Friday 2 March 2012

‘Doing Jesus’ in Civic Life

[I contributed this week’s ‘Connecting with Culture’ from the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. I used it as a vehicle to try to merge a few currents around ongoing debates about religion and secularism, and the place of religion in public life, bringing in de Botton’s book and the intriguingly wonderful article by Matthew Parris in last week’s The Spectator. I’d hoped also to mention the publication of the Clearing the Ground Inquiry, but felt the piece was already collapsing under its own weight, so that got assigned to the links section!]

Late January saw the publication of Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion (Hamish Hamilton, 2012). Far from being an attack on religion of the sort we have come to associate with the New Atheism, de Botton suggests that religion offers valuable resources which – when appropriately cherry-picked – address our need for community and compassion, our yearning for a sense of transcendence and connection. As the publicity blurb for the book put it, ‘even if religion isn’t true, can’t we enjoy the best bits?’

All very well, perhaps, except at some point we come up against the claims of specific religions, not least the one who declared himself to be ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14:6). How do you ‘pick and mix’ Jesus?

Even those who have not read de Botton’s book are unlikely to have escaped the news of some high-profile ‘religion versus secularism’ battles of the last few weeks. Notable, perhaps, has been the bid to ban prayers before the meetings of Bideford Council, a ruling subsequently reversed by the Government, with Eric Pickles arguing that Britain is ‘not strengthened by the secularisation of civil life’.

Even so, the ongoing challenge will be not just to contribute to the common good of civic life – to ‘do God’ in a generic sense – but to do so as Christians, with all that our witness to Christ might entail.

Writing in The Spectator last week, Matthew Parris, a self-confessed unbeliever, seems to recognise something of this in his comment that Jesus ‘did not come to earth to offer the muzzy comforts of weekly ritual, church weddings and the rhythm of public holidays’.

Whilst acknowledging that the church is embedded in the social fabric of the country, Parris wonders whether this sufficiently captures what Jesus requires of his followers. So, he counsels: ‘Beware (I would say to believers) the patronage of unbelievers. They want your religion as a social institution, filleted of true faith... To those who truly believe, the implicit message beneath “never mind if it’s true, religion is good for people” is insulting. To those who really believe, it is because and only because what they believe is true, that it is good... If a faith is true it must have the most profound consequences for a man and for mankind.’

There lies the path of discipleship.


Matthew Parris, Beware – I would say to believers – the patronage of unbelievers (25 February 2012).

Earlier this week, Christians in Parliament, an official All-Party Parliamentary Group, launched Clearing the Ground Inquiry, a preliminary report of the committee’s findings on the marginalisation of Christians in the UK.

Clearing the Ground Inquiry

Evangelical Alliance UK, Clearing the Ground Inquiry

BBC, Equality law ‘should be extended to cover faith’ (27 February 2012)

Edward Malnick, Britain failing to stand up for Christians, say MPs (26 February 2012)

Jim Dobbin and Gary Streeter, We need reforms to protect the rights of Christians (26 February 2012)

Andrew Brown, Are Christians being marginalised? (28 February 2012)

National Secular Society, Christian discrimination report is just another call for special privileges (28 February 2012)

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