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Preaching and Unbelief

Now retired, John McDade was Tutor in Religion, Doctrine and History, Senior Lecturer in Theology and Principal of Heythrop College, University of London. Heythrop College closed in 2019. He later taught at Saint Mary’s University, Twickenham and at Roehampton University.

<strong>Preaching and Unbelief</strong>

I love the story of a parish in Scotland that one Sunday had a guest preacher who gave a powerful sermon on sin and repentance. The congregation was visibly moved as they remembered how greatly they had sinned and how rich was God’s mercy – all except for one man who sat through the sermon with his arms folded across his chest, looking uninterested and certainly unmoved. As the congregation left after the service, a church official stopped the man and said, ‘I hope you don’t mind my asking you, but you didn’t seem to be as affected by the sermon as other members of the congregation, and I wondered if there was any reason for this.’ The man replied, ‘Oh, it’s very simple, I’m not from this parish.’

An interesting response: you can have certain experiences only if you feel part of the community that trusts in the veracity of the experiences that constitute it. But there may be more to the story than that: the man is representative of much of the population in his lack of response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that is why we need to take him, and those like him, seriously. If Karl Barth is right in saying that preaching is ‘the repetition of God’s promises’, and if the Christian tradition is right in saying that our human nature is oriented towards the fullness of truth and love that is God, how does it come about that so many people respond with indifference to the unfolding of God’s Word that preaching is?

It’s worth trying to understand this non-believing man and what shapes him and that is what I will try to do; I say at the start that this is my own take on the matter and I offer this not as the last word on the subject, but as something that might be helpful. We need to understand before we judge.

First of all, you should rid yourself of the idea that people are seeking God. They’re not. The taste for the Absolute, in whatever form, has been weakened. A life lived in union with God is no longer one of the features of what Charles Taylor calls the ‘social imaginary’ – that set of implicitly accepted features of what human life is for. No number of sermons can breathe life into the word ‘God’ again and insert it into our account of human flourishing, at least for the foreseeable future. Coming across the slogan, ‘Fear God and honour the King’ – a piece of Edwardian ‘social imaginary’ that conveyed to the population what was to be expected of them – is like digging up a fragment in an archaeological dig, coming across a trace of how people used to feel both about God (and the monarchy). For our man in the Scottish church, the word ‘God’ no longer touches touch the core of his identity and might be passing into the history of religions, as did the Greek and Roman gods of antiquity.

The weakening of the sense of God is linked to a weakened confidence in the existence of an ‘other world’ to which we might be going after death. The question ‘where will you spend eternity?’ is not one that keeps people awake at night: life is not an antechamber to something better, or perish the thought, something worse. It just is what it is! The question of death surfaces in the growing number of television advertisements for funeral or cremation arrangements, usually involving smiling pensioners relieved that the one who remains will not be financially burdened; that Jimmy or Elsie might miss out on the beatific vision doesn’t enter their heads. Whenever I see these cheerful folk on television, I recall a billboard by the side of a freeway in California that had a clergyman holding a Bible and saying, ‘In my experience, it pays to compare mortuary prices in advance.’ Are clergy, Californian style, more advisers on finance rather than promoters of Jonathan Edwards’ vision of ‘sinners in the hands of an angry God’? Death now is commodified, and certainly not a subject of existential anxiety.

Our representative man in the Scottish church is unlikely to have a fully worked out view on religion in general, and Christianity in particular. But he will have drawn down certain attitudes and views from the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. I suggest that his general attitude draws on three sources, although he is unlikely to have read or thought about them. The first is the Victorian novelist George Eliot for whom religion was a metaphorical way in which we give expression to a deeper drive in us, the search for goodness. God is simply the metaphor for goodness, and we will be better off if we cease to direct our attention towards an ’otherworldly’ projection of a divine being, and instead love one another with sympathy and moral action. The First Commandment is collapsed into the Second Commandment and the deep structure of identity is that we must seek to be ‘a good person’; do that religiously if you want but, for Eliot, there is an ethical way of life that works just as well as one based upon unnecessary metaphorical projections of ‘God and a spiritual realm’. (Eliot’s praise of her heroine Dorothea at the end of Middlemarch is a perfect summary of ‘religionless goodness’ replacing conventional religion.) Eliot teaches us that all religion can be successfully replaced by ethics, without loss of purpose and transcendence.

The second source shaping our man is Sigmund Freud for whom religion springs from a struggle within the self against parental authority on which we are dependent. Christianity is a way of remaining infantile, keeping us permanently guilty in the presence of a ‘cosmic Father’, whom we fear at the same time as we revere. The theme of ‘feeling guilty in the presence of a demanding but loving God’ lies at the heart of the Freudian critique of religion. Instead of freeing us from guilt, Christianity keeps bringing this to the fore, Sunday after Sunday, day after day. Why? Because while promising healing, Christianity is central to the illness it claims to cure. Add to this a neurotic anxiety about behaviour and performance, an obsessive-compulsive disorder that gives us no peace, and you can see why for Freud, it’s best to take oneself out of this set of delusions and cultivate a life of godless reason. Freud has led our man into a generalised suspicion of the roots of religion; it’s a product of a messed-up psyche and we need to outgrow all that stuff. He views religion as tied to immaturity, neurosis and delusory compensation: it certainly has nothing to do with truth and mature living. So, like the man in the Scottish pew, it’s best just to fold your arms and keep all this preacherly manipulation at a distance.

I think more and more that people become disconnected from Christianity not because of arguments against God’s existence such as Richard Dawkins offers, but because they no longer want to feel about themselves the way (they think) Christianity makes them feel. That’s why some version of Freud seeps into the present cultural resistance to God, Christ and the Gospel.

The third distant influence on our man in the Scottish pew is the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a forefather of modern secularism. Now he regarded himself as religious and deeply concerned with God, but he thought that what impaired a person’s relation to God was the promotion of unnecessary doctrines that had no practical use and simply intensified the animosities among communities and peoples: doctrines divide and that is why the life of a modern society must not be based on religious foundations. Religion – and for him this meant Christianity – was to be banished to the realm of the private self. It must not intrude into the public sphere. But it was to be retained in a better form: interiority and introspection give us, Rousseau thought, the proper way to access God: go within and find the voice of God within yourself and that will be ‘true revelation’. There is no need to give priority to those moments of historical revelation such as Sinai and Calvary, or even Mecca and Medina: these gives rise to cultural forms that are ultimately damaging to the human good, but they can be transcended and replaced by a deeper, no less rich, form of personal, natural religion.

Rousseau offers people the benefits of religion without appealing to revelation. Two things flow from this rearrangement: first of all, the life of society is to be founded on a ‘civil religion’ formed of sentiments that everyone agrees to: think of the contemporary promotion of ‘tolerance’, ‘diversity’, ‘respect’ as the central social values, and the condemnation of various forms of ‘intolerance’ as a ‘hate crime’ for which no forgiveness is possible. (Strangely the modern liberalism that flows from Rousseau is deeply illiberal when it comes to Christian faith, but that topic is for another time.)

Secondly, by consigning religion to the realm of the private and the personal, Rousseau encourages a form of spirituality that takes the place of the observance of formal religion. It might be no exaggeration to say that Rousseau laid the foundations for a modern post-Christian religiosity. I’ve lost count of the number of celebrities who are happy to declare themselves to be ‘spiritual’; often it means that they are narcissistic and self-absorbed, but the way in which this category of the ‘spiritual’ has become a badge of identity in a secular, post-religious cultural world derives from the shift in the character of religion that Rousseau sets in motion.

My concluding remarks will not take the form of advice to preachers on how we should address our representative modern non-believer. I will suggest, however, that if we have some sympathetic understanding of the set of attitudes that loosely feed into a non-response to the Gospel, we might get it right. It is instructive to read again, in the light of these ideas, the account in chapter 17 of the Acts of the Apostles, when Paul goes to Athens: the text tells us that ‘he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols,’ a moment of desolation as he registers how far this population is from God. He then engages with Jews and with ‘those who happened to be in the marketplace,’ and with those whose intellectual ideas were current and popular – Stoic and Epicurean philosophers.

Having done this, he feels able to preach to them – perhaps he is able to preach only because he has moved from a feeling of desolate helplessness in the face of unbelief to a position of conversation and dialogue, taking seriously the views of those who do not believe. Only then does he talk to them about the ‘unknown God’, whom they acknowledge on an inscription; he picks up on this sign of openness and possible transcendence that he detects in Athenian culture and that is, for him, a sign that they are in fact ‘deeply religious’. So, Paul’s move is from desolation to dialogue to speaking about the hidden hope at the heart of Greek religiosity. We too stand on our own Areopagus and our situation is not all that different from that of Paul.

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