Tag Archives: politics

So here we are again (or so it feels). Cameron and Obama are talking on the telephone. Military options are being reviewed. Parliament has been recalled. Once more the UK and the US seem to be on the brink of military action in the Middle East.

I remember the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, when I felt unable either to join the demonstrations against (with their apparent indifference to the awfulness of the regime and their visceral hostility to those leading our own country and its allies) nor to support the proposed action (with its transparent lack of any real vision for what would be achieved). I was against the invasion but unable to lend my support to an opposition with which I could not identify.

Given the distance from those events I would probably now be more inclined to support the demonstrations but still uneasy about doing so. I subscribe to Just War Theory and would be willing to lend support to military action that meets its criteria. The invasion of Iraq seemed to me to fail on the grounds of probability of success and on last resort. Much was made of the competent authority argument in relation to the UN but I’m far from convinced by that. I’m not at all clear that the UN is an effective enough body to be regarded as a legal authority, valuable though it is.

At any rate we’re now facing many of the same arguments in regard to Syria, albeit nobody is seriously advocating or considering a ground invasion. Whatever military action might be taken is likely to be more demonstrative than really decisive. The arguments in favour seem to amount to “we can’t do nothing” more than “we should do this”. It’s even uncertain whether any state actor really wants Assad overthrown given the uncertainties and dangers attendant on this outcome.

So what, if anything, do Christians have to say that is distinctively Christian on all of this?

It seems to me that the moral and political questions are ones where we are unlikely to have much to add. We are likely to say “war is a bad thing” and to link this to the gospel, but we’re very far from being the only ones opposed in principle to violence. Where Jesus’ teaching is distinctive is in its radicality: “offer the wicked man no resistance”. This, though, would apply not only to intervention from outside but to the Syrian opposition and indeed to Assad. This teaching of Jesus would urge all involved to let the others do whatever they would.

While this accords with the gospel teaching I don’t hear many voices raised saying the the Syrian opposition “lay down your weapons and offer the wicked man Assad no resistance”.

We all understand, at some level, that this teaching is inappropriate. It may be that as individuals we are called to try to reach this level of self-surrender and Christ-likeness, but to choose it on behalf of others is not right. This kind of insight is part of what lies behind Luther’s two regiments approach to politics and to ethics. We have responsibilities towards others in this fallen world that mean that sometimes we are called to do and be things that sit uneasily with the kingdom teaching.

Often moral choice is more a matter of choosing between a set of wrongs rather than holding our for an unachievable right. This is what Just War says. War is always a bad thing but it may be the least bad of a set of bad options.

Again you don’t need to be a follower of Christ to recognise this. What you do need to be a follower of Christ for is to hope for something beyond the sets of compromises this world allows.

What Jesus announces is the coming near of the Kingdom of God, a direct and unchallengeable rule of the loving God. A state of affairs in which war and violence, injustice and abuse, even sickness and death are a thing of the past. In the redeemed and transformed creation into which we are to be resurrected all these consequences of sin will cease to be.

The Christian message is not “be nice” (although we should be nice) or even “be good” (although we should be good). It is that God is acting and will act to make sin and death things of the past. We are called to represent that kingdom in the here and now. We are called to live and act as if God’s rule has already been fully enacted (no possessions, complete non-violence and so on) but we’re also promised God’s gracious forgiveness for the ways in which we fall short.

This dual existence, in God’s kingdom and in the mess of our fallen world, is the core problem of Christian discipleship and is sustainable only through faith in that forgiveness, in the promised return of Christ to rule in glory and in resurrection to eternal life in him.

We shouldn’t try to short-circuit all this by looking for the perfect Christian answer to the pressing ethical and political problems of today. We have to live with the knowledge that there is no way to live in this world without sin, without really doing things that make us guilty, in our eyes and in the eyes of God.

Our only recourse is to throw ourselves on God’s mercy and pray for the guidance of the Spirit to lead us on the path Christ has laid.


poverty over


I was somewhat surprised and disappointed by the response to my arguing recently in a Facebook group populated by members and friends of my denomination that as Christians we were against death and sin. This seemed to me a rather uncontroversial statement in context and was bemused by the reaction of some of my ministerial colleagues

They seemed to believe that being against something we could not hope to defeat or otherwise conquer made no sense. Being against death was taken to imply believing that human agency could banish death from the world. If one accepted that we could not hope to do so then it was suggested that it made no sense to say we were against death, despite the strong Biblical support for exactly this stance (especially but not exclusively in the Pauline corpus).

I was very struck, therefore, when preparing to preach this Sunday, at the beginning of Christian Aid Week, that Christian Aid have declared their objective to be the end of poverty. This seems to me to be a goal of a very similar nature to being dedicated to the elimination of death, especially when one considers their definition of poverty. This is the subject of a (very good) discussion paper which considers a range of approaches to the definition of poverty, before deciding to synthesise them using the concept of a “good life” (increasingly popular in recent decades under the influence of “virtue ethics”). This synthesis is summarised in the phrase: “Poverty is disempowerment and the injustices that result.” (For the paper in full see here).

My purpose is not to disagree with this approach, indeed I think it is a very good starting point for thinking about the interaction of Christian faith with politics. What I would say is that it is very difficult (for me) to see this as much more credible than an end to death. Fallen human beings in a fallen world are and will remain prey to scarcity of goods (however one understands the word “goods”) and to consequent competition over their distribution. Power relations and injustice seem to me to be ineradicable until the kingdom of God is fully realised, that realisation being promised at the end of time with the resurrection to eternal life.

I claim to know neither when nor how this consummation of God’s redemptive work will take place  but I do contend (with the apostle Paul) that without faith in it the Christian faith is empty and absurd and we are to be pitied.

I fully support and endorse Christian Aid’s objectives and on that basis am happy to lend my voice to advocating for it (despite my reservations about some of its campaigning). I think that saying that we are for the eradication, not merely the amelioration, of poverty in the wide sense that word is given in Christian Aid’s literature, is a powerful and vital aspect of witnessing to the gospel.

In saying we want and expect the end of disempowerment and injustice we are, in effect, saying that the realisation of our political and social ends depends on the eschatological action of God, that no human social and political action will ever be sufficient to realise the justice we seek. To that message I say, “amen”.

The URC GA decided this weekend to pass a resolution allowing local churches that wished so to do to register to conduct civil partnerships. I wasn’t there but the social media have had the predictable mix of celebration from some and lamentation from others. I share neither of these emotions. I would shown in favour of the resolution but I’m not really in favour of the practice.

I can’t make any theological sense of churches acting as registrars of civil partnerships. This is a legal contract between two people overseen by the state. What’s it got to do with the Church? What is the theological basis for this? It seems to amount, from what I’ve heard to saying that if we don’t some gay people will feel hurt. That just isn’t a theological argument nor, for me, sufficient reason to do something I think there are quite strong theological arguments against.

These arguments, for me, aren’t primarily about the nature of the relationship but about the relationship between church and state. Here we have the Church demanding to be annexed to the state as its agent. Why would we do that? Why would we be so keen to carry out this function on its behalf?

The answer seems to be, at root, a sacramental understanding of marriage. The suggestion seems to be that we conduct weddings, that this must mean that there’s a definite religious content to marriage, that this content can be generalised to same-sex relationships, we should so generalise it. I think every step of this chain of reasoning is false other than the first. We do indeed conduct weddings.

I dispute whether there is really any definite religious content to marriage. When we conduct weddings we are enacting “civil religion” rather than Christianity, although we have lost the ability to distinguish the two things. Our wedding ceremonies don’t have their roots in the Christian tradition but in the various historic codes of civil law. The Church took over the regulation of marriage only in the middle ages with the collapse of civil law. There are no ancient wedding liturgies.

The long negotiation and contestation of the relationship between the Church and the emergent state formations of modernity played itself out in marriage law among other places. The Church sacramentalised marriage as part of this process. I would suggest that this was a radical departure from a New Testament witness that is, on the whole, deeply ambivalent about marriage. Celibacy is the preferred state for most of the NT writers with marriage a poor second.

This fused with the social promotion of marriage to create a two-sided “religious” programme around marriage. On the one hand it drew on some remarks of Paul’s about an analogy between marriage and Christ’s relationship with the Church and the Genesis account of the origins of the sexes to create a sacramental view of marriage and on the other it worked with the civil authority to promote marriage as a social good.

Neither of these work well in a free church tradition derived from the reformation. We (officially) reject the idea of marriage as a sacrament and assert our absolute independence from the civil authority. However for whatever reason both parts of this programme clearly live on on our denomination, as in the wider Church. This deeply conservative and backward looking ideology of marriage informs the “progressive” programme around gay marriage.

There are deep difficulties with this, though. The historic institution of marriage is entirely predicated on sexual difference and procreation. Its origins lie in the control of the legitimation of children and of the property of the married people, rights to which varied with the sex of the spouse. The contemporary advocates of the extension of marriage to same sex couple want to abstract from this and redefine marriage as about “love” between two people whose sex, like all their other particularities, is a matter of indifference. This is possible, of course, and is in fact happening, but this represents a major break with the past.

Such a break may be a good thing but what’s left isn’t really recognisable as marriage as it was defined through its capture by the medieval Church. Indeed with the separation from it of procreation and its rendering implicitly temporary by the acceptance of divorce it has already been fundamentally changed.

My point isn’t really that this is a disaster, I’m really not at all sure it is. Rather it is that the Church would do better to return to the NT position, as I discern it, and conclude that marriage is primarily a matter for the civil authority. We should stop trying to perpetuate the power grab of the 11th Century church and be glad to hand marriage back to the authority from which the Church took it.

This would give us the opportunity to re-think our sexual ethics on the basis of the eschatological vision of the New Testament rather than the conservatism of the later Church. We should see all our sexual arrangement as marked by our fallen state and seek to open ourselves properly to the sanctifying work of the Spirit in them.

My feeling is that a programme of theological reflection on how heterosexual relations are currently structured in the light of the promises of the Kingdom and on what the changes and developments in contemporary sexual and reproductive life mean for us is a more urgent matter by far than the attempt to corral homosexual relationships into a deeply flawed structure that is anyway in a process of decomposition.

I will not be signing any petition calling for any kind of enquiry, public, private, judicial or parliamentary into the moral uprightness and other behaviour of bankers. I might even sign a petition opposing such an enquiry were I given a chance. My reasons for this inaction (and somewhat improbable counter action) are both practical and moral-theological and derive from my conviction that the very serious problems in the global banking crisis have little or nothing to do with the moral turpitude of many bankers (of which I have no doubt) or of the moral uprightness of others (of which I have equally little).

To begin a process of searching out the moral failures of those who work in banks is at best a nasty irrelevance (rather like the witch-hunting associated with MPs expenses) and at worst a dangerous distraction from the real difficulties we face. Those difficulties have their origins in a serious systemic weakness in banks’ balance sheets (which I’ll try to explain shortly) and a consequent lack of liquidity in the system (ditto) which between them are causing a credit squeeze. If all those in charge of banks were the most ethically well-meaning and lowest paid people it is possible to conceive this would help not one jot in guiding them in resolving these problems.

To suggest that the cause is moral failure is to succumb, it seems to me, to some theological temptations made more beguiling because their theological nature is most often disguised as some sort of common sense. This temptation is to believe that bad things only happen because of bad behaviour, that anything that goes wrong must be  a response to or punishment of sin. Any suffering is to be looked on as being caused by somebody’s transgressions and the response is to seek the guilty party and punish them in the hope that this will restore order and well being. The analysis and rejection of this scheme is the main thrust of the Biblical Book of Job and is reprised in the Gospels.

In the case of the current woes of the banking system this means that people lash out, identifying things about bankers they don’t like (mostly that they’re paid too much) and suggesting that this is what made things go wrong. Leaving aside whether high pay is a moral issue (I don’t think it is but that’s not what’s at stake here) this ignores certain features of how we got where we are. We are caught in the tail end of a credit cycle. These cycles are a recurrent feature of banking in capitalist economies and is more or less unavoidable.

There are a range of reasons why this cycle is so bad and I don’t believe anyone really understands it but some unarguable ones are: that the banking sector became concentrated in too few institutions which each individually acquired systemic importance; the credit flows were at a magnitude beyond what the system could safely sustain not least because of very large and prolonged imbalances in trade between creditor and lender countries;  banks’ balance sheets were allowed by regulators to inflate beyond the limits of real safety.

A bank’s balance sheet shows the relationships between its assets (mostly the money people owe it, its lending) and its liabilities (mostly the money it owes people, including both those who have made deposits with it and its borrowings from other institutions). It needs to lend sufficient money at interest for the incomings to cover its expenses and generate a profit but also to retain enough ready at hand to meet the demands of those who wish to make withdrawals. Balancing this is a constant effort and is the task of specialists in “Asset and Liability Management”.

Another task the bank has to undertake is taking account of the probability that some assets will turn out to be valueless because those who owe the bank money don’t repay it. If this happens too much the bank will find itself with less assets than liabilities (those who deposit can be relied on to want their money back) and will collapse into insolvency. To cover against this banks are required to retain some money that they don’t use for lending (“capital”) which can absorb the losses without leaving uncovered liabilities.

During the credit boom two things were allowed to happen. Huge volumes of assets were acquired (i.e. loans were made) using money borrowed from other institutions rather than from small scale depositors. In one regard this makes no difference, borrowing is borrowing whether its my savings account or a loan from Kuwait’s sovereign wealth fund or a Chines bank. However there is a real distinction and one that lead to the collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland. These “wholesale” loans are much less “sticky”, especially the very short term lending typically made at LIBOR. When there seems to be trouble a “wholesale run” in which these funds become inaccessible can develop very quickly and this is what put an end to Fred Goodwin’s career (and also Northern Rock).

The other thing that happened was that over-optimistic estimates were made of how much would be repaid (this is what went wrong at Bank of Scotland and there some moral failure was definitely at work, but that’s another story). One example of this was US “sub-prime” lending but it was far more widespread than this. These mistakes about who was a good risk would have been alright if property prices didn’t fall (since much of it was secured against property) but they did. Because balance sheets were so swollen there wasn’t the capital to cover the losses.

Banks ran the risk of collapse and because most of the money in the economy exists through and in the banking system and because the banks were so big that their collapse would lead to a systemic collapse governments had no choice but to step in and take the banks over, putting money into them to “recapitalise” them to the point where they were able to continue operating.

However many of their remaining assets are not really worth what they say they are. It is not clear whether they additional capital they received has made them solvent. For this reason wholesale money is still largely unavailable to them, preventing them from acquiring new assets (lending more money). Until that problem is sorted out governments remain their only source of funding but that risks drawing states into insolvency too, if the assets they acquire by lending the banks money go bad. We’re in a terrible mess.

Blaming it on moral weakness and wrong doing is mere superstition. It is about as likely to make it go away as performing an exorcism on the Bank of England’s building in Threadneedle Street. We all need to grow up and realise that sometimes the world goes in ways we don’t like and we have to deal with it. If we have faith we have to trust that God knows what God is doing, if we don’t we have to make our own peace with death and suffering. In any case if we want the mess of the world economic system sorted out we have to look at it squarely and not distract ourselves by looking for scape goats.

Not long after I last posted here on marriage a friend drew my attention to this excellent article by John Milbank. Milbank is a prominent Anglican theologian and prime mover in Radical Orthodoxy and thus an important contemporary voice. (I should perhaps add that he examined my PhD in the ’90s and was very kind and supportive to me when I contacted him 5 years ago in the course of exploring  my vocation).

In it Milbank tries to find a way to move the current debate on marriage in the Church beyond its polarisation between “traditionalists” who defend marriage as it has been understood in the Church over the last few centuries and “progressives” who seek to extend it to same sex relationships on the basis that its real theological significance is to be found in mutuality and love not in procreation and sexual complementarity.

The “political” outcome of Milbank’s argument, in the Church context, is a position that would affirm same-sex relationships (he advocates the blessing of civil partnerships) while reserving “marriage” for heterosexual couples.

In arguing for this third way he advances some (characteristically) very interesting and fruitful thoughts while also putting forward some, familiar to those who have any acquaintance with Radical Orthodoxy, that I disagree with strongly.

In short his arguments can be represented as:

  • any talk of “rights” in regard to marriage (abstracted from any system of law) are symptomatic of a liberal individualism he rejects entirely
  • the “right” to marriage (defined by international law) relates to heterosexual marriage
  • marriage is a historical reality given its meaning by societies and bound to them
  • this historical reality does not have to oppose same-sex relationships. it is not directly relevant to them
  • marriage is, in fact, a “public good” related to the formation of families and nurture of children
  • the redefinition of marriage that has already privatised it is related to a “loss of sexual difference” and the “technologisation of childbirth
  • these factors have lead to a collapse of an old understanding of marriage that was central to the structure of society
  • this is all a very bad thing and should be resisted
  • this does not exclude the possibility of a value and recognition of same-sex relationships but this should not take the form of “marriage” since this would give ground on the defence of forms of social order opposed to liberal individualism that should not be conceded

What I really like about this is that it recognises the social nature of marriage and its historical specificity as an institution and also recognises that the argument over the extension of marriage to same-sex couples cannot be isolated from thinking about what marriage now means. I like, too, that it draws attention to the crucial significance of shifts in the relationships between the sexes and the closely related issue of the new contraceptive and reproductive technologies of the last 50 or so years.

It is operating at a level of theological seriousness and profundity that puts most of what passes for discussion of this issue to shame. It is asking us to think seriously about what our Christianity means to us and what our attitudes to marriage and sexuality tell us about  what we really value and what we think God wants for us.

However there are some assumptions being made with which I have enormous problems. It is typical of Radical Orthodoxy (in my opinion) that it looks backward, that it is nostalgic. My impression of it is that it would ideally re-create Christendom, an integrated society in which the Church takes its place as a full partner of the civil authority in an order that recognises Christian values as shaping the whole of life. In this sense it is thoroughly Anglican in its conception of the relationship of Church and State and thoroughly Catholic in its affection for the old ordering of that relationship, and indeed Milbank, like his mentor Rowan Williams is pretty solidly identified with the Anglo-Catholic tradition within the Church of England.

I would prefer to argue for a notion of God’s providential rule that goes through the modern present. The current (liberal) ordering of things (including the dominance of the market as the means of organising economic life) bears the marks of the Fall but so did all previous and alternative orderings (I’ve written on this before, here and here). Thus, in this case, I agree that the “marriage” that Christendom defined is being swept away by social and technological change. “Marriage” is on the way to ceasing to exist as a lifelong bond of one man and one woman with the creation and nurture of children as its core reality (here the prevalence of cohabitation and divorce and their general social acceptability are crucial phenomena).

Sex has begun to be separated from reproduction and that separation is being completed. The family as an economic unit is less and less relevant given the equal participation of each (adult) individual in a thoroughly marketised economic life. The differences between men and women are being reconfigured and renegotiated in ways that make them fluid and unstable. All of this is seen by Milbank as disastrous, and so it is if your aim is to preserve the past.

What, though, if one found that faith in God involved, among other things, embrace of these changes as Providential? Might one decide that the task of the Church is not to defend the old definition of marriage, whether by excluding same-sex couples or by persuading them that they should conform to a (redefined) marriage?

I don’t know where this line of thought might take one and I’m not ready to say that I’m sure it’s the right direction but I am pretty sure that exploring it would help us move forward from what has become a stale and repetitious rehearsal of well-worn and clichéd party lines into a debate which would help the Church (catholic) to find a voice people outside it as well as inside it might think worth listening to.

I have noticed again recently that I have an irrational unhelpful response to all manifestations of “progressive” Christianity. The term and anything I associate with it cause a rush of blood to the head and a strong desire to begin actually or virtually shouting: “you’re wrong, you’re so wrong, repent and return to orthodoxy now!”. Often when I take a few deep breaths and think again I find there’s nothing in what has provoked this response to justify it.

After all I agree with a good many things progressive Christians say and promote: I’m with them on the important presenting issue of homosexuality, having no problem with the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers and no desire to urge them to be celibate or otherwise reject their sexual orientation (I’ve written about this here); I regard attempts to resist the evidence on evolution as foolish and counter-productive (for this see here); I embrace enthusiastically all the various methods for studying the Bible developed since the renaissance and enlightenment (here); I am (more or less) a universalist of the hopeful Barthian kind.

It may, therefore, be a case of what Freud called the “narcissism of small differences”, where it is those most similar to oneself from whom one feels the strongest need to differentiate oneself. My own personal history passes through progressive Christianity (for a fuller account see here). It is quite credible to believe that the “progressives” and I share so much that I resist assimilation into their ranks at least in part as an entirely irrational and self-serving assertion of personal identity and uniqueness. I’m happy to concede that the irrational affect I feel is at least in part due to this.

However I also have some important (at least to me) theological justifications for my opposition to this current, so influential in my denomination. I think they make the following linked set of errors about what Christianity essentially is:

  • they (in my view) “moralise” the Gospel, turning it into an ethical system or teaching;
  • they politicise ethics;
  • they reject a theocentric account of the origin, nature and purpose of human existence;
  • they have an inadequate conception of the person of Jesus Christ.

Together these flaws turn the good news of our salvation into the bad news of ethical obligation, failure and condemnation. While I share a lot with them I find their teaching to be disastrously humanist and to deny the Gospel. That’s not so terrible in some ways since I don’t think, ultimately, that to be the most important thing, but together with my closeness to them on so many things it goes some way to explain my reactions, which I’m trying hard to control.

Moralising the Gospel: by this I mean the idea that Jesus’ main work was and is to tell us how to live, to teach ethics. On this account Christianity is a school of philosophy on the Hellenistic model, like the Stoics or the Epicureans, where one learns how to be a good person. I find this an almost infinitely depressing idea. What does one do, where does one go, how does one feel when one fails to do one’s duty? And how does one draw a boundary around what one’s duty is? These are the questions asked by Kierkegaard of this kind of teaching and there’s no good answer, in my view. The Gospel teaches that we’re all sinners, that God knows this, and that by grace we’re forgiven. Sin is defined primarily not by ethics (how we behave towards one another) but by religion (how we orient ourselves to God). (For a fuller exploration of this see here)

Politicisation of ethics: I don’t deny that  Christianity properly has an ethical dimension or consequences. When we respond gratefully to what God has done for us in creation and in our salvation by Christ we strive to live into the Kingdom. What I don’t accept is the characteristic short-circuiting of the work of discerning what this means that associates progressive Christianity with a moralistic left-wing politics. The world and God’s rule over it are more complicated than that. (See here for a denial of “Christian politics”, here for a negative assessment of “Occupy”, here for a defence of markets, and here for a discussion of providence and politics).

Nature of human existence: the key thing here is whether human existence can make any sense outside of a dependant relationship to God. My sense is that much of progressive Christianity has lost confidence in God and has turned to a humanist independence in which God plays little role. This is completely self-defeating, in my view. Human existence apart from God is utterly meaningless and desperate. Hope and comfort is to be found only in accepting our need for God’s help and God’s love and believing in the promise that they are available to us.

Jesus Christ, God and man: the mysteries of the incarnation, resurrection and ascension are what enables the restoration of this relationship, broken by our sin. I believe that only God’s action in Christ makes new life possible for us. The traditional orthodox teaching defined by the early councils at Nicaea and Chalcedon, that Jesus is fully human and fully divine and that we are joined to him in the Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, is absolutely necessary for me. Any departure from it leaves us without hope (in my view).

This brings me to the (possibly) rational element of my irritation. My impression is that progressives tend to think that their Christianity is more mature,  more thoughtful, more sophisticated than any alternative. I disagree. I think they haven’t thought it through to the bottom and would do well to spend some quality time with Nietzsche. He would show them that ethics cannot stand alone, that it is self-delusion and hypocrisy. The explicitly or implicitly claimed superiority of the language of “maturity” and “progress” annoys me.

This does not justify me in feeling that same thing in response and I am much attached to the idea that there are multiple vocations. I know that commitment to justice and to service are essential if the Church is to fulfil its mission and that its progressive wing has a marvellous record in this regard. I just wish its representatives didn’t seem quite so smug.

Last week I posted on why I can make no sense of the idea of “counter cultural” Christianity (post here) and got an interesting response from David Denniston (whose blog can be found here). How did my insistence that Christians cannot be outside or against “culture” square with Paul’s clear call for the followers of Christ to be not of the world or the flesh.

I have been thinking about this challenge and found it very helpful in clarifying what I think. In brief I would say that I believe these two can be reconciled if we get clear the various ways in which we orient ourselves to our existence in the world as it is, as it is meant to be and as we are promised it will be.

The “world” in this characteristic Pauline usage seems to be to be shorthand for the “fallen world”. Paul is clear that Christ is the new Adam, that he came to restore what was lost through the disobedience and sinfulness of the first human beings, the Fall. The world we experience is the world created by God but distorted by (our) sin. To be fully in and of this world is to surrender to sin.

At the same time we are redeemed by Christ, we are under God’s rule, God’s Kingdom. This Kingdom is not complete, we pray “your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven”, a prayer that yearns for a future fulfilment. We occupy two realms simultaneously, that of the world and that of heaven.

This division is not one within this fallen world but rather between this world and the one to come. This reality is reflected in the opposition in the gospels and epistles between  “this age” and “the age to come”. The two realms are both present now but are also separate in time.

I would suggest that all culture entirely of the present age, in this eschatological sense. The cultural positions that are sometimes claimed as “counter cultural” within Christianity are in fact intra-cultural. Whether it’s the defence of the sexual mores that were accepted by the dominant cultural forces in the past (universal heterosexuality and marriage) or the advocacy of notions of political justice held by a sub-section of contemporary society (“Occupy” style anti-capitalism) there is nothing distinctively Christian about them.

When some Christians seek to give them a theological gloss this is a move within cultural struggles both inside and beyond Christianity. It does not allow the step outside “culture” or the “world” that Paul calls us to undertake. This step is one into a faithful recognition that the transformation made by Christ and offered to us is one human beings cannot make unaided or within the realm of “this world”. Only God can make it and we can only proclaim our faith in God’s promise. The Kingdom of God is not a Kingdom of or like the kingdoms of this world.

At the same time we have, until the fulfilment of the promise at the end of time, to live in and witness to this world, this culture. There is no leaping outside of it by our own efforts. This thought has two consequences.

On the one hand we have to be modest in our assessment of what we can do, of our possibilities. We are not, as Luther so clearly recognised in his teaching of the two kingdoms, any wiser than the heathen in how to organise the affairs of this world (I’ve just written an essay on this, here). There is no reason to expect that Christians will be better or different in formulating policy or legislation. We should be present in the public affairs of our societies as Christians while recognising that there is no direct mapping of our Christian faith onto those affairs.

On the other hand it means we should recognise the special responsibility to which we have been called. It is our task to witness to the brokenness of the world we inhabit, to proclaim God’s forgiving and redeeming love, and to urge repentance and remaking of life. The Church has above all to the Church, the herald of the eschatological Kingdom that will make all things new, in ways we can neither know nor predict. The rule of God on earth will not be like what we know made a bit better. It will be utterly different.

In the meantime we have to negotiate our way through this fallen and desolate world, trusting in God’s care and the guidance of the Spirit while we try to live in this age while belonging to the one to come.

One often comes across calls for Christians to be “counter-cultural”. This rhetorical figure pitches “the Gospel” against “culture” and suggests that Christians, or the Church, have the responsibility of representing the Gospel in the struggle against a culture deemed hostile to it, hostile to God and God’s message to humanity.

This call comes in two main varieties, with different conceptions both of the culture to be opposed and of the Gospel to be opposed to it. Culturally conservative Christians diagnose contemporary culture as morally decadent and the Gospel as being or including moral prescriptions that would address this, especially in the linked domains of family, sexuality and reproduction. On the other hand socially “progressive” Christians, aligned to the political left, see the key problems as being greed and especially capitalism and environmental degradation and denounce a culture of  “consumerism”. These Christians espouse a gospel with “justice” at its centre.

I suggest that both these views of the relationship of Gospel and culture are wrong in very similar ways: they operate with a view of  “culture” that lacks both theological moorings and any real understanding of the nature of cultural life; and they misunderstand the way in which the Gospel works in, through and under (to borrow a sacramental phrase from Luther) the Church as a cultural phenomenon.

First on culture: this idea has its modern origins in the nineteenth century where initially it was a view that there was an elite “culture” which created fine, “cultured” individuals through their nurture in an inherited system of ideas and sentiments. Through their education (culturing) they acquired the ability to think and feel in more advanced ways. Culture made people better.

Later the idea acquired a different connotation through cultural comparisons, especially via anthropological investigation of alternative modes of life, especially of “primitive” cultures. The idea arose of cultural alternatives, entire modes of thought and feeling, that could be opposed to one another and which formed individuals of different kinds. Culture became destiny and an all encompassing field that determined who one was.

It is “culture” in this sense that forms the opposition in the “counter cultural” Christianities of today.

I would suggest that this idea of culture is and always was a gross over-simplification of the way people live together. Cultures are not and never were unitary in the way suggested nor are people passively shaped by them.

All cultures are overlapping sets of interlocking and interacting cultural practices. Every “society” (the scare quotes express scepticism that any society has clear boundaries and forms a single whole) and every person’s life is a process of negotiation and contestation in which ideas and feelings drawn from a variety of sources are configured and re-configured in shifting and temporary constellations.

This applies also to the Christian. One key cry of the Reformation was sola Scriptura the demand that all Christian ideas and practices be traced to their source in the Bible. This is not an idea without merit but needs to be treated with care. How many of us learned our Christianity by means of an individual and unguided study of these texts? I’d be surprised if any did.

In fact we all come to our knowledge of what Christianity is through immersion in the “culture” of the Church. We learn to be Christians by means of the Church, there isn’t really any other way. The implication of this is that Christianity is one of the cultural forces contending and negotiating in the cultural field. Christianity IS culture. (This is the characteristic claim of the post-liberal theology of the “Yale School” associated with the American appropriation of Barth allied to an understanding of the central role of narrative.)

This doesn’t deny either the central place of the Biblical revelation, the transcendence of God, or the reality and divinity of Christ. It simply makes an observation about how we as human beings of an irreducibly social nature encounter and experience these realities. We become and develop as Christians through a process of enculturation, through participation in (some form of) ecclesial life.

This means that to ask the Church to be “counter cultural” is to ask it not to exist. We should instead demand that it be thoroughly, consistently and self-consciously cultural. It has to understand itself and its place in its setting in ways that allow God’s action in and on the world to work through it in the way intended. It has to be an agent of the Kingdom by means of cultural influence. This may well be its single most important task.

This implies also that we have to lose some of the bad habits I observe of negativity and hostility to the (rest of the) culture. This is indeed a fallen and sinful world but we should recall that we are part of it. The Church too is fallen and sinful. This doesn’t mean that God can’t be present in and to it and the same applies to the rest of our societies.

There is a tradition within Reformation thought of respect for the moral insights of non-Christians associated with the term “natural law” and much stronger in Luther than in Calvin. Those of us in the Reformed tradition may well have something to learn from Luther in this regard.

Let’s look at those outside Christianity who are striving to be good as well as they can as friends with whom we might exchange assistance rather than either as enemies or as those who need pulling onto out heavenly life-raft.

It may be that liberalising sexual and other ethical codes is a process we should try to influence rather than reverse. It might be that capitalist development is (as Marx thought) a useful if temporary stage in social development that should be guided rather than resisted.

This kind of whole-hearted participation in the process of culture is risky and unstable but what’s the alternative? Opting out of history doesn’t to me seem like the expression of God’s Providence or of Christ’s sovereignty.

I was involved in a number of conversations last week that prompted me to think seriously about the relationships of ethics, Christian faith, and knowledge:

    • a discussion in the always fascinating OneKirk Facebook group about whether faith had any contact with truth and knowledge
    • another discussion there about an article in the Telegraph reporting an article in a journal of medical ethics proposing a parental right to infanticide
    • an ecumenical lent study group at Augustine United Church in which  we talked about what a Christian society was or would be and whether this was something we desired
    • a Scottish United Reformed and Congregational College session in which a fundamental difference emerged between some of us who contended that we can discern the image of God in our human nature and others (including, or maybe only, me) who hold to a Calvinist/Augustinian belief that the fall has erased that image (in Calvinist jargon the “total depravity” of fallen humanity)

Cardinal Keith O’Brien made an intervention in the debate about changes in the marriage law regarding same-sex couples and there was an outraged response to that intervention in a number of forums.

In addition I listened to Radio 4’s Moral Maze programme in which various people argued for and against the “right” of women to abortion (the discussion was very largely framed by a problematic of rights, a point to wish I might wish to return but which is not really my theme today).

It was this last discussion, to which I was a non-participating spectator that crystallised for me the common thread in my reactions across all these incidents and episodes; my feeling that what often makes this kind of talk go wrong is discomfort with uncertainty, temporariness, and dependency.

In the argument about abortion many of those taking part seemed to believe that the way out of the difficulties created by our disagreements would be to establish a single principle as unarguable and absolute, trumping all others, and then deduce ethical norms from it that would apply in all cases. On one side you have the right to self-determination as regards one’s body (“a woman’s right to choose”) on the other the obligation to protect and sustain the vulnerable and powerless, taken to apply to the foetus (“sanctity of life”).

I don’t at this point want to take sides on this question but rather to assert that the proper context for it in the mainstream of the Christian tradition is the idea of the fall and of original sin. This has a number of general consequences for ethical reflection of which two are of crucial significance.

First and most important it means that we cannot expect to act innocently. None of us can claim to be without sin. All of us stand in need of God’s forgiving grace. Our attempts to do the right thing are always under the shadow of failure and limitation. A real sense of this should encourage us to modesty and forbearance.

We are  looking for the least bad more than for the best course of action and this will always be relative rather than absolute. We must anticipate a tragic balancing of pain and harm and not a clear, final and absolute answer.

Second it means that the very faculties we are using to achieve this balance are themselves marred and distorted by sin. This is the link to the conversation about faith and knowledge. We are not the kind of beings that can know ourselves, the world, or God clearly. This means that we should always be ready to acknowledge that all we think and feel is liable to correction and change.

This is no less true of our moral reasoning and moral intuition than of anything else. We have to have a tolerance of those who think and feel differently, even where we cannot tolerate actions that flow from their thoughts and beliefs. We need to try to understand the positions of those with whom we disagree and to assume that they really do have good reasons for their views and feelings, even when we think they’re dangerously wrong.

There are limits to this tolerance, of course, and there comes a point where we have to have recourse to the idea of  “evil”, whatever we may mean by that difficult word, but this should be a last recourse and come to unwillingly, since it implies the end of conversation and the beginning of another and more desperate form of struggle.

What follows from this? Well for one we should be suspicious of our outrage. Calm is almost always better. People on all sides of all serious moral questions seem to disagree with this. The more strongly you feel about a question the greater seems to be your right to speak. I think this is wrong.

For another we have to be ready to see the bad things about our position or proposed course of action and acknowledge them. On abortion I’m inclined to see the current arrangements in Britain as about right but I still think every abortion is a tragedy. The alternative to them is not, though, just extra happy children. It is also unhappy mothers and children and  illegally procured and dangerous abortions.

In deciding what to do and how to legislate we are always faced, in this fallen world, with balancing bad outcomes. This will never be unambiguous and certain and we shouldn’t act as if we thought it was.