God in Public? Reflections on Faith and Freedom in Society Part 2

‘Law and Faith’: Lecture 1

London School of Economics, February 14 2008

All this, second, is part of the postmodern revolution which deconstructs more or less everything about the eighteenth-century western settlement. Technology has brought nightmares as well as blessings. Post-Enlightenment empire has enslaved more millions than it has liberated, has brought wealth to the few and poverty to the many. Western justice favours those in power, not only incidentally but structurally. And the banishing of religion to the margins of life has been found sterile, denying something as basic to being human as music or falling in love. As I have argued elsewhere, we all know we should do justice but we are puzzled at how difficult it is; we all want spirituality but we aren’t sure where to find it; we all love beauty but we can’t understand why; we know we are made for relationship with one another but we’ve forgotten how to get it right. We have deconstructed the big stories by which our society has lived for two hundred years, perceiving them as dehumanizing, serving the interests of a powerful elite. And this postmodern mood has called everything into question, including Reason itself. That in turn is why, though in many ways our media love to feed us with the sterile nostrums of late modernity, their methods are relentlessly postmodern: spin and smear, innuendo and multiple misrepresentation. This is an exciting but dangerous time, and we cannot take anything for granted as we try to find our way forward into the new century.

Proposal: God, Kingdom and Hope

In this complex situation we need to listen again for the rumour of other possibilities. Like St Paul in Athens (a parallel with my situation in this lecture which was borne in on me at various points, not least the scorn with which some in the audience greeted my attempt to talk about Jesus and the Resurrection in a secular context), the task of the church is to offer both a critical analysis of the swirling currents of thought and life and a fresh possibility, a new fixed point, from which one might work outwards to fresh agendas. And that means talking about the Kingdom of God.

The fate of this overused slogan illustrates nicely the problem we face. The phrase ‘kingdom of God’ meant to some in the first century, and has meant from time to time since, the establishment of a hands-on theocracy in which God himself would step in and direct the course of affairs. Since few have thought that the world’s creator would be visibly present to do this, the scheme usually meant the delegation of the kingdom to some favoured earthly representative: a tyranny, in other words, of God’s spokesmen (they were usually men). So strong was this vision among first-century Jews that they embarked on crazy wars with the Romans until, having been beaten again and again, some declared (in the mid-second century) that they should abandon the hope of the kingdom and instead ‘take upon themselves the yoke of Torah’: in other words, settle for private study and keeping of their own Law, while being content to live under whichever empire happened to be in power. So most Jews have remained to this day, negotiating in generation after generation that settlement under pagan law which seemed best at the time, always aware that the pagans might make demands on their consciences and aware of what would happen when they did. That represented, in the second century, a middle position between the Christians, who went on insisting that Jesus was in fact the world’s true Lord, and often died for it, and the Gnostics, who insisted that the ‘kingdom’ was a purely spiritual sphere into which one could escape, thus avoiding the political question altogether.

That already hints at the second meaning of ‘kingdom of God’. From quite early on the phrase was used in what has come to be its primary or even its only meaning for many: the realm of ‘heaven’, a disembodied post mortem existence with no connection whatever to public or political life. Tracking this shift is not our present purpose, but I want to make it clear, in line with my recent book on the subject (Surprised by Hope), that the first-century Christians, following Jesus himself, insisted as does the Lord’s Prayer on God’s kingdom coming ‘on earth as in heaven’. ‘All authority,’ declares the risen Jesus at the end of Matthew’s gospel, ‘in heaven and on earth has been given to me’; and that forms the basis for his commisison to the disciples to their worldwide mission. As recent New Testament studies have emphasized, here and elsewhere the early Christians turn out to have embraced what we today would call, if not exactly a political vision, a vision with direct political consequences. Jesus is Lord, therefore Caesar isn’t. And the vision of the ultimate future which accompanies this is not, as so often imagined, a dream of an other-worldly sphere, away from space, time and matter altogether. The older idea that the early Christians expected the imminent end of the space-time universe is itself a post-Enlightenment construct, a way of parking Jesus and his first followers in a safe place where they couldn’t get out and disturb the ongoing Enlightenment project. No: the early Christians held to a vision of creation renewed and reordered, in which renewed humans (the word is ‘resurrection’, of course) will live in renewed bodies. And, most disturbing of all, the early Christians believed that this new state of affairs, this ‘new creation’ as they called it, had actually already begun, with the resurrection of Jesus himself. (This paragraph is, indirectly but importantly, a provisional response to the interesting but highly misleading account of Jesus and early Christianity in the first chapter of John Gray’s Black Mass.)

Now of course the early Christians knew that this belief was ridiculous, and they were routinely ridiculed for it. We must never slip into the silly Enlightenment idea that only with the rise of modern science do we know that dead people don’t rise. Homer knew that. So did Plato and Pliny, and everybody else. The Jews believed that people would be raised at the end of time; the Christians agreed, but said that one person had been raised in anticipation of this event, and that he was therefore the world’s true Lord. God in public, indeed: the scandal of the resurrection has never been merely that it breaks the laws of nature so called, but that it breaks into the political order, the world of societies and laws and government, and insists that a new world has begun and that the puzzles and pains of the old one can not only be understood but addressed and solved by addressing them from within the new one.

The proof of the pudding was, and is, in the eating. The communities that sprang up under the lordship of this strange figure called Jesus were themselves the evidence of a God at work in the public domain, generating a new kind of justice, of rationality, of spirituality, of beauty, of relationship. The life which these communities exemplified created a head-on challenge to actual regimes, which was why the church was so viciously persecuted for nearly three centuries. They also provided an alternative society to which people were drawn in increasing numbers, so that the church went on growing despite that persecution. This explains why standard Enlightenment discourse includes a list of the church’s obvious failings – crusades, inquisitions and the like – and a strange silence about its massive achievements in health, education and many other spheres.

From very early on, leading Christian thinkers realised that the question of ‘God in public’ was vital and central, and they answered it in various ways. (One of the extraordinary triumphs of the Enlightenment has been to suggest that there could be no such thing as ‘Christian political theology’, since by late eighteenth-century standards such a thing would be a category mistake. There was in fact a massive and serious tradition from the first century, with the writings of the gospels and of Paul, through to the eighteenth century, with which we are only just now starting to reconnect, perhaps just in time.) And I now want to suggest, briefly and tendentiously but I hope provocatively, that this tradition can refresh and renew the tired political discourse we have observed up to now this evening. John Gray’s new book Black Mass highlights what he calls the would-be Christian utopianism of Bush and Blair. I suggest that the movements of thought he analyses are in fact a parody, a caricature, of a reality, and that the reality is both more interesting and more potentially fruitful.

The first thing to be said about a Christian political theology is that it envisages God working through human beings to bring order and justice to the world. The Judaeo-Christian tradition insists that humans are made in God’s image: not just reflecting God back to God, but reflecting God into God’s world. They are, that is, called to be stewards of creation. The Bible applies this notion directly to the idea of political authority. Whether or not particular rulers consciously acknowledge the Creator God, they are given the responsibility to bring God’s wise order to human society and indeed to the whole created order. Within this, they can be rulers, not just ‘leaders’, because there is such a thing as wise order, the giving of a framework to things, not just the chance to take people forward into new experiences and possibilities. The post-enlightenment suspicion of the very word ‘rulers’, as though it automatically entailed tyranny, has its sting drawn by the multiple imagery, throughout the Judaeo-Christian scriptures, of tending the garden, looking after the flock of sheep, dressing the vine, and so on. A shepherd who tyrannizes the flock soon won’t have any sheep left. Gardeners who uproot plants and put up concrete buildings instead aren’t gardeners any longer.

The trouble is, of course, that at the point where ancient theology and contemporary philosophy meet we find a new awareness of the problem of evil. If we hadn’t noticed it before – if, for instance, we thought we had ‘evil’ solved in principle until 9/11 came along and spoiled it all – that merely demonstrated how naive we were being (on this, see my Evil and the Justice of God). The ancient doctrine of Original Sin, and the postmodern insistence that all our great stories are designed to boost someone’s power and prestige, converge at this point: those who are called to rule, by whatever means they come to that status, are instantly tempted to exercise that power for their own benefit. The idea that any earthly ruler, be they never so devout in their private life, can exercise a pure authority and go about ridding the world of evil always was a crazy dream, whether it be in the Crusades of the Middle Ages or those of the last five years. What has happened, of course, is that in the post-Enlightenment split-level reality, the utopian dreams have not actually been inspired by the Christian message, but by the Enlightenment’s self-fulfilling prophecies of its own automatic superiority over the rest of the world, qualifying the enlightened West to be the world’s policeman – at the same time, conveniently, as technology has enabled it to be the world’s only superpower. Here the Enlightenment has shown at last that it knows it really is based on the moral foundation of the Judaeo-Christian heritage, the calling to bring justice and mercy to the world; but by denying that which lies at the very heart of that heritage, the essential message of and about Jesus himself, it has twisted that tradition into a horrible parody.

What, then, lies at the heart of that heritage? And how can it affect our thinking about God in public, about the possibility of new hope within the political and legal sphere coming from that unlikely place, the home of faith and spirituality?

The answer lies in the notions of service and suffering, which stand in the Jewish scriptures as the sign that the people who bear witness to the creator God will live out of tune with the world which insists on going its own way. Bit by painful bit, ancient Israelite poets and prophets wrestled with the strange possibility of the kingdoms of the world becoming the kingdom of God, and found themselves ground between those upper and nether millstones. And it is out of that essentially Jewish vision of a people bearing witness to a different way of being human, serving God and serving God’s world, that the first Christians, following the hints of Jesus himself, interpreted his horrible death not simply as a tragedy (though it was that as well) but as the climax of his kingdom-announcement, and also the point at which all that suffering came rushing together, as Israel’s Messiah was executed by the pagan powers outside the walls of his own capital city. Evil did its worst to Jesus, and he took it and exhausted its power. And that, too, only made the sense it did because the Christians dared to believe, from exceedingly early on, that in that event they had witnessed, all unknowing, ‘God in public’, God stripped naked, God shamed and beaten, God ruling the world from the cross with the power, not of military might, but of love.

This dream is of course completely off the radar screen for much of our contemporary culture, not least because the churches have themselves hushed it up. The western churches have colluded so effectively with the split-level world of the Enlightenment that the cross is reduced to the celestial mechanism whereby we escape the wicked world of sin rather than the coming of God into the public world to establish his kingdom. One of the reasons (not the only one) why so many church people declared themselves outraged at what they were told Archbishop Williams had said is that many western Christians have never asked themselves what Jesus meant when he taught us to pray that God’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven. But the original vision of the crucified Jesus will in fact deconstruct the angry rant of the fundamentalist even as it will confront the scorn of the secularist. The cross will not let the fundamentalist corrupt the message into self-serving power, just as it will not let the secularist get away with the standard critique of dangerous religion. The cross is at the heart of a redefinition of the word ‘God’ itself which will open up new possibilities for what it might mean to think of ‘God in public.’

Church history is of course littered with ghastly mistakes, as emperors and popes have translated the kingdom of God too readily into the kingdom of their own systems, eliminating both the service and the suffering. But with Jesus the new order has been inaugurated, and political power – anybody’s political power – can now be seen as the anticipation of the rescuing, restorative justice by which the living creator God will one day put the whole world to rights. And that contextualizes all political and legal work in the present, and moreover bequeathes to the church the task of holding governments of whatever sort to account. The early church, like the ancient Jews, wasn’t particularly concerned with how governments and rulers came to power. They were extremely concerned to hold up a mirror to them and show how they were doing in terms of the yardstick of the restorative justice of God himself. The Enlightenment world gets that the other way round: we are obsessed with how people come to power, and then, as long as a vote has taken place, we suppose that all that follows is automatically legitimated. (I have heard serious Americans declare that, because George Bush was validly elected – that of course is itself questionable, but we’ll let it go for now – nobody, certainly no Christian, had any right to object to his bombing Iraq.) No: the political and legal vision of ‘God in public’ by which the early Christians lived involved the simultaneous affirmation of the authority of rulers and critique of what they actually did – a balance which the modern western world has found it hard to maintain, leading to the postmodern collapse where all we have is critique and no affirmation at all, and the new secularist would-be tyranny where whatever the government decrees must be instantly binding on all subjects, even if it squashes their consciences out of shape.

So the first point is that God desires to work through human beings to bring his wise, healing stewardship to the world. Second, though, and much more briefly, this vision must not stop with a small number of elite rulers. That rule must be shared, all the way through the system: the restoration of genuine responsible humanness must be the method as well as the goal. And that means the sharing of power; which means, in the last analysis, some form of democracy. Here again we glimpse the truth that the Enlightenment was actually quite a close-up Christian heresy. It was attempting to gain the great prize of a genuinely Christian vision of a humane and humanizing society, but without the Christian faith to back it up. It grasped instead at the dream of its own glory, claiming to be the climax of history through which everything would be healed. But in doing so it pushed the real climax of history, the God-in-Public moment of Jesus and his death and resurrection, into the long-range backdrop for a ‘religion’ whose street-level energy had been drained off into a detached spirituality.

First, then, with Jesus God’s rule has been inaugurated, and present rulers must be held to account, in the light not of some abstract or ancient ideal but of the coming putting-to-rights of all things. Second, this must work out in the present in ways that are themselves ennobling, drawing more and more people up into their full human stature as part of the decision-making process. Third, and finally, the signs of this ‘kingdom’ will be a society at work to rescue and heal, to reorder priorities so that the weakest are defended and the strongest prevented from pride and power. It is wonderfully ironic that inside the front cover of the New Statesman, right behind the enormous word ‘GOD’, there is an advertisement for the Salvation Army, under the heading ‘Belief in Action’. And the actions in question, I need hardly add, are not dropping bombs or bullying minorities, but helping the homeless, befriending the endangered young, and healing drug addicts. That is not the only thing that ‘God in public’ looks like from a Christian point of view, but it stands near the centre of that vision. It is a sign of hope, hope that refuses to die – or, if it does, insists on rising again soon afterwards.

Conclusion: Public God, Public Agenda

Some brief remarks in conclusion, to relate all this to current controversies. To begin with, the stand-off between secularism and fundamentalism. In the words of the American Jim Wallis, ‘the right get it wrong and the left don’t get it’. The church is called in every generation to be a community, a public community, working with all who will do so for the public good in the belief that God will one day put all things to rights, and that he has already begun to do so through Jesus. If the church had been doing that the last two hundred years – and it was of course two hundred years ago last year that Wilberforce and his friends got the slave trade abolished – we would be having a very different debate today. And, ironically, it is because the church has so often shirked its public role, regularly justifying that withdrawal by using the language of ‘heaven’ but filling it with Enlightenment dualism, that our present puzzles about ‘Establishment’ have taken the shape they have.

‘Establishment’ is a way of recognising that we are still essentially a Christian country, both in the sense that our history and culture have been decisively shaped by the Christian faith and life and in the sense that at the last census over 70% called themselves ‘Christian’. As the Archbishop said last Monday, this means that the ‘established’ church has a special responsibility to take thought for, and speak up for, the small minorities, and to ensure that they are not squashed between an unthinking church and an uncaring secular state. Hence his perfectly proper concern for the particular sensitivities of Muslims, as indeed of Jews and others. And most Church of England leaders would insist today that if some way could be found to share our ‘Established’ status with our great sister churches, we would be delighted. But let’s not fool ourselves. To give up ‘Establishment’ now would be to collude with that secularism which postmodernity has cheerfully and rightly deconstructed. Rather, the challenge ought to be to make it work for the benefit of the whole society. To aim at that would be to work with the grain both of the Christian gospel itself and of the deep roots of our own society and traditions.

In particular, we need to recapture that which the Enlightenment highlighted but which has been lost in the world of postmodernity and spin-doctors: the emphasis on Reason in our thinking and public discourse. Reason is correlated with Trust. When you don’t really trust your conversation partner to be thinking things through in a reasoned manner, you cut in with smear and innuendo. And when you don’t quite trust yourself to think things out either, you resort to spin and slogans. And that double lack of trust correlates directly, if ironically, with the Enlightenment’s insistence on separating God from the public world. Many politicians, and many in the media, hope to control what people think and do, and if they can’t they rubbish them instead. Trusting people is altogether different, and needs different back-up mechanisms. Perhaps part of the unintended consequence of the postmodern revolution is to show that if Reason is to do what it says on the tin we may after all need to reckon with God in public. And when that happens we need wise Christian voices at the table, and for that matter wise Jewish and Muslim voices and many others beside, voices neither strident nor fundamentalist, voices both humble and clear; the voices not of those with instant answers but of those with a fresh grasp of God’s truth, whose word will carry conviction because it appeals, like Paul in Athens with the altar to the unknown God, to things which everybody half knows but many try to suppress.

Within that project, finally, there is a massive challenge to our contemporary democratic institutions. The way successive governments have tinkered with constitutional reform, playing with long-established structures as though they were a set of toy soldiers, pays no attention to the checks and balances in the old system, and lacks any kind of guiding vision except the vague one that more voting is probably a good thing, presumably because the Enlightenment said so. Well, I’m all for voting, for the reasons I’ve already given, but I’m also all for having structural means of holding executives and governments to account, which both in broad outlines and in specific generalities it still seems extremely difficult to do. One of the urgent tasks of the church in this country might be to help give an account of our democratic structures, how they are failing in their tasks at the moment, and how they might be reformed to address them better. That would take us into other areas, of course, not least the European scene where all the ideological battles I’ve been describing are magnified and multiplied very considerably. But The church should not simply be sitting on the sidelines trying to protect an anachronistic privilege. If those of us who belong to the church believe what we say, we should be helping give a lead in figuring out what it means in tomorrow’s world to do God in Public, and encouraging our fellow-citizens, not least other households of faith, into that wise, reasoned and civil discourse which alone will get us where we need to go and keep us on track as we make the journey into the strange, dangerous but also hopeful world of post-post-modernity.

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