Recently, the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland commissioned papers exploring the cultural context of modern Ireland. The resulting works by Fraser Hosford and Patrick Mitchell were so insightful that at VOX magazine we decided (with their permission) to publish the following shortened versions of their work.
(From the January - March 2018 issue of VOX)
OUR POST-CHRISTENDOM CONTEXT
By Dr. Patrick Mitchel
Christians are living in an increasingly post-Christendom Ireland. By “post-Christendom” I mean that the consensus that placed Christianity at the controlling centre of social, political and religious affairs is fast evaporating.
Christians in Ireland cannot avoid doing business with the baleful legacy of Christendom ‘Irish style’. Such has been the horror associated with a church exercising freely-given, and virtually unlimited, religious, social and political power, that many people in modern Ireland are convinced that “religion is bad for you” and are determined to construct a society free from its “negative” influence. There is a strong suspicion of religion in Ireland today - an astonishing reversal from the days of ‘Catholic Ireland’.
The shaping assumptions of a post-Christendom liberal secular democracy include a commitment to values, which are optimistically understood as providing a path towards a healthier, fairer and more advanced society than that of the religious past.
Pluralism: The plurality of cultures, religions, and beliefs within modern societies makes it a necessity for the state to accommodate all and privilege none. Political liberalism seeks to achieve this by making the state ‘neutral’ and therefore, in effect, intentionally non-religious.
Tolerance: There is an understanding that all beliefs and behaviours within the law should be tolerated.
Individual choice and human rights: Of critical importance here is the belief that freedom of choice is an ultimate right.
Increasing separation of church and state: This is the dismantling of the legacy of Christendom where churches had central and controlling positions.
Equality: A society in which, by law, all citizens must all be treated equally regardless of their beliefs or lifestyles.
Some Christians assume their job is simply to assert Christian truth and (somehow) expect society to order itself according to Christian principles. This is what Oliver O’Donovan calls ‘abstract idealism’. Other Christians appear afraid of speaking with a distinctly Christian perspective. This failure of nerve leads to what O’Donovan calls ‘colourless assimilation.’ How can Christians live out the tension between these two approaches?
Similarly, John Stackhouse talks about ‘cultural transformers‘ versus those advocating ‘holy distinctness.’ The ‘cultural transformers’ tend to have a ‘take it over’ approach pursuing the goal of shaping society according to Christian values.
An opposite stance is what John Stackhouse labels as ‘refuse all entanglements’ leading to a vision of ‘holy distinctness’, a Christian community living in contradistinction to the rest of society.
The cultural tide that swept the church into power and created over a millennium of Christendom culture in the West is fast receding. And while it is a gross simplification to say that everything to do with Christendom since Constantine was a disaster, untold damage has been done to the authenticity of the church’s witness by the blurred boundaries between church and state. Just look at the contemporary legacy of Catholic Ireland for an example.
FIVE REALITIES OF LIFE AND WITNESS IN A POST-CHRISTENDOM IRELAND
I suggest that Christians need to engage with at least five political, cultural and spiritual realities as they engage with Irish culture.
1. REALISM ABOUT THE AMBIGUITY OF FAITHFUL CHRISTIAN DISCIPLESHIP
A challenge for Christians is how to deal realistically and faithfully with the ambiguity of life in a plural democracy.
In The Bible in Politics, Richard Bauckham observes “… the political material in the Bible consists largely of stories about and instructions addressed to political societies very different from our own … The adaptations needed to transfer biblical teaching on personal morality... are comparatively easily made but a more imaginative and creative hermeneutic is necessary for the Bible to speak to modern political life.”
An authentic theological engagement must have a dual nature as it negotiates the tension between an eschatologically orientated faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and a simultaneous active commitment, shaped by kingdom of God values, to the wellbeing and renewal of contemporary culture. In other words, walking between ‘abstract idealism’ and ‘colourless assimilation’.
2. REALISM ABOUT THE IMPLICATIONS OF JESUS’ COMMAND TO “LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOUR”
Jesus commanded his followers to ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’ and to love those that do not love in return (Luke 6:31-32). Love for the ‘other’ holds an absolutely central place in biblical ethics (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew19:19, 22:39; Mark 12:31-33; Luke 10:27; Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8). Yet, there is often little or no discussion of what it means to practice love for the ‘other’ in many Christian responses to life.
This is an important and complex question, but one that needs to be thought through by those who are following Jesus. Neighbour love isn’t an optional extra of less importance to ‘defending the truth’ or arguing for your own rights.
The whole point of Jesus’ parable in Luke 10:25-37 is that neighbour love is costly, radical and shocking, since it generously offers grace across deep gulfs of hatred, suspicion and alienation. ‘Neighbour love’ does not pretend profound differences do not exist but rather, in the face of such difference, says “I love you as I would wish to be loved” or “The rights we desire for ourselves, we are glad to affirm for others.”
Christian love is not self-centred, fearful or defensive. Rather, since love is relational, it should also involve a sacrificial commitment to meet, talk with and listen to the ‘other’. Since love is not equivalent to mere toleration or unthinking acceptance, how it is expressed in different contexts will require significant wisdom and discernment.
3. A REALISTICALLY POSITIVE ATTITUDE TO PLURALISM
Christians, I suggest, should not only be willing to live with difference but should actively support the construction of a plural society where difference is tolerated. Christians cannot construct the ‘New Jerusalem’ here on earth by law or coercion. There are biblical sins that it is not realistic or desirable to treat as crimes.
As Christians seek their own religious freedom within a plural democracy, they need to realise that tolerance works both ways: the ‘rights’ we seek for ourselves we should also seek for others.
Christians’ defence of religious liberty should not be narrowly self-centred and self-interested. Rather it should defend the right of others to use God-given freedom to make choices about spiritual matters, even when this leads to actions antithetical to the gospel. This form of tolerance is a civic virtue. Irish Christians should welcome some aspects of pluralism.
However, this does not mean Christians simply embrace relativism or endorse beliefs contrary to their conscience. Living with difference is quite distinct from affirming that difference.
4. REALISM ABOUT IRELAND’S CHRISTENDOM PAST: THE NEED FOR HUMILITY AND A LISTENING EAR
We need to be realistic about the legacy of Ireland’s recent past as well as political liberalism’s associated fear of privileging any one voice (especially a religious one) in the public square. In such a context, there is a need for humility, listening and dialogue by Christians, given Christianity’s negative associations with self-interest and power.
As Christianity moves to the margins of Irish public life, evangelical Christians cannot assume that their views will be either heard or understood, especially given their status as a tiny minority of the population.
How unseemly it is for Christians to fight in the courts and legislatures for what remains of the dubious honours and advantages of Christendom. There is no more prudent time to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
5. REALISM ABOUT THE NEED TO DEFEND AND ARGUE FOR RELIGIOUS LIBERTY
Christian realism should, by definition, not equal naivety. Certainly post-Christendom will be significantly (and probably increasingly) less ‘hospitable’ to Christianity than Christendom. It is perfectly possible that an absolutist secularism will progressively encroach on religious freedom.
Christians should be forthright defenders of religious liberty since deep in the heart of the biblical narrative is the pursuit of justice for the oppressed and the marginalised.
A realistic Christian response will have a healthy distrust of the human propensity to seek control and impose one’s values on others. Christians should resist a ‘hard secularism’ that criminalises, marginalises, denigrates or dismisses religious views as illegitimate and results in legal actions, like suing people in court for holding Christian views, or forcing Christians to retreat from religiously motivated service in the public square. This is especially so if it threatens the rights and dignity of the weak, vulnerable and powerless by the assertion of competing ‘rights’, abortion being a prime example.
We can resist this is by coherent persistent articulation of the need for a truly inclusive pluralism and exposing the inherent flaws in an ‘illiberal liberalism’ that leads to the oxymoron of an enforced mono-pluralism.
Dr. Patrick Mitchel is Senior Lecturer in Theology at the Irish Bible Institute. You can follow his blog at www.faithinireland.wordpress.com.