The Problem of Religious Language

Recently, I asked people on Twitter what they understood by the word ‘Church’. As expected, the answers differed widely. Some were more theological, others more sociological, others again tended towards what I’d call an attempt to express an aspiration or hope rather than a definition. Common to all of them was a use of language which I suspect didn’t make much sense to anyone who didn’t share the underlying assumptions or experience of the user.

As the British people become less and less familiar with the language of the bible and the cultural references of Christianity, attempts to find a common ground to talk about religion and its place in society become more and more difficult. Although I would not myself have used the language used in the column referring to the letter signed by 1054 Catholic priests in today’s Telegraph, I do share their concern that religious freedom is being eroded. We saw what happened with Catholic adoption agencies; we know that we cannot legally assert that Sunday observance is a constituent part of our religion (so much for the obligation to attend Mass); I am not at all sure  we can insist that people wishing to stay at the monastery should observe our moral norms. Government assurances to the contrary look like most Government promises: susceptible of being changed overnight.

Is there a problem? I think so. Those who think that religion is a private matter and should not intrude on the public sphere have no understanding of Christianity, certainly not in its Catholic form. I myself dislike emotive appeals, particularly when they are bolstered by a simplistic understanding of history; but I dislike them because I believe they obscure the genuine concerns we ought to have. It is easy to ridicule someone who likens David Cameron to Henry VIII. How to get David Cameron to understand and engage with those who see some unintended consequences flowing from some of his proposed legislation is much more difficult. We need a common language but, alas, that is what we don’t have. In the meantime, those who think society will be kinder, more generous, more perfect in every way if Christianity and all its works are removed from the public sphere might just spend a few moments thinking about all the voluntary/charitable work being done by people who call themselves Christian.

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