I’m not so sure I like Christians very much these days. Or, indeed, Catholics more specifically. This might appear an odd admission from someone who is a professor in a theology faculty at a Catholic institution, who teaches courses in the history of Christianity, and who has been steeped in the Catholic tradition from his earliest years.
Now before anyone thinks of reviving the Inquisition for the sole purpose of trying me for what is, admittedly, a provocative statement, I should perhaps explain myself.
When I say I increasingly dislike “Christians”, or indeed “Catholics”, these terms should really be hedged around with quotation marks, as I’ve now done. My main issue with these terms is that I believe they are increasingly being hijacked by individuals and groups with whom, as both a Christian and a Catholic, I can find very little common ground.
This is not to say that Christians have ever actually sung off the same hymn sheet on all matters, doctrinal or moral. For decades now, scholars have come to appreciate that Christianity was a variegated movement from its earliest days.
Where problems did arise, they were often with groups who claimed to represent a “truer” or “purer” form of Christianity, and which rejected all other expressions as false, or heretical. St Augustine would famously regard the Donatists, one such fourth-century North African group, as frogs in the marsh croaking “We are the only Christians”.
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Unfortunately, this type of croaking is still with us. Predictably, one sees it on social media sites such as Twitter. Accounts in which individuals identify as either Christian or Catholic can sometimes exhibit the vilest of views, communicated in the most intransigent and uncharitable of ways – and all this in the name of defending what the account holders regard to be true Christianity/Catholicism (delete as applicable). What’s more their invective is so often directed at fellow Christians.
This has been especially evident in the cultural and liturgical wars within a deeply polarised American Catholicism for many years now, but it has also made its way across the water. The problem with this is that those who shout the loudest about their “Christian” or “Catholic” identity often end up commandeering this identity in the public mindset, leading many less belligerent onlookers to wonder whether they are the real deal at all, and prompting questions of whether they belong to a second or third division of the faithful.
These people are often a silent majority. They are the people whom you’re likely to encounter in churches up and down the country on any given Sunday – those who are trying to quietly live out their faith amid the ordinary challenges of everyday life; those who are not permanently on crusade; those who continue to believe in the inherent goodness of the world, and of people; those who are not permanently stuck in a condemnatory gear, and whose quieter form of Christianity nonetheless impels them to reach out to those in need, their left hands not knowing what their right is doing (Matthew 6:3).
Generally speaking, the terms “Christian” or “Catholic” are not flashing like neon signs from their social media profiles.
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I am very sad to admit, but, in today’s religiously acrimonious climate, the first sight of such terms on a social media account immediately puts me on my guard. At times it even sends chills through me, and I often fear the worst – guilty until proven innocent.
I deeply resent reacting like this to the name of a faith to which I fully subscribe. And yet, as I read so many of the so-called “Christian” or “Catholic” accounts on social media, it makes me wonder whether I share the same religion at all – I certainly don’t recognise the Jesus Christ, whom I try to follow, in much of the content I find there. Furthermore, it makes me realise the truth of that oft-quoted saying, “Sometimes the best evangelism is telling people you’re a Christian and then not being a complete jerk.”
It’s time for the ordinary person in the pew to stand up and reclaim their Christian/Catholic identity from those who would wish to create a very narrow and exclusivist church. It’s time to dispense with feelings of inferiority. Those who are so busy shouting their faithfulness can often miss the extraordinary ordinariness of the grace given to the wounded and the broken; to those who are somehow regarded as not measuring up. It’s time for a quiet revolution.
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I gave a course on the history of Christianity in Ballina, Co Mayo, recently, and, on the final night, a lady came up to thank me and to say goodbye. Before she turned away, she smiled and, in a conspiratorial whisper, quipped “Listen, I’m not so sure I believe in God, but I do believe in people.”
I’ve thought on her words a lot ever since. Perhaps one of the problems today is that many who very publicly profess a belief in God find it much more difficult to believe in people. Christianity might be a lot healthier if they did.
Salvador Ryan is professor of ecclesiastical history at St Patrick’s Pontifical University, Maynooth