Revisiting "Christianity and the New Situation" - on neighbourly relations between the Church and the world

READINGS: From A Free Catholic Faith (1907)  by J. M. Lloyd Thomas including the citation of Matthew 7:21 and Matthew 12:50

The moment one begins to define and exclude in matters of religion, he is engaged upon an invidious and impossible task. You draw your circle, giving it a broad and splendid sweep in order that it may include all that is worthy and noble in the universe of your mind, “That is religion,” you say, and you thereby further imply, “Outside of that there is no true religion.” But presently you are confronted with a type of manhood which is obviously and greatly religious. You would like to have such a man at your side as an inspiration and support, and it is intolerable to feel that instead of being your comrade and ally, he must be shut out from the sympathy of your religion. And yet, by the terms of your definition, large and magnanimous as they seemed to be, you have virtually excommunicated him. He is not within the meaning of your creed, and yet you know that it is an affront to the Catholicity of your faith to regard him as outside its pale. 
          Recognizing your mistake, you proceed to correct and expand your definition, and thereupon someone who is manifestly within the letter of your new creed is now an offence to your spirit. He can repeat the patter of your dogma, but he does not represent that holy temper of life which you associate with your religion. Yet inasmuch as he fits in perfectly with your definition, you have now to accept him as a type and representative of your faith. 
          Many a Christian would like to restrict his conception of Religion to Christianity; but the term “Christian” is a word of a hundred meanings, uttered by a hundred conflicting denominations. Let him then widen its application so as to include all avowed followers of Christ. But he now thinks of religious men outside the company of professing Christians; prayerful, holy men, many of them having the mind of Christ, yet not calling themselves after his name. To exclude such from the sphere of essential religion is to do a thing which Christ himself would never have sanctioned. 
          “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” “Behold my mother and my brethren ! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother” (pp. 10–11).

From Christianity & the New Situation (1953) by E. G. Lee

Within [the] new situation [i.e. that in 1953] a certain relationship has been established between the Christian and the non-Christian [Lee clearly means by this ‘secular’ or ‘non-religious’] societies; each profoundly interpenetrates the other. The world, in the sense we have used the term, is no longer an evil form of life to be conquered by the Church; it is a movement of the spirit, established in its own right, with which the Church has to establish neighbourly relations – in the real sense of the word ‘neighbourly’. The division between the two societies is not markedly a moral one.  It would be hard to choose in practice between the two forms of life. The practising Christian and the practising non-Christian are not markedly different from one another. This is almost admitted for the Church now makes no drastic attack upon the non-Christian society and shows no evidence of seizing the values of that society and transforming them into what presumably should be a separate and obvious Christian standard (p. 10).


One of the perennial issues any group faces - especially religious groups - is the question of "who is inside and who is outside?" In our wider culture it has been addressed in the form of the question of whether there is, or should be, a distinction made between the "Church" and the "world." Our own tradition of churches, being of liberal inclination, has always struggled with this distinction because of its Universalism - i.e. its strong feeling that no one, but no one, can ever be outside the circle of God's love. As our great eighteenth-century Universalist forebear George de Benneville (1703-1793) encouraged us, we should always be concerned to:

"Preach the Universal and Everlasting Gospel of Boundless, Universal Love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular. . . . Proclaim and publish to the people of the world a Universal Gospel that shall restore, in time, all the human species without exception. . . . The Inner Spirit makes men feel that behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things."

Also in play amongst us has been the strong preference for judging in favour of orthopraxy (right behaviour) rather than orthodoxy (right belief). In consequence we've historically been very concerned with how we might best enlarge our circle of belonging and to facilitate the most positive possible encounters and relationships with other religious groups and, of course, the secular world. J. M. Lloyd Thomas' words we heard in our readings, words rooted, of course, in Jesus' own teaching, are a classic expression of this attitude, an attitude we in this church still have.  (In passing it's worth noting that during 1907 my own church here in Cambridge tried to persuade him to become their minister.)

Now I have no wish to diminish the healthy widening of circles that this attitude has helped bring about. However, this attitude, when adopted in an uncritical, even doctrinal fashion, can cause us to fail to see something important that has long been occurring within our secular society and stop us from doing something effective about it. I hope today to alert you to what this is.

It came into focus this week because in a moment of collapse, literal in this case as my back had gone into spasm again, I found myself lying on the floor of my study unable to move for half an hour. Given that on the floor, under the bottom "official" shelf of books there is yet another row of books, I found myself up close and personal with a number of volumes that I had not seen for some years. Directly before me was E. G. Lee's 1953 book "Christianity and the New Situation". To take my mind off the pain, I decided pulled it out and read. Lee was an influential Unitarian and Free Christian minister not least of all because for many years he edited the denomination's main newspaper, the Inquirer.

You heard earlier that, in his opinion, the "world" - i.e. secular British culture of the time - was "a movement of the spirit, established in its own right, with which the church has to establish neighbourly relations." He went on to add that the "division between the two societies [i.e. the Church and the world] is not a markedly moral one. It would be hard to choose in practice between the two forms of life. The practising Christian and the practising non-Christian are not markedly different from one another" (p. 10). Clearly, here Lee is giving expression to our general desire ever to widen our circles of belonging.

Now I minded to think that, in a general way, Lee's point about it being difficult to choose between Christianity and the "world" is likely to have been true in 1953. Not least of all this was because the secular world of his time was still very closely tied to the Christian worldview which gave it birth. It may no longer have shared the metaphysical beliefs of Christianity but it certainly shared much of its basic ethical stance.

Naturally the "New Situation" about which Lee spoke was always going to be an unstable one - further significant changes both within the Church and the "world" as well as the relationships between them were inevitable. A major change on the Christian side has been the increasing diversification of its beliefs and practices. Additionally, we have seen our country as a whole become increasingly diverse in its religious make-up. Christianity may still be our dominant religious or ethical tradition but it's far from being the only one in play. In passing, but importantly, I think today we must also put in this category the various humanist and atheist ethical traditions that exist. Lloyd Thomas' and de Benneville's words remind us that, although as our General Assembly's object notes we, ourselves, continue to "uphold the liberal Christian tradition" this wider societal religious diversification is not, necessarily, especially problematic for us.

On the side of the non-Christian, secular "world" it seems to me a key change has been the deepening of the idea that it is a truly independent realm which, to use Lee's phrase, has been "established in its own right." But along with this strengthening declaration of independence there has often also come, alas, a parallel abandonment of the idea that it is, itself, somehow (again to use Lee's phrase) "a movement of the spirit." According to it's own logic it seems that today it's freedom as an independent realm has in many cases come to depend upon being totally free from any inherited or intrinsic moral or ethical spirit. The continued authority of such a spirit, a moral conscience if you like, would unduly restrict its developing activities - activities now guided, not by the spirit but, as we are increasingly aware, by the demands of the free market and a few self-serving ultra-rich individuals and corporations.

Given this, as we look around us today are any of us here really able to say that it is hard to choose in practice between these forms of life?

Now I don't mean by my words that all religious and/or ethical forms of life are always pure as the driven snow nor that all contemporary secular forms of life are irredeemably evil (I'm too much of an de Benneville like Universalist for that). But I am saying a number of things. I'm saying that a very important difference is emerging between these various forms of life; I'm saying that where this difference exists it counts; and I'm saying that, as a religious community, we need as a matter of urgency to begin to acknowledge and respond appropriately to this difference.

These thoughts became interwoven in my mind with an important point made by the philosopher Giorgio Agamben in a recent address called "The Church and the Kingdom" in which he criticizes the Church for ceasing "to paroikein, to sojourn as a foreigner" and instead having come "to katoikein, to live as a citizen and thus function like any other worldly institution" (p.4).

William Barclay helps clarify what Agamben means by this:

"The word 'paroikos' means 'a resident alien'; the verb 'paroikein' meant to stay in a place, but not to be a naturalized citizen of it. So the noun 'paroikia' came to mean 'a body of aliens in the midst of any community'; and it is from this that the English word 'parish' is derived. The Christian community is a body of people who live in this world, but who have never accepted the standards and the methods and the ways of this world. Their standards are the standards of God" (New Testament Words, SCM Press, 1964, p. 285-286).

In an over-eagerness to appear to the world as inclusive, neighbourly and not at all foreign we have often made it appear to the secular world (and ourselves) as if we're totally cool about all it's various goings on and although we still use some funny words and have some odd rituals, in truth we're really just like any other worldly institution. But whenever we have succumbed to this temptation we haven't really been enlarging any circles of belonging in the healthy way envisaged either by Jesus, de Benneville or Lloyd Thomas but simply collaborating with what is becoming an increasingly dominant and restrictive form of life that would very much like groups such as us abandon our beliefs and practices and to stop us from preaching and living out that damned Gospel which continues to call everyone to account for their moral and ethical behaviour (that is to say to pay careful, critical attention to it and engage in a collective process of discernment and accountability about its rights and wrongs).

Now I'm not suggesting we get involved in some wider conservative religious movement which encourages the reintroduction of an absolute split between the Church and the world, between the religious and the secular. To be involved in and to encourage such a divisive movement will only serve to restart the kind of conflicts we have spent some centuries trying to stop. It would be actively to help shrink the wider circles we have helped to create over the past four-and-a-half centuries.

However, I think Agamben has made a basic point that we need to heed. If we simply continue dogmatically and uncritically to follow our tendency to expand our Church circle, come what may, we will continue to fail to see that there are times when we must dig our heels in and be prepared to resist the demands of the world and to say to it, "No!" and confidently to repeat Luther's famous words, "Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders, Gott helfe mir, Amen." - God help me, here I stand, I can do no other, Amen.

Naturally, when we do this, the "world" will try to claim that this reveals, for all our claims of inclusivity that, in truth, we remain a sectarian and exclusivist institution and, as such, we are the kind of institution every good "citizen" (or consumer?) should be discouraged from associating with.

But I see things differently. The trick is to remind ourselves and others that we are not absolutely apart from the world but instead seek to be leaven in it. Leaven is something that might meaningfully be called "foreign" to a mix of flour and water - but it's very ability to sojourn in this mix as a something foreign, to "paroikein", is the precisely the condition of the dough rising and becoming bread. But if we enter the mix of our present secular world as just bread and water then we will simply "katoikein", i.e. we will simply be living as "citizens" (i.e. "consumers") and thus function merely like any other worldly institution. Wider society will not be given the opportunity to change and rise.

We are *not* like every other worldly institution and it seems to me that we can only paroikein, be the leaven and help our society grow, if we regain the confidence to express the difference between ourselves and the world of markets and consumption by saying and showing that a life lived "with the mind of Christ" or, as our own local church covenant says, "in the spirit of Jesus" is something that can contribute to the overall health of the world.

In all this we needn't lose Lee's long-term hope about the possibility for neighbourly relationships between the Church and the world but we do need to recognise things have changed since his day. As we part for the summer I ask that we all take time to consider what this might mean for us as a contemporary liberal religious community which has always sought to encourage the widest possible circles of belonging and the most neighbourly of relations with other religions and the world.


Maisie said…
Firstly, what are we resisting?
Secondly, in what way is "religious" atheism" (indeed a tautology)
different (and "better"!) than secular atheism?
Dear Maisie,

Sorry for the delay in posting your comment and this reply. As my last post noted I've been away on vacation. Firstly, thanks for taking the time to post a comment.

You ask in the first instance "What are we resisting?" There might be many answers but the single complex thing I point to in this address is the neo-liberal project which has set about turning every human being merely into a consumer and which has actively driven out any sense of being guided by an ethical and/or moral spirit. As I write in this address:

The continued authority of such a spirit, a moral conscience if you like, would unduly restrict its developing activities - activities now guided, not by the spirit but, as we are increasingly aware, by the demands of the free market and a few self-serving ultra-rich individuals and corporations.

It seems to me that Christian faith in any of its forms has to resist this kind of behaviour. Jesus' life and teachings are replete with examples of this resistance.

You then ask about religious atheism and why it is different and better than secular atheism. You also add that you think the former is a "tautology" but, given the tenor of the basic question, I have a feeling you must mean "oxymoron" and here I'll answer that. Let me know if I have got this wrong.

Well, in a number of places in this blog I've tried to show that, within Christianity, there is a trajectory which leads to atheism BUT, and it's an hugely important but, it leads to a disbelief in the God of metaphysics or the God of the philosophers and not the very different "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob". I take a pass over this question at the following post:

Why wait - and what on earth for? An Advent meditation on meaning-gifting and the world pushing back.

However, for me at least, the locus classicus of what I am talking about is found in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's famous and influential letters. The text I reproduce below has a permanent home on the side-bar of this blog. Although it is not immediately clear Bonhoeffer is using the word God in two ways - "God as a working hypothesis" is the God of metaphysics and the philosophers but the God before whom he continues to stand and act is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob:

God as a working hypothesis in morals, politics, or science, has been surmounted and abolished, and the same thing has happened in philosophy and religion (Feuerbach!). For the sake of intellectual honesty, that working hypothesis should be dropped, or as far as possible eliminated. . . . Honesty demands that we recognise that we must live in the world as if there were no God. And this is just what we do recognise - before God! God himself drives us to this realisation. - God makes us know that we must live as men who can get along without Him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34)! We stand continually in the presence of God who makes us live in the world without the God-hypothesis (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Letters and Papers from Prison", SCM, London 1971, p. 360).

It should be clear that this is very different from secular atheism (especially in its New Atheist forms) which believes God (by any name) can simply be disproved scientifically and so written out of our lives. I take it that the only God whose existence that the New Atheism (or rather philosophy and science) can disprove is the God of metaphysics/philosophers but it leaves untouched and, in a certain sense, untouchable the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

I hope this answer helps in some way.

Warmest wishes,

Dear Maisie - I forgot to address your point about why Christian atheism is "better than" secular atheism. Well, I think it is better because it takes into account some of the important insights offered us by Wittgenstein about how language is actually used by us. Secular atheism has a very attenuated understanding of language which causes it to fail fully to see how speech about God is actually being used by religious communities.
Since it's just be suggested to me by a friend here's another quick follow up comment to say that it might be worth taking a look at Brian Mountford's recent book called Christian Atheist - Belonging without Believing.