MERITS OF SECULARISM

Andrew Sullivan

ANDREW SULLIVAN left Britain for the USA at the age of 21 and spent 26 years there; he’s now back in the UK, and – writing for The Sunday Times – has noticed that a lot has changed:

What’s gone, of course, is the C of E. Religion itself appears to have been wiped from the cultural map in Britain in ways unimaginable in faithful America. This, to my mind, is a tragedy, for a society without some relationship to the transcendent can become simply boorish and myopic. But, again, I see the merits of secularism more clearly now. It takes constant exposure to American fundamentalism to feel relieved by the prosaic dismissal of the spiritual by the English. And again, I wonder whether this has really, truly changed. Anglicanism, as it was founded by Elizabeth I, was always about the blurring of doctrinal difference, the aversion to looking into others’ souls, the modesty of a limited spiritual imagination epitomised by the Book of Common Prayer.

© The Sunday Times / NI Syndication

It didn’t feel for me quite as though the C of E had been wiped from the cultural map of Bramhall this morning, but that’s probably because I’m Bramhall’s vicar, and a couple of hundred attendees put quite a bit of colour on my personal cultural map. Nonetheless I think it more than possible that Andrew Sullivan’s observations are shared by a rather wider constituency than mine. And I wholly understand that alongside any form of religious fundamentalism the merits of secularism shine very brightly indeed.

Today we celebrated the Transfiguration of Christ on the mountain-top. There, “in the cloud” (so a foggy environment, then, where things are not seen with exacting clarity) Jesus, Peter, James and John experience the voice of God: “This is my Son. Listen to him” … quite an encounter in the run up to Jesus’ “accomplishing his departure” in Jerusalem. One which brought the learner disciples to their knees, for it appeared that Jesus was in conversation with another couple of great leaders who had longed and yearned for what the very name Jerusalem means: “Vision of Peace”. Their names? Moses (named by an Egyptian princess “because I drew him out of the water” – sounds a bit like a baptism to me), and Elijah which means “my God is Yahweh” – the un-nameable G-d who is to be held in awe and worshipped as the One who may not be fully known, on earth, by any human institution.

Transfiguration, that of Jesus or our own, points all of us towards the place and the task of a vision of peace. Moses, Elijah and Jesus were charged with the task of leading people out from the places of darkness into a new and marvellous light. This has always involved, and will always involve, “baptism” into change, metanoia, death and resurrection – for all human beings who, “without some relationship to the transcendent can become simply boorish and myopic”. And this call and this pointing comes, mistily, one might say, when we reflect on the places and the people of our past, and the places and the people of our future, in the presence, on mountain-top or plain, of the Almighty God who cannot be fully named, whose name, indeed, is really no-name: Yahweh. This God transfigured a son of man, Jesus. This God called us to listen to him, as in the past to Moses and to Elijah. And the voice of the son of man calls – and the voices of all the sons and daughters of God must call humankind to the transfiguring ways of peace, always pointing to, eventually “accomplishing departure” at, “the Vision of Peace”.

The Church of England stands in need of transfiguration today as much as was the case for the disciples of Jesus two thousand years ago. We need to forego some of our certainties in favour of companying with God in the mists of uncertainty and change. There’s a proper sense in which we need to be “terrified” (awestruck might be a better word) and brought to our knees in a cloud, a foggy environment in which we do not place our trust in sight alone. God knows we need change in today’s world. God knows that we need a trusting faith, necessarily and intimately intertwined with hope and with love. God knows that alongside some of our religious and churchy “certainties” it is indeed sometimes the case that the merits of secularism shine brighter.

I don’t believe that the Church of England has actually been wiped entirely off the cultural map of British life, but unless we allow “the still small voice of calm” a bit more space centre stage, unless we’re prepared to move up a bit to make room for others of all faiths and of none, I can see that we’ll deserve to be. “Hush the noise ye men of strife and hear the angels sing” (E H Sears). So down with shibboleths and idols. My God, the God of Jesus of Nazareth who calls and inspires me, is Yahweh. He is One. He is Holy. And Yahweh’s paths are peace.

3 thoughts on “MERITS OF SECULARISM

  1. Simon, I left Christianity, became a Quaker and then a Quaker Jew, something I felt at peace with until the Yom Kippur War when I realized, I was not a convinced pacifist. I am happy being a Jew although probably not as religious as the Rabbi who converted might wish. He said to me right after the conversion–which follows the Jewish version of baptism a dunking in the Mikeh–“I have taught you the law, how you follow it is between you and G-d.” To me, man’s making salvation dependent on an intervening judge–and then making belief the primary key in being among the saved, has made peace on earth very difficult.. So in preaching for transformation, I hope you will consider that the Doctrine of Salvation has been across most centuries a tool in the hands of those who wage war. The fundamental Muslims took on the right to kill for G-d and many Christians have left it behind. Still li is there in the doctrine and I hope those of you working for transformation will take it out. I enjoy your posts, thank you for all the good you do.

  2. Thanks Katherine. You may have gathered that the American Quaker writer and teacher Parker J Palmer (and his “Circles of Trust”) is one of my heroes. In a world packed tight with human soteriologies I frequently think, as you do, that humanity may well need saving from its (various) doctrines of salvation. I’m sure that the path to spiritual wisdom and peace is almost certainly a great deal simpler than we human beings make it – whatsoever the particular tradition or path we follow. Peace to you. Thanks for saying hello 🙂

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