Reading newspapers encourages a rather juvenile partisanship where we seem to almost develop crushes on particular journalists whose work we agree with and wordsmithing we like – regardless of gender or pulchritude . It’s impertinent to name names, so I won’t. It’s customary for some of them to write something ‘religious’ and even those specifically tasked to do so tend to be vague about matters where they have to nail a particular theological position to their masts because if they’re a bit too strident , evangelical even, they get in trouble with their editor and have to endure raucous jeering in the comments section. But, at least they get to ask the hard questions and therefore, as their readers, so do we.
It’s Easter – or Eostre – again so if there were a day in the year on which cultural Christians might think about the possibility of eternal things, it would be today. Easter Day and the week running up to it tell the central story of our civilisation, a story of suffering, humiliation, redemption and ultimate triumph. Many people believe fully in the revealed truth of that story, others hold their doubt uneasily. One Passover, Douglas Murray (The Strange Death of Europe) once – rather rudely, I thought – asked a rabbi: would he agree that a fair proportion of his congregation did not believe in God? Demonstrating a masterly ability at wrong-footing, he replied calmly, “Oh most of them, I expect.” I know a lady who attends synagogue with scrupulously virtuous regularity who unhesitatingly admits to her non-belief. As those of us from a Christian background arrive at one of the holiest days in our own tradition, if so many dared to be honest, they might cough sheepishly and say the same. We reluctantly belong without believing.
All surveys show a sharp decline in traditional Christian religious belief in Britain. In the 1980s, 40% of our population said they were Anglican Christians, mumbling ‘C of E’ when fillling out a form at the hospital. Today the figure is 15%. In her history of religion in Britain since 1945, the sociology professor Grace Davie identified our preferred practice of “believing without belonging”. But over recent decades Britain’s Christians have increasingly shown themselves disinclined either to belong or to believe. We don’t believe in God, don’t go to church and decreasingly wish even to acknowledge membership of that funny little club. Yet our awkward attitude towards our historic faith often asserts itself, usually frivolously, at this time of year since we seem to belong to a culture that has little idea of what to do with Easter other than to give chocolate rabbits to children. Over recent years, however, if we’ve kept on top of the cultural tensions that fuel our thinking, this humanist-atheist view of modern liberalism has taken rather a beating. More and more of us have travelled around the world and noticed what some religious leaders had unpopularly insisted: that what we have developed in western Europe in our culture of rights, including human rights, is not just historically unusual but unusual at this present moment. Today, there is a growing admission that what we have did not emerge from nothing but grew largely from the philosophy and foundations of the faith we’ve all spent recent decades shrugging off. Whether we like it or not, we have embedded in the warp of our own intellectual history truths we’ve spent a long time either excusing, denying or resisting: that our political liberalism, sensitivity to racism and homophobia, our acceptance of others – the laissez-faire we enjoy – and even the existence of a welfare state derive not from lofty enlightenment but from our faith. Perhaps we are Christians whether we like it or not, having a hard time, as Bob Dylan remarked, accepting things that overwhelm us.
Many devout Christians will be attending church this morning. But what might be the approach of those who cannot literally believe or are actively disinclined to believe, but who are just as much products of Christianity as a rabbi’s congregation are products of Judaism? Not all doubters and non-believers adopt the sneeringly hostile stance towards their historic faith that celebrity atheists do. Although some believers may scoff, and other atheists may frown, to have some engagement with the Easter or Passover narrative is not only to seek a relationship with our past but to engage seriously with the questions of our present and future. There’ll be those who brave the crowds and squeeze into a pew this morning – were I robustly healed I would have been among them – joining the ones who are not believing, and not quite belonging. But are not filled with rejection either, instead making room for hope.