Holding on to liberty
“Good” was the topic of the Year 10 lesson. A student who is never afraid to share his opinions suggested that good and evil did not exist, but were simply concepts invented by people, that they were ideas that depended upon the people who talked about them.
The student’s relativism is a reflection of the society in which we live, ideas of what is good and what is evil have changed as society has changed. It is a relativism disliked by religious groups who think that their fixed ideas from a fixed point in time exclude the possibility of there being change, even when their own lives reflect numerous social changes.
Growing up in the English liberal tradition, the latitude of the “live and let live” approach to life, understanding those who believed their own attitudes were right and everyone else was wrong was not easy.
In college days, John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism was a set text; it provided an introduction to a libertarian tradition where personal liberty was tolerated to the extent that it did not impinge upon the personal liberty of others.
The Protestant tradition that shaped English history has been implicitly libertarian. Allowing a multiplicity of churches is a de facto recognition that no-one possesses the right to prescribe the thinking, or the behaviour, of those who disagree. Being Protestant has been, by implication, an acceptance of relativism: if one accepts that there is a diversity of churches in which each expresses a facet of the truth, then one accepts that no single tradition possesses all, or absolute, truth. The Anglican tradition has been pragmatic, deriving conclusions from experience, looking for balance in arguments, in order not to stray down the path of autocracy.
Within the church, the libertarian and relativist tradition, a tradition that that allowed the emergence of Western democratic capitalist society, is under threat from those who believe their opinion is the only one that is correct. The battle ground chosen by those whose vision is of an exclusive and prescriptive church has been sexuality; it could be any of a range of issues. A tiny number of biblical texts are adduced in support a view of human relationships and family life that owes more to the social arrangements that emerged from the Industrial Revolution than it does to anything in Scripture.
Claiming to possess the truth, sections of the church now seek to prescribe how others should live their private lives. It is an attitude far removed one that seeks after balance and far removed from the writings of J.S. Mill. It is an attitude that would be incomprehensible to the Year 10 students.
The practice of churches seeking to control people’s private lives is not new. In the Anglican Communion this has reached arguably its worst expression in GAFCON which ideology (rather than theology) tries to exclude those who disagree with its diktats. Unfortunately, its poison is spreading in the Church of Ireland.
The very people who claim they are building up the church are shrinking it!