Tuesday, 20 March 2012

A Christian country

Is England a Christian country? Secularism takes a different form in England than it does in the USA, even though in both countries the traditional ethos, grounded in natural law, is collapsing, along with the sense of what we are here for (other than making money and having fun). In the US the Church and State are "separated". In England the Church is "established" because its head is also the nominal head of State. This has made it possible for many Christian-derived customs and habits to have been preserved into the twenty-first century. However, the pressure of secularism leads to a watering-down and an emptying-out of Christian conviction. The result is that the commonest form of Christianity in England is not Evangelical or Nonconformist, as it tends to be in the US, but rather a well-meaning but woolly kind of faith that hardly knows what it believes or what it stands for.

It is this semi-secularized Christianity, an instinctive but attenuated adherence to the Christian tradition, that prevails in the United Kingdom. Christianity becomes secularized when it fails to be both intellectually coherent (i.e. rational) and mystical. That is, when it reduces faith to a doctrine or set of beliefs, a bit like pieces of clothing we can choose to wear or not according to taste. Religion without genuine transcendence sits well with the
modern "liberalism" that regards freedom as mere choice, rather than the power to choose the good. Genuine transcendence involves a going-out of the self, a receptivity to the other and to the giftedness of being, an act of trust in the invisible, which is alien to the modern spirit. For a critique of this spirit, see David L. Schindler's Ordering Love, and for the full historical background see Glenn W. Olsen's The Turn to Transcendence or Charles Taylor's A Secular Age.

In Christian Europe there is a long history of tension between Church and State, Pope and Emperor, Archbishop and Monarch. Often these clashes would take place over boundary questions, such as whether clerics could be tried in civil courts or prelates could be appointed by the King. In our day, another boundary issue has come up. It is whether the State can determine the meaning of the sacrament of marriage, redefining it to include same-sex unions. In England, the marriage of Church and State under Henry VIII and his successors was a rather radical attempt to solve all boundary issues at a stroke. But it does not cover this one. The State's proposal to apply the term "marriage" to civil unions between same-sex partners is strongly opposed by many Evangelicals and Catholics within the Church of England, while of course the Catholic Church herself survived the Reformation, and has a strong presence in the UK. Her teaching is perfectly clear on the definition of marriage, describes sexual intercourse between people of the same gender as intrinsically disordered, and calls those of a homosexual disposition to chastity (CCC, 2357-9). None of this can be altered by government decree or even (it seems to me) by the development of doctrine.

The other great challenge to atheist secularism is the growing strength of minority religious traditions, especially Islam. Or rather, the challenge lies in the more aggressive elements within Islam, extremist sects and movements that currently dominate the silent majority of Muslims, many of whom no doubt wish for a peaceful life and friendship with both Christians and Jews. The extremists represent secularized Islam, in the sense defined above; a faith that has suppressed any interiority, any mysticism (the Sufis, for example, who represent the inner path or tariqah within Islam), and become purely ideological. How they are to be dealt with I have no idea, except by an unlikely resurgence of Sufism. The extremists must be defended against, but certainly cannot be suppressed by force, which only makes them stronger.

In all these circumstances, the Oasis Foundation of Cardinal Angelo Scola proposes a different form of secularity, namely m├ętissage (mestizaje, or hybridization). Instead of fearing religious minorities and yearning for a past or future golden age of religious purity, Scola believes Muslims and Christians alike should embrace the inevitable mixing of peoples “to which the Author of history seems to be calling humanity”. We should work to orient positively this on-going “hybridization of civilizations” so that the meeting between them does not remain at the level of conflict. Since faith is inevitably tangled up with culture but yet remains distinct from it, each faith is currently being provoked by its encounter with the others to re-think its own cultural interpretation and expression. In a society comprising many faiths this process may lead to a mixed culture, without confusing one faith with another or imposing one faith on everybody. For this to happen, however, the public space must remain or become a place where different worldviews can meet and discuss, without any of them (including atheist secularism) being able to monopolize it exclusively. No doubt some of this will be part of the discussion on 15 November, when the Cardinal comes to London to launch Oasis at Heythrop College.


  1. Mr. Caldecott,

    Have you read any of Remi Brague's discussions of the development of medieval Christianity & Islam in relation to the political sphere? His historical-intellectual analysis of their past has a lot to offer as we think about their present. I'm thinking especially of "Eccentric Culture" (http://www.amazon.com/Eccentric-Culture-Theory-Western-Civilization/dp/1587312158/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1332810295&sr=8-1) and "The Law of God" (http://www.amazon.com/The-Law-God-Philosophical-History/dp/0226070794/ref=pd_bxgy_b_img_c).

    --Dwight Lindley

  2. Yes indeed, I will look back at 'Eccentric Culture', although I must confess not to have read 'The Law of God' and I must do so. I heard him give a lecture on this work in Oxford. He is an important thinker on all this. In fact he is also part of the 'Oasis' project and I last met him at one of their meetings.