Sow the seeds of cultural change

9 August 2019

In an article for the Spectator this week, Greg Sheridan (foreign editor of The Australian) has argued that “the West cannot survive without a re-energised belief in Christianity”. Christian Concern’s Communications Manager, Paul Huxley, looks at Sheridan’s argument.

The unbeliever is like a child slapping her father while supported by his lap.

Illustrations like this have been used in theology and apologetics for many a year. The point being made is that only in this kind of creation – one that bears the marks of God’s design such as rationality, morality and beauty – is it even possible for an unbeliever to critique God’s existence or goodness.

In his article for the Spectator, Greg Sheridan makes a similar argument; but instead of referring to individuals, he refers to civilisation. The West cannot survive without a re-energised belief in Christianity, he says, pointing out that the things we like about Western civilisation have their origin in the Bible’s teaching and the influence of Christians. It is only due to the benefits of living in a society deeply influenced by Christianity that people with opposing opinions were ever allowed to express them.

Sheridan says that for some time, cultural conservatives have made “the case for the social usefulness of Christian values”. But he argues that this is not enough:

“The idea that we can live off Christianity’s moral capital, its ethics and traditions, without believing in it, appeals naturally to conservatives of a certain age. But you cannot inspire the young with a vision which you happily admit arises from beliefs that are fictional and nothing more than long-standing superstition. Christianity is either true, or it’s not much use at all.”

Sheridan’s conclusion is reminiscent of the Apostle Paul:

“And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:17-19)

Christian beliefs and ideas – however beautiful they may be – are ultimately of no use unless they’re true.

After enumerating many ways in which Christianity has benefited society (while recognising the mistakes of Christians along the way), Sheridan concludes with a criticism of present-day liberalism:

“Liberalism today, in rejecting its Christian roots, is cut off from all limits, all common sense, from a living tradition. It is careening down ever more febrile paths of identity politics, rejecting the Christian universalism from which it sprang. It is harming people in the process … There is, however, only one reason that counts for believing in Christianity: it’s true. Come on in, the water’s fine.”

Countering Christian misconceptions

What should we make of Sheridan’s argument?

First, it’s a breath of fresh air for a magazine like the Spectator to publish an article so unashamedly Christian. Sheridan, a Catholic, is well aware of the ridicule handed out to those in public life who are explicit about their Christian faith. Even so, he writes with confidence that the Christian story is true, not just useful.

More than that, Sheridan is willing to counter popular misconceptions that he calls “the Disneyland version of Christianity” – Jesus as a Gandhi-like figure whose pure teaching was corrupted by a church besotted with political power ever since Emperor Constantine. Many evangelical Christians would do well to reassess their views of Christendom by reading books such as Joe Boot’s The Mission of God and Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine.

Liberalism was the abandonment of Christianity

Sheridan points to liberalism’s abandonment of its Christian roots but for me, liberalism itself was the abandonment. Because of their size, giant oil tankers turn and slow down much slower than kayaks. So too, societies, consisting of millions of people, institutions and traditions, rarely change overnight. The seeds for the rise or fall of civilisations are sown well before they are harvested.

At the time of the French Revolution, liberalism saw the vision of a society rebuilt from first principles, just as Descartes had built his philosophy. Although many pioneering political liberals were Christians, or had some kind of belief in God, their political philosophies always implied that society could run just fine without his revelation or wisdom.

In my view, liberalism never abandoned its Christian roots – it merely revealed its non-Christian roots. The collapse of Biblical Christian faith in the West simply meant that there was less – humanly speaking – to hold back the juggernaut of atheistic secularism that was always implicit in liberal thinking. Fewer Christians living faithful lives, speaking with truth and grace about moral issues of the day, made liberalism’s true colours shine clearly.

You better hope Christians are right about God

Sheridan comes close to arguing that if you like Western civilisation, or dislike the chaos caused by the toxic combination of atheistic liberalism and the sexual revolution, you really better hope that Christians are right about God.

Although this is an atypical argument for belief in God, it has its merits. Christians believe we have found the truth – or rather the Truth in Jesus. We often seek to persuade others first that it is true (based on apologetic arguments or evidence for the resurrection) and then move on to argue for its desirability.

But the reverse order can also be helpful. “Look at the sense Christianity makes of you and the world: the hope it provides, the change it can bring. Don’t you want it to be true?” Similarly, we can – and should – point to the benefits that Christian influence has brought to society. With liberalism seemingly unravelling, now is as good a time as any to speak confidently of the goodness of God’s vision for society.

‘Where there is a church, there is civilisation’

“’Thank God!’ said Wimsey. ‘Where there is a church, there is civilisation.’” (Dorothy Sayers, The Nine Tailors)

I’m grateful to Sheridan for writing this thought-provoking piece and particularly for the confidence he shows in the truth and goodness of Christian faith. I hope it encourages many more like him to ‘come out’ as Christians.

If we want to enjoy the benefits of Western civilisation, rather than the chaos of liberalism, we would do well to look to the triune God who inspired its best characteristics: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Christianity is not simply socially useful; it is true.

But more than that, Jesus Christ rules over our history with “all authority in Heaven and on Earth” (Matthew 28:18). He is able to direct our lives and his Spirit gives us the strength to live the kind of generous, godly lives that make civilisation possible.

For the good of Western civilisation, the people living in it but, most of all, the glory of God, we long to see a widespread return to genuine Christian faith. But those of us who are Christians need to submit all our prized philosophies and ideologies to the lordship of Jesus Christ, King of kings. And in doing so, we will start to sow the seeds of societal renewal that our children, and children’s children, will one day benefit from.

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