The politics of belief in the 21st century
The title of this essay deliberately echoes the tiresome pun that has been doing the rounds since the end of the Cold War – what’s left of the left? Undoubtedly the various churches are still major institutions in the world, and some forms of Christianity are even growing, but it is a long time since Christianity was anything like the official ideology of the West, or even an inspiration for major movements. Perhaps it is Eurocentric, even elitist, to suggest that Christianity is a spent force, but the fact that our political and intellectual classes (those of most of the world in fact) more or less disavow the religion that shaped the culture they have inherited is surely important.
The books under review consider in various ways how the legacy of Christianity persists in Britain and elsewhere – not so much institutionally as intellectually and culturally – how it has changed and continues to change. This is not a matter of merely academic interest: questions of religion are taking on an increasing political urgency. Just as the apparent demise of the political left (and, less widely acknowledged, the right) forces us to rethink what is at stake in politics, and how we might seek to shape the future, the transformation of religious thinking raises important questions about the meaning of truth and morality, the nature of authority, and indeed what it means to be human.
For much of the twentieth century it was widely believed that religion was on the way out, and would have no place in an enlightened modern world, whether socialist or capitalist. In recent years the consensus has changed: it is held that ‘the secularisation thesis’ has been falsified by events; strikingly by the emergence of political Islam and, some argue, the American religious right; more substantially by the growth of Pentecostalism in the developing world, and increasing controversies in the West about, for example, Islamic head coverings, the teaching of Creationism, and the role of religion in public life. While religion is often discussed today as a form of identity, especially inasmuch as this raises problems for a secular society, there is much less discussion about religious ideas and practices in their own terms. But religion is one kind of answer to questions that trouble all of us.
The Spiritual Revolution, by Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead, explores the claim that traditional religion has been or is about to be superceded in Britain by what used to be called New Age practices, such as meditation and yoga, reflecting a more personal and subjective understanding of spirituality. The book is based on a detailed locality study conducted between October 2000 and June 2002 in Kendal in the North West of England, where the authors and other researchers from the nearby Lancaster University investigated the relative popularity of church-based, or ‘congregational’ religion, and what they call ‘holistic’ practices. The results suggested a steady decline of the former and growth of the latter, but not a dramatic shift from one to the other: church congregations, while smaller than in the past, are not about to disappear, while the holistic milieu remains substantially smaller.
While the authors speculate that the ‘revolution’ could eventually be completed, with the holistic milieu overtaking congregational religion in a matter of decades, the book, and the study, are more interesting for what they say about more general cultural trends, and the effects these are having even on traditional religion itself. The dramatic boom in holistic spirituality that occurred in the late 1980s and 1990s has tailed off into steady growth, but it is part of a wider cultural shift away from traditional institutions and practices in favour of a focus on the individual, or more accurately the self. Other examples include the decline of medical authority in the face of rising interest in more ‘holistic’ complementary and alternative medicine, as well as child-centred approaches in education (p126). One might add focus group led politics, and the wider ‘therapy culture’.
Secularisation or ‘subjectivisation’?
Rather than thinking simply in terms of traditional versus New Age spirituality, then, Heelas and Woodhead make a distinction between ‘life-as’ and ‘subjective-life’ spiritualities. The former is more demanding, requiring individuals to submit to external authority of one kind or another, while the latter is more in tune with the individual’s own concerns. The idea of a shift from one to the other is what might be called the subjectivisation thesis, in distinction to secularisation, and it seems far more durable in the face of developments.
Indeed, this distinction is helpful in accounting for the persistence, and even resurgence, of some forms of Christianity, especially what Heelas and Woodhead call ‘congregations of difference’, which emphasise the unchanging character of religious truths, and consequently act as ‘countercultural safe havens’ from the bewildering changes in the outside world. While numbers in such congregations are thus likely to ‘bottom out’ rather than declining to nothing, what the authors call ‘congregations of experiential difference’ may not decline at all, as they are able to play a similar reassuring role while simultaneously catering to subjectivisation (p146-7). The obvious example is ‘charismatic’ Evangelism, with its emphasis on feeling good rather than doing good. It is so-called ‘congregations of humanity’, which posit a religious duty to serve wider society, that come off worst from the changes described in the book.
It is not so much that religion is finished, then, as that it is subject to something analogous with natural selection. It is the survival of the fittest, with fitness defined as the ability to cater to a more personalised conception of spirituality that speaks to people as individuals with their own concerns and desires, and even offers relief from the external regulation and surveillance experienced in other spheres, from education to work. In that sense, religion can offer a more humanising ‘subjective life’ alternative to more demanding ‘life-as’ roles in the secular world (p128). This is certainly not at odds with moralism, however: there is a market for that too. It is striking, though, that moralism today usually takes the form of a concern with the private sphere, most obviously the churches’ interminable debates about homosexuality.
It is worth noting that this emphasis on private morality is actually very much in tune with the secular idea that religion is a private matter, which should have little or no bearing on public life. This is another sense in which religion has adapted to prevailing social mores: even at its most controversial, religion is about personal lifestyle. It was not always so. Indeed, Heelas and Woodhead quote the Victorian prime minister Lord Melbourne, who complained after listening to what he considered an overzealous sermon that, ‘Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade the sphere of private life’. In this traditional view, religion was a public affair, to be observed publicly and avowed publicly, but not to impinge on one’s private affairs (p126).
While refreshingly laid back in comparison with the prurience we associate with religion today, it is a fundamentally conservative form of religiosity, premised on the idea that society needs religion to hold it together, irrespective of whether people believe in it, much less whether it happens to be true. This form of religion really does seem to be dying out today. The fashionable piety is not to conform to social convention on religious matters, but to be true to one’s own beliefs, whatever those happen to be. Hence, religious moralism turns out to be all too compatible with moral relativism; being hung up about homosexuality is just another lifestyle choice, much like homosexuality itself. Tellingly, religious conservatives are more concerned with defending their right to disapprove than with imposing their beliefs on anyone else.
The marginalisation of belief
Indeed, it is a measure of the detachment of religion from political power that religious groups are ‘allowed’ to hold all kinds of eccentric opinions. People can believe whatever they want on religious questions because it doesn’t really matter. When Christianity was at the centre of power and political life, doctrinal disputes had real urgency, political movements rose and fell and wars were fought over the correct interpretation of the one true faith. Today, only constitutional anoraks worry about the political consequences of the established church’s doctrines, and those who do object argue quite rightly for disestablishment rather than seeking to correct this or that point of belief. In any case, it has become something of a running joke that the Church of England doesn’t really believe in anything anyway. Anglicanism, bumbling affably along, seems to embody the fate of religion adapting to survive in relativistic times.
Even the African primates of the Anglican communion, and others who object so strongly to the church’s relative tolerance of homosexuality, seem to protest too much. Certainly, their fevered protestations do not ring true as expressions of authentic Christianity, but rather look like desperate efforts to hold onto some kind of absolute, however unseemly. In fact, one should be wary of dismissing apparently wishy-washy religion as hopelessly compromised, not ‘the real thing’. As the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has argued, ‘it cannot be assumed that the refusal of absolutism is simply a search for pragmatic solutions acceptable to an educated, liberal and rather detached public. It may be a way of saying that the place where God would live if God existed is close to the place where we recognise the limitations of our moral possibilities, or rather the limitation of our chances of sleeping well, of having a satisfactory self-image’ (1). It is tempting to mock an archbishop who seems unsure whether God exists or not, but it would be a mistake to fault a religious believer for failing to live up to a non-believer’s idea of religious faith.
In Christianity with Attitude, Giles Fraser cites Denys Turner, who gave an inaugural lecture as professor of divinity at Cambridge in 2004 on ‘How to be an atheist’, in which he criticised the theological conservatism of atheists who seem not to have noticed that nobody believes in the God they don’t believe in (p111). Fraser’s book is a good introduction to the thinking of one real, live Christian. Fraser is Team Rector of Putney in South West London, and a former Oxford philosophy lecturer; the book is a compendium of short articles published in the Church Times and the Guardian, as well as contributions to BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ slot, loosely organised by theme. What emerges is a humane and compassionate Christianity, recognisably left-liberal, but credibly rooted in Fraser’s interpretation of Christian scripture and tradition. While readers might be inspired by Fraser’s example, however, there is little to persuade a non-Christian to embrace the religion itself; there is nothing especially mysterious about Fraser’s worldview, nothing to unsettle a similarly left-liberal humanist. His irreverent take on things shows that it is possible to be a thoughtful and decent bloke as well as a vicar, but it doesn’t really tell us why Christianity matters, or even what it ultimately means. What do Christians believe in that atheists don’t?
Last year, Fraser hosted a public meeting at one of his churches in Putney, looking critically at ‘the lust for certainty’. He argued that Christianity is not about certainty; spiritual doubt is and always has been orthodox. This is reasonable enough; doubt is the flipside of faith, which is very different from certainty. But again, the important question is what one is doubting. What is Christianity about? Tellingly, Fraser admitted that philosophising about uncertainty would not go down too well at weddings and funerals. A vicar’s pastoral duties to provide affirmation and comfort to his flock do not necessarily sit comfortably with his struggle to comprehend and explain Christianity in all its subtlety. No doubt this tension has always existed. Fraser describes himself fundamentally as a doer, and perhaps his pastoral activities are the best answer to what Christianity means to him. For a church that is losing its hold on society more widely, though, the question of what Christianity has to offer is becoming urgent. Oddly enough, it may be that the temptation for the church is to adapt to a relativist culture not by compromising traditional absolutes, but by pretending to a certainty it does not have.
That same lecture on atheism by Denys Turner is referred to by Mark Vernon (who also spoke at the meeting in Putney) in Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life. The book is a valuable critique of bad religion and bad science, though it falls short of explaining the meaning of life; indeed, that’s kind of the point. Mark Vernon is a graduate in physics, philosophy and theology, a former Anglican priest, and most importantly an avowed agnostic. The strength of the book, then, is in challenging false certainties, whether pseudo-scientific or pseudo-religious. Its weakness is in making a virtue of uncertainty, to the extent that it undermines even more humanistic conceptions of scientific knowledge and religious (or even non-religious) faith.
Vernon’s model is Socrates, one of the greatest philosophers, and I suspect one of the most annoying human beings, who ever lived. His ruthless questioning of everything forced his pupils constantly to refine and improve their ideas, but this never brought them to the final, ‘correct’, answer. There was always another question, another challenge. The Socratic method has been immensely valuable in subsequent philosophy, but Vernon is less interested in its instrumental value than in radical doubt as a kind of ethic. He quotes Socrates’ insistence that, ‘I am very conscious that I am not wise at all.’ Crucially for Vernon, this self-doubt meant that Socrates’ scepticism was not assertive. ‘Socrates was a sceptic of the humble sort. He accepted that just because he could not understand something, that did not mean there was no wisdom to be had in ancient traditions, and religious traditions in particular’ (p161).
While his own humility is somewhat extreme, Vernon argues convincingly that neither science nor religion is actually about certainty, in the sense of absolute, readily comprehensible and unchanging truths. At their best, both are more open-ended, and in different ways grasp at a provisional truth. Vernon suggests that the simplistic dogmatism that can be found in both traditions today is a historic consequence first of the institutionalisation of Christianity, and later the idea following the scientific revolution that science, not religion, has all the answers. The idea of truth as absolute began with institutionalised religious dogma at the expense of Socratic philosophy and its religious equivalents (p155). While science later challenged particular dogmas of the church, many of its champions adopted the church’s model of truth as total, reproducing it in an even harder, more reductionist form: scientism. Religion was forced to adapt in turn: Vernon sees today’s religion of certainty, the sorts of beliefs described elsewhere as ‘fundamentalist’, as an attempt on the part of religious thinkers to replicate the apparent certainties of science, expunging the last remnants of less certain religious belief. ‘It used to be faith seeking understanding, now it is surety seeking expression; it was a search, it is now a statement’ (p6).
Meaning and mystery
What is lost in this latter process is meaning. In the terms used by the historian of religion Karen Armstrong, myth has given way to logos; the symbolic and paradoxical has lost out to the word, to argument and reason, but in themselves these things are empty and bewildering (pp102-3). For Vernon, the role of Christianity today ought to be in helping people to cope with the resulting sense of loss, not by competing with science and not by reviving myth, but by providing a sense of identity, a way of responding to life. In this, he seems to endorse the developments described in The Spiritual Revolution. Vernon is critical, though, of the way that logos-influenced Christianity stresses its relevance to the ‘modern, autonomous individual’, with courses on the practical applications of Christianity in everyday life, from work to dating (characteristic of the Evangelical churches discussed by Heelas and Woodhead). Vernon sees this retreat from mystery and otherworldiness as an unfortunate legacy of the Reformation (p105).
Indeed, Vernon is very much a High Church agnostic, and his criticisms of Christianity are overwhelmingly criticisms of its more Protestant forms, so that some of the subtleties distinguishing sound Protestant theology from simply bad religion are lost. (Full disclosure: I suppose I write as a Protestant atheist.) For example, Vernon advocates a return to the Latin mass, arguing: ‘It would be an advantage to hear the beauty of the language without comprehending the words’ (p100). But the Protestant emphasis on vernacular languages was about allowing people to understand liturgy and scripture for themselves, rather than depending on priests and bishops trained in Latin – and drilled in Church dogma. This is not to reduce Christianity to the words, as Vernon implies, but rather to bring its mystery closer to individual believers. Even an atheist knows better than to read the King James Bible as a faulty textbook; it is one thing to follow the words, quite another to imagine that the message is simple. Of course, there are more recent versions that do tend to render scripture banal, and Vernon is quite right to object to books and courses purporting to show the usefulness of the Bible in settling marriage difficulties or even getting rich. But this is closer to the sort of wordly degradation of Christianity that the Protestant reformers set out to challenge.
If Vernon seems to lack faith in the spiritual power of unadorned scripture, perhaps we should not be surprised. He is agnostic, after all. No wonder he prefers the manmade splendour of great cathedrals to the stern simplicity of the free churches. But if God really is mysterious – or in atheist terms, perhaps, if life is difficult – is it really necessary to insist on an artificial layer of mystery, of difficulty? Vernon seems to want us to look through a glass darkly wearing shades. One often gets the sense that he revels in mystery, idolises uncertainty. Unsurprisingly, he greatly admires the 15th century cardinal Nicholas of Cusa: ‘The precise truth shines incomprehensibly within the darkness of our ignorance’ (p120). Cheers. Somewhere apart from such wilful obscurantism and the cheerful banality of ‘Jesus the life coach’ lies the possibility of the truly thoughtful spirituality to which Vernon aspires, and from which we all might benefit. His insistence on mystery seems to me a barrier to developing this. Agnosticism can be a refusal of intellectual commitment as much as a refusal of dogma.
Vernon does concede that the agnostic needs the believer (p133). Without practising Christians to keep the tradition alive, agnosticism would be academic. Indeed, a similar point could be made about multiculturalism: the cosmopolitan flâneur needs other people to maintain their distinct cultures, cuisines and intriguing beliefs if he is to enjoy them. Are agnostics spiritual freeriders, then? Vernon argues rather that the believer also needs the agnostic. ‘Paradoxically, it is their committed uncertainty that might revivify the first and last commitments of the religious quest: God is unknown because divine’. The committed uncertainty of the agnostic may perhaps bolster the uncertain commitment of the religious by reminding them that their own faith is not a prosaic matter, giving both a sense of deeper meaning in an otherwise disenchanted society. This is surely the least convincing argument in the book, however. It is not at all clear how committed uncertainty, revivified Christianity, or any other religion can provide us with the meaning that is undoubtedly missing from contemporary society.
Vernon describes well the spiritual poverty of contemporary secular thinking, and its coyness about one of the great questions of philosophy: ‘The moral imperative of how one should live should be rephrased to the more manageable one of how one might become more cultivated, more ethical or simply less demanding of life’ (p187). This is cutting. The most common secularist response to the charge that life without faith is spiritually empty is to talk about culture: music, literature and art. But deep down we know it’s not enough. For the most part, culture is something we consume. There is nothing especially wrong with that, but it means that culture is comfortably part of everyday life. Of course by actually participating in cultural activities we deepen the experience, but as long as culture is essentially leisure, it lacks real depth. To accept culture as a source of meaning is indeed to demand less of life. (Never mind that the same can be said of religion; the problem is nonetheless real.)
In the book’s epilogue, Vernon suggests that the narrative quality of history to some extent fulfils a similar function to that played by religion, surmising that this may explain the growing popularity of history books and TV programmes that has coincided with the decline in church-going (pp169-71). There is something in the idea as history as a bearer of meaning, but the satisfaction to be derived from reading about history in books and watching it on TV is not that different from that of watching a good film or reading a novel. What really does lift human existence into a higher sphere is the experience of making history. And the wider context to the failure of the secularisation thesis – and perhaps to the strength of the The Spiritual Revolution’s subjectivisation thesis – is the pervasive sense that history is over, or perhaps more accurately the separation of history from politics. Stuff just happens.
Unfortunately, Vernon’s agnosticism reinforces rather than challenging this outlook. Life is a mystery, after all. So what does that tell us about how to live? Vernon does try to derive a moral stance from his favoured attitude of ‘wonderment’ to nature. For Vernon, the value of nature is intrinsic rather than instrumental, and protection of the environment thus depends on a moral not scientific view (p71). But this can’t be right. If the value of nature were intrinsic, then agriculture (man tearing up the earth) would be just as bad as carbon emissions. It is only to the extent that the latter cause problems for human beings that they are a problem at all. The very concept of ‘damage’ to the environment only has meaning from an instrumental viewpoint, even if it is beauty or biodiversity that we choose to value; ‘nature’ itself doesn’t care one way or the other. Thinking of humanity’s relationship to nature as a moral issue only confuses things. In fact, it sounds suspiciously like the Christian idea of man’s dominion or stewardship of nature, and the assumption that there is a particular way God wants us to manage the world (farming good, genetic engineering bad); the secular form is the idea that there is a particular way things are ‘supposed’ to be, a fetishised Nature not to be meddled with. (Ironically, adherents of this secularised idea often criticise the Christian idea of dominion for giving man too much leeway; it is not clear to whom they defer on how things are supposed to be, unless it is Gaia, or some other more ‘authentic’ religious authority.)
In arguing against scientism and its weakness in accounting for human morality, Vernon notes in Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life that Socrates ‘diagnosed that it is the dogmatic prioritisation of scientific conditions over moral causes, when a moral explanation is more appropriate, that leads the scientific worldview to overreach itself’ (p63). This is true, but equally, a dogmatic prioritisation of supposed moral causes, when a scientific explanation is more appropriate, leads the moralistic worldview to overreach itself. The current rhetoric of ‘blame’ in relation to climate change is a prime example, encouraging us to feel guilty rather than taking practical measures to deal with environmental problems. For Vernon, it is the hubris of the scientific worldview that has caused us to despoil the environment. In fact, it is only science that allows us to understand and do something about environmental problems. Wonderment is what we feel when we are not in control; it is an understandable response, but it is not a moral position any more than science itself is. Or if it is, it is a disastrous one, rendering us powerless to improve our circumstances.
What’s left of politics?
The question of power is at the heart of Jonathan Bartley’s book, Faith and Politics After Christendom: the Church as a Movement for Anarchy, which is the third in a series, ‘After Christendom’, by Christian writers in the radical Anabaptist tradition. The first two books, Post-Christendom and Church After Christendom, both by Stuart Murray, establish the idea of post-Christendom as a new period in which British society can no longer be meaningfully characterised as Christian, and the church no longer has such a privileged position. Both Murray and Bartley, a co-director of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, see this as an opportunity to rethink what it means to be Christian, and to recover the radical core of their faith. They are very far from being agnostic, then, but equally far from the stereotype of evangelical zealotry or traditional Church of England conservatism, or even the avuncular Christian liberalism of Giles Fraser.
Bartley makes the point that despite the demise of Christendom, it remains the case that British society has been definitively shaped by the Christian story. Just as Mark Vernon’s agnosticism is coloured by his Christian background, secular Britain retains important traces of Christendom, certain ideas, traditions, and not least an established church. While some Christians see this is as a positive legacy to be defended against the threat of further secularisation, Bartley argues that the institutionalisation of Christianity, and especially its ongoing relationship with government, is at odds with the radical Christian message. Indeed, Bartley argues that Christians are called to struggle against what the apostle Paul called ‘the principalities and powers’. Hence: the church as a movement for anarchy.
Bartley is at pains to make clear that this does not mean Christians should go about smashing things up. He is not talking about anarchism as a political ideology, even in its pacifist form, but about anarchy as a renunciation of worldly power. He cites the theologian Oliver O’Donovan’s idea that the opposite of ‘secular’ should be not ‘religious’ but ‘eternal’ (p10), with the implication that rather than simply having a particular point of view, Christians belong to a different plane, the Kingdom of God if you will. Christians are, or ought to be, ‘in the world’ but not ‘of’ it (p168). Inasmuch as they are concerned with shaping or transforming the worldly social order, then, neither the ‘Christian Right’ nor the ‘Christian Left’ can claim to be the authentic political expression of Christianity. And the established church is certainly no such thing. For Bartley, the church can only be political from the margins (p11).
Like Mark Vernon’s Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life then, Bartley’s Faith and Politics After Christendom is critical of institutionalised Christianity. The historical emergence of Christendom meant ‘discipleship became loyal citizenship’ (p34). This was a world away from the origins of Christianity in the dissident and persecuted church shaped by the apostle Paul, for whom Jesus represented ‘the beginning of a new humanity and a new political community’. This community was quite different from the Roman Empire in which Christians happened to find themselves, despite the fact that this empire was finally to adopt Christianity as its own state religion (p17). For the early Christians, getting involved in ‘politics’ meant rejecting secular power, regardless of the consequences. Bartley notes wryly that, ‘Martyrdom was in fact a notable form of political engagement’ (p25). Indeed, Christians continued to ‘practise’ martyrdom even under Christendom when their version of Christian faith differed from that embraced by the powers; that is to say, when their discipleship was not consistent with loyal citizenship. It was only late in the history of Christendom that ideas of religious tolerance emerged, and then only in a few countries – and still only inasmuch as discipleship was consistent with citizenship, albeit more civically defined. It is secularisation that has given Christians in much of the world greater freedom to pursue their faith in their own way.
While some Christians say they feel disparaged and even persecuted by secular society, Bartley suggests some perspective is in order. ‘In pre-Christendom and Christendom, persecution often led to torture and death. In post-Christendom, this is not so’ (p128). Christians in post-Christendom enjoy both freedom to practise their faith unmolested (if not unridiculed), and freedom from the burden of institutionalisation. Christian faith is no longer a political ideology in disguise. In post-Christendom, however, a different problem has arisen: this is what Bartley calls ‘the new deal’. It is a new relationship between churches and government, whereby, rather than the state justifying itself in religious terms, the churches appeal to the state in its own terms, promising to use their manpower and goodwill to deliver welfare services, for example.
Bartley is certainly onto something. This approach to churches, as part of what is sometimes called the ‘third sector’ as distinct from either government or business, has been pioneered by New Labour, but is even more explicit in the rhetoric of David Cameron’s Conservatives. Politicians are increasingly keen to foster ‘civil society’ both to compensate for gaps in the welfare state, and as a source of moral authority at a time when the political class itself is deeply unpopular. As Bartley notes: ‘Christianity may also have furnished government with a new terminology that has enabled it to communicate new policies successfully without waking memories of past political disputes and mistakes’ (p137). The quid pro quo is government funding for church initiatives, with the odd consequence that churches are bidding for funding for projects that a few centuries ago they would have funded themselves (p147). Indeed, you might think that was the point: charity has traditionally been a key element in the Christian tradition, based on ideas of self-sacrifice and generosity rather than mere ‘service delivery’. Bartley spells out the dangers of the new deal, shaped as it is by government policy and instrumentalist ideas about welfare: ‘Rather than the church witnessing to government, the new deal may encourage the opposite, as the church itself embraces such ideas rather than pioneering a distinctive approach in the delivery of social welfare’ (p144).
While the new deal does not identify the church with the state in the way that Christendom did – the church is just one of many agencies, religious and non-religious, participating in what has been called ‘multi-faith establishment’ (p174) – it does potentially compromise their religious identity. Perhaps usefully if unwittingly, however, in encouraging the churches to present themselves in the secular terms of efficiency and professionalism, the new deal raises questions about what actually distinguishes the churches, and Christianity, from the secular world. As Bartley argues, ‘The question the churches need to ask themselves is whether they want their distinctiveness to be based on such things [efficiency and professionalism], rather than (for example) their radical stand for justice’ (p145). The parenthesis is telling. What’s another example? What does justice actually mean anyway? There is a definite ‘blah, blah’, or ‘you know’ in the air when Christians, or advocates of any other faith, are forced to describe what they stand for in practical terms. This is the big challenge facing Bartley and anyone else seeking to make a case for Christianity as a force for radical change.
In fact, Bartley’s ambivalence about politics and the exercise of power, expressed clearly in Faith and Politics After Christendom, is deeply rooted in his conception of Christianity. It is one that makes a virtue of marginalisation, and eschews the pursuit of self-interest that underlay the modern politics of left and right alike. Bartley argues that Christians should not identify the common good with the national interest (p158). Rather they should embrace the opportunity offered by post-Christendom to make the imaginative leap from seeing themselves ‘settlers’ in secular society, to being ‘soujourners’. The rejection of nationalism is in keeping with traditional left-wing radicalism, but there is an important difference. Whereas socialism, especially in its Marxist forms, appeals to the self-interest of the working class, Bartley’s radical Christianity demands selflessness. Rather than an internationalism based on asserting the common interests of the workers of the world against the conflicting interests of capitalist nations, Bartley calls for an attitude of service to others. True Christian values ‘don’t always appear to make political sense, and are not promoted by a self-interested community that is demanding justice for its own benefit’ (p176). For Bartley, concern for others is not about recognising common interests, but renouncing one’s own interests for the benefit of others.
The ethics of another world?
This is very different from solidarity, standing shoulder to shoulder with others. As Bartley says, it doesn’t make sense: why should I put others before myself, not in the service of a common cause or just temporarily for the sake of good manners, but as a way of life? The answer can only come from belief in God and a desire to do God’s will, and this is a reminder of the enduring significance of religious faith. Christianity cannot be fully secularised; it is not just about being nice, or even doing unto others as you would have them do unto you – one of the few sensible things Jesus said on the mount – it’s about being true to God, one might even say doing what God wants.
Of course, this where the possibility of authoritarianism arises. Those who claim to know the will of God can and often do use this to compel and coerce others. This is not how Bartley talks about God, however, and indeed he attacks such authoritarianism in his critique of Christendom, which explicitly conflated religion and political power. Importantly, he is equally critical of the secular state and its use of coercion without a dubious spiritual mandate, especially in the criminal justice and immigration systems. Here the ‘anarchist’ temperament comes across powerfully: Bartley even suggests that Christians might choose to help people enter the country illegally (p228). This is genuinely radical and actually quite exciting. But what happens when the will of God is less libertarian? In listing things the British state does that might be considered objectionable, from waging war to imposing trade barriers, Bartley also notes that: ‘It allows the people it governs to go on polluting the planet, and encourages the consumption (at home and abroad) that causes that pollution’ (p190). The implication is that the state should not ‘allow’ these things, an all too respectable and widely-held political view, but one that demands coercion, not one that opposes it.
Of course, pollution is a problem that demands a solution, and there is even a case to be made for coercion, especially in the form of industrial regulations, but Bartley’s apparent slip from anarchism here points to another issue, especially when he identifies the problem as ‘consumption’. Much of the current environmentalist rhetoric of anti-consumerism seems to draw on an aspect of the Christian tradition, often identified with Francis of Assisi, that almost amounts to a cult of poverty. Consumption is seen as a problem not simply because in some circumstances it causes pollution, but because it is ‘unethical’, or sinful, in itself. It is not clear from the book whether this idea is important to Bartley’s theology or not, but his disavowal of self-interest certainly gels with a pervasive strain in secular thinking that is quite distinct from a commonsense, and indeed self-interested, desire to maintain a hospitable and pleasant environment. A certain puritanism is discernable today even among many who are positively hostile to religion. We are told to exercise restraint, to reduce the ‘human footprint’, not to walk on the grass.
This puts me in mind of Bartley’s own complaint about the managerialism of the ‘new deal’ for churches: ‘It seems to leave little room for any radical stand, and little room, too, for any glorious extravagance. What about grace, abundance, forgiveness, foolishness?’ (p146). This is a bit more like it. There is after all a life-affirming and joyful aspect to the Christian tradition as well as a miserabilist one. In any case, Bartley is adamant that, ‘the nature of God’s justice is such that it does not involve compelling people to behave in particular ways’ (p191). Equally, however, ‘God’s justice’ does not set out an easily comprehensible ethical framework, much less a political programme: as Bartley notes, Christians disagree about all kinds of political questions. Perhaps it is always going to be difficult to distinguish properly Christian motivations and aspirations from apparently similar currents in secular thought, which then carry Christians off in different directions. In uncoupling politics from self-interest, Christians avoid the most obvious ‘corruption’ of Christian discipleship, but leave themselves open to other more subtle influences: there are few political creeds that don’t lay claim to ‘justice’, after all.
In an essay asking, What difference does God make today?, Bartley’s colleague Simon Barrow argues that Christian conviction does not add another dimension to human life, or provide a set of answers, but rather shapes the way life is lived. ‘To worship is to acknowledge in God all the completeness we lack, and to be open to being transformed by it without needing to seize it.’ Rather than trying to define Christian justice, or to discern a Christian politics, the point is to live in faith – or as non-Christians might say, good faith. It is the attitude of worship – an earnest concern for ultimate worth – that distinguishes Barrow’s Christianity from Mark Vernon’s agnosticism as well as other, more dogmatic conceptions of religion. Crucially, Barrow argues that properly understood the Christian gospel abolishes religion as a separate sphere of life: while Christians take inspiration from particular beliefs and practices, then, ‘the outcome of this is not “spirituality” – a privatised zone of consolation or esoteric “knowledge” – but radical personal, social and political engagement with the pain and noise of the world in the direction of healing (holiness)’.
Bartley ends Faith and Politics After Christendom with a more explicit confession of faith: ‘We believe that the state as we know it will one day disappear when the rule of Jesus Christ is finally consummated. This doesn’t mean that the church can abdicate its responsibilities here and now, but it does mean that, as it gets involved and makes compromises and mistakes, it has this ultimate hope on which it can rely’ (p229). Ultimately, it seems to me that Christian thought ceases to be meaningfully Christian when separated from this kind of – almost prosaic – belief. Nonetheless, what separates thoughtful Christians from thoughtful non-Christians is less important than what they, we, might have in common.
Undoubtedly, many Christians engage in politics in ways that are destructive and unhelpful. When political positions are based on the authority of sacred texts or traditions not shared by others, there is no room for debate or conversation. At its best, however, Christian thought is a challenge both to liberalism and to mysticism. Christians are alive to the big questions that mainstream secular society is unable or unwilling to articulate, refusing to settle for the banality of consumer capitalism or the platitudinous critiques that are its ideological reflection. And in a peculiar sense, serious Christians are immunised against fetishism of various kinds, precisely because they are unwilling to attribute ultimate meaning to anything short of God. That goes not just for the obvious: money, fame etc, but also science, nature, the nation, the family, even the church itself as a worldly institution. Of course at various times Christians have been guilty of fetishising most of these things, and all have been criticised more rigorously by non-Christians. Nonetheless, at the core of Christianity is a basic uneasiness in the world, which forces the faithful to ask questions. That may prove to be the most important legacy of Christianity.
Whatever the future of the church as an institution, then, the rest of us have a lot to gain from engaging with, and criticising, serious Christian thought, rather than simply taking potshots at ‘fundamentalists’ and resurrecting the arguments of the 19th century. The world continues to change, and religion continues to play a role, precisely because secular liberalism does not have all the answers.
1) Rowan Williams, ‘The Health of the Spirit’, in Michael Brierley, 2006, Public Life and the Place of the Church, Aldershot: Ashgate
First published on Culture Wars.