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Christianity and Culture

We live in a so-called Christian culture. What precisely does that mean? It’s not simply a statement about our religious beliefs. Witness the recent shootings in Norway where the assailant claimed he was a Christian, but stated that he had no personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Rather than being a religious Christian, he saw himself as a cultural Christian—ie. he liked the morals (apart, apparently, from the command not to murder) and the Christian heritage of Europe.

In his, as in many others’ minds, Christianity is far wider than a set of religious beliefs—so wide in fact that it could even be disconnected from the religious beliefs themselves.

What has this got to with Ireland? We have our own set of cultures—Catholic and Protestant—both claiming Christianity. It strikes me that both have broadened out their definition from their initial religious one to a much broader cultural one.

To be a Catholic or a Protestant is much more than a set of religious beliefs. It is a whole cultural package made up of different strands—from politics (nationalist or unionist), to our view of history (invaded or rightful settlers), right down through to sport (GAA or rugby) and music (uillean pipes or flute bands). And somewhere occasionally in the mix there is our religious belief (Catholic or Protestant). I’m generalising of course, but generally that’s the case.

But it is the religious labels that have become the focal point of crystallisation of these cultures—every strand of the culture hangs on either one of these labels. The religious component has become the dominant label even when it is not the main component. It was not always so, nor is it helpful on many levels. But the level that concerns me is the spiritual level.

We have simplified society in Ireland into these two categories, such that to be a good protestant or a good catholic is less about what you believe religiously and more about your politics, your clan, and your social preferences. There are plenty of people who consider themselves Protestant or Catholic who know exactly where they stand on history, politics and culture, but have little concept of what they are meant to believe religiously.

This is a tragedy because eternity hangs, not on our political or cultural preferences, but on the content of what we believe—the very area where we assume the most, but perhaps question or even know the least.

True Christianity is above culture. To be a Christian isn’t making a statement about our politics, or history, or culture—although Christianity will impact these areas for good. It is simply about our relationship with God.

You can have a right relationship with God and retain your politics, history, music, sport etc. We Irish people, whether from Protestant or Catholic backgrounds, need to look beyond the confines of our culture, and make sure that our relationship with God is based on God’s terms not our culture’s.