Patrick Mitchel: Reflections on Evangelicals in Post-Christendom Ireland

On Saturday 4 November, Evangelical Alliance Ireland’s 2017 National Forum will focus on ‘Faith That Transforms Communities’.  You can view the Forum programme here: EAI 2017 National Forum Programme and can find more information, discover discounts, buy tickets, get a map for the venue etc. here: EAI Forum Eventbrite Page

In preparation for the National Forum, we asked several thinkers to contribute articles that help us see the big picture against which all our ministry activities are taking place. Today’s article, from Patrick Mitchel, reflects on how Evangelical Christians can bear faithful and effective witness to Christ in a post-Christendom context.

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REFLECTION 1: OUR POST-CHRISTENDOM CONTEXT

These notes are reflections and questions for Christians living in an increasingly post- Christendom Ireland.

By ‘post-Christendom’ I mean that the socio-political consensus that placed Christianity at the controlling centre of social, political, and religious affairs, is fast evaporating. Contemporary Ireland, as with most of Western Europe, is moving from a Christendom mode to a post-Christendom mode.

Christians in Ireland cannot avoid having to do business with the baleful legacy of Christendom ‘Irish style’. Such has been the horror associated with a church exercising freely given and virtually unlimited, religious, social and political power, that many people in modern Ireland are convinced that ‘religion is bad for you’ and are determined to construct a society free from its negative influence

There is a strong hermeneutic of suspicion’ regarding religion in Ireland today. As one author puts it, religion and theology are ‘viewed as a trivial, if not malign, influence in political life and are largely ignored in political deliberation.’ That’s an astonishing reversal from the days of ‘Catholic Ireland’.

So the shaping assumptions of a post-Christendom liberal secular democracy include a commitment to values which are optimistically understood as providing a path towards a healthier, fairer and more advanced society than that of the religious past. They include:

– Pluralism: where the reality of the plurality of cultures, religions, and beliefs within modern societies makes it a necessity for the state to accommodate all and privilege none. Political liberalism seeks to achieve this by making the state ‘neutral’ in terms of religious preference and therefore, in effect, intentionally non-religious.

– Tolerance: where all beliefs and behaviours within the law should be tolerated.

– Individual choice and human rights: Of critical importance here is the liberal belief that human freedom of choice is an ultimate right. Since individual choice is ‘a good thing’, the more individual freedom any society has, the better or freer or more advanced that society will become.

– Increasing separation of church and state: in the sense of dismantling the legacy of Christendom where churches had central and controlling positions

– Equality: where by law citizens must all be treated equally regardless of their beliefs or lifestyles.

So, if this is a reasonably fair description of affairs, some questions:

What expectations and ambitions should Christians have in terms of influence and impact within a post-Christendom culture? As a local church?

 

REFLECTION 2: CULTURAL ENGAGEMENT

Some Christians seem to assume their job is simply to assert Christian truth and (somehow) expect society to order itself to Christian principles and all will be well. This is what Oliver O’Donovan calls (in the quote below) ‘abstract idealism’.

Other Christians appear afraid of speaking with a distinctly Christian perspective. What other voice does the church have but to witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ the living Lord? This failure of nerve leads to what O’Donovan calls ‘colourless assimilation.’

“The church will frame its political witness with authenticity, avoiding the characteristic evils of abstract idealism and colourless assimilation, when it stands self-consciously before that horizon and confesses that it looks for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” (Desire of the Nations, 288)

So the question at the heart of any cultural engagement is how to be ‘in the world but not of it’. Or how to live out the tension between O’Donovan’s ‘colourless assimilation’ and ‘abstract idealism’.

Similarly, John Stackhouse, in his Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World, talks about ‘cultural transformers‘ versus those advocating a form of ‘holy distinctness’ .

The ‘cultural transformers’ tend to have a ‘take it over’ approach. In other words, it is the pursuit of the goal of shaping society according to Christian values. Generally, more established Christian denominations have had this approach.

An opposite stance to cultural transformation is what John Stackhouse labels as ‘refuse all entanglements’. It leads to a vision of ‘holy distinctness’, of a definite Christian community living in contradistinction to the rest of society. Think some forms of Pentecostalism and older Anabaptist communities like the Mennonites, Hutterites and Amish. The Anabaptist tradition finds its most eloquent voices in the writings of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas.

‘Holy distinctness’ thinkers criticise cultural transformers as pursuing a vision that is both unrealistic and undesirable.

It is unrealistic in that the cultural tide that swept the church into power and created over a millennium of Christendom culture in the West is fast receding. If Christians imagine that it can be stopped or reversed, they will be disappointed.

It is undesirable in that, while it is certainly a gross simplification to say that everything to do with Christendom since Constantine was a disaster, untold damage has been done to the authenticity of the church’s witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ by boundaries between church and state becoming blurred. Just look at the contemporary legacy of Catholic Ireland for an example.

What is your goal and dream for your area? What is your church’s attitude or ‘posture’ to Irish culture? To your local town or city?

 

REFLECTION 3: Five realities of life and witness in a post- Christendom Ireland

I’m suggesting that Christians need to engage with at least 5 political, cultural and spiritual realities as they engage with Irish culture. Here’s the first:

1.Realism about the ambiguity of faithful Christian discipleship in a post-Christendom culture

A challenge for Christians is how to deal realistically and faithfully with the ambiguity of life in a plural democracy. In The Bible in Politics, Richard Bauckham makes the following interesting observation

“… we need to recognize that the political material in the Bible consists largely of stories about and instructions addressed to political societies very different from our own … The adaptations needed to transfer biblical teaching on personal morality from its cultural situation to ours are comparatively easily made, but a more imaginative and creative hermeneutic is necessary for the Bible to speak to modern political life.’

An authentic theological engagement must have a dual nature as it negotiates the tension between an eschatologically orientated faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and a simultaneous active commitment, shaped by kingdom of God values, to working for the wellbeing and renewal of contemporary culture. In other words, walking between what O’Donovan called ‘abstract idealism’ and ‘colourless assimilation’.

2. Realism about the implications of Jesus’ command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’

Jesus’ commanded his followers to ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’ and to love those that do not love in return (Luke 6:31-32). Yet, there is often little or no discussion of what it means in practice to love the ‘Other’ in many Christian responses to life within a plural democracy despite its absolutely central place in biblical ethics (Lev.19:18; Matt.19:19, 22:39; Mark 12:31-33; Luke 10:27; Rom.13:9; Gal. 5:14; Jas 2:8).

This is an important and complex question, but one that needs to be thought through and seriously engaged with by those who are following Jesus. Neighbour love isn’t an optional extra of less importance to ‘defending the truth’ or arguing for your own rights.

The whole point of Jesus’ parable in Luke 10:25-37 is that neighbour love is costly, radical and shocking since it is generously offers grace across deep gulfs of hatred, suspicion and alienation. ‘Neighbour love’ does not pretend profound differences do not exist but rather, in the face of such difference, says ‘I love you as I would wish to be loved’ or ‘The rights we desire for ourselves, we are glad to affirm for others.’

Christian love is not self-centred, fearful or defensive. Rather, since love is relational, it should also involve a sacrificial commitment to meet, talk with and listen to the ‘Other’.

Since love is not equivalent to mere toleration or unthinking acceptance, how it is expressed in different contexts will require significant wisdom and discernment.

What constitutes ‘neighbour love’ towards others who hold opposing political and ethical views to your own? How as a local church can you ‘love your neighbours’ – especially those radically different to you?

3. A realistically positive attitude to pluralism

Christians, I suggest, should not only be willing to live with difference but should actively support the construction of a plural society where difference is tolerated. Baptist theologian Steve Holmes writes

‘we have demanded too often that the law be brought into accord with our moral intuitions, without exception or reserve. Evangelicals have probably been worse at this than most.’ Yet, he continues, ‘The intuition … that it is the moral duty of government to maintain a studied neutrality on certain matters, and to offer space and protection for its people to live in the way that they might choose, is a natively evangelical one.’

Christians cannot construct the ‘New Jerusalem’ here on earth by law or coercion. There are biblical sins that it is not realistic or desirable to treat as crimes. For example homosexuality, heterosexual adultery; greed, anger, selfishness and so on should not be legislated against in the courts.

As Christians seek their own religious freedom within a plural democracy, they need to realise that tolerance works both ways: the ‘rights’ we seek for ourselves we should also seek for others.

Christians’ defence of religious liberty should not be narrowly self-centered and self- interested. Rather it should defend the right of others to use God-given freedom to make choices about spiritual matters, even when this leads to actions antithetical to the gospel. This form of tolerance is a civic virtue. Irish Christians should welcome some aspects of pluralism.

However, let me be clear that this does not mean Christians simply embrace relativism or endorse beliefs contrary to their conscience. Living with difference within a fallen sinful world is quite distinct from affirming that difference. Contemporary debates about sex and gender in society and within the church take us right into the heart of this tension.

What does it look like for your church to be seeking not only our own rights and freedoms, but the rights and freedoms of others in a plural democracy?

4. Realism about Ireland’s Christendom past: the need for humility and a listening ear

As Christians in Ireland, we need to be realistic about the baleful legacy of Ireland’s recent past as well as political liberalism’s associated fear of privileging any one voice (especially a religious one) in the public square.

In such a context there is a need for humility, listening and dialogue by Christians, given Christianity’s negative associations with self-interest and power in Ireland.

As Christianity moves to the margins of Irish public life, evangelical Christians cannot assume that their views will be either heard or understood, especially given their status as a tiny minority of under 1% of the population.

This raises questions for Christians in terms of how and where they are engaged in building relationships with government, politicians and with individuals and organisations across the spectrum of modern Irish society.

On this point John Stackhouse proposes,

… we should use what influence we have left to help construct the sort of society in which we ourselves would like to live once our power to effect it has disappeared … How unseemly it is for Christians to fight in the courts and legislatures for what remains of the dubious honors and advantages of Christendom. There is no more prudent time to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

How can your local church ‘do to others as you would have them do unto you’? How can we be taking steps to build relationships and listen to voices and groups for whom Christianity is irrelevant or malign?

5. Realism about the need to defend and argue for religious liberty

Christian Realism should, by definition, not equal naivety. Certainly post-Christendom will be significantly (and probably increasingly) less ‘hospitable’ to Christianity than Christendom. It is perfectly possible that an absolutist secularism will progressively encroach on religious freedom. Christian Realists will be aware of the spiritual ‘powers’ behind fallen human systems of thought and action.

Christians should be forthright defenders of religious liberty since deep in the heart of the biblical narrative is the pursuit of justice for the oppressed and the marginalised. Christians can make the case that agreeing boundaries to human behaviour leads to freedom, not oppression. For in a plural democracy not everyone can ‘win’ and it is destructive if one group does so.

A realistic Christian response will therefore have a healthy distrust of the human propensity to seek control and impose one’s values on others. Christians should resist a ‘hard secularism’ that criminalises, marginalizes, denigrates or dismisses religious views as illegitimate and results in legal actions like suing people in court for holding Christian views or forcing Christians to retreat from religiously motivated service in the public square – especially if it threatens the rights and dignity of the weak, vulnerable and powerless by the assertion of competing ‘rights’ by the powerful.

One way of resisting is by coherent persistent articulation of the need for a truly inclusive pluralism and exposing the inherent flaws in an ‘illiberal liberalism’ that leads to the oxymoron of an enforced mono-pluralism.

What are the trends in Irish secular democracy that threaten religious freedom? When and how should local churches and organisations like EAI be speaking out to defend religious liberty and give a voice to those on the margins?

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Dr Patrick Mitchel
Senior Lecturer in Theology
Irish Bible Institute
http://www.ibi.ie http://www.faithinireland.wordpress.com

patrick@ibi.ie

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