Tuesday 21 November 2017

Is this Ireland's answer to john the baptist . . .?

Beyond Consolation John Waters (Continuum, €16.90)

In his latest book John Waters takes as his starting point Nuala O'Faolain's now famous interview with Marian Finucane about her impending death.

O'Faolain, like many of her peers, had long since abandoned her faith, not just in Catholicism, but also in God.

Now that she was dying all that she could see before her was the void, nothingness. She despaired.

But instead of society taking this as an opportunity to talk about belief and non-belief, religion and irreligion, it instead got side-tracked into a debate about euthanasia.

This would strike Waters as all-too-typical, because it is his fervent belief that society goes out of its way to avoid taking about religion in its proper sense. We talk endlessly about religion as politics, or religion as morality, but we find it much harder to discuss questions about ultimate meaning and our relationship to that.

In a way, Beyond Consolation is an analysis of why we do this and the forms it takes. At one point Waters writes about another Marian Finucane interview, conducted a year after O'Faolain's death, with Seamus Heaney.

Finucane presses Heaney about his religious beliefs -- he has none -- and Waters is struck by the inadequacy of his answers. It's as though Heaney is uncomfortable answering the questions.

Waters blames both the Catholic Church and secularism for this state of affairs and his analysis here is quite original.

He explains that because of the Church's concentration on morality and rules and law, religion became too external.

We lost the ability to talk about God properly and secularism was happy to exploit this by pushing God out of the picture completely.

Elsewhere in the book he writes at length about how the culture imposes a sort of false, secular consciousness on us and for this he places a lot of the blame on the media.

He says that the people who work in the media believe implicitly in their own objectivity. They think they are merely presenting us with reality as it is. But this is nonsense, he argues.

In the case of religion, he goes on, most journalists refuse point blank to take it seriously. It is treated as an oddity at best, and as the mortal enemy of human freedom and progress at worst.

In a way, the most revealing part of the book is the chapter in which he describes the time he attended an arts festival in Cork.

During his first session he shared a platform with a 'poet-priest' who gave the audience the sort of soft-focus, unchallenging spirituality it was there for.

But John gave it to them with both barrels because of the audience's lazy denunciations of the church, and they gave it back with both barrels. (Oh to have been there).

But in session two he was back to read from and discuss his last book, Lapsed Agnostic. This time the audience was much more receptive because this time he was talking about religion as an experience and as a relationship with God.

John Waters is difficult to categorise. As he admits himself, he is a product of modern rock and roll culture, but he has become more religious as he has got older.

Some critics think he has turned his back on what he once believed. But he hasn't.

What Waters was looking for in his younger days, and what he is looking for now, is authenticity and he is willing to search the highways and byways for it. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he is even willing to search in a religious direction because he is open-minded enough to do this.

As Waters proves again in Beyond Consolation, he is one of very best writers on religion in Ireland today. He is able to get under the anti-religious defences erected by the modern, liberal, secular Irish. He is able to get them thinking, some of them anyway.

He tells them to look beyond the type of religion they were raised in and to directly contemplate the Ultimate Reality that the church was trying to explain but often obscured.

In this mode John Waters is Ireland's answer to John the Baptist exhorting us to give up our materialistic, self-satisfied ways and to return if not exactly to the Faith, then to a faith, a faith in God that challenges, and consoles, in equal measure.

David Quinn is a religious affairs writer

Irish Independent

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