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Posts Tagged ‘institutions’

Colosseum by rutty.

The Colosseum - scene of early Christian persecutions

It’s not often that Pope Benedict and the comedian Frank Skinner join theological forces. Skinner has an opinion piece in yesterday’s Times that echoes, in his own chirpy and irreverent way, Pope Benedict’s suggestion that Christianity can have an influential role in the post-Christian West as a creative minority.

I’ll explain at the end why I am not sure about this, but here are some choice quotations from the Skinner article:

Personally, I like our ever-dwindling status. I even like our ever-dwindling numbers. There was a time when social pressure made people go to church. If anything the reverse is now true. Most adults you see in church nowadays are there because they want to be there. That’s not decline, it’s progress. The wheat has been separated from the chaff. We get quality, not quantity, in the churches and the chaff can enjoy a nice lie-in…

Christians have always worked best as an unpopular minority. We were surely at our most dynamic when we knelt, eyes to Heaven, hands clasped in prayer, with a Colosseum lion bounding towards us.

That’s why I think Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, is wrong to get his cassock in a twist about changing attitudes to Christianity in this country. He speaks of a “strident and bullying campaign” to marginalise Christianity. But that’s great news. “Blessed are ye when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake”…

I’m a little wary of muscular Christianity. It’s been used to justify everything from the Crusades to the shooting of abortion doctors. It seems to be in direct contradiction to “Resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”…

Surely the central image of Christianity is someone who can shoot fireballs out of his fingertips allowing himself to be nailed to a wooden cross — submission as the ultimate show of strength — love as impenetrable armour. Most British Christians are badly dressed, unattractive people. We’re not pushy and aggressive members of society. We’re a bit like Goths — no one can remember us being fashionable and we talk about death a lot. I love the glorious un-coolness of that…

Christians tend to save their best work for the “voice in the wilderness” genre. We are most impressive when operating as a secret sect, kneeling in small, candle-lit rooms and scrawling fishes on walls. I’m enjoying this current dose of persecution. It’s definitely good for the soul.

This idea works if you believe that people are either wheat or chaff; that we are either ‘true Christians’ or ‘Christians in name only’ who might as well give up the pretence of Christianity now. But, to change the metaphor, I think we are more like seeds: thrown into the soil of the society and culture in which we live.

So if that culture is conducive to Christian faith; if it nourishes it, encourages it, gives it meaning, and helps it to grow — then many of us will indeed grow in our faith. But if it is antagonistic, negative, barren — then many of us who might otherwise have flourished, might give up altogether.

I’m not saying that we bear no responsibility for living our faith, and that we can simply blame the culture. I’m just stating what I think is a historical fact: that in times of severe persecution, despite the heroism and sacrifice of many Christians, many others are pressured into abandoning their faith, and this doesn’t mean that they didn’t have any faith in the first place.

That’s why I believe, much more than I used to, in the importance of building a culture (and institutions) that support Christian faith; and why I am much more sympathetic, and heartbroken, when good people abandon their faith because of the struggles they have had to face.

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Berlin Wall 1987 by fjords.

The Berlin Wall 1987

The Church is often criticised, not just for being an institution with many weaknesses, but for being an institution full-stop. As if institutions by their very nature repress the human spirit and undermine authentic relationships.

Francis Fukayama writes about the reasons behind the successes and failures of recent democratic movements. I don’t know enough politics to judge whether all his analysis is correct, but the sociological point he makes about the importance of institutions is worth noting, for religion as much as for politics:

The collapse of the Orange Revolution should teach us that enduring democracy is not just a matter of ideas and political passions, but of concrete institutions embodying democratic values. It is also about the human agents who create them: the right leaders can make or break a transition to democracy.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall more than 20 years ago, there has been a huge disparity in post-communist outcomes. In Poland, Hungary, the Baltic states, and the Czech republic, there has been solid support for democratic, rule-of-law states that could qualify to join the European Union. In Russia, by contrast, there was huge disagreement after 1991 not just over whether the state should be democratic or authoritarian, but over the country’s borders, ethnic identity, and relations with neighbouring countries. So the single most important determinant of which countries would go on to become successful, stable liberal democracies was the degree of consensus in favour of strong new state institutions. [Spectator, 13 Feb 2010]

Values need embodying in institutions, in customs, in laws. Of course they can become ossified, and of course not all institutions are good institutions. But if you try and share your values without having an eye to how they can be carried forward in concrete practices, they will probably not take hold and endure.

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