I write on the eve of Easter weekend. This time of year always fills me with humility and gratitude as I ponder the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. I am humbled by Christ’s redeeming sacrifice for all humanity, and filled with joy that I can teach these truths to my children. Yet, in these darkening times for Christians, I teach my children with a kind of self-consciousness, knowing that we are very much in the minority as we talk about these sacred events.
I am reminded of something C. S. Lewis said in his inaugural lecture in 1954 as the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University. There, in De Descriptione Temporum, he spoke about the profound historical significance of the ‘un-Christening’ of Western society. A post-Christian man, he argued, is cut off radically from both the Christian past and the pagan past. Thus, Lewis encouraged his audience to examine him as a specimen of a Christian. By examining ‘Lewis the Christian’, they could get a better sense of the Christian concepts of faith, sacrifice, humility, truth, obedience and so forth, and thus of the Christian, and pre-Christian, past.
And then Lewis issued a warning: ‘Use your specimens while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs.’
Of course, our society’s post-Christian phase continues apace, with even fewer specimens than in Lewis’s day. And if Michael Gove’s recent piece in the Spectator is anything to go by (if you haven’t figured it out already) we specimens are viewed as ‘intolerant, naïve, superstitious and backward.’ But I can’t help feeling that as society not only continues to move away from Christianity, but also begins to positively discourage it, we are losing something invaluable to Western democracy.
Let me try to explain, again by referring to C. S. Lewis. In another piece, Lewis argued that there was a distinction between two kinds of what he called ‘democratic behaviour’. The first is the kind of behaviour that democracies like; the second is the kind of behaviour that works to preserve a democracy. These two behaviours, he argued, need not be the same. In fact, ‘hidden in the heart of the striving for Liberty’ can also be ‘a deep hatred of personal freedom.’
So, what kind of behaviour do democracies like? According to Gove, it is behaviour along the lines of ‘sophistication, irony, detachment’, and, most importantly, ‘non-judgmentalism’. This is a non-judgmentalism which proclaims that every way of life has equal value and equal goodness (except for Christianity). This model of non-judgmentalism does not sit well with a concept of right and wrong that exists outside of the individual’s own thoughts and desires.
Thus, democracies do not like truth-seekers, or truth-tellers. We have known that for well over 2,000 years, since the trial and death of Socrates. Socrates claimed at his trial that he was a gadfly, stinging the Athenians from their complacency, and getting them to think about what was truly of value. He argued that his role was to get his countrymen to think more about ‘understanding and truth’, for their souls and for virtue, than for honour or wealth. For this, he was charged with corrupting the youth of Athens.
But democracies need truth-seekers and truth-tellers. This, I think, is why Lewis argued that there is a difference between behaviour which democracies like, and behaviour that preserves democracies. Democracies love the idea that there is no way of life better than any other. But practising that idea won’t preserve a democracy.
We have seen that Christians are increasingly demonised in Western democracies by the media, academics, gay rights activists, and politicians. But let me suggest something rather radical: practicing Christianity is a democracy-preserving activity. And not just the ‘curiously sanitised’ David Cameron style of Christianity, which is full of rather meaningless platitudes like ‘be nice’, ‘be responsible’, and ‘do the right thing for the good of our children.’ I’m talking about the full-on, proper stuff: actually believing that the most important events in human history happened in Gethsemane, on the Cross and in the Tomb. Christianity, at its core, is about Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. And democracy needs that truth-seeking which Christianity enjoins.
Why? Consider one of Christ’s admonitions from the Sermon on the Mount. ‘Ask and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.’ Here, in these simple phrases, we can find the Christian conception of the human soul. As humans we are capable of seeking God, and thus seeking truth.
The Christian notion that as rational beings, created in the image of God, we can seek for truth and find it, demands that as humans we must have a very robust kind of freedom. We must be free to think, and to pray. That’s called freedom of conscience. We must be free to speak with others about our ongoing search. That’s called freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.
Always, for the Christian, there is a dignity regarding the individual, which marks a spacebetween the individual and others, and the individual and the state. But this is precisely because Christians believe in the possibility of objective truth. An essential reason the individual is important in Christianity is because he or she (with God’s help) is capable of, and responsible for, discerning truth, making right judgment, and carrying out right action. Take away the project of discovering truth, and living by truth, and you have lost a fundamental reason for the Westernconcept of individual freedom.
My children await the making of hot cross buns. But in closing, it strikes me that Lewis was characteristically prescient in warning his colleagues that they must use their Christian specimens while they could. Take a good look at us rare specimens – devoted Christians observing Easter. Our rejection of relativism may be an anathema to the uber-liberal, ‘progress through Twitter’ elite. Yet, far from being an obstruction to an ever-freer society, our particular views on the dignity of the human person, and the relationship between truth and freedom, underpin the concepts of individual rights and autonomy in Western philosophy. Without us, democracy will evolve into something quite different, and almost certainly less free, than we have now.