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Why bother with theology?

30 November, 1999

Alex Wright, Director of SCM Press, calls for theologians and churches to dialogue seriously with contemporary culture in a world where religion and faith are becoming ever more marginal.

128 pp. To purchase this book online go to www.darton-longman-todd.co.uk



  1. Outlining the Problem
  2. Postmodernity
  3. Alternative Spiritualities and Theologies
  4. Towards a Secular Theology
  5. Resources for a Secular Theology (1): Fiction
  6. Resources for a Secular Theology (2): Film
  7. Why Bother with Theology?




Theologians sometimes speak about our culture of post-modernity as the culture of death, or one in which it is not so surprising that such a designation should be made, given the gulf between our fallen world and that of the redeemed world to come when Christ returns to rule in glory. But dogma aside for a moment, it is worth asking how the culture of this nation could change so quickly and decisively from one where, in the 1950s, ‘religion mattered and mattered deeply in British society as a whole’ (Brown, The Death of Christian Britain, p. 7) to one where we are approaching meltdown, and the established churches are perched on the edge of the ravine. The same commentator conceives of Britain as a highly religious nation up until at least 1963, after which tried and tested infrastructures, both cultural and institutional, began to disintegrate. The consequences are now apocalyptic:

In the year 2000 less than 8 per cent of people attend Sunday worship in any week, less than a quarter are members of any church, and fewer than a tenth of children attend a Sunday school. Fewer than half of couples get married in church, and about a third of couples cohabit without marriage. In England only a fifth of babies get baptised in the Church of England, and in Scotland one estimate is that about a fifth are baptised in either the Church of Scotland or the Roman Catholic Church. By some calculations, as few as 3 per cent of people regularly attend church in some counties of England, and in most the non-churchgoers represent over 90 per cent of the population. If church participation is falling, all the figures for Christian affiliation are at their lowest point in recorded history. Christian church membership accounts for less than 12 per cent of the people and is falling. There is now a severe crisis of Christian associational activity: religious voluntary organisations, which formerly mushroomed around congregations and independent missions, account for a minuscule fraction of recreational activities. Most critical is the emerging evidence of the decay of Christian belief. Though 74 per cent of people express a belief in the existence of some kind of God or ‘higher power’, 50 per cent or fewer subscribe to the existence of sin, the soul, heaven, hell or life after death while the numbers having specific faith in Jesus Christ as the risen Lord are considered so statistically insignificant that opinion pollsters do not even ask the question. (Brown, p. 4)

Indicative of erosion and secularisation in this picture are some well-known cultural moments: Penguin Books’ trial over publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1967); the legalisation of abortion (1967); the capacity to obtain easier divorce; the emergence of women’s lib from 1968 onwards; the rise of youth culture, especially articulated through pop music (particularly following the impact of the Beatles in 1962); and student revolt, especially from 1968 through the early seventies. Public concerns have undergone a sea-change since the 1960s, during which time ethical issues such as care for the environment, feminism, nuclear weapons and power, holistic well-being and vegetarianism have dominated moral culture in such a way that Christianity is seen to be wholly unrelated to them. At the same time, ‘the social implications of conventional religious culture – respectability, sobriety, observance of social convention, observance of the Sabbath – have been rejected en bloc. Even where a moral goal appears to have survived (as with sobriety, especially in relation to driving), this has been remoralised in discourse in a form completely divorced from religiosity and Christian ethics’ (Brown, p. 190). The really decisive factor in the demise of British Christianity, for Callum Brown, is that for young women and girls there is no longer any moral identity or femininity to be affirmed at church, and it is women, not men, who from 1800 have constituted the gender majority there. The result is a search for personal faith in the alternative directions, attractive to significant numbers of women, of consumerism, New Age philosophy, and personal development. Although such a facet of church decline is under-explored by Brown, the ubiquity in women’s magazines of the myriad concerns that could be broadly designated ‘holistic’, as well as the determination with which self-help and self-development issues are promoted in particular to women, are factors which appear to bolster his claim.

This predominantly socio-historical and sociological account, informed also by some gender theory, paints a lurid portrait of Christian culture in its death throes at the end of the last century, which will be all too recognisable to those prepared to acknowledge that this culture, in its current form, has had its day. However, one of the major deficiencies of Brown’s otherwise useful and hard-hitting analysis is that he fails to give enough attention to quite to what degree the churches (and those other harbingers of the Christian message) have been instruments of their own demise. It is not just that they have been overwhelmed by eventualities, social and cultural currents, and other demographic setbacks altogether outside of their own control. Clearly the imperative towards secularisation and consequent loss of authority has been a difficult one to counter; but there have been other factors which have been well within their own spheres of responsibility, and which have indicated in the clearest possible manner that – excepting some pockets of enlightenment – they have not been adequate or responsible custodians of the message that they profess to bear. It should be emphasised that decline is certainly not the case in every religious context. Whichever religion we profess, our landscape is an all-encompassing secular one, yet 63 per cent of those who align themselves with non-Christian religions say that they actively practise their faith, compared with a minimalist 23 per cent of those who identify themselves as practising Anglicans (Yates, Britain Uncovered).

Christianity speaks of the availability of salvation for all humankind if this fallen humanity stakes its hopes on the salvific actions of God’s messenger and Son, Jesus the Christ (‘this is the work of God, that you believe in him who he has sent’ – John 6:29), who came into the world in order to change the malignant imperative of the created order by way of his death by crucifixion, subsequent resurrection, and ascension into heaven. These events are life-changing to the degree that those who accept the risen Christ as Lord, and repent truly of their sins, are promised a place at the right hand of the Father upon death. Furthermore, the Book of Revelation indicates a time when those who still inhabit the earth will see the return of Christ in glory, when all tears will be wiped away, and universal justice and peace will prevail on a planet whose redemption will at last materialise. The wicked will be judged; the repentant will join the angels in heaven; all will be reconciled, for better or worse, into God. In the meantime, the beneficent activities of the Holy Spirit help sustain the community of believers, in all its aspects, until the End.

Such a message, the bare bones of all the vast corpus of doctrine that makes up the repository of the Church’s teaching, preaching and reflection, is so extraordinary and transformational a story, that it is hard to understand how it could be rendered inaudible by the trammels of secular life – if, that is, it is actually true. But it seems this is where we now stand, in the secular West, and particularly in Christian-less Britain, the acme of agnosticism or self-absorbed interiority. We are in a place where the predominant noises to be heard are those of mobile phones warbling in shopping arcades, where everybody talks but few listen; and where people strive for a feeling of connectedness to something bigger and more significant than themselves, and yet are left unsatisfied by a regiment of Nokia dialling tones. Grace Davie, who regards religion in Europe as a form of collective memory (and sees modern Europeans as amnesiacs, or those who are no longer capable of maintaining the memories that used to underlie their religious existence), notes that ‘A marked falling-off in religious attendance … has not yet resulted in a parallel abdication of religious belief’ (Religion in Modern Europe, p. 8). Likewise, I would suggest forcefully that people are as interested in religious and theological issues as they ever were, but that their needs and anxieties have been neglected woefully by a Church that has lost touch with how to communicate what is most important to us, and what is most crucial to it. And that missing component is a workable and credible narrative for life.

The Bible contains a story which is supposed to be the bedrock of all our individual stories: a story of sacrifice, betrayal, death and hope for redemption – ground zero for the whole human condition. It offers a paradigm not only for how to live our lives in dignity and truth (especially the letters of Paul and the Sermon on the Mount), but also of how to prepare ourselves for death, viewed not as any kind of definitive state but merely as a stage of transition from one mode of being to another. The New Testament has been the single most important handbook in the process of constructing the social, cultural and historical infrastructure of this country. The majority of our social and cultural mores, as well as many of our institutions, laws, architecture, and civic processes are directly attributable to what the Church has propounded on the basis of that text. It is hard to accept that in the space of thirty to forty years, because the impulses behind secularisation have supposedly reached a critical mass, and a trickle has turned into a flash flood, all of this masonry, the fabric of our civilisation, has crumbled and floated away downstream – a process as sudden as it is irrevocable. Certainly those points of meaningful connection between Church and society have to my mind been lost, but I would not propose therefore that the traditional foci of theological and religious reflection have disappeared also. It is rather a question of reconnecting Church –understood as the community of God – to civic life, in such a manner as to re-energise the reciprocal processes that undergird the foundations of our society.

How then has the battery gone flat? In the first place, church leaders have failed to respond in intelligible, sensitive language to the suspicions, fears and cynicisms of a generation that has learned how to question established givens and, indeed, the veracity and authority of the Establishment itself. The story of the dying and rising God made plenty of sense in the context of the first-century ancient Near East, with its immersion in the agrarian rites of the seasons, its familiarity with the cultic stories of bounty, sowing and reaping, and its resonance with the sacrificial deity who through self-immolation makes good the harvest. Such language has continued to resonate through history, especially in rural societies, though even so eventually convinced a Christian as the converted C. S. Lewis could lament that Norse mythology and pagan stories initially did so much more for him than study of the Bible (see Carpenter, The Inklings, p. 7). The particularities of culture, and the difficulties of mediating the truths of one age to another, when the contexts and points of reference have changed, even those which are supposedly universal truths, are not confined just to our own time.

Alain de Botton in his book The Consolations of Philosophy draws attention to just this point: ‘Every society has notions of what one should believe and how one should behave in order to avoid suspicion and unpopularity … If common sense is cordoned off from questions, it is because its judgements are deemed plainly too sensible to be the objects of scrutiny’ (p. 9). Thus, contemporaries of Socrates ‘would have been confounded and angered to be asked exactly why they sacrificed cocks to Asclepius or why men needed to kill to be virtuous. It would have appeared as obtuse as wondering why spring followed winter or why ice was cold’ (p. 13). The difference between ancient Athens and our own society is that in ours there is a clear sense of disjuncture between what an older generation thinks about tradition and religion and what is considered normative by the young. The whole of Athens was shocked at the desecration of the herms (or sacred civic idols), prior to its fleet’s departure for the invasion of Sicily. But I would suggest that to be seen reading a Bible today on a train or bus, if you are under thirty, or even forty, is the equivalent of cultural death. Conversely, Church censure of club and drug culture is as intellectually incomprehensible to most of Britain’s youth as is the proclamation that God died for our sins on a cross two thousand years ago. Within society there is no longer any real sense of homogeneity, of shared values, of goals, or even of identity. Cultural commentators Miranda Sawyer and Nik Cohn have both written entertaining and spirited books recently about this acute sense of dislocation and diversification in contemporary Britain, and it is by no means clear, from the stories and anecdotes related in Park and Ride and Yes We Have No, whether one can in any way generalise about the state of the nation, such is its plurality, fragmentedness and overwhelming confusion. ‘Is this a nation, a way of life, saying farewell to itself?’ asks Cohn:

The brief answer was Yes. The old England was indeed dead or dying. Stability was gone; so was the sense of certainty. Despite the bromides of Tony Blair and his Cool Britannia cheerleaders, this was now a land full of trouble, violent and dispossessed, in some places close to anarchy … And against all that, there was what? Passion, energy, humour, rage. (p. xv)

Sawyer, meanwhile, writing with sharp wit and attractive self-deprecation about the essentially disintegrating boundaries between the urban and suburban, observes that:

I didn’t move to suburbia because, in the end, I didn’t need to. Suburbia had moved to me. I had left but it had followed. I couldn’t escape, even when I wore stupid clothes or listened to strange music, even when I hid. Run to Manchester, or London, hole up in city drinking holes, scum-soaked gutters, Soho-boho-hooligan art quarters; hunker down with the glamorous, the intellectual, the scary, the disenfranchised, the dangerous, the iconoclastic and still you’ll find you’re there. Because the only way that cities can compete with suburbia nowadays is to turn themselves into the same experience. Pedestrianise, cobble over, clean up, sanitise; provide decent toilets and crested litter bins and vast, safe parking areas. (p. 307)

Just because is difficult to convey universal truths or instructive insights from one context or generation to another, or to speak meaningfully in an age where social and cultural fragmentation abounds, does not necessarily make the task less vital. And it is the prevalent conservatism of much of church life —jarring uncomfortably and anachronistically with an observation made elsewhere by Miranda Sawyer that ‘we are all more complex, more tricky and wayward and human than any classification could ever reveal’ (‘Don’t Fence Us In’, Britain Uncovered) — that makes its attempts at communication so ineffectual and so sporadic. Partly this is a problem about language: the Church’s vocabulary is hopelessly out of phase with that of the people and lives to which its message is directed. It fails to see that its conceptuality needs to cohere with what people are realistically likely to be able to understand in an age of multiple distraction and contextual dissonance. Above all, its liturgical practices seem both uninviting and impenetrable. But there is a deeper problem, beyond individual words or rites. There is a fundamental lack of strategic imagination about how to communicate effectively with those who are still concerned with exactly the fundamentals that preoccupied Jesus. Yet, since these are human fundamentals, such as meaning and identity, corruption, hypocrisy, guilt and forgiveness, they preoccupy us all.

Even an initiative judged relatively successful, such as the Alpha Course (which, run out of Holy Trinity Church in Brompton, has for the last decade articulated a popular, evangelical vision of Christianity), tends to gloss over cultural, class and social differentiation in its attempt to provide what some have described as a kind of evangelical McDonalds. While Alpha’s appeal to the contemporary is in one sense admirable, it has relatively little awareness of what the contemporary might mean outside of middle England. Founded and run by those in high society, and lacking — as so much evangelical theology tends to — a clear socio-political agenda, Alpha, in the words of Stephen Hunt, ‘appears merely to add to the middle-class cohorts of the charismatic movement’ (Anyone for Alpha?, p. 116). A more disparaging view is that this is Christianity for yuppies. Its tendency to dumb things down, furthermore, ‘means that the Alpha programme sets and answers its own questions. It over-simplifies sophisticated critiques of Christianity and then destroys them. It allows little discussion of the complex issues. It is, then, in its own way, hermetically foolproof’ (Hunt, p. 112). Alpha, in other words, sets out to answer the questions before it asks them, and then give the answers to those who are predominantly affluent and already well educated. The result is that, despite the attention it has received, it ‘probably is not winning a substantial number of new converts’ (p. 113). I would propose that fundamentally a lack of genuine empathy, understanding or moral courage characterises much of what goes in the Church of England. There is a bunker mentality which gets in the way of connecting sensitively or with integrity with the affairs of people at large, especially those on the margins and young people. Concomitantly, these constituencies are not — or feel that they are not — taken seriously, even though young people naturally think that their cultural life is the most serious thing that there is.

My own experiences of many clergy in the Anglican Church is that they seem hopelessly out of touch with society out there, but appear to have no sense either that this is the case or, if they do — even worse — that this is a deficiency worth addressing. This detachment is especially noticeable in matters of business and sex. In matters of business (where certain standards of professionalism are elsewhere assumed as a given), amateurism and paternalism are frequently conspicuous, from one Christian-run institution to another. As a result of serious miscalculations, the Church is now in deep trouble with its pensions policy. It may have to sell off up to half its assets to pay clergy pensions, having already seen £800 million wiped off the value of its investments following its Commissioners’ disastrous property speculations in the 1980s. As for matters of sexuality, either pious generalisations or a reluctance to engage at any meaningful level with individual people’s real situations are the prevalent disposition. Even worse than detachment is hypocrisy. The sexual scandals which have rocked the Church establishment in recent years, especially the Roman Catholic Church in Britain, have hardly helped to bolster its credentials for sensitive and humane engagement with the sorts of problems that characterise day-to-day life in the world. On top of this is the institutional prejudice that ostracised and discriminated against women for generations (Anglican women still may not be installed as bishops, and Catholic women seem as far away from winning the right to be ordained to the priesthood as they have ever been), and that now discriminates against gay and lesbian people. The debates of the 1998 Lambeth Conference were regarded as a major setback to the cause of homosexual emancipation and equality in the Church, and their outcome was thematically foreshadowed by Antonia Bird’s striking and brave film Priest (1994). Even while arguably it packs a few too many social problems into its two fast-paced hours, the movie powerfully and movingly indicates just how retrograde, rigid and repressive ecclesiastical socio-sexual polity can be.

There is a sense that ecclesiastical Britain has lost touch with what it ought to be there for: to preach good news to the poor and maimed and blind and lame — in the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s parlance, ‘the wretched’. Or, as Cohn pungently describes them, ‘the jobless, the homeless, the fucked. The vast masses banged up in tower blocks and housing estates … Caribbeans and Irish, Africans and East Europeans, and their children, British-born, who were the new English … Born-agains, bikers, fetishists, faith healers, visionaries, squatters, druggies, lunatics, and street heroes’ (p. xv). The Church rarely seems to have a connection with its own constituencies, with the people beyond the cathedral close. It is more concerned with contemplating its own internal affairs, or with issuing opaque and vacuous statements about how ‘we live together in God’s creation’. The recent incapacity of the Anglican hierarchy to make a firm recommendation to voters in the 2001 general election was entirely consistent with its general outlook. There are of course some notable exceptions, such as Kenneth Leech, who is still able to ask ‘How am I to make creative sense of all this anger, despair and pain which surrounds me and all who work in the inner areas?’ (The Eye of the Storm, p. 129), but they seem disproportionately thin on the ground, and as Leech acknowledges himself, context — in his particular case, Aldgate, East London — is all.

Religious publishers often collude with this determinant church culture of conservatism, and it is marked how few publishers’ catalogues are concerned, in their publishing, with the concrete problems and debates of life as it is lived in the here and now. Theology, if it is worth anything at all, surely ought to be engaged with precisely these issues of contemporary secular life and thought: with sex; poverty; inequality; race; ethnic plurality and multiculturalism; gender; politics; economics; technology, and so on. But what tends to predominate in religious publishing (at least in the catalogues of most ‘confessional’ religious presses: by and large I exempt the secular presses, who are paradoxically — but not so surprisingly — rather less conservative, given their commitment to all sorts of academic endeavour) are books by churchpeople addressed, it seems, to churchpeople, bypassing the world outside the cloister. This introversion is paralleled by many of the specialist religious bookshops that stock this material. Especially in our smaller towns and cities, these appear to be stranded in a timewarp, exuding the musty atmosphere and censorious moral climate of the 1950s.

Few theologians are, any longer, pastorally or ecclesiastically influential, and their voices are too little heard outside the universities and secular institutions in which they are located. Often marginalised within their secular institutions, administratively overstretched, and too often under pressure to justify their own existence, they are likewise dislocated from the clergy who no longer read or have the capacity to empathise with what they are doing. The result is a disconnection between church life and the theological lifeblood that ought to be energising and Powering it. It has been observed that clerics who do not read theology are like doctors practising medicine without ever referring to the BMJ. The latter scenario is certainly alarming — at least it is to me — but in its ramifications perhaps the former is m its own way just as damaging. For most people Easter is mainly about chocolate eggs and a long weekend while Christmas is mostly about babies and presents; but what else? Ask the man or woman on the street in Dalston or Clapton to name it, and I wager you will be waiting some time. I suspect the stumbling block to its continued reception is that too much theology is perceived as being too dull or too obscure to be intelligible or interesting to those who are most in need of it: the practitioners at the sharp end in the parish — the deacons, vicars, and churchwardens; the youth leaders and convenors of Bible study groups; the ‘godfearers’ who yearn for something fulfilling and intellectually satisfying that goes beyond the merely platitudinous, or the tediously sentimental and breezily pious.

The vacuum that exists in meaningful contemporary theological discourse, in God-talk, is characterised by the attention that often has been afforded to those theologians who represent extremes in their positions, and by the corresponding decline in the influence of what is usually called liberal theology. On the one hand, anti-realist thinkers like Don Cupitt — formerly Dean of Emmanuel College in Cambridge — famously abandoned objective theism (in his case even while an ordained minister of the C. of E. — which added to the sense of outrage and opprobrium). Partly they perceived there to be too many inconsistencies in the realist acceptance of traditional Christian doctrines, but also they found that notions of divinity made sense only when understood as the equivalent of the human religious consciousness. That is, God is not above or around us, but in us: in fact, conceived collectively, he is us. Such a position, while certainly an ingenious response to the agnosticism and sense of ennui in much contemporary life, is hardly an adequate comeback to the very real religious and theological needs of people at large. Essentially a sort of sanitised Christian neoplatonism, arguably it offers little more than a psychological explanation for our religious impulses — or a cultural placebo for spiritual nourishment — and can therefore seem both experientially shallow and overly intellectual to its detractors. There is no doubt that it has provided a safe haven for many Christians who have found themselves disillusioned with what they regard as the incredible supernaturalism of much theology. Perhaps, however, the continuing attractions of the Sea of Faith Network (so-called after the book and TV series of that name written and presented by Cupitt) come down finally to the sympathetic appraisal offered recently by Richard Holloway: that it ‘celebrates ‘the diversity of the meanings we devise for ourselves in our search for understanding’ (‘Mixed Bathing in the Sea of Faith’, Time and Tide, p. 69).

On the other hand, the home-grown theological movement which in recent years has captured something of the same public interest as that of Cupitt and his followers is Radical Orthodoxy, whose main practitioners are Graham Ward, John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock. The term ‘radical’ suggests a progressiveness of outlook but in this sense it would be misleading. In the way it is used by the radical orthodox, the word refers to the radix, the root, of Christian doctrines and beliefs, with a view to the recovery of their fundamentals. These may thus be re-energised for church life in the midst of what is designated by them the ‘culture of death’, in other words the destructive culture of capitalism and postmodernity in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. This is, then, a quest for a pure, unpolluted form of Christianity. In its high-Church Anglicanism, its affinity with Catholicism, its reliance on a manifesto or a series of programmatic publications, and its reaction against what it sees as an overarching and negative cultural hegemony, it shares many affinities with prior religious or semi-religious groups like the Oxford Movement and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The supposedly heretical theories of the secular social sciences and the nihilistic theologies that have predominated in the post-medieval West are rejected. The radical orthodox — especially John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock, in their respective books Theology and Social Theory and After Writing — retrieve, from Augustine and Aquinas in particular, the resources which they see as necessary to conceptualise the true Church. This is a church that finds harmony and fulfilment in the Trinity, in worship, in music, and in liturgy. Above all, it is a church that utterly rejects the longterm validity of the secular context in which it temporarily resides (or with which it sits side by side): at the end of time, secular modernity will be seen as but a blip in God’s plan for humanity, where everything is taken up and reconciled to Christian doctrine. The problems inherent in this position are as follows. It can be accused of appealing only to an intellectual elite; of failing to comprehend the nature of reality; of being utopian and conservative; of writing off the secular world with panache but with little compassionate insight into the possible value of resources other than Christian ones; and of sublimating the here and now to a future time when all will be made whole, thereby single-handedly giving fresh legitimacy to the whole phenomenon of liberation theology.

To be fair, a number of the recent writings of Graham Ward — sometimes seen as being the most culturally literate and open-minded of the three — have pointed towards a much more nuanced and inclusive set of theological positions than the earliest statements of the movement seemed ready to countenance. In his book Cities of God, Ward writes that:

Christian theology cannot renounce the secular world on two counts. First, it cannot do so theologically: its teachings on creation and incarnation stand opposed to such Manichaeanism. Secondly, it cannot do so sociologically: Christians are part of the secular world, they work in it, with it, and buy the goods. They too are taken in by and foster the demands of the global market. Furthermore, the retreats to fundamentalism and neo-conservatism do not redeem the secular. They do not therefore bring healing, salvation, and the conviction of what is sinful and what is good. They just leave the secular to rot, retreating into privatised communities. (p. 69)

This is encouraging. Nevertheless, some of the inconsistencies in the movement’s programme have been taken to indicate that it may not hold together for much longer in the form in which it came into being. For the moment, however, it certainly remains the most vital and energetic grouping on the British theological scene, despite an apparent reluctance, at least from some of its members, to consider an earthly — as opposed to an other-worldly —church operating with legitimacy and freedom of movement within what is portrayed as an unredeemed, violent and manifestly unpleasant world. In the meantime, the lack of a publicly understood theology that engages clearly and unambiguously with the lives of real people is the most notable absence on the contemporary stage. Although there is a rich history of liberal theology in Britain, the theologians who have come to be seen as representative of that position are far less influential than they once were. Many find this development demoralising, given the determination of these individuals to embrace modernity, to face up to the challenges of natural science, biology and Darwin, empiricism, and the aggressive critiques of atheists such as Richard Dawkins, and to argue for the merits of Christianity on terms set by others. Their decline in some respects mirrors that of the old Liberal Party, squeezed between two opposing forces both adopting more vociferous and more polarised positions than themselves, in this case Cupitt and the out-and-out secularists on the doctrinal left-wing, and an (unholy) alliance of evangelicals and radical orthodox on the right-wing.

Certainly there are a few important theologians who adopt a sort of third way, between liberalism and radical orthodoxy. They wish to get to grips with contemporary culture, and to try to make sense of the Christian message in such a way as to point to viable ways forward for their work and discipline, but without jettisoning the value of much of secular discourse. I will be looking at the work of some of these theologians — I call them ‘cultural theologians’ — in a later chapter. But for the most part, theologians seem reluctant to acknowledge legitimacy and truth other than where it is found in biblical authority, canon law and Church doctrine. The consequences are that theology can often seem as out of touch as the social and sexual morality of church leaders. Those church officers are thus left without precisely the resources that they need in order to make sense of society today, With the still further ramification that nobody cares or in fact knows about what Christianity may have to contribute to the constructive ordering of our world. There is a domino effect whose knock-down leads to theological marginalisation at every stratum of existence. It is not just the onrushing tide of secularisation that is to blame for the decline of Christianity in this country. is also a phenomenon directly attributable to the absence of theological inspiration and leadership; to the disinclination to engage with a ‘postmodern’ culture that has become detached from traditional givens and accepted norms; to a continuing adherence to paternalism and patronage, where key appointments can be made on the basis of who knows who on which church committee, rather than on grounds of genuine ability; to embarrassment about sex and a reluctance to accept the disintegration of previously sanctioned modes of personal relationship; to different sorts of morality and differently understood codes of ethical practice.

The effect is that theology retreats either into pious platitudes which nobody other than conservative churchmen want to hear, or else into abstruse semantic hair-splitting, which only those possessing postgraduate degrees in a very dense and complex form of traditional systematic theology (taking its inspiration particularly from Karl Barth’s critique of modernity) will be likely to comprehend. What theology needs to do is to reconnect with both Church and world; then it will speak with a new authority and a demonstrable relevance. In order to do this, it must open its eyes to the condition of postmodernity and must in fact get to know it as a fellow traveller — not as an enemy or a usurper — from which it has much to learn along the way. Despite its contemplative side, theology traditionally has been a didactic discipline, preaching and lecturing to others. What it now needs to rediscover is the capacity to listen — the capacity for silence. Such a theology will be empathic and open-minded and respectful. It will recognise what it sees as being wholly legitimate repositories of wisdom, and that these are often as invigorating and rejuvenating as its own. Above all, it needs to take on board that, by itself, it does not have all the answers; a process of reciprocal exchange is necessary in order for Church and world to make sense to one another. Like Titus departing Gormenghast, theology needs to take its leave of its ancestral home and find another country; one that is just as strange, but far from cobwebbed and redundant, and full of enriching possibility.

In the end, it may be God’s will that Christianity is to die out in the secular West. If that is so, it takes nothing away from the power, wisdom and integrity of that will, or of its capacity to provide refreshing alternatives. Daniel Hardy has written of Christian faith as being by its nature ‘spread out, as something extended by its “spread-out-ness” ‘ (Finding the Church, p. 110).

This characteristic, what he calls ‘extensity’, embraces a living process of history, where divine wisdom comes to us in the course of time and through many different lives, as well as from the rainbow disciplines: from across the whole range of humanities and social sciences, rather than just ‘concentrations of Christian faith in Bible, Church, beliefs and certainties’ (ibid.). In later chapters I will explore in more detail how this ‘wisdom theology’ might look, and how the capacity for knowledge and articulation of God — what instead I call ‘secular theology’ —might be mediated to us. In the next chapter I will look more directly at our condition of postmodernity, how this has come about, and how it has affected the way we in Britain think or do not think about matters of transcendence and religiosity. I will examine some of the ways in which the culture of millennial capitalism threatens to consume us, and what the consequences, for good and ill, of rampant secular capitalism might be. In the third chapter I will show how British religious thinking, where it manifests itself explicitly, increasingly has broken free of established Church boundaries, and has relocated to resources provided by the New Age and that corpus of thinking and literature which has come to be designated ‘mind, body and spirit’. As we will see, there is in that thinking much that is inconsequential, in comparison to Christian doctrine. However, we will discover also how much there is in mind, body, spirit (MBS) literature which points to truths that are universal and that are indicative of an immense interest in spirituality and the inner life. Certainly there seems to be quite a bit more to this thinking than most Christian theologians have generally been prepared to admit.

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