Christianity and the World Order

Written by Edward Norman Reviewed By Chris Wigglesworth

‘What Christians most need in our day, therefore, is to see that the complicated mixture of the Infinite in the structures of time is explicable according to the spiritual interpretations of religious tradition—and does not require them to turn, instead, to the inappropriate explanations of secular culture. Both in daily life and in the worship of the Church, the prevailing emphasis upon the transformation of the material world has robbed men of their bridge to eternity. Around them, as in every age, they hear the clatter of disintegrating structures and the shouts of outraged humanity. But the priest in the sanctuary no longer speaks to them of the evidences of the unseen world, discovered amidst the rubble of the present one. He refers them, instead, to intellectualized interpretations of the wrong social practices and political principles which have, in the view of conventional wisdom, brought suffering to the society of men. Around us, however, the materials of eternity lie thick upon the ground, ambiguous in relation to time, lucid as pointers to celestial realities. For the mysteries of the Kingdom are not the commonplace of the mere inquirer, but the pearl of great price, which only they possess who dispose of all their own goods.’ So the Dean of Peterhouse College, Cambridge concluded his sixth and final 1978 Reith lecture, sounding for all the world like the chaplain at the close of an elegant and uplifting college sermon, which should be followed after a decent interval by sherry in the Senior Common Room and an excellent High Table lunch, for the dons at least, while the undergraduates would have something more suitable to their station. Though evangelical theological students can be grateful to the Dean for his timely reminder to ‘set their hearts on the things that are above and not on things here on earth’ they are not likely to find out anything new about the former or reliable about the latter from the rest of the book, which can be safely left unread.

Why then did the lectures create a flurry of controversy when they were first delivered at the close of 1978? I can clearly recall listening in the Bombay early mornings to their ethereal tones (‘ethereal’ being a word Dr Norman uses fondly (pp. 2, 78) heightened by the short-wave reception of the economising BBC World Service, which added to my growing feeling that these were indeed words from another world. The Dean sympathizes with one who found himself ‘thinking more and more about the next world and less about the third world’ (p. 15) but on re-reading these lectures back in Britain I find myself thinking that the Dean’s own world is already a very special one. It is a world in which he can deride the liberal values (pp. 29ff., 57ff.) which sustain university life and disdain the ‘earthly expectations’ (p. 14) which pay for it; in which he can claim to be equally sceptical of all political views, even his own conservative ones (p. 7), and yet imply appreciation for the Christian motivation of the South African government (pp. 61–62) and General Franco’s Fascist Spain—at least no worse than Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania (p. 81) or General Pinochet’s ‘traditional Christian’ Chile (p. 50); and from which he is able to look down on the foolish clergy who as a class are infected with a secularism which they are spreading across the globe (pp. 5–6), especially through overseas priests ‘with no genuine experience of the Third World’ (p. 70), which the Dean has visited at least twice (pp. 47, 68). He even takes exception to the very conservative biblical exegesis of the Liberation Theologians (p. 53).

Dr Norman’s polemic has appealed mainly to those who find today’s world a threatening place, likely at any time now to disturb the relatively placid life of upper-class Britain in general and university dons in particular. His main theme is that the church has become too ‘politicized’, by which he says he does not mean ‘involved in polities’, though he is scornful of virtually all actual contemporary involvement. It means an ‘internal transformation of the faith itself’ (p. 2), though he does not document this change. His call for a less politicized and more ‘privatized’ church (p. 80) is liable to be confused with the National Front’s advice to clergymen to keep out of politics and stick to helping individuals to live better lives. The Dean once concedes that the Christian will be involved in political action to remove ‘agreed injustices’ (p. 79) but nowhere does he hint at what these might be, having sneered at individuals like Helder Camara, Sheila Cassidy, Steve Biko, Trevor Huddleston, Colin Winter and Helmut Frenz and almost all current Christian involvement, even that against human rights violations in Communist lands.

Probably the best thing to result from these lectures has been the reply by nine Christian sociologists, economists, historians and theologians, Christian Faith and Political Hopes. A reply to E. R. Norman, introduced by Haddon Willmer (London: Epworth, 1979). Those who feel the need of a politically conservative Christian world-view will find Sir Frederick Catherwood’s writings more use than Dr Norman’s, while Peter Berger’s Pyramids of Sacrifice: Political Ethics and Social Change (Penguin, 1977) is an excellent liberal-conservative look at the world’s ideologies. There are plenty of good books with genuine experience of the Third World, some of them selectively misquoted by the Dean himself (eg p. 46, n.ll; cf. Hope in Captivity: The Prophetic Church in Latin America, pp. 88–92—an excellent account of a return visit by a former Baptist missionary, Derek Winter (Epworth, 1977), or p. 15 n. 2; cf. Audacity to Believe by Sheila Cassidy (Collins, 1977). On South Africa and its government’s intentions, commended by Dr Norman (p. 62), a most significant book is The Trial of Beyers Naudé: Christian witness and the rule of law, edited by the International Commission of Jurists, Geneva (London: Search Press,2 1979).

According to the Dean, Christianity ‘is about the evocation of the unearthly’ (p. 79) and this ambiguous expression well describes his own lectures. Surely the cowshed and the cross should call forth a more practical imitation of Christ.

Chris Wigglesworth