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By Colin Gibson in All Sorts
how do we acquire a sense of what it is to have a faith or become aware of what we call a spiritual dimensionAT A RECENT SERVICE, Marcia Hardy showed us a nostalgic Victorian picture of a little girl kneeling at her bedside, saying her prayers. Although that was not the point of the picture as Marcia developed it, it prompted in me the question, how do we get to know about religion? How does anyone, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or whatever, acquire a sense of what it is to have a faith or become aware of what we call a spiritual dimension
Since we are born into the world without any gene any scientist has yet discovered that carries DNA faith instructions, we must learn from the culture into which we are born. How does that work? How did you acquire your first awareness of religion?
Probably by unconscious imitation: being taken to church from babyhood and becoming accustomed to the rituals and words and actions of Sunday worship. More education probably came from attending Sunday School, where religious instruction was paramount, where songs were sung and biblical stories told, and later where some of the core values of our particular faith-community were spelled out for us. (And sadly that’s often where it all ended.)
At school we might have encountered Bible in Schools programmes, those curious periods when regular schooling was technically suspended (because state education was secular and its secularity had to be guarded), and well-meaning volunteers, who sometimes included members of the teaching staff, told us more stories and discussed at a more mature level faith values.
After that, there were radio broadcasts and television programmes, carrying religious services and, more recently, hymn sessions—for those too aged or infirm to attend a ‘real’ church. And then there were
the books, hundreds of them on specific religious topics, if you could find the time to read and the money to buy them. Even secular news sessions carried information about some great Church festival, or visiting dignitary, or if you were lucky a royal wedding in a great English abbey.
Beyond that again, if you were alert enough you learned about religion by observing (or hearing about) the behaviour of other religious people; the kindness of a neighbour, the amazing charitable life of a Teresa of Calcutta or the principled actions of a Martin Luther King.
As for learning about faiths other than our ‘own’ Christianity, that came in bits and bobs of news, mostly through the secular media of our times or travel books about foreign places, where they professed such strange things about Allah or Buddha or Shiva or Confucius.
But the world has changed mightily. Modern families disintegrate, new secular communities for our young people emerge on Facebook or Twitter, church attendances drop rapidly, Sunday schools are closing down, national radio and TV is abandoning religious topics (no more Hymns on Sunday Morning), Bible in Schools is vanishing in the face of parental and teaching opposition, religious books are to be found in the Regent Book Sale in their hundreds. And we are more likely to hear news about the latest scientific theory of the universe or the most recent scandal of abuse in religious institutions than we are about the Pope’s visit to South America or the dedicated work of our own church missions. Everywhere organised religion, the old-style denominations, is in competition with individualist spiritual advisers, religious gurus, and practitioners of this or that ‘spiritual’ therapy. And as the latest census will show, the ‘Christian nation’ of New Zealand has become a society of many faiths and thousands of the indifferent, among which Christians willing to declare their allegiance are rapidly becoming a minority group.
All this spells a massive decline into sheer ignorance of what religion is, let alone the beliefs and practices of faith communities, including our own. More dangerous still, uninformed labelling and sheer propaganda is creating a deep suspicion of all form of religion. All priests are child abusers, all Muslims are terrorists, Buddhists burn villages and drive out ethnic minorities, Hindus starve their people to feed their sacred cows, Southern fundamentalists are, every one of them, gun-carrying murderers, and what spoilsports we all are when it comes to sex or gambling or drilling for oil or making heaps of money. To which I might add, making heaps of money out of war—‘Trade wars are good and easy to win’, declared President Trump, just recently, and he can’t wait to make America great again by wiping out North Korea with a good ole US hydrogen bomb.
Is there any hope for change? What would you think of urging the introduction into the New Zealand educational system of a universal Religious Studies unit, which introduced the next generation to the major faiths now present in our society and the religious values which they embody? Or a combined effort on the part of our Churches to present through the social media an informed and contemporary image of the faith we claim to share? Or little Mornington and Glenaven and Mosgiel Methodist launching out to carry their own small candle into the deepening winter’s night of ignorance and confusion?