The Church is wiser than our secular society

A BibleOne of the articles that seems to have been doing the rounds on Twitter lately is “Our secular society is wiser than the Church” by Oliver Kamm (most recently I saw it tweeted by my friend @pandammonium). I often read articles online without responding to them, but sometimes one annoys me sufficiently that I feel the need to write something about it here.

The article itself is pretty short, it won’t take a minute of your time to read, but the argument is basically that the church always lags behind societal attitudes. Frankly I find the thinking in the article so muddled I don’t quite know where to begin, but I’ll quote a few sentences and try to explain:

Gay marriage will become established and there will come a time when few of its current opponents (including Archbishop Welby) will be exercised by the issue.

This is unbelievably patronising. Kamm is basically saying, “There, there, dear – your petty and ridiculous objections to same-sex marriage will be forgotten in a few years when you’ve finally caught up with society – and you will.” In other words, “you’ll come round, just give it time”. It doesn’t deal with any of the objections to same-sex marriage (hereafter known as SSM); it just assumes that SSM is correct and that any objectors are purely irrational hatemongers who will come round.

Note that the article simply assumes that the only reason you would object to SSM was for religious reasons. It’s not possible to have a secular objection to SSM – like the ones I outlined here and here, or the case made elsewhere from a liberal secular perspective. You’re either secular and reasonable, or religious and a narrow-minded bigot.

The same was true of civil partnerships and of decriminalising homosexuality. It was also true of legislation in 1882 to enable married women to own property independently — a reform that the purported defenders of marriage likewise denounced as contrary to the natural order.

Actually, I believe that Michael Ramsey (former Archbishop of Canterbury) supported the decriminalisation of homosexuality (believing there to be a difference between a ‘sin’, in the language of the church, and a crime). I’d be interested to know exactly who was speaking out against women’s property rights in 1882 and what their arguments were (and whether they could be said to speak for ‘the church’). Without any details, these sentences are simply assertion without evidence, of questionable relevance to the matter at hand.

Consider Archbishop Welby’s predecessors. William Temple was influential in debates over the post-war welfare state. But his predecessor, Cosmo Lang, supported the disastrous foreign policies of Neville Chamberlain. Michael Ramsey forcefully opposed racism. But his predecessor, Geoffrey Fisher, foolishly remarked — in Africa — that “all men are not equal in the sight of God though they are equal in the love of God”. Rowan Williams bizarrely declared that adoption of Sharia in some parts of Britain was unavoidable.

I don’t see how Cosmo Lang supporting the foreign policies of Neville Chamberlain advances the case that the church lags behind society. Neville Chamberlain was a politician – he was a member of the ‘secular society’ Kamm is holding up as a good thing. In fact, I’d say that this was evidence that (a) the church sometimes does follow secular society and that (b) this isn’t always desirable! It seems to me to be making the very opposite point to the one Kamm is making.

I can’t find a source for that quote from Geoffrey Fisher [a Google search currently turns up only this article and one other], but for the sake of argument let’s say that it was in fact true and meant to be understood in the way it comes across. It was indeed a foolish thing to say – but I’m sure there were other secular leaders who said the same kind of thing at that time. In fact, if our current society was highly racist and discriminatory towards ethnic minorities – would the church be right to follow it? Hold that thought, I’ll come back to it.

As for Rowan Williams: like Geoffrey Fisher, I think he was making a personal comment rather than outlining church policy. And, of course, Williams’ comments were somewhat taken out of context by the media (not that I’m saying I agree with him, but I remember at the time the media making a big deal about a couple of sentences in a long interview while ignoring the rest of the context).

Kamm finishes:

The Church eventually acclimatises itself to intellectual discoveries, such as Darwinism, or the expansion of liberty, such as opening civic and military office to non-Anglicans in the 19th century.

Ah, Darwinism, that old chestnut. Apparently there were a fair number of clergymen who were actually supportive of Darwin when he first published On the Origin of Species. The Creationism movement as we know it didn’t really get going until mid-20th century. As for the repeal of the Test and Corporation acts (1828 – sorry, I studied this recently) – that is due to the fact that in the UK the church and state were/are bound up. The move was more political than it was religious (as was the original Act of Uniformity). It was politically expedient to have everyone worshiping at the same national church for a while; then circumstances changed. I’m sorry, but you can’t blame that one on the church ‘lagging behind’ a secular country!

Kamm closes by saying:

Science and liberalism are critical, whereas religion aims to uncover the true meaning of sacred texts and revelations.

Again, I’m not sure how this is relevant to anything. Secularism is not necessarily scientific. ‘Critical’ doesn’t really tell us anything (and, of course, as those liberal secular articles about SSM I linked to above point out, our secular society has been anything but critical about SSM).

This sentence is another assertion, it doesn’t argue anything – just begs the question by assuming that being ‘critical’ is right whereas ‘uncovering the true meaning of a sacred text’ is wrong. Without details it’s virtually meaningless.

Let’s take a step back and review. One reason all of this – Kamm’s whole point  – gets to me is because it seems to be rewriting history. I’d like to focus on one example which this article doesn’t mention but which I studied recently: the history of the church in the second world war (given that this is history, I don’t think Godwin’s Law applies here…) One could say that the Nazi party were one of the great evils of the 20th Century. Society at large seemed to buy into them. Should the church have not ‘lagged behind’ in this instance and joined them? Well, in May 1934 the ‘confessing church‘ in Germany issued the Barmen Declaration, a statement to say that they would not support the Nazi-isation of the church.

So much was their resistance, that it caused Albert Einstein to say:

Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly.

So much for the church ‘lagging behind’ society.

As I’ve said all along, the problem boils down to one of epistemology: how we know what we know. How do we know what is right and wrong? How does a secular society know what is right? Or wrong, for that matter? Until we have that discussion as a society, I think it’s at best unhelpful to say “our secular society is wiser than the church”. Not least because the argument is circular (our secular society is wiser than the church because it approved SSM whereas the church did not. How do we know SSM is right? Because society approved it!)

All this talk of ‘wisdom’ and the church does make me think, all of this was predicted 2000 years ago:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:

‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (NIV)

The church will always appear ‘foolish’ to the world. I wonder what the church looked like in a first-century Roman context, a society which had many gods, where infanticide was common, where violence was normal. It probably looked pretty foolish then, too. In the meantime, all I can do is try the best I can to point out why I can’t agree with articles like Oliver Kamm’s.


3 responses to “The Church is wiser than our secular society”

  1. Christianity is all about tying yourself in knots in order to try and bring an argument around to a Christian perspective. Oh dear dear dear. There’s nothing quite like trying to convince those who disagree, that you must be right, and that is exactly what Christians excel at !

    1. Well, Christians can’t excel at it because no-one believes that Christians are actually right!

      If you can point out where I’ve tried to tie myself up in knots I can try to explain…

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