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Diversity of views on the role of religion

In the third of a five-part series, features writer ANGELA YEOMAN reflects on the changing role of religion and faith in our lives.

Last week’s instalment investigated if Presbyterian and Anglican churches accommodate both literal and more symbolic views of the pillars of Christianity.

Given Reverend Dr Geering’s views and prophesies back in 1965 that resulted in him being tried for heresy and in light of statistics showing a rapid decline in the number of New Zealanders identifying as Christian, there’s a question about the survival of Christianity. Do its messages of living well, having hope, and reducing suffering, depend on being able to flexibly accommodate a range of views?

This part examines the Baptist and Catholic Christian denominations. About one per cent of Wairarapa residents identify with each. We also talk with others who profess faith but have no religious affiliation.

Baptist churches

The Baptist Union of New Zealand is a collective of congregational lead churches that govern themselves locally, while being covenanted together nationally.

“Because of the freedom this brings, different churches may hold differing views on a variety of issues relating to theology, and within each local church there will no doubt be individual members who hold differing views on theology,” communications director Dr Mike Crudge says.

As the Baptist churches are encompassed by the evangelical Christian community, however, Crudge doubts “there would be people in the New Zealand Baptist churches [today or in the past] who would concur with the views of Geering from 60 years ago”.

The Baptist churches in Aotearoa hold to six key articles of faith that affirm the literal and objective truths of God, his son Jesus who rose again, and the Bible as God’s revelation to humanity. Additional and critical components of evangelical Christianity are turning away from sin [embracing moral conduct] and spreading the Christian message.

The disconnected church

In 2014, Crudge surveyed more than 1000 people about their views of Christianity. “I consider the mission of the church to be a process of communication,” he wrote. But the results of his research illustrated “a communication problem between … ‘not-Christians’ and Christians”.

A significant majority of both Christians and non-Christians agreed that:

The church does not have a good public profile.

Some Christians do amazing good.

The church is a spiritual place.

A significant majority of Christians agreed, and a significant majority of non-Christians disagreed, that:

The church is sincere and trustworthy.

Christians are sincere and trustworthy.

By comparison, a significant majority of Christians disagreed, and a significant majority of non-Christians agreed, that:

The church is after your money.

The church is not relevant or necessary.

The church is oppressive.

Free, independent thinkers don’t need the church.

The church is emotive and manipulative.

The church lacks integrity.

Christians lack integrity.

The church is stuck in the past, in a time when it had power and abused its control.

Crudge’s survey showed little in the way of common ground and shared understanding between Christians and ‘not-Christians’ regarding the nature of the church. He referred to this phenomenon as “the disconnected church”.

The Catholic Church

“The Catholic Church does not wish to engage in this matter,” was the response to the Times-Age when it sought views on Geering’s 60-year-old statements about the pillars of Christianity.

Receiving any response at all was appreciated, because some other denominations approached did not respond at all. And the tenor of the response is not surprising. The Catholic Church has received a lot of news coverage recently and may want to lower its profile. Media attention has particularly focused on the seeming inability of the Catholic ‘pulpit’ to embrace one of the key pillars that defines any religion: moral conduct.

Catholicism and
moral conduct

Ethics, morals, living well, and reducing suffering haven’t seemed important for the Catholic church over multiple centuries. It created wars in the name of religion and oppressed societies across the world as part of colonialism. It maintained power by preventing ‘the pews’ from being educated so that they wouldn’t question the church. It killed women [known as witches] and gays, abused and killed children, tortured non-Catholics … the list goes on.

If any of this is a surprise to you, Ken Follet’s historical novels are a user-friendly way of gaining insights into these matters.

The Catholic Church in Aotearoa New Zealand told the Royal Commission on Abuse in Care there were a total of 1680 reports of abuse made by 1122 individuals for the years 1950 to 2022. The numbers related to Catholic clergy, brothers, nuns, sisters, and lay people.

The church’s own data records allegations made against 52 per cent of St John of God brothers, 34 per cent of Sisters of Nazareth, 19 per cent of Diocese of Christchurch priests, and 18 per cent each of the Diocese of Dunedin priests and Good Shepherds Sisters. And that’s just the cases that were reported and recorded.

It appears that the Catholic Church might – to use a phrase from Crudge’s disconnected church survey – be “stuck in the past, in a time when it had power, and abused its control”.

Given this context, there’s a question for the Catholic Church [and the small percentage of Wairarapa residents who identify as Catholic] that differs from the main topic of this series about literal or symbolic core religious beliefs – can Catholicism even be defined as a religion given that moral conduct [the only pillar defining religion that cannot be interpreted any other way than literally] is not always observed by ‘the pulpit’ [the clergy]?

Having faith
without religion

A small but significant percentage of us have faith in something sacred without identifying with any specific religion or denomination. The Times-Age talked with two people willing to share their non-religious faith.

Annie [not her real name] was brought up in Carterton’s Catholic church but hasn’t thought of herself as, or identified as, Catholic for a long time.

“I got bored of the church in my late teens and stopped going,” she says. These days, she’s a “firm believer in the 10 commandments because they’re all about morality, but not really a believer of anything else in the Bible”.

Nevertheless, in addition to trying to treat others in the same way she’d like to be treated, she believes in Jesus, in a higher being [a God] who watches over us, and in fate.

“If something is meant to be, it will happen,” Annie says, “so I don’t stress.” She believes that the higher being is aware of us as individuals, and she prays to it about friends’ babies, her son, finding the right house, and more.

Annie also believes we have a soul that goes off somewhere when we die, maybe to a heaven or hell, but she likes the idea of reincarnation best. “If I have a choice, I’d come back as a cat.”

The Catholic church in Carterton has closed now because there is no priest, but Annie made sure all her three children were christened Catholic. “I wanted them to be God’s children.”

Charlotte [not her real name] was brought up, christened, and confirmed in Masterton’s Anglican church. “I went to youth groups and Bible classes into my early teens,” she recalls. And then she stopped. She doesn’t identify as an Anglican now.

Even so, Charlotte believes in a God [but not Jesus], something divine, a man. “There have been times when I’ve prayed and talked to God, even pleaded with him when someone I loved was sick.”

Having a soul and living on after death are important to Charlotte because, otherwise, “what’s the point?” She knows people who have talked to dead people. And her sister has found meaning in symbols. Their nana used to love monarch butterflies. Just after her death, a monarch fluttered onto the washing line when Charlotte’s sister was hanging out the washing. After their father died, two monarchs fluttered down and sat on the washing line. “It was as though their souls had found each other and found a way to communicate with us.”

“My husband and I had our children christened,” Charlotte says. “We were both christened ourselves, so our actions with the children were largely automatic.” Charlotte cannot remember having any sense of needing to give her children to God.

Drawing the
threads together

After talking with Anglicans and Presbyterians in an earlier part of this feature and with Baptists and non-religious people with faith in today’s instalment, it appears that literal views about the pillars of religion can exist both within and outside of structured Christian denominations.

It also appears that more symbolic or metaphorical views can exist within ‘the pews’ of at least some Christian denominations, although this same flexibility is less possible for their ‘pulpits.’ At the same time, however, the number of those identifying with Christian churches keeps dropping while the number of those saying they have no faith or religious beliefs keeps rising.

What is hard to tell from statistics is the extent to which people without faith or religion have an incentive to reduce the suffering of themselves and others, to live well, and to live with hope.

For an overview of Geering’s views and his heresy trial, read Geering and God: 1965-71 The Heresy Trial that Divided New Zealand.

Angela Yeoman is a features writer for the Times-Age, social researcher, and an author. She has a degree in religious studies. Visit praxeum.org.

Next week, we look at how a handful of people have come to be part of a church, as well as opportunities today for young people to do so.

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