Baroness Warsi’s article on faith and secularism in the Daily Telegraph this morning has created an Almighty debate. After the controversies over the banning of prayers at Bideford Council meetings, it’s yet another example of how issues of faith are increasingly right at the heart of public debate.
In the Mixer
In football terminology, putting the ball ‘in the mixer’ means getting it into the penalty area right in front of the goal. It’s where there is jostling, a bit of fouling and controversy. But this is where the action is, where key things happen and where there is the greatest chance of changing the course of the match.
This is a bit like debates about how faith relates to issues in the public square. It’s messy and complex. Arguments can get heated, people get hurt and easily upset. But this is where authentic faith has always lived. The modern tendency for privatised, cosy beliefs expressed among everyone who agrees is a decaffinated version of authentic faith. Rather than a Holy Fire, it packages Christianity more like a nice scented candle.
The roots of a public faith
The thing is that truly following Jesus cannot be done in private – it is a public commitment which needs to be lived out in the real world. Right at the start of the Church’s life under the shadow of the Roman Empire there were many sects which through religious practices offered their adherents a route to personal salvation. These cultus privatus were not persecuted by the authorities because they posed no threat to the status quo.
But the Church never used this term for itself – it almost uniformly used the phrase Ecclesia – the public assembly. Like Jesus’ himself, the public statements and actions of the Church were in conflict with both the Jewish and Roman authorities because they proclaimed a public and universal truth – not a privatised belief. This threatened the control of the Jewish establishment and clashed with the cult of the Emperor. (for more on this see Proper Confidence in the Gospel: the theology of Lesslie Newbigin)
Political not ‘spiritual’
Many of the phrases which we hear as purely spiritual, would have been heard in the first century as deeply political. When Christians said ‘Jesus is Lord’ this was not a airy-fairy statement about Jesus ‘reigning in my heart’ or up in clouds somewhere. No, if Jesus was Lord then Caesar wasn’t. What was being said was Caesar, his armies and military might was not the ultimate authority – for God had displayed himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who lived, died and was resurrected.
Resisting the seduction of a privatised faith
Christians can easily be seduced by the idea of a privatised faith – the heresy that says what we believe is simply an issue between us and God. These routes might be cosy and safe but they are not authentic Christianity.
Rather than putting their faith into the mixer, sometimes Christians are not even taking their faith onto the pitch. Too often we are watching silently from the stands or nervously on the bench waiting for someone else to call on us. Our worries about offending others can easily be stronger than our commitment to sharing our faith.
Christians need courage to put our faith where it matters and where it will make a difference. Yesterday a friend sent me the following quote from Episcopal priest Robert Capon which deeply challenged me:
“The most critical issue facing Christians is not abortion, pornography, the disintegration of the family, moral absolutes, MTV, drugs, racism, sexuality, or school prayer. The critical issue today is dullness. We have lost our astonishment. The Good News is no longer good news, it is okay news. Christianity is no longer life changing, it is life enhancing. Jesus doesn’t change people into wild-eyed radicals anymore; He changes them into “nice people.”. . . . What happened to radical Christianity, the un-nice brand of Christianity that turned the world upside-down? What happened to the category-smashing, life-threatening, anti-institutional gospel that spread through the first century like wildfire and was considered (by those in power) dangerous? What happened to the kind of Christians whose hearts were on fire, who had no fear, who spoke the truth no matter what the consequence, who made the world uncomfortable, who were willing to follow Jesus wherever He went?…….. I’m ready for a Christianity that “ruins” my life, that captures my heart and makes me uncomfortable. . . . I want a faith that is considered ‘dangerous’ by our predictable and monotonous culture.”