Christianity doesn’t rise or fall with affirmations from the national press, but it’s interesting to read them when they come along. Two recent ones in this case.
First up was an editorial in The Guardian, noting that Christianity’s move to the margins of public life ‘could change the country profoundly’, wondering – as we face the challenges of the next century – what will supply ‘a vision of humanity that transcends narrow self-interest’.
Then, writing in The Telegraph, Tim Stanley observed that in the peaks and troughs of the history of Christianity in Britain, one thing has turned around decline – evangelism. Christians, he says, have become their own worst enemy – killing their faith with silence. He has a point. We’ll never bring people to Jesus if we don’t tell them about him.
Both articles were reflecting on recent British Social Attitudes data which shows we are experiencing a rise in the number of self-labeled ‘Nones’ – those who, when asked the multiple-choice question about religion, identify themselves as ‘None of the above’. Apparently, it’s now the largest single identification in England and Wales.
Even so, having rejected formalised religion, people have not stopped engaging on a ‘spiritual’ quest. It has simply shape-shifted into different forms. Back in 1969, Peter Berger, a sociologist of religion, wrote of ‘a rumour of angels’, signals of transcendence that won’t disappear: desires for order, joy, hope, justice, and a humour that mocks the self-pretension of the world.
It doesn’t take too long in a conversation with a friend, colleague or neighbour to find such yearnings embedded in the ordinary experiences of life, a sense that things aren’t as they should be, a desire for connection to something higher. It’s not that people don’t believe in fairness and freedom and decency, but they might struggle to articulate a coherent story which makes sense of those beliefs.
We saw it exemplified in the Brussels Vigil in March, where people gathered together, lit candles, sang, declared their hopes that evil will not have the last word, and offered prayers to whoever. For those and those like them, we can say that there is a light which shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it.
Just because many in this generation have the confidence to self-identify as ‘Nones’ doesn’t mean that they don’t long for more. For them, as for others, we have good news.
Antony Billington and Neil Hudson