On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, by the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, was published in 1799. It was a time of marked hostility to a Christian faith exposed as childish and outdated by modern science, revolutionary politics and a renewed sense of cultural sophistication amongst the intelligentsia. The book set the tone for establishment theologies for over a hundred years. Thanks to Schleiermacher, the institutional or civilisational aspects of Christianity could be seen as conditioned by history, and thus expendable as society changes. Yet he claimed there was a true essence of Christianity: the ever-present religious instinct in humanity — something that always endures but just takes shape in different ways.
This came to mind whilst watching the reception to Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s piece, “Why I am Now a Christian”. The key realisations that led Ali to faith include the fact that freedom of conscience and freedom of speech are hard-won by centuries old debates amongst Jews and Christians, along with the fact that we all need some spiritual comfort, or life becomes unbearable. Her insights join a developing turn to Christianity in the discourse. There’s Jordan Peterson’s oft-repeated comment that Catholicism is “as sane as people can get” — not to mention Tom Holland’s Dominion, showing the manifold benefits of Christian civilisation aside from questions around faith, as such. After years of being sidelined, Christianity is a contender once again.
Schleiermacher’s influence almost disappeared with the First World War. Apparently Christian, Protestant nations had sent millions to a senseless death in the trenches, with each side believing it was doing God’s will. The German soldiers had as a motto “In the Name of God, Amen”, just as the British recited prayers from the Book of Common Prayer before going over the top. The luminaries of German theology had all signed a Manifesto in 1914, arguing that the war was a battle for German cultural superiority — claiming that Goethe, Beethoven, Kant were “just as sacred as its own hearths and homes”.
In the chaos that followed Germany’s defeat, a generation of firebrand theological edgelords appeared in the 1920s, arguing that Schleiermacher was to blame for all this. Faith is an unfathomable miracle granted by God alone, they said, not a product of some human instinct for the divine. However we try to make sense of it in our own terms, and to domesticate it to suit the world’s norms, faith always disrupts and destroys the vain pretensions of prideful and arrogant human beings. It was time to stop trying to restrain this absolutely uncontrollable reality by making it palatable to its cultured despisers, because that just dragged the faith down to the human level — making civilisational phenomena like the music of Beethoven seem themselves sacred.
I converted to Christianity when I was 25 and working in the City. I had, for some years, been living a life that was radically opposed to everything Christianity means. Yet, in an inexorably certain but devastatingly unwelcome moment, I realised not only that I believed in God, but I was even going to have to seek baptism. I could say no one was more surprised than me about this, but that wouldn’t be quite true. Other people I knew were more surprised. My girlfriend of the time sat me down one day and said she was just about able to understand all my strange fads and peculiar choices of reading material — but this was a step too far.
To convert whilst working in the City in the Noughties felt profoundly culturally alienating. I’d arrive early in the morning to the old London Bridge station, which was then a labyrinthine maze of elevated walkways and subterranean passages. It was like being in the very bowels of Mammon, re-imagined as a painting by H. R. Giger. Being in the pre-2008 financial sector, the “ethos” of my place of work was rough-edged Thatcherism — “we exist to make as much money as possible as quickly as possible,” my boss had told me on my first day. My peers read mostly Zoo and Nuts, and popular culture had begun slipping into a level of pornification impossible to imagine just a few years previously. On Friday afternoons, from around 2pm, a chorus of sniffs would be given forth from the cubicles in the gents, before remarkably animated colleagues reappeared at their desks to argue about which bar we were going to that night.
There was a radical de-centering of all those values the world held dear
I abruptly stopped attending the Friday festivities. I sneaked off from the office most days at lunchtime to a weekday Mass in a nearby Church. It was like entering a completely different world — an inversion of this world, the ultimate transgression of the dominant culture in which I lived. Mammon lay slain at the door. In the first few minutes kneeling in the pews, there’d be a radical de-centering of all those values the world held dear. I’d return to work feeling re-oriented by the uncontrollable centre of human life — the miracle of being restored to our origin out of nothing, after accepting the dereliction and dismay of the world.
I felt much closer to those renegade theologians of the 1920s than I did to Schleiermacher. It was the contradictory, counter-cultural and radical elements of the Christianity which captured my imagination back then. I read “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or St Theresa of Lisieux saying, “I desire only to suffer and be forgotten.” As my colleagues raged through the City’s bars on Friday nights, I would pray a line from Psalm 88: “You have taken away my friends, and made me hateful in their sight.”
A year or so later I entered University to study theology and left that dystopia behind me. It was clear enough there that only a small, and very niche, group of people would come from a Western background and study theology in the 21st century. Had we been told that Christianity would re-enter the public square in our lifetimes, I suspect most would not have believed it possible.
As the Ali piece demonstrates, we were wrong. This is no small matter. It is not at all unusual now to read about how empirical evidence shows that outcomes are best for kids from the sorts of families mandated by scripture and tradition. It is becoming increasingly common for people to point out that the pill, and promiscuity, are destructive to women’s well-being. There are a multitude of current issues which show how a civilisational Christianity is simply advantageous to people’s best interests — for Western values like freedom of speech, democracy, toleration and human dignity all have their bases in religious sources.
The Schleiermacher paradigm has gone into reverse. We now have a range of cultured admirers of Christianity. Indeed, even the detail of his argument is reversed as well. When Ali says that Christianity has outgrown “its dogmatic stage”, it’s the civilisational elements of Christianity being presented as the true essence, with the reality of the faith itself as ephemeral. Dogma is teaching beyond your control, teaching not accountable to your way of viewing things, teaching not in any way meant to accommodate the world’s preferences.
Some might well decide elements of Christian teaching align with their view of things. Some might well experience the religion facilitating a more fulfilling experience of life. Some might be surprised that established religious norms around birth, sex and death offer remarkably effective correctives for many contemporary ills. Others might indeed be convinced that nearly all they think best about the political realm is exemplified by the Christian tradition. The problem with all of this is that Christianity then merely expresses or encourages already existing commitments. The reality is that unless human life, individual and social, is disrupted and decentred by that which is entirely beyond your reckoning, the religion has become just another ideology, another worldview.
The civilisational benefits of the Christian religion are mere by-products of the religion itself. Faith is radically uncontrollable, and it is just as active in despair and dereliction as it is in moments of great historical achievement. If your Christianity promises to improve life in a worldly sense, it probably isn’t that Christian.
The apostles didn’t lay down their nets to become fishers of self-fulfilment. The mystics didn’t emaciate themselves through fasting to defend our freedom of speech. The martyrs didn’t die for the good educational outcomes of stable families. At the centre of anything purporting to be Christian must always be the radically disruptive reality of lives being lived, and societies being led, in ways which are not of our choosing.
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