Religious Authority (Birmingham, 1919)

1.614. George A. Birmingham, An Irishman Looks At His World, (London, New York, Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, 1919), pp. 86-87. BL 8146.ff.18

Extract from George Birmingham, An Irishman Looks at his World (1919), on religious authority.

Towards the end of his chapter ‘The Island of Saints – Ireland’s Religion’, Birmingham reflects on the Irish aversion to “shades of grey” in matters of religion. Compare Stephen’s response to Haines. Stephen’s irony, of course, may conceivably cut in more directions than one:

. . . for almost all Irishmen sin is still simply and unmistakably sin. Right and wrong do not melt off into each other, changing from white to black through indistinguishable shades of grey. They are things apart, between which there is no reconciliation. We see sin as it appeared to men like Bunyan. We do not attach any meaning to the saying that to understand all is to excuse all.
¶¶We accept our rules of life from authority. We want to be told plainly what is right and what is wrong. We prefer a categorical “Do” or “Do not” to a vague large statement of guiding principle. Catholic and Protestant are alike in this. We require an infallible guide, whether it be Church or Bible. We detest the trouble of seeking out ways for ourselves and the uncertainty which haunts such search. In civil and political life we are all of us rebels. The very fact that a law is a law is inducement enough to break it, and a policeman, in other societies a protecting friend, is for us a public enemy. In religion our spirit is not at all of this kind. There we like authority. The sterner it is the more we love it, and we ask nothing better than rules for the regulation of the minutest details of our lives.

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