Secularism and putting faith ‘in the mixer’
by Jon Kuhrt
Baroness Warsi’s article on faith and secularism in the Daily Telegraph this morning has created an Almighty debate. After the controversies over the banning of prayers at Bideford Council meetings, it’s yet another example of how issues of faith are increasingly right at the heart of public debate.
In the Mixer
In football terminology, putting the ball ‘in the mixer’ means getting it into the penalty area right in front of the goal. It’s where there is jostling, a bit of fouling and controversy. But this is where the action is, where key things happen and where there is the greatest chance of changing the course of the match.
This is a bit like debates about how faith relates to issues in the public square. It’s messy and complex. Arguments can get heated, people get hurt and easily upset. But this is where authentic faith has always lived. The modern tendency for privatised, cosy beliefs expressed among everyone who agrees is a decaffinated version of authentic faith. Rather than a Holy Fire, it packages Christianity more like a nice scented candle.
The roots of a public faith
The thing is that truly following Jesus cannot be done in private – it is a public commitment which needs to be lived out in the real world. Right at the start of the Church’s life under the shadow of the Roman Empire there were many sects which through religious practices offered their adherents a route to personal salvation. These cultus privatus were not persecuted by the authorities because they posed no threat to the status quo.
But the Church never used this term for itself – it almost uniformly used the phraseEcclesia – the public assembly. Like Jesus’ himself, the public statements and actions of the Church were in conflict with both the Jewish and Roman authorities because they proclaimed a public and universal truth – not a privatised belief. This threatened the control of the Jewish establishment and clashed with the cult of the Emperor. (for more on this see Proper Confidence in the Gospel: the theology of Lesslie Newbigin)
Political not ‘spiritual’
Many of the phrases which we hear as purely spiritual, would have been heard in the first century as deeply political. When Christians said ‘Jesus is Lord’ this wasnot a airy-fairy statement about Jesus ‘reigning in my heart’ or up in clouds somewhere. No, if Jesus was Lord then Caesar wasn’t. What was being said was Caesar, his armies and military might was not the ultimate authority – for God had displayed himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who lived, died and was resurrected.
Resisting the seduction of a privatised faith
Christians can easily be seduced by the idea of a privatised faith – the heresy that says what we believe is simply an issue between us and God. These routes might be cosy and safe but they are not authentic Christianity.
Rather than putting their faith into the mixer, sometimes Christians are not even taking their faith onto the pitch. Too often we are watching silently from the stands or nervously on the bench waiting for someone else to call on us. Our worries about offending others can easily be stronger than our commitment to sharing our faith.
Christians need courage to put our faith where it matters and where it will make a difference. Yesterday a friend sent me the following quote from Episcopal priest Robert Capon which deeply challenged me:
“The most critical issue facing Christians is not abortion, pornography, the disintegration of the family, moral absolutes, MTV, drugs, racism, sexuality, or school prayer. The critical issue today is dullness. We have lost our astonishment. The Good News is no longer good news, it is okay news. Christianity is no longer life changing, it is life enhancing. Jesus doesn’t change people into wild-eyed radicals anymore; He changes them into “nice people.”. . . . What happened to radical Christianity, the un-nice brand of Christianity that turned the world upside-down? What happened to the category-smashing, life-threatening, anti-institutional gospel that spread through the first century like wildfire and was considered (by those in power) dangerous? What happened to the kind of Christians whose hearts were on fire, who had no fear, who spoke the truth no matter what the consequence, who made the world uncomfortable, who were willing to follow Jesus wherever He went?…….. I’m ready for a Christianity that “ruins” my life, that captures my heart and makes me uncomfortable. . . . I want a faith that is considered ‘dangerous’ by our predictable and monotonous culture.”
Reform’s John Kuhrt, who expands on an article by Baroness Warsi in ‘The Independent’, draws our attention to the conflict between Church & State, currently being argued in Britain. The Baroness was responding to a legal opinion on the place of prayers at the beginning of a local Council Meeting, that said there is no legal basis for the custom of prayer being offered as part of the proceedings.
What John Kuhrt is saying – and, to a degree, the TEC priest whom he quotes at the end of his article – is that faith is often ‘political’ and cannot be divorced from the public arena – as Bishops in the House of Lords demonstrated recently, in their defence of people on social welfare benefits. (It was notable that Lord Carey – former ABC – opposed the Bishops’ stance on the grounds that beneficiaries were capable of working for their living – evidently not realising that some are not).
Here is part of Fr.Robert Capon’s comment:
“Jesus doesn’t change people into wild-eyed radicals anymore; He changes them into “nice people.”. . . . What happened to radical Christianity, the un-nice brand of Christianity that turned the world upside-down? What happened to the category-smashing, life-threatening, anti-institutional gospel that spread through the first century like wildfire and was considered (by those in power) dangerous? ”
The truth is, that when parts of the Church, e.g. The Anglican Church of Canada, and The Episcopal Church in the U.S., start to introduce much-needed reform into their Churches, which more clearly expresses the revolutionary ‘Freedom of Christ’ in the Gospel – on behalf of the ghetto-ised Women and Gays in the world and the Church – some of the Provincial Churches of the Anglican Communion don’t want to hear about it.
For some conservatives in the Church, opening up the borders of the Church to those on the margins is too upsetting – so much so that they take up and leave – preferring intentional schism to ‘living with’ the challenging paradox of the openness of Christ to ALL people – and not just to the self-satisfied.
What has happened in TEC and the A.C.of C. – in their openness to the ministry of Women and Gays – is precisely what the Church did in it’s earliest day. The overturning of institutional hypocrisy and self-interest – in order to establish a new order – was a political as well as a spiritual enterprise. It is no secret that Jesus was considered by the Church and the State to be ‘an enemy of the people’ – a tragic misdiagnosis of the reality, for which He was put to death.
“Come Holy Spirit, renew in your Church your gifts of charity and love, so that the world may know of your power to redeem. through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen! “
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand