Thinking Anew – A willingness to learn from others

Photograph: Cecilie Arcurs/iStock

Photograph: Cecilie Arcurs/iStock

 

A major concern for churches in Ireland and beyond is the declining participation of young people.

This is not confined to Ireland, as a recent survey of 16- to 29-year-olds across Europe shows.

In the Czech Republic, for instance, 91 per cent of young people said they had no religious affiliation; Estonia, Sweden and the Netherlands were not much better. Poland appears to be the most religious country in Europe, where only 17 per cent of young adults declare themselves to be non-religious. Ireland recorded a figure of just under 40 per cent.

The reasons for these negative findings are complex: secularism, for example, has for some a greater appeal than faith, while persistent failures on the part of institutional religion have undermined the credibility of churches.

It is tempting in such circumstances for Christians to withdraw, stay quiet, in the face of indifference and, at times, open hostility but that temptation has been there from the beginning.

After the resurrection of Jesus there was an initial reluctance among the disciples to tell their story: they were afraid. The Book of Acts paints a picture of a seemingly effective early church where possessions were shared, the faith taught, the needy were cared for and numbers were increasing. But in tomorrow’s reading from Acts that has changed: Christians are in prison and on trial. The killing of Stephen – the first Christian martyr – and persecution drove believers from Jerusalem, taking their faith with them far and wide. The church was forced to become what it was intended to be – a missionary movement which would not always be well received.

St Paul is sometimes referred to as the first Christian theologian. For him the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ had not just initiated a new style of religion, but a totally new understanding of how a Christian person should think of him or herself. He wrote, “If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.”

In Galatians he gives an example of what this should mean for human relationships: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. ”

To this day that message is not well received in many places.

As Bishop John Pritchard put it: “The secret is that ‘in Christ’ there is a new world; we come out of the cave and into the reality we never knew. In such a world, community is natural, inclusive, outgoing and full of light.”

That understanding of community, inclusive and outgoing, will mean one thing to an older generation within a settled and familiar religious and social order but something quite different to widely travelled younger people at ease in a global society which is multifaith and multicultural.

In a recent chance conversation in an airport terminal, a young man, a total stranger, on his way home to Ireland, spoke of his distress and disappointment with the religion of his birth. He was travelling without the girl he loved because she was an Asian Muslim and his family did not approve of the relationship. The fact that someone that mattered to him was unacceptable at home on religious and racial grounds hurt him deeply. He blamed his church.

In the gospel reading for tomorrow Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is quoted as saying: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So, there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

It is wrong to interpret that to mean others abandoning their beliefs and moving in with us, thus affirming the superiority of who we are and what we believe.

Instead it is an invitation to openness and a willingness to respect and learn from others – and especially the young who have so much to share with us.

Arthur James Balfour said: “A religion that is small enough for our understanding is not great enough for our needs.”

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