Book review: retreat, or surrender, is the worst possible response to a secular world

God in Public
By Tom Wright

Tom Wright is infuriated by attempts to exclude faith from political discourse. God is often treated “like a demented elderly relative confined to the attic: we can visit him from time to time but he mustn’t be allowed to come downstairs and embarrass us, especially when there are visitors present”. The saddest part is that people of faith often surrender to the prevailing cultural mood: they “shrug their shoulders and suppose they’d better turn inwards, away from the public sphere”.

In search of a solution, a useful starting point would be to explain why faith is so frequently regarded as irrelevant or even corrosive. The Enlightenment clearly didn’t help matters and, while Wright acknowledges the important intellectual achievements of the 18th century, he is pleased that we are now “more explicit than we were … about the ambiguous nature” of the era.

The most frustrating legacy is the way the Enlightenment learned to “eat its own tail” – it claimed to champion unfettered reason and freedom but quickly developed a narrow and decidedly exclusionist definition of authentic intellectual inquiry and political life. In many sectors of modernism, this was increasingly deemed to exclude religion. Small wonder, then, that we ended up with a “worrying stand-off between an increasingly shrill secularism and an increasingly powerful fundamentalism” across many faith traditions.

Then along came postmodernism. Wright applauds some aspects of the project, not least its ability to challenge “arrogant Enlightenment epistemologies” that used the supposed quest for objectivity as a “cloak for political and social power and control”. Postmodernism’s obsessions were not always helpful to Christianity, however. Any idea that rested on a “grand narrative”, that took the idea of authority seriously, or that sought to conceptualise the whole of reality came in for a drubbing. Needless to say, Christianity met all three criteria of disapproval.

Retreat, or surrender, is the worst possible response. Wright insists that a distinctly “Christian political theology” is entirely viable and may just have a few things to teach the supposedly secular world. The radical assertions of the Christian message must take centre stage: the notions of “God working through human beings to bring order and justice to the world” or that “Jesus Christ will one day call the whole world to account”. There is a duty to “remind those in power of their responsibilities” and grumble when they make a hash of things, but there is room for a positive message, too: one rooted in notions of service and suffering.

Wright reminds us of the many ways in which politically and socially active Christians already make a difference: to the drug addicts, prisoners or asylum seekers. His vision encompasses the weighty issues – from the war on terror to the very nature of power – but there is perhaps greatest potential in tackling “what the rulers of the world either don’t bother about or don’t have the resources or the political will to support”. Again, the track record is impressive: processes of truth and reconciliation, international debt relief or the plight of inner-city enclaves.

Wright admits that this collection is a little repetitive. That can’t be helped since it comprises talks on similar themes delivered at an impressive roster of locations. The nub, I suppose, is that while there is a “tricky interface” between faith and political life, Christians ought to remember that God is still “in the business of remaking the whole world, turning it the right way up at last”. We should “listen again for the rumour of other possibilities”, even the hope that “the meek will be taking over the earth, so gently that the powerful won’t notice until it’s too late”.

This article first appeared in the September 16 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.