No sects please, we're British

A History of Religion in Britain - Faith and Criticism - The Christian God - Religion in Modern Britain
December 15, 1995

Just as transcendental meditation took the Hinduism out of yoga, the Body Shop has taken the esoteric out of essential oils." So claims Steve Bruce (with evidence from the Body Shop's own promotional material on aromatherapy). It is one of the examples he uses to show how the modernisation of the western world has led to a generally secular orientation. He is well aware that this secularisation theory has been criticised but he believes that alleged evidence against it, such as New Age spirituality and the rise of religious fundamentalism, is found on closer inspection to be compatible with the theory.

Bruce writes as a sociologist and he treats us to a fair share of the statistics that are the tools of his craft. They paint a familiar picture: the Church of England has less than 4 per cent of the adult population as active members and 88 per cent of its clergy are more than 40 years old; total church attendance in England and Wales has dropped from 50 per cent of adults in 1850 to less than 10 per cent in 1990; a quarter of English teenagers questioned in 1992 had been involved with ouija; and so on. But his Religion in Modern Britain offers far more than predictable figures. It is a concise and highly readable account of the recent history and current state of the major religious groups in Britain, with clear and non-judgemental summaries of their central beliefs and traditions. It is also an attempt to interpret changes in the pattern of religious life in the context of the changes in life generally over the past 100 years or so.

Bruce divides religious groups into two classes: those that see their own organisation as the uniquely legitimate bearer of truth and those that accept a spiritual pluralism, with true insights shared between different traditions. Within each class he then distinguishes two categories: those groups that are viewed by the outside world as "respectable" and those that are treated as "deviant". In his terminology, the first class contains the categories "church" (respectable) and "sect" (deviant). The second pair of categories are "denominations" (respectable) and "cults" (deviant). What distinguishes them from the first pair in Bruce's typology is their acceptance of spiritual plurality. Bruce's use of the term "cult" is idiosyncratic. In everyday speech, a cult implies a sect; he applies the word to loosely knit groups that lack any sharply defined and exclusive belief system, such as many elements in the New Age movement.

This analysis of religion in Britain today concludes that the chief characteristic of modern life is the central importance of the individual. This is reflected in the acceptance of pluralism, that is, in the shift from churches and sects to denominations and cults, and it is this which is the key to understanding secularisation.

One Christian response to secularisation has been liberal theology, defined by Basil Mitchell as a contemporary theology prepared to establish and support religious claims by rational argument, and given a robust defence in his Faith and Criticism. Among the liberal theologians he distinguishes between those whose primary concern is to safeguard the tradition and those who want above all to do full justice to modern discoveries and contemporary experience. The tension between the two is vital to their enterprise.

Against postmodernist and existentialist radicals, Mitchell's liberals maintain the traditional claim "that Christianity has a truth to impart about the world and man's place in it in the light of which salvation is to be understood". Against biblical and doctrinal fundamentalists they affirm "that we have available to us sources of knowledge which are independent of the Christian tradition and which, since truth is one, need to be in some way brought into relation with it".

Mitchell argues that faith and criticism are interdependent and that both are essential, not only in religion but in any serious endeavour. Faith, because unless we are committed to a venture and believe that it is soundly based, we shall give up at the first setback and never achieve anything. Criticism, because there must be a willingness to learn from experience, to alter course, even to abandon a misconceived project altogether.

Having shown that, as a general proposition, rational criticism is compatible with (and indeed essential for) the holding of firm convictions, Mitchell sets about applying this to religion. He argues first for the reinstatement of a form of natural theology, with a genuinely explanatory role to play. Here he challenges the relativistic critique that says rational criticism of large-scale systems and world views is impossible because "we have no neutral ground on which to stand". He then explores the implications of his position for morality and religious education.

Mitchell offers a lucid and persuasive account of today's theological landscape. If he fails in the end to convince this reader to embrace again his liberal theology, it is for two reasons. First, he points out that science is as vulnerable as theology to Hume's empirical critique, but he does not show why this should lead us to restore an explanatory role for the latter rather than remove it from the former. Second, he fails to recognise that what makes a Christian doctrine "true" is not its descriptive accuracy of some divine action but the fact that Christians accept it as true.

Nobody would accuse Richard Swinburne of being a theological liberal, but he is certainly committed to making a rational defence of traditional theism. Now, in The Christian God, he builds on his earlier work and goes further in the direction of the distinctive Christian doctrines of Trinity and incarnation. Assuming that God, if he exists at all, must be eminently good, Swinburne develops an a priori case for there being three divine individuals - no more and no less. His only logical alternatives are trinitarianism and atheism. Turning to incarnation, he first argues that it is logically possible for one person to be both human and divine, and then looks at the evidence for its actually having happened.

The obvious criticism of the traditional Christian formulae is their self-contradiction: God cannot logically be both three and one; Christ cannot logically be both fully human and fully divine. The history of doctrine already contains every possible variation on this exercise in squaring the circle, so where does Swinburne's attempt fit on the map? His picture of Christ is reminiscent of the heretic Apollinarius, who said that in Christ the human soul was replaced as the personal decision-making centre by the divine Word. Swinburne sees this danger and tries to avoid it by insisting that he is using "soul" in its Aristotelian rather than its Platonic sense. He then invokes Freudian "split-mind" psychology to account for the existence in Christ of both a human and a divine consciousness, but this in turn means that he has to deny the universally held scholastic doctrines of the coinherence of Christ's two natures and the hypostatisation of his human soul. Setting aside the jargon, this means that Swinburne has done what every attempt to explain the paradox of the incarnation has to do: sacrifice at least one of the three elements in the Christ equation (full humanity, full divinity, full personal unity) for the sake of the other two. In this instance it is the full humanity which has been lost.

On the Trinity, Swinburne agrees that taken at face value the traditional formula is nonsense. But he argues that the early theologians must have been aware of this and therefore cannot have meant quite what they said. They must have used the single word God (theos, deus) to mean two slightly different things, one of which allows the statement that there is one God, and the other that each of three individuals is God. He has dissolved the paradox by re-definition.

Swinburne's achievement - and it is no mean one - is to give a coherent contemporary account of Christian theism. What he has not done is to show that his account is the only legitimate development of patristic or scholastic doctrine, and he has admitted that his presentation requires the abandoning of certain positions (for example, on the relation of God to time) that were for centuries regarded as the Christian view. He has had to develop a metaphysic that will accommodate what he regards as the essential elements of the Christian doctrine of God. That manoeuvre is not self-evidently superior to the decision of his arch-opponent Don Cupitt, in his search for a contemporary expression of Christianity, to abandon metaphysics altogether.

If you are wanting to put all this philosophical theology into perspective, you might do worse than immerse yourself in A History of Religion in Britain. Covering 2,000 years in 500 pages was never going to be easy, and the authors' success is mixed. In Gerald Bonner's chapter on Anglo-Saxon England, the names of places and people tumble over one another, and the tendency to produce an endless litany of names and dates is a recurrent problem with the book. The reader longs to slow down. It is perhaps Clyde Binfield's delightfully evocative and anecdotal chapter on "English evangelical nonconformity and culture, 18401940" that comes closest to providing a respite.

A related shortcoming is the the lack of information on the content of the religious beliefs held by the various individuals and communities mentioned. Perhaps this partly reflects the stated aim of the book to be a survey of recent scholarship concerned with the history of religion in Britain (rather than a study of the subject itself). If so, then the subtitle reference to "practice and belief" is somewhat misleading. The closing section on modern Britain, for example, suffers in this regard by comparison with Bruce's book, in which an overtly sociological study still allows space for outlines of beliefs. Given the limitations of its format, however, this survey remains a valuable overview of religious change as part of social change in Britain.

Revd Anthony Freeman is managing editor, Journal of Consciousness Studies.

A History of Religion in Britain: Practice and Belief from Pre-Roman to the Present

Editor - Sheridan Gilley and W.J. Sheils
ISBN - 0 631 15281 4 and 19378 2
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £50.00 and £14.99
Pages - 590

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