We are considered something of an oddity in Ireland for a variety of reasons but a big one is due to our religion. Not only do we regularly attend church, we do it out of desire rather than obligation (or at least Allen and the children do, I find it to be a weekly exercise in homesickness). To add to the curiosity we are Protestant and not only that, we are also Methodist- a lesser known variant. We haven't in any way experienced anything but acceptance- no derision, heckling, discrimination or anything of that sort. But, we are definitely viewed as being out of the norm.
The thing is that I was listening to an NPR show (you can stream them on-line all over the world!) around the time of the election and they were talking about polling. The part that stuck out to me was about cultural question biases. If you poll people in the US asking if they attend church on a weekly basis you got some relatively large percentage 40% 60% (?). If you asked in Ireland you got about 20%. However, if you looked at actual attendance rolls you find that the percentage in the US and Ireland are about the same- 20%. The difference is that in the US attending church on a weekly basis is culturally applauded and in Ireland (and most of Western Europe) it is viewed as something you certainly could do, but wouldn't you rather have a nice lie in and a fry up?
There is obviously a great deal of cultural baggage around religion, especially in Ireland. Not only does the Church of Ireland/Anglican Church historically have close ties with political and cultural oppression but the Catholic Church hasn't done itself any favors. In between sex scandals, the Magdalene laundries, child abuse scandals, and generally being less than welcoming to young children (which I really can't understand- if you encourage everyone to be fruitful, you really have to be ready for some crying babies and potty training toddlers) I can understand why the current generation has turned away.
The thing is that it just makes me sad. If you are a happy atheist, go on with your happy self! But, it seems like a I encounter rather a lot of people who aren't so much happy. I've encountered a lot of lost souls; a lot of hopelessness; a lot of confusion and aimlessness. There seems to have been a throwing of the baby out with the bathwater.
The thing that is so easy to forget but is vital to remember is that:
while the heart of the church,
any church, whatever divinity floats your boat,
the hands of the church
are very much human.
The human hands of the church in Ireland have managed to completely overshadow the Divine for any number of people. When I talk to others about why they decided to no longer attend church there is a great deal of discussion about the difficulties of getting children to sit quietly during Mass; a lack of bathrooms at church; the lack of integrity shown by the Priesthood; the lack of need for Divine guidance in knowing how people should treat one another; a frustration with many demands with no return- tangible or intangible, or, worse, a squandering of sacrifices. I hear about people believing in God but not the church. I hear about and have experienced a reliance on doing things "the way they have always been" without thought as to what the scriptural or spiritual basis may have been or where it may be leading. There is an over-reliance on the legal strictures of religious observance without the underlying uplift of Divine Inspiration. While there is something to be said to finding the Divine within the repetition of the mundane, there is also something to be said for not losing the Divine spark within human constructs.
The thing that I have found most notably missing, especially from my Methodist faith, is the emphasis on social justice and personal revelation. There is a great deal of discussion in every sermon about what Jesus did 2000 years ago. There is a fair amount of emphasis on "Jesus loves you" theology with a smattering of how you should love Jesus and the occasional fire and brimstone billboard (usually from the Salvation Army). There is rarely even a nod as to why. Why does Jesus love us and why should I care and for that matter, very little concrete discussion about what you should be doing now, right here, with all this love you've been gifted with.
I have come to wonder if this might be the end result of 2 elements somewhat unique to this culture.
First, religious instruction is built into the public school system in Europe and especially in Ireland, where most all schools have a religious affiliation. This means that there is no Sunday School for children and thus, no Sunday School for adults. The upshot is that the sermon then becomes something of a Sunday School lesson and those lessons tend to focus on Bible knowledge rather than application of principles.
Second, the state has become the main dispenser of social justice and reform. While I agree with the general idea and feel that there are areas that are more suited to government action than religious (for instance, I don't think a parent who wishes to stay home with their child should have to work outside the home simply to obtain affordable health insurance. I am quite comfortable with the trade off of paying more in taxes as a preventative measure.), the church has not been nimble in responding to a changing call. Instead of adapting to changing social needs and filling the crevices that are always gaping between what society needs and what the government can offer, the churches have simply given up and given over. Their human hands were flawed. Their endeavours were tainted. Instead of giving people a reason to come together to try again based upon those very same Bible verses we spend so much time discussing as history lessons, I hear ministers bemoaning dwindling coffers and empty seats.
The thing that motivates me to remain strong in my Methodist faith is two-fold. First, I believe that there is a spark of Divine in that which the church undertakes and implements with good faith. I believe that somehow, my not enough becomes plenty when mixed with the hopes, faith, and offerings of others. Second, I believe that at the heart of the Methodist faith is the belief that all have the Divine within and with it, a calling and responsibility to fight for the weak. Methodists are rabble rousers, do-gooders, and trouble makers. While other faiths do similar work, this is the faith tradition I feel closest to.
I can not speak for other faiths within Europe, but I can say that I have observed a notable lack of discussion about the second half of what I consider a key tennet of my faith. When more time is spent hunting for Bible verses than learning how to apply them to the very important work you are to do during your very precious time on earth, I can see why people are left wondering what all the fuss is about.
Come together, over Me.