4th Nov 2019
It seems appropriate in this talk about Christian apologetic to begin with two of the last Christian apologists to have had an effect on our national life, C.S Lewis and William Temple. C.S Lewis was perhaps the last lay Christian polymath to attempt to expound what he called ‘Mere Christianity’ to a popular audience. It was an extraordinary achievement which only in recent years has received much in the way of scholarly critical and appreciative attention. At the time theologians, in particular, were rather scornful of Lewis, finding him too conservative on Biblical matters, too indifferent on ecclesiology and a bit too concerned with the importance or personal morality. C.S Lewis, while not forgotten here, has rather bizarrely become the hero of American evangelical Christians. His writings and the wardrobe of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are carefully preserved at Wheaton College Illinois.
But American evangelicalism is not Lewis’s natural home. He was a Christian who understood the sweep of Christian history from the classical world, to the mediaeval and renaissance world, to the enlightenment and to modernity. He understood context and how times change and how faith changes its shape though not its core. He stood for a kind of Christianity which was comprehensive: scriptural, doctrinally orthodox, catholic in its sympathies. He was not a great believer in what he called ‘Christianity and……’ Meaning Christianity and various socially progressive causes, though he was by no means an obvious political conservative. He though faith should make a difference. But he was mildly sceptical I think about the kind of socialist Anglicanism of William Temple for example. He believed that renewal in a post war society involved individuals having confidence in both instinct and rationality and that personal faith could build on those two aspects of the human person in a way which could renew society.
William Temple’s Christianity was rather different. It was less concerned with personal faith, less interested in doctrinal orthodoxy, more a bold attempt to articulate a holistic and generally creedal Christianity expressed in an outward looking, compassionate and inclusive society. William Temple’s Christianity sees God working his purpose out in human history. The coming of Christ makes a real difference and being a Christian connects us mind, body, heart and soul to God’s loving purpose through the ages. The roots of this vision lie in John’s Gospel especially the Prologue and Ephesians 1 which speaks of God’s plan for the fullness of time to recapitulate, or gather up, all things in Christ. Its good stuff all this.
Today C.S Lewis books are still in print. Temple’s are not. But we cling still to some of the social aspects of Temple’s vision. In place of God we worship the NHS; Danny Boyle’s pageant of British Life at the opening of the 2012 Olympics was a celebration of a progressive society without the theology that once inspired it. As the pageant progressed; nasty oppressive employers overthrown by brave workers, nurses uniformed like secular nuns fighting the consequences of poverty and deprivation; its message seemed to be ultimately narcissistic: look how our historical struggles have made as all really nice people: diverse, inclusive, caring. Hurrah for us. I thought it was cheesy at the time; self-regarding sentimental – and was disturbed at how most people seemed to love it. But then, we always love what boosts our self-regard!
Now well into my 7th decade I have become very concerned about the speed at which this ultimately benign and holistic Christianity has vanished from society, leaving an increasingly fragile shell, a reminder of what was once a Christian ethic. And Lewis’s imaginative orthodoxy seems confined to the backroom of the evangelical presses. Though he still intrigues people we don’t get him in the way we once did. We are living at a time when society believes it can have something like Christian values without even the distant echo of Christian theology; that we can have good neighbourliness without worship, kindness without spiritual discipline, good judgment without prayer. My fear is that under the fragile shell something quite different and possibly unpleasant is growing.
The Church, at least, my part of the Church the Church of England seems to care little about this. There is no real analysis of the causes of unbelief, no real attempt to engage in a rational conversation about the nature of the Christian Gospel. The Church is terrified of dying out of course, so it is putting all its energies into trying to force growth a kind of artificial growth; throwing its money and efforts into selling itself; with great music and a double latte, and almost no concern for whether its proclaimed beliefs are true. Indeed Christianity today apes consumerism by concentrating its selling pitch on desirability: so Christian faith is seen as something life-enhancing, happy-making, feel-good and therapeutic rather than as something true. ‘When Eve saw that the fruit good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes and was to be desired to make one wise……’. Oh yes, we have been here before.
What is almost impossible to find is an intelligent, coherent, appealing book, film or broadcast making a case for the Christian faith. Those that might attempt this tend to make me squirm either because they are so coy, like: let me introduce you to my friend Jesus; or because they are anxious and angry: like, why I no longer believe in the Virgin Birth or life after death but still think there may be a God. Neither approach is particularly rational, neither attempts to appeal to the mind.
Meanwhile the argument has just about been won by the secularists and humanists – not the same thing by the way – but both have contributed to the familiar narrative that religious faith is, of its nature irrational, and therefore potentially dangerous and oppressive. Incidents of abuse by clergy, whether sexual or emotional, including the new and terrifying category of ‘spiritual abuse’ all add to the idea that faith is not to be encouraged. The clergy are all out for themselves and should not be trusted. I was rather struck by the television drama series ‘Sex, lies and records’ – the inner and outer lives of those working in a northern registry office. The series showed how the staff had become virtual clergy; offering a service – a service! – of discernment, compassion and pastoral care; in contrast to the all too human mess and muddle of their own lives; the heroine with her two unsuitable men, the transitioning male, the inclusive Muslim woman in her headscarf; and the bigoted Christian sneak, who secretly opposes same sex marriage and sends round a video recording of sex in the store room after a staff party. Come to the registry office and get a life.
The burden of all this on those who do still believe is quite considerable. Many take refuge in supporting causes, the more politically correct the better, as this makes for a broad appeal and less of a sense of being alone. Many people no longer feel nourished by the faith they continue to hold; many turn away from the complexities of church life to an inner private world of spirituality, which often has only the most tentative links with Christian theology and teaching, but this private world is where they can at least feel safe. The big claims, the great dogmas and truly interesting thought behind them are no longer available for discussion. And of course, they no longer uphold our efforts to enact justice and wisdom and compassion in wider society. Nor do they nourish our souls or help us to be resilient in the face of life’s storms and to face death with confidence and peace.
This to me is tragic. It is tragic because it leaves as a society morally and spiritually flabby; vulnerable to rapacious and bullying spirits in politics, in the media, in the family and on the internet. But it is also tragic because it reveals our lack of intellectual fluency and imagination in being able to embrace the vision of reality on which the Christian faith is based. There are important arguments which have developed through time and which, to my mind at least are by no means exhausted or played out.
To return to C.S Lewis. He probably did more to bring individuals to faith in the late 20th century than any other single Christian writer. The broadcast talks he delivered on the radio in the closing years of the war were extraordinary for their range, depth and accessibility. It was of course an advantage that he spoke as a layman, a very well-informed and cultured layman, but one none the less who had no vested interest in the faith being true or not – he did not draw an income or have a house or a job because of his profession of faith. In a sceptical world his lay status gave him some real authority. In fact at the time as I hinted earlier he faced quite serious opposition to his Christian writings from theologians; there were Biblical scholars, much impressed by the higher criticism, who thought he was naïve about scripture; the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe took issue with him about his book on Miracles. Of course what was extraordinary about Lewis was his range. His academic expertise was in Mediaeval and Renaissance literature. But he had a firm foundation in the classics and in ancient philosophy; he also had an interest in Anglo-Saxon and mythology, he understood the mediaeval mind and the challenges it could still pose to modernity. Above all he had imagination, it was natural for him to ‘read’ the world as a system of symbols; to see the communication of God the Word in and through the multiplicity of human experience. He did not write much about science and religion; though he did engage with science fiction in his Ransom trilogy, treading much the same ground in fiction as his lectures on education which were published under the title The Abolition of Man. In both he spelt out the moral and human dangers of a society based on technocracy; for whom reason, in its traditional sense of being the source and the guardian of universal values had been dethroned by a mechanistic oligarchy manipulating the many into conformity.
C.S. Lewis had an advantage that we do not have in that he lived in a world which could still be seen as one world: A world still dominated by the expanding and expansive culture of the Mediterranean; from the ancient Greeks to the Enlightenment to modernity with Christianity as its theological ground bass. It was not that Lewis was ignorant of other cultures – he wrote about Hinduism and Judaism – but it was from the scholar’s knowledge of their theology and literature rather than from lived experience. In The Abolition of Man, he called on the Chinese concept of TAO to express the universality and accessibility of the moral law. It would be hard to do that today without facing charges of cultural appropriation. Of diversity, in our sense, he knew nothing. Nor of post-modernity, feminism, inter-religious dialogue, the me-too campaign, or identity politics in general. His Christian world was structured, hierarchical, aesthetically and morally ordered. He could call people back to a faith they had never known because the evidence of that faith was all around them in literature, in art and music, in aesthetics and in the law – and it was still very much one world.
Today we are one world not so much because we believe in the cultural superiority of the West (though some of us probably still do) but because of our convergent economic interests. We are one because of globalisation, the flow of labour, goods and capital from one part of the world to another. Globalisation has brought about a kind of technocratic unity at the expense perhaps of any attempt to make coherent sense of the kind of world we live in. It is technology which binds us together, and to a lesser degree the culture of science, at least for the educated elite. Today, of course, we are encouraged to see cultures and histories from perspectives other than that of white Europeans, which must be an enrichment; but it has brought with it a kind of prohibition from anyone attempting to speak of a culture which is not their own. So as a Christian I may not comment on Islam, or presume to interpret it. I have an identity rather than a creed; white Christian female etc. It is assumed that the particular lenses that I wear both give me such authority as I have and at the same time limit it. In fact my so called ‘identity’ simply disables me from the attempt to understand, let alone expound another’s point of view.
In the supposedly inevitable battle of competing identities the only rule-makers are those who can claim a kind detached neutrality, and even this is a bit suspect. But societies which have espoused a public stance of secularism, such as India or France, would see this detached neutrality as a strength and a necessity.
Secularism and non-belief are on the rise in Britain of course, but they have not quite been accepted wholesale. At least not yet, though the balance has tipped recently in social attitude surveys, with slightly more claiming to have no faith than those who claim a religious allegiance. Those promoting the secularist case believe that they carry the flag of progress and that their mission to rid the world of religion (or at least to abolish it to the private sphere) rests on science. But this, as has often been pointed out, is not at all true. Science does not have preferences when it comes to human identity. It does not promote or demote particular moral frameworks. Its only commitment is to acquiring knowledge of the natural world based on evidence. But science has nothing to say beyond this about what kind of society we should aim for, or how we ought to live. Nevertheless some scientists have become evangelists for atheism, pushing the view that science and religion are intellectually incompatible. Religion is, as Richard Dawkins, puts it, ‘the God delusion’. What he and others like him choose to ignore is the discipline of philosophy, the process of critical enquiry into all our beliefs and ways of thinking. Secularists and secular minded scientists do take a great deal for granted, and even when their scientific work is incredibly sophisticated, when it comes to interpreting it for a wider public they often seem to ignore the discipline of thinking about the way we thing, the way we come to convictions about the world and the way we express those convictions.
The philosophical challenge to contemporary expressions of scientific atheism is actually quite strong and has been well put by scientists such as John Polkinghorne and philosophers such as Keith Ward. The point is that scientists who claim that scientific rationality has disproved the existence of God do not really understand what they are talking about. They assume that when we say the word ‘God’ we are talking about a mental concept like any other mental concept, who might or might not happen to exist in reality. They also assume that the concept of God is a hangover from a non-scientific age, an explanation for the existence of things which is now no longer required. They seem to have no concept of what faith actually tries to claim; that God is not a thing to be compared with other things, not even a being who might or might not happen to exist, not a theory to be tested alongside other theories; but rather the condition which enables all existence; the divine mind in which everything exists and everything conceivable exists.
Of course materialism might be true in which case the universe really did bring itself into existence by its own bootstraps as it were and here we are living in it; a brute fact without explanation. The problem is that materialism assumes that we know what matter is and there is no real scientific consensus about that. What we do now know from science is that the fundamental materials of the universe are not little billiard balls knocking around in empty space. That is an ancient and philosophical idea, but science has many problems with it. What science suggests that the universe is composed of is an elegant, complex fabric of insubstantial particle waves flickering in and out of existence. Everything that would become our space time universe, particles, forces, time, space, emerges in a fraction of a second out of the initial singularity: the big bang. But atheistic scientists themselves struggle with this, and so they speculate that even before they came into existence in the big bang, the laws of physics sort of existed in a non-material way, or there was a quantum vacuum with ripples in it which exploded into the big bang, or before time as Stephen Hawking put it there was imaginary time, which as it turns out is more real than real time. Materialism. once thought of a simple explanation which does away with the need of a God, turns out to very complicated and not really capable of giving that simple all-embracing explanation of why everything exists that it was once thought capable of doing. The other great issue which is part of the so-called ‘God-debate’ is that of consciousness. This has even more problems. Some scientific atheists are wedded to the reductionist view that consciousness is simply a by-product of particular states of the brain, and that it only emerged late in the process of evolution, and that it is of no real significance. But there is no evidence for this. It is simply a prejudice, a hangover from the philosophical idea that the only real things in existence are obviously material things.
On the other hand the notion that all this flux and potential, the particles, the forces, the space time continuum rests on something like a great mind, a non-material source, has the benefit both of simplicity and intelligibility. If you accept that conscious minds emerge in the context of a material universe, it is not inconceivable that a mind might exist which is not bounded by or dependent on a material universe; a pure consciousness, a self-existent reality which is the cause of everything else.
So I think there is a good case for God; which, sadly in my view, no one seems interested in making.
The idea of God is rational in itself and provides an intellectual basis for rationality itself, which the bootstrap assertion cannot really provide. The idea of God enables us to grasp what is otherwise incredibly problematic which is why minds like ours have evolved in the universe and are able to understand quite a lot of what is going on. The more I think about this the more extraordinary it seems. Why can I as a non-scientists get a glimmer of an idea about how evolution happened or what the properties of a quantum particle might be, when the cat I share a house with apparently has no idea and no interest. His life seems bounded by sensation; food, his scratching post, a warm corner. What is it about the human mind that can begin at least to get a grip on the way the universe works?
The wrong turning I think we took in the aftermath of the European enlightenment was to assume that the concept of God had simply become redundant. There were all kinds of reasons for that assumption; an authoritarian church, scepticism about claims of miracles and supernatural happenings; the wars of religion which brought misery to so many. The Enlightenment was a genuine emancipation, both politically and in the human spirit. But the Enlightenment was as much a Christian movement as it was a secular one; its origins can be traced back to a Christian humanism which was part of the mediaeval and renaissance worlds and has its deepest roots in the patristic age. The sceptical Hume and the revolutionary Voltaire are not the only Enlightenment voices worth listening to. There are other voices such as Richard Hooker, John Locke, Descartes; some of them radical in their questioning of traditional religious authority; but most open to the concept of God, and the importance of God for the proper functioning of human society.
But in the 19th century enlightenment thought made a decisive move away from the concept of God in the ideas of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who famously proclaimed that God was dead. The idea of God was no longer necessary to bind European society. For him this spelt the end of Christianity of course, which Nietzsche thought was not only inevitable but on the whole a good thing. Christianity as he saw it was fatally flawed because of what he called its sentimentality in supporting the weak and standing up for the oppressed. Individuals, free from the oppression of religion, must now choose their own values, their own morality, their own way of life. For even though they no longer had God they had the power of will. Nietzsche did not think living without God would be easy. He was disturbed by the fear that our lives would be dominated by the search for comfort and trivia; that we would fail the test of finding our own meaning. And I think he regretted to the loss of God in that there might no longer be great music or art; a world which would never produce anything so majestic as The St Matthew Passion.
I think at the moment that we are seeing some of the consequences of Nietzche’s prophetic writings coming to pass. Atheism has become commonplace in Europe and America. And thanks to the triumphs of free trade and the success of capitalism in producing wealth, many of our lives have become dominated by the search for comfort and trivia. We still admire great art and music: performances of the St Matthew Passion around Easter are often sold out, but we can’t imagine anyone writing anything on this scale or with this conviction in our time. We admire the craft, we are moved by the emotions evoked, but we an barely hear, let alone respond to the question: Is this in any meaningful sense, true? The individual, as Nietzsche predicted, has become the measure of all things. But the individual is also constituted by choice. I am because I choose. I chose what I want to have, I choose what I want to become, I choose who I am. And to affirm these decisions and bolster the fragile self which is, after all, only our own creation, we need to consume the things, habits and experiences which conform to our self chosen identity.
This is important because without God we cannot really experience our existence as a true gift, we cannot know what it means to have permission to be. And at the same time without God there are no limits on what we would and could be, and therefore no constraints on the human will. In the 20th century we saw Nietzschian insights worked out politically in two great and competing political ideologies: Marxism and Fascism. Marxism triumphed in Russia; by pretending to be democratic, communism was, after all the people’s party. Fascism took over in Germany through the democratic process itself. Both ideologies claimed scientific credentials and were promoted as being the unstoppable next phase of human evolution. The communist claim was to have a created a new humanity, in which the individual freely consented to be subordinated to the masses, to become a part of a communal consciousness. Fascism could be seen as grounded in patriotism, blood, soil, genes; the product of nature working to destroy the weak and the flawed and to bring to birth a super-race destined for world domination.
As we shudder over the suffering of millions which resulted from these two atheistic ideologies we may feel relieved that what oppresses us is apparently no more evil than shopping. But then we see our casual attitude to real material things; the seas, the climate, the natural world, and many of us wonder about how liberated we really are, how capable our democracies and political institutions really are of delivering a sense of meaning and fulfilment. With the decline in religion comes the surge of free-wheeling spirituality; the attempt to find meaning and coping strategies in a world which seems to offer us endless choice but in fact all too often seems to drain and imprison us and harm our spirits.
We are not yet at crisis point and perhaps that remains a long way off. But I think it would be good for Christian thinkers to do some intellectual ground work at this point; to reconsider the reasonableness of the Christian faith in such a way as to attempt to re-engage society. It is a huge task of course, and could not be undertaken by any one individual. We cannot do what C.S. Lewis in his time because we are too divided as a society; our enthusiasms and aversions are too speedily worked up, exploded and forgotten. Before we can even begin to discuss the specifics of Christian faith we have to engage with the prejudice against religion, the laziness about ultimate meanings, the sleight of hand which still makes the concept of God seem redundant, even to those who should know better. There are a few important caveats I would add as I consider the possibility of a new apologetic.
The first is that though I would expect this apologetic to be lively, robust and rhetorical in the sense that it would seek out and expose the weakness in the assumptions behind our secular atheism, I would want it to make common cause with those humanists and atheists who are troubled at the state of our society and of the human spirit. They are not a few. Philip Pullman, the novelist; Raymond Tallis, the philosopher, you can think of others. There are actually many fellow travellers who may not want to go through the church door but would be good companions on the way.
The second is that this apologetic needs to call on religious and philosophical arguments from beyond the Christian faith. In thinking about the nature of God, for example, there is an extraordinary degree of confluence between Christian, Jewish, Islamic and Indian philosophical thought. In an age of diversity this needs to be explored.
Third, this apologetic needs to support some of the progressive causes which are being won in present day western societies. The equality of women, the need to protect children from cruelty and abuse, support for sexual minorities; there is a need for a deeper and theologically driven understanding of why these causes matter. At the same time there is some questioning to do about defining individuals in terms of personal identity. In Christian faith the individual is called not to a static affirmation of self, but to a dynamic progress of the self through time, accompanied by others. The Christian self has no fixed identity in this world; selfhood is a gift from God received in communion with other selves.
And fourth, this apologetic needs to take account of human beings as political animals and to contribute to an ethical rethinking of our political institutions. There is no Christian politics as such, and Christian parties, such as there are in Europe, are not very different from any other kind. Christians should not seek to become a political force as such, but to take their arguments and insights wherever their convictions lead them. Only in this way will they both contribute too and learn from the world in which God is already and always acting to bring about his kingdom.
I don’t see why this task is impossible, but I do think it is urgent. It is not primarily a task for clergy or for academic theologians; but for those of Christian conviction with a call to engage in the public sphere and a readiness to grapple with the roots of our current intellectual and social dis-ease.Share: