Today’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.
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.
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.
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.