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Non-believers in the belief system: Sectarian saints I have met

First church at Tami IslandPHIL FITZPATRICK

WE ALL know about people who profess to be Christians but act as if they don’t know the meaning of the word. Politicians are particularly good at this.

There is another side to this coin, but unfortunately these good people are less visible.

There are many version of Christianity and plenty of divergence in what it means to be a Christian.

In my time, I’ve known a couple of priests who were agnostic and at least one who was an atheist.

I also once met a nun in the Star Mountains who seemed unsure about her faith and the existence of a god.

The agnostic priests and the nun were Catholics while the atheist priest was an Anglican.

I met all these people in Papua New Guinea.

In my discourse with the priests, it was some fine bottles of wine that loosened their tongues. With the nun it was her attitude and approach to life that made me suspect that she had doubts.

Their revelations surprised me at the time but not these days.

Of course I asked them what they were still doing in the church if they had doubts about their god. Their answers, although not evasive, were complex but I’ll try to broadly summarise them here.

They had stayed in their churches because it gave them the opportunity to help people and make a difference to their lives. They didn’t want to lose this ability by leaving their ministries.

One of the priests told me that if he had to leave the church he wouldn’t know what to do. It wasn’t so much that the church cosseted him but that he was appalled at the venality and savagery of the outside world.

To him, leaving the church would be tantamount to leaping into a pit of snakes.

But that wasn’t his main reason. Like the others he valued the ability the church gave him to do good work. He didn’t think he could continue so easily doing that outside the church, especially in Papua New Guinea, a place he loved.

Somehow Papua New Guinea, and the experiences these good people had there, made them reassess their faith but decide to stay on regardless.

I’m guessing that the closeness to the earth and sense of community they encountered among the Papua New Guinean people was a reason for their self-examination and reappraisal.

I struck the same thing among many lay workers in the missions. They were interesting people, too. Many of them had had traumatic pasts and came to the mission later in life.

They weren’t so much seeking refuge or monastic seclusion but were trying to atone for their earlier lives.

You also see this trait among people in both religious and secular charitable organisations.

Something happened to make people walk away from their previous lives and seek a kind of redemption.

If you go to a street kitchen, a refuge or an organisation like Save the Children you are likely to encounter ex-businessmen working alongside ex-criminals and highly qualified professionals working alongside ex-street kids. They are a real mixed bag.

In the late 1960s at a remote mission station far up a particular river I came across a German lay worker. I suspected he might have once been a Nazi.

I didn’t know what he had done or where he had done it but he was a valuable asset to the mission and one best left in peace to deal with his own demons.

I have the greatest respect for these people. They are doing things and enduring conditions that I would be unable to cope with.

And it’s to the credit of many churches and missions that they are allowed to do what they do, whether they are believers or not.


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Garry Roche

I would agree with Phil that there are a number of “non-believers in the belief system”.

(No doubt there have also been many kiaps who may have seriously disagreed with official government policy but at the same time soldiered on to achieve the best they could where they could.
However that comparison can only be stretched so far. )

There would be some missionaries who go through long periods of simply not believing in God. There would be some who perhaps lose belief and do not recover it.

And. as Phil notes, at times it would be their commitment to the people that provides the motivation to continue their work.

The irony of the situation may be that in some cases the people the missionary is trying to convert, may actually have a stronger belief in the reality of God (and the spirits) than the missionary himself has.

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