Sunday, January 29, 2012

'Faith of our fathers' endures

RITE AND REASON: The truth of the Christian message will always find a way through to humanity.

THE SENSE that Christianity’s slow death since the Enlightenment has been accelerating in recent decades in the West has, for some observers, been sharpened by the current dramatic slump in Catholicism’s fortunes in Ireland.

One might perhaps do worse than heed a piece of advice I heard years ago from a German priest. In situations of crisis, he liked to invoke the “Gamaliel Principle”.

By this he meant the principle enunciated by the famous Jewish rabbi, Gamaliel, in Acts 5: 34-39, when he advised against trying to stamp out the nascent Christian movement on the grounds that, if it were from men only, it wouldn’t last, but if it were from God, it couldn’t be stamped out. In other words, truth is ultimately in God’s hands, not ours.

Yet, a more pessimistic assessment of the dire situation in which the Catholic Church now finds itself in Ireland, would of course claim that it is not facing extinction, but has already long been spiritually extinct. Having sacrificed their language in the 19th century in the struggle for survival and advancement, the Irish proceeded to sacrifice their religion in the 20th, in a continued pursuit of not just survival, but success.

This view, which sees the demise of Irish Catholic Christianity as beginning ironically with Catholic Emancipation, can certainly be contested. But the impression is hard to deny that over recent centuries “traditionalism” has been a more powerful force in Catholic life in Ireland than “tradition”.

The distinction comes from the late church historian, Jaroslav Pelikan: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

The “living faith of the dead”, or “the faith of our fathers,” can still give life, and continues to do so at a practical level throughout Ireland. 

But the public face of Catholicism has come to resemble a death-mask, no longer capable of registering awareness of a new age or radiating any vital connection with truth.

But this in itself may not be too alarming. 

Christianity is neither a substitute for the world, nor a call to control and exploit the world.

Rather, Christianity sees itself as its leaven, or as the “salt of the earth.” Yet, if it fails to fulfil this purpose, it “is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men” (Mt 5: 13). 

This may be a way of interpreting the current state of religious affairs in Ireland. It may be the divine judgment on what Catholicism has largely become at this juncture in Ireland’s history.

But becoming reduced, as a result of this visitation of the “Wrath of God,” to a “minority culture,” may not be the worst thing in the world. In fact, it might even be closer to the Christian ideal.It is salutary to recall that Christianity tells us we have no abiding city in this world (Heb 13: 14). And cities built by Christian peoples can even disappear almost entirely, without Christianity ceasing to exist or to be true.

The places most associated with the growth of Christianity, the places where the decisive church councils were held, where the beliefs of Christianity were refined and the great Christian thinkers flourished – almost all lying nowadays in modern Turkey and north Africa – are no longer Christian.

Yet Christian truth can endure.

So, it may well be that Ireland’s and indeed Europe’s public culture generally will, as time goes on, lose more and more of its hitherto overwhelmingly Christian veneer. 

But the enduring truth of the Christian message will always find a way through to humanity.

For religion is not something we have, but something we are.

Similarly, the church claims that Christian truth is not something we have, but what God is. 

And the living God can always be relied on to awaken living faith in the discerning human heart.

How the truth of Christianity will express itself in the future can safely be left in Gods hands.

Rev Dr Martin Henry is lecturer in dogmatic theology at St Patricks College, Maynooth.