Saturday, March 10, 2012

Losing My Religion 3

Let there be no Negativity

I am conscious - all too conscious, indeed - that the title of this series of posts is negative.  Yet as any half discerning reader of these pages will note, I am not negative about religion at all.  In the last two posts I outlined both the positive and negative strengths of the Church and the positive and negative things I had learnt from my involvement in the Roman Catholic Church at many levels - including three years as a member of a Religious Order - over the course of my life time.  Indeed, to lose something implies that one has to replace it with something.  Therefore, in a sense, losing one's religion actually implies in a certain sense a deepening of "religion", or at least a change of what the word "religion" can or could be defined as. 

Indeed, I have been involved in many wonderful groups associated with the Roman Catholic Church over the years: the Society of St Vincent de Paul, helping out in Homeless Shelters, annual retreats, theological and spiritual conferences, meditation sessions and even many wonderfully inspiring liturgies.  All of these things I still experience as personally gratifying, rewarding and even uplifting.  Even if they are not now my main source of spiritual nourishment, I have no problem participating in them.  In short, I can see much good in religions, not the least of which is their potential role in the moral guidance of the general populace .  However, there is no need to be a sociologist to note their significant decline in influence in these postmodern times.

It is also helpful to clarify what one means by religion and what one means by Church.  There are many definitions and many perspectives even within various religions and churches.  They are not all monolithic nor authoritarian.  Indeed, I also readily admit, and indeed I have often outlined the obvious flaws and major failings of various religious denominations in these pages over the years.

That much evil has been perpetrated in the name of the Roman Catholic Church over the centuries from the Crusades right through the centuries needs little adumbration here.  As some theologian once said, and I tend to agree: "There is nothing as good as a good religion, and nothing as bad as a bad one!"  Once again, indeed, it's not so much that Religion is bad or good per se, but rather that humans who go to make it up are bad or good.  What happens over the years in very orthodox and/or authoritarian structures is that a certain type of elite cling to power, and see that they have control over the faithful believers through the exercise of that power, and it has been the corruption of power that has led to the downfall of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and indeed worldwide.

Religionless Christianity

During my years studying theology I was quite taken with the great German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer's (1906 – 1945) concept of "religionless Christianity." There is a lot of depth to what Bonhoeffer was about in this seemingly contradictory concept.  This most learned and most spiritual of theologians wrestled with both the superficiality, blatant cowardice and indeed sheer capitulation of mainstream churches to the whims and dictates of an obviously deranged and evil dictator called Adolf Hitler.  Such a capitulation of central values which literally ripped the heart out of what religion should be must surely have inspired this great theologian to mint his wonderful, if paradoxical, concept.  Bonhoeffer invented "religionless Christianity" in prison shortly before his execution for his part in the Abwehr plots to assassinate the deranged dictator Adolf Hitler.  I have read several books on this leading German neo-liberal theologian and could not but be inspired by both his life and thoughts.  Bonhoeffer was a most congruent person, to use Carl Roger's great descriptor of the counsellor, or in more down-to-earth phraseology - this Lutheran pastor talked the talk and walked the walk at one and the same time.  An interesting account of "religionless Christianity" is given by Professor Richard Beck in his blog Experimental Theology and it can be read here.

Also an interesting take on following Jesus in a "Religionless Christianity" a la Bonhoeffer can be accessed here at the Mustard Seed School of Theology -  see Mustard Seed, founded by Kurt Struckmeyer.  Among other things about "religionless Christianity" Stuckmeyer makes the following insightful and relevant comment:

What bothered Bonhoeffer was that a person could confess doctrinally correct beliefs, observe its moral codes, and follow the accepted behaviors and practices of the Church, while simultaneously committing unspeakable horrors. We have witnessed the same thing in the American South—the "Bible Belt"—where harassment, persecution and lynchings of African-Americans was a norm for “white Christians,” the forerunners of today's conservative Evangelicals.  (See here )

All of this corruption, hatred, suffering, pain and evil caused in the name of religion has undoubtedly got religion a bad name.  That, in short is what I mean by LOSING MY RELIGION.  There has been too much of a capitulation to other "values" than those espoused by Jesus Christ in his Gospels by many mainstream Churches and/or Religions.  In a sense, that is the road I have travelled in my own life, from being a member of a Church or Religion to being a person of deeper values located within my own search for personal authenticity.  To call this, then, my own spiritual search is no mere navel-gazing, no mis-guided egocentrism; nor is it a solipsistic escapism from a shared world with other humans.  In short, what I am getting at here is that I can only define myself by relating to others, by connecting with them in an authentic way.  This is essentially what I mean by spirituality - that journey to Selfhood in community with others who are similarly on a journey, or as the early Chjristians put it, those of us who are "in via" or "on the way."  This will conclude the present series of posts under the title of Losing My Religion as I feel it is a tad too negative as a title.  However, I will continue talking about Spiritual themes in the next many posts.  Thanks for your patience and for reading!

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Losing My Religion 2

Too Much of a Good Thing

St Peter's Basilica, May, 2008
If one over-indulges in any of one's desires, one can become somewhat sickened by excess.  We can indeed literally get too much of a good thing.  As the philosophers, and a goodly number of religionists of all hues, tell us, moderation or temperance is to be desired in all things.  The same, I believe, can be said about religion in general.  In Ireland we certainly did get too much religion over the years.  In fact, it was literally pushed down our throats from the beginning and the Roman Catholic Church called the shots on morality in general and sexual ethics in particular.  Indeed, there was an openly prized close link between Church and State since the foundation of the latter in 1922.  Then there was the privileged position of the Roman Catholic Church in the State, a fact that was acknowledged in the Constitution of Ireland 1937 until that particular reference was removed by the Fifth Amendment.  That amendment also removed the official recognition of certain other named religious denominations as well.  It is right that no religion or denomination of any sort should be offered any special position outside the freedom of all citizens to practise publicly their professed beliefs. The change was effected by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution Act, 1972 which was approved by referendum on 7 December 1972 and signed into law on 5 January 1973.  That certain clerics in a highly centralised, autocratic and hierarchical Church would become so accustomed to the use and abuse of power and its trappings would be inevitable.  Indeed, the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. John Charles McQuaid behaved like a Medieval Prince requiring even high politicians in the land to bow the knee to his personage and indeed follow slavishly his every wish/whim.

However, we must acknowledge the one of the traditional strengths of the Church (any mainline Church indeed) is that it promotes high standards of moral conduct in any society by appealing to the human virtues.  In this regard I refer here to a remark by Professor John Joseph Lee in his book Ireland 1912–1985 : "The Church is a bulwark, perhaps now the main bulwark of the civic culture. It is the very opportunism of the traditional value system that leaves religion as the main bulwark between a reasonably civilised civil society and the untrammelled predatory instincts of individual and pressure group selfishness, curbed only by the power of rival predators .... If religion were no longer to fulfil its historic civilising mission as a substitute for internalised values of civic responsibility, the consequences for the country, no less than for the church, could be lethal" (page 675).

Neither For nor Against

St Peter's Square from the Duomo, May 2008
Now this sequence of posts is neither explicitly for nor explicitly against the Church or any church per se.  Rather they reflect my personal engagement with the Roman Catholic Church for 40 years and my disengagement from it over the last 14 years of my life.  Up until 40 years of age I was a practising Roman Catholic and I did get spiritual nourishment in that community of believers. (I shall explain in due course how the Church ceased to be important for me.) There is much good in all churches.  Now, here again, once one defines precisely what one means by church the reader will understand why.  There are, to my mind, two classic books written on the nature of the Church and they are Hans Kung's (1928-    ) famous tome The Church (1967 - still a renowned and scholarly work) and Avery Dulles, S.J. (1918-2008) equally famous little classic called Models of Church (1974).  Now, there are many models, but the one emphasised by the Second Vatican Council is the model of church as People of God.  Now, if that is our working definition, our attitudes will be way more positive than if we were working from a hierarchical model of Church.  In this latter case, our criticisms are indeed legion especially since the revelations of the systematic cover up of cases of child abuse by ordained members of that "official" or hierarchical Church.

Positive points about the Catholic Church as I experienced it: (i) good liturgies, especially in the earlier years - Latin hymns, good Church Music - in short, good aesthetic/spiritual experience (ii) a good moral formation, even if the sexual ethics side of things was somewhat warped, i.e., ridiculous ban on contraception, (iii) high standard of education in all subjects and (iv) some really inspiring spiritual teachers here and there throughout the network.  I am also in agreement with our great Irish Times columnist John Waters that the major liturgies or rites of passage like Baptisms, Weddings and Funerals are done well and very movingly, too, what Waters succinctly and humorously calls the Church's "hatching, matching and dispatching" functions. (v) an excellent social teaching - well researched, humane and practical and (vi) great charitable organisations like the wonderful Society of St Vincent de Paul which literally provides the poor or those below the breadline with necessary food items, furniture and indeed money.

Negative points as I experienced it would be: (i) too much emphasis on doctrines and dogma (ii) an obsession with control on the intellectual as well as the moral side, (iii) too clerical, (iv) need to allow priests to marry and (v) women should be allowed become priests.

The Study of Theology

Many years ago I remember Dr Michael Paul Gallagher, who has written much on unbelief, opining that it was quite likely that a significant, if small,  number of people who study theology would become agnostics or atheists.  True for him.   Good theology, like good philosophy, makes the student question things.  The questioning spirit can and does lead to agnosticism and atheism.  Having studies both theology and philosophy, along with other general subjects, I can readily understand the import of Fr Michael-Paul's comments.  One learns a mass of interesting information like Jesus was actually born 6 years B.C.; that the Bible was written by numerous authors whom the Church looks upon as being inspired to write the truth; that the 25th December is quite an arbitrary date for the birth of Jesus; that the Scriptures are a complex mix of history and faith spin as it were; that unthreading the intricate strands of archaeology, mythology, history, literary genre, faith, one from another is a scholarly task to say the least.  Then there is the whole area of the development of doctrine to be teased out and studied as doctrines did not suddenly appear out of thin air as it were, but rather were elucidated over the course of time right up to their formal definitions.  Then, of course there is the study of what faith is and how it is a response to the revelation of God, not to mention the whole nature of God question.  All of these and more have been discussed by the learned and creative minds of theologians.

Another area of abiding interest is that of the interplay of philosophy and theology, call that philosophical theology if you wish - the area of specialism which I pursued for my degree in Theology called the Licentiatus Sacrae Theologiae (STL).

Living the Vision rather than Preaching the Message

If the older Church was about preaching the message - and oftentimes a forceful if not authoritarian proclamation of the same - the more modern incarnation of the Church is that of Living the Vision.  If we were to put this in modern language we might say that the modern Church is and must be more about Walking the Walk rather than Talking the Talk.  The problem with talkers is precisely that they talk too much and do too little.  Also, what has made things worse for the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland is that it talked the talk and kept right on doing so while all the time covering up its own crimes and sins.  This is what mainly brought about the downfall of the Roman Catholic Church in its incarnation as Hierarchical or Clerical Church.  That the clerical or hierarchical or authoritarian Church has fallen from grace and must continue to fall is a good thing.  If that model of church has anything to learn it must be humility, and a willingness to ask for forgiveness and be more open to allowing the laity, especially women a greater role within its institution.

Losing Religion and Gaining Spirituality

One of my favourite quotations in the theological world is the following, which I believe comes from the Alcoholics Anonymous network: "Religion is for those who fear Hell.  Spirituality is for those who have been there!"  This sums up succinctly my own stance with respect to my personal faith today.  I have little or no interest in formal religion but much interest in spiritual questions and concerns.  I have long believed that if there is a God or an Energy or a Life Force keeping this wonderful, if at times sad and wounded, world in existence then it is my duty, and in the interests of my well being and that of all whom I love, to align myself with that Force.  At this stage in my spiritual development I believe that there is such a Force or Energy, but that that Force or Energy is impersonal.  However, I will write more about those ideas in later posts here.  I am merely now setting out the trajectory of my faith development as it were.

To be continued

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Losing My Religion 1


I have always liked the song by R.E.M. called Losing my Religion, which strangely enough is not about religion at all.  In fact, it would seem that the title is a metaphor for the songwwriter's (Michael Stipe) coming to terms with his homosexuality, just as the murder image in Bohemian Rhapsody is metaphoric for the same acceptance by Freddie Mercury. However, the first two lines of the song fit in with my theme here, which is literally about losing my religion, or at least a certain form of it.  It runs simply and succinctly: "life is bigger//It's bigger than you."  Indeed, it is - it is bigger than all of us.  The sentiments in these lines is tantamount to Socrates' great exhortation to us to firstly declare our ignorance before engaging on any intellectual task.

The Mystery that faded

I was born in 1958 and I made my First Holy Communion in 1965 at the age of seven.  I can still remember the wonder and the mystery that the Roman Catholic Church of that era held for me as it did for most others at that time in pre-European Ireland, innocent Ireland, so-called uncorrupted Ireland.  Then also my Confirmation at the age of 10 in 1968 was also very much a mystery-suffused experience.  There were the Latin hymns such as the wonderful O Salutaris Hostia which went "O salutáris Hóstia,//Quæ cæli pandis óstium,//Bella premunt hostília,//Da robur, fer auxílium.//O Saving Victim//Who opens the doors of Heaven,//The enemy are warring against us//Give us strength and aid!//"

Then there was the equally wonderful Tantum Ergo, the first verse of which goes: "Tántum ergo Sacraméntum//Venerémur cérnui.//Et antíquum documéntum// Nóvo cédat rítui://Præstet fídes suppleméntum//Sénsuum deféctui.//So great a Sacrament, therefore,// let us worship, bowed down;// And let the ancient example// give way to a new rite;// Let faith bestow a support// to the defect of the senses.//" 

These hymns were sung in the beautiful Gregorian chant.  Then add to that all the incense rising with our Latin prayers to heaven.  As well as that the liturgies were splendid with beautiful ornate vestments and a solemnity which is sorely lacking today.  Back then the Mystery of Religion was literally overwhelming for a young innocent child, if not for the more experienced adults. In the black and white and so very poor working class 1960s Ireland the sheer experience of colourfulness of the Roman Catholic liturgies could not fail to be enthralling.  I still remember the profound sense of wonder and mystery which the Church had for my innocent young self. 

However, as I have grown up, obviously the world has moved on very much in Ireland which has come into both twentieth and twenty-first centuries in quick succession with a bang since then.  I learned in my late teens and early twenties that such experiences of wonder and mysstery could be communicated through the Arts, in Literature, Art, Theatre, Sculpture, Music and Film.  In short, the early experience of Mystery as communicated through the Church faded.  Back then "God was in His Heaven,// All was right with the world." as the poet Robert Browning put it. That feeling was for me, back then, my first encounter with Transcendence (of the Divine variety).  However, that trancendence has been replaced by a more psychological or transpersonal one since then. (I will discuss Transcendence and Immanence later in these posts when I get the chance!)