15 MARCH 1975, Page 18

The crumbling 'theology'

Edward Norman

School Worship. An Obituary John M. Hull (SCM £2.00) Theology in an Industrial Society Margaret Kane (SCM £1.95) Here are two short books published by the , Student Christian Movement during Lent this year. Both are about the social application of Christianity; both argue for 'radical' re-thinking; both were publicised by the BBC; both are wrong. The authors of both, furthermore, use a common set of references which are immediately recognisable. They are the crumbs which fall from the table of academia; and as a result, no doubt, the usual great solemn heads will nod in approval. Indeed, they are already nodding. For here we have the authentic voice of what many now take to be intellectual honesty — a lecturer in religious education who doesn't believe in religious education (except by some very specialised definition), and a lay theologian who thinks theology is dead. It is ten years since a bishop of the Church of England said there was no God, and the subsequent reverence in which his opinions were enveloped augurs well for the future reputations of Dr Hull and Miss Kane.

These are works of propaganda. It is important to strip them down to this essential, because many will otherwise fall for all the intellectual rhetoric. Dr Hull wants religious instruction in the schools to be replaced by a relativistic scheme of teaching about all sorts of moral ideals. He wants an end to school religious worship. Miss Kane wants the Church to stop placing reliance on "other-worldly" spirituality, and the parochial system, and get down to the people "in the situation". The argument for both positions rest on simple value-judgments of a sort so bare that one is ashamed to pick at the bones. Dr Hull is a lecturer in Education at Birmingham. He is an Australian whose English teaching experience derives from four years at a Surrey grammar school. He is also a Congregationalist — a useful pointer, because he stands in a long line of Nonconformist critics of Church education; and perhaps that is the truest perspective in which to regard his offering. He believes that state schools should no longer be thought of as "Christian communities" wherein the children are encouraged in Christian beliefs and observances, because educationalists do not think they should. His arguments relate to the highly polemical opinions of that great circus of intellectual fashion: the educational theoreticians. It is in the last ten years, he contends, that school Christianity has became improper. This is because England is now a 'pluralistic' society; Christianity has become 'controversial'. There is no reliance here upon the views of parents. And that is scarcely surprising. For an overwhelming majority of parents in this country (as is known from opinion polls) favour the teaching of Christianity in the schools. Most of them, of course, do not go to Church; many have lapsed into life-styles not immediately redolent of Christian spirituality. But what parents ask for their children is the adoption of moral values established in a context of religious sanction — and that is what the law (where it is not already laid aside by progressive head-teachers) seeks to protect.

Dr Hull only notices the lack of formal Church attendance by parents, and the antipathetic climate of opinion within the intelligentsia. But he is also saying, of course, that what is not widely believed ought not to be promoted with all the authority of the classroom. If applied logically, Dr Hull's canon would mean that such "moral" issues as racial equality, social parity, and the general trappings of the humanist view of man, would also be banished from our schools. What, then, is education for, if not to instruct children in values precisely because, if left to themselves, they would not pick them up? Dr Hull is an elitist in the standard model of the academic moralist. His ideas-mongering includes quotation from Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed — a work now much beloved of educational theorists. Its author is a Chilean 'radical'. Education, Dr Hull maintains, is to make children "truly human", fit for a "plural" society of secular values. Education, in other words, is to indoctrinate children into the organised obsessions of those whose sense of "involvement" is a sort of Russian roulette with ideas: "Education is thus committed to neutrality as between its various contents because education (unlike faith) does not seek to finally make up its mind about its content." That is all very elevating (including the split infinitive); but Dr Hull then comes out with a full-blown admission that schools are to indoctrinate the children with democratic values. They are "to draw out the inner relationship between education, democracy, and the nature of man." They are "to demonstrate the values which are not controversial and upon which democratic society depends." But even more things are controversial than Dr Hull supposes. What are the public to do about all this? It is either a matter of allowing an intellectual elite to get away with all this sort of stuff, or to proceed to the counting of heads. Dr Hull favours democracy. Let us therefore count heads. Dr Hull's scheme loses.

Miss Kane's piece is a little more sensitive. Six years ago she was appointed a 'theological consultant' by the late Dr Ian Ramsey, the radical Bishop of Durham — whose beliefs, in fact, breathe through hers. Miss Kane has a degree in theology, and has been a chaplain in a steel plant; so there is a real stockpile of experience behind her. Yet her references are all to the world of the radical intelligentsia — just like Dr Hull's. Although the thesis of her work suggests that industrial society must itself provide the content of 'theology,' it is clear that, on the contrary, she takes to industrial society a collection of dogmas derived from the contemporary world of intellectual endeavour. Like a female George Orwell, she has an incarnational acquaintance with the living conditions of the working class. She once "had digs in a house where the father and son worked at the pit". Glistening, then, with theauthentic dew of the grass-roots, she proceeds to analysis. But Miss Kane's book is not about popular values — it is about educating people into the humanist views of the intelligentsia just as much as Dr Hull's.

"Theology" turns out to be "concern". Traditional Christianity is assailed because it is "expressed in large abstract terms such as sin, judgment, repentance and redemption." In their place, however, Miss Kane wants people to be concerned with "peace, reconciliation, forgiveness". What is the difference? Well the second lot are what people know about when they are truly human in a secular society. "Theology" ought not to be seen as something done inside churches: it is what humanity does. The academic theologians are criticised for being out of touch with the pulsating life around them. There are, as it happens, many and weighty reasons for rubbing the faces of contemporary academic theologians in the dust; but Miss Kane's are not among them. For her categories are, when stripped bare of the social agonising, as academic as theirs are. Here we have the whole shopping-list of humanist morality, with all the goodies disguised to look like popular brands. As it turns out, the centre-piece of the new "theology" is a little shop-soiled. Christian people are, she contends, to take the initiative in local . community politics. Her illustrations relate wholly to the North East. But the single Party dominance of local politics in that part of the country, as some have noticed, has not been without its occasional little lapses. When Miss Kane cites the 'initiative' in local politics of no other than T. Dan Smith the readers' credulity suffers something of a haemorrhage. But let us suppose that was just bad luck. What are local Christian groups supposed to be doing in industrial society? They should be "developing a cadre of people who can help others to 'do theology' as a joint enterprise." So little, in fact, is Miss Kane's vision a popular one, that people have to be taught about it.

Miss Kane's intentions are patently Christian, her motives of the highest; her conclusions of the most trivial. For what this version of Christianity would seek to establish is a sort of universal discussion-group. Everybody is to spend their time in the moralists' parlour, in the circle of the hard-back chairs and the paperback sociology. As an essay in the process known as `embourgeoismene Miss Kane's is a classic. Ordinary people are to adopt the moral agonising of the professional class intelligentsia. — in this case under the empty title of "theology".

In contrast to all this stuff, what Christianity needs today is some tough thinking. People will believe anything if it is wrapped up in the right language and uses contemporary expectations with guile and perception. There's nothing sacred about human intelligence. Feed people .a line and, if conditions are favourable, they will go for it. But the conditions have to be arranged. It's time for Christians to stop all this nonsense about respecting secular values, and so forth, and realise that a serious race is on between the competing ideologies for the possession of men's souls.

Edward Norman is the Dean of Peterhouse, Cambridge