The sea of faith: the ebb and flow of religion
Starting in the mid-1800s, the Welsh Presbyterian Church was active in proselytizing, sending missionaries around the world. One of the places those missionaries went was Mizoram, an area of northeast India.
They were wildly successful there with a tribe called the Mizos, according to this article that appeared in the Telegraph of March, 2006. In response to the ministrations of the Welsh missionaries, the Mizos converted to Christianity in vast numbers:
The missions, at the height of the Christian revival in Wales, were phenomenally successful, with more than 80 per cent of the population [of Mizoram] becoming Christian.
The Mizos are believed to be ethnically Mongoloid and are hilltribe people divided into a number of tribes. Recently some of them have started identifying themselves as one of the lost tribes of Israel, but the incidence of Christianity is still very high.
The ties to the Presbyterian Church of Wales, which Mizos refer to as the "Mother Church", are also very strong.
But the tide has turned, and the Mizos are now worried about the state of Christianity--in Wales. And they've decided to do something about it. They're sending missionaries back to the land of the Mother Church to see if the Mizos can do unto others what was done to them:
The Rev Zosang Colney, of the Diocese of Mizoram, said that the churches in Wales seemed to be "declining physically and spiritually".
"Many church buildings have been closed down," he added. "The Mizos, therefore, have a burden to do something for their Mother Church in Wales."
I've read about the decline of religion in Europe; the consensus is that it's a widespread phenomenon (although some may differ), and certainly not limited to Wales. The British poet Philip Larkin wrote about the waning of religious observance and the emptiness of churches way back in 1955, in his well-known poem "Church Going" (the title can be seen as a pun).
In this excerpt from the beginning of the poem, the speaker finds himself stopping--he's not sure exactly why--at a church during a pause in his bicycling excursion:
Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,
Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new-
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
"Here endeth" much more loudly than I'd meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.
Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into...
What, indeed? Museums, relics? Or, as with Wales and the Mizos, will the fruit of some seeds put forth long ago return to complete the cycle and cause a revival of faith at their place of origin?
Larkin isn't sure what churches will be used for in the future. But towards the end of the poem he (or the speaker) acknowledges within himself a deep yearning for the "seriousness" they represent, a yearning he suspects will never go out of style:
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
Matthew Arnold, a very different poet from Larkin, wrote much earlier (1867) of the same phenomenon: the generalized loss of religious faith in Europe. Here is a stanza appearing near the close of his poem "Dover Beach:"
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
In the poem, Arnold laments the "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of the sea of faith's retreat, leaving the beaches empty and denuded ("shingles" refers to pebbled shores). But he offers a suggestion for dealing with a world bereft of faith and its comforting certitudes--the lovers in his poem must cling to one another in the face of the chaos that surrounds them:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
"Dover Beach" was another of those poems I was assigned to study back in high school. I didn't really understand it then and yet it moved me and I remembered it. Somehow I was under the impression that it was a later poem than it actually is; if I'd had to guess, I'd have placed it around the time of World War I. And even as an adult, I continue to be amazed at the modernity of the sentiments it expresses; it almost seems as though Arnold could see into the future.
Arnold himself, it turns out, stopped writing poetry rather early in life ("Dover Beach" was one of his last poems) and turned to literary criticism and religious writings. The crisis he had wrestled with in the poem was one he tackled in his prose, too; in later life Arnold became a religious reformer, a founder of Anglican "modernism."
With the long slow decline of religious belief in Europe, who would have thought that the twenty-first century would feature a revival of the phenomenon of religious war? But this time the strife is no longer between Christians and other Christians, or between Christians and Jews; it is between Islam and Islam. A fundamentalist militant political Islam is at war with a reformist and modernizing strain (and if you don't think there is such a struggle, please read this), and the former is also at war with the West.
Unfortunately, at the moment, the fundamentalist militant strain of Islam is handily winning out over the moderates in parts of the Moslem world, causing the clash of civilizations that leads to "Islam's bloody borders." It seems that, for the last few decades, the sea of faith of Islam has reversed any "withdrawing roar," and is currently crashing back towards the beach with the force of a tsunami.