03Jun Religion and Reason; what makes sense or is plain daft?

An essential part of our understanding of the Christian faith is that God’s Church is for everyone. The community dimension is centre stage. When we go to Mass we never know who’ll be beside us. Like family, we’re all in it together.Kn

Like family too we accept the variety of God’s creation. In a broad family like the Church, we get all-sorts. People who have studied the scriptures and who are well versed in theology; and people who haven’t really thought much about what their faith means. People who know the boundaries; and those who just run with the flow. People who have a mature, balanced and adult approach to their faith; and those who are, well, a bit on the daft side when it comes to religion.

While the daft, like the rest of us, have their place, there’s a sense in which the daft seem to be particularly attracted to religion. Indeed they often seem to occupy that peculiar middle ground between piety and superstition. Anything goes.

In my more depressing moments, I sometimes wonder whether we’re able at all to use the intelligence God has given us and to assess reasonably what fits or doesn’t fit within the boundaries of our faith, what makes sense and what’s just plain, well, daft.
It’s hard to imagine, for example, that people can still be taken in by chair-letters. You know the sort of thing: ‘You have been chosen to receive this letter. Say the following prayers: nine Our Fathers, nine Hail Marys and nine Glory Bes. Say them on nine consecutive days. And then send a copy of this letter to nine of your friends. If you carry out the above something good will happen to you. (One person won €10,000 on the lottery.) But don’t break the chain. A man in Timbuctoo broke it and his wife died a week later’.

It all sounds out by the side of things but it’s extraordinary how upset people can get when they receive one of those letters. Because they have a religious dimension to them, they are a form of religious blackmail of the innocent and the impressionable. In effect they run completely contrary to our image of the God Jesus revealed to us.
Yet some people make chain-prayers or some similarly daft notion their life’s work, circulating these prayers whenever they can, leaving them in church porches or stuck in beside a statue, often preying on the old and the vulnerableReligion seems particularly prone to daftness in various forms. Well-meaning and pious people can sometimes take one aspect of our faith and exaggerate it out of all proportion. An example of this is the extreme outer edge of the pro-life brigade, those who push photographs of aborted foetuses in people’s faces as a way of convincing them of their position. (I wonder how many votes did Ronan Mullen lose in the recent European election because his more extreme pro-life supporters did the rounds encouraging people to vote for him.) Pope Francis recently reminded us that the teaching of Jesus is not confined to pro-life.

But those on the outer edges have no time for Pope Francis or anyone else unless they sing from the same hymn-sheet as themselves.
For years priests have been confronted with a Catholic group who peddle the belief that is sometimes described as ‘a generational curse’, is based on a mis-reading of Exodus 20:5, and can lead to bizarre interpretations. A run of bad luck or particular illnesses can be attributed to this ‘curse’ and the absurd belief that sins committed by, say, our great-great-great grandfather which have never been forgiven are the cause of an individual’s present distress.

At any level it makes absolutely no sense yet you’ll find that those who are, naively or for their own crass purposes, exploiting the vulnerable have prescribed religious antidotes to achieve some kind of post-factum forgiveness for sins committed, say, in the nineteenth century. This usually involves nine Masses said on nine consecutive days . . .
We’re skirting the outer edges of normality here but it’s quite extraordinary how much the vulnerable can be taken in by any religious straw in the wind. And while we’d like to pretend that most people have a reasonable sense of the distinction between a religious impulse and superstitious practices, in fact there’s a huge constituency out there waiting to believe any kind of nonsense that someone, anybody can dress up as ‘religious’.

The visions industry is a case in point. No matter how bizarre or absurd the narrative some people almost want to believe it. Someone sees something on a wall, an outline of a figure or what might be in a certain light a possible outline of a figure, and before you know it a crowd gathers, someone starts the rosary, someone else opens a stall with religious artefacts of Our Lady of Lisnagoola, and the media turn up on cue to write colour-pieces. And there are those, as we know, who seek to make fortunes out of the gullibility of the over-pious.

Sometimes this religious excess has its funny side. Like the chain letter about priests. If a parish is unhappy with their priest – he preaches too long, or is never at home, or is late for Mass or whatever (fill in the details yourself) – all you had to do was say the prescribed prayers for nine days at 9 o’clock at night with nine parishioners. Then you had to send the letter to nine other parishes unhappy with their priest and bundle up your priest and send him to the first parish on the list. But be careful. Don’t break the chain. One parish broke the chain and got its old priest back again.

9 Responses

  1. Paul C Golden

    Pope Francis has a very special devotion to Our Lady Undoer of Knots. Many have never heard of this devotion, but it’s a great one or so says a new book on the subject.
    I agree that healing the family tree and other such things are not for me and I wonder about Undoing the Knots?.Is Pope Francis adding to this superstitious trend?.Puzzled

  2. Joe O'Leary

    Can it be doubted that the weakness of our church just now is largely due to its failure to accept modern rationality in the presentation of the Gospel? The failure is visible on many fronts, above all in the negative and discouraging attitude to theological research that has persisted since 1903, with only a slight relaxation in the mid-1960s.

  3. Con Devree

    “Pope Francis recently reminded us that the teaching of Jesus is not confined to pro-life.” This is true. It is also factual that on several occasions since then he has spoken of the horrors of abortion. He hardly regards it as a “religious straw in the wind.” He has more than once endorsed rather than dismiss the pro-life “brigade,” albeit not it’s more hurtful extremes.
    If as asserted there are so many misconceptions of prayer in use, it points to an absence of catechesis/evangelization, to an absence of training in how to pray. It points to a defective understanding of who God is insofar as such is possible for the human being. A paragraph relating to these points would have balanced the article.
    On the other hand even a misconception regarding prayer indicates some sense of prayer and of the Divine who sees the purposes of the heart and is unlikely to dismiss carte blanche all so called imperfect forms of prayer. Human reason doesn’t always reach the heights of its Divine counterpart.

  4. Con Devree

    # 2
    Is there a brief description of “modern” rationality?

  5. Joe O'Leary

    Modern rationality includes critical hermeneutics of Scripture (on which Benedict XVI’s Jesus trilogy tramples, though he did encourage Brown and Meier), anthropology informed in depth by ongoing discoveries in the natural and the human sciences, Enlightenment conceptions of human dignity, rights, and freedoms (recognized by the Vatican externally but not in its attitude to women and to freedom of thought, opinion, expression, publication and freedom of conscience within the RC community).

  6. Mary Vallely

    About time a priest spoke out against this daftness. I have posted this on the ACI Facebook page as a reminder because we’re all a bit prone to daftness at times.
    Why should a prayer have to be said 9 times or 7 times to be effective, eh?
    There are so many vulnerable people about whose fears are stoked up by such things. The wee bits of paper with “THE” special prayer that a kindly soul has left in the chapel to help save our souls are another scare mongering tactic though I don’t doubt at all the sincerity of the donor/writer. Ach sure, aren’t we all a bit daft at times. God loves us whether we say a particular prayer once,3,7 or 9 times or not at all. It’s our actions and our hearts that are judged, surely.

  7. Con Devree

    #5
    Question?
    Is this is a concise comprehensive statement of what the structure of Catholic teaching should be in order to account for the existence of “modern rationality’s” conception of nature; to account for possible outcomes of ways of “ongoing” thinking currently in vogue among a section of humanity? There seems to be an implied assumption underlying the statement that “modern rationality” is true to reality.

    Does the term “modern rationality” mean being in a state agreeable to reason in a particular (more modern?) way? Or does it pertain to the spirit of modern/postmodern philosophy?

    In terms of God, modern philosophy seeks to dismantle the classical understanding of God. It takes aim not at belief in the supernatural, but at our rational capacity for knowledge of the supernatural. Restricting reason is one of modern philosophy’s characteristics. Rejecting the secularity of reason is Catholic philosophy’s significant act of piety.

    The subject of this article is prayer. Its practice depends on, among other things, one’s concept (knowledge) of God. The whole basis for prayer resides in the indissoluble connection between the human intellect and a transcendent God who is Being itself. Knowledge of God depends on God revealing Himself. All the disciplines of course are rich sources of knowledge about reality, but ultimately all knowledge is grounded in God’s self-understanding.

    Do not statements 2 and 5 above exaggerate the extent to which “modern rationality” enables us to appreciate that nature is governed by an act of divine intelligence and love, and that rational beings find fulfilment in learning the truth about God?

  8. Nuala O'Driscoll

    @4.
    Common Sense or Cop On.

  9. Paddy Ferry

    Joe@5, what and excellent and succinct description/explanation.
    Thanks, Joe.