Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Faith Communities Have A Right to Have Their Voices Heard on How the World Should Be

That is the headline of an opinion piece by Fr. Patrick Claffey, a theology professor in Trinity College Dublin, in today's Irish Times.

The piece itself is entirely unobjectionable, but the headline makes me grind my teeth. "Faith community?" When did this word slip into currency? I suppose it is an effort to avoid using the term "church", since this rather excludes non-Christian religions. But what on earth is wrong with the noun "religion?". "Faith community" is a wishy-washy word.

But then again, I object to the way the word "community" has been captured, knocked about, dragged through the dust on the back of a donkey cart, and generally abused. Why couldn't we have kept the word "community" to mean a group of people who live in the same place, and share a common life? It has been stretched to mean any group of people whatsoever, rendering it meaningless. Now we have the gay community, the science fiction community, the diabetes community, the Scrabble community.

To my mind, a community is something very specific and very special. It means people who share all the casual, banal experiences of life as well as (possibly) the more intense and purposeful ones; people who hear the same birdsong and building work; who have all seen the eccentric fellow who stands outside the pub shaking everybody's hand; who will all be plunged into darkness if there's a local blackout. A shared interest or a shared plight with somebody who lives on the other side of the world just isn't the same thing. It may be more meaningful, but it's not the same. It's not a community.

Nor do we need to abuse the word "community" in this way. When it comes to Christianity, we have an equally beautiful word to describe the commonality that a Roman Catholic in Palmerstown shares with a Roman Catholic in Peking. That word is communion.

As for the sentiment of the headline, I find myself exasperated by the plea that religious believers "have a right to be heard". Christians should not speak to the world on the ground that they have a right to be heard; they should do so on the grounds that they are right. The "right to be heard" rhetoric suggests that Christians "bring something to the table", possibly a kind of folk wisdom that comes sugared with mythology and allegorical tales, and which will complement the other "voices" in the "conversation". I don't think Christians should be strident or pugnacious, but I do think that the only hearing we deserve is based on the claim that we bear a revelation from God. The more gingerish we are about that, the less the world will want to hear us-- and rightly so.

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