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Why not both?

Carmel Heaney

When President Macron of France was asked by a reporter whether he had faith (he was baptised a Catholic) he replied: “I believe in something we don’t see, yes … I believe in a form of transcendency.” (Lara Marlowe in The Irish Times, April 21st, 2018)

This suggests that he belongs to an increasing cohort in the Western world who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. In the United States, according to a survey carried out in 2015 by the Pew Research Center, 37 per cent of the “Nones” (those unaffiliated to any religious group) regarded themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. A study in the same year by Professor Michael King of University College, London, suggests that about a fifth of people in the UK fit into the same category.

The “spiritual but not religious” are not a homogeneous group but encompass a broad spectrum of attitudes and lifestyle. Some find meaning in angels or crystals; others practise arcane rites harking back to paganism; most come from a church background but are disenchanted with religion. In some cases this is the result of bad personal experience. There are also those who feel that religion is out of touch with modern science and knowledge. At the same time they harbour a vague feeling that there is something “out there”. Philosophically, they are not materialists. A growing body of people follow a specific religious tradition without formally belonging to a church. The practices of Buddhism suit many of the spiritual but not religious since it is in any event a religion which promotes practice rather than dogma and does not personalise the idea of “God”. Buddhism is among the fastest-growing faiths in Ireland, showing a 12.1 per cent increase in the last census. An Irish Buddhist Union was formed in Dublin early in 2018.

It may be that it is the “Nones” phenomenon that has attracted philosopher Richard Kearney to explore a way between atheism and belief, based on a hermeneutic rather than a theological approach and to coin a new term, “anatheists”.

In Ireland the discrepancy between the numbers who, in the 2011 census declared themselves as Roman Catholics (84 per cent) and the much smaller number who attend church, suggests that there is a sizable number of “cultural Catholics”. Such people no longer attend Mass regularly but fill the churches at Christmas, no longer accept Catholic dogma but send their children to Catholic schools.

At the same time the support for mindfulness and meditation groups is growing; there is sell-out attendance at appearances of celebrity spiritual guides such as Eckhart Tolle or Thich Nanh Hanh: and bookshops stock a plethora of books, videos and DVDs offering instruction for the spiritual seeker.

In my own case, belonging to the last generation which accepted Catholicism at face value, Mass was linked to a formulaic, rule-bound religion which became progressively less satisfying to me as I grew older. Nor could I honestly affirm my belief in the dogmas of the Nicene Creed. On the other hand, the Judaeo-Christian tradition continues to speak to me. The wisdom figures in that tradition – Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton, to name but a few ‑ inspire me. as do the teachings of the Buddha, the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita and the Sufi Islamic poet Rumi.

So, when I considered which category of the “Nones” I identified with, I realised that I could not leave religion out of the equation. I may not go to Mass regularly but I recognise that the core values of the Christian religion are central to a good life and are of universal application. The teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount and in parables such as The Prodigal Son and The Good Samaritan resonate in many cultures and in many ages. By the same token the Golden Rule – do as you would be done by ‑ is promulgated by all the great world religions.

That there is some truth value in many religions is a concept that has developed in theological circles under the rubric of religious pluralism. The concept is an ancient one, found in many Eastern religions. It appears in the de Veritate teaching of Thomas Aquinas.

The experience of English Protestant missionaries in the East during the nineteenth century inspired insights which led to the convening of the first Parliament of the World’s Religions, in Chicago in 1893. The centenary of that event was commemorated in 1993 by a second parliament of the world’s religious, also held in Chicago, where the keynote address was given by the Dalai Lama. The event was also attended by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. In 1965 Pope Paul VI, in the Declaration Nostra Aetate, had acknowledged the truth value of non-Christian religions and had exhorted the faithful to engage in dialogue and collaboration with the representatives of such religions. The outcome of the 1993 parliament was a document entitled Towards a Global Ethic, which was largely drafted by the Swiss theologian Hans Küng.

The concept of a global ethic is related to developments in many areas of human activity. Globalisation, a term most commonly applied to matters of trade and international politics, implies interconnectedness. To quote from the United Nations Resolution 55/23 on the Year of Dialogue among Civilizations (adopted on November 13th, 2000) “globalization not only is an economic, financial and technological process which could offer great benefit, but also constitutes a profoundly human challenge that invites us to embrace the interdependence of humankind and its rich cultural diversity …”

An example of this concept in action is reflected in the earth sciences and brought into public discourse most dramatically in the growing realisation of the climate change phenomenon.

The new understanding of the planet and humankind’s place in it is reflected in mainstream theology, notably in the encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudate Si. The pope’s thirteenth century namesake, Francis of Assisi, viewed the world in a similar way. Even earlier, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) voiced such a worldview.

Many theologians and church groups are rethinking their approach to religion in the light of contemporary advances in human knowledge.  The Church from Below movement, with which Hans Küng is associated, and We Are Church seek to recover the core values of Christianity while bringing church teachings into line with the modern world. The Americans Brian McLaren and Barbara Brown Taylor are leaders in the field, as is the Franciscan Richard Rohr, who brings into play the concept of inclusivity within the all-embracing energy of love as agape. The Buddhist leader Thich Nahn Hahn expresses this idea as “interbeing”.

In science, particle mechanics, proposing the interconnectedness of all things, subverts the mechanistic model of the universe which has held sway since Newton’s time. Einstein acknowledged a cosmic religion. The shift in scientific theory is reflected in the “evolution of consciousness” of the human race proposed by the scientist/theologian Teilhard de Chardin. Brian Swinne is one of the many scientists who propose the integration of contemporary science and religion. His theory of a cosmology again resonates with the prophetic vision of de Chardin. We live in times when a critical approach to traditional religious teachings is necessary while maintaining an understanding of ancient spiritual values which give meaning to being human.

In the chapter on religion in his book Meanings of Life in Contemporary Ireland (2014) the sociologist Tom Inglis comments on

… the absence among disenchanted Catholics of any desire to search for new ways of being religious. Indeed it would seem that there is little attempt by most Irish Catholics to stimulate and invigorate their religious beliefs and practices. It may be that the church’s domination of the religious field for so long has led to a form of religious disability.

This suggestion resonates with my own experience. During the years when I attended Mass regularly I learned nothing about the profound developments which have taken place in theology and in inter-religious dialogue in recent years. The changes proposed by the Second Vatican Council were not publicised among the faithful by the Irish church and in some cases never implemented. The famous statement made by the then archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, on his return from the council, says it all: “No change will worry the tranquillity of your Christian lives,” he told a congregation in the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin. Although changes were made in the liturgy and in ritual, the basic thrust of the council’s recommendations on empowering the laity died on the vine.

The discouragement of individual spiritual seeking has contributed to a dualistic cast of thought between faith and nihilism – you either believe in God or not, in life after death or not, and so on. The nuances of contemporary interpretations of scriptures and of traditional dogma are not admitted among believers.

At the same time many people who dismiss religion out of hand base their position on outdated or narrow denominational concepts. This ignorance is fed by the treatment of religion in mainstream media. Religious illiteracy is rife among TV and radio talk show hosts and presenters, except for those specialists assigned to “religious affairs”.

Lara Marlowe, in her report of a press conference with President Macron commented that the subject of religion is taboo in the French media ‑ except, one supposes, when clerical scandals are to be exposed. She showed courage as well as insight in raising the subject. Macron had shown himself to be open -minded in his address to the French bishops on April 9th, 2018, when he urged them to bring their wisdom to the service of the Republic. He was criticised by leftists for breaching the principle of la laicité.France has been officially secular since 1905. But the president obviously saw no conflict between listening to religious leaders and his mission as president to heal the rifts in French society.

An understanding of the role of religion in reversing the negative trends in Western society is slowly percolating into the discourse of international policymakers. Populism, and the corruption of the truth ethic throughout the information ecosystem, are major concerns. Religious fundamentalism, the seedbed of terrorism, can only be countered by healthy religion, not by denial of the validity of religion.

The Global Ethic project launched in 1993 inspired the United Nations’ Dialogue among Civilizations, in which Hans Küng participated as “an eminent person”. The Fundamental Rights Agency of the European Union is developing a “shared space” for human rights activists and religious spokespersons.

Social activism and religion are often linked, as in the lives of Mahatma Ghandi, Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King, Archbishop Óscar Romero, Mother Teresa and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, among countless others throughout history. Such exemplars suggest that, rather than rejecting religion out of hand the “spiritual but not religious” might seek out, in the words of Tom Inglis, “new ways of being religious”.

In Ireland, traditional Catholicism gave cohesion in society for the first half century or so of the state’s existence. In the years since, our behaviour and attitudes have been influenced to the good by the concepts of human rights developed by the United Nations and subsequently by the European Union. There is less racism and less discrimination today – against women, the disabled, homosexuals ‑ than in the postwar years of my youth. Ireland is a kinder place now.

At the same time problems related to drugs, alcoholism and violent crime have increased. Technology has contributed to conveniences of life but also to consumerism, and, through the abuse of the social media, to the coarsening of day-to-day discourse.

President Michael D Higgins, in his address to the national seminar convened on foot of his ethics initiative, said: “ … it is worth restating that the community and voluntary sector has always had its roots in an ethical worldview, often based in religion or in the tradition of human rights and equality …”

As of now, there are volunteer groups throughout our country involved in activities such as mentoring the young, nurturing the environment, resettling refugees and much else.This kind of activity is spirituality in action, the fruit of compassion, non-violence and social justice. It is more significant than declining church attendance.

Such admirable community activity however arises not so much on admonitions from the top down but rather from the efforts of motivated individuals. The springs of such motivation are mysterious and come from a variety of sources. Religion is surely one of those sources. We need the Sermon on the Mount as well as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights for a healthy society.


Carmel Heaney is a retired diplomat.



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