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Belief in a sceptical society

03 January 2020

In the first of three articles exploring apologetics in a secular age, Richard Harries surveys how life has changed since the 1960s


The Miller & Carter Steakhouse on Muswell Hill Broadway in London, a former church

The Miller & Carter Steakhouse on Muswell Hill Broadway in London, a former church

In the last days there will come scoffers

2 Peter 3.3

WHEN I was a curate in Hampstead, nearly 60 years ago, there would, like today, be only a small minority of the local population in church on a Sunday. I could assume, however, that most of those I met in the streets had some familiarity with the Christian story. That is no longer the case. Now, there is widespread ig­­norance and indifference.

The 1960s were a truly revolu­tionary decade, in which many good things happened, but there was a great turning away from traditional in­­stitutions and values, including the Church. We now have the third, or perhaps fourth, genera­tion of people with little or no Christian formation.

In her British Academy lecture setting out the rise of the “Nones”, Professor Linda Woodhead suggests that most people today are simply in­­different to churches. People are busy working, trying to survive or bring up families. Leisure time can be filled with all manner of amus­­ing things, pain can be mostly managed, and now even the way in which we view death is being changed, with celebrations of a person’s life rather than a ritual for grieving. There seems a strange diminution of life’s strangeness, less sense of what W. H. Auden called “the baffle of being”.

There is also a great ignorance of the Christian faith: very little is being taught in schools or at home, so that many people have no idea, for ex­­ample, what Easter might be about. But there is also, for under­standable reasons, a widely held mistaken view of God.

God is the underlying, self-sufficient, and eternal first cause of all secondary causes. He is not a thing in the world of things. It is not true, as is the case of finite objects, that the more of him there is, the less of us. Rather, the opposite is true. This brings us up against the lim­itations of all religious language, and the great difficulty of helping people to see what it is for God to be God.


IN ADDITION, for many people, religion now has a bad name in a way that did not apply when I was a curate. People may not have been religious, but most would have thought that, on the whole, religion was a good thing. Now, in the minds of some, all religions are tarnished and associated with violence.

Furthermore, because of the at­­tacks of the New Atheists, who work on the false assumption that all Chris­­tians are fundamentalists, Chris­­­­­tians tout court are assumed to be anti-progressive literalists, and religious claims are met with incredulity. Then, of course, there are the gross sins of the clergy over child abuse. Religion is a bad thing, or, at best, one to be scoffed at or ignored.

Apart from all this, in the media the central significance and huge in­­fluence of Christianity in our history and culture, our art and literature and music, is time and again ignored. It is simply white­washed out. Recently, there were two exhibitions about Ruskin, the great art critic and champion of Turner. Ruskin was a deeply Christian man whose faith was fundamental both to his under­standing of art and his ap­­preciation of Turner. This reli­gious element was totally ignored in both exhibitions. This is a typical example of a now widespread attitude.

For these and other reasons, it is very difficult for Christians today to get a serious hearing. Some 50 per cent of the population say that they have no religion, and there is a higher percentage than this among young people. This is the default position in our society. How should we respond to this?


FIRST, some historical perspective is helpful. Jonathan Swift, in his satire justifying the Christian faith in the 18th century, assumed that no one of sense actually believed it, but argued that it was good to keep it going to soothe children to sleep at night. The Duke of Wellington, at the begin­ning of the 19th century, said that no power on earth could save the Church of England.

At the beginning of the 20th cent­ury, there was not a single or­­tho­­dox Christian among the leading political elite of the time. As a result of the new seriousness brought about by the Second World War, there was a mini Christian revival: ordinations to full-time stipendiary ministry in the late 1950s were running at seven or eight hundred a year.

That started to fall away dra­matically later in the 1960s. But the point is, whether the times are propitious or unpropitious, to use Eliot’s words, we are called on to bear witness.

In our time, we are called on to do this in a highly sceptical culture, and we have to weigh fully the implica­tions of this.

The late and great Donald Mac­Kinnon used to call apologetics the lowest form of Christian life. By that, I think he had in mind those apologists who push the case for Christian faith without really taking on board the seriousness of the objections to it. That said, I believe that a form of apologetics should be the subtext of every form of Christian communication: sermons, talks, conversations.

By this, I mean that every utterance should bear in mind that there will be questions in the minds of the hearers which should be addressed. I do not mean heavy apologetics, such as a course on science and religions, or the problem of suffering (although this is good to do at times), but a sensitivity to the times that we live in and the fundamental doubts that are in the air.

Here, as in so many things, my hero is Austin Farrer. The reason for the extraordinary lasting power of his sermons is not just Farrer’s deep faith and their literary elegance. It is that they came out of long, hard thought in relation to the funda­mental criticisms that people were making of the faith at the time. The sermons come across as relaxed, almost conversational, but, in each one of them, it is some real issue of faith which is being addressed, even if this is not explicitly stated. There is, in each one of them, C. S. Lewis said, that out of which other men would make a whole book.

The crisis facing the Church in our time is the indifference, dis­missal, and disdain of a sceptical culture. It is no good talking about new forms of mission or different styles of church if this is not faced. People do not believe what is being put before them, for a mixture of reasons — many of them under­standable.

This means that every Christian communicator, priest, or lay person, must be a subtle apologist. He or she must be aware of the sceptic’s questions, have thought long and hard about them, and be able to address them in simple, accessible language.

This does not require great philo­sophical expertise, but it does mean understanding the nature of faith and the part that our own experience plays in this process — subjects that I will address in my next two articles.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentre­garth is a former Bishop of Oxford. His latest book, Haunted by Christ: Modern writers and the struggle for faith, is published by SPCK at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop price £8.99) (Books, 2 November 2018).

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