The Gospel of Hope

Bishop Paul Richardson the good news of the Church

‘As I stepped through the Holy Door at the beginning of the Great Year of Jubilee,’ writes Pope John Paul II, ‘I held high the Book of the Gospels, to show it to the Church and to the world.’ The quotation comes from Ecclesia in Europa, an Apostolic Exhortation published in June of this year in response to the synod of European bishops held in Rome in 1999. The message of the Exhortation is one of hope, hope for the Church and hope for Europe. The Pope bases this hope on the gospel, on Jesus Christ who himself is the good news and who is alive in his Church.

Silent Apostasy

But although the pontiff speaks of hope, he is not blind to the challenges confronting the Church in contemporary Europe. With his customary ability to go to the heart of the problem, he speaks of the way in which European culture gives the impression of a ‘silent apostasy’ on the part of people ‘who have all they need and who live as if God does not exist.’

Faced by a society that appears indifferent to the Church and by internal divisions as well as institutional decline, it is hard for members of the Church of England to feel hopeful about the future. But if we do believe in the gospel, it should give us hope. On this issue the Bishop of Rome receives support from a surprising source. David Jenkins, preaching in Pusey House many years before his elevation to the episcopate, told his congregation that ‘the Church does not need a gospel which is "relevant". The Church is created by the Gospel and continues to exist because the God of the Gospel keeps her in existence. What the Church needs is to be faithful to the Gospel, to the God of the gospel.’ If you seek to be relevant, he went on to warn, you are being conformed to the world. In his usual breathless tones, Jenkins argued that the Church must certainly be involved with the world but from a position of faithful obedience. We are not alone. There is a God, he is for man, and therefore there is hope. (See The Needs of the Church Today, sermons delivered in Pusey House, 1964, edited by FH Maycock).

Contradictions

To see how the gospel offers hope to Western society we need to examine the contradictions that lie at the heart of our contemporary culture. The Pope himself speaks of the way in which a loss of Christian memory has been accompanied by ‘a kind of fear of the future’. As examples of this he instances the declining birth rate, the fall in vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, and the outright refusal of many to make lifelong commitments, including marriage. This diagnosis receives plenty of confirmation from other sources. In James Wood’s novel The Book Against God the marriage of the central character, an atheist but God-obsessed philosopher called Thomas Bunting, falls apart because he deceives his wife and denies her the chance to conceive a child.

‘What right do I have to bring life into the world?’ asks Bunting. ‘To create a person who at some stage in his life might wish he were dead? Who might complain to me – his father – that he had never asked to be born?’ By way of contrast, Bunting’s own father, an Anglican priest, tells him that while as a young man his own faith was flickering he could still not imagine a world without God and that this gave him the confidence for paternity.

Futurophobias

Fear of the future takes many forms. There is widespread anxiety about the unforeseen consequences of scientific advances that appear to offer many advantages but may also carry hidden risks. At times this anxiety is taken to extraordinary lengths. The Prince of Wales is worried that nanotechnology – an emerging science that involves the use of tiny machines made from atoms and molecules – could get out of control and turn the world into a ‘grey goo’. The consensus of experts is that this is pure science fiction but I suspect that popular opinion will be with the Prince. In American and Australia people have been eating food containing genetically modified ingredients for a decade but Europeans, traumatized by mad cow disease, are reluctant to follow their example. Scare stories about Sars, mobile phones, or the millennium bug soon lead to panic.

Popular alarm often has good cause. Terrorism is a real threat and within the next decade we could well see a devastating attack involving biological weapons. But despite the rational grounds for some of the fears felt about the future, it is impossible not to wonder if another factor is at work. Existentialist thinkers like to distinguish between fear, directed to an actual or potential source of danger, and the sense of anxiety or dread we experience when we discover are not at home in the universe and have no control over our final destiny.

In existentialist thought, angst accompanies human creatureliness and finitude. It grows with the realization that we are thrown into a world we cannot completely master. For a time in the second half of the twentieth century it became popular to speak of ‘man come of age’ and to believe that science would make it possible for human beings to shape the future. Today the talk is of the ‘Risk Society’ and of the dangers that can follow on the tail of scientific progress.

Faith, Hope and Human Worth

In the end, only faith in God can help us to overcome our sense of anxiety and re-assure us that existence is meaningful. In a similar way, perhaps only the knowledge of the Creator and of his purposes for the world can encourage us to keep an eye on scientific advance and to decide that not every innovation should be allowed just because it is possible.

In Ecclesia in Europa the Pope warns that the demise of faith leads to loss of hope for the future. On other occasions he has pointed to the way in which the decline of religious belief leads to a diminished regard for human life and human worth, to a loss of hope for humanity. Again, he receives support from a surprising source. John Gray is Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics. In Straw Dogs he argues that Western humanism is still living off the capital accumulated by Christianity. In teaching that human beings are somehow special and different from other animals, humanism is advocating a belief for which there is no support once the accompanying claptrap about God, incarnation, and immortality is taken away.

Other animals are born, seek mates, forage for food and die but we think we are different. We act under the illusion that we are persons capable of rational choice and imagine that consciousness raises us above other animals. For Gray, Western philosophy has been a ‘masked ball in which a religious image of mankind is renewed in the guise of humanist ideas of progress and enlightenment’.

Now the time has come to remove the mask and accept the fact that human beings are just animals. Once we have come to that conclusion, we will understand that spiritual life is not a search for meaning but a release from it. Other animals have no need of finding a meaning in life and nor should we. DH Lawrence’s short story The Escaped Cock, in which Jesus comes back from the dead only to give up the hope of saving mankind, is quoted with approval. Even the case for atheism is rejected by Gray; to argue along those lines is to continue thinking in categories dictated by Christianity.

A Challenge to Humanism

The real challenge of Straw Dogs is to liberal humanism. Gray shares the Pope’s opinion that humanist values depend upon Christian belief for support. This does not trouble Gray since he wants to leave humanism behind but it should trouble all those who continue to affirm their belief in human dignity, human rights and the sanctity of life, but are unable to offer a convincing philosophical framework to give coherence to their convictions.

Just 25 years after Peter Singer produced his groundbreaking book Animal Rights, there are signs that politicians are moving in the direction Gray outlines. It is not only Cardinal Murphy O’Connor who is surprised that the House of Commons is prepared to devote more time to fox hunting than it is to topics affecting the welfare of human beings. In the Cardinal’s case, he instanced the lack of debate on abortion and the rights of the unborn but the New Statesman denounced Labour MPs for tolerating poverty and inequality and war in Iraq but drawing the line at the sight of a frightened fox.

Germany recently added the words ‘and animals’ to a clause to its constitution that obliges the state to respect and protect the dignity of human beings. Human beings certainly have a duty to look after the welfare of animals and defend them from unnecessary pain. But to accept this point is a long way from arguing the rights of animals and human beings should be placed on the same level. Rights must be balanced by responsibilities. It is difficult to see how we can speak of animal rights when we cannot conceive of animals having responsibilities.

Compassion Fatigue

Human beings can be very annoying. They often frustrate our hopes and fail to live up to our expectations. ‘Compassion fatigue’ easily sets in. We wonder whether other people really are worthy objects of our care and attention. All kinds of reasons present themselves to excuse further effort on our part. Might not the best way to force someone to shape up be to abandon him and let him learn to stand on his own feet? In the face of stupidity and recalcitrance, can we be blamed for leaving people to their own devices? Only the knowledge that other people are children of God, made in the divine image and precious in the Father’s sight, grounds our belief that human beings must always be ends in themselves and not instruments to be expended in some greater cause.

Faith in the future, hope for humanity – the list ways in which the gospel has had an impact on Western culture to provide a sense of meaning and purpose could be extended. Peter Brown’s recent monograph Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire shows how the gospel brought new hope to the poor of the later Roman world, changing the way people thought about them and opening the way for them to receive help and relief. In Brown’s words ‘it was Christian bishops who invented the poor’. To argue in this way is not to deny that secular developments like the Enlightenment had a contribution to make.

Very often values shaped under Christian impulse were given a wider application as a result of secular pressures. Before the advent of the Enlightenment and the separation of church and state it would have been difficult for a society that thought of itself as Christian to concede equal rights for unbelievers but the basis for just such an unconditioned respect for human dignity is there in the biblical teaching that human beings are made in the image of God. The early Church may have begun by caring for the poor within its own ranks but it was not difficult for Constantine to encourage the followers of a Christ who himself willingly embraced poverty for the salvation of the human race to spread their charity to all who were in need.

And the CofE?

What of hope for the Church? Does the gospel hold out hope at a time when attendance statistics in the Church of England are going down and resources are overstretched? Although the promise is given in the New Testament that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, we must remember that this assurance is given to the Church as a whole. No guarantee is offered to any one section of the Church. A once flourishing part of the Church in North Africa is now no more. All over the Middle East ancient Christian churches have disappeared or tremble on the brink of extinction.

Grace Davie has argued that in Europe people continue to believe in much of the gospel even if they are not active church members. She sees practising Christians as ‘vicarious believers’ who keep the memory of the gospel alive for those who are not regular attenders. In nations where tax revenue enables the churches to function as public utilities this may be enough to secure their survival. In Britain we depend upon the support of committed members.

Christ lives in the Church and his spirit continues to guide her and sustain her. There is hope for the Church if we trust in Christ’s presence and seek to convey to our contemporaries the richness and excitement of the ‘faith once delivered to the saints’.

 

Paul Richardson is Assistant Bishop of Newcastle.

 

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