Phases of faith - the creation of a genuinely pluralistic, secular Commonwealth.

I must begin this piece with an important caveat. As I make here a protest against some important claims made by the Pope during his visit and against some current practices of Roman Catholicism I also want to make it absolutely clear that there is much, a great deal in fact, that I admire in individual Roman Catholics and the Roman Catholic tradition as a whole and from them I have learnt much that I consider of great and enduring value. I both work with Roman Catholics in my professional inter-faith work and the American side of my family is Roman Catholic, indeed my uncle of whom I was very fond was a Roman Catholic priest in Bethpage, New York. With that caveat I hope clearly made I’ll begin . . .

Later on today Pope Benedict XVI will beatify John Henry Newman. John Henry was, as I am sure you know, once a priest of the Church of England but who in 1845, after his famous (or infamous depending on your standpoint) Tract 90 entitled Remarks on Certain Passages in the Thirty-Nine Articles published in 1841, left to become one of Britain’s most famous and influential Roman Catholic converts. Later, of course, he became a Cardinal and now, one-hundred and twenty years and one miracle later, is seemingly heading towards his eventual canonisation and sainthood.

However, it is not precisely John Henry nor his beatification that I want us to consider today but a general thought concerning the appropriate place religion might have in the present phase our culture is passing. It has arisen as I have reacquainted myself with some of the work of John Henry’s (henceforth JH)  younger brother Francis William (1805–1897) (henceforth FW - his portrait above). It is particularly worth doing for us because there exists a genuine Unitarian connection here for, in 1840, FW became Professor of Latin in Manchester New College in London, the famous Unitarian seminary which was the parent of Manchester, now Harris Manchester College, Oxford - the college where many Unitarian ministers have studied and trained including myself and our minister emeritus, Frank Walker.

In 1850 he published Phases of Faith or Passages from the History of my Creed which was a religious autobiography telling of his journey from a conventional Calvinism to what he thought was a ‘pure theism’. It is an explicit counter-blast to his brother’s move into Roman Catholicism - there was absolutely no love lost between them! In the context of the Pope’s present visit and speeches I want to address a single point arising simply out of the title of this volume, Phases of Faith. I do this in the fashion I do - i.e. in a very critical way - because he is here as a head of state (it is not merely a pastoral visit) and he has expressed his thoughts on how we should structure our national, secular, civic society. (What would we be saying if, say, Nicholas Sarkozy had come over here on a visit and done something similar . . .)

The title Phases of Faith alerts us to what should be a rather obvious truth, namely, that faith is not static but has phases. As I have been re-reading bits of both the Newman brothers’ work and the current speeches made by the Pope’s during this visit I have been musing upon the fact that phases of faith applies as much to wider culture as it does to individuals.

We need to begin by observing that both FW and JH were part of the same wider culture and the phase through which it was going in the mid- to late-nineteenth century and, although FW and JH may have disagreed violently on many things they were, in effect, working together on the same project - ascertaining the best way to know God and, therefore, how humanity might better know how to behave in a truly moral/ethical fashion. It was in that context reasonable to argue in the way they did in part because there existed a commonly held belief that the universal foundation called God existed. As many of you will be aware God’s existence was at this time increasingly being challenged but, and this is vital to realise, it was being challenged using very similar concepts and patterns of argumentation as those being used by believers - they disbelieved in the same God in which the theists believed.

But, as should be obvious to us all, the present phase of our Western culture is not the same as that through which it was passing during the lifetime of the Newman brothers. What could meaningfully be described as a reasonable way to proceed need not be deemed so today. The Newman brothers’ own highly charged debate in the mid-1800s contributed a great deal to the development our current pluralistic cultural phase. The Pope’s speeches need to be heard in this modern context even though he wants to hark back to the nineteenth century in the beatification of JH.

As the contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor, himself a Roman Catholic, has observed in a variety of influential books, although until a couple of hundred years ago the common viewpoint of the West was essentially Christian in which almost no-one could consider a viewpoint without God today we now live in a society in which believing in God is simply one option of many and, consequently, multiple viewpoints are now, not only conceivable to most people, but also often known and visible to them. In our culture this plurality has become a cultural norm and such norms help us decide how to make appropriate and reasonable ethical/moral decisions.. We are not be happy or comfortable with all the possible options out there but we can also see that they exist and are followed, for the most part, by people we feel (and can see are) generally to be of goodwill and this inevitably shapes our understanding of in what consists reasonableness when debating matters relating to religion. This realisation is especially important when it comes to debates about what kind influence religion may be considered legitimate and reasonable in matters which concern wider civic society.

What this means - amongst many other things - is that the cultural common ground which allowed the Newman brothers to fight a meaningful and reasonable (if sometimes undignified) fight in the mid-nineteenth century no longer present today.  

The recognition of radical plurality (and I would add radical contingency) as a norm means that it has become difficult for our wider civic society to ground with any real confidence a phrase I quietly used a few lines back - ‘people of goodwill.’ In this new cultural phase how do we (late twentieth-, early twenty-first century Westerners) decide, with any confidence, in what consists the good so we can point to another person and say they are, or are not, a person of goodwill? How can we decide with confidence that an action is good or bad.

This, my friends, is the multi-Trillion Dollar question of the age and the Pope - and, therefore, the Roman Catholic Church - has, like all of us, whether we are believers in God or not, run head-long into this problem. I think this is one aspect of our contemporary culture about which we really can say we are all in it together.

(NB: In most of my other addresses I am simply trying to articulate what might be an appropriate response to this question within our liberal Christian community - a community which knows it is post-metapahysical, post-theological and, in an important way, post-Christian. Here, I’m making a wider secular political point.)

In the high-profile speech he gave yesterday to politicians, diplomats, academics and business leaders at Westminster Hall he addressed this pressing question directly:

‘By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved? These questions take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse. If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident - herein lies the real challenge for democracy’ (p. 1-2).

On this point at least I agree with him. However, he goes on and makes what I think is a deeply problematic claim. Here is what I think is the key paragraph in his adress to politicians, diplomats, academics and business leaders:

‘The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. This “corrective” role of religion vis-à-vis reason is not always welcomed, though, partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems themselves. And in their turn, these distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. It is a two-way process. Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person. Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization. Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation.'


For starters, note that he thinks that there exist ‘objective norms’ and it should come as no surprise that he believes these match Roman Catholic ones. He also claims that these ‘objective norms’ (for which remember also to read ‘Roman Catholic norms’) are accessible to reason detached from Christian revelation - that’s what he means when he uses the rare and obscure latinate English verb ‘to prescind’ which I admit I had to look up.

‘Well sir’, this makes me ask, ‘if that is the case, then what need of your, or any other, specific religion?’ Naturally, he goes on to tell us.

He tells us that ‘the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles.

In other words he is saying that, although secular reason can identify these ‘objective norms’, his religion is there (and of special Divine worth) because it alone can purify our faulty use of this natural reason. This means he is saying something like that, although secularists are able to use the tool of reason they are really rather naive and somewhat unskilled users of it - often using it improperly and so coming to build faulty constructions that are not quite what they could or should be; they are a bit jerry-built and rickety. However, he, as an experienced, wise and gentle Father with his cohort of co-teachers is someone who can come along and show us how to use reason properly. It feels to me like someone saying, ‘There, there, nearly - now let me show you how to do it the right way.’

He clearly holds that he and his faith are there as a necessary correctives at every point (other speeches and encyclicals can be cited at this point to show this but I’ll refrain now in the interests of brevity - if you want examples, ask). Of course the Pope makes a big play about the world of reason and world of faith working hand in hand but remember, in the case of reason, he has already told us, only he and the church really has a pure understanding of it and, surprise, surprise, in his hands it reveals the truth of his faith and, by implication, the ultimate untruth of other viewpoints - especially, of course, the secular one.

This seems to me to be an utterly unreasonable and extraordinary claim to make in the current phase of our culture and, to be frank, I’m disturbed by it and I protest - as loudly as this address and its form as a blog will allow me. I want to reiterate that this is not just simply a religious matter but one touching on our nation’s attempt to create an inclusive pluralistic secular society in which religion has a place but not a privileged place. This is so because it seems clear to me that far from having a pure understanding of reason which can ‘shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles’ in some very significant respects the Roman Catholic Church is far from an expression of pure truth, light and reason and I cite in passing their stance and actions concerning human sexuality, women priests, birth control and the abuse of children in their care. I think it is abundantly clear that secular reason can on on these matters offer up some wise thoughts.

Our culture is in a phase such that I no longer think it is reasonable to claim that Roman Catholicism - or actually religion as a whole - has any intrinsically special way to access the (capital T) Truth of our world. In fact, our culture is in such a phase that many in it think it highly unlikely that such a capital T truth can meaningfully be said to exist in the first place let alone infallibly accessed by one church or even a dozen churches or religion.

Once upon a time the Newman brothers and their religious debate was central to our culture - a culture essentially religious, essentially Christian. Their debate played its part in changing our society into the pluralistic secular one we have now and so their argument, which still has a place, must take its humble (and admittedly reduced) place alongside members of a larger ‘senate’. This ‘senate’ is radically plural and complex, yes, but there is a chance we can make it one which will strongly commit to following an ongoing process of dialogue in which we will always be learning from each other and, in the process go on to create a genuinely pluralistic, secular Commonwealth.
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