Monday, September 14, 2009

Religion, spirituality, secularism

"But there is a lineage here in which each of these so-called secular ideals clearly comes out of a religious tradition. I think that is Taylor’s whole point, that secularism as we know it would make no sense in a society that was not rooted in a Christian history. It’s the reaction to it and, in some ways, a fulfillment of it. As Taylor says, the Enlightenment, modernity, has fulfilled elements of the Gospel that were never fulfilled when the church had more power.

MARK JUERGENSMEYER: In a curious kind of way, it’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s vision of religion as Christianity, his complaint that the problem with Christianity was the church. The church often got in the way of the expression of religiosity in a more fundamental moral and spiritual way.

ROBERT BELLAH: That gets us into another theme. En route to that, we should remember
George Bernard Shaw’s saying that “Christianity might be a good thing if anyone ever tried it.”

But the attack on the church, or on what in America today is often called institutional religion, has become very widespread among people who still consider themselves “spiritual.” I’m not religious, which means I don’t go to church, but I’m spiritual, which means I read a book about Zen Buddhism or something.

So that’s another way of slicing up the conceptual pie here, which doesn’t really get away from religion as a sociologist would look at it. But on the other hand, it says something about the nature of our society, that even dignitaries of the church will often attack the “institutional” side of the church as oppressive.

But as a sociologist, I would tell you that if there were no institutional side, there would be no religion in short order, and these people that have their private spirituality—that’s going to disappear with them."

This is an excerpt from an illuminating interview of Robert Bellah, linked from this blog by Mark Juergensmeyer (the interviewer), noted by Andrew Brown. It forms a nice counter-point to my post below about Dave Tomlinson's visit to Nelson a few days ago.

The excerpt picks up a couple of ideas pottering about in the back of my mind. One is the idea that if we look at the New Testament and ask, 'where is the visible expression of an ever-growing concordance between the world and the kingdom of God (or, if you like, God's plan to bring all things into unity in Christ, Ephesians 1)?' then one non-answer is that it is the visible church, which is an ever-fracturing parody of the New Testament vision of the bride of Christ; and one answer is that it is the world slowly, two steps back and three steps forward becoming a more humane, more united world expressed (as noted in the full interview) in an increasing consensus about global values concerning human rights and ecology.

This ties in with Dave Tomlinson's point that the (Western) Christian tendency to understand the world around us as 'secularized' should be revised so that we see the spirituality of this world.

Another idea is that the distinction between church and kingdom of God, and (closely related) between church and mission, is vital to the future of Christianity. On the one hand we (often) miss the point of Jesus that he came to inaugurate the kingdom, not the church; and that the church is a vehicle for re-forming and re-newing Christians' involvement in the mission of God. On the other hand, we can work from this distinction to minimise or even deny the importance of the church, but, in fact, the church is vital to the future of Christianity for it is the vehicle which carries forward the gospel. A point well made in the interview is that 'private spirituality' is lost in a generation. Thus (in a somewhat crude formulation): if the future fulfilment of God's plan for the world is not to be hijacked by (say) extreme religious terrorism or extreme consumerism, it is vital that the gospel continues to be proclaimed, and the church (even the church as 'institution') is necessary for the continuing proclamation.

Something we did not have time to explore with Dave Tomlinson is where the spirituality of the secular age is heading. Is it possible that it is (in Corinthian terms) a 'wisdom' that is closed to the 'foolishness of the cross'?


rhys lewis said...

Kierkegaard makes a comment about the idea of progress ( in reaction I suppose to Hegel) that it is an aspect of the idea of providence, " and concerning that subject we are most ill informed".
I think you are raising some immensely important themes - important since the concepts are so widely assumed and float so loosely, without analysis or exegesis in the contemporary church.
Theology is important among other reasons because it has pastoral consequences. I was concerned to hear what sounded like explicit denials from Dave Tomlinson that he as an Anglican priest had responsibilities about ethical dimensions of the life of those he ministered to.
"The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel". That is one of the things, concretely, that we, the church, do know about the kingdom.
However, whether this or that social development is in fact an expression of the coming kingdom (euthenasia queuing up for recognition as such at a church near you), is, most of the time, a subject concerning which we are most ill informed.
I'd suggest that attitudes to the great questions of out time need to be measured not by perceptions of the coming of the kingdom but by sustained and intelligent ethical reasoning drawn from scripture, tradition and reason. I can have a discussion about that - but I can't argue with the essentially pentecostal position that God reveals for our immediate spiritual discernemt whether this or that is the inbreaking of the kingdom

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Rhys for a powerful counter-point!

The more days between DT's visit and my reflecting, the more questions I find arising for me!

In a discussion with you/others about these points (rather than a pentecostal acclamation!!), I would want to tease out the possibility that (a) the general sense that the world is a better place for many people (e.g. no slaves in many parts of the world; longer life, less hunger, etc) accords with the growth of the kingdom of God; and (b) specific instances of what people contemporaneously presume to be 'progress'(e.g. euthanasia, noted in your comment) may run against the ethics of the kingdom.

rhys said...

Dear Peter
These points are worth discussing but there are theological assumptions that frame the discussion which also need to be examined exegetically.
As regards the general sense that the world is a better place for many people - well what security do we have for assuming this will continue (rather the reverse if the global warming people are right). It's theogical assumptions (plus natural optimism!) that create this expectation of a continuing ascent on the part of humanity - an assumption that for liberal protestantism was obliterated by the First World War(apparently only temporarily).
But in any case, how would that ascent make it alright for the billions who never got a share in this life in the improvement.
I'd be much keener to think about the in-breaking of the kingdom as continuing instances of what our lord Himself brought - a foretaste of glory, first fruit of the new creation. What God sets up in such in breakings are signs and models of of the life humanity is called to - signs that the world may well be inspired by, and yet so often tramples, just as it trampled Christ himself.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Rhys
I do not think I substantially disagree with you - and you raise very important examples of difficulties with my 'better world' has some connection with 'kingdom of God growth' - one danger, of course, with my musings is that I smuggle in the Whiggish view of history with pre-Barth liberal Protestantism coming along for the ride!

Nevertheless, not because I want to exalt the progress of the West, nor because I have secret liberal Protestant agenda, I am interested in exploring possibilities for understanding how God's kingdom might be present in the world beyond some manifestations which Christians readily understand to be 'signs' of the kingdom.

Rhys said...

As an unexpected contribution to this discussion, I came across the following from two senior Christian leaders, in the September Methodist "Touchstone" Magazine, in relation to the euthenasia debate -
"We understand that life is a gift. It is more than a body. It is a living person, able to grow,
communicate, work and enter into loving relationships. As a gift of the Spirit, it is sacred
and to be protected. It is not to be maimed, destroyed or killed. It is protected by faith and
the law.
But when a person’s quality of life fades away, even if the body continues to exist, the life is
ending. It is over, especially if pain and trauma deaden the spirit. ‘And Thou most kind and gentle death, waiting to hush our latest breath.’ Without
the person, the sanctity has gone.
We understand that God is compassionate and loving. God does not want any human being to
suffer pain or sickness – or why would God inspire nurses and doctors to heal and relieve suffering?
God is in our weakness to support us. God does not wish us to endure pain. There is no purpose in such pain and weakness. We may struggle and even die for a good cause
but we need not fight approaching death. When we are facing the end of life, and our bodies and
minds are deteriorating into mere physical organs,what then? What does your God wish for you?
We believe that a person should be relieved of such suffering – as some doctors already do –
even to the point of assisted dying. There is mercy here.
Whose life is it anyway?
With all the support of friends and loved ones which hopefully we enjoy, “my life is my choice”.

Peter Carrell said...

Hmm ... I go some way with the sentiments herein and then wonder, can a Christian say before God 'my life is my choice'? Is it not, 'my life is in Your hands?'

Rhys said...

I fear the attitudes expressed here open the door to very dismissive attitudes to those with alheimers - and though it would be far from the intentions of th writers, to executive decissions by the secular authorities in the next generation when the health needs of my age group will be a severe drain on the economy