Archive for August, 2009

Why Religion

Sunday, August 30th, 2009

(Notes for a talk given to the Kilkee Civic Trust 19/08/2009)

For someone born and brought up here in the forties and fifties the question ‘Why religion?’ was a nonsense question. One no more questioned the why of religion than one questioned the sea, or the sky, or the fact that there were people. It was there, a fact of life, and belief was absorbed in much the same way as language, or manners. Nevertheless, there was an explanation for religion, just as there were answers for all the those impenetrable questions that young children ask – like, ‘Where was I before I was born?’. The answer is a story Christians know as ‘salvation history’.

The View from Inside

This story begins, appropriately enough, in the beginning with the creation of the world by God, then the creation of the first man and woman, followed by the story of their descendants and their long, often problematic, relationship with God. It is a story we all know well.
The story culminates, for Christians anyway, in the birth of God’s son, Jesus. He is the final revelation of God, God himself in human form. Interestingly enough, Jesus never says that he is divine. Nor does anybody, neither his followers nor his enemies, suspect for a minute, that he is anything other than a man. An extraordinary man, but a man nonetheless. It was only later, after his  resurrection, that it began to dawn on his followers that ‘God was in Christ’.
After his death his followers, the Apostles, spread his teaching which caught on with people to such an extent that in less than three hundred years the Church had become accepted throughout the Roman Empire and for the next twelve hundred years was to dominate European life, culture, politics and history. Today it has spread throughout the world and over the course of that time has produced many remarkable men and women.
That’s the Catholic story. I was quite proud to be a member of this privileged institution and happy with its answer to the question, ‘Why religion?’ Until, that is, shortly after I left school. I was in New York. I came to know a Jewish girl called Stephanie who was studying comparative religion at Columbia University. She was delighted to come across a cradle Catholic who, she hoped, might be able to explain some of the anomalies of Catholicism. It turned out that Stephanie knew more about my religion and religion in general than I did and that my answers to her questions were inadequate, to say the least. Wherever I went, America, the Far East, the UK, I found that I was a member of a small group of Catholics, sometimes the only member. I had become one of those slightly odd religious people. I did come across other religious people but I found their religion strange, just as they did mine.
I eventually ended up teaching in England. I often think you learn more from your pupils than they do from you. In one of my classes there was a girl from India, a Hindu.  She was very bright and unlike many of the other girls she was not vapid, or shallow, or bitchy. She had a deep faith and fasted one day a week. She sat at the back of the class and I often caught her shaking her head sadly at me as I explained some Catholic teaching or other. So one day I held her back after class and asked her why she shook her head. ‘Mr. Glynn’, she said, ‘you Catholics think you know it all.’ And I suddenly saw myself as she must have seen me – caught up in a very narrow mindset. And I caught a glimpse of another religion, Hinduism, a religion I then knew very little about, which had produced this remarkable person with such a deep spirituality. So what was the origin of Hinduism? God, we Catholics had been taught, had only revealed himself to the Jews and to Christians. Yet here was an undoubtedly holy person with a deeper and more profound faith than any of her Christian contemporaries – a Hindu. Educated in a Catholic convent school she knew as much about Catholicism as any of the other girls, yet it held no attractions for her. The level at which she lived her faith put pretty well everyone else in the school, myself included, to shame. I suddenly saw that thinking along the lines – true religion – false religion – (and the Catholic religion is the only true religion, we were taught – all the others are false) was to go about things the wrong way. There is no such thing as religion – true or false. Religion is an abstract concept. It exists only as an idea in the mind. What there is is religious people, people who are religious.
My encounters with these two girls, although there were years between them, were a reality check. They made me realise that mentally I was living in quite a small bubble and very ignorant of the mindsets, the thoughts, feelings, hopes and aspirations of my fellow human beings. (more…)