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Posts Tagged ‘Religion’

As I think about starting my new work in university chaplaincy, I’m even more interested than I was before about what it’s like to be a young person in the UK today, what questions young people have, and what they do or don’t believe.

So I was drawn to the headline on the YouGov site: ‘British Youth Reject Religion’. I’ll copy the main points below and you can come to your own conclusions:

Religious figures have the least influence on the lives of young Britons – and more say religion is a force for evil than a force for good

In the 2011 Census, 59% of the population described themselves as Christian and only a quarter reported having no religion. But a new poll of young people for the Sun by YouGov finds that the place of religion in the lives of young Britons is smaller than ever.

YouGov asked 18-24 year olds which figures have influence on their lives, and religious leaders came out on bottom: only 12% feel influenced by them, which is far less than even politicians (38%), brands (32%) and celebrities (21%).

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The reputation of religion amongst young people is actually more negative than neutral: 41% agree that “religion is more often the cause of evil in the world” and only 14% say it is a cause for good.

When asked if they believe in God, only 25% say they do. 19% believe in some non-Godlike “spiritual greater power” and a further 38% believe in no God or spiritual power whatsoever.

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Amongst believers, the most represented denominations are Church of England (13%), then Roman Catholic (9%) and Muslim (4%).

The low influence of religious leaders doesn’t surprise me, because so few young people have real human contact with them. But I’m really taken aback by the 41% agreeing that “religion is more often the cause of evil in the world”.

You can see the full results here.

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Fr Philip Miller has an article about Faith and Science in this month’s edition of the Pastoral Review, going over some of the basic history, theology and scientific theory.

Einstein's blackboard

Einstein’s blackboard

In the section on cosmology he writes about the anthropic principle: the way the universe is tuned in such a precise way as to allow the possibility of human life. I’m not sure about this. I’m not saying it’s untrue, I just haven’t done enough to think through whether I find the argument convincing or not.

What speaks to me more is the simple argument from order: that an ordered universe requires some transcendent foundation for its own order (i.e., outside space and time); and that scientific explanation presupposes that the universe can, at least in theory, be explained, and it therefore assumes that the ultimate explanation for the universe has a foundation which is outside the universe itself (at the metaphysical level – that the universe cannot contain the foundation of its own laws; and at the epistemological level – that science cannot justify the foundations of its own scientific principles).

This is how Fr Philip puts it:

The fundamental question remains, for a multiverse just as for a single universe: what is the underlying, unifying cause? The answer is that there must be a necessary being, that is, some sort of ‘God.’ Universes, being complex, law-governed entities, are not simple, and so cannot be metaphysically necessary (since ‘something’ must cause/explain the underlying unity of the complex whole).

Some of Professor Stephen Hawking’s work has been on the nature of the Big Bang, the proposed initial moment of the universe. Some of his more recent hypotheses have been to provide solutions to the complex physics of the early universe that avoid any suggestion that the Big Bang is, in effect, a creation ex nihilo. Hawking’s collaborator, physicist Neil Turok, developed the idea of the ‘instanton’ model of the Big Bang, which has, in simple terms, ‘no beginning.’ And yet, it is highly instructive to note Turok’s own words about their modelling of the universe’s initial expansion phase, termed ‘inflation’:

“Think of inflation as being the dynamite that produced the Big Bang. Our instanton is a sort of self-lighting fuse that ignites inflation. To have our ‘instanton’ you have to have gravity, matter, space and time. Take any one ingredient away and the ‘instanton’ doesn’t exist. But if you have an ‘instanton’ it will instantly turn into an inflating infinite universe.” [Turok, N., commenting online on his own work]

In other words, even in their attempt to define a universe with no beginning, they still have to assume that there is a pre-existing framework of physical laws just sitting there, which the material universe must obey. The universe clearly doesn’t invent its own laws: it requires a law-giver, and that law-giver has to be outside the universe of matter, space and time; it must be spirit, God Himself.

Which raises the child’s question, ‘But who made God?’ To which the answer is: God is not the kind of thing that needs to be made. Or, to put it in the positive: God is precisely that one ‘thing’ that is not made by another thing; God is eternal (outside time), spirit (outside space and matter), simple (outside the complexity of secondary explanations), and necessary (outside the chain of secondary causes).

What do you think?

You can read the full article here.

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I preached about prophecy this morning at Mass. I was provoked (I won’t say inspired) by the whole non-Mayan non-apocalypse non-event that was Friday 21 December 2012. It shows how even an urban myth that becomes an uber-trending news story can stimulate some helpful reflection.

the end is not for a while by voteprime

Part of the attraction of the ‘crazy religious people waiting for the end of time’ story is that it seems to pit crazy religious people against un-crazy scientific people. But one of my small points this morning was that the desire to believe in prophecy, at least in its slightly over-simplified meaning of ‘telling you something that is going to happen in the future’, is actually one with the scientific instinct. It’s a longing to believe that everything makes sense, that everything happens for a reason, that the future is (through some very mysterious processes of futurology) pre-determined and knowable.

The belief that the world as a whole and every detail within it is meaningful, and that in theory this meaning can be discovered, is a belief that shapes both the worst excesses of superstition and the best endeavours of science. We don’t want to believe that everything is simply chaos; and in fact we have good reasons to think (if our epistemology is sound) that there is a fundamental order to the universe, and that our minds can gradually discover that order.

This hunger for order drives the scientist and the Mayan apocalypse seeker. It also drives the conspiracy theorist, as portrayed so well by Don DeLillo in his novel Underworld, who can’t conceive that a world-changing event like the assassination of JFK or the death of Princess Diana could have been caused by something as banal as a lone gunman or a tragic accident.

Yes, there are crazy prophecies; and there are non-prophecies (it seems that not even the Mayans really believed that this one was coming). But there are true prophecies as well, where God has spoken into history, and promised or predicted (perhaps they mean the same thing from the perspective of eternity) that something would happen in the future.

We see two of them in the scriptures today. First, seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, the prophet Micah promising that a leader would be born in Bethlehem; one who would shepherd God’s people, unite and strengthen them, and bring them lasting security and peace. And second, the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, telling her that her cousin Elizabeth was with child in her old age. No wonder she went to visit Elizabeth with such haste; partly to share her joy at the Incarnation, but partly to see with her own eyes a truth she could only hold in faith up to that point.

Prophecy used to be such an important part of the Judeo-Christian imagination. It reminded us that all things – including the course of history – are in God’s providential hands; it showed us his power and his wisdom; it was a sign of his care for us and of our own dignity – that he would speak to us and involve us in the unfolding of his plans; and it was above all a powerful indication of his faithfulness to us, and our need and our duty to trust him because of the objective signs that he has given us in history, as well as the personal signs he has given in our own life story.

I think we have lost our confidence in all this, for all sorts of reasons: historical criticism of the Bible; a loss of the sense of the supernatural; the shift from a historical religion to a personal spirituality, from an objectively founded faith to one based on inner subjective experience; and many others.

Some of the scepticism about prophecy is justified, and it reflects a whole different world view. But some of it is not – it is an unscientific narrowing of the human mind: to think that there is no fundamental order to the universe or to human existence; that God the creator is unable to guide his creation or direct the events of history; that he cannot in his infinite wisdom know what he ‘is’ doing or what he ‘will’ do; or that he cannot share his knowledge of what he will do through revelation in general and through the prophetic word in particular.

This is our faith as Christians, that these things are possible for God. And it’s not just a credulous, superstitious faith; it’s based on our rational understanding of what it means for there to be a universe at all, and our conclusion that some transcendent power and wisdom must lie behind this creation, a power that we have discovered – in the Old Testament and ultimately in Jesus Christ – to be personal and loving.

Prophecy still matters. The fact that God has spoken through the prophets and fulfilled his promises is one of the factors that allows us to believe with more confidence. It may not provide a proof that what we believe is true, but it is a good stimulus to belief, and an ongoing support.

This is how the First Vatican Council put it, a teaching that is as relevant today as it was in the nineteenth century (Dei Filius, Chapter 3):

4. Nevertheless, in order that the submission of our faith should be in accordance with reason, it was God’s will that there should be linked to the internal assistance of the Holy Spirit external indications of his revelation, that is to say divine acts, and first and foremost miracles and prophecies, which clearly demonstrating as they do the omnipotence and infinite knowledge of God, are the most certain signs of revelation and are suited to the understanding of all.

5. Hence Moses and the prophets, and especially Christ our lord himself, worked many absolutely clear miracles and delivered prophecies; while of the apostles we read: And they went forth and preached every, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it [18]. Again it is written: We have the prophetic word made more sure; you will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place [19].

6. Now, although the assent of faith is by no means a blind movement of the mind, yet no one can accept the gospel preaching in the way that is necessary for achieving salvation without the inspiration and illumination of the Holy Spirit, who gives to all facility in accepting and believing the truth [20].

7. And so faith in itself, even though it may not work through charity, is a gift of God, and its operation is a work belonging to the order of salvation, in that a person yields true obedience to God himself when he accepts and collaborates with his grace which he could have rejected.

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There have been lots of reports about the 2011 census statistics for religious affiliation, and how they compare with a decade before.

icons by scjody

Here is the actual summary from the Office for National Statistics:

The question on religious affiliation in the census was introduced in 2001 and is voluntary. The order of the main religion groups by size did not change between 2001 and 2011. Those affiliated with the Christian religion remained the largest group; 59 per cent (33.2 million) of usual residents in England and Wales.

This is a decrease of 13 percentage points since 2001 when 72 per cent (37.3 million) of usual residents stated their religion as Christian. It is the only group to have experienced a decrease in numbers between 2001 and 2011 despite population growth.

The second largest response category in 2011 was no religion. This increased 10 percentage points from 15 per cent (7.7 million) of usual residents in 2001, to 25 per cent (14.1 million) in 2011.

The next most stated religion in England and Wales was Muslim with five per cent (2.7 million) of usual residents stating their religion as Muslim in the 2011 Census; an increase of two percentage points since 2001 when three per cent (1.5 million) of usual residents stated that they were Muslim.

And the table:

England and Wales, 2001 and 2011, all usual residents

Thousand, per cent
Religion 2001 2011 Change
Number Per cent Number Per cent Number Percentage point
Christian 37,338 71.7 33,243 59.3 -4,095 -12.4
No religion 7,709 14.8 14,097 25.1 6,388 10.3
Muslim 1,547 3.0 2,706 4.8 1,159 1.8
Hindu 552 1.1 817 1.5 264 0.4
Sikh 329 0.6 423 0.8 94 0.2
Jewish 260 0.5 263 0.5 3 0.0
Buddhist 144 0.3 248 0.4 103 0.1
Other religion 151 0.3 241 0.4 90 0.1
Religion not stated 4,011 7.7 4,038 7.2 27 -0.5

The report goes on to look at the regional variations.

Between 2001 and 2011 the percentage of residents affiliating themselves with the Christian religion declined in all England regions and Wales.

The highest percentage, 68 per cent (1.8 million) of people who responded that their religion was Christian was in the North East. This represents a 12 percentage point decrease on 2001, when this region also had the highest percentage of people who stated that their religion was Christian. London had the lowest percentage of usual residents stating their religion as Christian in both 2011 (48 per cent, 4.0 million) and 2001 (58 per cent, 4.2 million).

London had the highest percentage of all other religious affiliations except Sikh; Muslim (12 per cent, 1.0 million), Hindu (five per cent, 411,000), Jewish (two per cent, 149,000), Buddhist (one per cent, 82,000), and other religion (less than one per cent, 48,000). The West Midlands had the highest percentage of people who responded that their religion was Sikh (two per cent, 30,000).

These are huge changes. How does one react? For a completely unrepresentative but still interesting range of reactions see the Telegraph blog page, where Damian Thompson is depressed (‘It cannot be said too often: the default position of people born since 1980 is agnosticism or atheism‘ – his emphasis!); Christina Odone still manages to find hope (Headline: ‘2011 census shock revelation: Christianity is still the majority religion, and Britain is still a God-fearing country’); and atheist Tom Chivers wonders what it means for the nation’s ‘moral capital':

What’s worth saying, though, is that as well as the (in many people’s opinion) negative social attitudes it [religion] can entrench, it also has clear and well-documented social benefits. Communities based around a local church (or mosque, or synagogue) are more likely to know each other, more likely to help each other in times of crisis, generally more likely to behave in socially positive ways.Religion, according to the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, builds up “moral capital“: norms and practices that encourage cooperation within groups, by making people think of themselves as part of that group, rather than an individual. Some of those norms and practices (avoiding pork, or eating a biscuit that represents the Son of God) might seem bizarre to outsiders, but they bring the group closer together. It’s the flip-side of the us-and-them attitude; religion might or might not be bad for your attitude towards “them”, but it’s generally good for your attitude towards “us”.

Not that it’s exclusive to religion, of course. Regular social contact with your neighbours, the building of social and moral capital, the creation of a group in which you subsume your individuality and can work for a common good, can all be achieved in other means: it might sound a bit flippant, but football supporters might feel something similar. The British Humanist Association, which runs church-like regular meetings for humanists, and groups like the Quakers, with their emphasis on community rather than the “religious” side of religion, could build social and moral capital without the need for God or the supernatural. But the point is that right now, as Haidt says, that “religious believers … are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people” (in the United States, at least). This needs to be acknowledged. If religion really is waning in this country (and it seems to be: the number of Muslims is growing, but nowhere near fast enough to replace Christianity), then the challenge for atheists, humanists and others who think it’s possible to be good without God is to build a way of bringing communities together as Christianity has in Britain for centuries.

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By chance I was in my home town of Harpenden on Sunday, and after the 9.45 Mass many people from the Catholic church went down the road to the United Service of Remembrance round the War Memorial on Church Green.

It’s years since I have been present for this. I have memories of a few hundred people scattered around the green in the centre of town. But this Sunday there must have been a crowd of over two thousand people, spilling onto the surrounding roads. Perhaps it has been growing over the years; perhaps it was particularly large this year.

It was very moving, and very Christian! Prayers, hymns, readings. The names of the dead were read out. And it’s so easy to forget, but the whole town was gathered round a standing cross (see the old postcard above). I’ve wandered across the green a thousand times over the years (we moved to Harpenden when I was four), but I’ve hardly stopped to reflect that the focus of unity for the town was and still is the Cross of Jesus Christ. And when people want to reflect on death and life, remember their loved ones, or just come together as a community conscious of itself and its history – they gather round the Cross.

I’m not suggesting that everyone there had faith, or even that Christianity is on the increase in Hertfordshire (who knows?). But the huge crowds present this Sunday made me wonder if there is a deepening hunger for community and for a sense of connection with those in the past. Maybe we are more aware of our military than we used to be; maybe it’s the patriotism of the Jubilee or the communitarianism of the Olympics and the Paralympics; maybe we just long to feel more connected.

This was civic religion at its best: people still broadly connected with the nation’s Christian faith, even though there would be various shades of belief and unbelief; people finding that this faith gives them a unity with each other, and a way of making sense of their human struggles, that perhaps they wouldn’t find in any other place.

And a final note about purgatory: It was an ecumenical service, but I was fascinated how each prayer spoken was actually a prayer for the dead. We kept hearing phrases like: ‘May they find the fulfilment in God they were longing for'; ‘May they rest in peace'; ‘May they come face to face with the Lord’. All of these ‘may they…’ prayers suggest, theologically, that there is still something to be achieved or worked out for those who have died. In other words, this wasn’t just a service of remembrance – whatever the service sheet suggested – it was also a service of prayer for the dead. I don’t think this was very conscious or theologically explicit, but it shows how hard it is to just remember the dead without actually praying for them – at a psychological level. And a Catholic would add that this makes theological sense as well!

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We have been back at Allen Hall for about ten days – a few days of induction and settling in, and then lectures started properly this Monday. It’s great to get stuck into the new year.

Sixteen new seminarians have arrived at Allen Hall – the largest intake in many years. Most of these are ‘first years’ beginning their formation for Catholic priesthood; one or two began elsewhere and are starting a new stage in their formation here.

I was going to entitle this post ‘seminary numbers increasing’, but then I realised that this is the same title I gave to a post at the beginning of the last academic year – which you can read it here. The good news about vocations seems to be continuing, not just here but in other seminaries as well.

 

The other bit of good news is that after much behind-the-scenes work our new website has just been launched. You can see a snapshot above, and if you want to browse around click here.

It looks fantastic. Yes, it’s a WordPress theme! I wish I could find something as crisp for the blog, but I can’t find anything that quite works for me on the free WordPress options. I feel I need a slight refresh – any ideas about blog themes are gratefully received.

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I’d heard rumours about this, and it turns out it’s true: Buzz Aldrin celebrated a service of Holy Communion in the lunar module on 20th July 1969, before he and Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the surface of the moon.

Aldrin was an elder at Webster Presbyterian Church near Houston. He received permission from the Presbyterian Church’s general assembly to administer Holy Communion to himself. I presume he took the ‘consecrated elements’ of bread and wine from a Communion service back home (and you can see that I am not sure about the Eucharistic terminology or theology of Webster Presbyterian Church!).

This is the message that he radioed to Nasa, as recorded in his book Magnificent Desolation:

I would like to request a few moments of silence … and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way.

And in an article for Guideposts magazine, he described what happened:

I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup. It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there, were communion elements.

I take all this from a piece by Matthew Cresswell, who goes on to explain the fraught politics of the situation.

The story of the secret communion service only emerged after the mission. Aldrin had originally planned to share the event with the world over the radio. However, at the time Nasa was still reeling from a lawsuit filed by the firebrand atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, resulting in the ceremony never being broadcast. The founder of American Atheists and self-titled “most hated woman in America” had taken on Nasa, as well as many other public organisation. Most famously, she successfully fought mandatory school prayer and bible recitation in US public schools.

After the Apollo 8 crew had read out the Genesis creation account in orbit, O’Hair wanted a ban on Nasa astronauts practising religion on earth, in space or “around and about the moon” while on duty. She believed it violated the constitutional separation between church and state. In Magnificent Desolation, Aldrin explains how astronaut Deke Slayton, who ran the Apollo 11 flight crew operations, told him to tone down his lunar communiqué. “Go ahead and have communion, but keep your comments more general,” he advised [...]

O’Hair’s case against Nasa eventually fizzled out, but it dramatically changed the tone of the Apollo 11 landing. Aldrin had originally intended a much more pioneering Christopher Columbus-style ceremony on the moon. That was never to be.

But at Webster Presbyterian church – the spiritual home of many astronauts – Aldrin’s communion service is still celebrated every July, known as Lunar Communion Sunday. Pastor Helen DeLeon told me how they replay the tape of Aldrin on the moon and recite Psalm eight, which he had quoted on his return trip to Earth (“… what is man that thou art mindful of him”). The church still holds the chalice that Aldrin brought back with him. Judy Allton, a geologist and historian of Webster Presbyterian church, produced a paper, presented at a Nasa conference, arguing that communion could be an essential part of future manned space travel. She claims that rituals such as Aldrin’s communion “reinforce the homelink”.

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Jonathan Watts has been reporting from China for the Guardian for nearly a decade. He has been there officially to report on the environment and development issues, but his journalism has ended up touching on most aspects of Chinese life over these last few years. He gives a summary of his experiences here, which ends up being a reflection on how China has changed over the period, and where it is going.

There are lots of positives; lots of unknowns; and one of the continuing negatives is the lack of freedom for journalists like himself, the authoritarianism, and the inability of the Chinese government to take criticism – both internal and external.

Criticism has rarely been appreciated. All too often, there have been flare-ups of anti-foreign media hostility. Some of my colleagues in other media organisations have received death threats. I never expected China to be an easy place to work as a journalist. For political and cultural reasons, there is a huge difference in expectations of the media. For historical and geo-strategic reasons, there is a lingering distrust of foreign reporters.

Run-ins with the police, local authorities or thugs are depressingly common. I have been detained five times, turned back six times at roadblocks (including during several efforts to visit Tibetan areas) and physically manhandled on a couple of occasions. Members of state security have sometimes followed interviewees and invited my assistants “out for tea”, to question them on who I was meeting and where I planned to visit. Censors have shut down a partner website that translated Guardian articles into Mandarin. Police have twice seized my journalist credentials, most recently on this year’s World Press Freedom Day after I tried to interview the blind human-rights activist Chen Guangcheng in hospital. When that happened, I debated with another British newspaper reporter who was in the same position about whether to report on the confiscation. He argued that it was against his principles for journalists to become part of the story. I used to believe the same, but after nine years in China, I have seen how coverage is influenced by a lack of access, intimidation of sources and official harassment. I now believe reporters are doing a disservice to their readers if they fail to reveal these limitations on their ability to gather information.

Yes, there is often negative coverage and yes, many of the positive developments in China are underemphasised. But I don’t think it does the country’s international image any favours to clumsily choke access to what is happening on the ground.

Treated like a spy, I have sometimes had to behave like one. At various times, I’ve concealed myself under blankets in a car, hidden in a toilet, waited until dark in a safe house and met sources in the middle of the night to avoid detection.

At other times, it is Chinese journalists and officials who pull the screen of secrecy aside. Take the foot-and-mouth outbreak on the outskirts of Beijing in 2005. I was first alerted to this by a Chinese reporter, who was frustrated that the propaganda department had ordered the domestic media not to run the story.

Foreign ministry officials often tell me China is becoming more open and, indeed, there have been steps in that direction. But restrictions create fertile ground for rumour-mongering. One of the biggest changes in this period has been the spread of ideas through mobile phones and social networks. The 513 million netizens in China (up from 68 million in 2003) have incomparably greater access to information than any previous generation and huge numbers now speak out in ways that might have got them threatened or detained in 2003. Microblogs are perhaps nowhere more influential than in China because there is so little trust of the communist-controlled official media.

It has been fun watching netizens create an ingenious new language to evade restrictions. In this anti-authoritarian world, the heroes are the “grass mud horses” (which, in Chinese, sounds the same as a core banned phrase: “Fuck your mother!”) while the villains are the river crabs (which is pronounced like “harmony” – the favourite excuse of the authorities when they crack down on dissent). But ultimately, a journalist wants to see things for him or herself. I will never forget the epic road trips – across the Tibetan plateau, along the silk road, through the Three Gorges and most memorably from Shangri-la to Xanadu. Along the way, I met remarkable people with extraordinary stories. True to the oft-heard criticism of the foreign media, many were from the “dark side”: a young man in Shaoguan who confessed – as the shadows lengthened on the building site where we had our interview – to killing Uighur co-workers at his toy factory because of a rumour they had raped Han women; a gynaecologist in Yunnan who argued with great conviction that it had once been necessary to tie pregnant women up to carry out abortions; the young boy who found the body of his dead grandmother who killed herself a year after his father – an illegal migrant – phoned her to say he was about to drown in what became known as the Morecambe Bay disaster.

Another thing that struck me in Watts’s report is the total lack of references to religion – absolutely nothing about religion, faith, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc (I did the word-search on the article). I know he is focussing on the environment, but he writes about many other aspects of Chinese life that catch his interest or come to find him as a journalist. Is this a Guardian blind-spot? Maybe I’m being unfair, and he was briefed not to write about religion because someone else in the office is on the case. It’s just striking that someone gives their impressions of a decade of change in China, and the growth in interest in religion isn’t mentioned.

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I reviewed Marilynne Robinson’s latest book in the Tablet recently. My very first post, nearly three years ago, referred to a passage about wonder in her extraordinary novel Gilead.

When I Was A Child I Read Books is a collection of essays about subjects as diverse as Calvinist theology, evolutionary psychology, American hymnody, Japanese economics, growing up in small-town Idaho, and the decline of democracy. You may not have a passionate interest in all or any of these topics, but the book is still well worth reading, because her deepest concern is always to understand what it means to be human, what it means to confront the reality around us, and what lies just beyond the boundaries, in ‘the vast terrain of what cannot be said’.

I won’t copy the whole review here, but here is a passage about Robinson’s distinctive interest in religion:

I doubt that there are many self-professed ‘unreconstructed liberals’ who wear their Calvinism on their sleeve. Robinson is never preachy, but it’s clear how her Christian faith informs her view of things. Religion, for her, is not a cosy enclave, but a disruptive force, which expands and shatters the narrow definitions we would otherwise have of ourselves and our world.

The story of God’s extravagant, wondrous love casts a ‘saturating light’ over the whole of human history. Even original sin, which seems such a pessimistic idea, points to ‘the literally cosmic significance of humankind as a central actor in creation who is, in some important sense, free to depart from, even to defy, the will of God’.

Theology, in other words, leads us back to anthropology – to our understanding of the human person. Robinson laments the loss of the word ‘soul’ in contemporary discourse, and has a clear-sighted view of how human dignity needs some external theistic foundation if it is to be defended. Why? Because any notion of human ‘exceptionalism’ needs to anchor our nature, our dignity, ‘in a reality outside the world of circumstance’.

When the Declaration of Independence states ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights’, it makes the human person sacred, once by creation and again by endowment, ‘and thereby sets individual rights outside the reach of rationalization’. Religion, in this context, stops our thinking from becoming too narrow or domineering.

Robinson is a debunker of lazy ideologies. She is incensed by the reductionist assumptions implicit in so much contemporary thought. Evolutionary psychology, for example, focusses its attention on the adaptations it claims allowed human beings to survive on the primordial savannah – but marginalises everything else about us. For Robinson, our humanity consists in the fact that we do more than survive. ‘This kind of thinking places everything remarkable about us in the category “accidental”.’

So yes, I’m recommending it. But even more so, I’d recommend Gilead.

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There is an informative, positive and completely uncynical article in yesterday’s Times by Ruth Gledhill about how more and more women from the UK are entering religious orders. For those of you without a Times subscription it’s reprinted here in the Australian.

The attraction of religious life to young women today

First of all she looks at the figures:

UNTIL recently, nuns in Britain had fallen out of the habit. In parts of the country, years went by without any women seeking to get themselves to a nunnery. Then, suddenly, convents have reported a spike in interest.

It is not huge in numbers; but in significance it is of a new order. In the past three years the number of women entering the religious life has nearly tripled from six to 17 and there are also many more who have entered convents but have not not yet taken their initial vows. This influx is thought to be a result of the Pope’s visit to Britain last year. Such has been the sudden surge in inquiries that religious orders have had to ask bishops how to cope, so unused to receiving new vocations have they become, and so accepting of the received wisdom that, with many convents closing and being sold off, their way of life was likely to be coming to an end.

Now, if these inquiries result in more women taking their vows and becoming novices, numbers could edge back up to where they were in the early 1980s, when more than a hundred women a year took vows as sisters in enclosed and other religious orders.

This week, the media have reported that even a former girlfriend of the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has become a nun called Sister John Mary. “I thought of marriage … then God called,” Laura Adshead, 44, told a television documentary about the Benedectine order she joined, the Abbey of Regina Laudis in the Connecticut hills in the US.

Father Christopher Jamison, director of the National Office for Vocation, adds some comments:

Many people today, especially the young, find it difficult to listen to their deepest spiritual desires, so the Church needs to offer a structured approach to vocation if the call of Christ is to be heard by more people.

It’s against a background that’s surprisingly upbeat given the general perception of the state of the clergy and religious life in this country. In the last few years, the number of people applying to seminaries has been gradually increasing and, in more recent years, just in the last couple of years, ever since the Papal visit, the number of women approaching women’s congregations has also been increasing.

[It was not fully reflected yet in the figures because it takes time from an initial approach to become a novice, said Father Jamison]. But it is certainly more than anecdotal. There are congregations of women who have been contacting us to say, ‘Could you help us because it’s been a while since we’ve had this sort of response’, and so we are now happily supporting them in dealing with an increase.

Judith Eydmann, development co-ordinator of the National Office for Vocation, gives some interpretation:

“For young women it is not just the life that is attractive. They feel that it is what Christ has called them to, the total dedication of their lives to the service of God. We have moved away from a model of recruitment to one of discernment and that gives people a safe environment in which they can make safe choices.”

She says new Catholic movements such as Youth 2000 have been key to the increase. Among the general Catholic population of more than five million across the UK, about 10 per cent have had contact with new movements but among those entering monasteries, convents and seminaries, the proportion is 50 per cent. In a further new development, one in five of the new vocations are converts to Catholicism, compared with the 1970s when nearly all those seeking to become priests, monks or nuns were cradle Catholics.

And here is Ruth Gledhill’s uncynical and unironic signing off:

Whether these newly formed nuns are finding God, or God is finding them, the religious life is coming back into fashion as one that offers not so much riches, but a way of life exemplified by courage, wisdom and serenity – not bad for women who might be tempted to think they haven’t a prayer.

The only puzzle is why the huge photograph advertising the article on the cover page of Times 2 is clearly of a model posing as a nun – it’s way too posed, and the habit and crucifix are complemented by plenty of lip-gloss and eye-liner. Why didn’t they take the trouble to find a photograph of a real nun? That’s not a criticism of the article, just a question!

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Are you, at least in relation to most of the human population, WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic)? Then it’s likely that culturally and politically you are a left-leaning liberal whose highest values are autonomy, self-realisation, social justice and fairness. And you are probably suspicious when people appeal to religion, human nature or the well-being of any non-inclusive group to justify their values and political agenda.

David Goodhart reviews The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.

Haidt is a liberal who wants his political tribe to understand humans better. His main insight is simple but powerful: liberals understand only two main moral dimensions, whereas conservatives understand all five. (Over the course of the book he decides to add a sixth, liberty/oppression, but for simplicity’s sake I am sticking to his original five.)

Liberals care about harm and suffering (appealing to our capacities for sympathy and nurturing) and fairness and injustice. All human cultures care about these two things but they also care about three other things: loyalty to the in-group, authority and the sacred.

As Haidt puts it: “It’s as though conservatives can hear five octaves of music, but liberals respond to just two, within which they have become particularly discerning.” This does not mean that liberals are necessarily wrong but it does mean that they have more trouble understanding conservatives than vice versa.

The sacred is especially difficult for liberals to understand. This isn’t necessarily about religion but about the idea that humans have a nobler, more spiritual side and that life has a higher purpose than pleasure or profit. If your only moral concepts are suffering and injustice then it is hard to understand reservations about everything from swearing in public to gay marriage—after all, who is harmed?

Haidt and his colleagues have not just plucked these moral senses from the air. He explains the evolutionary roots of the different senses from a close reading of the literature but has also then tested them in internet surveys and face to face interviews in many different places around the world.

Morality “binds and blinds,” which is why it has made it possible for human beings, alone in the animal kingdom, to produce large co-operative groups, tribes and nations beyond the glue of kinship. Haidt’s central metaphor is that we are 90 per cent chimp and 10 per cent bee—we are driven by the “selfish gene” but, under special circumstances, we also have the ability to become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group. These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives.

One of my most politically liberal friends read this book and declared his world view to be transformed. Not that he was no longer a liberal but now “he couldn’t be so rude about the other side, because I understand where they’re coming from.” This will be music to Haidt’s ears as the book was written partly as an antidote to the more polarised American politics of the past 20 years, marked by the arrival of Bill Clinton and the liberal baby boomers onto the political stage.

The American culture wars began earlier, back in the 1960s, with young liberals angry at the suffering in Vietnam and the injustice still experienced by African-Americans. But when some of them adopted a style that was anti-American, anti-authority and anti-puritanical, conservatives saw their most sacred values desecrated and they counter-attacked.

Some conflicts are unavoidable and Haidt is not suggesting that liberals should stop being liberal—rather, that they will be more successful if instead of telling conservatives that their moral intuitions are wrong, they seek to shift them in a liberal direction by accommodating, as far as possible, their anxieties.

I’m not sure about this. It suggests that those on the right – politically and culturally – have a bigger, better, clearer and richer view of the complexity of human life and motivation, and that those with a liberal mentality focus on too narrow a range of social values. But if a more naturally conservative thinker fails, say, to be troubled by income disparity or the possession of first-strike nuclear weapons, doesn’t this reveal a moral blind-spot or a failure to recognise certain fundamental social values? Or at least, wouldn’t someone on the left think that?

It also suggests that those on the left are less likely to be religious – and we disproved this in a recent post.

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Whenever there is a media debate about morality, social values, the culture wars, etc, it’s often assumed that the religious voice is a so-called ‘conservative’ one. But the recent Faithful Citizens report from the think-tank Demos presents evidence that people who belong to religious groups are instead more likely to take a left-of-centre position on a range of political issues. There are implications for Cameron’s Big Society too, as people of faith are more likely to volunteer and be politically engaged.

This is from the Demos website:

Religiosity has always been closely associated with conservatism: the Church of England is sometimes described as ‘the Conservative party at prayer’. In the United States, the Republican party and the religious right have become increasingly interdependent, but a similar trend has not occurred on this side of the Atlantic. This report, based on original analysis of the Citizenship Survey and the European Values Survey, investigates the different relationship between religion and politics in the UK and Europe.

The report presents two key findings. First, religious people are more active citizens – they volunteer more, donate more to charity and are more likely to campaign on political issues. Second, and more counter-intuitively, religious people are more likely to be politically progressive. They put a greater value on equality than the non-religious, are more likely to be welcoming of immigrants as neighbours and when asked are more likely to put themselves on the left of the political spectrum.

Based on this, Faithful Citizens recommends that progressive politicians should work with faith groups on issues which they are particularly engaged, including immigration, women’s rights, international development, the environment and youth work. Faith group members, the report argues, will be key to any future, election-winning, progressive coalition.

Jamie Doward writes:

The report found that 55% of people with faith placed themselves on the left of politics, compared with 40% who placed themselves on the right. The report also suggests that people with faith are more likely to value equality over freedom than their non-religious counterparts. It discloses that 41% of people with religious views prioritise equality over freedom, compared with 36% of those without faith.

The report, based on an analysis of the European Values Study, also finds evidence that people who belong to a religious organisation are more likely to say they are very interested in politics, to have signed a petition and to have participated in a demonstration.

The psychologist Oliver James got the debate going by suggesting that religious people are less likely to be left-wing than others, but this doesn’t seem to follow.

The writer and philosopher Alain de Botton – whose latest book, Religion for Atheists, examines the consolations of faith for those who do not believe – argues that the internal dynamics of religions often confer progressive views on their followers, who find themselves at odds with today’s free-market society.

“The progressive side of religion springs from their frequent reminders to live for others and to concentrate more on the wellbeing of the group than on the happiness of the individual,” de Botton said. “In this sense, religions run counter to the implicit philosophy of modern consumer capitalism.”

I haven’t read the de Botton book. He seems to be saying, putting it more simply, that religious people are on the whole less selfish than non-religious people, and that less selfish people are more likely to be progressive/left-leaning/anti-capitalist. Do you agree?  I’m sure there are one or two non-religious people, and one or two conservative/right-leaning/pro-capitalist people, who would like to take issue with these assumptions.

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We celebrated ‘Tenebrae’ this morning in the college chapel, which consisted of the Office of Readings for Holy Saturday, with an additional longer reading, combined with Morning Prayer.

Detail from the 12th century Byzantine mosaic of the Last Judgement in Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello. The photographer writes: 'I love the way in which keys are scattered around the broken doors of hell, as though there have been many unsuccessful attempts to open them previously'.

Many of you have probably seen the remarkable Second Reading for Holy Saturday before, about the Lord’s descent into hell. Just in case you haven’t, here it is. I don’t know the author, or anything about it’s background. It’s just entitled ‘a reading from an ancient homily for Holy Saturday’. If you do know anything else about it, please do post in the comment box.

What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.

Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam’s son.

The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: ‘My Lord be with you all.’ And Christ in reply says to Adam: ‘And with your spirit.’ And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.

‘I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise.

‘I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.

‘For you, I your God became your son; for you, I the Master took on your form; that of slave; for you, I who am above the heavens came on earth and under the earth; for you, man, I became as a man without help, free among the dead; for you, who left a garden, I was handed over to Jews from a garden and crucified in a garden.

‘Look at the spittle on my face, which I received because of you, in order to restore you to that first divine inbreathing at creation. See the blows on my cheeks, which I accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own image.

‘See the scourging of my back, which I accepted in order to disperse the load of your sins which was laid upon your back. See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one.

`I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side, for you, who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you.

‘But arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now I myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now I make the cherubim worship you as they would God.

“The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages.”

The final prayer reads:

Almighty, ever-living God, whose Only-begotten Son descended to the realm of the dead, and rose from there to glory, grant that your faithful people, who were buried with him in baptism, may, by his resurrection, obtain eternal life. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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You might be sick to death of media discussions about same-sex marriage, but just in case you need a bit more background and food for thought, here is the latest briefing paper from Catholic Voices. (There is a link to the paper in the 5th paragraph here.) Despite the ‘Catholic Voices’ label, it doesn’t try to argue against redefining marriage from a religious point of view; instead it appeals to a vision of how marriage as presently understood serves the common good of society – for people of no faith as much as for people of faith; and it argues that redefining marriage will harm the whole of society and not just the religious groups that might be promised some kind of ‘exemption’.

Here are a few choice paragraphs. First, on the implications of the redefinition for society as a whole:

It is also inadequate to assert, as does the gay rights lobby Stonewall, that “if Roman Catholics don’t approve of same-sex marriage, they should make sure they don’t get married to someone of the same sex.”  The question of whether marriage should be redefined such that its meaning and nature cease to be conjugal is a one which affects the whole of society; and a matter on which all people – whether gay or straight, married or unmarried, religious or unreligious – are entitled to express a view.  Marriage has an intrinsic cultural and social meaning – a conjugal meaning – which is not specific to religious understandings of marriage, although religion gives it extra meaning. Whether entered by the religious or the civil route, marriage is marriage; its intrinsic conjugal meaning will need to be rejected in order to allow same-sex marriage.

Second, on the impoverished vision of marriage being presented in the re-definition:

When the Prime Minister, David Cameron, last year addressed his party’s conference, his justification for legalising gay marriage differed from that of his Equalities Minister. “Yes, it’s about equality,” he said, “but it’s also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other.” This frame allowed him to claim that he did not support gay marriage “despite” but “because of” being a Conservative.

Similarly, the liberal-conservative Economist asserted that “the real nature of marriage … is a binding commitment, at once legal, social and personal, between two people to take on special obligations to one another.” The magazine went on to ask: “If homosexuals want to make such marital commitments to one another, and to society, then why should they be prevented from doing so while other adults, equivalent in all other ways, are allowed to do so?”

This same truncated thinking underlies the Government’s consultation paper, which gives as one of its “principles for change” the following statement: “The Government recognises that the commitment made between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman, in a civil partnership is as significant as the commitment between a man and a woman in a civil marriage.”

These definitions of marriage as merely an expression of commitment between two individuals are severely truncated: as Archbishop Vincent Nichols has pointed out, “equality and commitment do not amount to marriage”. The quotes above make no reference to the key element in the conjugal understanding of marriage which has permeated our culture and history and which – as our poll shows – remains widespread. Unlike the Prime Minister, most people see marriage as a union of a man and a woman for the sake of the bearing and nurturing of children (even if children do not always result). This conjugal understanding of marriage is not just marriage’s real meaning; it is also the reason it is respected and promoted by the state.

Then a passage about the importance of marriage for the common good:

Marriage’s importance to society rests on three premises:

  1. The family is the founding unit of civil society
  2. At the heart of the family is the sexual union of a man and a woman given to each other for their sake and for the good of their children;
  3. Marriage provides the ideal, irreplaceable environment for the raising of children, who benefit psychologically, emotionally, and in countless other ways by being brought up by their mother and father.

Marriage has many “goods” – emotional commitment and stability among them. But the reason the state promotes marriage is because of its link to, and benefits for, children. These benefits are inextricably bound up with the conjugal union of man and a woman, who become mother and father to the children they generate. Other arrangements for bringing up children are not promoted and legitimised by the state because, however loving the carers, they are far less beneficial. Children brought up by divorced or single parents, by adopted parents or by relatives, by same-sex couples or in foster homes, are all missing something essential to their well-being; and that is why society (and the state) do not promote and institutionalise such arrangements. For while there are bad marriages and bad families, and sad cases where children are abused by their parents, the overwhelming, unchanging norm is that a child raised by his or her mother and father stands the best chance in life. It is not simply the presence of two parents of opposite genders, but the presence of two biological parents, that best supports children’s development – and this is something recognised, as our survey shows, by 84 per cent of British people.

Although marriage is indissolubly linked to children, it is not simply a means for procreation. Couples who cannot for some reason reproduce can still be married: both Church and state accept that a marriage exists as long as it can be consummated – that is, as long as the behavioural conditions for procreation can be fulfilled.

Marriage is singled out and promoted by state, religion, and civil society, because it serves a far-reaching social good – the welfare of children. No compelling case exists for the state recognising same-sex (or other, non-marital) relationships in the same way as it supports marriage.

And finally, on how a redefinition would impact on everyone, and not just on the gay couples who would choose to ‘marry’ in this way:

One thing is clear: the redefinition which the Government proposes would require the state renouncing the conjugal understanding of marriage. Because society takes its cue from laws and the state, that redefinition will send a clear message that the state no longer holds to that conjugal understanding. The implication will be that the union of husband and wife is not, after all, a privileged context for the upbringing of a child. No kind of arrangement for the rearing of children can any longer be proposed by the state (and therefore society) as an ideal.

To suggest otherwise will in time be considered narrow-minded and intolerant. The very terms “husband and wife”, “mother and father”, would need to disappear from public and educational literature to avoid “exclusive” or “intolerant” language. The redefinition of marriage will require the cultural dethroning of the conjugal ideal. This is not a smaller matter for future generations of children, whose interests risk being sacrificed on the altar of an ideological view that same-sex relationships are as worthy as heterosexual ones of being upheld by the state. “Redefining marriage will have huge implications for what is taught in our schools, and for wider society. It will redefine society since the institution of marriage is one of the fundamental building blocks of society. The repercussions of enacting same-sex marriage into law will be immense” [Cardinal Keith O'Brien].

Losing the idea of gender complementarity as necessary for children will also have consequences. “Having two opposite-sex parents provides the child with the capacity to relate intimately to both males and females, and to adopt an engendered role from both influences … It is not in any child’s best interests to choose, through a redefinition of marriage, deliberately to deny these facts and then to institutionalise this denial” [Archbishop Peter Smith]. As the columnist Matthew Parris, who is gay, writes: “I am glad I had both a mother and a father, and that as after childhood I was to spend my life among both men and women, and as men and women are not the same, I would have missed something if I had not learned first about the world from, and with, both a woman and a man, and in the love of both.”

Do read the whole text, which partly deals with some of the objections that you might be raising as you read these summary paragraphs. There is a link to the paper in this report.

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We’ve just finished our half-term break, and for various random reasons I spent the week North of the Watford Gap, an exhilarating experience for a southerner.

Due praise, before anything else, to the Victorian engineers and railway men whose vision and graft allowed me to travel from London to Elgin (near Inverness) on – in effect – an unbroken piece of track, via Lancaster, Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh, Leuchars (for St Andrews), Dundee and Aberdeen.

OK, I didn't travel on a stream train - but this captures some of the romance...

You could tell I was in that trainspotter’s twilight zone by the wad of rail tickets stuffed into my wallet. There was a magic moment in Lancaster when I was sorting through them to find the time of the next train to Manchester, and one of my friends who would be on the ‘danger zone’ end of the geekiness scale when it comes to all things public transport couldn’t resist swanning up beside me to note how many journeys I had timetabled for one holiday trip. I impressed myself that I managed to impress him.

Anyway, it wasn’t for love of trains that I set off, but – more or less – for love of the faith. Last Saturday, as I wrote about earlier, was the ordination of John Millar, one of our seminarians, at Lancaster Cathedral; with a great crowd of friends, family, parishioners, priests and fellow seminarians.

That afternoon I got to Leeds, via Manchester, for the evening event of the ‘Love@Leeds’ Youth 2000 retreat for young adults. It was the first time a Youth 2000 retreat had been held in the city, and by all accounts it was a huge success. Notre Dame Catholic Sixth Form College proved to be a great venue. The school hall provided a dignified place for the worship and services (the chapel would have been far too small), and the dining room was a place not just to eat but to socialise and talk the night away.

For the Reconciliation Service (with individual confessions) and Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament that evening there were over 200 young people there, mainly of university age; and I’d guess that a good 150 stayed over for the talks and Mass the following day.

After a couple of days to myself in Edinburgh (I’d never been before) I went to St Andrews as a guest of the Catholic Chaplaincy. I did all the touristy stuff, and went down on one knee to pat the 18th green (it’s all public). I’m not big into golf, but I wanted to experience the moment and have something to tell my golfing friends.

It was great to be in the chaplaincy there, and to meet the students and Fr Andrew the chaplain and parish priest. It has been a powerhouse for vocations over the years, as well as being just a friendly and solid formative environment for young Catholics; and I have known many priests who studied at St Andrews and identify it as the place where their vocation really crystallised.

My talk was entitled, ‘Is there a difference between human happiness and Christian joy?’ I’ll try to post about my reflections sometime soon.

Then, after a huge cooked breakfast in my B&B, I got the train to Aberdeen, had time for a brief look at the Catholic Cathedral, where Abbot Hugh Gilbert has recently been installed as bishop; and ended my journey at Pluscarden Abbey, where Bishop Hugh was from, to catch up with two old friends who are now ‘juniors’ in the monastery. It was my first visit, and I want to post about that later as well, to give it some proper space on the blog.

So that’s my week! Praise to the rail network, which was cheap, and mostly on time. And praise, above all, to the vitality of Catholic life in this country – which is the main reason for posting. An ordination of a man in his young twenties in Lancaster, giving his life to the Lord and to the service of God’s people. A powerful retreat for university students in the heart of Leeds, who chose to be there to deepen their faith when there are so many other pulls on their time and attention. A Catholic chaplaincy, forming its students, sustaining them, as it has done for many years. And a thriving Benedictine monastery in a place of breathtaking beauty that is simply doing what it has always done, and for that reason attracting young men to join it.

Thank God for these wonderful signs of faith in Britain!

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Liberal, conservative, progressive, traditionalist: Where is the Church going? The answer, according to John Allen in his post-World Youth Day reflections, is that the Church is going evangelical.

World Youth Day, Toronto 2002

‘Evangelical Catholicism’ is his preferred term to capture our 21st century struggles over Catholic identity, where the political categories of left and right, progressive and conservative, simply don’t make sense any more (if they ever did).

Let me quote a large chunk. It’s well worth reflecting on. He writes:

I define Evangelical Catholicism in terms of three pillars:

  • A strong defense of traditional Catholic identity, meaning attachment to classic markers of Catholic thought (doctrinal orthodoxy) and Catholic practice (liturgical tradition, devotional life, and authority).
  • Robust public proclamation of Catholic teaching, with the accent on Catholicism’s mission ad extra, transforming the culture in light of the Gospel, rather than ad intra, on internal church reform.
  • Faith seen as a matter of personal choice rather than cultural inheritance, which among other things implies that in a highly secular culture, Catholic identity can never be taken for granted. It always has to be proven, defended, and made manifest.

I consciously use the term “Evangelical” to capture all this rather than “conservative,” even though I recognize that many people experience what I’ve just sketched as a conservative impulse. Fundamentally, however, it’s about something else: the hunger for identity in a fragmented world.

Historically speaking, Evangelical Catholicism isn’t really “conservative,” because there’s precious little cultural Catholicism these days left to conserve. For the same reason, it’s not traditionalist, even though it places a premium upon tradition. If liberals want to dialogue with post-modernity, Evangelicals want to convert it – but neither seeks a return to a status quo ante. Many Evangelical Catholics actually welcome secularization, because it forces religion to be a conscious choice rather than a passive inheritance. As the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris, the dictionary definition of an Evangelical Catholic, once put it, “We’re really at the dawn of Christianity.”

Paradoxically, this eagerness to pitch orthodox Catholicism as the most satisfying entrée on the post-modern spiritual smorgasbord, using the tools and tactics of a media-saturated global village, makes Evangelical Catholicism both traditional and contemporary all at once.

Evangelical from the Bottom Up

“Evangelical Catholicism” has been the dominant force at the policy-setting level of the Catholic church since the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978. If you want to understand Catholic officialdom today — why decisions are being made the way they are in the Vatican, or in the U.S. bishops’ conference, or in an ever-increasing number of dioceses — this is easily the most important trend to wrap your mind around.

You’ll get Evangelical Catholicism badly wrong, however, if you think of it exclusively as a top-down movement. There’s also a strong bottom-up component, which is most palpable among a certain segment of the younger Catholic population.

We’re not talking about the broad mass of twenty- and thirty-something Catholics, who are all over the map in terms of beliefs and values. Instead, we’re talking about that inner core of actively practicing young Catholics who are most likely to discern a vocation to the priesthood or religious life, most likely to enroll in graduate programs of theology, and most likely to pursue a career in the church as a lay person — youth ministers, parish life coordinators, liturgical ministers, diocesan officials, and so on. In that sub-segment of today’s younger Catholic population, there’s an Evangelical energy so thick you can cut it with a knife.

Needless to say, the groups I’ve just described constitute the church’s future leadership.

Once upon a time, the idea that the younger generation of intensely committed Catholics was more “conservative” belonged to the realm of anecdotal impressions. By now, it’s an iron-clad empirical certainty.

Case in point: A 2009 study carried out by Georgetown’s Center of Applied Research in the Apostolate, and sponsored by the National Religious Vocations Conference, found a marked contrast between new members of religious orders in the United States today (the “millennial generation”) and the old guard. In general, younger religious, both men and women, are more likely to prize fidelity to the church and to pick a religious order on the basis of its reputation for fidelity; they’re more interested in wearing the habit, and in traditional modes of spiritual and liturgical expression; and they’re much more positively inclined toward authority.

To gauge which way the winds are blowing, consider women’s orders. The study found that among those which belong to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, considered the more “liberal” umbrella group, just one percent have at least ten new members; among those which belong to the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, seen as the more “conservative” group, a robust 28 percent have at least ten new members.

For the most part, it’s a mistake to diagnose this trend in ideological terms, as if it’s about the politics of left vs. right. For today’s younger Catholics, it’s more a matter of generational experience. They didn’t grow up in a stuffy, all-controlling church, so they’re not rebelling against it. Instead, they’re rebelling against a rootless secular world, making them eager to embrace clear markers of identity and sources of meaning.

Among youth, Evangelical Catholicism usually becomes ideological only if the older generation paints them into a corner, demanding that they choose sides in the church’s internal battles. That tendency, alas, seems equally pronounced on the left and the right.

Most of this fits with my experience of the Church over recent years. What do you think? 

Perhaps this also gives one interpretative key to the recent introduction of the new translation of the Mass, and the promotion of Friday abstinence – to see them not as victories for the ‘conservatives’ but as concrete manifestations of this evangelical impulse within the Catholic Church today.

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Geothermal map of the Netherlands!

Many Dutch Christians are letting go of traditional beliefs, but holding onto the idea that there is ‘something’ out there, something just above the surface of reality, something more. Robert Pigott explains:

Professor Hijme Stoffels of the VU University Amsterdam says it is in such concepts as love that people base their diffuse ideas of religion.

“In our society it’s called ‘somethingism’,” he says. “There must be ‘something’ between heaven and earth, but to call it ‘God’, and even ‘a personal God’, for the majority of Dutch is a bridge too far.

“Christian churches are in a market situation. They can offer their ideas to a majority of the population which is interested in spirituality or some kind of religion.”

To compete in this market of ideas, some Christian groups seem ready virtually to reinvent Christianity.

They want the Netherlands to be a laboratory for Christianity, experimenting with radical new ways of understanding the faith.

Much of this is led by the Dutch clergy, many of whom are professed agnostics or atheists.

The Rev Klaas Hendrikse can offer his congregation little hope of life after death, and he’s not the sort of man to sugar the pill.

An imposing figure in black robes and white clerical collar, Mr Hendrikse presides over the Sunday service at the Exodus Church in Gorinchem, central Holland.

It is part of the mainstream Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN), and the service is conventional enough, with hymns, readings from the Bible, and the Lord’s Prayer. But the message from Mr Hendrikse’s sermon seems bleak – “Make the most of life on earth, because it will probably be the only one you get”.

“Personally I have no talent for believing in life after death,” Mr Hendrikse says. “No, for me our life, our task, is before death.”

Nor does Klaas Hendrikse believe that God exists at all as a supernatural thing.

“When it happens, it happens down to earth, between you and me, between people, that’s where it can happen. God is not a being at all… it’s a word for experience, or human experience.”

Mr Hendrikse describes the Bible’s account of Jesus’s life as a mythological story about a man who may never have existed, even if it is a valuable source of wisdom about how to lead a good life.

His book Believing in a Non-Existent God led to calls from more traditionalist Christians for him to be removed. However, a special church meeting decided his views were too widely shared among church thinkers for him to be singled out.

A study by the Free University of Amsterdam found that one-in-six clergy in the PKN and six other smaller denominations was either agnostic or atheist.

None of this is new. When I was studying theology as an undergraduate in the 1980s (before going to seminary) various versions of this ‘agnostic Christianity’ were on offer. I wonder whether the attraction this kind of worldview is rising or declining in our present culture in Britain.

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If, despite the Resurrection, you still need a boost, try these ‘Ten keys to happier living’ from the Action for Happiness campaign.

It’s easy to mock this kind of project (as banal, twee, patronising, ineffective, etc) and I don’t know what effect it will actually have – perhaps about as much as those posters on the buses that tell you not to eat smelly food or play loud music – but as you know I’m a sucker for these self-help summaries, and I like the fact that it’s an attempt to question why the materials gains we have made in the West over the last two generations have not increased our happiness.

It’s happiness as self-fulfilment by not seeking self-fulfilment; self-help by not seeking to help the self but by looking beyond the self; happiness as something that stems from your subjective approach to your situation and not just from the objective facts about the situation into which you are unwillingly thrust. Lots of truth here; together with the risk of Pelagianism – salvation by personal striving.

Take a look at the accompanying video: 

Here is their understanding of happiness:

We all want to live happy and fulfilling lives and we want the people we love to be happy too. So happiness matters to all of us.

Happiness is about our lives as a whole: it includes the fluctuating feelings we experience everyday but also our overall satisfaction with life. It is influenced by our genes, upbringing and our external circumstances – such as our health, our work and our financial situation. But crucially it is also heavily influenced by our choices – our inner attitudes, how we approach our relationships, our personal values and our sense of purpose.

There are many things in life that matter to us – including health, freedom, autonomy and achievement. But if we ask why they matter we can generally give further answers – for example, that they make people feel better or more able to enjoy their lives. But if we ask why it matters if people feel better, we can give no further answer. It is self-evidently desirable. Our overall happiness – how we feel about our lives – is what matters to us most.

In recent years there have been substantial advances in the science of well-being with a vast array of new evidence as to the factors that affect happiness and ways in which we can measure happiness more accurately. We now have an opportunity to use this evidence to make better choices and to increase well-being in our personal lives, homes, schools, workplaces and communities.

The research shows that we need a change of priorities, both at the societal level and as individuals. Happiness and fulfilment come less from material wealth and more from relationships; less from focussing on ourselves and more from helping others; less from external factors outside our control and more from the way in which we choose to react to what happens to us.

See our Recommended Reading list for useful books which summarise some of the recent scientific findings in an accessible way.

And here is the motivation of the movement:

Action for Happiness is a movement of people committed to building a happier society. We want to see a fundamentally different way of life where people care less about what they can get for themselves and more about the happiness of others.

We are bringing together like-minded people from all walks of life, drawing on the latest scientific research and backed by leading experts from the fields of psychology, education, economics, social innovation and beyond.

Members of the movement make a simple pledge: to try to create more happiness in the world around them through the way they approach their lives. We provide practical ideas to enable people to take action in different areas of their lives – at home, at work or in the community. We hope many of our members will form local groups to take action together.

We have no religious, political or commercial affiliations and welcome people of all faiths (or none) and all parts of society. We were founded in 2010 by three influential figures who are passionate about creating a happier society: Richard Layard, Geoff Mulgan and Anthony Seldon.

What do you think? The last part of the ‘scientifically proven’ wish-list is especially interesting: ‘Meaning: Be part of something bigger’. Does it matter what that something is? Or whether it is true?

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It’s the second year that the Wintershall team has staged the Passion of Jesus in Trafalgar Square on Good Friday. Last year I posted about how powerful it was to see this religious drama unfolding in the secular spaces of central London – the pigeons, the buses, Nelson’s Column towering above, Big Ben in the distance, and the narrative punctuated by the scream of police sirens every few minutes. This is exactly what Jerusalem must have been like in the madness of Holy Week two thousand years ago. Well, take out Nelson and the buses and Big Ben and the sirens…

The play was even better than last year. It wasn’t just the glorious weather – although that certainly helped; or the screen – which made a huge difference. It felt tighter, more focussed. I don’t know if the script had been changed, or if it was just because the staging area seemed more restricted, or because it was the second year.

One or two moments stood out for me. First, when Simon of Cyrene was pulled out of the crowd by the soldiers to carry Jesus’s cross (just like last year) his wife raced after him – I presume it was his wife, sitting beside him in the audience. Or maybe I just missed this last year.

She was terrified that her husband was being dragged into the violence and mayhem of the Jerusalem/London streets – which he was. She circled round the edge of the crowd, desperate to help her husband and spare him this ordeal, not knowing where it would end, terrified that he might be crucified himself if he arrived at the place of execution with the cross on his shoulders. It was a lovely touch.

It reminded me that Simon of Cyrene – and all the others involved – are not just ‘characters’ who exist in some kind of suspended biblical animation, they are people with relatives and friends and colleagues and neighbours. It made me think of the relatives of all those who have even been kidnapped, tortured, murdered and forgotten – those who perhaps live with the agony far longer than those who perpetuate the crime and even those who suffer it. The Gospel narrative is so much more than the people who are actually mentioned by name.

The second moment was unintentional. When Jesus first appeared after his resurrection, and spoke to Mary Magdalene, the audience started clapping! It was so not appropriate – it completely broke the dramatic spell – but at another level it was so beautiful, and so British! Jesus appears; the Son of God comes among us in all his glory; the Risen Saviour is in our midst. We’ve got to do something! We’d like to scream or weep or fall flat on our faces in worship and adoration. But we’re British, and we don’t do these things in public, and the only visible display of approval or mild emotion we are able to make around strangers is to clap, politely, as if we are applauding a boundary at Lord’s or a dull after-dinner speech. It was marvellous. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead – and we clapped!

Last year I wrote about Jesus’s exit at the end of the play:

And right at the end, after the Resurrection, Jesus stepped through the crowd in his white garments as the audience was applauding. He didn’t take a bow. He walked up towards the National Gallery, across the top of Leicester Square, and into the streets beyond. I followed him, while the post-production congratulations were taking place in the square behind us.

That image of Jesus turning the corner into Charing Cross Road is what made the whole play for me: the figure of Christ, walking into the madness of London; without the protection of a director, a cast, a script, an appreciative audience; fading into the blur of billboards and buses and taxis; an unknown man walking into the crowd…

This year, a similar thing happened, but because of the weather the crowd was thicker and in no mood to let Jesus go. When he got to the top of the steps in front of the National Gallery, as Archbishop Vincent was saying thank you to the organisers, dozens of people crowded round him – just happy to see him close up.

And what did they want? Photos! So there was Jesus, smiling for the cameras – holding a child who had been lifted up for him; then with his arms around some friends as they peered into the lens; then standing in the middle of a large group for the camera. He was happy and obliging; in no rush; with a huge grin on his face. Obviously enjoying the people, and enjoying their joy in meeting him.

At first I thought: the play is over, the spell is broken, and the actor is quite rightly taking his bow. But then I thought: No, this is still very real. If Jesus were walking through Trafalgar Square today, would we be taking photos? Of course we would! Or put it the other way round, if people had had cameras back then, ordinary people who loved him and were delighted to catch a glimpse of him, would Jesus have marched away with a frown on his face, telling them to take life more seriously and to let go of these worldly gadgets? I don’t think so. He was, above all, kind. He met people where they were. He loved the ordinary and sometimes stupid things that they loved – as long as they were without sin. He would have stopped for photos.

Seeing this actor smile for the cameras – a warm, genuine, affectionate smile – didn’t create any disjunction in my mind with the Jesus he had just been playing. Quite the opposite – it helped me realise something about the kindness and humanity of this Jesus, and made me wonder even more about what it would be like if he were to walk the streets today.

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Last night I filled in the 2011 Census form. It was a fairly quick and boring procedure, punctuated with one or two unexpected moments of existential and theological crisis.

Question 15. Not ‘What is your national identity?’ but ‘How would you describe your national identity?’ I automatically filled in British rather than English, not because I feel more British than English, but because I’m used to filling in forms that want to know the objective/legal answer, i.e. what is on your passport. But then I realised when I checked over the whole form at the end that it said Tick all that apply (it made all the double-checking I’ve ever done in my life worth it!) So it now says English plus British; but the psychoanalysts and sociologists interpreting my input will never know which I ticked first – which is the most telling point – unless they are reading this blog.

Question 16. ‘What is your ethnic group?’ rather than ‘How would you describe your ethnic group’ – as if national identity (Q15) is something subjective and self-chosen but ethnicity (Q16) is something more objective. Again, I struggled here. I’m 1/4 English, 1/4 Scottish and 1/2 Chinese in terms of ethnic roots. The only given box I could tick was B#3 White and Asian – but the Chinese element is important to me (subjectively) and makes me quite distinct from someone from India or Japan (objectively).

So I ticked B#4 Any other Mixed/multiple ethnic background, and wrote in ‘White and Chinese’. But then I realised I could equally have put ‘Chinese and White’ in that box, or I could have gone onto box C#4 instead (Any other Asian background) and written the same answer there (‘Chinese and White’). And objectively speaking I am just as much Chinese and White as White and Chinese.

I’m torn here. I want to give both answers, to show that I am not giving more objective weight to the Chinese or White – in terms of ethnicity. But I am only allowed to choose one section. And if I tick both, as a sort of existential protest about the limitations being imposed on my self-understanding, then will I have to pay the fine, or do the whole form again?

Question 20. ‘What is your religion?’ A voluntary question, that has only one box for ‘Christian (including Church of England, Catholic, Protestant and all other Christian denominations)’. I understand how it’s a good thing, sociologically and theologically, not to treat these Christian groups as different religions; but it would have been interesting to know the details for C of E, Catholic, Protestant, etc – if you are going to do this kind of question; or to add an extra line to say ‘What Christian group (or church or denomination…) do you belong to?’ or whatever.

Question 35. Now we move into theology proper. Q34 was easy – I put ‘Roman Catholic priest’ as my job title. Even though it is much more than a job (it’s a vocation, a calling, a part of who I am) – I think this is a fair stab at what they are asking. But Q35 asks Briefly describe what you do in your main job. How do you do that in 34 characters? That’s characters not words! I wanted to get some great theological summary of the priestly ministry in here, but in the end I copped out and put ‘pastoral ministry’. Now, after reflection, I think I should have put ‘priestly ministry’, because many laity are involved in pastoral ministry; but it’s too late.

Question 37. This is the one that brought me to a state of existential and theological paralysis (you can tell it was quite a traumatic evening). ‘What is the main activity of your employer or business?’ Saving souls? Heaven? Proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord? Sanctification? Building the Kingdom? Filling the pews? 

Instead, I ducked, and gave a bureaucratic answer, as if to address the slightly different question of ‘what kind of “business” is your employer involved in?’ – and I wrote ‘Religion’. I know. It’s weak. It’s a lost opportunity for witness. And it’s not really true. The Church isn’t about ‘doing’ religion; it’s about faith, hope, charity; adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, supplication; justice, peace and love; the worship of God and the witness of life; the renewal and recapitulation of all things in Christ; and many, many other beautiful things – none of which made my census form.

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It was interesting to note that two megastars from the secular worlds of football and film/TV – Carlo Ancelotti and Martin Sheen – were both happy to talk about their Christian faith in public in London last week. I don’t think it was a coordinated plan of evangelisation, but it might be a small sign that it’s becoming slightly more acceptable to ‘do God’ in public these days.

Martin Sheen playing President Bartlet in The West Wing

First, Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti, gave this interview with Simon Johnson in the Evening Standard:

Still, at times like these one wonders how the 51-year-old continues to cope living under such intense scrutiny.

Some cynics will look at his £6million-a-year salary as motivation enough, yet the Italian has found greater comfort in his religious beliefs rather than his bank balance.

“I am a Catholic, like 99 per cent of people from Italy, and I think my faith has helped keep me strong,” he tells me. “Sometimes religion helps you. I don’t have time to go to church but I pray every day.

“I get comfort from praying. Obviously I don’t pray because I want Chelsea to win. This is not the reason to pray. I think God has to think to other things in this world, not Chelsea.

“Religion has been in my life since I was a boy and my parents would always take me to church.

“Also at school there were some hours spent every week to teach the children to understand religion and the Bible.

“But my strength also comes from the experience I have had in my career. I know that things can’t be okay every time and sometimes you have to work through the difficulties.”

And Martin Sheen, star of Apocalypse Now and The West Wing, was in London to promote his new film The Way. He speaks here about his concern for his son Charlie Sheen:

The West Wing star said the actor, who has fought a well-documented battle with drugs and checked into rehab last month, had the backing of his family.

When asked how he was supporting his son, Sheen replied: “With prayer. We lift him up and we ask everyone who cares about him to lift him up, and lift up all those who are in the grip of drug and alcohol abuse, because they are looking for transcendence.”

Speaking at the UK premiere of his new pilgrimage film The Way at London’s British Film Institute, the 70-year-old – who acted alongside Charlie in the 1987 film Wall Street – said he would be happy to work with him in the future.

“That would be another miracle and we’d look forward to it, very much so,” he said.

In the film – directed by another of his three sons Emilio Estevez – Sheen plays Tom, an American doctor who embarks on the 500-mile Camino de Santiago walk to collect the remains of his dead son.

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I had the pleasure of meeting Vincent Aubin last week, a French philosopher who works in Paris and Marseilles. He writes a WordPress blog called L’esprit de l’escalier: philosophie, politique, religion – an infinitely more cultured and reflective version of Bridges and Tangents! If you have a little French, do take a look.

By way of a taster, this is the introduction to his latest post, about the nature of totalitarianism:

Décrire le totalitarisme comme une religion séculière est une idée qui doit sa fortune, en France du moins, à Raymond Aron. Il était frappé, comme quelques autres esprits clairvoyants, par le fait que le long déclin de la religion en Occident, à partir du XVIIIe siècle, n’amenait pas tant la disparition du sacré que son déplacement et, bien souvent, moins l’avènement de la raison que celui de nouvelles mythologies.

L’idée de « religion séculière » est à première vue très séduisante. Si elle est une forme de « religion séculière », on comprend que l’idéologie totalitaire se présente comme une « voie de salut » dans l’immanence – de la race ou de la société sans classe ; qu’elle soit polarisée par la lutte entre « le bien » et « le mal » ; qu’elle adopte si volontiers le style messianique ou apocalyptique ; qu’elle mette en place des liturgies glorifiant « le peuple » ou « la race », qu’elle instaure le « culte » du chef, etc.

You can keep reading here.

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Here is one more passage from my recent article on evangelisation, this time about how  those involved in the New Evangelisation often have a strong interest in deepening their understanding of faith and sharing that understanding with others:

St Patrick's Church, Soho Square, home of St Patrick's Evangelisation School

St Patrick’s Evangelisation School in Soho takes in a dozen young people every year. They live an intense community life together, pray for an hour each day before the Blessed Sacrament, serve food to the homeless, run a prayer-line, and go into the streets every Friday night – in a not too salubrious area – to meet people, share their faith, and offer spiritual support to those who seek it.

And they study. Fifteen hours a week of philosophy, theology, spirituality and psychology, focussed on preparing for a Diploma in the Catechism from the Maryvale Institute. There is a profound conviction that the Catholic faith is a gift to be understood and shared.

The emphasis on orthodox Catholic teaching seems to be an essential aspect of the New Evangelisation. Those involved want to proclaim the basic message of Christianity, to explain the core teachings of the Scriptures and of the Church, and to apply these teachings to everyday life. They are not arrogant, or unaware of the nuances and disputed questions within Catholic thought; but they are more interested in helping people to understand the settled faith of the Church than in exploring the boundaries. Their experience is that people are actually longing to learn more.

There is a hunger for truth in contemporary society, and a desire in many Catholic circles to share it. The intention is not to proselytise, in the sense of targeting people from other religions, but it is certainly to share this Christian vision with anyone who is attracted to it.

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What’s the place of religion on the internet, and the significance of the internet for religion? Pope Benedict comes back to these themes in his latest document Verbum Domini about the Word of God in the life and mission of the Church.

Spot the relevant app...

He encourages Catholics to make serious efforts to be more present in the world of the mass media. But he also warns that virtual relationships will only become meaningful if they are a means to some kind of personal contact between those using them.

Here are the relevant paragraphs.

Linked to the relationship between the word of God and culture is the need for a careful and intelligent use of the communications media, both old and new. The Synod Fathers called for a proper knowledge of these media; they noted their rapid development and different levels of interaction, and asked for greater efforts to be made in gaining expertise in the various sectors involved, particularly in the new media, such as the internet.

The Church already has a significant presence in the world of mass communications, and her magisterium has frequently intervened on the subject, beginning with the Second Vatican Council.[360] Discovering new methods of transmitting the Gospel message is part of the continuing evangelizing outreach of those who believe. Communications today take place through a worldwide network, and thus give new meaning to Christ’s words: “What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops” (Mt 10:27).

God’s word should resound not only in the print media, but in other forms of communication as well.[361] For this reason, together with the Synod Fathers, I express gratitude to those Catholics who are making serious efforts to promote a significant presence in the world of the media, and I ask for an ever wider and more qualified commitment in this regard.[362]

Among the new forms of mass communication, nowadays we need to recognize the increased role of the internet, which represents a new forum for making the Gospel heard. Yet we also need to be aware that the virtual world will never be able to replace the real world, and that evangelization will be able to make use of the virtual world offered by the new media in order to create meaningful relationships only if it is able to offer the personal contact which remains indispensable.

In the world of the internet, which enables billions of images to appear on millions of screens throughout the world, the face of Christ needs to be seen and his voice heard, for “if there is no room for Christ, there is no room for man”.[363]

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Go on, be brave – do the quiz! It only takes about two minutes. CLICK HERE. There are fifteen multiple choice questions. It’s about religious knowledge in general, although one or two questions touch on religious issues in the United States.

 

Street preachers in San Francisco

 

When you finish you see how smart you are compared to a cross-section of Americans, with a nice graph telling you what percentage of people share your level of knowledge (or ignorance, as the case may be).

Take our short, 15-question quiz, and see how you do in comparison with 3,412 randomly sampled adults who were asked these and other questions in the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey. This national poll was conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life from May 19 through June 6, 2010, on landlines and cell phones, in English and Spanish.

When you finish the quiz, you will be able to compare your knowledge of religion with participants in the national telephone poll. You can see how you compare with the overall population as well as with people of various religious traditions, people who attend worship services frequently or less often, men and women, and college graduates as well as those who did not attend college.

You can see the full results of the survey here. What’s fascinating is which groups come out on top. Catholics do pretty badly…

Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.

On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for differing levels of education.

religious-knowledge-01 10-09-28

On questions about Christianity – including a battery of questions about the Bible – Mormons (7.9 out of 12 right on average) and white evangelical Protestants (7.3 correct on average) show the highest levels of knowledge. Jews and atheists/agnostics stand out for their knowledge of other world religions, including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism; out of 11 such questions on the survey, Jews answer 7.9 correctly (nearly three better than the national average) and atheists/agnostics answer 7.5 correctly (2.5 better than the national average). Atheists/agnostics and Jews also do particularly well on questions about the role of religion in public life, including a question about what the U.S. Constitution says about religion.

religious-knowledge-02 10-09-28

Previous surveys by the Pew Research Center have shown that America is among the most religious of the world’s developed nations. Nearly six-in-ten U.S. adults say that religion is “very important” in their lives, and roughly four-in-ten say they attend worship services at least once a week. But the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey shows that large numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions – including their own. Many people also think the constitutional restrictions on religion in public schools are stricter than they really are.

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Nothing to do with the Papal visit: I just came across this article about how attendance at Christian services in Britain has not been declining over the last five years or so, and in one or two areas has actually been increasing.

The ‘not declining’ tag might seem rather negative and un-newsworthy, but it is quite a powerful news story when you set it against the common journalistic assumption that Christianity is on the back foot and is unlikely to exist as a significant part of British life a generation from now.

Benita Hewitt from Christian Research gives some of the figures here:

It’s time to believe that the church in this country is no longer in decline. The latest statistics coming from various denominations are clearly showing stability in church attendance and even signs of growth. This news may come as a surprise to many people who believe that the church is a dying institution.

But the news is no surprise to us at Christian Research. We’ve been watching the church adapt and change over recent years, and have been collecting statistics for some time which suggest that the church in this country is in reasonably good health. There is now enough combined evidence to state confidently that the decline is over.

The long term decline in weekly Mass attendance in the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales ended in 2005 and the figures have been broadly stable since. In 2008 there were 918,844 attending Mass, an increase from 915,556 the year before.

The Church of England has seen fairly steady attendance over the last ten years, with 1.67m attending services each month in 2008, compared with 1.71m in 2001. An important point to note is that the statistics over the past decade include all worship during the week, and not just Sunday morning services. One of the most significant changes we have been monitoring in the church is the growth in mid-week worship, which is an indication of how the church has been adapting and changing over recent years.

The Baptist Union of Great Britain has seen attendance rise from 148,835 a week in 2002 to 153,714 in 2008, with particular growth in the contact with young people aged 13 to 18 – up from 34,095 in 2002 to 41,392 in 2008.

In July of this year Christian Research conducted 1000 interviews in the streets of 44 locations in England and Wales with a representative sample of the population. 63% think of themselves as Christian, 14% said they attended church at least once a month and 29% at least once a year. Those are significant proportions of the population. The research also shows that 41% of adults agree “The Bible is an influence for good in society”. Just last week there was also research published which showed that two in three adults agree “British Society should retain its Christian culture”.

All of this paints a picture of the church as living movement rather than a dying institution. And it is a living movement which is generally recognised as a good influence in society, one which many people do not wish to see decline and die. It is time to stop talking about the decline of church and start facing up to the fact that it is here to stay.

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Following on from the last post, here is the section of the interview I gave recently that dealt with questions of faith and religion in a city as multi-cultural as London.

LLO: As a catholic priest and philosopher, how important would you say religion is in people’s lives in London today compared to when you started out in your career?
SW:
There are various crosscurrents: some people are much more secular, hardened in their secularism, and dismissive of religion. Yet many more people seem interested in religion who are not believers — as if they are more open to spiritual and transcendent questions, more open to the idea of spirituality and prayer. And religion is a bigger cultural and political reality than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Plus the new immigrants tend to be people of faith (indeed anyone coming to London from outside Western Europe tends to be a person of faith!)

LLO: You recently contributed to a BBC Online article about celibacy, sharing your own experiences. The post on your blog includes tags “happiness” and “loneliness”. Is this commitment one you ever regret or are you content in your decision?
SW:
I don’t regret the decision I have made at all. The whole life of being a priest, including celibacy, has brought me enormous happiness. And the celibacy itself has given me a real freedom, a freedom of heart – to be present with other people in all sorts of wonderful ways; and to pray in a way that would be difficult if I had the responsibilities of family life. I couldn’t live this way without the love of friends and extended family and the communities I have lived in over this time.

LLO: Tell us about something, someone or somewhere you’ve discovered in London that you think the rest of us should know about.
SW:
One secular and unknown: The Clockmakers’ Museum at Guildhall, a single room containing the whole history of clocks and watches, including John Harrison’s 5th marine timekeeper made famous by the book Longitude. One religious and very well known, but I’m still amazed by how many Londoners have never been in it: Westminster Cathedral (not the Abbey), an oasis of calm and devotion near Victoria Station, full of amazing art and architecture.

LLO: With Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists and others living side by side in London, what sort of atmosphere is created when people of every religion mingle in this melting pot city?
SW:
The whole world is here in London, and probably every language and religion. It’s good that we can live side by side, and in peace. Perhaps people don’t talk enough: We occupy the same social space, but often stay within our own mental worlds – unless there is something like a school or sports club or whatever to bring people together. London Citizens is a wonderful grassroots example of people of all faiths and none coming together for justice issues and forming real bonds through that common work. When I get back from Lourdes I want to start talking to strangers in London, but very soon I realize I am becoming one of those crazy people that Londoners fear…

LLO: What do you say to people who are suspicious of religion as being manipulative or deceptive?
SW:
It’s true that religion can sometimes be manipulative and deceptive – we have to admit that and watch out for it very carefully. And as a Catholic priest I wouldn’t push the abstract idea of ‘religion’ for its own sake. But religions can also be sources of spirituality, community, liberation and healing for many people. That’s something to be open to and not afraid of.

LLO: What’s your favourite part about living in your postcode?
SW:
Being near the river; living close to three cinemas; the number 19 bus.

[The clock pictured above is not from the Clockmakers' Museum, but (I think) from the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. This is the tag that comes with the photo: "Peter Clare, a local clockmaker, made this clock for Manchester Corporation. From 1848, this was the official clock for Manchester, showing the current time as measured at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. At first, astronomy was used to regulate the clock to Greenwich Time. After 1852, the Royal Observatory transmitted the time hourly by telegraph. The clock stood in the Town Hall on King Street where people could use it to set the time on their own watches and clocks. Greenwich Mean Time was not adopted as the national standard time until 1880. The clock was moved to the City Art Gallery in 1912. It was moved here in 1998 when the Art Gallery closed for major building work."]

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What’s the point of studying obscure topics in the arts and humanities when there seems to be no practical purpose or economic benefit for the students themselves or for the society that funds them? Six years ago the then Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke, was happy to suggest that public funding should only support academic subjects of ‘clear usefulness’.

Nigel Biggar wonders what universities are for, and gives a beautiful reflection on the poverty of this kind of utilitarian assessment. He explains the importance of the moral education that takes place when we study histories and literatures, religions and cultures, theologies and philosophies, music and drama:

One valuable gift that the arts and humanities make is to introduce us to foreign worlds: worlds made strange by the passage of time; present worlds structured by the peculiar grip of unfamiliar languages; worlds alien to us in their social organisation and manners, their religious and philosophical convictions.

Introduction to these foreign worlds confers a substantial benefit: the benefit of distance from our own world, and thereby the freedom to ask questions of it that we could never otherwise have conceived. In foreign worlds, past and present, they see and love and do things differently. And in reflecting upon that difference, it might occur to us from time to time that they see and love and do things better. So, one precious contribution of the arts and humanities is their furnishing public discourse with the critical resources of an understanding of foreign worlds, resources vital for social and cultural and moral renewal — a renewal that deserves at least an equal place alongside scientific and technological innovation.

He develops this idea and says that it is not just about appreciating other worlds and other people but understanding how to relate to them. This is ultimately a training in virtue:

The arts and humanities not only introduce us to foreign worlds, they teach us to treat them well. They teach us to read strange and intractable texts with patience and care; to meet alien ideas and practices with humility, docility, and charity; to draw alongside foreign worlds before we set about — as we must — judging them. They train us in the practice of honest dialogue, which respects the “Other” as a potential prophet, one who might yet speak a new word about what’s true and good and beautiful.

A commitment to the truth, humility, a readiness to be taught, patience, carefulness, charity: all of these moral virtues that inform the intellectual discipline into which the arts and humanities induct their students; all of these moral virtues of which public discourse, whether in the media or in Parliament or in Congress, displays no obvious surplus. All of these moral virtues, without which this country and others may get to become a “knowledge economy”, but won’t get to become a “wisdom society”.

And public decisions that, being unwise, are careless with the truth, arrogant, unteachable, impatient and uncharitable, will be bad decisions — and bad decisions cause needless damage to real institutions and real individuals.

What I’m saying, then, is that in addition to providing talented individuals with the opportunity to grow their gifts and find a social role to exercise them; in addition to producing qualified applicants for positions in legal practice and in public administration; in addition to training the labour-force to man a high-tech, service-oriented economy; and in addition to generating new scientific knowledge with technological or commercial applications, universities exist to form individuals and citizens in certain virtues — virtues that are not just intellectual, but are also social and political.

It’s no surprise that he turns to John Henry Newman for inspiration. It will be interesting to see whether Newman’s ideas about university education get any new publicity when his beatification takes place in September.

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World Youth Day 2008 Concert (#458) by Christopher Chan.

World Youth Day - Sydney, 2008

I did a recent post about the religious identity of young Catholics and their desire for a sense of belonging and purpose. John Allen explains how the emergence of a certain brand of ‘evangelical Catholicism’ reflects a broader sociological reality that can be seen across different religions. He draws on the work of the French sociologist Olivier Roy:

It’s not just Catholics passing through an evangelical phase. In fact, the revival of traditional identity and the push to proclaim that identity in public is a defining feature of religion generally in the early 21st century.

In Europe, Roy points to the vigorous defense of the public display of crucifixes by Catholics, the insistence of Muslim women upon wearing veils, and a trend among younger Jewish men to wear the kippah at school and in the workplace. On the Christian side of the ledger, he also includes the massive crowds drawn by the World Youth Days instituted under Pope John Paul II, and the more recent “Christian Pride” festivals organized in some European cities as a self-conscious response to “Gay Pride” rallies. Globally, Roy notes the explosive growth of Evangelical and Pentecostal forms of Christianity, the success of Salafism, Tablighi Jamaat and neo-Sufism within Islam, the comeback of the Lubavich movement inside Judaism, as well as the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India and the popularity of Sri Lankan theravada Buddhism.

Though highly distinct, Roy argues that these evangelical strains within the world’s major religions share certain defining features: “The individualization of faith, anti‐intellectualism, a stress on salvation and realization of the self, [and] rejection of the surrounding culture as pagan.”

One can debate the merits of certain items on that list, but in the main Roy’s observation is indisputable: The reassertion of traditional markers of religious identity, interpreted in a personal and evangelical key, is part of the physiognomy of our times far beyond the boundaries of the Catholic Church.

I’m not sure all this works as a description of the sources of renewal I have met within British Catholicism, but there is plenty to think about here.

Interestingly, Roy doesn’t see this as a comeback for religion, but a sign that mainstream religion is becoming more and more detached from the broader cultural and political environment. So it is a sign of the success of secularism.

[It's] a body blow, or at least a serious challenge, for religions such as Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, which historically have emphasized the integration of religion with cultural, national and ethnic identity. Certainly the heavy losses Catholicism has suffered to Pentecostals in Latin America, and more recently in parts of Africa, seem to lend credence to that view.

But Allen counters that this might be just the moment for Catholics to re-engage with the culture and show the possibility of integrating faith and reason.

One could argue that Catholicism is uniquely positioned to do justice to the legitimate aspiration for identity expressed in today’s evangelical push, while ensuring that it does not become so thoroughly disengaged from, or antagonistic to, the surrounding culture that it ends in the extremist pathologies Roy describes. That seems to be what Benedict XVI has in mind when he talks about contemporary Christianity as a “creative minority” – clear about what makes it different, but aiming to renew the broader culture from within, not forever warring against it.

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It is wrong to mention religion in public? I’m just skimming through a careers advice book called ‘What Color is your Parachute: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers’ by Richard Nelson Bolles. (I’m not in a crisis; I just bought it for a friend. Really!) It’s a secular book, aimed at the secular market, recommended to me by a management consultant. It’s obviously one of the leaders in its field (9 million copies sold by the time of my 2008 edition). And here is the final paragraph of the author’s preface:

In closing, I must not fail to mention my profound thanks to The Great Lord God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who all my life has been as real to me as breathing, and Who has been my Rock through every trial, tragedy, and misfortune in my life, including the assassination of my only brother, Don Bolles. I thank God for giving me strength, and carrying me through — everything. I am grateful beyond measure for such a life, and such a mission as ‘He’ has given me: to help people find meaning for their lives. He is the source of whatever grace, wisdom, or compassion I have ever found, or shared with others.

This really took me aback. And it’s my own reactions that I find interesting. I thought, quite spontaneously: This is a bit over the top! Why is he telling me about his faith? Is this really the place for a sermon? Isn’t this going to put people off? Isn’t this a little bit inappropriate?

And then I thought: But why not? Where do I get this idea that ordinary people can’t talk about their everyday faith in the normal circumstances of daily life? Is it because I’m English and my culture has persuaded me to censor my conversation and avoid the topics of religion and politics? Or is it because I have been fooled into thinking that religion is purely a ‘private’ affair and must therefore remain hidden from the gaze of normal society — like an embarrassing secret we share only with intimate friends or our doctor.

Thank You God! by Daniel Y. Go.

Richard Bolles could have thanked anyone else (or anything else) and I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. In a standard author’s preface you can honour your parents, your publisher, your agent, your neighbours, your cat, your therapist, your muse, your guru. You can acknowledge the inspiration brought to you by a shower of leaves on an autumn day, or by the inaudible voices of your ancestors. But if you thank God in such a public manner, it makes someone like me feel just slightly uncomfortable. As I said, it’s my own reactions that I am questioning…

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