post-Christendom (10) realism about political and cultural context

These posts on post-Christendom are based on a recently published paper of mine,  ‘Sex, Truth and Tolerance: some theological reflections on the Irish Civil Partnership Bill 2010 and challenges facing Christians in a post-Christendom culture’

I’m proposing 6 themes of Christian realism related to doing public theology in contemporary culture: this is the fourth.

Realism about one’s particular political and cultural context

For example, in Ireland, Christians doing public theology need to be realistic about the baleful legacy of Ireland’s recent past as well as political liberalism’s associated fear of privileging any one voice (especially a religious one) in the public square.

In such a context there is a need for humility, listening and dialogue by Christians, given Christianity’s negative associations with self-interest and power in Ireland.

Whether you agree with it or not, it’s clear that the EAI statement on Civil Partnerships was very aware of this context:

Evangelical Christians have no automatic right to have their views preferred to those of others. Nor do we have a duty to try and impose Biblical morality on public life by force of law … It is the essence of the Christian faith that it is freely chosen, never imposed. It is a tragedy of church history that the church ever thought it could use the power of the state to impose Christianity on people.

As Christianity moves to the margins of Irish public life, evangelical Christians cannot assume that their views will be either heard or understood, especially given their status as a tiny minority of under 1% of the population.  Legislation like the CPB therefore raises questions for Christians in terms of how and where they are engaged in building relationships with government, politicians and with individuals and organisations within the homosexual community. On this point John Stackhouse proposes,

I do not intend … to encourage a secularist evacuation of all religious institutions, symbols, values, and personnel from public life – not at all. Instead, we Christians should be taking the initiative to surrender those privileges that no longer make sense in a post- or semi-Christian society and instead use our shrinking cultural power to establish new relations of religion/society and church/state that will benefit all participants, including religious communities and state institutions, without unjustly penalizing or privileging any. Indeed, we should use what influence we have left to help construct the sort of society in which we ourselves would like to live once our power to effect it has disappeared … How unseemly it is for Christians to fight in the courts and legislatures for what remains of the dubious honors and advantages of Christendom. There is no more prudent time to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.[1]

Is this sort of approach an example of weakness in the face of colder cultural attitudes towards Christianity? Or is it, in an Irish context, a wise refusal to subscribe to the increasingly unrealistic and historically damaging ambitions of cultural transformation?

[1] Stackhouse, Making the Best of It, 345-6.


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