God in Public

by Tom Wright, SPCK, £9.99

Tom Wright is infuriated by attempts to exclude faith from political discourse. God is often treated “like a demented elderly relative confined to the attic: we can visit him from time to time but he mustn’t be allowed to come downstairs and embarrass us, especially when there are visitors present”. The saddest part is that people of faith often surrender to the prevailing cultural mood: they “shrug their shoulders and suppose they’d better turn inwards, away from the public sphere”.

In search of a solution, a useful starting point would be to explain why faith is so frequently regarded as irrelevant or even corrosive. The Enlightenment clearly didn’t help matters and, while Wright acknowledges the important intellectual achievements of the 18th century, he is pleased that we are now “more explicit than we were … about the ambiguous nature” of the era.

The most frustrating legacy is the way the Enlightenment learned to “eat its own tail” – it claimed to champion unfettered reason and freedom but quickly developed a narrow and decidedly exclusionist definition of authentic intellectual inquiry and political life. In many sectors of modernism, this was increasingly deemed to exclude religion. Small wonder, then, that we ended up with a “worrying stand-off between an increasingly shrill secularism and an increasingly powerful fundamentalism” across many faith traditions.

Then along came postmodernism. Wright applauds some aspects of the project, not least its ability to challenge “arrogant Enlightenment epistemologies” that used the supposed quest for objectivity as a “cloak for political and social power and control”. Postmodernism’s obsessions were not always helpful to Christianity, however. Any idea that rested on a “grand narrative”, that took the idea of authority seriously, or that sought to conceptualise the whole of reality came in for a drubbing. Needless to say, Christianity met all three criteria of disapproval.

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