Friday, 23 December 2011

A Big Christianity - beyond Cameron and Chaos

It’s taken me a while, but I’ve been thinking a bit about David Cameron’s recent foray into religion. It received a bit of a mixed reaction from all sides, including the usual rants from the atheists, but also perhaps a surprisingly lukewarm response from Christian voices. Some liked his reminder of our Christian heritage, some thought it was unrealistic given the levels of secularism we now have, some felt his vision of Christianity was too moralistic.

I also read a piece by George Monbiot recently in the Guardian about what he called “The great political conflict of our age – between neocons and the millionaires and corporations they support on one side, and social justice campaigners and environmentalists on the other. ” and a lightbulb went on in my mind connecting the two pieces.

David Cameron’s version of Christian faith is one of standards, morality, maintaining order and uprightnesss. It is typical of a more right-of-centre appreciation of religion for bringing order and peace to a chaotic world. The problem is it can lack sympathy for those for whom life is a struggle and can too easily glide over underlying injustices that keep them struggling. This is the aspect of religion that ‘neocons and the millionaires and corporations they support’ tend to like. On the good side, it maintains order and restrains the chaos. At the same time it can reinforce existing patterns of power, privilege and stigmatise those who fail as deserving of little grace.

Occupy London also asks ‘what would Jesus do’? It's a good question, and once asked, it's hard to see him doing anything other than siding with the poor, the meek, the persecuted, the mourning. The aspect of religion that ‘social justice campaigners and environmentalists’ perfer is the idea of religion as salvation. God rescues the sinking, opposes the unfeeling rich, saves the sinner, heals the sick, lifts up the broken-hearted and oppressed. This is good news for the poor, hope for the hopeless and homeless.

David Cameron had it half right. Occupy London have it half right. Christianity is bigger than both. It combines salvation and ethics, a message that God rescues and that he restores, Christian faith has a vision of rescue; it also has a vision of life as it was meant to be lived -a vision that has a distinct shape. At its heart, Christianity is about salvation – it is about God entering his good but broken world in the story of Israel and the person of Jesus Christ to redeem it, restore it and to overcome the great enemies of life and humankind – sin, evil and death. It is about good news for the sinner, the struggler, the addict, the victim. At the same time, it also gives a reassurance that there is a moral order and structure to the world that if transgressed, tends to unravel things and leads to destruction and death, the very things from which we need rescuing.

These two exist in a dialectical relationship – each need the other. When Christianity is held to be one and not the other, or at least one is championed while the other ignored, (as to be honest, David Cameron did, but perhaps also Occupy London does too), it betrays itself. A moralistic Christianity that has no sense of salvation may uphold a sense of moral order, but has no good news for the strugglers, the victims, the silent sufferers. A Christianity of salvation with no sense of moral order is a band-aid, providing quick-fix solutions with no longer-term rebuilding of lives and communities.

Our culture needs a vision that overcomes the conflict that George Monbiot identifies. It doesn’t need a privatised faith of moral rectitude. Nor does it need a vaguely religious version of secular cries for social justice. It needs a big vision of Christian faith that once held western Europe together and that embraces both salvation and order. How the two fit together is a significant intellectual, moral and spiritual question, but one well worth working at if the Christian faith is to rediscover its social function, and provide a way beyond the tired debates of our current cultural discourse.

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