it still remains.  The lines are always not too far from recall and I can still quote many of them.  I had never sat down to deliberately memorize them as our teacher did not insist on this, yet like any great song these lines insinuated themselves into my memory.  All enchanting songs work like that, do they not.

Likewise, some two or three years later when I came to read The Waste Land at college, the lines of this marvelous poem assaulted my ear.  All those voices that I could hear – voices from Shakespeare, from many other masters of poems and drama, quotes from an Italian author (Dante I think) Baudelaire, Ovid, Milton, Webster, Miss Weston’s book on the Grail legends and the famous book of anthropology by Sir James Frazer called The Golden Bough, chess, tarot cards and many other voices all intertwined with the voices of workaday men and women in a pub.  The overall effect is mind blowing.  Why?  Because, like the modern world, this poem assaults our ears with many disparate voices.  One has to be a very well centered human being to pick out the voices that encourage and sustain us from those that bring us down and depress us.  Eliot merely enlists all these disparate voices and like any good poet chooses not to be didactic.  Hence Eliot is a great modernist poet indeed.

The lines that come to my mind in the context of my last four posts about the changing face of religion in the postmodern or even the now post-postmodern world are these ones from Eliot’s famous poem The Waste Land : “In this decayed hole among the mountains/ In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing/ Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel/ There is the empty chapel, only the wind's home./ It has no windows, and the door swings, / Dry bones can harm no one.”(Lines 385-390)

T.S.Eliot became a convert to the Church of England and bought into the Christian creed, an official state religion version at that.  Yet he was a great poet who could talk also about the waste land that modern society had become.  The church in the modern world is only an “empty chapel” which has become now “only the wind’s home.” And then we get those very telling and almost sad words which refer to this chapel’s irrelevance to the modern world: “Dry bones can harm no one.”

There are other lines which underline the “uprootedness” of modern man, his alienation and his sense of being lost in this rather unsympathetic and indifferent world.  I will finish with these words which still go round and round in my head and they are a stark portrayal of the human condition

: Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, A crowd flowed over London Bridge so many, I had not thought death had undone so many. Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. Above I have inserted a picture aI took three years back of litter along the coast at Sutton Cross Dublin. Signs of our Modern Wasteland?

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Beyond Religion 3

Beyond Religion 3

Without a doubt there is much good in organised religion as I have outlined in these pages before.  Such positives as moral direction, upholding values, presenting humankind with a vision of justice for the future, being a moral voice to critique politics, defending the poor, providing some appreciation for the symbolic in life, bringing us back to an awareness of our finitude, reminding us of the reality of death, providing us with celebrations of those big transitions in life – birth, marriage and death (what the great Irish journalist John Waters, whom obviously I admire, calls the triple task of hatching, matching and dispatching, all of which the Church does so well! Thanks, John, for the rhyming mnemonic!

Having said all this, I have also outlined the negatives inherent in any Religion, namely, their proclamation that they possess the truth, and quite often the philosophically contradictory statement, or fallacy, that they possess the only truth or The Truth alone in capitals.. Needless to say, such an approach has led and does lead to wars, mayhem and murder.  See the three previous posts.

However, it definitely does seem that culturally here in the West organized religion is fast becoming a thing of the past, indeed an anachronism.  Organized religions are no longer speaking real truths that are relevant to modern life.

I come from the Roman Catholic tradition, have done 7 years of theological study among other academic pursuits.  I possess a first class honours master’s degree in theology, stamped by the Church proclaiming that I’m licensed to teach theology.  However, I’ve never used this degree as I’ve never lectured in theology.  Nor indeed would I be allowed to lecture in any Catholic seminary, as I’d be heretical to use that rather harsh historical and overloaded term.  I have read widely in theology obviously, but in the last ten years have read more philosophy than theology. I must point out that I studied philosophy as an un dergraduate for 4 years. Within the Catholic tradition one is not allowed to study theology without first having studied philosophy.     Well, I believe we are living in a post-Christian era, certainly in a post-religious era.  However, I hasten to add that I’m not dismissing Religion at all and still have the utmost respect for the religious quest per se. I have many friends who are priests and I respect their commitments and the sincerity of their beliefs, and most especially I admire their commitment to the care of other human beings.  Religion, I acknowledge, does serve an important social and moral function when exercised correctly – namely critiquing society. It also serves a psychological function by giving people some basis for meaning in their lives.  In other words many people have a psychological need for Religion and the meeting of psychological needs are very important in society. I think immediately here of the beautifully orchestrated funeral ceremonies which allow us to express our grief and grieving publicly.

In my own case I own that I had a need for Religion in my life up to my 40th year.  Then, suddenly I had a bad psychological breakdown which necessitated 7 weeks hospitalisation.  I descended into my own personal hell from which I then thought there was only one way out – suicide.  Thankfully, I never got that far.  One thing that did hit me was, given the mere animal creature that I felt I was then, that my personality was a mere chemical or psycho-pharmacological entity which could be altered at any time by chemical intervention.  I felt then thrown back on my very own resources and that of my psychiatrist.  There was no outside divine intervention possible.  My only resources were simply within whatever remained of my personality, the strengths thereof, the professional help of my doctors, meditation, relaxation exercises, a plethora of books on depression, the taking of my medication, the use of as many supplementary (not alternative) practices like yoga, reiki etc.   And so suddenly out of nowhere my need for organized religion died.

When this need died I felt bereft, stranded, alone, watching the tide of faith wash out beyond my horizons.  The “sea of faith” to use the famous quote from Matthew Arnold's equally famous poem Dover Beach was inevitably washing away, never to return.  I had come of age.  I had grown up.   I had outgrown my need for religion in its organized official incarnation. I turned to philosophy, literature and to spirituality big time.  Needless to say I use the term spirituality in its widest possible sense in line with Carl Gustave Jung, Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow and all who follow in what may be called the “self-help” school of popular psychology.  Indeed, many organized religions provide some elements of this modern “self-help” movement at their own fringes.  Needless to say, they do so with the disapproval of their more conservative brothers, sisters and leaders.  Archconservatives like Benedict XVI can see the real threats that these “modern pretenders” offer because quite simply they are taking their “power” away on their very own doorstep!Hence, the reactionary backlash. It's all about the diminution of power. I'd like to discuss power and its abuse, and the disenfranchisement of women in Religion in a future post.
Consequently, it is in the tradition of Rudolf Otto (the experience of the “divine” or spiritual in our lives), John AT Robinson, Richard Niebuhr, our own great liberal Catholic theologian Hans Kung and all who belong to what may be called Liberal Postmodernism that I place myself theologically and spiritually.  This group of scholars includes theologians such as  Mark Taylor, Thomas Altizer, Robert Scharlemann, Charles Winquist, David Ray Griffen and Don Cupitt.  They are as diverse in their theological outlook as they are many.  They are primarily concerned with the developments of liberal theology, and how theology affects and interpolates with culture. They see the demise of organized religion in its traditional incarnation and argue for its replacement by something more modern and “spiritual.”  I may return to these theologians in a later post if I get the time to digest my thoughts on them and in so doing communicate what I believe them to be saying. The picture above this post is of the sun through the trees shining on a darkish pathway through the woods. For me it represents the perennial spiritual quest of humankind. I took this picture in the late evening early this summer in Newbridge House.