An Appeal to my Fellow Confirmation Candidates of 1965?

Let us briefly recap:

In the second post in this series I wrote this: What I am seeking to develop here is a discussion about some of the ways the contemporary and taken-for-granted secularised identity (i.e. personal identity) is generated. I am suggesting it was from the standpoint of the Christian way of life that I began, however blurred my vision, to perceive the dominance of this “other” way. And at the same time that the Christian way of life became the self-evident path on which I was walking, I started to suspect that this “other” way in which I had been nurtured, claiming to be Christian, was a heritage forming the institutions of public life in this country and to do so in a way that encouraged people to publicly form a way of life that is a radical alternative to its own Christian “background”. In such a context, churches, Christian schools and Christian associations simply seemed to be committing themselves, their teachings, and their social involvement and public status to various ways in which they, as church organisations, congregations, denominations, church councils, bible study circles, schools to resolve their own problematic standing because they/we had already been lulled into viewing the Christian way of life as a problem to be solved. This was a Christian life committed to an incessant effort to identify and solve problems relying not upon “your heavenly Father who knows all you need” but upon the superior rational capacity we would get from advancing our educational qualifications.

I have greatly enjoyed writing this series and have even ruminated on why that may be. In fact the above statement is a re-write of what I initially wrote. Being someone who also writes, I find myself re-writing and polishing my prose. And as I do so I find myself asking, why should I do this and, in this instance when I seem to have achieved more than 50 hits in four days, who am I really aiming at!

Should this series be re-titled: An Appeal to my Fellow Confirmation Candidates of 1965? The only “data” I have about the 15 or so other candidates who joined in that service at The Anglican Church of St Edward the Confessor, Edinburgh Road, South Blackburn, back on 25th August 1965, is the vague sense from the months and years thereafter that for many it simply began process by which in time they would stop coming to church. Was it also the beginning of mere nominal allegiance, confirmed by a church ceremony, that they didn’t know have to confront? A passing out parade, perhaps? Maybe. Who knows? I went on as a young student to university and did so as a Christian. There I didn’t study for a job but to get a social perspective – at least that is what I said I wanted when I was asked at the time. And I studied sociology that, as I have tried to point out has since claimed itself to be the harbinger of an educated generation who understood that:

  • religious belief is still important and takes its place in “the background”.

  • religion  is no longer front and centre and to assume so is to excuse oneself from secular society.

So, my question to myself is: might this discussion be helpful, even to my fellow confirmation candidates, let alone fellow members of St Edwards Youth Fellowship (we invented the acronym: SEDYOF) so many moons ago? Well why not? 

So, now to return to the manner in which university sociology was taught in those late 1960s early 1970s: as I have suggested, what frustrated me deeply was the inability of our 2nd and 3rd year tutorials and lectures to deal with such dissonances that were integral to our everyday “religious” experience. These kinds of experiences were all too self-evident to some of us who were not about to pretend to deny our “religious” backgrounds. We sat there in sociology lectures taking it all in and hearing, in effect, why “religion was no longer the central and defining feature of post-industrial social life” or, more stridently, why “religion was well and truly on the way out”. Yet with all this theory, our lecturers were perhaps just a little too polite in pedagogical practise. And perhaps their politeness rubbed off too much on us because we didn’t broach these difficult questions that had already arisen for us in various “religious” contexts.

Let me mention a difficult question that is very much a part of my political sociological reflection these days: what are we to say about solemn religious vows? How can they be properly understood – even in the context of allegedly “neutral” sociological analysis – without reckoning with the unavoidability of pre-scientific assumptions that give direction and coherence, let alone meaning, to the theoretical endeavour that studies any social setting, no matter how sacred or profane, no matter how religious or secular? This is why my previous public affirmation of Christian faith, in a church, before a congregation, said reverently before God, only becomes problematic to the sociological analysis thereof if sociological analysis has already imbibed the way of life that asserts that human problem solving is its front and centre leading characteristic! To put it another way a Christian may study with “To the Greater Glory of God” (ad majorem Dei gloriam – AMDG) on her lips or even written on the top of every new page of her notebook, but those of the problem-solving way of life are no less confessing some comparable religious allegiance even if they are oblivious of the fact as they tap out their essays or put pen to paper.

But what was the consequence of “secularisation theory” for generations of sociology students, and in particular Christian sociology students who approached their studies in ways to accommodate the “problem-solving way of life”. The consequence was that such a public vow – made in church – had to be referred to in sociological coursework – not as something intensely related to a student’s pre-scientific assumptions – but as a private attitude that is best left, and best respected, in private. Well, consider now how sociology qua discipline considers other vows and think about the manner in which our legal system has inherited a system of legally enforceable promises. What are we doing about such taken-for-granted aspects of our way of life when marriage, family life and the formation of the post-modern utterly commodified household are being reinterpreted for a younger generation? See this insightful prod of two jurists to reassess the taken-for-granted rights talk that is held on most sides of our political debate.

And so, what has transpired with such a view of vows – the empirical circumstances of which have been implicitly avoided by those claiming to be guided by sociology’s grand theories – has been that were assumed to be a problematic of “secular society” and so it was their presumed problematic character rather than the vow itself that had to be theorised with secularising nonchalance. Here, as we have hitherto pointed out, again and again, is a very important issue that simply will not go away when the libertarian tide finally claims its high water mark in this country and the legislated definition of “marriage” becomes a weapon for those wanting public governance for their attempts to redefine their non-marital relations as marriage, with the perhaps unintended consequence, of ignoring a basic feature of such solemn oaths made by its citizens when they were wed. It was a solemn oath that included respect for marriage as a monogamous and life-long institution that was inherently and exclusively male-female.

Marriage as an institution is no longer is viewed in terms of an oath by man and woman to each other before God, even if such a marriage oath as they did take was previously in a church ceremony. The oath is viewed as a contract, a publicly binding something (what? a legal fiction perhaps?) that has been created by civil authority. And so, in the interests of equity and public fairness marriage gets its redefinition in terms of different kinds of dyads, composed of completely a-sexual autonomous gender choosing individuals, who freely have their desire to carry the name (if not stereotype) together endorsed, so that they can be publicly respected as such. As respected as what? The former enforced dyadic union that excluded gender-fluidity from its definition?

In such a development, the former marriage vows of a man and a woman from an entire generation – who took on a church ceremony because they believed that it would be just too difficult not to do so, and hence accommodated puritan grandmother, or unmarried Methodist aunts – are now on the cusp of being reconfigured in “public discourse”. This was simply what was done in the “olden times” before enlightenment took hold, when people actually were still under the impression that a wedding ceremony in a church was truly coram Deo.

Well, we also know, about the way solemn marriages vows in ceremonies conducted in churches have subsequently been abjured by the parties themselves. What about the solemn vows made by those of my generation who submitted to “confirmation”? Both of these were said at the time they were made as being solemn vows before God. And perhaps sociology, and its proud adherence to “secularisation theory” has played some part in this?

1. In the Anglican Church of which I became a full member at the age of 15, I affirmed with a solemn vow my baptism as a child and publicly acknowledged that I was bound before God and that congregation to live henceforth as a Christian. I’m not suggesting that the service as I now re-read it is without deep and perplexing ambiguities. To the contrary. But I’m left to wonder why our sociology classes left us with no discussion about this, let alone given any suggestions as to how such ambiguities could be resolved other than the implied one that such ceremonies were (and are) merely the persistence of a way of life that has long since been superseded. Had I not been told, again and again that:
“You shouldn’t be taking this religious stuff too seriously you know. Why have you become a Christian? What’s in it for you?”
But what was a young confirmation class graduate to say? Maybe he had submitted to this ceremony, gone along with the confirmation crowd because of an overwhelming sense of being overawed by what the Bible had taught about Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s Messiah. The human race has been met face-to-face with God Himself, God with us. And the point is that when “secularisation theory” met the “everyday secularisation” of Christian high school graduates in those days – no matter what was said – the sociology tutorial class we interpret it in secularised terms because the tutorial class was assumed to be the realm of merely secular opinion sharing. religion was on the way out and sociology of religion was giving us a theoretical explanation of why it wasn’t present in the university class-room.
The problem that this raises is not just that it is an intellectual endorsement of the privatisation of the student’s faith; but as intellectual attitude it simply “goes with the flow” of a problem solving way of life. The problem is in the dogmatic assumption that will not be brought to light in order to have it justified. It is the view that any profession of Christian faith arises in a person by an autonomous act that “constructs” the “new” reality, whether the promises of the Lord God can be relied upon or not. In other words this is a deep problem – a logical contradiction is the pre-theoretical commitment, the way of life in which “secularisation” theory as it has been promulgated is embedded.
2. The second issue of vows and oaths concerns the vows and oaths made by marriage partners, man and woman, in Christian marriage ceremonies. These ceremonies, seeking to be obedient to the teaching about marriage and family life that has been set forth in the New Testament by Jesus and the Apostles, have hitherto been acknowledged and endorsed as public vows concerning the married couple’s genuine intentions. The libertarian agitation for “same sex marriage” has for decades now, joined by Christian leaders and many other prominent Christian scholars claiming Biblical justification for their change of view as well, now advocate legislation and church practise that implies a view of public justice, let alone of view of Christian political action, that assumes that government should legislate a “base-line” definition of marriage that is not only privatised by secularised, that is making problematic marriage vows claiming to be made in the presence of God.

We were were not encouraged to openly reflect upon our experiences of catechism, confirmation, Sunday School, baptism, RI classes in State Schools, let alone our schooling if we had been at various church or parish schools. It might now be worthwhile to revisit the 1960s “enlightened” view of marriage and family.

I do recall, how one scholar was endorsed in lectures claiming that the basic sociological classification for family was a mother and child – and hence taking on a general sociological theory that implicitly assumed that a fathering is problematic. To our discredit we did not follow through and examine this in social philosophical terms, but then of course when philosophical assumptions were raised in sociology at that time, we were directed down two flight stairs to the ninth floor and the philosophy department and so would confront its reigning logical empiricism and linguistic analysis.

It is quite probable that we might not have enjoyed the experience had we been encouraged to discuss in sociology classes how the Christian way of life had become problematic even in these formal “religious settings”. The “secularism” that dominated sociology classes at this time was one that had resolutely turned to a “religionless” future but it wasn’t particularly hostile to students with religious outlooks. It was more a positivist expectation that religious commitment and experience was dying out and was in the realm of private values which had been already been superseded – and did not need to be tested against our own experience. The more militant might assert that religion was for “old ladies and little kids” who didn’t know any better who clung to religious belief because they were scared not to, but presumably some of our lecturers were struggling with the secularist air we were all breathing and their own privatised faith problems.

Some years later, Australia’s premier critical economist Hugh Stretton (1924-2015) described these years in terms of a deeply intellectual vandalism in these words:

A specially destructive effect of positivist professionalization was to cut people off from likely sources of self-criticism… In the disciplines which embraced this sort of positivism, … [s]tudents were taught that their values and their moralities were almost literally childish…. non-rational beliefs acquired at home or at church by faith or authority.

This experienced and well-respected academic’s 1987 statement continues:

Students come to university at an age when they are most vulnerable to suggestions that they are immature, that it is time to let go of the apron strings and toughen up and grow up. It was at that psychological moment that their positivist teachers and textbooks told them, as many economics teachers and textbooks still do, that valuing thought has no place in science. They must leave all their soft, childish, subjective values outside the classroom. If they don’t, they can’t hope to see facts, or to think for themselves as adults and scientists. In short they were told to throw away what were in fact the only rational guides to a lot of their scientific work, including many quite technical parts of it. They were taught to sneer at valuing thought as stupid and unscientific. ‘But that’s nothing but a value-judgment’ has stopped countless social-scientific discussions at the point where serious discussion ought to have begun. (“Political effects of positive social science” in Hugh Stretton Political Essays Georgian House 1987 pp.167-174 at pp.170 & 172-3.)

Stretton’s essay is recommended and throws a shining light on the emergence of a cruel managerialism – that has, we must concede also become a sine qua non of denominational businesses seemingly seeking to maintain a niche in the “spiritual market place”.

What I am suggesting is that a good percentage of the students sitting there in lecture theatres had, ten years before that, been regular pupils in Sunday Schools or had attended Catholic Parish schools. And of course there were those from elite Church Schools. Many of these late 1960s students had been “done”, or baptised, confirmed, or professed faith in their early teenage years. But these “everyday facts” were not opened-up and they do not seem to have been considered as a valid let alone vital part of our social lives for class-room (sociological) discussion. In other words, what was missing in those classes considered the “sociology of religion” and “secularisation theory” was any acknowledgement of our own secularising experience in those increasingly secularised “religious settings” (or at least in those settings which from the predominant sociological theoretical standpoint whether functionalist or Marxist saw the impact of “secularisation”. And because we were not encouraged to respect our own past experiences we Christian students were, I guess, encouraged to reinterpret ourselves in ways that downplayed or ignored our faith; did we not then see our faith as indistinguishable from the faith of our peers who had embraced the secularisation, and “left God behind”, who could only say they saw no need for faith. Were not our minds being cultivated to accept what Hugh Stretton identifies as the longer-term results of positivism?

… to sneer at valuing thought as stupid and unscientific. ‘But that’s nothing but a value-judgment’ has stopped countless social-scientific discussions at the point where serious discussion ought to have begun.

[As an aside at this point: my good friend Peter Gibilisco in his account of Hugh Stretton’s life at Scotch College suggests that Stretton’s own encouragement of critical reflection on social context was stimulated by a Plymouth Brother who taught him history: “a miracle of liberality”. Certainly not a Christian who could ever be a scholar according to some secularised stereotypes sometimes rife in sociology! see Peter Gibilisco Hugh Stretton and the Social Sciences MA Dissertation, Monash University  1999 p.17 – his public policy writings are collected here].

[to be continued]


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