DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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sThe Myths of Christianity - 6
The End of Religion
(Continued)
Richard Holloway

By contrast, the Anglican Communion, which might with wise and courageous leadership, emerge as the first truly post-modern church, seems to be caught in a state of transitional futility in which pre-modern, modern and post-modern elements all contend with each other. The particular tragedy of the Anglican Church is that a truly post-modern structure of dispersed and plural governance was emerging, which is now under severe attack from strong pre-modern elements in the communion that are forcing a timid leadership to row back towards increasing centralisation and ethical and doctrinal control.

Protestant churches with fewer international elements to harmonise should, in theory, find the transition towards appropriate ecclesiastical versions of post-modernity easier to manage. In practice, this does not seem to be happening, mainly because most of them are heavily invested in a theory of human relationships that is wildly at variance with the way most people are now choosing to live.

So the crisis in the churches is not simply a matter of managing painful elements of change in a dynamic situation. Like an ancient galleon that has spent ages at sea, Christianity is encrusted with customs and attitudes acquired in its voyage through the centuries and it is making the tragic mistake of confusing the accidents of theological and cultural history with eternal truth.

Callum G Brown in his book The Death of Christian Britain claims that the single most important element in the free-fall in church attendance in Britain is the churches resistance to the feminist revolution [4]. The classical sociological account of the decline of religious observance in Britain was what was called "secularisation theory". The idea was that the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution gave birth to a new kind of consciousness that was inimical to religion and began the process of its dissolution.

While there is clearly something in secularisation theory, Brown challenges many of its essential elements.

One of the elements of secularisation theory was that the Industrial Revolution alienated the working classes from Christianity. Brown dismisses that claim and shows that the working class in Britain was profoundly involved in various forms of evangelical religion. The boom time of working class religion in Britain was the mid-1950s, of which the success of Bill Graham's crusades in 1954 was more a symptom than a cause. What Brown calls the background discourse of this period was the evangelical economy of salvation and, to use another of his terms, it was highly gendered discourse.

This where I find his narrative convincing, because it exactly mirrors my own theological experience. Traditional Christianity was based upon very rigid gender roles. Women were subordinated to men as far as leadership went, but were viewed as spiritually superior to them and sent by God to restrain and civilize them. All of this was based upon a particular reading of scripture as well as on a particular stage of social evolution, and it still lies behind the nostalgia that characterises the debate about the family in Britain and the USA.

When Christian feminists started challenging these stereotypes, traditionalists argued against them by claiming that changes in gender roles would undermine the whole biblical system and nothing would remain unchallenged.

During the debate on the ordination of women I remember arguing against the traditionalists on the grounds that they were exaggerating the effect that ordaining women would have. This was not a revolution, I argued. It was a tiny adjustment of the dial of history to accommodate changes in relations between women and men. The doctrine of ministry would not be affected by admitting women. It would only be widened slightly. Everything would go on as before, except that there would now be women with dog collars on. We would get used to the change, as we did when women doctors started wearing stethoscopes round their necks. After a few months we would think nothing of it.

Not so, argued the traditionalists. Make this change and with time the whole edifice would fall. Historic Catholic Christianity is all of a piece, a minutely articulated whole, and if you take out one piece of the structure the whole thing will gradually fall apart because there will be nothing to stop the process continuing. Question an element as central as this and you substitute human judgement for divinely revealed truth and the whole edifice will collapse like a pack of cards.

They said the right thing for the wrong reason but their prediction is gradually coming true, and it is one of the main elements in Brown's revisionist theory of church decline. He says that the feminist revolution that contributed most to the decline of traditional Christianity in Britain. In a remarkably short period after 1963 the whole edifice started to crumble, except for a few defensive redoubts that still guard the old tradition with increasing desperation.

What finished off Christianity in Britain was not the slow creep of secularism but the swift success of the women's movement. That is Brown's central claim. He is well aware of the way the experience of the United States appears to contradict his thesis, but his response is instructive:

The way of viewing religion and religious decline in Britain offered in this book should have wider applicability. It may help to explain the near contemporaneous secularisation of Norway, Sweden, Australia and perhaps New Zealand, and should help to account for the rapid secularisation of much of Catholic Europe since the 1970s.

Critically, it may help to explain the North American anomaly. Throughout secularisation studies from the 1950s to the 1990s, the United States and Canada have seemed difficult to fit into the British model of religious decline. A supposedly obvious "secular" society of the twentieth century has sustained high levels of churchgoing and church adherence. Debate on this has gripped American sociologists of religion for decades without apparent resolution.

Perhaps the answer lies in seeing the same discursive challenge as Britain experienced emerging in North America in the 1960s, but then not triumphing. A discursive conflict is still under way in North America. The Moral Majority and the evangelical fight back has been sustained in public rhetoric in a way not seen in Europe. North American television nightly circulates the traditional evangelical narrative of conversionism � and a discursive battle has raged since the 1960s. Secular post-hippy culture of environmentalism, feminism and freedom for sexuality co-exists beside a still-vigorous evangelical rhetoric and which home and family, motherhood and apple pie are sustaining the protocols of gendered religious identity. Piety and femininity are still actively enthralled to each other, holding secularisation in check. In Foucaldian terms, North America may be experiencing an overlap of epistemes (of modernity and post-modernity) [5].

The fundamental issue for Christianity in this debate is not whether you are more comfortable with the traditional evangelical vision of gender identity than with the post-modern feminist interpretation, but whether it is right to claim the former as exclusively Christian.

We all have preferences in life and sometimes we are more comfortable with the way things were than with the way things are. Some people like to be old fashioned, some people absolutely au courant. Sometimes we even twist back on ourselves and establish a retro-look, in which we give a contemporary spin to a previous model of something, whether in clothing or furnishing. Post-modernism is so plural it can even find a place for yesterday or for last century in its interior design.

Society is full of interesting survivals of this sort, including groups who exist to restore various European monarchies. In Scotland there are groups that plan for the return of the House of Stuart to a renewed Scottish monarchy. They gather from time to time in out-of-the-way buildings, dramatically swathed in tartan cloaks, to plan the return of the king from over the water (though a genetic descendant of the Stuarts is probably an elderly Portuguese wine exporter).

There is no harm in this. It's a Scottish version of the re-enactment of the shoot-out between the Earp brothers and the Clancies at the OK Corral. It's all part of the heritage business and our endearing nostalgia for extinct culture and their artifacts.

The big question for the churches is whether they are so identified with the values of a previous culture that they are incapable of adapting to its successor. The culture wars of North America, in which Christianity is identified not only with a particular version of gender relationships but with a hatred of sexual minorities and many contemporary human freedoms, is a prospect that dismays Christians who are perfectly at ease in the new culture of post-modernity.

One can prefer a particular culture without being blind to its defects. Every way of ordering society has its shadow side and post-modernity is no exception. The issue is not whether it is imperfect but whether any other way, including the one associated with religious conservatism, would be significantly better.

A deeper issue is whether it makes sense for Christianity to identify previous cultural arrangements exclusively with the mind of God. Out-of-date systems are no more likely to be perfect than up-to-date systems. The decisive element in the situation is that up-to-date is where most of us are, for better or for worse, and there is a lot to be said for accepting rather than running from where we are.

The fact is that we now see the human struggle to claim meaning and value for our lives as an enterprise of many approaches, many answers. I would suggest that there is likely to be something of value in that very variety.

More negatively, the presence of many systems is a good bulwark against the tendency to abuse that is found in societies where single systems dominate. Single systems always become arrogant.

So the relativising effect of the presence of other accounts of the human adventure tempers the absolutizing tendency of single systems or the endless contention that characterises societies with two dominant systems.

Voltaire understood this:

� if you have two religions in your land, the two will cut each other's throats; but if you have thirty religions, they will dwell in peace [6].

Voltaire expresses the best value of post-modernity in that quotation.

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