Today I present the second (and final) post on the points I made at a seminar on ‘Religion, Security and Global Uncertainties: Implications for the Northern Ireland Churches,’ held last week at the Open University in Belfast.
The seminar was based on the results of a research project, headed by Prof John Wolffe, which has resulted in a report aimed at policy makers and more general readers. Clergy and representatives of parachurch organisations were invited to discuss the results. (Read a summary of the report on Slugger O’Toole.)
My remarks were made in response to a presentation by Prof Wolffe.
In Part I, I focused on the questions of ‘Could the Churches do More?’ and ‘What about Denominations?’ Today I take up two further questions:
Should ‘Christian’ identification be nurtured?
One of Wolffe’s findings was that a significant number of interviewees were reluctant to accept the labels ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’ because they felt these identifications were political and not religious. As a result, they preferred to simply call themselves ‘Christians.’
Wolffe wondered how widespread this trend is, and asked: ‘Is it a positive one to nurture? If so, how?’
As someone who has identified myself as simply ‘Christian’ on quite a few occasions, I have some sympathy with Wolffe’s hint that this trend should be nurtured. But I am not entirely convinced that it should be.
The downside of trying to promote what might be called a generic Christian identity is that it limits the ability of those who take on that generic identity to engage meaningfully with their own (former?) Christian traditions.
The organisation Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI) was so effective because it rooted itself within the evangelical tradition and critiqued it from an insider’s position.
By remaining evangelical, rather than declaring itself generically Christian, ECONI was able to speak with more legitimacy with other evangelicals about matters such as how their tradition had contributed to division and violence in the past – and how they might change or re-form their tradition to contribute to a more peaceful future.
How should the churches engage in a secular public sphere?
Wolffe noted that the churches were struggling to come to terms with patterns of secularisation in Northern Ireland, such as falling church attendance. This struggle has meant that some Christians have adopted a ‘fortress mentality,’ and have stereotyped secularism and secularisation as enemies to be resisted.
Such stereotyping overlooks competing definitions of the secular/secularism/secularisation, including:
- Neutral space free from theological imperatives (Augustine)
- Constitutional separation of religion and state
- Materialistic indifference
- Ideology (eg nationalism) that acquires a ‘quasi-religious’ intensity
- Militant atheism (with its own ideological diversities)
I responded that too often people in the churches reduce ‘the secular’ to militant atheism. In addition to that, they long wistfully for the days when the churches had close relationships with political power and a much wider social influence.
I hang my head in despair whenever I hear church leaders commenting publicly in ways that reveal their longing for a ‘Christendom’ model of church that harks back to the old days when church leaders and institutions were almost automatically granted social and political privilege.
But as the American theologian Stanley Hauerwas has said,
‘The church in the West isn’t dying – God is killing it.’
Hauerwas thinks ‘God is killing it’ because of its too close relationships with social and political power, which have gotten in the way of the church ‘being the church.’
When churches are too closely aligned with power, they become complicit in reproducing the status quo and lose the ability to critique the abuse of power.
That’s why I think the churches should see secularisation as a gift from God to be received gladly. Secularisation frees up the church to act with more flexibility and boldness in the public sphere – taking the side of those on the margins rather than the side of those with power.
If church leaders articulated this positive view of secularisation more consistently, it could prevent Christians from becoming demoralised. It also might inspire Christians to act to address issues that those with power are only too happy to ignore.