post-Christendom (7) Christian realism and Civil Partnership

This post continues to unpack the argument of my paper “Sex, Truth and Tolerance: some theological reflections on the Irish Civil Partnership Bill 2010 and challenges facing Christians in a post-Christendom culture”

A ‘Christian Realist’ view is not so much a third alternative to ‘cultural transformation’ or ‘holy distinctness’. It acknowledges that both approaches have significant biblical support and notable strengths, as well as weaknesses.

As John Stackhouse puts it, rather than solely pursue ‘the’ right approach to culture, Christian Realism seeks to maximise shalom in the messy reality of a diverse and complex post-Christendom culture. Stackhouse summarises his call for a renewed Christian Realism as

a realism that tries to be true to the nature of things, to reality: true to the nature of the world, to the nature of God’s revelation in Scripture, to the nature of the experience of God’s people through several millennia, and especially to the nature of Jesus Christ as we know him, and hear his call, today.[1]

So I’m suggesting that Christians need to engage with a number of political, cultural and spiritual realities as they do public theology. I list 6 in the paper. Here’s the first:

1.Realism about the ambiguity of faithful Christian discipleship in a post-Christendom culture

There is rarely a public policy which is ‘just plain Christian’ otherwise Christians would not disagree so much! A challenge for Christians is how to deal realistically and faithfully with the ambiguity of life in a plural democracy.

In The Bible in Politics, Richard Bauckham makes the following interesting observation

 … we need to recognize that the political material in the Bible consists largely of stories about and instructions addressed to political societies very different from our own … The adaptations needed to transfer biblical teaching on personal morality from its cultural situation to ours are comparatively easily made, but a more imaginative and creative hermeneutic is necessary for the Bible to speak to modern political life.[2]

I am not concluding that Evangelical Alliance Ireland’s was ‘the’ correct response to CPB, but I am proposing that it at least represents an attempt to bridge Bauckham’s hermeneutical gap between the realm of personal Christian ethics and the complex realities of a modern, post-Christendom, democratic and fast-pluralising state.

An authentic public theology must have a dual nature as it negotiates the tension between an eschatologically orientated faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and a simultaneous active commitment, shaped by kingdom of God values, to working for the wellbeing and renewal of contemporary culture. In other words, walking between what O’Donovan called ‘abstract idealism’ and ‘colourless assimilation’.

In my view, all four approaches – the Irish Bishop’s Conference, the Iona Institute, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and Aontas – don’t seem to wrestle with the reality of a hermeneutical gap. Three, Iona excepted, seem to assume that since same sex Civil Partnerships are contrary to Christian ethics, they should not be allowed in law.

Such an assumption just doesn’t cut it in a post-Christendom context.

Comments, as ever, welcome


[1] Stackhouse, Making the Best of It, 309.

[2] Richard Bauckham, The Bible in Politics: How to Read the Bible Politically (London: SPCK, 1989) 12.

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