by Brenda Watson
from Signs of the Times No. 62 - Jul 2016
Christopher Hallpike and Maria Barry, in their article Do we need God to be good? [Signs April 2016] noted that
‘a Christian civilization that is abandoning its religion is being hollowed out in fundamental ways’.
This is certainly happening today in our society. Typical of the embarrassment felt at the least mention of religious commitment is the reticence concerning the Queen's Christian belief in the celebrations for her 90th birthday. Jesus, she said in her 2014 Christmas broadcast, is ‘her inspiration and anchor’. Mark Greene notes: ‘Rightly the world marvels at the Queen's magnificent achievement. Might we not all benefit from hearing who she thinks has helped her do it?’1
Most of her subjects however find any mention of Christian faith odd and irrelevant. The prestigious RSA, for example, advertises itself as ‘21st century enlightenment’ (thersa.org). In it the atheist presumption is complete. The only mention of religion in the current RSA Journal is as an example of student ideas for positive change - the creation of a multi-faith museum as a remedy for discrimination.2 Religion is a problem to be solved, not part of any solution in helping to create a better world. The word museum is well suited to this kind of understanding of religion.
May this secularization be seen as in some way beneficial? Religion and power do not cohere well together. Perhaps Christianity was never meant to be a ruling institution, but rather, faith in Jesus should operate quietly like salt or as a light. If the many accretions of misunderstanding and corruption gathered round it during its long history have served to obscure what Jesus was and did, perhaps abandoning Christianity altogether becomes a necessary evil?
I say evil because it carries some unfortunate consequences for ordinary people in lack of the consolation provided by religious faith. More seriously, if the God-ward feelings that people have are not directed towards religion they will focus on something else such as consumerism.
Even worse is the gradual pull of moral relativism - a devastatingly dangerous phenomenon which can end up denuding the concepts of good and evil of any inherent transcendent meaning; they become in effect what A. J. Ayer famously argued - a ‘hurrah/boo’ reaction to what happens. The failure of Darwinian rationalism to combat this threat effectively is illustrated in Richard Dawkins’ revealing response recorded in Third Way. Nick Pollard asked him: ‘Suppose some lads break into an old man's house and kills him... How would you show them that what they had done was wrong?’ Dawkins replied: ‘I couldn't ultimately argue intellectually against somebody who did something I found obnoxious. I think I could finally only say, ‘Well, in this society you can't get away with it’ and call the police’.3
A civilized society in fact depends on certain values being widely accepted as ideals even if not widely practiced. These values are especially necessary for societies that claim to be democratic. If the moral boat capsizes, they offer a way of getting it afloat.
The most fundamental of these foundational values are the search for truth and integrity, justice and goodness, and respect for all. At the heart of Christianity these three virtues are not only acknowledged but infinitely extended, especially clearly regarding respect for all to become compassion even for enemies and outcasts of society.
It is interesting to note that these three virtues are fundamental in Shakespeare's writing. What he says seems to be true to life. Both the complexity and variety of outward life and the questionings and doubts of inner life are reflected. Truth, not understood as something static and possessable but as requiring constant search, is the silent companion throughout. Regarding goodness, Shakespeare does not embody a narrow view of morality encoded in legal do's and don'ts, but one which invites deep questioning as to the real meaning of goodness and evil. Some transcendence is assumed. There would have been no discourse on the merits of mercy over justice in The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure unless both words resonated with the concepts of good and evil, not just utilitarian benefit or emotional likes and dislikes.
Shakespeare especially exemplified the virtue of compassion for the whole of humanity, including those frequently excluded or despised - for women, the poor, the down-and-out on the fringes of society, criminals etc. Caliban in The Tempest has one of the finest lyrical speeches. As A.G. Nuttall notes, Shakespeare
‘is famous for being able to sympathize with anyone’.4
He had internalised an approach to all other people as persons which sought to be fair to them and allow them their share of the limelight, even as they performed and said strange, stupid, mistaken, even evil things. Shakespeare's world certainly ‘contained multitudes’.
Shakespeare appeared at the cusp of a civilisation impregnated by Christianity, but a Christianity whose real kernel had become easily obscured. The institutionalism that surrounded it like prison walls was deeply challenged in the sixteenth century. Shakespeare himself appears to have moved on from reliance on institutionalism. Scholars cannot say whether he was Catholic, Protestant or atheist. Yet his work does reflect in a special way what is at the heart of Christianity - something of the vision of Jesus concerning truth, goodness and compassion.
Gary Taylor made an interesting comment:
‘If Shakespeare has been the god of our idolatry for four centuries, it is because he created the scripture for an emerging secular world’.5
At this point we may reflect on the importance of Shakespeare’s popularity with all manner of people including extreme secularists and cynics. Indeed, it may be that Shakespeare unwittingly performed a feat such as that of St. Paul who broke open and made available for gentiles the inmost treasure of Judaism.