In the last few weeks, I have been thinking a fair bit about religion in the public sphere in South Africa and have – not for the first time – been rather dismayed by the level of discussion. This is a topic that could fill several books, but I wanted to record a few points here, even if they only serve as a springboard for further reflection.

I couldn’t help being struck by the juxtaposition of two clusters of discourse around this topic in the course of the same week. The first was the reaction (here, among other places) to Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng’s speech suggesting – in rather measured tones – that religious traditions could make a positive contribution to the social good by influencing our legal framework. The second was a conference at which a group of Christians got together because they were concerned that freedom of religion is under threat in South Africa.

The problem, as I see it, is that the shrillness of the reaction to the Chief Justice’s speech only serves to underline the concerns of those who feel that freedom of religion is under threat, while the issues around which certain Christians seem intent on lobbying – such as the right to spank children – only confirms the prejudices of the secularists who see religious groups as inherently oppressive and basing their arguments on an arbitrary appeal to (often conflicting) religious texts.

In the midst of the heat-without-light reaction to Mogoeng’s speech, Ryan Peter published a helpfully sane article entitled “Are today’s secularists really secular?” In it, he argued that, instead of wanting to keep a neutral secular space, today’s secularists are rather seeking to impose their own views on others. While Christians should not be able to impose their ethical standards on others – and, predictably, much of heat generated had to do with sexuality – neither should secular society be able to impose its norms onto Christians, and, presumably, the followers of other religions.

Now this is fine as far as it goes, but the problem is that it does not go that far, and I fear that the idea of a neutral public sphere is something of a modern illusion. Acknowledging this does not mean retreating into theocracy, but it does mean that the sort of conversation the Chief Justice was initiating is a conversation that needs to be had. And it forces us to reflect on where our social values and norms come from, the different weight that we give different “rights,” as well as their sometimes mutually incompatible nature.

The fact is, there are areas in which the law will inevitably curtail freedom of religion in one form or another. Should the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses be allowed to die because their parents’ religion does not allow blood transfusions? Should Quakers be exempted from paying taxes that fund the military because their religion requires them to be pacifists? Should Christians who appeal to certain biblical verses be exempted from laws prohibiting corporal punishment? And, if they are going to base their argument on such verses, what is to stop another group arguing that stoning adulterers is a religious duty? The list could continue and it is small wonder that secularists accuse religious believers of cherry picking from often conflicting religious texts.

Yet there are also weighty matters at stake at stake here. Not so long ago, a Methodist minister who had been disciplined by her church for supposedly marrying her female partner, took her church to court on the grounds that they had discriminated against her unconstitutionally. While she didn’t win, it was not inconceivable that she could have done so (and she is continuing to appeal the judgement) and some of her most vocal supporters are precisely those people attacking Mogoeng’s speech. Moreover, while the forthcoming Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill has been amended to exclude religious bodies, there are nevertheless voices that would like to see religious groups forced to comply with what is seen as gender equality.

These are real issues and they will not ultimately be solved simply by appealing to a supposedly neutral public sphere, for it is precisely the values of that public sphere that are being contested. This is not to suggest a retreat into theocracy, but rather that we should critically examine where the values of the public sphere are coming from and what they are informed and nourished by. Neither secular nor biblical fundamentalism is particularly helpful here – and the former can be just as fundamentalist as the latter. But what is notably absent – at least as far as I can hear – is a robust articulation of the Christian vision of the human person in the South African public discourse.

Of course it’s understandable, given our history, that South Africans should be wary of the role of religion in the public sphere. Too often, Christianity has come to be identified with a fundamentally pessimistic view of humanity in which human potential is stunted out of deference to an arbitrary and vengeful God. And yet, ousting and controlling God does not so much mean freeing human beings as redefining and reducing them. For what is at stake is not so much God as humanity – what it means to be human. For ultimately, for Orthodox Christians, to quote the words of Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive. And the life of a human being is the vision of God.”


Some brief and probably disjointed appendices:

1. I’m not the only one who has noted the lack of any local forum for discussing issues of religious or theological concern in a serious way, and now Ryan Peter has come with a new initiative which looks promising. Do go and look at The Christian Blogger, which he is in the process of setting up.

2. Very close to the surface of any discussion on religion and public life are questions of sexuality. I’d better not start on this now as it probably requires a separate post – if not several books – and I sort of wish someone else would write it. But there are important questions that need to be probed, especially on the contrast between how such discussions play out in our context with how they played out in the early Church. (Of course, there are other issues too – individual autonomy, economics, etc. – but they too will have to wait).

3. I’ve recently started listening to the podcast series Paradise and Utopia by Father John Strickland on the rise and fall of Christendom – and on how the faith of the early Church influenced the society around it. It raises issues that are not unrelated to this post and which I may say more on again.

I really am more or less offline, but it would be it would be most worth your while to read Aaron Taylor’s Beware of earthly treasures in the Guardian. I had no idea that Aaron wrote for the Guardian (at least I’m assuming it’s the same Aaron?) until a post by Deacon Stephen, whose Mere ideology: the politicisation of C.S. Lewis is also worth reading, made me aware of it. Having recently had an interaction on similar matters at Koinonia, which I must confess left me feeling rather disorientated and feeling that people are just coming from very different worlds, I am rather pleased to see Orthodox Christians challenging such ideologies. I’m really not able to get into a discussion on this now, but I would recommend reading this.

Basil’s social doctrine was grounded in the conviction that all people are equal and share the same human nature. The poor, the rich and the emperor are all companions in slavery, that is, they are all dependent on God.[1] Moreover, human beings are social creatures and communal life and interaction with one another require a generosity that can alleviate the needs of the destitute. The scriptural command to “Give to anyone who asks” (Mt 5,42) calls us to a sharing and a mutual love that are characteristic of human nature.[2] The Acts of the Apostles (4,34-35) teaches us how this is to be put into practice. In the first ecclesial community of Jerusalem, the Christians sold their goods and gave the money to apostles to distribute to those who needed it.


In our own day there is a widely held view that belief in religious dogmas is not obligatory: even if they still have a certain historical value, they are no longer vital for Christians. Moral and social agendas have become the main preoccupation of many Christian communities, while theological issues are often neglected. This dissociation between dogma and way of life, however, contradicts the very nature of the religious life, which presupposes that faith should always be confirmed by deeds, and vice versa. Thus, in the Epistle of James we find: ‘Faith apart from works is dead’ (Jas. 2:26). St Paul, on the other hand, claims that ‘a man is justified by faith apart from works of law’ (Rom. 3:28). The ‘works of law’ here means the Old Testament rites and sacrifices which are no longer necessary after Christ’s saving sacrifice. Good deeds are necessary and essential, yet when separated from faith they do not in themselves lead to salvation. We are justified by faith, but only by a faith which informs the way we live.

No less alien to Christianity is the dissociation of dogma from mysticism, or of theology from the spiritual life. There is an essential interdependence between dogma and mysticism: both lead to knowledge of the truth, but in different ways. ‘And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’, says the Lord, who himself is the only Truth, Way and Life (John 8:32; 14:6). Every dogma reveals truth, opens up the way and communicates life, while each heresy puts us at a distance from truth, closes off the way to salvation and renders us spiritually dead. The struggle for dogma which the Church has conducted throughout her history is, as Vladimir Lossky demonstrates, a fight for our being to be brought into the true Life, for our union with God and deification…

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, The Mystery of Faith: An Introduction to the Teaching and Spirituality of the Orthodox Church. (London, DLT, 2002) xiii-xiv.

This week’s Tablet has an article by Abbot Christopher Jamison, whom I quoted a while back, on ethical engagement, and especially virtue ethics, in the context of climate change. The article is for subsribers only, but the Operation Noah inaugural lecture, of which it is a shortened verson, can be found here. He argues that “If we are to move beyond rhetoric and aspirational goals to have a tangible impact on people’s motivation to do the right thing, then our culture will need to rediscover the reality of metaphysics.” He discusses the role of the virtues in public policy and the need to rediscover the traditional understanding of “the good life”.

…let’s now take a look at how virtue plays out in people’s lifestyle and how that too is relevant to climate change. In this area, I choose as an example how the virtue of temperance can affect our lifestyle choices. We are increasingly aware that the Western lifestyle needs to change if we are to contain climate change. This is a problematic area because consumer culture is so embedded in our way of life. And of course this industrial system has brought real benefits. Too often people decry this culture’s material impact without seeing its material benefits, so what has gone wrong with this commercial process? The danger lies not simply in what consumer culture has done to our bodies but in what it has done to our souls, which in turn has led to an abuse of the material world. In this area of life, the monastic tradition offers some penetrating insights about temperance and about greed.

John Cassian was a great fourth century monk, the inspiration of St Benedict, and here is his account of greed in a monk: Greed is a work of the imagination that begins with apparently harmless thoughts. The monk begins to think that ‘what is supplied in the monastery is inadequate and can hardly sustain a healthy and robust body.’ The thought develops: ‘the monk ponders how he can get hold of at least one penny.’ When he has achieved that ‘then he is distracted with the still more serious concern of what to buy with it and how he can double it.’ This in turn leads to disillusionment with the way things are in the monastery and the monk cannot put up with things any longer so he wants to leave the monastery.

What emerges from this and other monastic writings is how deeply seriously greed was taken by the founders of the monastic tradition. The two basic insights that they offer can be readily applied to the lives of ordinary people today. Firstly, greed has its origins in the mental picture we have of our life and its needs. Secondly, if we get that mental picture wrong, it is a potential source of disintegration in the lives not only of individuals but also of communities. Armed with those monastic insights about how greed actually works, we can now look at consumer culture.

And he continues:

I believe that this ecological conversion involves individuals and society explicitly reaffirming that the classical virtues do indeed describe the good life. The churches in Britain, together with other religious communities, have a unique role to play in this regard. The four cardinal virtues have become endangered species, but the Church has given them sanctuary. They have been protected by the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love. For the Christian, the cardinal virtues are rooted in the theological virtues. Does this mean that only Christians have displayed fortitude and justice, temperance and prudence? No, because these virtues are part of being human. Nor does it mean that only Christians have thought like this. What this does mean, however, is that the Church is the principal global institution that sees in these virtues hard realities that have their own science that can be taught. In addition, the Church affirms them as an integral foursome that, when rooted in faith, hope and love, adds up to the heart of humanity. It is this totality of vision that is the Church’s special contribution. As the great Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Baltahsar commented: “The Christian is called to be the guardian of metaphysics in our time.”