Sunday, June 26, 2005

Irish Catholic Folk Religion 

There is an Irish habit of asking if you want something three or four times, until you finally give in. “You’d like a tea, wouldn’t you?” “No thank you, I’ll be fine without.” “Really, you’ll be having a tea.” “No, I’ll be OK.” “Ah c’mon, you’ll have a tea!” “Ah, you’re forcing me!” At that stage you would give in, having said exactly what you were expected to say. It is generally considered polite to turn down the offer the first few times and only then allow yourself to be won over. This really annoyed some foreign visitors, particularly Germans, if I remember correctly. They used to complain that, if you said you didn’t want tea, once should be enough. People should take you at your word. On the other hand, Irish visitors to other countries occasionally complained that no one gave them tea! This is a harmless and charming cultural habit taken by itself (allowing others to persuade us to avail of their hospitality is not a bad thing). However, in Ireland the need to be polite and please other people in conversation is taken to extremes. My father made an interesting observation today. Looking back over his time of ministry in Ireland he often wondered why the Irish so frequently failed to keep their word. If you invited someone to a meeting they would say that they would be there but wouldn’t turn up. After a while he realized that people were not trying to lie. Rather, they were trying to be polite. They wanted to say whatever pleased you. If they knew that you wanted them to go to a meeting, that is what they would say they would do, even if they had no intention of turning up. Conversation was often so geared towards pleasing people and being polite that truth-telling was marginalized. Words were chiefly designed to form and maintain relationships, rather than to make truth claims. Words were used primarily to manipulate people, please them or move them to action, rather than to convey clear statements of truth or error. The relational function of language could often eclipse the truth-telling function of language. Consequently, you couldn't take someone at their word. It was always a distinct possibility that they were just saying what they were saying in an attempt to please you. When someone said that they didn’t want tea, they really did. When someone said that they would go to a meeting, they really wouldn’t, but they wanted to please you. The first case can be merely a harmless wish to allow others to persuade you to partake of their hospitality; the second case is a lie. The Irish occasionally commented that it was appropriate that the symbol of the Irish nation was the harp, because the nation ran by pulling strings. People would talk about different levels of traffic offences, for example. A ‘constable offence’ was an offence that you needed to know a constable to get away with. Much depended on the people that you were in with and what people you knew. Laws and words were not as reliable as they should be because relationships were often what really counted in the final analysis, not truth and trust of people’s words. The country often ran by getting in with the right crowd, exchanging favours, pleasing the right people, psychological manipulation, arm-twisting, putting others in your debt in some way or other and the like. My dad observed that such a society was utterly consistent with the sort of God that was worshipped in Irish Catholicism. Irish Catholicism tends to work on much the same principle as Irish society. Knowing and trusting God’s Word is not that important thing (implicit faith is enough); having the right connections is that which really matters. One attends church because doing this will get you in God’s good books. One prays to Mary because mothers always have a strong influence over their sons. Having an influence on Christ through Mary is a safer route than taking Jesus Himself at His Word and approaching Him in faith. Mary will put in a good word for you with her Son. If you are not good enough to get in Mary’s good books, then try St. Anna, she’ll pass on your message to her daughter. Mary can then speak to her Son and He can give the Father a nudge. Within the relational logic of such a society, good works will play an important role. People aren’t thinking of keeping the Law perfectly or anything like that — that’s not how it works. Rather, good works serve as an important means of influencing others in your favour and getting them to give you favours in return. The treasury of the saints is quite significant for this reason. They have a number of uncalled favours with God and if you get on their good side, they can call some of these favours for you. Those who have merit with God can exert greater psychological pressure on Him. One asks the saints to pray for you because one believes that the efficacy of prayer lies primarily in the influence exerted by the praying person on God, rather than in trusting prayer itself. It is imperative that we appreciate how serious a departure from Christian faith all of this actually represents. The Roman Catholic Church is frequently seriously misrepresented by its critics, but this sort of widespread and corrupt folk religion that is practiced within its walls falls far short of biblical Christianity. Also, given the widespread character of such folk religion in Roman Catholic countries we should not be surprised if the rule of law flourishes primarily in historically Protestant lands, where a culture of trusting people’s words and letting your yes be yes has really taken root. (This post has been modified, as the original version was quite poorly worded and left itself wide open to misinterpretation.)

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?