Advent also marks the time of the year when the "religious" and "secular" communities seem to have the most to say to each other. Unfortunately, most of what they have to say to each other is not very nice.
If I was to put my religious persuasion on my Facebook page, it would probably say "It's complicated". I was born in Dublin, Ireland, and baptized in the Roman Catholic church, the son of a Roman Catholic from the Falls Road area of Belfast and the Anglican daughter of a Royal Navy sailor who died in a Japanese PoW camp during the Second World War.
A house move at the age of five to a conservative RC parish, accompanied a while later by the retirement of the more moderate parish priest from our old parish left us trying a variety of RC churches, including Latin Mass at the Pro-Cathedral, no less, in a vain attempt to find one my father liked. Eventually, he approached the local Church of Ireland (the name of the Anglican church in Ireland) rector, who welcomed us all to attend that church.
So, born and baptized a Roman Catholic, I was confirmed in the Anglican church. Thus began a more than 20-year relationship with the Church of Ireland that turned my life around (a whole other story) and fomented a love of the Anglican liturgy, especially the now little-used Common Book of Prayer, and its music: the canticles, psalms and hymns. And, of course, the carols. If you visit my home (and often my desk) at any time between Advent Sunday and Epiphany, you will be treated to the voices of the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, singing my particular favorites. I sang all of them in the choir of that Church of Ireland church, albeit in a style more akin to can belto than anything else.
I was married in that church to my now ex-wife, herself a Roman Catholic, and we moved to Canada a couple years later, having visited family here while on honeymoon.
The Anglican Church in Canada is a peculiar animal. Unlike the austerely homogeneous Church of Ireland, united in its efforts to be as unlike the Roman Catholic church as possible despite having a lot in common with it, the Anglican Church in Canada, as in much of the rest of the world, consists of members with a wide range of liturgical views. These are held strongly enough by the various factions to have caused some parishes in this diocese to leave it and affiliate with another over the issue of the ordination of gay clergy, resulting in all sorts of legal and financial battles.
I tried a couple of the Anglican churches in the area for a while, but getting out of bed on Sunday mornings to attend services concerned more with liturgical schism than the worship of God lost its appeal fairly quickly and I fell out of the habit.
Then last Christmas, a family that we had come to know well through hockey and school invited us to attend their church, Broadmoor Baptist Church. We went along on Christmas Eve to encounter everything that my previous church experience as one of God's Frozen People had conditioned me to find uncomfortable. There was no stately pipe organ, but a drum kit, electric guitars, a tambourine. It was warm, the benches were soft. People were demonstratively enthusiastic about their faith, held their arms in the air as they sang songs, laid hands on each other as they prayed.
Our kids loved it. They begged to go back the next Sunday, and the next, and now we are regular attendees there. One of the children's favorite bedtime story books is David Kossoff's "Bible Stories Retold", useful as we play catch-up with their peers' Biblical knowledge. Over time, I have learned to lower my defenses against the unfamiliar, and I have been rewarded with the love and support of a community which expresses its faith, worship, prayer and charity in a genuine, heartfelt way that I had never experienced anywhere else.
In Ireland, regular attendance at church is a societal norm, and an often robotic and generally unquestioning one at that. When I lived there, many Roman Catholic churches had moved their main weekend service from Sunday morning to Saturday night in the hopes of getting people to attend on their way to the pub, instead of having to drag them from their hungover beds on Sunday morning. A sizable portion of the congregation would stand outside the open doors of the church so they could smoke and chat and still tell their mothers that they had been to Mass.
By contrast, church attendance in North America is not the norm. The decision to attend is a conscious commitment that sets you apart from the mainstream as "religious", a "person of faith", a "Christian". These terms are fast becoming the casualties of a growing intolerance of religion in secular society fueled both by the abject failure of some churches to deal with the sexual exploitation of children by their clergy, and by the antics of a new breed of ultra-conservative politician who is unabashedly religious and who wears their lack of intellect like a badge of honor. To label someone a Christian or religious is, within this anti-faith context, pejorative. But isn't it possible to be both intellectually rigorous and have a deep religious faith, to be a thinking Christian?
When you grow up in Ireland, regardless of your faith or lack of it, it is almost impossible to avoid attending a religious school of some kind. At elementary level, the publicly funded so-called "National" schools are almost exclusively operated by Roman Catholic religious orders or by the Church of Ireland. In order to avoid an overly religious and Irish nationalist education, I was enrolled in a small, private Quaker school at what I have to imagine was considerable financial cost to my parents.
It was an excellent school and prepared me well enough for the scholarship exam for my high school that I came second. Secondary schools in Ireland are all fee-paying, and almost all are run by religious orders or from endowments by those with religious persuasions of one hue or another. I went to a predominantly Anglican high school whose headmaster was a member of the Plymouth Brethren. We sang a hymn and had a Bible reading and a Collect at a mass assembly every morning, and there was a church service (in my then Anglican parish church as it happens) each Christmas. But the focus was on academics, not polemics, and I emerged with a grade good enough to go to university.
Both my parents are retired university academics. My mother lectured in the Classics, and my father in Spanish. They met at what was to be my alma mater, Trinity College Dublin, at a time when my father had to deal with a ban by the Roman Catholic Church on its members attending there, and when my mother was one of the first female faculty allowed to stay in residence on campus.
Some 25 years later, after a short-lived foray into Engineering on the kindly but misguided advice of a career guidance teacher, I ended up with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics and Geography. Both that education and the guidance of my parents instilled a discipline of critical thinking which I carry with me to this day.
There are those who believe that it simply isn't possible to both have a strong religious faith and be a critical thinker with a degree in the the very science that shows the rocks of the Earth to be millions of years old. These people would have a world without faith or religion of any kind, believing that religion and churches are responsible for all the world's ills, that faith is anathema to logic and reason, and that science is the sole explanation for everything in the world around us. These are the soldiers of a new, militant atheism, one that rather than tolerating faith while ensuring the separation of church and state, is actively dedicated to countering it, defeating it with an ironically religious fervor.
What interests me is that there is hardly a culture on Earth that does not observe some form of religious practice. Religions have survived for thousands of years on faith alone, and their millions of people have kept that faith through personal despair and loss, discrimination, persecution, exile and holocaust. Letters written by my grandfather from the Japanese PoW camp where he would die just three months before liberation show how his religious faith was a source of strength for himself and for others during their unimaginable ordeal. Clearly, religious belief and faith fulfill some fundamental need of the human psyche.
That need is simply to be human. We need to love and be loved, to know that there is hope, to feel good about ourselves, to do good things for others. While in church a few Sundays ago, one of the people there noticed that I was upset (about my ongoing divorce) to the point that I was unable to sing along with the worship songs (when I am sad, I find it impossible to sing songs I like without blubbing - I have no idea why). He sat beside me, laid a hand on my shoulder and prayed with me and I walked out of there strengthened by his care and Christian love for me. Better than the Prozac science could offer me.
I am blessed to be in love with a beautiful woman who lives 1,800 miles away in another country. Our physical, intellectual and emotional attraction to one another can all be rationally and logically explained by the natural and social sciences. However, our deep faith that we will one day be together against all practical odds is neither scientific or pragmatic. But life without that faith would be very dark indeed.
And such is religious faith - it strengthens us, guides us, cheers us, motivates us to do good things in the Lord's name, to strive to be a light in the world, to use science for the good of mankind rather than for evil.
So as we approach Christmas, think about this: the implausible story of the virgin birth of a baby boy in a stable two thousand and ten years ago, the life lived by Him and His eventual death on the Cross has spread throughout the world and survives to this day in all corners of it based, not on science, but on faith.
Incidentally, in church last Sunday we watched this video. I tweeted shortly afterwards that it takes science to explain the world around us, but faith to be moved by it, to marvel at it. Enjoy!