Friday, 3 April 2020

Religion, Society and the Individual

Lent 2020 - Day 38

A few days ago, it occurred to me that the 'build your own religion' that I'm framing here is by its nature esoteric; it could only be a religion for the few, not for the masses. There's too much that's hidden; it's mystical, arcane. It would not require too much from anyone who chose this way other than for them to share observations, insights and inspirations with fellow seekers. It would not be a 'factory-ready' religion, more a scratch-built kit with few instructions and a rather vague end-point. This kit wouldn't even be put together in the seeker's lifetime. But it would advance, gain definition, and like any work of construction, would give its builders satisfaction from its progress.

Mass religions are a social construct; looking in any church congregation, one sees a spectrum with the genuinely devoted, whose unshakeable belief is admirable, at one end. And at the other, those who pay lip-service (in the literal sense of those two words), those whose attendance in church is primarily predicated by a need to fit into a community, into a society. Between them, the bulk of the congregation. Neither this nor that, but stalwart churchgoers nonetheless.

Until my father's death last October, I'd go to church with him regularly. We'd not talk about the Mass either on the way there, nor on the way home, nor while eating lunch afterwards. It was something one did, something my father did all his life. He never discussed his beliefs with me, the house didn't have religious pictures or books in it. But he went - week in, week out. He never missed mass unless he was very unwell, which was rare. It would have been, I feel, wrong for me to intrude, to ask him questions about his faith - nor he, mine. For him it was good that I accompanied him to church whenever I was in Ealing.

For the sake of etiquette, I'd make the sign of the cross, sit, stand and kneel at the appropriate parts of the service, but I would not recite that which I do not believe - 'Christ, the only begotten son of God, born of the Virgin Mary', in the Credo, for example. In a way, the pre-Second Vatican Council order of the Mass, spoken or sung in Latin, would give the congregation the opt-out of being able to say out loud words they didn't know, and therefore didn't necessarily commit themselves to their meaning.

In Poland, the Church has played an incredibly important role in keeping the nation together during the darkest times of its history - the partitions, the Nazi-Soviet invasion and the postwar communist period. Yesterday marked the 15th anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II, whose role in untangling Poland from the Kremlin's clutches cannot be underestimated. Without the church as a powerful social force that could counteract atheist communism and atheist materialism, Poland could easily have lost its way in the 1990s - an immoral mafia state. It didn't. However, I do feel that since the death of 'our Pope', the Church in Poland has drifted into dark waters. From patriotism into nationalism, intolerance and (beyond my understanding this,) criticism of the low-carbon agenda.

In urban Poland, the citizen has a choice - go to church or not go to church on a Sunday. If you don't go, your neighbours won't know, nor care. Churchgoing in Poland is in decline, echoing that seen in Spain and Ireland - two ostensibly Catholic countries with similar social histories to Poland's, but a few decades more advanced in terms of economic development. In all three societies, churchgoing remains highest in rural parts. In the countryside, one's absence from the pews on a Sunday is most strongly noted. Social trust weighs deeply here - how can you trust a neighbour who does not partake of the Holy Sacraments of Confession or Eucharist?

Building my religion, I'd be entirely supportive of people regularly going to the church, mosque, synagogue or temple in which they were raised. As long as they had a bigger picture in their head - a Universal picture of a billion galaxies each of a billion stars, a Universe that's expanding at an accelerating rate; a Universe that may well be conscious (room for doubt in my religion!). The Universe is a work-in-progress; it has far to go - as does our understanding of its ultimate purpose. Reaching that Universal awareness is more than one life's work. Our consciousnesses need to be around for a whole lot longer than the span of one human lifetime.

The Individual should strive to fit into society. Some people can feel desperately lonely when stuck on their own; others however cherish solitude as a time when their consciousness untroubled by distraction, can seek a higher calling. I belong to the second group, happy enough to wander around with my thoughts and my notebook, but equally happy in a social gathering - though not for the small-talk.

This time four years ago:
Qualia - the experience of being conscious

This time five years ago:
Analysing the success of Lidl

This time six years ago:
Should schools be teaching language - or Languages?

This time seven years ago:
More moaning about Karczunkowska's pavement deficit

This time eight years ago:
Architectural detail from Edinburgh

This time nine years ago:
Spring explodes in Jeziorki

This time ten years ago:
Along the way for Warsaw's southern bypass

This time 11 years ago:
Quintessential Warsaw vista

This time 12 years ago:
Jeziorki on Google Earth

This time 13 years ago:
Okęcie airport, our near neighbour

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