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There was a time, not so long ago, when the UK was so uncontestably a Christian society that no one would have ever asked how a Christian could engage publically in public life. Today, even to make such an innocuous claim as ‘Britain has a Christian heritage that is central to its legal and cultural identity’ leads to a protracted media debate over the validity of the claim and whether or not it is “divisive”.
Attempts to do public engagement as a Christian, rather than leaving faith at home or in church, are often now portrayed as undesirable. Christianity is effectively detached from the mainstream public debate, often allowed a voice only if it speaks with a ‘secular’ voice on issues such as “service provision”. All this has too often left Christian engagement in a quandary – nervous about speaking up with its own voice lest it be dismissed as reactionary, but at the same time wary of having to speak in a different language which does not do itself justice.
Good News for the Public Square: A Biblical Framework for Christian Engagement represents an attempt to provide a proper basis for Christian engagement subverting the dilemma above. Timothy Laurence and his contributors have instead embarked upon a more authentically Christian path, grounded in the Bible but expressly focused on engaging with the public sphere in a manner that is not merely clinging on to the past but that looks forwards towards a true vision for society.
The public square debates over the limits of freedom today owe much to the secular vision Isaiah Berlin who put forward two concepts of freedom: negative liberty, in which you are free to the extent that you are not interfered with, and positive liberty, in which your freedom is seen as something which can be augmented by impositions placed upon you by the state. Western society today tends towards an obsession with negative freedom, which we see manifested in, among other ways, the idea that religion should be a purely private matter in which the state should not intervene, but which should not, therefore, attempt to be too public.
Good News rejects this approach and instead advances a Christian approach. This is one in which freedom is the ability to flourish and thrive most effectively as a human being in accordance with creation. Laws are not coercive, but allow for the ultimate freedom of fulfilling one’s human nature. Yet, this is not the positive freedom that Berlin feared would ultimately lead only to coercion – it cannot be imposed by government (even with good intentions), but needs a positive consent from a people willing to embrace that freedom.
Four main chapters develop theological themes of authority, truth, goodness, and hope. Each explores both the mandate of government in the public sphere in relation to the public order and a properly orientated society, and what Christianity’s message on each issue speaks to.
This approach, which in each chapter examines the responsibility of government indirect dialogue with biblically-grounded approaches, is a very clever one. Not only does it provide an easy structure to each chapter but, more importantly, it shows a way forward in doing this sort of engagement. For example, in the chapter on how we know what the public good is, neatly juxtaposes sound biblical exegesis on the Jubilee and the use of the Ten Commandments with contemporary issues of state ownership and control. This chapter is the clearest in proposing some very clear principles of a society which prioritises the family unit and marriage, encourages the ownership of property and the need for rest days.
If there is a slight frustration it is that those implications and insights are not carried on a bit more comprehensibly. While it is entirely understandable that the effort is to create a framework rather than a complete model for a future society, the theses could have done with more direct testing of their own implications.
It threatens to at various points – the section on public authority walks a tightrope on the correct place for a Church to engage politically, and the issue of gay marriage haunts a few passages without ever quite daring to speak its name (“Wisdom does not try to redefine or bypass marriage and family life in an effort to achieve good ends by another means”). A case study based on some of the different ways in which Christian groups take on social engagement might have better tested the framework. For example, while the framework is explicit that churches should not become arms of political parties it would have been fascinating to consider some of the possibilities that stop just short of that. The UK is unusual in never having really developed a tradition of Christian democratic parties – but why exactly would such a party be a bad model for UK Christian engagement?
There is also a more fundamental potential issue which Good News stops short of fully tackling. In the fascinating section on Public Truth there is an excellent analysis of the breakdown of any consensus on a unified account of public truth and public good. This, of course, was precisely the reality of which Nietzsche’s madman warned the modern world – a society fundamentally untethered, lacking any common foundation, like the Earth unchained from its Sun. However, given the lack of consensus on the plausibility of objective shared truth how far can a Christian vision really speak into such a context? In a world without a shared conception of truth will a Christian vision of the public ever be doing any more than speaking an alien language?
That note of caution notwithstanding, Good News is a very welcome attempt to ask perceptive theological questions of Christians and of society itself. At a time when Christianity can often seem either like a purely reactive or excluded force in public debate it is refreshing to find an attempt to critically think through an approach to being neither.
Good News for the Public Square: A Biblical Framework for Christian Engagement is edited by Timothy Laurence and is published by the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship.
Ben Ryan is a researcher at Theos
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.