Friday, November 09, 2007
Happy Birthday Mum! I won't divulge her age...
Don't forget to vote. Go on, humour me and answer the question on the left. 4 votes so far? C'mon we can do better than that!
SPECIAL POST: The Catholic church, God, religion and everything in between. I've been meaning to post something about religion for a while, but just haven't got round to it. In short, religion is extremely important here but has a very different flavour to society back in the UK. Yesterday, I was reminded of this again when Rachel and I went to sort some papers out for Nelson at a grubby little public registration office at the back of a shopping mall. In there were various other people looking for solutions to their bureaucratic problems, including a Muslim couple. RELIGIOUS FACT #1: Muslims in north east Brazil are very rare! This was the first time I had seen one here. Privacy not being what it is back at home, anybody waiting can overhear the conversations at the booth. So, we found out that the Muslim couple in question had met in the States - she a Brazilian, he an Arab (from somewhere with a green passport) - and they were trying to get their marriage recognised in Brazil. A north east Brazilian marrying a Muslim? I imagine her Grandma must have been shocked...
Of course, most people call themselves Catholic. In our neighbourhood we stand out for being the family who don't attend the local Catholic church. Last Sunday morning, after I had taken Nelson for a walk in the park, I strolled back up our road only to see the surreal sight of the whole neighbourhood returning to their houses after mass. RELIGIOUS FACT #2: Catholics in the north east of Brazil are not rare at all. If you're reading this and you're not a Christian you may think it's petty of us to ignore the Christian presence on our doorstep, shunning it because of our tradition and doctrine. After all, this church seems active in the community and popular with young people. So, is it all a question of semantics? Well, it's impossible to ignore the theological lines that mark our beliefs from this brand of Catholicism. A poster hanging outside the chapel recently declared: "Men's group series: Mary is the way to find Jesus". That pretty much strikes at the heart of the differences between the Protestant and Catholic Christian traditions and it is a division that cannot be papered over easily. My Evangelical Theology that takes the Bible as it's authority is hard-pressed to arrive at that doctrinal conclusion...
Beyond this, I think I find it hard to accept the superficial nature of belief for many of the Catholics I meet. Maybe, that is a gross generalisation - I have met some outstanding, concerned, reflective and dedicated Catholic people, particularly among my students. But, here's the other side. After some interesting discussions with one of my classes about the place of religion in making us "happy" I decided to give them a belief survey, similar to the kind of thing I would use back in York during YSO. The results were interesting. The university lecturer in my class was the only person remotely close to the position of an atheist. RELIGIOUS FACT #3: To be Brazilian and atheist is as unlikely as being Brazilian and vegetarian. Actually, when pressed about it he turned out to be more of an agnostic. When he declared this to the class he was rounded on by the other students - all Christians of various shades with one self-proclaimed Buddhist thrown in. Of the Christians, two were Protestants and the rest Catholic. Of the Catholics there was a rainbow of "secondary" beliefs behind the label Catholicism. Students believed in reincarnation, in nothing, in science, in spiritism and a lot else besides. They had no notions of eternal destinations, of knowing God or even if God existed, all of which I found very sad. To the question, "what would you ask God if he was in the room right now?", one Catholic student wrote "I want to know if you like me".
The main thing is to get baptised as a baby, and married and burined in a Catholic church. Of course, you could find many so-called Christians back in England who hold the same view in the Anglican church. RELIGIOUS FACT #4: Nominal Catholicism is the base line most Brazilians use to measure the religious devotion of themselves and others.
Actually, the two serious spiritists (who both have first hand experience of contacting the spirits of their dead ancestors) I've met from my classes seem to have the most integrated and complete spiritual witness. They speak clearly and calmly about their beliefs. And - as a Christian I find this challenging - these two have a very finely tuned moral uprightness and commitment to social action... RELIGIOUS FACT #5: Spiritism is not a fringe belief or practice. For instance, Globo the largest TV network in Brazil promotes spiritist ideas through the belief systems and stories of the principal characters in their soap operas.
I teach English to a class of pastors at Cultura Inglesa and they have become quite good friends. We pray before each lesson (Lord, help me with pronuncing the ordinal numbers!) and they are a lovely bunch of people. Their aims are to learn English so they can preach in English, and explain their faith to tourists who come to Natal from English-speaking countries. RELIGIOUS FACT #6: Talking openly about issues of belief and faith openly is much more common and accepted here than in British society. British society seems very stifling and bound by political correctness in comparison. And, with Christian Directors and Christian and Catholic teachers in the language school it looks like religion, Jesus, God and the big issues will be talked about for some time to come.
ACCORDING TO BOB: The view from the Andes.
According to Bob the Catholic Church has perhaps even more hold on society than in Brazil - certainly, the Protestant Church is relatively smaller there. Indeed, according to Bob, the Pope has intervened directly in international disputes between Chile and Argentina, favouring Chile's claim to some islands back in 1979. Chileans have remained faithful ever since. Bob grew up in the Catholic tradition, attended Catholic schools and universities and has worked for Catholic institutions. But for him, institutional Catholicism has a lot to answer for and he and his wife see themselves as becoming increasingly secular in their outlook.
Mary statue, Santiago, Chile. When in Chile, Roberto drove us up a hill to a statue of Mary overlooking the city... it's like a smaller counterpart to the Jesus statue in Rio. Many people had left prayers and promises written (on anything) at the foot of the statue. Pics above.