At age 19, I made my first of many trips to Ireland where my mind recorded a simple but unforgettable scene.
A friend and I had driven to the far west end of the Dingle Peninsula, said to be the closest spot to the U.S. Before tourists discovered it, it was also one of the most isolated parts of Ireland where many people still spoke Irish.
It was a cool day. The green of the place was stereotypically Ireland. Lumps of land called the Blasket Islands could be seen in the distance protruding from a wild sea. Three teens about my age, two boys and a girl, were alone on an old pier that jutted a few dozen feet into the Atlantic doing what they could to entertain themselves. One of the boys was playing a concertina, sort of a primitive accordion, the other a “penny whistle,” a kind of Irish flute. The girl was singing.
I don’t know if they noticed our presence and I didn’t know the tune, but with the sun casting its glittering hue over the ocean, the scene was stunning and the music haunting.
Rather Been Elsewhere?
But it was a lonely place and a bit sad. I imagined that being teens, they would rather have been elsewhere, somewhere more exciting, more glamorous than a sleepy, rural part of Ireland where at that time most people resigned themselves to being poor.
The term “terrible beauty” has been applied to the Ireland of that era and before, and though I haven’t seen any “official” definitions, I’ve always interpreted it to refer to the dilemma of people contemplating immigration: to leave a beautiful land, filled with wonderful family and friends, for a strange, foreign destination, or to stay and tolerate the lifelong poverty that awaited them.
I may have simply been projecting my own feelings on the scene in Kerry, but there’s a good chance one or the other of those teens emigrated to the U.K., the U.S. or some other destination. They would now be in the twilight of their lives, and if they were to look back on that same scene, I wonder if they would still feel the need to leave, to search for something more exciting, more glamorous and more prosperous than that peaceful, beautiful place.
The perspective of distance and time is transformative. What we at one time think is important isn’t so much later in life. What we think is inconsequential becomes fundamental.
Would the perspective of time make a difference in the nones’ perception of God and religion?
Back in 1976, Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote a book called “God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism.” Even 40 years ago, it seems, the handwriting was on the wall about a lack of enthusiasm for religion.
“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society,” he wrote. “It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.”
It’s true that like all human endeavors, religion can become all of those. The question is, is it the religion itself – its principles, beliefs and practices – that is the problem or the people who lead or practice it? Do the doping scandals in sports mean that sports are bad, or that some people who play sports may be?
Many people, I believe, cling to caricatures of religion to justify attacking or ignoring it.
Human and Divine
Many religions, including my own Catholic faith, believe that the church is human but also divine because God had a hand it its birth and maintenance. Religion’s purpose is to help us in the search for God, and to the extent that we find him/her, help us in our subsequent relationship to God and each other. I believe Catholicism, and most religions, fulfill that function and more.
“God is always present to us,” Heschel writes. But because we are not always, or perhaps even usually present to God, God must “reach out to us (from around us and from within us) to elicit our presence, our responsiveness.”
Age is irrelevant in the search for God. We need God and religion as much or more when we’re young as when we’re old, whether we’re teenagers like those on the Irish pier, American millennials whose lives are whirlwinds of busyness, or people so old they won’t buy green bananas.