What, if anything, unites us a nation? And does it even matter?
Following on from the success of our last ‘long-read’ series, The Mighty and the Almighty, we have asked a number of leading theologians, philosophers, sociologists, historians, and writers – some Christians, others not – to think out loud on the topic. Next up is journalist Melanie McDonagh:
Some changes happen over time but accelerate very quickly as they reach their conclusion, a bit like thawing snow building up on a roof, then sliding down all at once in a whoosh to leave bare, dark slates. The transformation of the place of women in the workplace, say, took over a century and a half to come about, but the pace of change in the last couple of decades has been far quicker than at any other time.
Other changes may be an even longer time coming but when they finally happen, it’s with even greater speed. That’s the case with the withdrawal from Christianity by British, Irish and Western societies. It’s been a long time coming – the French Revolution (or, at a stretch, the Enlightenment) would be one of several possible starting points – but it has accelerated during my lifetime, especially in the last 25 years. And precisely because it has happened under the noses of me and my contemporaries – indeed, we’ve been players as much as spectators in this drama – it’s all the more difficult to document and describe.
When I was growing up the question you might be asked about religion was not ‘are you Christian’ so much as ‘what kind of Christian are you’. Catholic or Protestant was the crucial divider, unless you were Jewish, with the further interesting possibility of being any of them and an agnostic as well. Now the identifier is, “Are you ‘religious’?” (a term only applied to other people) though the person answering may instead self-identify as “a spiritual person” (which is almost always something you say about yourself). People in former Communist countries had greater clarity in these things – they would ask, disconcertingly, “Are you a believer?” – but it is only in the last decade and a half that this question could be put to me in London rather than, say, Belgrade.
The consequences of this change are momentous. Any one of umpteen statistics and polls would make the point – and I shall discuss a few later – but let me just mention the Bible Society’s finding in early 2014 that around three in ten children do not know about the Crucifixion, or the story of Adam and Eve; a similar number do not know that the stories about the Nativity come from the Bible. The parents polled were confused about whether Noah’s Ark is in the Bible or popular fiction. This is unprecedented. We’re not talking about formal Christianity – baptism– so much as an acquaintance with the outlines of the stories, precisely the things the simplest souls would have known a couple of generations ago. The next door neighbour of my childhood, who left school at 14, would have been able effortlessly to read pictures on scriptural themes in any art gallery that now baffle university arts graduates; but then, she knew the stories.
We are the generation that has lost touch with the stories. It is, of course, possible to tell children about Noah’s Ark and Adam’s apple merely as stories – as cultural Christians, such as Professor Richard Dawkins recommends – and that would certainly be better than nothing. But although Jonah and the Whale and Puss in Boots are both very good stories, the first has something to say about a creator and his creatures; the second about a cat and his human. And it is the creator in Jonah who is now as disputed as Jonah’s sojourn in the whale’s insides. Christianity is, of course, a religion built on a story, a narrative; it gives it an entirely different quality from a philosophy of life built on propositions.
My own conviction is that doctrine matters and the incarnation matters most of all. I think we have a different take on the world if we think that there is a God who made us and that God became man, and a poor man at that. I think we have a different view of society if we feel that there is community at the heart of the Godhead, namely, the Trinity. I think that our morality has a different character if it is personal, that is to say, if it is rooted in someone, rather than propositions – which isn’t to say that propositions don’t matter. I think that we should be a better society if we were a more Christian one – though to say as much isn’t to have respect for other religious moral traditions, especially Judaism, for the Incarnation is simply to say that God became Jew. We are, as Christians, terrifically self-important…that is to say, we swank through the world on the basis that Christ died for us and cares about us more than anything; the very hairs of our head are numbered. The loss of that sense that we matter, matters.
The change to what we now call a post-Christian culture has been, as I said, a long time coming and it already has a name. David Jones, a member of the artistic circle around Eric Gill and a postmodern poet much admired by Auden and Eliot, wrote a poem in 1951 called ‘The Anathemata’. Like most of his work, it’s rarely read now, but the preface to the poem still is. And one passage in particular is striking:
“In the late nineteen-twenties and the early ‘thirties among my most immediate friends there used to be discussed something that we christened ‘The Break’. We did not discover the phenomenon so described; it had been evident in various ways to various people for perhaps a century; it is now, I suppose, apparent to most. Or at least most now see that in the nineteenth century, western man moved across a Rubicon which, if as unseen as the 38th Parallel, seems to have been as definitive as the Styx….our Break had reference to something which was affecting the entire world of sacrament and sign.”
What he meant by this was that it was increasingly difficult to assume that the people who looked at his pictures or read his poems would be able to understand the layers of meaning in them, which depended on the maker and the reader or viewer having a shared understanding of the world, essentially a Christian understanding. In the Christian view of things, the world is charged with meaning: water might mean just water but it could also mean the water of baptism; a tree could be just a tree or it could, as with one of David Jones’s most haunting pictures, Vexilla Regis, represent the tree of Life, the Cross. In other words, when Christianity underlay the common culture, people had a common language, common points of reference, a common code. And when I talk about Christianity, this comprehends what we often refer to as Judeo-Christianity; the stories of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, were as fundamental to the common culture as those about Christ.
It’s pretty obvious that The Break, as Jones and his friends understood it in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties, has become much more obvious and pronounced now. In every part of the former Christendom, Christianity has become one religion among many and it is no longer the default, fall-back position of most ordinary people as it would have been then. The most striking statistic that makes the point is that in early 2016, the number of nones, those-of-no-religion, outnumbered Christians in Britain; not churchgoers – Christians.
Christianity is no longer automatically associated with everyday morality. In one of Michael Caine’s most memorable movies, Get Carter, the protagonist asks his niece about the family she is staying with: “good people, are they; churchgoers and all that?” It’s unlikely Carter’s modern equivalent would say the same. Another of his best-known films, Alfie, was updated a few years ago, and the differences between the two films say a good deal about The Break. In the first, the protagonist sees his former girlfriend at their child’s christening, attended by her new husband, a milkman: getting the baby christened was the normal working class thing to do. The new Alfie dropped the christening.
It’s possible to spell out the extent of the detachment from Christianity of modern Britain – to say nothing of Ireland – in statistics; and the same holds true of other European countries and to a lesser but still marked extent, the US. In other words, as the generation raised as Christian dies, the proportion of the population that identifies as Christian gets smaller and smaller. By the next census, Christians will be a minority in Britain. In Ireland, the fall has been steeper, to a still respectable seventy per cent, but from a much higher base. And my own subjective impression is that the loss of faith has been much more abrupt and complete for the young than the figures suggest.
David Jones is right about the most important aspect of the break, namely, that the symbolism and stories that once gave the culture common references are gone and the things that the simplest soul would have understood in a poem or a picture will now have to be spelled out in laborious footnotes, or, more likely, simply dropped. The scripture references in PG Wodehouse’s novels – Bertie Wooster, you recall, got a prize in Scripture Knowledge – are now the most arcane bits of them: Balaam’s Ass et al. In children’s books, which I review, clergymen were often part of the dramatatis personae; churchgoing was a normative part of life. In revised versions of the books, that gets dropped. You get all kinds of substitutes: mythologies and Manichean battles between good and evil and elaborate cosmologies, of which angels are a favourite part: just no reference to their natural habitat and context. One of the most perfect children’s books, John Masefield’s Box of Delights, ends with midnight mass in the cathedral; it would not happen now.
Then there’s the other large consequence of The Break; the way we mark the year. The Christian year and the seasons overlap in interesting ways – Ronald Hutton’s Seasons of the Sun gives a striking account of it – of which the most obvious is the way Christmas was assigned to the darkest point of the year, the winter equinox, with the birth of St John the Baptist, formerly an important Feast Day, attributed to midsummer, the summer equinox and the bonfires that predate Christianity. The Easter theme of death and resurrection is, by dint of its timing, associated with spring and rebirth; preceded by Lent, and abstinence.
That calendar has changed radically. To take one example, Christmas once started with a bang on Christmas Eve and went on for 12 days until the Three Kings arrive on 6 January. Now, the Christmas season, which begins with office parties at the end of November, finishes right in the middle of the 12 days with a fast and abstinence regime beginning on New Year’s Day: New Year, New You. Its effect is to terminate the festivity; to follow Christmas with fasting rather than to precede it.
It’s possible to locate The Break at several points. David Jones dated it to the nineteenth century, and that’s obviously true. Much of the agnosticism of our time can be read back to Auguste Comte and Ernest Renan in the nineteenth, not to mention more flamboyant but now unfashionable unbelievers like Nietzsche. In Britain, the reign of Queen Elizabeth II began with a nation that was largely unselfconsciously Christian, and has seen inexorable decline ever since. The Queen’s reign, then, could be said to frame the Break, which would probably give the monarch some pain, given her own sincere Christianity. In Ireland, it was more recent; from the high point of the Pope’s visit to Ireland in 1979 to the decision – to take just one marker – to allow pubs to open on Good Friday in 2012.
There are any number of results of The Break, in law, in morality, in popular customs, the calendar, in our assumptions about what constitutes the good life, in our philanthropy. For some former Christians, abandoning Christianity will have been emotionally neutral, or very much to the good in that it has also meant abandoning a consciousness of sin and guilt associated with their religious formation. For others, the loss of community has been one of the side-effects of the Break; for everyone, the death of God, at least the God of Christians, has altered our perceptions of man in some way.
These changes are all work in progress; this is a development that is taking place now – we are part of it. Any change in the culture takes at least a good two generations to work itself through, since we grow up among friends and family a generation or two above us; children who never go to church may well have grandmothers for whom churchgoing was part of the normal pattern of life and they will be aware of something called a church in a way their children will not be.
Of course, there’s a problem with the notion of David Jones’ Break, which is that it might be seen to imply that the time before it happened was one of unbroken continuity, that the past was an undifferentiated age of faith. Plainly this would be nonsense.
The Reformation was perhaps the most traumatic break of all between past and present, changing profoundly the nature of Catholicism as well as creating a new kind of Christianity in the Protestant faiths. In 2017, the half-millennium anniversary of Luther’s first break with the tradition, we shall be thinking about those changes at length. And within Protestantism, there have been many divisions. Every branch of Christianity in the West has undergone profound change over the last half millennium. But the departure from Christianity itself that has taken place in the last twenty years is, I would insist, unprecedented and its consequences are still being worked out.
We can, of course, take what comfort we may from the stubborn residue of Christianity; you could quite easily talk about infused Christianity, whereby the culture retains ideas of individual worth, of the value of the widow’s mite, of the undesirability of passing by the man who fell among thieves on the other side, of the inadequacy of wealth as an indicator of personal merit; our non-glorification of health and strength and beauty, the way the ancients did; all of that is in some way attributable to Christianity. Possibly, you could attribute the political rejection of Conservatism in Scotland to the robust egalitarianism of Presbyterianism and the Free churches.
You could take such comfort. I don’t.
Melanie McDonagh writes for the Evening Standard and The Spectator