Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Second Sunday of Epiphany 2016
Start Date 17th Jan 2016 10:00am

The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence

There is an 'undeclared civil war' going on Europe, says political philosopher, Larry Siedentop in a recent book. Between religion and secularism. Sadly, I think he's right.

This civil war between religion and secularism has ebbed and flowed, varying in different parts of Europe. The extreme anti-clericalism of revolutionary France, and suppression of religion in 19th- and 20th-century Marxism, has perhaps lost momentum; likewise the recent but now fading anti-religious rhetoric of Anglo-Saxon new atheism, of Hitchens and Dawkins: their palpably unfair criticism of religion, and their own blinkered scientific fundamentalism, has been self-defeating. But the conflict still smoulders underground. Dig down and old antagonisms soon resurface. As soon as any formal recognition of the Christian roots of Europe is proposed, for example in the constitution of the European Union, a strident opposition from secularists soon re-emerges. As it does in UK debates about the role of religion in education. Equally, a fierce religious reaction still resurfaces whenever religious institutions feel under threat: it wasn't that long ago that Pope Benedict XVI issued his battle cry for all religions to show solidarity specifically against secularism. And I do not think this underlying animosity will disappear. Not least due to globalisation and mass migration. One of the unintended consequences of exporting secular western culture has been to fuel extremist religious reaction abroad, which is then imported back through migration to fuel tensions at home too, prompting in turn more extreme secular opposition to all religion. So, yes, I fear Siedentop is right: there is still this civil war smouldering.

The tragedy—and irony—of it is that it's often unnecessary. There should be an alliance, not war, if not between all religion and all secularism, then certainly between Christian faith, at its best, and secular humanism, at its best because, in fact, many of our core moral priorities are shared—not only shared, but mutually indebted. In particular, our common concern of valuing all humanity equally.

I touched on the equal value of us all briefly last week, as one of the best aspects of Christian faith we need to celebrate. So, let me now say more about it, and how we should be able to celebrate it with secular movements, not over against them.

First, within Christian faith itself, we should understand just how significant it is. When Christian faith championed human equality it was a moral revolution! It overturned the exclusivism of the ancient world, in which people's value and identity was determined not primarily by their common humanity, but by belonging to a particular family, state, religion. In contrast, Christian faith insisted on equal value simply by being human, made in the image of the One God, reconciled equally through God's universally effective act in Christ, who died for all, and who himself demonstrated in a human life how to break through particularities and prejudices, how to learn to respect equally the marginalised, women, children, Gentiles. A vision famously expressed by St Paul when he said that in Christ 'there is no Greek nor Jew, nor Gentile—all are one'. A vision repeated 800 years later by an archbishop of Lyon: in Christ 'there is neither Scythian, nor Aquitainian, nor Lombard, nor Burgundian…all are one.' A vision, in Paul's terms, which is a profound law of liberty, precisely because it sets us free from all social laws which elevate some people over others. As I said last week, Christian faith has, shamefully, not always carried that vision through fully in social practice. It's still learning, sometimes lagging behind some secular humanisms. Yet the vision itself certainly is truly, distinctively, centrally, Christian.

But then, as such, where is the quarrel with modern secular humanism with its notions of equal human rights? Secularism may claim a different basis for them, but their substance is surely much the same in faith. Which isn't surprising when in fact many humanist views derived originally from Christianity! It was Christian faith, more than pre-Christian classical views, which helped shaped those enlightenment ideas of human equality in the first place.

In other words, some of the best of secularism's concern for liberty and equality is actually Christianity's gift to secularism. A gift which is then returned by liberal secular order to benefit Christian faith when it gives space to religion precisely because of that commitment to liberty and equality (as it has done for example in the US); a gift returned to us also when it helps recall us to our own vision when we fail to live up to it ourselves.

A mutual indebtedness, then, and so an ironic and unnecessary conflict. A tragic conflict too, for when the seeds of conflict do take root in the soil of our souls, that's when we create the distortions and extremes of religion and secularism which do necessarily oppose each other.

So, how can we defuse the conflict?

Just a better understanding of these best aspects of our faith, and how they've contributed to the secular world, should help. At the very least it should help our language become less confrontational. When we encounter secular humanism with language of universal human dignity expressed in secular dress, we shouldn't demean it by feeling we always have to replace it with our religious language. For if we've truly understood that Christian faith helped give birth to this sort of humanism, that it's our child, we'll want to value it, not demean it.

Even more important, it will help when faith can join forces with secular humanism in action, not just language, even more than we already do. Positive social action! This defuses mutual suspicion as nothing else can. There was clear testimony to this in the aftermath of the London riots of 2011; in the admiration for faith communities expressed by previously sceptical secular agencies and hard-bitten journalists, when they discovered just how much positive good work faith groups were doing in those communities.

Do we fear such an alliance will dilute our faith, our distinctive religious identity, our relationship with God himself? It shouldn't! Since, I believe, all language and action in the service of human dignity actually derives ultimately from God, so it will lead back to God. Far from diluting faith, it will help lead some humanists back to faith. It compels us all to think more deeply about the true origins of all good action. As another bishop of Lyon said, it's when we are fully alive as human beings, that we shall find the true glory of God.

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