Two reasons to be hopeful for the future.
As people of faith we can look around us and think it is all going down the pan. From the closure of historic churches to declining congregations, and although there are exceptions and glimmers of light in different places - we can feel at least like we are on a downward trend. I would like to offer though two reasons that we can and should be hopeful and not give into that noonday demon.
"Elijah Fed by an Angel" by Lawrence OP is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
A Theological Hope: Elijah and the 7000
A concept present throughout the whole bible is that of the remnant – Genesis, through to the Prophets and making its way in Christian eschatology; a body of verses and thought that explain how God honours his covenant in the face of human apostasy, succeeding in His plan for salvation for all people. Some examples of this include Abraham’s dialogue in Genesis 18 with the ‘three men’ who were angels or possibly the Lord Himself. The sin of Sodom and Gomorrah had become so great God was going to execute judgement upon the people of that city but Abraham asks; ‘Will you indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous in the city; will you then destroy the place and not spare the fifty?’ The angels answered they would not and this parlay continued down to ten righteous. Evidently there was not even ten because they did destroy the city but even within that they warned Lot and his family to escape – an early example to Israel of the promise of God through Abraham and the mercy of Him who guarantees it – a remnant can survive.
Later on when the Israelites were wandering the desert and again apostatised God promised only Caleb and Joshua of the generation that left Egypt would enter the promised land. In 1 Kings 18 we find Elijah faced with a people turning their back on God and worshipping idols and running from those who desired to kill him. He goes out into the wilderness finds himself a bush to sit under in the heat and sun hoping to die – bitter and angry at how the Israelites have turned out. But in a scene reminiscent of Moses in Deuteronomy Elijah is treated to the very presence of God and a recapitulation of the covenant. He is then instructed to renew the Kingship of Israel and Syria, and the Prophethood through the anointing of Elijah’s successor – Elisha, as a means of judging the people for not following Him, however; this judgement would not touch the 7000 who had not bowed the knee or kissed the feet of Baal. Again God is honouring his covenant. Winders (2003) quoting from Gerhard Hasel summarised:
‘A religio-cultural threat leaves a remnant after a past catastrophe and climaxes in the survival of a remnant in the future judgment that has characteristics qualifying it to become the nucleus of a new Israel faithful to Yahweh.’30 That is, the catastrophe is religious before it is physical and the remnant is not from the political order but ‘a remnant loyal to Yahwistic covenant faith’.31 This provides a basis for hope in the light on the total destruction of all successive ‘remnants’ of Israel’s political order (2 Kgs 17:18, chs. 19–20, 21:14, 24:14, 25:11–12, 25:26).
As we proceed through time and get to the Major Prophets, Isaiah in particular, we find remnant theology ramped up because the people of Israel and Judah had to cope with a new catastrophe - loss of their national sovereignty and worst of all the loss of the Temple – the absolute centre of Judaism. How does God’s plan of the whole world being blessed through the seed of Abraham happen now that the people have been carted off into exile? Isaiah, Jeremiah and then the minor prophets all develop the idea that when the hearts of people truly turn to God only then will they be saved. As Winders (2003) concludes:
The development in the idea of ‘remnant’ in the prophets is thus a vehicle to develop the ‘covenant’ concept. It shows how Yahweh can be truly Yahweh who is both a just judge, totally destroying his disobedient people, and a faithful saviour, blessing his elect people. The definition of ‘God’s people’ is transformed from national Israel to those who trust and obey Yahweh, including members of the surrounding nations. God’s people are chosen by him and useful for his purposes.55 The historical circumstances of Israel become the vehicle for expressing the prophetic, eschatological hope that a holy remnant will be created by God beyond the post-exilic period.
It is this that St Paul takes up in Romans 10 and 11 in which he elevates it to the eschatological – St Paul emphatically asserts that though many of the Jews of his time rejected Jesus, God has not rejected them but has left a remnant ‘chosen by grace’ which was ‘to make Israel Jealous’ and whose failure to recognise their God, though a stumble was not a fall, but a means in which Gentiles can be saved – Paul reaffirms again and again that Israel will be saved and this is by means of the grace and mercy of God and because of His covenant – ‘the gifts and call of God are irrevocable’.
When the bible refers to a renewal in the Israelite faith it often was a recommitment and reorientation.
What does this mean for Scottish Catholics and the Scottish Church? That we are here only by grace and that God through Christ and in fulfilment of His covenant with Abraham keeps a remnant, that though outside conditions become difficult (war, repression etc), God never leaves, never forgets. It also reveals something else, when the Bible refers to a renewal in the Israelite faith it often was a recommitment and reorientation back to God. For example, Moses had the tablets remade after finding the apostasy around the Golden Calf; the Prophet Samuel anointing David and thus undermining the original and sinful Israelite royal lineage; 2 Chronicles 34 records the young Josiah, King of Israel, bringing religious reforms which eventually included the finding of the Book of the Law in the temple which realigned the people once again. Recorded in Ezra and Nehemiah as well, a people brought low, but a refreshing renewal and purge occurs laying the groundwork for the rebuilding to occur.
A Historical Reason to Hope
There is an idea that goes around that if we only get back to the way of thinking found in a certain time or return to a certain practice, pre 1960’s, pre-Vatican II, 1st century Christianity, then all will be well. To oversimply the position – we once lived in a golden age of faith but that was ruined by [insert grievance here]. However, if you do read history, you will note that it has not always been untrammelled success. I present a hodge podge of examples just to get the juices going:
In 595AD St Augustine of Canterbury is sent from Rome to evangelise the Anglo-Saxons in the Kent region who had themselves upon their invasion of England wiped out the Christianity that was present during the period of Roman rule.
The Aberdeen Breviary records that a part of the North East of Scotland was re-evangelised in the 8th Century due to the local Picts mixing their older beliefs with Christianity – this part had already seen great Saintly missionaries preach there with Christianity already well developed in Scotland.
In 1533 St Phillip Neri arrives in Rome and after three years of training decides to devote his time to the poor and the young who were needing re-evangelising.
In 1689, Tourcoing France, the original Mother House of the Franciscan Sisters of Immaculate Conception in Glasgow was instituted when the local Bishop asked for some Sisters to come to deal with the youth of that place who had evidently been drifting.
Between 1680 and 1800 the Catholic population of Scotland grew from a mere 6000, confined mostly to the North and North East to 30,000 by the start of the 19th Century – the Scottish population was 1.6 million at this time. The Kirk and State conspired throughout this time to destroy and uproot Scottish Catholicism with astounding effectiveness. It was said, at one point, you could barely find a Catholic in Glasgow in the late 18th Century.
Industrialisation and the recipient urbanisation brought huge and new challenges to Scotland in the 19th Century. Accompanied by the Irish and Highland famines of the 1840’s, mass migration to Glasgow brought overcrowding then disease and social chaos. By 1851 the census recorded only a third went to morning service which was thought to be due to a combination of not enough pews(Churches), the pew rental system of the Kirk and the working practices of the factories. In rural Scotland Church attendance was in a worst state that in urban areas.
Discrimination from both the Kirk and Scottish Catholics toward Irish migrants was prevalent and saw much tension in the West of Scotland. Irish nationalism was not welcomed by the Scottish Catholic hierarchy who saw it as a threat to their new won freedoms within the British Empire, wishing to give no excuse to anti-Catholic propogandists. But by the late 19th Century both Catholic and Protestant hierarchies realised a need to feed and educate the growing populace and the race for the ‘godless poor’ ensued.
In October of 1949 the Free Church Presbytery of Lewis met to discuss some worrying trends on the Island; falling adherence to Church ordinances, declining youth and a lack of conversions. Yet there were two elderly sisters, Peggy and Christine Smith, earnestly praying in their cottage for revival to happen and as the prayed their expectation grew. The 1949 Revival had huge social effects on the Island of Lewis. Men and women, young and old could be found praying by hedgerows or Peat heaps – church buildings would be surrounded with the cries of repentance from sincere hearts. Pubs and Dance halls closed overnight.
Conclusion: Remnant Hope
What both our history and our theology show that quite often when the Church and its people descend below that which God calls us, sometimes, as we see from the Bible, it is only when absolute catastrophe happens that the People turn back to God. Usually, biblically and in Church history we see a realisation that a reset needs to take place, often a call for repentance and holiness wells-up, a clear-eyed view of what the signs of the times are, coupled with determination and perseverance to do what was necessary. There was also an instructive realisation developing during the pre-exilic prophets and into post-exilic that there was a difference between national faith and faith of the heart. This is not the private/public faith as we think of now, but the difference between what was only cultural facade and what was sincere.
By Eric Hanna