Saturday, 19 December 2009

on the frontier

Up until the sixteenth century, the Coahuiltecan native American peoples lived a nomadic, subsistence life in the semi-arid regions of what is now southern Texas. But all this was soon to change, for two reasons.

  1. The Coahuiltecans were not a powerful people. The land and climate would not support large groups, and they were often victims of raids from their northern neighbours, the Apache and Comanche people.
  2. Colonists from three European nations, the Spanish in Mexico to the south, the French in Louisiana to the east and the British in the United States to the north were all vying for supremacy and ownership of lands in the area. In the early 18th century, the Spanish, both government and the Catholic church, moved northwards into Texas and set up a number of missions. By the middle of the century, five missions were well established along the San Antonio River.

Mission Concepción, south of San Antonio, the oldest unrestored church building in the US.

The walls of Mission Concepción compound. Native Americans and soldiers lived in the quarters built into the walls.

Because of the pressure of the raids, many of the Coahuiltecans decided to accept the protection and stability offered by the missions and the Spanish army. They moved into the missions behind protective walls, received food and religious instruction and learned farming and other skills. The missions flourished for a time, but declined in the early nineteenth century as the native Americans succumbed to European diseases. Finally, in 1836, Texans of mostly British heritage fought the Spanish/Mexican army and, despite defeat at the Alamo (one of the five missions which had been converted into a garrison), drove the Spanish from Texas. Texas became an independent nation for a short time, and then joined the United States.

The granary at Mission Concepción

I am not a Catholic, and I do not support European colonialism by any of the three nations involved. But visiting the harsh environment in the dry summer heat makes me admire the commitment of the Spanish monks who established the missions. Some of the descendents of the Coahuiltecans still live in the area today.

Desert plants give an indication of the arid climate.

Walkway at Mission Concepción

The partially ruined Mission San Juan

Mission Espada church and priest's quarters - with the current priest in black out the front.

Inside the Mission Espada church

The Mission San Antonio de Valero, now the Alamo, and virtually a sacred American site.

Read more about the San Antonio Missions here, here and here, and the battle of the Alamo.

Friday, 18 December 2009

god in australia

A recent survey, reported in the Sydney Morning Herald and summarised here, provides the latest information on the beliefs of Aussies. And the results are a possibly a little different to what most of us would expect:

  • 68% believe in God, 24% believe there is no God, and 6% are not sure.
  • 50% of the population call themselves christian (although other surveys such as NCLS show only 10-20% attend church regularly), with 6% following other major religions (including 2% Muslims) and 5% having a belief in a "universal spirit or life force". 6% said they were Jedi, which is fun, but perhaps should be interpreted as 'agnostic' in reality.
  • Curiously, more people appear to believe in Jesus than believe in God - 94% say he was a historical figure, 91% that he was the son of God (how does that work?), 85% that he rose from the dead and 72% that his mother was a virgin at his birth.
  • But the christians and the rest are not as dogmatic as one might expect - only a third of Aussies believe any of the holy books is "the word of God", only a quarter believe any holy book is literally true and only a fifth believe there is only one true interpretation of their religion. Nevertheless, "almost nine out of 10 Australian Christians were absolutely or fairly certain of their beliefs".
  • Belief in various christian doctrines was variable - over half of Aussies believe in heaven and life after death; more than a third believe in hell and the devil; almost two thirds believe in miracles, half believe in angels, more than a fifth believe in witches.
  • But belief in the non-christian "para-normal" is also high - a third believe in UFOs, 4 in 10 believe in astrology and almost half believe in psychic powers.
  • 42% of Aussies believe in evolution without God, 32% believe in God-guided evolution and 23% believe God directly created life within the last 10,000 years.
  • Women believe in God, and almost everything else, more than men do.

What can we conclude? There are more strong disbelievers than there used to be, but belief in God and in religion seems as strong as ever, though more diverse. There seem to be fewer agnostics than I would have expected, and it seems we have polarised a little into the belief and non-belief groups. But Aussies seem to have become more individualistic in their faith, and perhaps prefer to choose their own "mix and match" beliefs rather than be told what they should believe, whether by religious leaders or scientific atheists.

And surely there is a lesson for the churches: emphasise Jesus more and adherence to rules less.