The default position for contemporary Irish Christians

Ireland has had the reputation for many centuries as the island of saints and scholars. The vast majority of these saints lived during the fourth to 10th centuries, the period of early Christian Ireland, when Celtic Christianity produced many missionaries to Great Britain and the European continent. The history behind the phrase begins with the Roman Empire’s collapse in the fifth century, Europe was in a state of serious intellectual and social decay as its institutions crumbled. Insulated on the western shores of Europe, Ireland’s institutions could continue to prosper and evolve without interruption leading to a period of intellectual, religious, and artistic superiority that has been called ‘Ireland’s Golden Age’. It is during this period Ireland earned the title ‘Insula Sanctorum et Doctorum – The Island of Saints and Scholars’.

Yet in recent times, it seems as if as a people, we are doing our best to discard what remains of our fifteen-hundred-year-old legacy as a Christian nation. Of course, there are many explanations for why this has happened, one of which is the scandal-ridden legacy of recent times, ie, the Magdalene laundry and the sexual abuse controversies, and its particular relationship with Irish Catholicism. People’s increasing abandonment of the Church is mixed up in redefining Irishness, and embracing libertarian freedom and a vague and nebulous new age Celtic spirituality. Also, the revolutionary sixties arrived late in Ireland, especially with regard to the country’s delayed sexual revolution. It is only in recent times that Irish culture has ‘caught up’ with the rest of the West. My sense is that there is deep exhilaration felt at throwing off the past in the adoption of same-sex marriage and in the victories of the divorce and abortion and same sex referenda.

And with the collapse of old certainties, identity politics (political positions based on the interests and perspectives of social groups with which people identify ) is beginning to exert more and more influence. The problem with such politics is that young people become focused on the battle for narrow political and social agendas that marginalise a wider sense of pluralism and the common good.

In all this we can trace the paradox of illiberal liberalism.

So, what has or is in the process of replacing traditional Christianity? Many would argue that what Notre Dame sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lindquist Dentin presented in their 2005 book Soul Searching. What they term Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a revisionist version of what traditional Christianity practices. In Christian Smith’s “God, Religion, Whatever,” we get an outline of the core tenets of this modern and informal tradition: 1, God exists and watches over us; 2, God wants us to be “good”; 3, the goal of life is happiness; 4, God has a minimal presence in our lives until He needs to troubleshoot a problem; 5, good people go to Heaven. While relatively basic, these central beliefs encapsulate some important aspects of Christianity well and misunderstand others.

It’s clear that this offers a much more casual approach to belief, one which suits an age highly suspicious of authority and dogma. God here is seen as a deity, but more like a big brother — He will give us guidance when we need it, but will leave us alone when we don’t. With this kind of moral flexibility, I think it can be said that this is rapidly becoming the default position for many contemporary believers. But this new-age spin on Christian belief is valuable in its own right, because It reflects many of the shared values of contemporary believers: tolerance, individuality, kindness.

The rise in numbers of people with no religious affiliation reflects the emergence of a new faith rather than a loss of faith altogether. Our latest Census should give us a more accurate idea of just how traditional belief has declined. But many, it is clear, already self-identify as “Post Christian,” - people who claim no religious affiliation—and their numbers are growing.

The Therapeutic Turn posits that psychology itself has institutionalised central corollary of this world view — that truth and authority can be found inwards, and that the highest goal of society is self-actualisation.

We try to transpose authority onto "authenticity", but it's unclear what that means exactly, and it’s challenging to have so few shared morals. What’s new is the therapeutic ethos’ introduction as a promise of liberation independent of God or another transcendent, eternal entity. For the first time in history, it’s based exclusively on the self. We used to find meaning in our external commitments. Before the rise of therapy, commitment was outwardly directed to those communal beliefs and institutions that were bigger than the individual and in which the individual, to the degree that they had conformed to or cooperated with them, found meaning.

Barnaby ffrench


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