Sunday, 18 December 2011

Prime Minister Praises Biblical Values

So the Prime Minister likes the resonances of the King James bible and believes that values that come from the bible should shape our society! Christians should hold their heads up high, be confident and contribute to public life. David Cameron was speaking at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford as part of the celebrations for the 400th anniversary of the King James bible.

Well, it was an interesting and perhaps unexpected speech. It was refreshing to hear a senior politician acknowledge the central place that religion has had and still has in shaping the moral landscape we inhabit. Secular neutrality and the pretence that religion can simply be assigned to the private sphere don't measure up - they collude to tell a story about society that is untrue and misleading. Mr Cameron clearly sees crises like the recent riots in London and other cities, the MPs' expenses scandal and the collapse of parts of the banking system as symptomatic of the growing absence of a commonly accepted moral code or any sense of accountability based on coherent moral principles. And he seems inclined to look to the Church of England as well as other faith communities for help to find a set of values which will restore Britain to 'a nation whose ideals are founded on the bible' to quote Margaret Thatcher. He challenged the Church of England to be more vocal and also to be sure that it speaks to and for the whole country (he had a little go at us for our non-inclusivity) and even went as far as to say that 'the values we draw from the bible go to the heart of what it means to belong in this country.'

What are these values? According to Mr Cameron they include responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self sacrifice, love and pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another and to our families and our communities. In many ways commendable, but not all values I necessarily think come straight from the bible - or at least they don't necessarily pick up on the rich complexity of biblical morality or the priorities we find in scripture. Love, compassion, humility, self sacrifice, yes, but what about care for the marginalised, the call to care for those beyond our families, sometimes even at cost to our families, radical forgiveness of an enemy and prophetic challenge to institutions? These themes take up a large chunk of scripture. And I'm not sure I recognize pride in anything, even working for the common good if you can identify it, as a biblical value. The trouble with Mr Cameron's approach to Christianity or more specifically the bible is that it rather sounds as though he has made up his mind about what he means by proper ethical values and then looked at the biblical text to find support for them. It's a bit fuzzy about the actual content of the bible.

Now don't get me wrong. I am delighted that our Prime Minister took the opportunity to articulate what he personally finds relevant in the Christian tradition.  And perhaps especially delighted that he acknowledged a place for faith perspectives in public debate and in the ordering of the life of our country. But I think his speech showed him falling into the same trap that so many people who say 'we should get back to Christian morals' fall into. 

You can't have Christianity or a biblically shaped view of morality without the content, the commitment and the disciplines of the tradition. I would go so far as to say that I think religion can be quite damaging when we just pick the bits from tradition or scripture that support the beliefs we have anyway or would like to have. Because then we are taking fallible human wisdom and calling it the wisdom of God, investing it with a power that it has no business to have... and we all know where that can get us. People of all faiths know this. Secularists and religious dabblers usually overlook it. 

The hard fact is that the secular agenda has now taken the people of Britain so far from any serious engagement with the Christian tradition that most people really do not know what the content of the Christain faith is or what moral demands and disciplines the scriptures make. And of course these are very complex, can be apparently internally contradictory and are open to diverse interpretations. Perhaps most seriously, many people entirely miss the fact that at the heart of Christianity is a profound relationship with God, not a set of moral imperatives. The moral codes of religion that politicians so much like to talk about really don't work and can become ugly tools unless they arise out of a relationship grounded in worship and a sense of awe about who God is.

Perhaps I can put it like this - you wouldn't join a political party or a sporting or artisitc movement unless you were going to find out what the underlying principles and activites were and practice them until you were familiar with them! At least, if you did , you would probably acknowledge that your membership would not have very much meaning. So-called Christian morality only gives value in society when it is practised in a disciplined way by people of faith. We can  no more wake up one morning and decide to put society right by adopting some parts of 5,000 year old scriptures (written in languages and for a culture that we do not readily understand) than we can put society right by becoming Marxists or Keynesians and not reading Marx or Keynes. Christian morality comes of a steady, profound, lifelong engagement with all that the Christian tradition has to show and teach. It demands willingness to worship and pray, to wrestle with doubt and complexity and to be continually changed by what is grasped. So, while I partially welcome the Prime Minster's speech, I do so with some reservations. If Christianity is going to have an impact on future society in the way he suggests, two things are needed. Firstly, people who are willing to engage with the content of Christian faith rather than simply to use the Christian faith to justify the way we live anyway. (And this takes time and real commitment and immersion in the tradition.) And secondly, a relationship between people of faith and secular society that fosters two-way respect. People of faith must show that they can be trusted, that they try to live according to their beliefs especially concerning love, care for neighbour and forgiveness, and that they have the welfare of those who do not share their faith at heart. Secularists should have a care not to cariacature people of faith but to discover where they have values and ways of working in common with those who live by belief in God and transcendence.    

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