Crisis and Quest: Rethinking God for the 21st Century

At the Sea of Faith conference in Belfast, September 2003, Crisis and Quest: Rethinking God for the 21st Century, Malachi OíDoherty (Editor of Fortnight Magazine, author of ĎThe Trouble with Gunsí) gave this address.

I suppose there is no better way to start than with a personal testimony.

I was born into fundamentalist Catholicism, a tradition which disappeared from under me in my teens. Its basic premise was that it was the one true faith. This has been revised by the Second Vatican Council and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its document Dominus Iesus to say that Catholicism is now only the most true faith, the church closest to God, from which other traditions enjoy a little reflected glory, even if they donít know it.

While the old Catholicism was reforming in Ireland at astonishing speed, if unnoticed by its enemies, I went off the India to seek religious comfort in reaction against that past in something which I had thought would be very different but which was in fact very similar. I put myself under the tutelage of a Hindu guru, Swami Paramananda Saraswati. He was an advocate of the tradition of Advaita Vedanta which primarily sees God as ineffable, as the unitary Self of all things which can not be spoken of. Yet Swamiji himself preached the worship of the incarnations of God, whose existence was reconciled into the Advaita, perhaps more because that was what people wanted than because it logically sat there.

He would have said that the personal god was unreal but that so are we all.

I practised intensive meditation for three years, at one stage for up to six hours a day, which really is not advisable at all. That period culminated in a convulsive eruption in my body and brain, which I took at first for a spiritual experience of the kind predicted by those who prescribed meditation. Maybe it was. Whether or not it was, that information is of no use to me. What is of use to me is my understanding now that the event was natural and corrective.

It was a rebound against the emotions and sensations that I had repressed for the sake of my intense concentration.

It took me another couple of years to break free from my guru. As Karen Armstrong describes very well in her autobiography, when you have surrendered your will it is not easy to claim it back. You have nothing with which to claim it back.

I returned to Ireland believing that I had perhaps seen the gates of the kingdom swing open, and discovered an awful lot of other people who believed similarly that God had touched them directly. That was a reassurance to me. It suggested that I was not mad, that believing yourself touched by God was really a common thing. Whether it was true or not was another question, but in a sense it didnít have to be true or false, it only had to be, for me at this stage, normal.

When I talked to those other people who had been touched by God, of course, I found that they were not remotely amenable to the idea that I might have been too, for my touch had come within a pagan faith. If something supernatural had occurred in me, then that was demonic, evil, dangerous.

They could only see that if their beliefs were true then the beliefs of others, by extension, were false. I had already come across the idea in India that all faiths might be regarded as true.

Hinduism included the idea that each individual was free to contemplate the ineffable God according to taste or the inclinations of the imagination.

These ideas were developed in the 19th century by Ramakrishna and Vivekananda and by the founder of the Brahmo Samaj, a Hindu Christian church, Keshab Chunder Sen, whose great grand niece was later my girl friend. You can imagine we had much to talk about.

Max Mueller, the first great translator of Sanskrit, said that religion is like language. To know only one language is to know none. To know only one religion is to know none.

This is heresy to fundamentalists everywhere, who insist that God has imparted a truth to them that none can refute. To believe that one religion is true is to believe that all others are false, especially if you regard religion as revelation from God, God having chosen you in preference to the rest of the world to share this truth with.

Hinduism allows Christians to be Christians, of course, because it doesnít want them to be Hindus. Hinduism, like Judaism, is territorial and racial. In recurrent spells of violence against Muslims in India, we see the dark danger in a faith which has produced such extraordinary ideological flexibility in the past.

It is by looking at the religious rioting in India as much as in Northern Ireland or at the violence between Israelis and Palestinians that we are tempted to say: to hell with all religion for it brings bloodshed and grief as the price of any consolation it brings too, and some of its consolations arenít very admirable either, for they include a sense of supremacy over others who think differently or who may even be disqualified by race from thinking like you and intermarrying with your people.

If we take up the position of the Sea of Faith or the more liberal humanists and argue that religion is a human creative potential, we may find the key to respecting and engaging with a wide rage of religious traditions, of retaining in a secularising west an empathy with religious people, some of whom are very angry with us.

There are different ways of perceiving that all faiths have merit.

One is the idea of the perennial philosophy. By this, all faiths are attempts to articulate a great truth; that at heart they all have an understanding, imparted by their mystics, that we are divine and fully loved and accepted.

Another is to see them all as expressions of human infancy in cultures which have yet to evolve into an appreciation of science and reason.

Yet another is the Sea of Faith approach, which says that all these faiths are attempts to exercise the human imagination in a creative religious way as we would wish to ourselves.

Ostensibly a generous approach to all religions, it actually tells all of them that they are wrong. So you think God selected your race above all others - no he didnít, but I am happy to allow you to imagine that he did, so long as you are happy to allow the people over there to imagine that he selected them instead.

You can see that we are getting into deep trouble now.

You can not tell a Muslim that there is no Allah other than in his imagination and expect him to share with you in the marvel that his Allah is like your Jesus or your Krishna.

In saying that all religions are right in a way, because they are expressions of a human creative longing, we are saying that all are wrong on the terms in which they define themselves.

Now what are we going to do about that?

Are we going to nurture our own vision in silence, or are we going to contend with the faiths of the world?

There is one good reason why we should contend with them, and that is because they are dangerous.

If our insight is that religion is human then it follows from that, that religious traditions may be evaluated on whether they are more or less human themselves.

The faith in which I was raised was anti-human, and that perhaps is one good reason why it did not survive. It was anti-sexual and against free thinking.

This did not allow people to - as Don Cupitt puts it - "say amen to their own lives". It taught them to be suspicious of their own natural impulses and of novel ideas.

As children we went to confession every week and told our sins to the priest, but as adolescents we chose either to conceal our sexual inclinations, to deny them or to stop going to confession.

That Catholicism died in part also because it was dishonest. It set impossible standards. Our sanctimonious tradition was riddled with humbug.

And it was human insight, that of the bishops at the Second Vatican Council, which sought to modify that tradition.

Paul 6th developed the rearguard action and against the advice of the church banned artificial contraception. The people have simply ignored him, and a major crisis unfolds now as the current pope approaches his death, and possible schism faces a church which simply can not continue to work against human desire.

The fruits of past effort to do so within its own clergy are clear in the extraordinary anti-human damage of sexual crime against children.

From our humanitarian position we can look around us at religious practice and we can evaluate it, or we can, perhaps more wisely, shrink from trying.

Of course we donít fully know what it is to be human. That is something that we are still only learning, so we should beware of being too presumptuous ourselves. But it is not human to send young people to their deaths for political causes, to cut their bodies, to straitjacket their sexuality, to encourage them in enmity of others by virtue of attachment to faith or territory or their gender.

It is not human to deny human reason and to preach fantastical ideas about the origin of species, to preach that good works have no value, to insist on the literal truth of ancient books.

We want religious people to see what they have in common.

OK, the Free Presbyterian is unlikely to find much empathy with the Muslim, but the outsider can see that Protestantism is closer to Islam than, say to Hinduism and that Hinduism is similar in astonishing ways to Catholicism. The sacrifice of Puja is like the mass: the offering of food and drink to God, the sanctification of the food and drink and then the sharing of it. Even the use of bells and incense are common to both.

At a remove from formal dogmatic religious conviction you can either see the similarities and translate between religious languages, or you can decide, like the atheist or humanist to treat all as simply - and more or less equally - ridiculous.

There is value in the remove, in the distance and the perspective it gives on the broad complexity of religious experience and the universal elements of it that neither the fundamentalist devotee nor the atheist has any interest in.

At our remove from all faiths we have the advantage of being able to translate them but at the cost of being regarded by all as infidels.

Can we use our translation skills then to achieve empathy with those whose religious understanding is that we are wrong?

The Jew and the Muslim, thrown into enmity by territorial questions rooted in their own scripture should be better placed to understand each other than we are to understand either. They worship the same God of Moses and Abraham, follow similar laws of circumcision and diet.

This becomes evidence that their conflict is not about religion at all, and the same is said here, yet the settlements in Palestinian territory are built by those who believe that land is given to them by God and that God has repeatedly sanctioned violence against others who presume that land to be theirs.

The Catholic and Protestant in Ireland are divided by much wider theological differences, and some of them have forgotten the theological roots of their division, such that it is easy to argue in Northern Ireland today that the troubles are not based on religion at all.

These troubles are nothing but the legacy of religious wars, as is evidenced by the paucity of ideas available for assuaging inter-communal conflict in a secular political context. Our governments are now preparing to spend millions of pounds on the promotion of the Irish language and the invention of an Ulster Scots language, imagining that that is what is needed to help us explain ourselves to each other.

Yet people who are taught in school that the unsaved are damned bewilder us when they picket Catholic churches and cemeteries. Where is the puzzle? Of course they will think of Catholics as inferior. What is it to be damned but to be of less value than those who are saved? They are taught in school and church that the Catholics are not Christian yet puzzle us when they picket Catholic churches. Why wouldnít they picket catholic churches when those churches are the meeting places for the followers of Anti Christ. It would make perfect sense within the theology of many people here to burn them to the ground, yet we effect horror and bewilderment when they are burnt to the ground.

The three Quinn children died in a fire in Ballymoney. A loyalist threw a petrol bomb into their home. There are people here whose moral outrage at that is tempered by their understanding that though the flames may have died in Ballymoney the children are burning still. Those people call themselves Christians.

And where is the dialogue about this?

There is theological poison swilling through Northern Ireland but that is left out of consideration in all efforts at peacemaking.

For the purposes of reconciliation we try to perceive a precise balance of good and bad between Protestant and Catholic but there is no inevitability about such a balance and an unfortunate vulnerability to the charge of sectarianism if we canít find one. The evangelicals seek only to convert others and have no wish to empathise. They claim, at times, a Christian love for the unsaved but it is hard to find anything neighbourly in a presumption that you belong to the devil. The Catholic institutions have sought to monopolise education for Catholic born people and produced a priestly caste which turned out to have been corroded by its own misery and emotionally deformed by its effort to live without physical love.

Protestants have been stricken with horror at the sight of Catholic priests officiating at the funerals of bombers and commending their souls to God. How, they ask, could Thomas Begley be anything but a damned soul when his bomb killed him in the same instant that it killed nine others, including children? What time had he to reflect on his sin and plead for Godís mercy?

From their theological perspective there is no reason to pray for this man. From their theological perspective the theology that admits of a point to praying for him is simply wrong and idolatrous.

From an atheistic perspective all of this debate is contemptible nonsense.

We could judge the issue from a humanitarian or humanistic perspective and ask whether praying for Begley was good religion or bad religion according to a humanistic test.

We might argue that it was good to pray for Begley as a means of bringing the family together and offering them solace or even restoring them to a safe place within the community. The family was entitled to church support and did not share in the guilt; we might argue that the bomber himself may have been so afflicted and weak that he had little moral freedom in choosing what to do, or we might argue against that, that societyís censure of murder is so important that we would expect a church to participate more fully in it.

Catholicism is under challenge from within and has radically changed.

In my youth it was the One True Faith and the early Republicans adopted it as the template for their commitment to a One True Gaelic Ireland, a promised land, sullied by English contamination, to be restored when washed in sufficient blood.

The passing of that Catholic fundamentalism may have had a direct contribution to the collapse of Republican fundamentalism. The founders of the Provisional IRA, were republicans in that dark religious tradition. The current generation fears to speak of it. They have grown up into a world which would laugh at them if they spoke like their forebears. They are struggling for new ideological terms in which to understand what they have done, when what they have done was fired by chauvinism and a sense of being approved by God.

It is for want of understanding the religious roots of republicanism that we struggle to find ways to lay republicanism to rest. If we but knew it, it is already dead because its founding spirit is deflated. It is like a swaggering drunk who still swings a bottle but has forgotten why he is angry.

The political influence of evangelical Protestantism is in decline, hastened perhaps by the need, created through the peace process, for people to meet and work with those they theologically oppose and regard as anathema.

People say that the trouble is not about religion, but it is very clear that secularisation undermines the passions for violence better than anything.

There is hope for moderation in a beautiful conundrum among those who say they are religious; they rarely believe precisely what they say they believe. I know people who believe that if I fell dead before you now my soul would plummet into the depths of hell, yet who enjoy my company, a joke, even a drink, who are content to approve me as a person though God doesnít.

There is usually a dissonance between what people say they believe, the bald assertions they will accept from clergy, and what they actually believe.

In the pews we sang our tribute to the martyrs: "How sweet would be our childrenís fate, if they like them could die for Thee". Our parents didnít really want us turned on a spit or crucified upside down.

Yesterday Nigel Dodds, former minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly, was on the media condemning the recent spate of booby trap bombs and bomb hoaxes at schools and rightly made no distinction between those at state schools and Catholic schools but defended the right of all children to an uninterrupted education.

No one would expect him to say anything different. Yet Mr Dodds is a member of the Democratic Unionist Party. His party leader, the Reverend Ian Paisley preaches that the Catholic church is satanic, and the logic of that position is surely that it is a very good thing to disrupt Catholic education so that children might be saved from the fires of Hell.

So people here, even in the midst of sectarian tensions, do not react as if they actually believe the things they say they believe and even think they believe. A sense of civic responsibility or common sense over rides their religious convictions when it is humanely appropriate that it should.

A humanistic perspective on religion can respect the value in all traditions and should be free to recognise where humanity is compromised and brutal ideas have arisen.

It must also rise above a coyness about discussing religious ideas and criticising others.

Criticism of religious traditions get labelled as a form of racism, but it is not racist to contend with ideas.

Difficult questions arise however.

A Nigerian child died in Waterford last month after a kitchen table circumcision.

The liberal response in the media was to argue that the state should provide circumcision facilities for immigrant communities.

A humanistic response might be to argue that the state should seek to discourage circumcision, to raise questions about the rights of the child.

Sea of Faith has a new idea that is very like some of the older ideas I spoke of that emerged from the dialogues between Hinduism, Islam and Christianity in the nineteenth century. That idea is that the religious impulse everywhere has a beautiful creative potential and that none should insist on defining its goal for others.

We may feel that it in taking the approach of the Sea of Faith we are turning our backs on division, adopting a definition of religion which is open to people of all faiths and traditions. Actually we are developing an idea which in other times and in other places would have seen us hounded into dungeons.

I have described how the Catholicism I was raised in morphed into something more liberal and considerate. It had been something vile. It enchanted a childís mind, yet it sneered at the rest of the world and put us under ridiculous obligations.

The changes that were made within fundamentalist Catholicism were led not by the great vigorous apostates, of which we have a few in Ireland. Those like myself who stepped outside the church and stayed out, accept to wince through weddings and funerals, had no effect on the character of Irish Catholicism and no contribution to the liberalising changes.

So long as religious movements have the kind of political and social clout that they have, those who want political and social change will have to be in dialogue with them, will have to be able to speak their language.

I have stood at the gravesides of family members and watched the younger ones gauchely hang back, bewildered by the whole business, uncertain of how to behave, not knowing the words, not knowing how to tune into the mood or be part of the moment at all.

I have hung back myself at times, appalled by the silly language of much church ceremony. When the priest calls on God to send the archangel to stand over the grave I wonder if I have stumbled into a Tolkein story.

We are at a curious juncture in the decline of church religion; in which we can recognise much of it as irritating bunkum and yet feel a need to preserve a tradition so that, for one thing, the next generation will understand us and what framed us.

The churches also have an interest in tilting to us, to those of us who donít want to go into churches and feel like smirking hypocrites when we do.

The church loses us by being too literal and trite; we lose the church by being too dogmatic ourselves in our atheism or humanism.

What those of us outside the churches lose is the sense of full participation in the service, even in the funerals of those we love, even in the marriages of people whose thinking may be the same as our own, but who wish to pretend for a day to be full members of a church to please their parents.

I know men of fifty who take the Sunday morning walk when Mother is visiting, and pretend to be going out to mass. Fortunately, now with mass on a Saturday evening too, they can take their walk then and have a pint while they are out.

So we want in some way to stay with the religious traditions we emerged from and to change and adapt them rather than abolish them or boycott them, and we want to do this so that we can be included in community but without hypocrisy or cynicism.

We want to keep alive the knowledge of our religious past and some of its forms so that our children will understand us, though the last thing we want is that they should be made unhappy by religion as we were.

Sea of Faith can be a rationale for going to church and enjoying the music without assenting to any spiritual propositions, but it can be more than that. It can be the basis of a comparative religion perspective which evaluates religion not by its stated goals and its claims to revelation but by its human value.

It can be the basis of a new critique of the religious world.

To achieve that, however, we will have to enter the fray against bad religion and speak plainly about it without fear of being thought heretical or bigoted. I wonder how many of us have the stomach for that.

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