Magazine article The Spectator

Does Christianity Matter?

Magazine article The Spectator

Does Christianity Matter?

Article excerpt

The title doesn't mean that there are no Christians left in Britain, but that Britain can no longer be described as a Christian nation. Clearly there are still people, though admittedly a small and decreasing proportion, who go to church and accept the basic doctrines of Christianity. Equally clearly, a large proportion of people living in England, Scotland and Wales would say that they believe in God, though they could not state, and would not want to accept, the doctrines which define Christianity. The authority of the Bible as the expression (however oblique) of the will of God has been, if not exactly rejected, then allowed to lapse, along with the authority of most other things including the concept of authority itself.

Callum Brown does not really concern himself with the question of whether the decay of a Christian culture in Britain is good or bad. This, to me, lessens the interest and appeal of his book, which I would otherwise think more timely and important. It is very difficult, on the whole, to remember that the present is a period and that, in time, its own characteristics will be as clearly visible as those of any other. First-year undergraduates will talk, and often be encouraged to talk, about (say) the Enlightenment or Romanticism in ways which imply that the foibles of their respective eras were the more risible for being now so obvious. The corollary, however, is that, unless we believe the present is uniquely characterised by wisdom, our foibles will soon become equally apparent. If this is so, then perhaps it would be beneficial to try and recognise a few of them now.

One such foible, I would suggest, is the complacency with which the decline of Christianity is proclaimed. Influential public commentators, such as Richard Dawkins, will meet relatively little opposition if, for example, they oppose `Thought for the Day' on the grounds that it indoctrinates the public in a religion which is widely assumed (rather than believed) to have been discredited. Proponents of the natural sciences, knowing that scientific method receives a potent sanction from the materialism and rationalism of our own age, are perhaps too confident that their own, largely unconscious, attempts at indoctrination, will not be noticed.

For there are benefits, as well as disadvantages associated with a Christian culture and the balance between them is not so indubitably settled as to make the decline of Christianity an occasion for unequivocal rejoicing. Take, for example, a statement like `There, but for the grace of God, go I'. On the evidence of Brown's book and (I would expect of most readers' personal experience) this remark is far less widely current than it was 30 years ago. My own experience, as a professional student of literature, teaches me that style and sentiment are intimately related. The remark is no longer current, in part because the attitudes that sustained it aren't. So most people now do not believe themselves subject to the grace, any more than to the authority, of God. The idea (once a commonplace) that reality is not coterminous with the objects of sensory perception - i.e. that you don't necessarily get more reality by getting a stronger telescope - is now largely extinct. Even a phrase like Hamlet's `There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt on in your philosophy,' is now scarcely intelligible without an extreme effort of metaphysical re-orientation. …

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