Thursday, March 11, 2021

Cultural Christians and Christianised Culture

As the census rolls around again, the usual kerfuffle kicks off around the question asking people about their religion.  And no doubt in the aftermath, as the results are made public, there will be the usual hand-wringing about the decreasing proportion of people in the UK who identify themselves as Christian.  What we are seeing is the continued, and now quite rapid, evaporation of the remaining influence of Christendom; the residual notion of a 'Christian country' is more or less gone, and the default option in the census box-ticking exercise is no longer 'Church of England'.

Christian responses here vary.  For many believers, it is a jolly good thing that nominal Christianity is fast disappearing.  It helps to draw clear lines.  It means that people are no longer kidding themselves that they are Christians when they hold no Christian beliefs and show no signs of personal faith in Christ.  For many Christians, mere cultural Christianity has long been seen as a buffer against the real thing; people are inoculated with a weak form of Christian belief, reduced usually to some naff songs from the 70s and a belief that people ought to love one another in some vague way, via school assemblies, and this makes them less responsive to the real thing.  They think they are already in.  The loss of cultural Christianity clears away one barrier to evangelism, which is that people think they already know our message and are either already onboard (despite their lack of belief, practice, or other commitment) or have already sampled enough to know they don't want to take this ride.  In one sense, fewer people ticking the 'Christian' box(es) on the census just reflects reality, and it's always helpful for people to see reality.

On the other hand, many Christians will see the decline in the numbers of people identifying with Christianity as an almost entirely negative thing.  From this perspective, the decline in nominal Christianity goes along with the decline in respect for ethical norms derived from the Christian gospel.  The loss of a general, even if rather vague, sense of accountability to God is to be bemoaned.  Children are raised in a culture which actively promotes, or worse just assumes, a completely different worldview.  The ignorance of the Scriptures, unimaginable even a couple of generations ago, makes communicating the gospel intelligibly that much more difficult.  The loss of a Christianised culture makes the normalisation of such horrific practices as in utero infanticide inevitable.  It threatens the undermining of values which would be considered important even by non-Christians, who haven't yet read Dominion and so don't know that those values derive from Christianity.

These two responses are not, strictly speaking, incompatible.  However, I reckon people lean heavily one way or the other.  I have flip-flopped, but at the moment I'm coming down on the latter perspective.

In Bonhoeffer's terms, I think those who are glad to see the end of cultural Christianity are thinking in terms of ultimate things - that is to say, salvation and eternal life.  Will a vague nominal Christianity help anyone ultimately?  Nope.  Will church-going as a mere cultural phenomenon in and of itself save souls?  Nope.  A Christian ethic?  Nope.  In ultimate terms, cultural Christianity is useless and possibly worse than useless if it allows people to delude themselves.

But what about penultimate things?  Don't they matter at all?  What Bonhoeffer saw, which I think some of our contemporaries are missing, is that ultimate and penultimate are related, and the relation between them is not entirely one-way.  For those who are pleased at, or at least indifferent to, the end of cultural Christianity, the ethical challenges and cultural issues thrown up by that loss (penultimate problems) and only to be dealt with by evangelism and conversion (ultimate solutions) - you can't, after all, expect non-Christians to live as Christians.  But the traffic doesn't all flow that way.  Making the penultimate suited to the ultimate - trying as much as possible to make the ordinary stuff of life and society conform to God's Kingdom - is the way in which we prepare the way of the Lord.

So what then?  The culture war again?

I used to feel that this was unwise, and we were better off staying out of it.  More recently I've tended to think that we're in it whether we like it or not, and all we can do is try to navigate it well.  I think that many of those Christian leaders I see trying to stay out of the culture war have essentially privatised the faith, and made God's laws the rules for the dwindling Christian club rather than the absolutes which govern and direct a human life well lived.

Most of all, I think the answer is more church, and better church.  Church which carries with it a 'thick' Christian culture, not just an hour of light worship or intellectual stimulation on a Sunday.  (I wonder if there is another dividing line here: between those who see the great need as more action at the edges of the church, in evangelism and mission, and those who see the great need as renewal at the centre of the church, in liturgy and worship).  I think we as Christians need to realise more and more how much we are isolated in our culture; we need to feel less at home here.  For the sake of the culture, we need to repudiate the culture.  For the sake of the world, we need to be those who don't love the world or the things of the world.

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