Yesterday’s post produced an interesting set of responses. Perhaps the criticism I hear most from non-Christian, and Christian friends, about Christianity is that it is very judgmental. Yet many of the comments said that the problem was it wasn’t – or at least that they had not heard a good sermon or statement from their Church condemning sin – with, I think, the implication that it would have been better were that the case. Would more judgmentalism really help?
The train of thought I have been pursuing here stems partly from a series of lectures I have been following about religious literacy, which included, last night, the former Labour Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, arguing that Governments need to take the cares and concerns of faith communities seriously, but with the subtext that the latter also need to take societal consensus seriously. It raised questions, which I think Chalcedon451 is going to write about, but since some of them appertain to the sort of discussion we had here yesterday, I want to offer a few thoughts.
Charles Clarke is a good representative figure for my purposes. He is not a theist, and until he became Home Secretary took the all too common view among our highly-educated political elite that religion was both on the way out and, on the whole, not really worth bothering with except somewhere at the margins. The politics of the early twenty-first century shook these assumptions in two ways: 9/11 and 7/7 (in the UK) showed him that without some understanding of faith issues, it was hard to analyse what had just happened here; and in the aftermath of 7/7 it was the leaders of the faith communities who got together and convinced him that the Government needed their support to prevent community relations getting toxic. He also discovered that in some of the poorer parts of London, and elsewhere, faith communities were filling the gaps being left by cuts in government spending. All of this convinced him that faith communities were a force for good – on the whole.
He learnt, too, that the easy assumption that one could identify people by their faith community was mistaken. People have multiple identities – fathers, mothers, children, British, East Anglian, football supporter, Conservative, Labour, whatever, and that religion was, for most people just one of a number of identities. In most cases, the leaders of the faith communities supported all the things on which society had reached a consensus – free speech, equality for women, free-market economy tempered by aid for those who fell out of the welfare net, the importance of education, and so on and so forth. All faith groups had within them those who identified most with their faith, and some of these rejected quite a bit of the consensus – usually those to do with equal treatment in law for women and gay people; but it was, he discovered, a mistake to assume that just because such people made more noise in the public square than others, that they were in any way representative of their faiths. Having talked a lot with the leaders of the Catholic community in the UK, and taken their views on abortion, contraception and gay rights as typical of what Catholics believed, he discovered that the leaders in no way represented what most ordinary Catholics actually believed. This puzzled him.
In a lecture on religious literacy, this was an interesting example of where, I thought, his own journey to understanding had some way to go. Afterwards someone said to him that it wouldn’t matter if most Catholics believed x, as the Church was not a democracy. His comment was to ask how long any Church could continue to preach x if most of the faithful ignored it, and did it actually matter in the end any way – it would be a theoretical position whose only purpose would be to allow critics of the Church to highlight it as a reason why the Church should be ignored?
I have no answers to these question, although questions about them, but it takes me back to where we started. Is there any use in talking in terms which even most Christians do not understand or accept to a society which rejects them? What does talking about ‘sin’ mean, even to most Christians? Yes, we can lament all we like what we take to be failures of catechesis, but apart from playing Jeremiah, where does that get us? If we cannot, or will not, meet people where they are and talk to them in ways they will understand, of course we come across as know-it-alls preaching about the motes in their eyes – which is what often produces the comments about the beams in the eyes of the Churches.
It may be that some can take comfort in thinking of a progressively smaller and somehow ‘purer’ church, but I wonder if that was what Jesus’ Great Commission was about. Perhaps instead of criticising those like Pope Francis and those who are trying to communicate to a wider audience, some of his critics might reflect on why he is doing what he is doing – and on why he is so much more successful in getting people interested in the faith than any of them have ever been? Do we really start feeding weak stomachs with strong meat? Those of us for whom our faith is a large part of our identity, might like to be mindful that we are a minority, and perhaps to many of the majority, a rather frightening and odd-sounding one. If we think that’s the way to begin talking to a wider community, we shall end where many have, talking to themselves and getting cross when those not in the solipsism point that out to us.