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Posted on Fri 1 February 2013

Calling All Christians: Prepare For Exile

In 1996 I chaired an ecumenical commission which produced a report calledThe Search for Faith. The difference between this report and many others like it was that it immediately became a cause celebre in the media. The reason was its treatment of contemporary spirituality which it described as “pick ‘n' mix” and as reflecting attitudes in culture not only to faith but to relationships, values and much else besides.

The report also examined the persistence of belief, and the need to believe, even if the need to belong is no longer felt with such intensity or felt at all. This is shown, again and again, in the large number of people who describe themselves as Christian when modest percentages of the general population go to church on a given Sunday.

It gave considerable attention to what I have recently called “nothing-but-ery”, or a reductionist view of the universe and of the human condition—allegedly, but illegitimately, based on science. This is sometimes accompanied by an aggressive form of secularism which seeks to exclude religious discourse from the public sphere altogether, while continuing to espouse such values as the inherent dignity of human beings, or equality and freedom that have ultimately been derived from a religious and, more specifically, a Judaeo-Christian worldview. Such secularism favours individualism over community but also has a tendency to capitulate to culture. Not surprisingly, it is in thrall to scientific developments and can take a libertarian approach to how these are applied in the treatment of the embryo, the care of the person towards the end of life, or maintaining the integrity of the family in the face of assisted fertility technologies. In much of this, there is an implicit utilitarianism at work, with neglect of other considerations that may arise from a spiritual or deontological view of morality. 

My participation in BBC1's Soul of Britain programmes in 2000 revealed not only the emergence of “nothing-but-ery” but also the continuing popularity of New Age, karmic and astrological beliefs. The Church’s task cannot then be limited to responding to secularism, whether scientific or political, but must also take account of considerable credulity and even superstition in the country at large. On the one hand we have to uphold the God-given rationality of the universe. On the other, we must draw attention to its spiritual, even mystical, dimension.

How is the Church to respond to such a complex cultural situation, and what is the Gospel or good news for the 21st century?

The full Standpoint Artile can be read here.

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