Sunday, 28 December 2008

Parris old and new: some differences Christianity makes

This will be quite a long and roundabout post taking in Christianity, sexuality and international development, mostly through the eyes of someone I have previously described as "one of those commentators I enjoy reading largely because I disagree with him about nearly everything" (nearly). Please stick with it.

Among the many boneheaded responses to the Pope's address to the Curia in Rome last week was a leading article in The Times, asserting that Benny is wrong to think that homosexuality is wrong, because actually it's "part of the natural order" and "according to nature". This reveals a serious confusion about the relevant meaning of "natural". If whatever happens in nature is "natural", then yes, same-sex attraction is "natural", but so is sexual attraction to children. Ditto if "according to nature" covers any inclination which someone just finds him/herself having. If these terms are supposed to mean something else, then what? This point is well known to Matthew Parris, another Times columnist and himself an atheist and a homosexual, who wrote back in 2003:
I found myself as an undergraduate powerfully drawn towards the sermons and writings of Joseph Butler. The persuasive, quiet sense of this early- 18th-century Bishop of Durham makes (as our college dean, Mark Santer, later to become Bishop of Birmingham, put it gently to me) “the best case one can” for the theory of natural religion.

By induction alone, Butler seems to suggest, we can draw from what we know of ourselves, of science, and of our world, a picture of the mind of God. He was suspicious of revelation. [...]

At university I tried very hard to convince myself (as one senses Butler was trying to convince himself) that this appeal to sense will do. I was wrestling with my own sexual leanings at the time (I was 19) and the idea that anything we find within ourselves must be put there for a purpose appealed. Interestingly, it is the Butlerian slant we get today from those Anglicans who advocate the ordination of gay bishops: God cannot reject any loving impulse He has implanted in men, they say. “Really?” I asked the shade of Joseph Butler at 19, and ask the modernists now: how about child- molesting?
He went on to say:
So this, in summary, is my charge against the Anglican modernists. Can they point to biblical authority for what, on any estimate, amounts to a disturbing challenge to the values assumed in both Testaments? No. Can they point to any divinely inspired religious leader since to whom has been revealed God’s benevolent intentions towards homosexuals? I know of no such saint or holy man. Most have taught the opposite.

Can they honestly say that they would have drawn from Christ’s teachings the same lessons of sexual tolerance in 1000, or 1590, or indeed 1950? Surely not, for almost no such voices were heard then.

In which case, to what does this “reform” amount? Like the changes to Church teaching on divorce or Sunday observance, the new tolerance gains its force within the Anglican Communion from a fear of becoming isolated from changing public morals. Is that a reason for a Christian to modify his own morality? I cannot recall that Moses took this view of golden calf worship. Whispering beneath the modernisers’ soft aspirational language of love and tolerance, I hear an insistent “when in Rome, we must do as the Romans do. Times have changed.” Gays in particular should be very wary of that message; some of us remember when it was used against us, and such a time may come again.
This makes the point better than I have. It's not really coherent to say to a Christian that it's fine to believe in God, provided it's not a God who could actually tell us anything. The time may come again when people like the leader writer are actually grateful that "natural law" is considered "immutable", because mutable cultural mores can drift in disturbing directions, as witnessed in recent history. I wonder if they talk to each other in the Times offices.

Indeed, it is not necessary to go back in time to find disturbing or depressing cultural mores, as Parris has written more recently:
There's long been a fashion among Western academic sociologists for placing tribal value systems within a ring fence, beyond critiques founded in our own culture: “theirs” and therefore best for “them”; authentic and of intrinsically equal worth to ours.

I don't follow this. I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the “big man” and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition.

Anxiety - fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things - strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won't take the initiative, won't take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.
So, what can be done about this situation? Parris' answer: Christianity. He is an atheist, but he believes that Christianity is the solution to Africa's problems.
Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good. [...]

Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I've just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.
Over at Anglican Mainstream, Stephen Noll has written an unnecessarily aggressive response to Parris, who is to be commended for his honesty and whose article is emphatically recommended as he says more than I have addressed here. One important point which Noll does make, however, is that as Christians we do not hold the view that the west is the best. There are deep problems in British society, too, and we need Christ here just as much as in Africa. I think I'll pray for that now.

Related posts:
Parris on miracles and progress - Not all my responses to Parris' writings are the same
Henry Orombi on Anglicanism - Another post taking in sexuality and the effects of evangelism in Africa (in this case, Uganda)

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Book review: William Wilberforce by William Hague

Hague, William, William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner (London: Harper Collins, 2007)

Relased to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807, this detailed and engaging biography really makes clear the moral conviction, determination and no small degree of political skill that enabled Wilberforce (1759 - 1833) to lead the campaign against first the slave trade, and then slavery itself, for so many years. In so doing, it provides well-reasoned answers to questions like: Why did Wilberforce first campaign against the slave trade, and not slavery itself? Was abolition inevitable for purely economic factors? How strong was his influence in advancing the cause of abolition outside of the British Empire?

This book also shows how the aforementioned qualities combined to make Wilberforce perhaps the last and greatest truly independent British politician, from his election to the House of Commons in 1780 to his retirement in 1826. A close friend of William Pitt (the younger) from a young age, and often instinctively socially conservative, Wilberforce nevertheless was not afraid to oppose Pitt and his Tory government on issues as serious as war with France. When there was a constitutional crisis over the divorce of Prince George (the future George IV) and Caroline of Brunswick, Wilberforce's political independence made him the ideal mediator in many people's eyes at the time.

Hague makes no attempt to play down the importance of a profound (Evangelical) Christian faith to Wilberforce's work. After a time spent with a Methodist aunt and uncle as a teenager, and conversations with Isaac Milner later, Wilberforce gave his life to Christ in 1785. Pitt was surprised, but convinced his friend that his Christian convictions would be best served by continuing in public life. After meeting leading abolitisionists in 1787, and encouraged by John Newton and John Wesley, Wilberforce took up the leadership of the parliamentary campaign for abolition. His Christian faith also led him to support a myriad of charities and to campaign for the opening up of India to missionaries.

Overall, this is a sympathetic but not sycophantic account of a truly remarkable life from a very able author who on the one hand obviously admires his subject's politcal abilities, and on the other understands his Yorkshire roots. If Hague is nevertheless occasionally bemused by Wilberforce's Evangelical Christianity, that is to his loss, but not the reader's. Recommended.

A belated Christmas message

Happy Christmas!