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Love, honour and obey

Love, honour and obey

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I have recently had occasion to work through some of the research on Christianity’s recent decline in the UK. There is something of a consensus in the literature that at least part of the explanation for its deterioration is not, in fact, the rejection of the possibility of a spiritual dimension to reality - in fact, by some measures, people are becoming increasing credulous. Instead, at least part of the answer lies in what, in The Ethics of Authenticity (1991), philosopher Charles Taylor calls the ‘massive subjective turn of modern culture’.

People no longer want a life lived in respect of external roles, duties or obligations, but turn to the unique experiences of selves-in-relation. Consumer capitalism, which trains us to expect the world to be fine-tuned to our expectations, has intensified a change already under way in modernity. To use words attributed to St Paul, we are increasing philautos, lovers of ourselves.

Under these conditions, churches and other religious institutions are bound to suffer. Too much of their life is given, immutable and inflexible. The good of the community comes before the good of the individual. There are given structures of authority, which must be obeyed. Gender roles are more closely defined than in the wider world. There's a moral order which must be conformed to. Consequently, the values of Christianity are those which subsume the good of the individual into the good of the community: endurance, patience, gentleness, service, humility and so on.

Some religious traditions have managed to negotiate the appetite for expressive individualism better than others, while remaining within the boundaries of historic orthodoxy but to put it bluntly, Christianity has not scratched the itch.

Religious traditions are not alone in suffering under the subjective turn – all sorts of public institutions that are crucial to Britain’s post-war civil fabric have lost membership and indeed sympathy. Public attitudes to the welfare state have hardened. Union membership has declined, and the state of political party membership is almost terminal.

It is possible also to see the recent debate around gay marriage as a stand-off between those who have enthusiastically taken the subjective turn, and those who have not. The latter see marriage as something given, which is explicitly entered into, even something which is written into nature itself. For these, consisting of many from within the churches, it cannot be remade but only participated in. And we are not free to renegotiate the way in which we participate in it.

For the former, the authenticity of marriage is in the way it facilitates choice and self-expression. This is how people hold to the apparently contradictory positions that marriage is ‘just a word’ (especially since in all the legal rights and responsibilities of marriage accrue in civil partnerships) and that it is crucial that gay couples have access to the institution. Marriage is both objectively irrelevant, yet essential for human dignity. How could we deny them the right to shape their life as they see fit?

As Dominic Lawson observed, it’s the difference between Humpty Dumpty who says 'When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less', and Alice who retorts, 'The Question is whether you can make words mean so many different things'.

Supporters of gay marriage will find this argument pleasing – the change would be going with the cultural grain, at least with the cultural grain of a substantial proportion of society. Standing in its way will be like trying to roll a boulder up a hill. As a colleague observed, religious campaigners against gay marriage lose if they lose, and they lose if they win – confirming the widely held view that they represent institutions and traditions which stand in the way of human freedom and so contributing to their marginalisation.

The subjective turn can't be resisted. If Taylor is right, then its not where we're going, but - for better and for worse - it is where we are. But nor can all of its consequences be blithely affirmed. Marriage is itself an institution which has suffered under the subjective turn - it, and the process of forming a family, is an act in which an individual chooses to situate his or her own good into the context of a good of others. As Austin Ivereigh writes, there's something about marriage which is designed to gently destroy the ego. Ironically, the same ego which the subjective turn is determined to emancipate.

Campaigners claim that marriage will be 'undermined', at which point we are right to ask 'how?' and 'why?'. My instinct is that it already has been, but the how and why has less to do with the prospect of gay marriage than the movement of the cultural tectonic plates that saw the whole question come about in the first place.


Paul Bickley is Director of Political Programme at Theos | @mrbickley

A version of this article has appeared on the Prospect blog.

Image by Pete from flickr.com under the Creative Commons Licence

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