Shaping debate on religion in public life.

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Freedom To Offend Or To Not To Be Offended? It’s a Natural Question!

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Guest blogger Will Jones has a PhD in political philosophy and a passion for seeing good ideas developed and put into practice. He works for the Church of England in diocesan administration, and lives in Birmingham with his wife Becky.

Barely a day goes by without some mention of shared “values” in the news. And for all our love of diversity, we seem suddenly to have become very keen that all British citizens should sign-up to strictly-bounded notions of British values. But what are those values? We don’t seem entirely sure. The response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre and to Stephen Fry’s outspoken intervention in the running debate about God and suffering, made clear that we have few qualms about permitting the public criticism of religion, however mean-spirited or in bad taste. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury defended Fry’s right to express his beliefs publicly in this way.

Other “protected characteristics” are not quite such fair game however. Consider Benedict Cumberbatch, who was pressed into a grovelling apology for using an outdated (and racially offensive) term – notwithstanding that it was in the context of highlighting problems of racism in the entertainment industry. I’m pretty sure that some would find Fry’s description of a “totally selfish, stupid, capricious, utterly evil maniac” to have something of an offensive edge. No calls for apology there, though. Our commitment to free speech and other liberties is intriguingly selective.

Meanwhile, political philosophers continue their search for the most convincing account of our liberal values and the justification for their priority. This kind of intellectual activity is crucial, because behind all the inchoate public sentiment in these matters, this is where our society attempts to make some kind of sense out of its ethical and political stances. In this field, the concept of natural law has been making something of a comeback. At the Archbishop William Temple 70th Anniversary Conference last November, political philosopher Raymond Plant drew on this concept.

Plant suggested that when it comes to justifying the liberal political order, with its commitment to basic personal freedoms, natural law is much stronger than the supposed neutrality between different viewpoints that theorists have been relying on for the past several decades. Neutrality is a myth, he argued, because the concept of coercion and what counts as it depends entirely on one’s framework of values. In this he echoes the sentiments of many scholars who have been unpersuaded by John Rawls’ idea of the freestanding, morally neutral state and have been searching for an alternative.

If not neutral then natural, says Plant. But what is natural? What kinds of norms does it teach us to follow? This is well-trodden ground, going all the way back to beginnings of philosophy in Aristotle. For Plant, though, the matter is clear: natural law points us to liberalism. It does so because it shows us a basic minimum morality that is shared by everyone. This is a morality in which the basic conditions of human agency – freedom, opportunity, resources – are secured for all. Sounds appealing; but is this really what nature teaches us? And is it really the basic morality we all share?

There are a variety of ideas of what is natural and good for human beings. Indeed, it was the bewildering variety of such ideas that John Rawls argued mandated the neutral liberal state to stand over them all and adjudicate between them. (That and the equally bewildering variety of ideas of what God says about how we should live). What, then, are the main competitors to Plant’s proposal?

Aristotle is one. For him, nature is permeated by purposes that can be rationally discerned. On this basis he argued that what is natural for the human being, as a rational and social animal, is the life of virtue lived according to reason, embedded in a well-ordered community. The good life and the good state were the focus of his attention; he didn’t care too much for personal liberty.

Two millennia later, in an England riven by civil war, Thomas Hobbes argued that the natural state of humankind, while free, is also solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, a condition brought on by their own rapacious desires. But this sorry state could be ameliorated, he thought, by the artifice of political authority, established as absolutist and indivisible.

John Locke disagreed. He argued that liberty and private property were natural to humankind, and that the political order should be organised according to principles of private property and free contract.

Since Charles Darwin and The Origin of Species, the ethical ramifications of human evolution have been at the forefront of many minds. Francis Galton advocated a programme of eugenics to improve the human gene pool and progress the human race. Peter Singer has argued that humanity’s sense of its own superiority and right over nature is mere baseless conceit. Richard Dawkins has characterised evolution as an essentially selfish molecular process, though still finds grounds for altruistic acts in the way species have evolved.

Theology for its part has varied in its attitude to the natural. Thomas Aquinas was basically a follower of Aristotle, though reworked with Christian theological insights. At the other extreme, Karl Barth rejected wholesale the idea of natural law, arguing that fallen, corrupted nature is a wholly unreliable guide to moral living. Only divine revelation can be trusted, he thought.

A prominent strand in modern theology has majored on the notion that humanity is made in the image of God. In this tradition sits William Temple, who argued for a natural order based on respect for the divine image in humanity, expressed principally through freedom and dignity, and on the ethical priority of love in social relations.

It is towards Temple’s idea of natural law which Plant primarily looked in his conference presentation.  And personally, I’m inclined to agree with Plant here: natural law of this kind is, I think, the strongest grounding for the liberal political order. However, I am aware that I think this essentially because I am a Christian.

Of course, such a commitment to freedom is not exclusive to Christians. Many who don’t believe in the Christian faith also affirm human freedom and dignity. But even so, it evidently is not a universal feature of ideas of what is natural for humanity, as we have seen. Something more, therefore, is needed to justify the liberal order, beyond mere appeal to a universal consensus on personal freedom. But neutrality has already been ruled out. What, then, can it be?

Well, that really is the question. Perhaps when we find it, though, it will point us towards what our British values actually are, and what they tell us about how we may, and may not, express ourselves in public.

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Putting the Cart Before the Horses: Can Christianity Learn from Economics?

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The leaders of Britain, politicians, intellectuals and churches, invariably focus on what’s gone wrong with life, whether it’s the economy, the NHS, education, inequality or foodbanks. Yet that’s to start with the carts of life. There are some useful lessons we might draw from economics, offering a message on Lent and sin. Without the horse, the cart is pretty useless, so let’s rather begin with the horse.  And, by that, I mean I’m grateful that I’m neither dead nor am I dirt poor. And that’s astonishing progress, because only 100 years ago my uncle John Robert Atherton (after whom I was probably named), was born and died in 1900, one of the 20% who tragically died in childhood of incurable infectious diseases. The remainder often suffered from great undernourishment, and from lack of education. In contrast, I’m 76, highly educated, have a modest pension, and therefore the freedom to be and to do. And these great and historic achievements have beneficially affected more and more people increasingly across the whole world in terms of incomes, life expectancy and education.

Of course, these are not as yet a universal achievement. A very significant but diminishing minority do not share in the benefits obtained by the Industrial and then the Mortality Revolutions. A billion still live in absolute poverty, and, in rich economies like Britain and the USA, a significant minority still suffer from relative deprivation. These deeply disturbing situations reflect what is called the paradox of development; the great achievements in wellbeing in the last 200 years have also been accompanied by deeply negative forces, including grave inequalities (throughout history, and including today, these paradoxes of development, or ‘horsemen of the apocalypse’, traditionally included famines, epidemic, climate changes, migrations and state failures).

So this analysis is therefore about putting the horse back where it belongs: before the cart. Don’t begin, as our leaders in academia, politics and churches do, with the downsides of life, with the paradoxes of development. No. Begin with the ongoing historic achievements in income, health and education in only the last 200 years. Then, and only then, also address the paradoxes of development.

What on earth has Lent and sin got to do with this? Well, for most of its history Christianity has regularly put the cart before the horse, and especially in the season of Lent, and especially with its focus on sin. And that’s again putting things the wrong way round. Let’s think a bit more about this.

So much of the church’s historic views on sin are pathological, and are now also profoundly inaccurate and unhelpful.  Let me give you a few examples:

In medieval churches, the walls were often covered with paintings regularly featuring vivid pictures of hell as the punishment for sin if the parishioners didn’t confess to a priest.  The fear this inevitably injected was also a powerful way of controlling the population.

If a newborn baby died before it was baptised, it was, until relatively recently, buried in unconsecrated ground outside the consecrated church yard – because its original sin, addressed only through baptism, therefore ostracised it beyond the pale.

When I was a young Rector of Hulme Church in inner city Manchester in the late 1960s, I was frequently asked to ‘church’ a young mother who had just given birth to a child.  Now, this old ‘churching’ service wasn’t a ‘thanksgiving for childbirth’ as it later became.  It was a (grandmothers won’t let the daughter out till she’d been churched), going back to the Christian doctrine that original sin was transmitted to new generations through the sexual act, through the woman’s birth of a child.

Why on earth did Christianity and the churches have such views often well into the twentieth century? My ongoing research in economics and religious studies indicates that for all human history, until the 19th century, the vast majority of people lived lives, as the great 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes put it, which were ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short’. They died at best by middle age, they lived in poverty and squalor, and they often suffered violent deaths.  Reflecting and deepening such experiences, no wonder such views of sin, of the self-inflicted darkness of life, so pervaded Christian thinking and preaching. But now life is quite different. For most people life is long, peaceful and relatively prosperous, with increasing healthcare and educational opportunities for a growing majority.

So I now begin with the lovely and accurate Anglican collect or prayer for Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent: ‘Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made…’  That’s where I begin, with the fundamental goodness of the created order. Then, and only then, do I address what’s also gone wrong in terms of sin and finitude (don’t confuse them, and do recognise both as severe, distinct and different constraints on our social development – including as the paradoxes of development). And that’s certainly not to therefore acknowledge my ‘wretchedness’, as the collect for Ash Wednesday goes on to declare! Whatever I now feel and understand as my sin and finitude, I would thankfully, not normally refer to it as wretchedness.

How then, to define sin today, post-1800?  Well, I go to the New Testament’s interpretation of it as ‘missing the mark’. In other words, we aim for, in Paul’s words, ‘what is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable’ (Philippians 4.8).  And then, and only then, do we recognise and face up to where we get it wrong personally and collectively (the latter including what we call structural sin in terms of defective or bad institutions, markets or nations). Now this is called ‘putting the horse before the cart in Christianity, church life and history’. It’s about Christian beliefs, urgently updated in the life of the most historic changes in human life, continuing to give greater depth and greater meaning to our ordinary human experiences.

John Atherton is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation

Challenging Religious Studies. The Wealth, Wellbeing and Inequalities of Nations is out now: click here for more.

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Re-reading the Bible in Public Life


Guest blogger Jo Merrygold is an MA student in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds. She is Project Assistant for the Community Religions Project (CRP).

When considering the Bible in public life, the focus, according to Peter Phillips, Director of the Centre for Biblical Literacy and Communication, is frequently on the way that, ‘biblical imagery, phraseology, motifs are part and parcel of English speaking social identity and cultural heritage.’

Such undisputed ideas start from an open book, where the words, stories and images emerge from between the ubiquitous black covers. These images, phrases and motifs can then take on lives of their own, appearing far beyond the constraints of religious or scholarly communities. But let’s close the book and take a step back to look afresh at how, where and when the Bible still makes an appearance in public life – and more importantly, what that has to say about the ongoing arguments about literacy and prevalence of biblical allusion.

Like Katie Edwards, who has identified biblical motifs in advertising, hip-hop and throughout popular culture, I am interested in the Bible beyond religious spaces – in my case in Leeds city centre. By considering the object itself, I was interested to know what it said about the presence of religion in public spaces – by asking what access we can have and what we can do with a Bible once we’ve got one.

The first and most obvious answer is that we can buy or borrow copies from retailers or the library. Yet despite the initial interaction being in public, it almost immediately becomes something private; we remove the books from their location and take them into our own private spaces. So that does not give us opportunity to engage with a Bible in a public space. Rather, I wanted to explore the permanent locations for Bibles, and there are three main sites: hotels, courts and museums.  Each offers something valuable to the way in which we see religion in public life, and intersects with discussions about use of the biblical texts.

The hotels hold by far the greatest numbers of Bibles of any business type in the city centre, more than retailers, libraries and other cultural venues. These books, acquired from either central stores or the Gideons charity are, in the main, kept because it is expected. By whom it is expected remained unclear, but most independent and chain hotels do continue to keep them either in rooms or at reception. Even the recent change by Travelodge to remove Bibles from bedrooms has not, according to the Huffington Post, led to their removal from hotels – just their relocation. Yet what is of interest to me is the way in which the use of a Bible in a hotel is accompanied by privacy. It might be temporary and contractually agreed ‘privacy’ but the expectation is that the Bible will be opened and used in private. This is so much the case that one hotel which did not keep Bibles justified their position by saying that they did not trust that the holy texts would be treated with appropriate respect. In this setting, the complexities between public and private come to the fore. In this setting you have neither fully public nor fully private access as each is, sometimes only implicitly controlled.

The control aspect of this comes into greater focus in the courtroom – as does the public use of the book. The courts are the places where the Bibles are visibly used. The archetypal image of a black-bound, leather effect book with embossed metallic words finds new resonance in the courtroom. One supplier indicated that the only requirement for courtroom Bibles is the colour of their cover – black. Translation doesn’t matter, nor does print size or whether Jesus’ words are in red – some of the many choices available from the retailers. It certainly can’t have a pink camouflage or a rainbow cover, nor can it come as a graphic novel (see picture) or in a tin box. Instead, the aesthetics of the outside of a book are paramount. In this setting, it’s not what the Bible says, or how the stories can be told or reinterpreted, but the cultural meaning of the volume that is essential. But then the book is not for reading – it is for being seen, witnessed. It is used to validate something, but the book itself remains inaccessible except for those who must use it. The courtroom Bibles remained out of bounds during my project, as they are part of active courtrooms. I would be fascinated to know what happens when they are no longer used or needed. Do they then become accessible but private texts, rather than inaccessible public ones? Or are they gifted as cultural objects such as those in the museum or in the library’s historical collections?

This last group holds the tension between religion and public life most clearly as they are objects of history and culture at least as much as they are religious works. The two become indistinguishable, yet the filing and records note the external factors such as ownership, historical era and anything else of significance alongside the book itself. During my research, the only Bible on view in Leeds City Museum was to be found in the World War I exhibition, as part of the soldier’s possessions. After their owners cease to use them, they find new life as testament to the past, linking religious practice and texts with the wider context in which that individual exists. It, like each encounter between the Bible and public space in Leeds, continues to show the complexity between control and freedom to use the Bible as desired in both public and private space. But it also reiterates the link between the object itself, and the meanings that object has and carries, as well as linking to the words and stories found within.

This returns me to the ongoing questions about literacy and the Bible in public life. By looking beyond the religious spaces and communities of Leeds city centre, I have identified that the Bible does continue to exist in our public life, as an object. But it is an object which is placed under pressures and controls such as where it can be read, in what acts does it feature and how is it understood in relation to history. These questions are closely linked to those querying the use of the biblical texts or seeking to identify biblical motifs in contemporary life. Yet without people like Katie Edwards looking beyond the constraints of the communities associated with the text, its wider use and resonance would go unacknowledged. Similarly, without continuing to research the role of the Bible as a whole, an object, within, but particularly beyond, the religious communities, we may continue to think that only the ‘biblical imagery, phraseology [and] motifs’ are reflected in contemporary life. In drawing these strands together we can start to ask not only what is known of the Bible (however ‘properly’ that may be understood), but where those outside religious groups and buildings can grapple with the book, inside and out, because as Katie Edwards says, ‘the Bible matters for us all, not only Christians, because the Bible is used in contemporary culture’.

Hear from the UK’s topic thinkers on religion and public life and join the debate: ‘Reclaiming the Public Space’, Monday 10th November, Manchester. Be there!

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