She announced that although she was Catholic, she could not be intimidated by an Anglican audience: "You can't scare me. I have children." Her topic? Echoing Jonathan Edwards' most famous sermon, it was "Christians in the Hands of an Angry New Intolerance."
Citing the suppression of a debate on abortion at Christ Church College in Oxford last November, following threats of violence from "pro-choice" supporters, she asserted that the almost daily rage directed at Christians throughout the world was "unprecedented" in degree. (She refrained from using, as she might well have, the horrors committed by Boko Haram in Nigeria as an example.)
She laid out seven objective facts about the current persecution of Christians and their religion:
First, as the shutdown of the debate at Christ Church College drives home, nothing less than our right to free speech is at stake. "Words matter; they are not just window dressing." Free speech is fundamental to a society's functioning.
Second, the anger has given rise to a new double standard: Christians are "fair game" for the New Atheists and others, while those who hurl their accusations are not held to account. "We need to play offense, not defense, against those who slander us."
Third, the anger is hurting real people in their livelihoods and worship, from Jews in Europe, to the British Airways stewardess who was forbidden from wearing to work a necklace with a simple cross, to the Mozilla CEO forced to resign on account of a donation he made to same-sex marriage opponents in California (the supporters of Prop. 8).
Fourth, the driving force behind this unprecedented rage is the need to protect, at all costs, the gains won in the recent sexual revolution. At stake are the quiet, domestic moments which Humanae vitae cites as bringing us closer to God, as when Whittaker Chambers related he felt the finger of God touching him as he marveled at the intricacy of his infant daughter's ear. "The family is the human symphony through which the voice of God is heard." Quoting Yeats's The Second Coming ("The falcon cannot hear the falconer ... the centre cannot hold"), she noted that the creature can no longer hear the creator, and rages because it is incapable of creating on its own.
Fifth, the sheer rage against Christianity adds to the secularization of the age, as those on the margin are swept off into the secular seas. Intimidation leads to censorship, which eventually produces self-censorship -- and Christianity diminishes for lack of witness.
Sixth, the new intolerance cloaks itself in the mantle of civil rights. Unlike the earlier righteous anger against discrimination and injustice, however, the anger of today's secularists is driven by malice, for the reasons given earlier, and so the claim to be on the side of Martin Luther King is false.
Seventh, Christianity is not without resources. Although it is ironic that it is the non-believers who cite the Pope's recent pronouncements as if to show that the Catholic Church "is saying goodbye to all that old stuff", their own intolerance to traditional religion may help to unify Christianity. For Christianity has an invincible asset which intolerance cannot touch: its God-given moral code.
The afternoon closed with an affirmation of all that had gone before, delivered by Dr. Os Guinness, great-great-grandson of the Dublin brewer, born in China to missionaries, educated in London and Oxford, now a member of The Falls Church (Anglican), in Virginia, and the author of over thirty books. Drawing on the contrast between Kant's vision of "Perpetual Peace" and Friedrich Nietzsche's "War of the spirits" (Ger. Geisterkrieg, from his Ecce Homo), and picking up on the "Yes and Amen" song in Thus Spake Zarathustra, Guinness titled his talk: "Life with No Amen: Atheism and the global 'war of the spirits'."
He began with an in-depth examination of the modern phenomenon of atheism -- whose stepchild, "irrational, implacable secularism" has been "the incubator of totalitarianism." It is a philosophy whose essence is its anti-Christianity, and its expression today poses three major questions for the West:
1. Will Islam modernize peacefully?
2. What will replace Marxism in China?
3. Will the West sever from, or recover, its roots?
Without worship, we literally shrink. Indeed, fully a quarter of America's self-proclaimed atheists, according to the Pew Survey, consider themselves "religious" -- and 14 % even say they "believe in God"! Atheists can get away with these absurdities because our current weak culture, having no core beliefs of its own, goes out of its way to accommodate the whole spectrum of beliefs.
Atheism, in fact, is the reaction to centuries of oppression by corrupt State churches, so that Christians themselves, acting in their own selfish interests, and offering their own distortions of the faith, have furnished the fuel for the atheists' case (such as it is). Atheism becomes the replacement for "unnecessary" religion, whereby man can get along just fine on his own.
But secularism has its own problems: it cannot deal with the fact that life points beyond itself; or that modern science contradicts its own premises [see the account of Alvin Plantinga's talk at last year's Conference], and is thus false. It holds that the tendency towards the transcendent must be steadfastly resisted. Secularism has "no givens, no rules, and no limits." As a consequence, it is woefully lacking, and hence vulnerable.
America has to halt the process towards negative freedom: all of today's freedoms are freedom from this and that, and we are losing our traditional freedom to do, to believe, and to speak. Putting equality above liberty results in the French, not the American, Revolution (witness the reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre: there is no real freedom of speech in France, but only license to besmirch, insult and sink to the gutter -- so long as religion is your target, and secularism your philosophy).
Some, echoing Nietzsche, call for a "post-human" world, because of a post-liberal nihilism. The challenge for our Church is to answer that call with an unstinting affirmation of Christianity, as it has been handed down to us. Can the Church be warmed again by the spirit of the living God? (Dr. Guinness' latest book, Renaissance: the Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times, is a much fuller treatment of the themes in his talk, and is highly recommended for those who would be inspired even more.)
And on that note, the Conference adjourned to the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul, for a choral high mass that not only warmed, but lifted, the very rafters. The brass choir gave a splendid opening fanfare, and the massed choirs and mighty organ took things from there. Bishop Lawrence presided at Holy Eucharist, while the Rev. John Guest, of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh, gave a moving sermon on the Gospel (Mt 5:11-16) -- that is to say, on the theme ("salt and light") of the Conference, illustrated with wonderful examples from his own family life and career.
The next morning, after an hour for the speakers to sign their respective books upon request, the Conference gathered for the final talk, given by the Rev. Prof. Alister McGrath, the holder of a chair in science and religion at Oxford University. His title was: "Capturing the Cultural Imagination: How C.S. Lewis Can Help Us Engage Secularism." (Prof. McGrath has recently written a widely acclaimed biography of C.S. Lewis.)
With the great benefit of having heard all the talks that came before him, Prof. McGrath was able to tailor his remarks to the themes of the other speakers, while at the same time illuminating those points with his own insights drawn from C.S. Lewis' many writings. He sketched his main theme by asking and then answering his own question as he imagined Lewis would: "What can we do to change the story that dominates our culture? Tell a better story -- capture the imagination."
As a starting point for understanding the age we live in, he recommended philosopher Charles Taylor's definitive work, A Secular Age (2007). There Taylor carefully traces the "shift in master narratives" which has taken place since the 1500's: then it was difficult not to believe in God, while today people find it difficult to believe in God.
Taylor draws a sharp distinction between natural and supernatural. While the latter used to be regarded as not impossible, the concept was undermined beginning with the modern philosophies of Descartes and Spinoza, which were amplified by the post-moderns Heidegger and Wittgenstein. But post-modernism asks us to accept things which cannot be proved, based wholly on assumptions. (Philosophy, like theology, is fiduciary in that it asks us to trust the philosophy that is expressed. Yet philosophy will not accept or trust in the existence of God, which likewise cannot be proved.)
C.S. Lewis, said McGrath, is neither modern nor post-modern. He bridges both camps -- he mingles reason with imagination. And this insight will help us break the power of today's master narratives ("metanarratives") over the popular imagination.
As an example, consider the following quotation from Lewis' lecture, "Is Theology Poetry?":
I believe in Christianity, as I believe the sun has risen; not only do I see it, but by it I see everything else.This shows reason and imagination as collaborative. As Austin Farrer noted, Lewis' vision carries with it its own conviction: first make people wish that Christianity were true, then show them that it is true. "Reason without imagination is dull; imagination without reason is escapism." We ourselves are as if spellbound, thinking that our destiny, and all that is good, lies in this world. But listen to Lewis himself again, from Mere Christianity, sketching "an argument from desire":
If I find in myself a desire which no experience can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.McGrath noted that we need to present our faith in a way that opens (ignites) the imagination and shows how our faith works -- in other words, how it is true. The joy and luminosity of our faith will draw people to it precisely because secularism has none of those things to offer to them.
Consider, he asked, all of the stories Lewis tells in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first volume in his Chronicles of Narnia series: which of the six or so stories (each character has his or her own to tell) is the best story? How does each story match up with what we ourselves observe? How trustworthy is the storyteller? How does our own individual story match up or link with the main story of the book? The larger story makes our own individual one more meaningful.
The secular world has neither hope, nor transcendence (though it has a tendency toward escapism, as Dr. Guinness noted). Our destiny, and all that secularism calls good, lies only in this world (which has banished God "far upstairs", as Prof. Wright pointed out).
Lewis' remedies for dealing with the secular age contain both strategies and resources for renewal:
- Reaffirm the traditional doctrinal formulations of our faith -- go back to the sources that inspired generations before
- Recapture the imagination of our culture - by "out-narrating the metanarratives of our culture", by telling a better story
- Use the ideas and inspirations of the theologians Lewis admired: John Donne, George Herbert, Thomas Traherne -- doctrine is important, but what is significant is what you do with it
After a brief recess, Chad Lawrence (the Bishop's son) presented a short video about the Christian school he has started under the aegis of St. Helena's in Beaufort. The interviews with the young students were charming, and underscored both the necessity of winning the culture war by reaching the minds of our children before the secular age does, and the receptivity of young minds to a classical education.
Following that presentation, all of the Conference speakers came back on stage to form a panel to answer audience questions. Bishop Mark Lawrence moderated the session, and opened with a brief summary of what he had taken from each speaker's presentation. Then he asked them: "How do we tell the story of the Gospel when it is increasingly banished from the public sphere?" This unleashed a plethora of responses, most of which stressed the importance of always setting a Christian example in public. We cannot go back to the sacred public square, but we can at least show civility and respect as we give witness to our faith, and do not let rudeness pass for intellectual sophistication.
Os Guinness reminded us of the founding father's notion of the free marketplace of ideas, and then said: "E pluribus unum [out of many, one] is at risk. This country is rampant with diversity that threatens its unity." Mary Eberstadt observed that identity politics is boxing people in (i.e., "I was born that way"), and that showing people their victimhood leads nowhere is a key to freeing them.
A question about the preservation of traditional marriage also provoked a wide-ranging discussion. Ross Douthat, the Catholic, reminded the panel that defense of the celibate life must go hand-in-hand with defense of the family and traditional marriage. Bishop Nazir-Ali added that "the Bible never speaks of individuals, but of persons-in-relationship," applicable to married and celibate alike. Marriage, as Vatican II recognized, is rooted in our creation, but it is not just about the spouses; it is even more about the children, whose needs today are being woefully neglected as parents pursue their own goals. Prof. Wright noted, as he had in his talk, that marriage between a man and a woman is a sign of new creation, of heaven joining with earth to make all things new. Celibacy symbolizes the "not yet" in the Bible's arc, while marriage symbolizes the "already."
There was a final, pointed question: how does one respond to a professional person -- a psychiatrist, teacher, or scientist who is told that joining a Church will bar him or her from advancement in their career? The panel had no easy answer; the gist of its response was the need to fight back against all such attempts to exclude religion from the public square. (The First Amendment guarantees the freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.) Os Guinness pointed out the hypocrisy, indeed -- illiberality, of liberals trying to exclude religious voices from the public sphere. Prof. Wright noted that we have lost the art of civilized debate, and what passes for dialogue is more like the lobbing of hand grenades. That said, Ross Douthat reminded everyone that as Christians, we are supposed to be uncomfortable in today's world: to be at home with it is to compromise one's beliefs.
And on that triumphant note, one of the most marvelous Conferences ever came to an end. People I talked to afterward were enthused beyond expectations; their spiritual batteries recharged; and their armor of light shining with a new brilliance. For all those who were unable to attend, watch the Mere Anglicanism site for an announcement of recordings of the talks to be available by March, with videos to follow afterward.
Oh, yes -- the theme of next year's Conference (January 21-23, 2016) was disclosed at the very end: it will be the Christian response to (militant) Islam. Registration will commence later this year; watch the Website for the announcement.