Is the ongoing rejection of our Christian heritage resulting in a fairer, better society?

Broken CrossToday’s guest post is written by Will Jones. Will holds a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Reading and a diploma in Biblical studies from Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He works for the Church of England in diocesan administration in Coventry, and lives in Birmingham with his wife Becky.

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Watching the life of Nelson Mandela brought to life on the big screen recently got me to thinking about where we, the inhabitants of what was once called Christendom, find ourselves in 2014.

It struck me that Mandela’s story is in many ways quintessentially modern. A powerful account of a struggle against racial oppression to establish equality and freedom for all, it resonates with much of what we think being modern is all about.

Mandela indeed was significantly more “modern” than many of those around him. Unlike them he did not contend for a crude turning of the tables, a replacement of white domination with black, but strove for a thoroughgoing democratic state. His vision was for the end of race-based rule, not its perpetuation, and its replacement with an order based on equality and freedom in which blacks are in government, not because of the colour of their skin, but because they have been elected by a majority of the people – an order in which they share power fairly with minorities, even with their former oppressors. It was this distinctly modern vision which motivated Mandela and which he exerted himself to see enshrined at the heart of his movement.

Cultural shifts

The fall of apartheid in South Africa rounded off a century marked by immense change in Western society. Politically, the century had opened with the British Empire at its apex and the colonial projects of European powers in full swing around the globe. Yet it had ended with colonialism discredited, its projects dismantled or abandoned, and America arisen as the preeminent world power, dwarfing the humbled, former imperial, European states.

This political transformation was matched, and in no small part brought on by massive cultural shifts in Western society. Perhaps the most far-reaching of these shifts – of which there were many – related to what people thought constituted the right way to organise society. As the century began, people in Western society still generally believed that there existed certain natural ways of arranging human life which were “as they should be”. These ways were thought to lie at the foundation of social order, ordained by nature or God to give human life its characteristic structure and form. Many ideas of this sort can be found at work at the time, but perhaps the three most significant, underlying many of the rest, were race, class and gender.

First, race. To the typical early twentieth century European, white European civilisation was evidently superior to all others, and thus had rightly colonised and subjugated much of the globe. It was on this kind of basis that South African apartheid had been established, as had many similar race-based systems around the world, as European peoples had over the centuries projected their power and ideals out onto the world.

Second was class. The division of society into socio-economic classes, each with its own function and manner of life, was widely accepted as a natural and welcome state of affairs to be maintained for the sake of good order and social harmony. At the top was the elite: the highly educated, propertied few whose privilege and burden it was to apply their superiority in the cause of good government and the national interest. In the middle were the practical sort of people, clerical workers and shopkeepers, managers and merchants, who kept everything organised and progressing in a timely manner. At the bottom were the labourers and tradesmen, those who undertook all necessary work, skilled and unskilled, which animated the machine and kept it moving. Knowing your class and its place in society was an integral part of understanding who you were, what was expected of you, and what you could reasonably expect to receive in return.

Finally, gender. Gender played a dominant role in early twentieth century ideas of what it meant to be a man or woman in society, especially as that was expressed through the social institution of the family. Men were regarded as the possessors of natural superiorities in strength and intellect which fitted them for their various roles in the public sphere of work and government. Women were defined largely by their ability to bear children, and thus were allotted the domestic sphere of home and family. The social and legal privileges of men and, conversely, limitations on women reflected this gendered sense of order and the felt need to maintain it. As did attitudes to sex: the procreative act was restricted, by law and by custom, to expressions consistent with the gendered family order – sex outside marriage was taboo, contraception was illegal, and homosexuality was wholly beyond the pale.

Fast forward now to the present day, and it would be difficult to overstate how radically Western society’s sense of order has changed. Each of these parameters – race, class, gender – was subject to sustained challenge and criticism over the course of the century and has been, to one degree or another, overturned.

We are now an emphatically post-colonial civilisation which does not regard race as a sound basis for social and political distinctions, especially not ones so weighty as the right to vote.

We aspire to be a classless society, in which people are in a substantial sense treated equally and given equal opportunity to achieve their goals regardless of their socio-economic background or status.

And we do not any longer regard distinctions on the basis of gender to have any moral meaning or weight, aiming to remove all barriers which prevent women from standing on an equal footing to men in all spheres of life.

Any attempt to bring the old ideas to bear in our dealings with one another is swiftly dismissed as discrimination – a word which neatly sums up how modern people feel about the way that their society used to operate not more than a century ago.

And religion?

What then of religion, of Christianity – where does that stand?

Christianity was certainly complicit in the old order, it is no good denying that. Indeed, it was even something of a ringleader, providing the order with an air of moral sophistication and divine authority. Perhaps then it is thought inevitable that the swift evaporation of the old order has gone hand in hand with a sharp decline in Christian belief and practice. Mea culpa, you might say: it’s a fair cop.

But that would be to look at things only from one point of view. For Christians were not only defenders of the old order, they were also many of them instrumental in bringing about the new. And not only that, but as a group they, like the rest of society, underwent a huge change of heart and mind over the course of the century. For how many Christians now would seek to defend the race-based, class-based, gender-based society? Some might still defend a few gender-based distinctions, and more would wish to affirm a marriage-based vision of sexuality. But setting those things aside for now, important though they are, contemporary Christians are to a large extent on board with the modern vision of society – a society free from the former prejudices of race, class and gender.

In fact, no small number would see such a vision as essentially Christian – as nothing less than an in-breaking of the ways of the kingdom into the tired and fading ways of the world. God has created all people in his image, they would say, equal in his sight, and that has serious political and social implications which twentieth century Western society – aided by many Christians – finally managed to start getting to grips with.

Nevertheless, it remains the case that the huge changes in Western society over the twentieth century coincided with a marked decline in Christian belief and practice. Even if we accept, therefore, that there is something particularly Christian about the egalitarian, freedom-based society – a theological proposition which seems to me perfectly plausible – we are left with two major questions about where things are to go from here.

The first concerns whether the new order, based as it is largely on ideas of freedom and equality, can in practice prove capable of underpinning a flourishing human society. For the old order did for all its flaws have this at least to be said for it: it underpinned a social order characterised by stable family units, strong communities, trusting relationships and a widespread sense of duty; a society less sexualised, less commercialised and less self-absorbed than it is today. We cannot go back there of course, for we are now convinced that its fundamental basis was unjust – it was always wrong to base social distinctions on race, class or gender – so no amount of regret for the loss of social goods, however great, will persuade us to return to a way of life we have rejected. The modern challenge, therefore, is to find ways of recreating in the new freedom-based order the social goods taken for granted in the old, and which remain essential for the health and well-being of human life and community.

Christianity surely has a crucial part to play here. Not in trying to turn the clock back, to 1900 or 1950 or whatever other era has currently been gilded with nostalgia, but in joining in with the great effort to make the modern world as good as it can be. Christianity is a sincere friend of freedom and equality – a good argument can be made, indeed, that it is the primary source of these values in Western culture – which makes it well-placed to join with modern society in building a society in which freedom and equality can coexist with, and indeed live in full harmony with, family, community, responsibility, compassion and faith.

Which brings us neatly to our second question for modern society: what part now for Christianity? The faith which did so much to shape Western culture and give it form – what place for it in the modern age? Is it, as many contend, time for the ancient faith to step back from its position of cultural pre-eminence to make way for a fully secular, fully pluralist society? Or is there something about Western society which actually on a deep, unspoken level really needs Christianity, even if it can scarcely bring itself to admit it – its old critical friend, cheering it on, keeping it on track, helping it maintain its connection with its Creator? Does freedom need faith, in other words, as much as faith needs freedom?

Many modern people would say not. Even among Christians there are a growing number who would be happy to see Christianity move away from its traditional cultural and social role to a more marginal position in which, it is said, kingdom living can be more authentically realised.

That, I believe, would be a serious mistake. Not only for the church, which would surrender countless opportunities for Gospel proclamation and social transformation. But also for society, which would deprive itself of a crucial ally in its immense task of recreating within the new order the social goods lost in the transition from the old. Church and society may not always get on, may not always see eye to eye on contentious issues such as abortion and sexuality. But the truth is that they need each other: the church needs society if it is to fulfil the whole mission God has given it, of social engagement and transformation. And society needs the church if it is ever to succeed in turning its freedom-based vision into one which genuinely enables all people to flourish.

This will be no easy task. But we serve a good and powerful God who has not abandoned the world he loves and which he, like us, longs to see thrive. So let us join with him, and with the world his Son died for, in the effort to build the kind of society that is good not only for the Gospel, but to be the kind of society in which all people can be all that they were created to be.

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Categories: Church, Equality, Faith in society

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12 replies

  1. This is a very interesting article and spot on for the most part. However, I might add that the entire Bible is God’s word, not just the “feel good” parts of the Gospel. To accept a watered down version of God’s word, and ignore the whole of what he has to say about such things as the right to life and sexuality, would be to welcome in pluralism and remove his truth from the public forum. Just because some may not like what God has to say about some of these social issues doesn’t remove the fact that he said it. If we only accept part of God’s word and dismiss the parts that make society uncomfortable, then we should disregard it all…as the it is no longer the Word of a God, but a cafeteria plan. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    • I quite agree. Thus:

      1. Snakes at one time had legs and spoke like men.
      2. The world is not a spheroid, but a flat disc.
      3. A man can spend three days in the stomach of a large sea-creature without being digested.
      4. Hundreds of thousands of animals can spend a year floating around in a large wooden structure being looked after by just eight people.
      5. A perfect God is also a liar, the most vicious of tyrants, and uncertain about the facts of events that he controls.
      6. A man’s strength is determined by the length of his hair.
      7. Burning bushes are also capable of speaking.
      8. Killing children by having them savaged by a bear is a suitable punishment for laughing at a bald man.
      9.Once you’ve agreed to do so, killing women is OK, even if she is your daughter.
      10. Innocent babies and animals must be drowned because grown ups can be bad.
      11. Killing Egyptian children is acceptable, so that Jewish children can be free.
      12. If people come to your house demanding that you give up two strangers, offering your two virgin daughters instead is a good compromise.
      13. Men used to live hundreds of years. One man started to build a huge wooden ship when he was 500 years old.
      14. All knowledge can be crammed into a piece of fruit.
      15. A man can walk on water and spontaneously generate food, but when a fig tree blocks his path, he kills it rather than walking round it.

      If you accept the Bible as God’s word, you have to accept these and a whole lot more as fact, Are you comfortable with this?

      • Clearly my friend, you do not believe God’s word, and that is your choice. Which is my point in the first place. What I do know is that Man’s wisdom is God’s foolishness. For me to argue your comments point by point, would take more than this reply box affords. But let me say one thing, by this argument then clearly if evil as practice by man’s free will, then we should blame God. If it is a good occurrence, clearly it is because it is to man’s credit? Perhaps you and I should agree to disagree. Thanks for your feedback.

    • ‘The Bible is God’s Word’. Very true, but the Bible is not like an instruction booklet for operating a dish washer. There is certainly a literal interpretation of the words (quite valid), but there are also symbolism, metaphors, allegories and moral and anagogical meanings to be found. Jesus did not offer short, explicit and literal instructions about how we should live and obey God. He mainly told parables – stories. These take time to absorb. Only by reflecting on the meaning of these parables (which provide ever deeper riches over time) can we start to enter fully into what the Bible is telling us. Fully understood, this enhances and confirms traditional and orthodox Christian beliefs

      • So how do you choose what is meant to be literal, symbolic, metaphorical, allegorical, moralistic or anagogical? How do decide that 15. is literal whilst 1. is metaphorical? Surely God’s word is meant to be literal, otherwise it is imperfect. And if it is imperfect, how can it possibly be the word of a perfect God?

        I agree it provides deeper riches over time. The more of it I read, the richer it becomes in absurdity, error, ambiguity, contradiction and sheer nastiness.

  2. “And society needs the church if it is ever to succeed in turning its freedom-based vision into one which genuinely enables all people to flourish.”

    What rubbish. Society needs the church like a polar bear needs a fridge. This country flourishes despite religion, not because of it.

  3. Sir

    Race, class and gender are three separate categories – it is primarliy for class alliance purposes that the Left has attempted to fuse them together – in order to gain power.

    Making distinctions on the basis of race serves no social good – indeed it demonstrates that it has led to oppression and civil strife.

    Failure to make distinctions on the basis of class is impracticable – and where ever it has been tried has failed (USSR, for example).

    Gender distinctions are impracticable: it is she who must submit for the act of consumation to be satisfied.

    The latter two distinctions are ceratinly supported by Judaeo-Christianity and the world. Ideology cannot conceal reality.

    Does society need Christianity? If I were a dictator I would say No. Why? The Christians would obey another ‘rival’ power to me, and therefore would be a threat to my State organs (as in the cases of the Roman Empire and North Korea). After all, how could my Secret Police defeat an enemy that believes it would be ressurrected and come back to judge me?

    You cannot execute a man twice over, as it were.

    Do Christians need society? The Christians imprisoned within Stalin’s Gulag proved they did not.

    And that, my friend, is what is going to be proved on the global scale at: the Second Coming.

  4. An excellent blog, very thought provoking. Thanks for taking the time to write.

  5. Thank you for a very well put and argued post. It touches on various areas of my own academic interest – particularly the relationship of religion with wider society.

    The real issue in any such discussion is what IS religion? Or in this case, what is Christianity? I am sure there are many Christians who feel they are well able to tell us what Christianity is – its creed, theology, scriptural history etc. Yet I would caution anyone who is able to do this, to consider the fact that Christians themselves are often in several (and sometimes conflicting) minds as to what IS Christianity. A fact borne out by history and oceans of blood and centuries of strife.

    In my own area of academic research (social work, social policy and voluntary organisations etc.) I have noted that Christianity is seen as a species of tincture, which when added to this or that organisation, institution, social cause etc. suddenly makes this or that cause or organisation etc. wholesome and valid. As to what is the nature of the ‘Christianity’ added, little is said. It is often enough to state on your headed noted paper or website that you are a Christian or Christian based organisation and let social discourse do the rest.

    Telling examples of this process can be found in many faith-based social welfare organisations: to numerous believers and much of wider society, organisations such as the social work arm of the Salvation Army or Livability (what was John Groom’s and the Shaftsbury Society) are ‘Christian’ organisations, replete with believers, getting their hands dirty for Christ, they are organisations funded mainly by donation and heavily reliant on volunteers – usually practicing Christians. Yet the reality is often more pedestrian: much of their work is heavily reliant on the taxpayer for its funding (80%+), anyone can work on the front line work of these organisations, regardless of belief (I suspect because too few Christians want to work in low status, low paid work, wiping bottoms and cleaning up vomit – ‘Christian only posts’ (and remember, the law allows for faith-based organisations to employ only believers if they so wish) are found in senior management and the board of trustees) and volunteers are thin on the ground – indeed absent in some of these organisations’ work. Just what is ‘faith-based’ about many ‘faith-based’ organisations is rather hard to discern at service delivery level.

    I would suggest our view of history is rather similar to the popular view of faith-based organisations. The role of religion is rather overstated and presumed greater than it probably was at the time. Christians (or some Christians) have a habit of promoting a view of the present that suggests we are spiralling into an abyss of social and moral dystopia. Yet the truth is that we live in a far more caring, law abiding and socially just society than at any other time in history (and please run along and do the research before contesting this statement!). In part of course, it is in Christians’ self-interest to believe society is getting ‘worse’. It is self-validating (and perhaps even self-magnifying) to state without Christianity society will fall apart (in reality stating Christians should have greater social power…). Yet if we look around the world we see that in say Bible Belt America – a society with very high church attendance (far, far higher than the UK’s), which has a punitive welfare state, social liberalism is an anathema and Christianity and Christian values inform much of daily and civil life, we also see a society that leads the Western world in rates of divorce, serial marriage, teenage pregnancy, lone-parenthood, violent crime, social inequality, ill-health, incarceration etc. It is our secular, liberal cousins in northern Europe that appear to have far more wholesome societies.

    Therefore great care is needed in presuming that a dash of Christianity makes for social wholesomeness. Moreover the idea that social notions such as human and civil rights, social justice etc. are Christian in origin is contestable. Christian societies toddled along for centuries happily reinforcing the idea of social stratification and promoting the rights of the rich at the expense of the poor. Many of the social reforms of the 19th century were arrived at by Christianity (and more importantly non-conformist Christianity – the Established Church was often, initially, unconcerned) imbibing Enlightenment ideas; indeed much social reform was achieved by rational humanists and Christians working together to get reform through a mainly indifferent (though large church-going) parliament. Christians often like to tell us that they brought about social reform – yet fail to answer why reform was necessary in a society that had been Christian for over a 1,000 years at the time – and Protestant for 300 years!

    Caution is necessary with any examination of history and religion’s role in society. Self-interest blinds both the religious and the secularist when it comes to objectivity. What is clear is that Christianity (or religion in general) is not a constant. It is in dialogue with wider society, which both shape its nature and what it chooses to contest. To say otherwise raises some very awkward questions for the religiously minded…

  6. The teachings of Jesus are very helpful in relation to Race and gender, for example when he met the Samarian woman at the Well ( when you consider also the nature of the culture at that time ) and individual worth is covered by his his frequent teachings on the equality of all people before God. Its clear that Christians have not always been true to his teachings but it has become very fashionable to understate the positive influence of his word. I am not a historian and am i sure these matters become subjective to a degree depending on your own belief system but countless people testify to being transformed for the good by placing Jesus as the main focal point in their life.

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