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Bringing together all ‘the shaken’

02 May 2014

Christians should seek common cause on transcendence, says Martin Gainsborough


Awesome: those without religious faith share a sense of the numinous

Awesome: those without religious faith share a sense of the numinous

AS THE rival camps weighed in,the fall-out from David Cameron's assertion that Britain should be more confident of its status as a Christian country (Comment, 17 April) was rather predictable. We see a great deal of this these days - claim and counter-claim, the battle lines between opposing sides ever more tightly drawn. It is the character of our so-called post-secular age.

As Professor Elaine Graham writes in Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Public theology in a post-secular age (SCM Press, 2013): "While the resurgence of religion is regarded by many as prompting a much-needed moral rejuvenation of secular society, for others, this new eruption of faith continues to represent a dangerous breach of the neutrality of the public sphere."

Christians often do not help, joining in with the frenzied back and forth - as with, for example, the Community Secretary, Eric Pickles's triumphantly proclaiming that he had stopped an attempt by militant atheists to ban prayers at council meetings.

There probably is a place for defending one's corner, but it would be good if we Christians could be more sophisticated in how we go about it: for example, highlighting the way in which the secular position is not neutral, but itself involves a leap of faith.

Christians could seek to move things beyond the partisanship of current debates to something more constructive, and this might be truer to our calling.

ONE way in which we might help to avoid the alienation and division that the secularists warned of in their recent letter to The Daily Telegraph (News, Leader comment, Letters, 25 April) is to identify things that Christians and secularists agree on - and start from there.

When I read Richard Dawkins's book The Magic of Reality: How we know what's really true (Transworld, 2012) - particularly where he addresses the question "When and how did everything begin?" - like Professor Dawkins, I was struck "dumb with awe" at a photo of hundreds of galaxies. As he explains: "Each one of those little smudges of light is an entire galaxy comparable to the Milky Way."

Of course, in contrast to Professor Dawkins, it prompts me to speak of God. I could choose not to speak of God, but I feel happy to do so. It is what I do when I experience amazement and awe. The important thing, however - for me - is what Professor Dawkins and I have in common, namely, amazement and awe.

A former Canon Theologian of Manchester Cathedral, the Revd Dr Andrew Shanks, captures eloquently what I am getting at when he speaks of the "solidarity of the shaken" (Anglicanism Reimagined, SPCK, 2010). What he is calling for is that all people who have been shaken by questions about the ultimate meaning of life should make common cause. What is so exciting about Canon Shanks's phrase is that it creates a basis for alliances with so many people, including those far beyond the Christian fold.

A NUMBER of interesting things follow from this, including a revisiting of what the Church is actually for. What the Church is for is to create an environment to probethat sense of being shaken, and to do this with as many people as possible, including those outsideit.

A commitment to shakenness is not about watering down the Christian faith, or, at the other extreme, shoehorning everything into a Christian world-view. Rather it is about acknowledging that people of different faiths and none will express their shakenness in different ways - some with a theistic language, some without - but, as Christians, we need to remain open to the possibility that we may learn something about what it is to follow Jesus through engaging with such difference.

GREATER attentiveness to the solidarity of the shaken also makes sense in terms of the Church's mission. Much of what the Church says is alien to people, and we need to find ways to reconnect. Explorations around shakenness - something every human being experiences at some time or other - offers one way to do this, alongside other approaches to mission.

In my inner-city parish, for instance, we are pursuing a mixed-economy approach to mission, ranging from traditional Bible study and inviting people to participate in the practices of the Church (suchas the eucharist) to relationship-building in the pub, and withthe mosque, where ideas around shakenness offer a useful lens both to explore and to transcend difference.

It is not that we expect some kind of alliance or campaigning on this or that issue, although, further down the line, that is a possibility. To bring ideas of shakenness more to the fore, to acknowledge their centrality in what makes us human, whether one is a believer or not, would be a great achievement. This is surely the stuff that ultimately transforms communities and the world.

It is a wedding banquet to which all are invited, and that includes those most perturbed by Mr Cameron's recent words.

The Revd Martin Gainsborough is Professor of Development Politics at University of Bristol, and Priest-in-Charge at St Luke with Christ Church and St Matthew, Moorfields, in Bristol.

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