July 6, 2015 Leave a comment
It is undeniable that we are suffering a failure of education, including education in our faiths, especially Christianity. This is evidenced not only by our lack of knowledge of our history of our society but also of our church history, and our churches’ teaching. A large proportion of our populations, even those that will admit to Christianity, claim to be spiritual but not religious. Nor is this new, it’s been going on in the US since the sixties, perhaps longer in the UK.
Professor John Charmley, writing in the Catholic Herald posits that:
Education in “spirituality”, while a useful corrective to a tendency towards utilitarianism verging on the Gradgrindian, does not fill the gap left by the ebb of faith in our society.
What Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism” is relativistic about everything except itself. It seeks to dissolve the organic fabric of established order and replace it with its own, appropriating Orwell’s insight that you cannot express things you do not have words for – which is why it tries so hard to change the language. A world in which a man can be a “mother” and priests can wonder whether the Holy Spirit is feminine, without asking what it then means to say that Our Lord was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, is one in which Christian anthropology has vanished from the public square.
The effects of this go wider than the Church. A state department or a Foreign Office full of political science graduates will tend to analyse things through certain lenses, which is why they will advise politicians to say of ISIS that it is not “Islamic”, and instead, use the language of terrorism and national security. This plays well to an agenda of not upsetting an abstraction called “Muslim opinion”, but is it true? We deal with terrorists, in part, by isolating their political demands and seeing what deal can be struck.
But if, as history suggests, ISIS shares many characteristics which inspired the initial Islamic conquests, its demands are not likely to be ones to which we can agree. If we do not understand this, and if we insist on a reductionist approach to religion, which sees it as an adjunct to secularist definitions of quality and inclusion, then, unable even to ask the right questions, we are unlikely to get close to the right answers.
True, isn’t it? How many times have we groaned in frustration when the State Department made some pronouncement about ISIS, that betrayed a lack of understanding, not only of ISIS but even Christianity, perhaps even American patriotism? It’s rather like sending the Chicago Bears to play cricket, about the only thing they have in common is that there is a contest and some sort of ball. They are not only not on the same page, they are not in the same library.
He comments here that our newspapers no longer have specialist religious reporters, which is true, but given the appalling job they do reporting anything these days, I’m not entirely sure that it’s a bad thing.
Does the Church have a part to play here? Blessed John Henry Newman wrote that “the Gospel requires the reception of definite and positive Articles” and the reverent acceptance of the “doctrinal Truths which have come down to us”. It is even more the fashion of our age than it was of his to ignore this wisdom in favour of a vague belief in personal spirituality; recovery of his ideal is essential both to good catechesis and a wider religious literacy. The idea of a received truth, which cannot be changed at the whim of fashion or a majority, is at the heart of the faith once received – and of other faiths too. As Newman wrote: “Faith is a state of mind, it is a particular mode of thinking and acting, which is exercised, always indeed towards God, in very various ways.” This non-reductionist way of thinking about faith is one way in which the Church could help fill the gaps in our public discourse.
Perhaps even more to our point, they might actually have some inkling of understanding what motivates people like ISIS, or Iran and Saudi Arabia, and what also de-motivates them. Realpolitik was, perhaps, a useful club for beating godless communists, who already understood that Marx and Lenin were false gods, and bringing them to heel. It is much less likely to work on people who actually do believe in their God, no matter how false we may believe them to be.
In truth, many of these people appear to have gone so far done this Gradgrindian road that they no longer even understand what Conservatives speak of when we talk of the meaning of the Constitution, or the effects of Manga Charta, all has become political, that is to say, in flux and subject to change at the drop of a poll number, with the change itself instantly disappearing into the ‘memory hole’. “We’ve always been at war with Oceania”. don’t you know?
None of this is to say that only people of faith can understand other religious people, but it is to suggest that they can bring to the study of such things a language, and an understanding, not readily available from an education system which studies the many epiphenomena of religion without understanding the phenomenon itself.
Professor John Charmley is head of the Interdisciplinary Institute at the University of East Anglia, Norwich
There is also a podcast that Professor Charmley did with the Catholic Herald, link below, which extends his points very well. I know some of my readers find the British somewhat hard to understand but, I think you’ll find him to be quite easy to comprehend.