STATE OF THE NATION
Christianity faces new challenges in the UK as its cosy relationship with the status quo begins to unravel.
The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ was recently described as:
Arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully
You’re tempted to say: apart from that is he OK?
Now consider these observations:
There should have been a thorough Roman cleansing of the Christians - the world would have become a better place if there had been
Welcome to the new atheism which has grown more assertive in the first decade of the new century. In a sense it is taking unbelief to its logical conclusion: if there is no God and religion is deceitful then both should be driven out of public discourse and hold no sway over our common life. Among many proponents of this today are Richard Dawkins (who was responsible for the first quote), Christopher Hitchens (who was responsible for the second and third), Polly Toynbee, Sam Harris. We hear a lot from them. They all agree on wanting to drive Christianity out of the public realm. Dawkins would go further and eradicate it from private life too if this were a feasible option, but it is the public realm that exercises them most and which presents them with the more achievable goal. Since World War 1 there has been a slow crumbling of the Christian consensus which has governed public life. It could be traced to an earlier era but the experience of the trenches and the way the Church was associated with a callous establishment spending life with abandon led to a loss of credibility and respect from which successive generations have struggled to recover.
The advent of a multicultural society has given an impetus to this secular movement which it does not deserve. A multicultural world should not just be acceptable to Christians but a vision they aspire to share in the new heaven and the new earth where every race shall find citizenship. However, we must distinguish a multicultural world from the ideology of multiculturalism. This latter post-modern notion does not accept unique claims to truth, places all human assumptions on an equal footing and has been used to dethrone the place that Christianity has held in British common life for many generations.
It is striking that in the continuing debate over the nature of British identity few have permitted anything other than a perfunctory and redundant role to the Christian faith in shaping this identity when in reality its contribution has been prodigious. This has been replicated on a European level in the refusal to countenance any position for Christianity in the preamble to the EU treaty.
The argument is sometimes made that this new and assertive atheism is a response to the resurgence of fundamentalist Christianity. Fundamentalism was first coined in the United States in 1919 at the World’s Christian Fundamentals Organisation. It was followed by the publication over five years by 12 volumes of ‘The Fundamentals’. Fundamentalism today is a term that people avoid for themselves. Even in the US it has an embarrassing cache – a jibe to be directed at others and away from oneself. So it is interesting to reflect that the original use of the word was in robust self-designation. It was a reassertion of orthodoxy against theological liberalism and the project of modernity in general. In time it developed a strong identification with American patriotism (one reason why it is less common in the UK). It also became increasingly antagonistic to the Darwinian theory of evolution. Thus it gathered to itself an anti-intellectual label. These early threads show that fundamentalism did not rise in response to atheism as such, but to the churches alleged accommodation to theological liberalism and scientific progress.
The twentieth century was also an era of militant atheism. We don’t tend to recognise this because it was dressed up in German fascism and Soviet communism. Both ideologies were shockingly anti-Christian, although the latter is better known for this, having had several decades more to gain notoriety for itself by purging religious faith. Historians are coming round to the view that the twentieth century was dominated by the long war of 1914-1991, from the moment the shot rang out to kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo to the moment the coup against President Mikhail Gorbachev failed and Soviet power made its last stand. Hence often it is referred to as a shortened century. Atheism was a strong component of the long war of 1914-1991. The fascists and the communists may have strived for secular modernity but essentially their creeds were millenarian movements, a kind of alternative or quasi-religion according to historian Michael Burleigh, taking on the characteristics of religion at just the moment it began to lose its grip on the citizens of Europe. Here we witness a symbiotic relationship between atheism and religion.
If the twentieth century ended in 1991 then the twenty-first century began on September 11, 2001. The decade between 1991 and 2001 is seen increasingly as the era in which hubris and complacency allowed the West to sleep walk into a new kind of war before they properly realised they had new enemies. It is my contention that this event of 9/11 and the era of violent Islamic jihadism it inaugurated has been the catalyst for the new vocalism among atheists. This is not to say that Christianity has been exempt from the vitriol of the new atheists because it is considered as anathema as Islam. The cynic inside me thinks that Christian fundamentalists have just been an easier and less threatening target for those who remember the fatwa over Salman Rushdie in 1989 and the brutal murder of Theo van Gogh in Holland.
This meshing of violent Islamic jihadism with Christianity by secularists was in place by the weekend after 9/11 when Richard Dawkins wrote an article for The Guardian in which he more or less said that anyone who believes in an after-life could be capable of doing this and that those who don’t believe in an after-life would not. Dawkins here conveniently overlooked the murderous instincts of all those twentieth century regimes which did not believe in life after death. But the die was cast: this is what religion does and we must resist it.
The new atheism is more a response to Islamic fundamentalism than to Christian fundamentalism, but the latter – indeed Christianity in general – has become more of a target both because it is more amenable to criticism and because it is embedded more surely in our history and culture as the dominant religion. It is somewhat inappropriate to describe this virulent strain of Islam as fundamentalist as this is a Christian self-designation from the early 20th century and the terms already exist in Islamic thought to define them, whether that be violent Islamic jihadism, Islamism, Salafist Islam, Wahhabi Islam and so on.
Sayyid Qutb was the inspiration for this way of thinking. The Egyptian scholar became radicalised by his experience of living for a time in what he saw as a dissolute, over-sexualised and promiscuous United States where even the nurses apparently came on to him when he was in hospital. So in a sense, Islamic ‘fundamentalism’, for want of a better word, was generated by the same kind of horrified reaction to modernity in the United States that Christian fundamentalism had been fifty years earlier.
Few Christians admit to being fundamentalist today – as I have suggested. There are perhaps several reasons for this. The most obvious is that it has strong connotations with being intolerant, illiberal and anti-intellectual. Most of us prefer to be thought of as tolerant, liberal and intellectual, even if there are limitations to those words when you begin to parse them. It has been said that fundamentalism is the same as conservative evangelicalism in the shared approach to biblical interpretation and aversion to modern culture. Some have even said that to be an evangelical is to be a fundamentalist, but this is to deny the shades of evangelicalism that have bedded down in mainstream Christianity over the previous decades, many of which have embraced forms of biblical criticism and which remain open to modern culture as a sphere of God’s activity.
The truth may be harder for us to embrace. To the new atheists most Christians look like fundamentalists because what they believe is so far removed from a secular outlook. It is mainstream Christianity to believe in the incarnation, the atonement and the coming kingdom of God. These are fundamentals – non-negotiable components of our confession. And they are what the new atheists despise as irrational and the mulitculturalists as being intolerant of other belief systems.
Something more worrying is happening for some Christians than a spat with the new atheists, and that is the apparent unravelling of the historic relationship between Christianity and liberalism in this country. The two have had such a cosy relationship for so long that it has at times been hard to discern where Christianity ended and liberalism began. Yet now many reasonable liberals are calling for Christianity either to remove itself quietly from the public arena or to adapt to a new consensus. The most obvious today is the gay rights issue. This agenda has been secular led. The Church may be following but liberal society is watching closely to see that it does. On a range of issues beyond the issue of practising gay priests – such as adherence to certain codes by adoption agencies; the entitlement of registrars to absent themselves from civil registrations – liberal society expects us – the Church of England especially – to uphold the liberal consensus. Some are comfortable with that, but the Church shouldn’t become complacent because there may be a series of challenges heading our way that confront us in new and assertive ways over church schools and the entitlement to proselytise in public places, to name just two.
Christianity has been in a privileged position for such a long time because of the way it has buttressed British institutions and identity. People either had faith or a powerful residual respect for faith which made a number of benevolent assumptions about its place in public life. The secularisation of Britain and the profound loss of connection between its people and the Church over several generations have eroded this to a position where attacks upon it are increasingly approved of.
We believe that the Christian faith has a profoundly important role to play in the public life of the nation. What we may be lacking are agreed grounds of engagement. The eschatological goal of the new heavens and the new earth which recurs like a pulse throughout scripture gives inspiration to Christians to involve themselves in the welfare of society because it is precisely this society that God will redeem. Yet what has happened in recent decades has been a retreat from the public arena by Christians who don’t know what to say, leaving only those groups in public life who are most sure and sometimes strident about what they believe. It is easy to knock such groups, but at least they are in public debate. Mainstream Christians and their churches have become quietist, individualist and escapist. We have become wealthy and comfortable and the view of heaven as a faraway place we escape to when we die provides no underlying theological rationale for involvement in the here and now. ‘Pie in the sky when you die’ started as a criticism of Christian belief but has now become a component of it.
There are two things I would wish to say about Christian re-engagement in the public arena and on the political stage: we cannot avoid ridicule and we cannot always be tolerant. The Christian faith is deeply challenging of human institutions and practice. Right from the moment the silversmiths of the shrines of Artemis in Ephesus began to lose trade because the people were turning away from their idols to the living God (Acts 19), the Gospel has been an offence to vested interests. The warm glow we all felt on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade recently too easily obscured the ridicule and scorn that was heaped on Wilberforce and the Clapham sect at the time because they challenged the status quo. This is the gritty reality of authentic Christian engagement and should be distinguished from endless accommodation to the latest political consensus. Sometimes we must be seen to lead and not just to follow. What works against us is the growing loss of interest in personal Christian holiness which compromises our witness and our campaigning. This is another challenge we should take from the Clapham Sect.
We should also take a cool look at the buzz word of tolerance. When you pick it apart it really doesn’t stand up as a lodestar by which to guide society. GK Chesterton once said that tolerance is all you have left when love has run out. This would be a fitting epitaph for our generation. For a start we cannot endlessly tolerate other people and their actions otherwise we are not able to witness to the God who is without injustice. We are called as the Christian community to something much deeper, richer and more challenging. Jesus did not say: tolerate one another as I have tolerated you. The Gospel standard is love. And this country is crying out for the love of God and his people.
Finding a coherent philosophy by which to engage with the public arena again is perhaps our greatest challenge. I am particularly taken with the potential for relational thinking in the UK. Let me explain what I mean. The goal of public policy in the modern world is economic growth. But is this sufficient for a Christian perspective? Jesus helpfully gave us a simple summary of the law from which to work: love God and love your neighbour as yourself. Although we cannot compel others to love God or their neighbour if they choose not to, this summary gives us the clue we need to inform public policy. The purpose of life is to foster good relationships. So if a nation’s priorities are to be informed by a Judeo-Christian view, then the duty to love your neighbour as yourself is called for and the purpose of public policy changes from generating economic growth as an end in itself (it may still remain a means) to fostering an environment in which good relationships can flourish. This is not a game of semantics but a genuinely alternative way of looking at life.
On this count, Britain is perhaps less developed as a nation than we like to think. High rates of teenage pregnancy and a culture of promiscuity suggest a view of sexual relations as commodity rather than as sacrament. Levels of alcohol and drug abuse (among the highest in the EU) generate unhappiness for both adults and children affected. Long working hours are celebrated as evidence of a strong work ethic but they also reduce the amount of time that parents and children are able to spend together. Flexible labour markets are encouraged to reduce unemployment and maximise profitability but they have also led to the dismantling of traditional extended family bonds as people move to find work.
There is nothing inevitable about these trends. Public policy can be shaped in ways that nurture human relationships while also generating material wealth. And as we all know, happy people are generally productive and efficient people, meaning that the goals of growth can be served too – a classic by-product of ordering our priorities before God. The idea that the end goal of public policy should be to create environments in which important relationships can prosper is gaining ground today. The Relationships Foundation (www.relationshipsfoundation.org) has generated much of its literature.
Christian social involvement has a long and honourable tradition in Britain. The new atheists actively despise this, the liberal consensus has cooled to the point of frostiness towards it, the churches have split between the passionately vocal and the timidly quietist. As WB Yeats observed in his poem ‘The Second Coming’: ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity….the centre cannot hold’.
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