Christopher Smith reflects on the Christian Mind
News travels slowly to my little patch without the city wall. I have just discovered that Harry Blamires has died. Truth to tell, I was quite surprised to discover that he had still been alive until a couple of years ago, having reached the age of 101, but I realise how little I know about him, so do talk to me about him if you met him. He was an Oxford pupil of C.S. Lewis. I bought a copy of The Christian Mind to try to atone for my ignorance, and was delighted to find it still in print. It came out in 1963, just a few weeks after the publication of J.A.T. Robinson’s Honest to God.
A piece of news that took less time to reach me (given that this is the sort of thing that the media are obsessed by nowadays) was that a pop star has declared that he wants to be described as ‘they’ not ‘he’, because he is ‘non-binary’. Not being a follower of what Blamires called ‘the cult of the pop singer’, I had never heard of this bearded superstar, but his attention-seeking announcement did cause the following sentence to be published in the Daily Telegraph: ‘In a post to their 13.4 million followers on Instagram, the chart-topping singer-songwriter said they had come to the decision after spending “a lifetime of being at war” with their gender.’ Use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun may be preposterous, but at least the hyphenation is correct. All is not lost.
In other news, the son of the former IRA chief Martin McGuinness said that his father ‘fought against injustices’ and ‘fought for equality for everyone’. This is another, more insidious, perversion of the meaning of words, but it is equally influenced by modern mores: the IRA campaign of bombing, murder and intimidation was not in any way a matter of ‘equality’.
To return to Harry Blamires, although The Christian Mind is very clearly a work of its time (‘The nature of a Sherry Party is such that serious conversation is impossible’), he hammered home the point that secularism ‘had infiltrated into every part of intellectual life, and had been swallowed whole by liberal Christians, who failed to see how they had succumbed to the spirit of the age.’ i* And this is precisely the brick wall on which we find ourselves banging our heads to this day—‘The Surrender to Secularism’, as he called it in a chapter heading under which he wrote this passage:
‘There is no longer a Christian mind. It is a commonplace that the mind of modern man has been secularised. For instance, it has been deprived of any orientation towards the supernatural. Tragic as this fact is, it would not be so desperately tragic had the Christian mind held out against the secular drift. But unfortunately the Christian mind has succumbed to the secular drift with a degree of weakness and nervelessness unmatched in Christian history. It is difficult to do justice to the complete loss of intellectual morale in the twentieth-century Church.’
It is, for us, a double bind. ‘Modern man’ is certainly secular, but the modern churchman has let slide ‘the view which sets all earthly issues within the context of the eternal, the view which relates all human problems — social, political, cultural — to the doctrinal foundations of the Christian Faith, the view which sees all things here below in terms of God’s supremacy and earth’s transitoriness, in terms of Heaven and Hell’. And so we end up in a place where the priest who was vicar of the University Church in Oxford for a generation can pronounce that ‘belief in God and assent to creeds is not the motivating force for Christian allegiance’. Tell that to the persecuted Church. But if it is true in Britain, it is perhaps because we have now had two generations of theologians telling us that we need to jettison the fundamental doctrines of Christianity in order to make it intelligible to a modern world which only laughs at each withdrawal from the front.
Eric Mascall called it ‘the failure of nerve which has stampeded many contemporary theologians into a total intellectual capitulation to their secular environment’. He found it particularly galling that both Regius Professors of Divinity, Maurice Wiles in Oxford and Geoffrey Lampe in Cambridge, declared themselves unable to believe the doctrine of the Trinity.
The result of all this is that we are members of an institution which is divided between those whose grip on orthodoxy gets weaker and weaker, and those who are flailing around trying to arrest the decline in churchgoing by turning the Church of England into a giant version of Holy Trinity Brompton. Periodically (and I heard a diocesan bishop do it at a Catholic gathering last month) we Anglo-Catholics are asked by hierarchs to ‘share our gifts’ more with the wider C of E, but it always strikes me that they are unclear what they want from us that they haven’t already rejected. Our ‘gift’ to the C of E has very little to do with the fact that we can organise a decent mass on a special occasion. Our contribution has to be theological, and we are used to doing some heavy lifting. But does anyone show any sign of listening to what we might contribute? My own experience of trying to contribute to the latest diocesan plan has been almost comically negative, and, sadly, rather predictably so.
If the rest of the Church of England wants to hear from us in all this, it must be prepared to listen to what we have to say. Open any copy of the Church Times to find soggy liberals complaining that Christianity is too Christian to be successfully communicated to the world, but don’t expect Anglo-Catholics to do the same. The hairy pop singer is a bloke, murderers are evil, and people who don’t believe in God are atheists. Innit?
* Quoting his obituary in the Church Times