Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (10) what is good preaching?

This is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This is an excerpt from the final chapter (8) on Preaching, Praying and Primary Christian Langauge.

Some questions discussed below are: What do you consider good and bad preaching? What form should sermons take? How should the sermon relate to the text? Should the preacher bring in personal stories or generally keep them out of the sermon? What assumptions should the preacher make about his / her listeners in a post-Christendom context? How critically should listeners listen to sermons? 

I always am trying to remind students in class that the purpose of good theology is, to use a phrase from J I Packer, for ‘doxology and devotion’. In other words, there is no artificial boundary between a life of worship and theology (thinking about God, faith, and what means to be a Christian in the modern world).

One of the many things I like about Hauerwas is his lifetime of resisting modernist epistemological dualism – the notion that there is the detached objective world of knowing and the subjective world of values, beliefs and feelings. In his life and work he has consistently prioritised prayer, preaching, theologically reflective writing and some biblical commentary. He is on record as saying this is the work he cares most about and see as most significant.

I’m focusing in on their discussion on preaching. Brock creatively identifies common themes from Hauerwas’ sermon material – which provokes this from Hauerwas on preaching on the relationship between the sermon and the biblical text:

Those are extremely interesting observations. I  always take the text very seriously. I am against idea-sermons. What you say in the sermon always has to be dependent on the text you’ve been given. One of the things I also try to do is work very hard not to exclude the Old Testament text. So I try to preach, as much as I can, in a manner that the text of the Old Testament is seen as crucial for what we’re saying in the New. So there is a certain sense that I  hope my sermons are really exegetically responsible. That involves why it is that I believe Christianity is a form of Judaism and that I don’t say that but I try to show what the implications are for the reading of the text we have before us.

To this I want to shout AMEN! Preaching, if it is to be authentic, has to engage well with the text itself – doing the work of exegesis that underpins what is being communicated. What has a preacher to say if he / she is not preaching the text? I’m sorry, but far too much preaching is ideas merely hung on a handy text. Such preaching is dismaying. The Scriptures are powerful and Spirit inspired – the preacher’s job is to let God’s Word speak.

And I’m with Hauerwas completely on how the text is best located within the wider biblical narrative.

… sermons cannot be what they are without being embedded in the story of “Out of all the peoples of the world I have chosen you, Israel, to be my promised people.” (251)

He adds this caution that while all texts are located somewhere within the biblical narrative, sermons themselves are best not stories. Because our stories can be anthropocentric distractions :

But that doesn’t mean that the sermon itself tells a story. I worry that, for example, when preachers tell the story of “When me and my wife . . .” I always think, “Oh no.” That’s just an invitation for the congregation to think, “Isn’t our preacher clever?” I don’t like that at all. I try to stay away from any self-revelations or stories that have shaped my life. (251)

Do you agree with SH here? Is the preacher best to keep personal stories out of his / her preaching?

Preaching is a wonderful privilege but also a great source of temptation. Human nature being what it is, it is so easy, even unconsciously, to be motivated by the basic human desire for affirmation, praise, admiration and respect. And so, to present a particular story about ourselves to our listeners that feeds into those desires.  The best practice I think therefore is to keep stories of ourselves and our lives out of the frame. A sort of ‘And lead us not into temptation’ sort of ethic. Yes, let’s have creative illustrations and relevant stories that illuminate the text, but let’s keep the ‘me’ out of those stories.

At one point Brock asks Hauerwas about his oft quoted proposal that sermons should be argumentative.

What’s at stake in your insisting that “sermons should be arguments”? And what kind of arguments do you mean? You elsewhere suggest that the sermonic form is a better form of argument than theoretical argumentation. (252)

Hauerwas’ point here is that sermons must engage the hearers and proposing, unpacking and defending an argument is the best way to do this. Again this is helpful – a basic argumentative form invites listeners into a conversation that ideally is relating to their lives and their world.

There is much more in this rich conversation that I can capture here. Here’s is an intriguing aside:

This is why preaching in our time is fundamentally shaped by the assumption you are preaching to people who are only half Christian. Apologetics takes over. (254)

Absolutely right. The reality of church life in a post-Christendom world means that very little can be assumed of what people know and believe. My hunch is that many sermons assume far too much and that we might be very surprised at what many listeners actually believe.

I think a good approach to this is to preach about the Christian life / gospel in a way that avoids WE and US language as much as possible. This presents the gospel and demand of the Christian life and leaves but space for the listener to be reflecting on where they are. It makes no assumptions of the listeners.

Yes, by all means stress the corporate nature of the Christian faith, but WE and US language all too easily makes a dangerous assumption that everyone present is ‘IN’. And this slides comfortably into US switching off – while there might be something interesting to think about, nothing much is at stake in the message; it is really just about helping us to do a little bit better in our lives rather than a message that calls us to come and die to ourselves and live to the Lord.

On critical assessment of preaching, Brock asks Hauerwas this:

BB: … do you have any advice on whether we should allow our critical mind to start chewing on what the minister is doing in church?
SH: No, I think that’s exactly what we should do.
BB: Why’s that?
SH: Because the sermon isn’t the property of the one preaching it. The sermon is the congregation’s reception of the Word of God. You sure better be ready to think that that word should invite some critical response. The idea that the congregation is just passive recipients of the word means that you don’t get what the word is about. (255)

This is wise counsel. The worst response to a sermon I guess is that it creates no reaction at all – just indifference. A sermon should be expecting and receiving critical response. And depending on the context, that response may welcome the Word and at other times fiercely resist it. Both responses can be reactions to what the Spirit is saying – one good soil, the other perhaps stony ground.

That critical response can also be, as Brock’s question implies, reflection on the sermon itself. The challenge here I think is for the preacher / leader not to be defensive but to take the initiative to welcome critical feedback by setting up structures in which a learning loop can happen with a small but diverse group of trusted people. However good and experienced a preacher, everyone always has more to learn.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

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Transforming post-Catholic Ireland

Over at her blog Gladys Ganiel has a summary of a book launch event ‘author meets critics’ (of which Gladys had invited me to be one) in TCD about her recent book, Transforming post-Catholic Ireland: religious practice in late modernity (OUP).

9780198745785

My sense from reading Gladys is that she is arguing that present religious practice in post-Catholic Ireland is an improvement on the past. Three big arguments of the book are that:

  • Increased diversity in the religious market gives increased space for personal transformation; space is created on the margins where people can work for religious, social and political transformation.
  • The prevalence of extra institutional religion counters hard secularisation theories: it exists as an intermediate space between pure individualism detached from church all together and institutional religious expression. Extra-institutional religion is not totally free-floating, it happens in relationship and community, often with a concern for social justice.
  • Gladys argues extra institutional religion has potential to contribute to reconciliation more than other traditional institutional Christian churches.

Stories of individuals told in the book ring true to the diverse, blurred and sometimes contradictory religious landscape of contemporary Ireland. They brought to mind some very recent conversations with friends

  • someone who while still involved locally in a church that he gives thanks for, describes himself as an ‘exile’ within the institutional church. It is an alien place; he is a ‘stranger’ in the midst.
  • two recent separate conversations with friends who both struggle with the irrelevance gap between church and their high pressure, competitive and intense worlds of work. Spirituality, for both, is found ‘extra-institutionally’
  • a friend brought up in a conservative Protestant denomination, with little or no natural contact with Catholicism, Irish culture or identity – now finding a richness and depth within Catholic spirituality and enjoying a silent retreat in a Jesuit centre near Dublin
  • friends who have journeyed away from the Catholic Church, drawn to a more personal, warm, inclusive and less sacramental expression of Christianity within an evangelical community church

How would you describe your relationship with institutional Christianity I wonder? Or, to put it another way, where most do you find authenticity, spiritual refreshment, spiritual growth and learning? Where most do you find space for building relationships across boundaries and opportunities to work for justice?

However you read Gladys’ book, the trends and stories within it pose questions to historic denominations in particular – and whose membership is in relatively rapid decline.

One response may be to decry ‘extra-institutional’ spirituality as a sign of an individualism shaped by consumerism – religious shopping for the I-generation. A spirituality that all too comfortably side-steps the demands of Christian discipleship – accountability, community, costly mission, a willingness to be rejected and marginalised?

But such a response locates the ‘problem’ externally – with those pesky individualists who don’t go along with the status quo. It ignores their passion for serving others, for social justice and a pursuit of community.

The better response to a book like this (for churches) is to look within; to listen; to reflect on practice that, in Christendom, meant that churches became what Gladys calls religious ‘public utilities’ dispensing services to all while relegating personal faith and authentic living of the Christian life to the background.

I think there are fruits of such self-examination, listening and reflection on practice within some churches in Ireland. Perhaps you know and have experience of some. Places where there is space for diversity; personal transformation; community; a passion for social justice.

And it’s here that I find sociological categories too general and abstract. For behind such descriptions of behaviour lie beliefs that motivate and shape that behaviour. That’s why contemporary debates about the nature of the gospel and how it plays out within the Christian life are so important ….

Sociological analysis can helpfully describe and interpret trends, but as a Christian I want to argue that spiritual renewal and authenticity comes from a nexus of things like grace, the good news of the risen Lord Jesus Christ, the empowering and transforming work of the Spirit, repentance, faith, humility, love, self-sacrifice,  care for the powerless and oppressed and so on.

In other words, is the search for authentic spirituality within extra-institutional spaces really a quest and longing for ‘the church to be the church’?

Musings on the value of (self) doubt 2

The previous post, prompted by the utterly uncompromising figure of John Mitchel, ended up musing on the value of (self) doubt.

Mitchel took his lack of self-doubt all the way to the sacrifice of, in effect, most of his family and his own (prematurely shortened) life.

By doubt I had in mind a ‘space’ in our convictions that gives room for alternative interpretations of reality; other points of view; corrective voices and / or critical self-reflection. Which leads to not taking yourself too seriously – which leads to self-depreciating humour.

Self doubt is a willingness to acknowledge that we might have it wrong; a self-awareness that all we know is finite, limited and culturally conditioned. That we have much to learn from others.

This is well captured in a famous series of pictures about The Illustrated Guide to a PhD by Matt Might who has kindly allowed their reproduction from his site here via creative commons).

Imagine a circle that contains all of human knowledge:

By the time you finish elementary school, you know a little:

By the time you finish high school, you know a bit more:

With a bachelor’s degree, you gain a specialty:

A master’s degree deepens that specialty:

Reading research papers takes you to the edge of human knowledge:

Once you’re at the boundary, you focus:

You push at the boundary for a few years:

Until one day, the boundary gives way:

And, that dent you’ve made is called a Ph.D.:

Of course, the world looks different to you now:

So, don’t forget the bigger picture:

Keep Pushing!

So, all those years of hard work to produce a tiny pimple 🙂

I guess pimple creation is inspiring in its own way. But even in that act of creation, the bigger picture brings even the successful PhD candidate to a place of humility and self-awareness of his / her own narrow and tiny area of expertise.

Without that sort of self-doubt a student becomes unteachable because they know it all already.

A celebrity begins to believe his / her own publicity (not a pretty sight).

A politician boringly and predictably keeps banging the party drum. (When’s the last time in a political TV debate you heard someone pause, reflect and say ‘That’s a good point, I’ll have to think about that’?) The political party line is defended at the cost of any real learning and genuine debate. I guess that’s one reason for voter apathy – impervious ideologies are all just so predictable and self-interested.

And, as Michel Foucault would have said, ‘no doubt’ narratives can easily become tools of power and violence – be like me, believe what I believe or there will be negative consequences.

But, to return (finally!) to questions at the end of the last post, isn’t the Church a place where narratives of power and even violence have often been sanctified and blessed? Where there have been very negative consequences for those who have dared to doubt the party line?

I think any honest reading of history would have to admit ‘Yes – Christianity can and often has taken the form of a narrative of power, of control, of squashing dissent and silencing alternative voices.’

Most often this happened when the Church got mixed up with political power, status and money.  And that’s a pretty large chunk of church history.

So, some implications of these musings:

1. Self-doubt is not only useful, it is necessary for individual Christian growth and maturity

2. Self-doubt fosters characteristics of humility, co-operation and sober self-assessment. It is a pre-requisite for repentance, confession, learning and change.

3. St Paul was a classic ‘no doubter’ willing to use violence to eliminate those who transgressed his boundaries. Yet it was Paul who wrote these words. He knew too well the damage a lack of self-doubt could cause and the need for God’s grace to break human arrogance and self-sufficiency.

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. Romans 12:3

4. We need, as Hauerwas likes to say, to speak the truth; to face our humanity and limitations honestly. And, as he would also say, we need to counter narratives of power, control and violence within the church with the upside down, weak and apparently foolish nature of the kingdom of God. (Well Jesus said that, Stan the man is just saying it again).

5. Prophets were often voices of doubt among the people of God. They were usually ignored, rejected, isolated and unpopular. Voices of doubt challenge the comfortable status quo that usually benefits the rich and powerful.  Luther was a voice of doubt that changed history. At the very least this should give us evangelicals, who by definition are passionate about gospel truth, pause to do some self-critical reflection when we are critiqued by alternative voices.

6. To value self-doubt is not to promote a lack of leadership or celebrate uncertainty as a goal in itself. I think this is where people like IKON over-react against what they perceive as neatly packaged impervious ideologies of traditional Christianity. I guess this is what they are getting at with their ironically titled  (anti-Alpha) ‘Omega course’ of how to ‘exit’ Christianity.

7. I guess this is why, at heart, I am a Christian first, secondly a Christian of evangelical convictions and lastly a Presbyterian. I find it hard to ‘get’ Christians who seem not to doubt their particular confessional distinctive – often in defensive and excluding ways – yet those distinctives are at best highly debated.

8. Self-doubt should foster a posture of listening and dialogue with the wider culture: combining a humble confidence in the gospel of God with appeal, reasoning, love and invitation: a distinct political community that is also willing to suffer persecution and weakness and rejection.

9. That willingness to suffer comes from having enough self-doubt to not want to be in power, to control the culture or believe that it is either possible or desirable to do so.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Suggestions for rediscovering the weirdness of Christianity

Canterbury Cathedral Jesus
Canterbury Cathedral Jesus

Dictionary definitions of “weird” explain it as “very strange” “bizarre” or “peculiar”.

Maybe you disagree, but strangely enough, even in these post-Christendom days, I don’t think too many people in Ireland think of the Christian faith as bizarre, very strange or peculiar.

Let me suggest that it would be a good thing for the health of the church if both Christians and non-believers were able both to understand and experience more of just how weird Christianity really is.

The picture of Canterbury Cathedral captures something of what I’m getting at – the strange ‘Otherness’ of Jesus.

I’m by no means saying I’ve got this all sorted (!), but the longer I am a Christian and the more I have thought about the gospel, about the ultimate story of the Bible, about the life and mission of Jesus, about the atonement, about what it means to follow Jesus, about the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, and about the nature of Christian hope – the stranger and stranger Christianity becomes.

There is, to put it differently, a deep and profound ‘Otherness’ to the gospel of God.

In Ireland, and many places in the West, Christianity remains deeply embedded in history, culture and popular perception. Church spires puncture the skylines of every town and city. A declining, but significant proportion of the population still attend church for some sort of reason.

I’m speculating here (hey isn’t that what blogs posts are for? Please correct me if I’m off base here) but I suspect that for many people in Ireland, Christianity is seen as a mixture of:

(i) a code of rules for religiously-minded people who like to get out of bed on a Sunday morning to assuage their guilt

(ii) an irrelevant and boring institution

(iii) a malign force of religious conservatism that has no place in a pluralist Ireland.

However you cut it, it isn’t seen as particularly bizarre or radical. It remains, for the time being, socially acceptable and unremarkable. It’s part of the furniture, even if of the dusty antique sort in the ‘good room’ that is used for polite conversation with visitors.

I also wonder how ‘weird’ Christianity is for many professing, committed Christians, many of whom have grown up in church: Sunday mornings, singing hymns, prayer meetings, preaching, Bible studies and such. For such people (and I am one) it is a familiar, predictable and largely unsurprising world (especially if you are an Irish Presbyterian 🙂 ).

If I’m even partly right on this description, why is this the case?

What, for you, is most ‘Other’ or ‘weird’ about Christianity?

And where most has the sheer ‘otherness’ or ‘weirdness’ of Christianity been diluted or domesticated?

Comments welcome – I’ll add some more thoughts in the next post.

Same-sex marriage in Ireland and the purpose of the law

wedding ringsIn the latest edition of Studies, Patrick O’Riordan SJ, who teaches political philosophy at Heythrop College in London, writes about impending (inevitable?) same-sex marriage legislation in Ireland and the purpose of the law.

The narrative for same-sex marriage goes something like this:

– Same-sex relationships used not to have society’s approval; now, increasingly, they do. This represents significant social progress.

– The law should be changed to reflect society’s approval and to affirm the right and legitimacy of such relationships

– This should include the right of same-sex couples to marry

– Change in the law will bring equality of treatment to same-sex couples. Current law discriminates unfairly against them.

Marriage in this sense is located in the realm of individual rights. Change in the law will bring into being a new social institution of same-sex marriage, declared to be legally equivalent to heterosexual marriage. To do this in Ireland will require a change to the 1937 Constitution which has a major place for marriage as a union between a man and woman.

O’Riordan notes how this narrative raises some significant questions around the purpose of the law and the institution of marriage:

‘What interest does a liberal democratic state have in the private relations of its citizens?’ ‘Is the legal concept of marriage necessary?’

He traces the arguments that some have made (he names Baroness Hale of Richmond, a judge in London’s new Supreme Court) that marriage as a legal institution has no real unique value. In England, there are no distinct legal consequences of marriage that are not already covered elsewhere. Children are equally protected under the law whether of married or non-married parents. Marital status is effectively irrelevant with regard to taxation and welfare provision – it could just as easily be co-habitation or civil-partnership. With the drive to equality, the distinctiveness of marriage as a legal category is undermined.

This means, in effect, that the state has no special investment in marriage. These developments reflect a minimalist view of the functions of a liberal democratic state.

Ireland’s Constitution is most definitely not minimalist. Our debates are going to be around those who see it as the role of the state to invest in and promote marriage by law for the good of society (current Constitution) and those arguing for a minimalist role of the state in redefining marriage around equality and personal liberty.

The Church’s Response

Where O’Riordan gets really interesting is in his advice to the Catholic Bishops. The self-understanding of the Irish RC Church has been forged in a profoundly Christendom context (my comment) – and this has led to the Church understanding itself as a guardian of political and social values. Such assumptions are no longer credible in post-Christendom Ireland.

But why, he asks, should the Church take a position on two competing views of the function of the law? Both have strengths and weaknesses. Both have ‘unobjectionable social values as a basis for legislation’ . Yes, the debate will be a lively one, but he urges the Bishops not to campaign beyond highlighting the values at stake.

Another reason not to campaign is that they will almost certainly lose. Arguing for the abstract notion of the social value of marriage over against a narrative of equality, overcoming discrimination, the right to marry for those in love of whatever gender, a better more inclusive Ireland … well you get the picture.  It’s a no win.

O’Riordan argues that once understood that the debate is effectively about the appropriate role of the law in a liberal democracy, rather than the nature of marriage or moral truth, then the Church is best to keep its powder dry for other occasions and higher priorities. Fighting a whole series of losing battles in the public forum over the last few decades has had a deeply demoralising impact.

If the bishops were to take on a losing fight, they would compromise their capacity to perform their essential mission – to preach the Gospel …. No-one is encouraged in faith, hope and love by preachers and teachers who are anxious, demoralised or depressed. In another sense, the core message of the faith has been drowned out by a predominance of moralising in the Church’s communication. There has been too little of the joyful proclamation of the presence of the Risen Lord and of his Spirit in the midst of our messy and broken world.

What the Catholic Church needs to recognise, is the new context in which it exists. Christian marriage will not cease to exist – the sky will not fall in if (when) same-sex marriage happens in Ireland. But rather than rely on the state or law to uphold it, the challenge is for the Church ‘to engage in more direct and deliberate preparation of couples for their giving and receiving of the sacrament [of marriage].’

What words would you use to describe this article? Here are some that come to my mind:

Refreshing – focused on the essential mission of the church to preach the gospel

Realistic – discerning the (post-Christendom) times and an appropriate strategy. Not trying to live in the past.  What he says sounds positively anabaptist in his call for the church to be the church whatever wider society is doing to marriage.

Wise – informed, engaged, and most impressively of all, self-critically reflective (all too rare)

Constructive – not fearful or scare-mongering. Able to isolate the underlying issue of changing attitudes around the purpose of the law. Not demonising opponents. Showing how different Christian responses to same-sex marriage legislation does not necessarily equate to diluting or compromising a traditional orthodox Christian view of marriage.

Incomplete – a key issue down the line will be that of religious liberty. If marriage is redefined under law, how will that legislation protect the right of Christians (and other religious faiths) who will resist the practice of same-sex marriage within their faith traditions? At the moment there is clear blue water between marriage and secular civil partnerships performed by a state registrar. A change in the law will need to be carefully crafted if equality legislation does not end up trumping religious liberty. Christians will rightly resist the state over-reaching its power to force the church by law to act against conscience and established teaching.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

post-Christendom (12) the oxymoron of mono-pluralism

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 sixth.

Realism about the need to defend and argue for religious liberty

Christian Realism should, by definition, not equal naivety. Certainly post-Christendom will be significantly (and probably increasingly) less ‘hospitable’ to Christianity than Christendom. It is perfectly possible that an absolutist secularism will progressively encroach on religious freedom. Christian Realists will be aware of the spiritual ‘powers’ behind fallen human systems of thought and action.

Christians should be forthright defenders of religious liberty since deep in the heart of the biblical narrative is the pursuit of justice for the oppressed and the marginalised. Christians can make the case that agreeing boundaries to human behaviour leads to freedom, not oppression. For in a plural democracy not everyone can ‘win’ and it is destructive if one group does so.

A realistic Christian response will therefore have a healthy distrust of the human propensity to seek control and impose one’s values on others. Christians should resist a ‘hard secularism’ that criminalises, marginalizes, denigrates or dismisses religious views as illegitimate and results in legal actions like suing people in court for holding Christian views or forcing Christians to retreat from religiously motivated service in the public square – especially if it threatens the rights and dignity of the weak, vulnerable and powerless by the assertion of competing ‘rights’ by the powerful.

One way of resisting is by coherent persistent articulation of the need for a truly inclusive pluralism and exposing the inherent flaws in an ‘illiberal liberalism’ that leads to the oxymoron of an enforced mono-pluralism.

post-Christendom (9) a realistically positive attitude to pluralism

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: here is the third:

A realistically positive attitude to pluralism

The Civil Partnership Bill is an attempt by the Irish Government to legislate for the reality of that co-habiting couples are the fastest growing family type in Ireland. There were over 120,000 co-habiting couples recorded in the 2006 census representing 11.6% of the population. In 2008, 33% of all births in the state were to unmarried parents (either single or living together). One fifth of households in Dublin are traditional families of married parents with children. The number of same sex cohabiting couples recorded in the 2006 census was 2,090 compared with 1,300 in 2002. Two thirds of these were male couples.

The legislation does not redefine the Irish Constitution’s definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, to do so would require a constitutional referendum. EAI clearly took the view that, on balance, the CPB was a reasonable attempt to deal fairly with these facts.

The Government is seeking to legislate for greater justice and fairness for co-habiting couples, both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. As Christians we should support that stance. Co-habiting couples are a reality – this legislation seeks to deal with that reality from a legal perspective.

In other words, the statement is willing not only to live with difference but to support the construction of a plural society where difference is tolerated. Commenting informally (and positively) on the EAI statement, Baptist theologian Steve Holmes wrote

‘we have demanded too often that the law be brought into accord with our moral intuitions, without exception or reserve. Evangelicals have probably been worse at this than most.’ Yet, he continues, ‘The intuition … that it is the moral duty of government to maintain a studied neutrality on certain matters, and to offer space and protection for its people to live in the way that they might choose, is a natively evangelical one.’

Christians cannot construct the ‘New Jerusalem’ here on earth by law or coercion. There are biblical sins that it is not realistic or desirable to treat as crimes. For example homosexuality, heterosexual adultery; greed, anger, selfishness and so on should not be legislated against in the courts.

As Christians seek their own religious freedom within a plural democracy, they need to realise that the ‘rights’ that they seek for themselves they also seek for others.

Tolerance works both ways.

Christians’ defence of religious liberty should not be narrowly self-centered and self-interested. Rather it should defend the right of others to use God-given freedom to make choices about spiritual matters, even when this leads to actions antithetical to the gospel. This form of tolerance is a civic virtue.

However, let me be clear that this does not mean Christians simply embrace relativism or endorse beliefs contrary to their conscience. This distinction was missed by several critics of the EAI statement who wrongly interpreted it as supporting homosexual partnerships.

Living with difference within a fallen sinful world is quite distinct from affirming that difference.

And living in such a plural society is a much better place to be for evangelicals and other minorities than during full-blown Catholic Christendom.

I ask my students in a class on ‘Faith and Contemporary Culture’, which Ireland would you like to have lived in? De Valera’s or today’s? 100% say today.

In other words, Irish Christians not only should have, they already do have, a positive attitude to pluralism.

Comments, as ever, welcome