Welcome to the discussion!

As the articles below indicate, for a number of years I have being trying to understand the changing concept and practice of mission.

My search has moved progressively from ‘Is there still a need for mission?’ to ‘What should the new focus for mission be?’ and finally to ‘Where can we find examples for this new direction?’

Some progress has been made but the effort to get this far has brought up a wider question. Why are so few people doing the practical reflection and research that is necessary to bring mission out of its present decline?

Theologians produce books on the academic aspects of mission but those actively engaged in cross-cultural mission are not writing about the real-life issues that face them. In this age of dramatic changes most businesses and NGOs are plowing resources into research for their next step so why are Christian missionaries, especially Catholics, not doing so?

I’m sure there are many answers to this complex question but by naming them, one by one, we may get a better idea of where the problem lies and what can de done about it.

Have you any ideas to share on this topic?

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Religion You Can Feel

Recently I visited Thailand (on business, of course!) and what impressed me most was its public display of religion.
 Even more numerous than the churches in Rome, Bangkok’s temples (or, Wats) catch your eye wherever you go. They are timeless in their dignity and soaring height, and modern in their brightness and elegance.
The sight of orange or yellow-robed monks strolling in the streets makes visitors reach for their cameras but locals take it for granted. Since all Thai males are expected to spend some time in a monastery, most families have a close relative who is a monk.
Each neighborhood displays a large picture of the royal family who are held in almost god-like respect mainly because of their association with the Buddha.
Yet, look closer and you will see spirit shrines on pillars in every garden, shop and street corner. Some are in the form of traditional wooden houses, others are like miniature Wats. They pre-date Buddhism and honor house spirits, earth spirits, tree spirits, dragon spirits and a host of other ancient deities. They are well tended with offerings of flowers and food. They reflect a religious culture in which people also attach great significance to amulets and dreams, and consult astrologers before doing anything important.
This seems to conflict with basic Buddhist teachings which emphasize the need to get rid of feelings and attachment to worldly things in order to escape the human inevitability of suffering. Yet, Thai people enjoy each other’s company, delight in decoration and (contrary to the Five Precepts) eat meat and drink beer with no qualms.
After Buddhism arrived in Thailand around the 6th century AD, it spread rapidly and became the national religion. By the 13th century, it was decreed that the king had to be a Buddhist and uphold Buddhism. Key to establishing itself in Thai culture was its practice of not rejecting the spirit gods of the people but receiving them into the Buddhist world view. Pictures in Wats today show fearsome monster gods standing protectively behind the peaceful Buddha.
 Buddhist teachers see their religion as, like a tree, having three layers. The outer layer, the bark, is formed by the majority of the population who can gain merit by supporting the monks and the monasteries. The next, inner layer, is those who go further by keeping the Five Precepts (which included not taking the life of sentient beings). The innermost core of Buddhism is the monks who devote their lives to cutting off all desires and thoughts through concentration (meditation).
As a result no one finds it strange that the religious life of the majority of the population, though Buddhist in name, is often far from official Buddhist teaching.
What impressed me more than this contrast between teaching and practice is way Thai religion is present in all aspects of the people’s lives. The Wats and stupas of institutional Buddhism combine with the common spirit houses to fill the landscape with reminders of spiritual forces. By tending the shrines, celebrating the festivals and wearing amulets the people are reassured of the closeness of the sacred. No matter what worries, disappointment or hardship they have in daily life, they have only to look around them to find support and consolation.  
I couldn’t help comparing this religious outlook with my own country, Ireland, which shared a similar religious milieu until recently. Irish villages not only had a church and graveyard but also shrines and crosses, holy wells and the sites of their ancestral saints. People blessed themselves passing a church, protected their homes with St Brigid’s cross and recited prayers that sprang from their own language. The common greeting once was, “God and Mary be with you”. Priests were held in respect.
Admittedly, Irish churches are not as bright and joyful as Thailand’s Wats and that may reflect a later concept of God than that expressed in the colorful Book of Kells and the ancient Irish crosses. However, in both countries it was the ever-visible reminders of spiritual presence that kept the people positive and hopeful in trying circumstances.
The ordinary Irish Catholic did not worry about the councils of the Church and doctrinal developments any more than the Thai people were concerned about the finer teachings of Theravada Buddhism. What they relied on was their traditional symbols, festivals and holy places. These reminded them of the miracle of creation and the closeness of Christ and his saints. And that was sufficient.
Perhaps the weakening of their faith began, not one or two generations ago, but  some centuries earlier when they were encouraged to see religion as something to be found in the mind and the will, rather than experienced in places and things. Gradually their local holy sites and familiar saints were replaced by foreign places of pilgrimage, pious saints with unfamiliar names and devotions in an alien tongue. Their faith began to drift away from its familiar and solid base.  
Of course, in Thailand and elsewhere, there is a danger in building on ancient religious beliefs and practices, without reminding the people that their rituals, sacred symbols and holy places do not have any power in themselves but draw their importance from reflecting the one creator God. This takes time and remains a challenge for even cross-cultural missionaries like ourselves.
On a Sunday I attended the English Mass at a church outside Bangkok. There was little that was Thai about the church, outside or inside, though it was bright and airy. The liturgy was standard Roman, the only life coming from a Filipino choir. It is not surprising that only 0.7% of Thais are Christian. What was surprising was my own reaction to the atmosphere created by the priest standing behind the altar and facing the people. I have always supported the idea of the Eucharist as a meal and gathering the people around the altar but for a moment I wavered, remembering the bare-footed Buddhist monks I had seen leading their congregation in prayer, all facing towards Buddha. Our modern liturgy hasn’t really achieved its hoped-for sense of closer community or deeper appreciation of the mysteries but it has lessened the sense of being humble in the presence of an overwhelming God. People want a liturgy in which they play an individual part, even a small one, by coming forward to touch, to kiss, to offer or to anoint. They also need simple rituals which they can perform on their own, in their homes.   
Psychologists remind us that the brain has two sides that should balance each other. The left is logical, analytical and articulate. In religion it is represented by theologians, Canon lawyers and the hierarchy. The right side is creative, intuitive and has difficulty in finding words to describe its insights. In religion it is expressed by a spirituality that needs to touch, move between worlds and use multi-meaning symbols rather than formal language to express itself.
Today, Christianity in many countries is losing its attraction because it is too left-brained: it seeks to be relevant by being knowledgeable on world issues and urging social responsibility but fails to take people out of their ordinary world and help them experience a higher reality.
 The Wats and shrines of Thailand exercise the right side of the brain with their rituals and symbols which uplift by being seen, heard, admired and touched. Even when on business in Thailand there is much to be rediscovered.
              Hugh MacMahon.    3/14/11

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