Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The new religion

According to this article in the NYT, the National Health Service is "the new Church of England" - indeed, it is "almost holy".  "We all have respect for nurses, who are ‘angels,’ and doctors, who are ‘gods’", says John Appleby.  I don't think this is an entirely new thing.  There have been dogmas surrounding the NHS for some time, and corresponding heresies and heterodoxies.  The air of sanctity has been attached to the idea of the NHS for years, even if the reality has sometimes fallen short.  What has most noticeably changed in the wake of Covid-19 is the move towards unconcealed worship, both of the institution ("Thank you NHS!") and its human avatars ("Clap for carers").

And that all makes a lot of sense.

The Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, in his book For the Life of the World, points out that "Secularism is a religion because it has a faith, it has its own eschatology and ethics.  And it 'works' and it 'helps'.  Quite frankly, if 'help' were the criterion, one would have to admit that life-centred secularism helps actually more than [traditionally conceived] religion."  He sees the modern hospital as the epitome of the secular world: "Hospitals and medicine are among its best achievements."  Here is a religion that gets us along, that is unequivocally devoted to helping humanity, and moreover succeeds very well at doing that.

What does Christianity have to offer in comparison with that?

Schmemann maintains that Christianity is different.  "For Christianity, help is not the criterion.  Truth is the criterion."  Where the church allows itself to be drawn into the grand secular project of helping, it will either find itself dropping all the 'God stuff' in favour of social work and counselling (and therefore, frankly, becoming redundant, because secularism can do this at least as well as the church), or it will adopt a sort of chaplaincy role, helping people at the point where secularism can no longer help - that is to say, helping them to be reconciled to the idea of death.  This, Schmemann thinks, is the adaptation of the traditional role of religion to the present age.

But Christianity is here to provide salvation, and salvation "is not only not identical with help, but is in fact opposed to it."  The church is not there to give a helping hand with modern society's various projects, nor is it there to provide a sort of backstop service, to domesticate death.  In fact, it is only in the Christian gospel that death is revealed for what it is: the great enemy which makes a mockery of all humanity's helping and working.

Unlike the NHS, the Christian church and the Christian gospel are no help.  If anything they problematise life and death in a way which we might think we could do without.  We don't have any help to offer - although of course incidentally the church and Christians will and should assist in different ways, as members of society and moreover as servants of all.  But fundamentally it is not help, it is nothing that works, that we have to offer.

In Luke's Gospel, Jesus has an encounter with a paralysed man.  Faced with the fellow, lowered through the roof in front of him, Jesus pronounces his sins forgiven.  And only secondarily, to show his authority to forgive, he also heals him of his paralysis.  It is clear which of the two acts is helpful, and it is also clear which Jesus regards as more important.  The healing is an appropriate sign of salvation, an appropriate accompaniment to it, because salvation is indeed about life and wholeness; it is not about a rejection of this world and of human life, but of its redemption.  But forgiveness is the reality of salvation, since to be saved is fundamentally to be reconciled to God.  But what help is such reconciliation?  From Luke's perspective it is clear that salvation would have come to the man even if he had been left unmoving on his bed...

All of which is to say, Christianity is not helpful, and if we're looking for religion of help we'd be better off worshipping the health service.  But Christianity is salvation, a new life beyond the life we know, the life that works.  Terribly impractical.  No use.  But salvation for all that.


  1. I remember enjoying Schmemann's book: will have to take another look when possible.

    The fact that the NHS can straightforwardly appropriate the rainbow as its new symbol would be the most extraordinary confirmation of it as having untouchable religious power!

    1. Well indeed - although I see online that there has been some push-back from the LGBT crowd on this 'appropriation' of their iconography. A religious conflict, perhaps?

    2. That's funny - I hadn't looked, but expected that might happen.