Most people (Christians and otherwise) think that Christians should do good in the world, and I agree with them. But I think it makes a lot of difference why they should do that. For some time I have noticed that some of the reasons Christians give for doing good inspire me, while others leave me cold. I have been thinking over why that should be.
I grew up in Coventry, and those who know me well know how excited I was by the opening of the new Cathedral when I was 16, an excitement that has never left me. The new cathedral arose from the ashes of the old one, bombed by Germany in WWII. From the outset the new Cathedral committed itself to building a more reconciled world, at first working for improved Anglo-German relations but increasingly working with partners across the globe for a more reconciled world everywhere. That inspired me.
The present-day church has an increasing focus on social action, as Nick Spencer remarked on in a recent report from the Theos think-tank.
I welcome this increased social action, welcome the fact that churches are more involved in providing food banks etc. If you ask church people why they do this, the standard answer is that they want to ‘witness to the love of God’. However, I find that doesn’t inspire me in a way that building a reconciled world does. Why?
In part I think it is back to the difference between the two main reasons for doing good that philosophers have been discussing for decades. For some people it is a matter of obeying the moral rules, doing what you should. ‘Witnessing to the love of God’ seems to be that kind of reason. For other people, you do good because of the consequences, to make the world a better place. ‘Building a reconciled world’ is that kind of reason.
Much current Christian social action seems to lack any big vision, lack any idea of what it hopes to achieve beyond the alleviation of local distress. It is the big vision that inspires me, and it is something that seems entirely lacking in most present-day churches. ‘Witnessing to the love of God’ can sometimes seem just like ticking a box, with no idea of what it will achieve. It is ‘doing good’, without any vision of what good it will actually do.
Moreover, ‘witnessing to the love of God’ makes sense only to Christians; in that sense is quite an inward-looking rationale, even though the action it gives rise to may be outward-looking. In contrast, ‘building a reconciled world’ makes sense to anyone, whether they are religious or not; it is a more inclusive rationale. In that sense a vision of a reconciled world is a broader vision as well as a bigger one.
Another problem for me, with talk about witnessing to the love of God, is that it is so vague and general. Iris Murdoch used to complain about the idea of ‘goodness’ for that reason, and talk of the ‘love’ of God is no better. Working for reconciliation has more precision and bite, and that is another reason why I prefer it.
So, I welcome the increased level of social action by churches, but I don’t much like what church people say about why they are doing it.