Can the secular humanist account of progress be a sign of God’s salvation?

Jul 30, 2019 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Angela Tilby’s recent turn on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day once again gives an insight into not only the theological thinking of much of the Church of England leadership, but also the type of religion that is deemed acceptable and promoted by the nation’s ruling establishment through its main broadcasting mouthpiece.

Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christchurch Cathedral and remains influential in the Diocese of Oxford; she writes a regular column in the Church Times, and her selection as a speaker on the iconic BBC religion slot would have the approval of senior figures in the Church of England, so her views can be said to reflect the message that the C of E is seeking to convey.

For her recent talk, Angela took as her subject the recent unveiling of the new £50 note featuring the image of British mathematician Alan Turing. As the Oxford cleric pointed out, Turing is now well known for working out a method for reading the German Enigma code during World War 2, and for subsequent pioneering developments which provided the foundation for contemporary computer science and artificial intelligence.

Turing saw and began work on the technology of the future at a time when the world was in comparative ignorance. In a 1949 interview about computers and AI, Turing said ‘this is only a foretaste of what is to come and only a shadow of what is going to be’. Turing is also known as a gay man who committed suicide after being convicted for gross indecency in 1954. For Canon Tilby, we have now progressed so much more since those days, not only in our understanding of how mathematics and technology describes reality, but in our understanding of human beings – in particular that homosexuality is not a perversion, but “part of nature, how things are”.

She then quotes the second half of Romans 8, where Paul compares the frustration we experience now to the groanings of a woman in labour. “For him, the world about to be born was a world of true freedom and fulfilment.” The movement from darkness and ignorance, to light and freedom, illustrated by Turing’s life relating to the future development of computers and progressive ‘enlightened’ attitudes to sexuality, are examples, according to Canon Tilby, of God’s Spirit giving us a foretaste of heaven. The need to continue promoting this message is not over, though, as many countries around the world still hold to the old pre-modern attitudes regarding “who people really are”.

Tilby’s talk represents an attempt to Christianise an optimistic secular view of progress which understands salvation as having our needs met by the willing and controllable servant of technology, and being psychologically liberated from outdated repressive moralities . It is similar to the pronouncements of church leaders in the World Council of Churches in the 1960’s, who enthusiastically proclaimed violent revolutionary communist leaders as contemporary saviours, examples of God’s programme of liberation from oppression. It’s not unlike the prosperity preachers who equate God’s blessing with the amassing of personal material wealth. These ideas share in common seeing God and salvation behind any developments which are popularly viewed as positive.

It is certainly true that the Kingdom of God is not static, but dynamic. People change as they become disciples; the church grows and has an influence for good in society. There are strong themes in the bible of deliverance from evil, liberation from sin, and overturning of unjust power structures. But there are also powerful warnings of human beings embarking on projects which they believe display their knowledge and power, and even bring them closer to God – but they are based on hubris and rebellion and come to nothing. The Tower of Babel, pagan religious practices and even the corrupt Jerusalem temple system are examples of this where the spiritualisation of our own ideas of human progress is not a glimpse of God’s salvation, but a form of idolatry.

The good news is not that our self-proclaimed technological and moral superiority to our 1950’s forebears and the unenlightened of the global south is a foretaste of heaven. Rather, despite our tendency to exchange God’s truth for a lie, to reject the creator and worship the creature, to live according to our sinful nature rather than the Spirit, we can, by God’s grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus, undeservedly obtain his righteousness. The ‘glorious liberty’ of which Paul speaks in Romans 8 is not freedom to live as we please, according to our desires, but freedom from enslavement to these desires and their consequences.

Alan Turing’s brilliant application of complicated mathematics was ground breaking and should be celebrated along with other similar figures. He also had a complicated and ultimately tragic private life. Today’s establishment are following the prophets of the sexual revolution in hailing him as a mystical liminal figure, standing on the threshold of the old dark age and today’s era of technological progress and liberation of sexuality and identity. It’s a coherent message and a popular one, but the church should not be endorsing it and re-shaping the gospel to accommodate it; rather, presenting a different, better vision for human flourishing,

Interestingly, Angela Tilby gives more of an insight into her understanding of Scripture and the gospel in her latest Church Times column. She was shaped as a young Christian by daily reading of Scripture Union bible notes, and bemoans the lack of scriptural engagement and knowledge by many of today’s churchgoers. But for her, “biblical literacy” does not mean understanding the text in order to hear God’s voice and submit to it, but listening to and appreciating the “divergent voices” which reflect human reality. Scripture does not, Angela says, give a consistent message which should shape our worldview – this view just makes us certain of our own position so we “shout at each other”. Rather the bible presents a series of human arguments and commentaries, “never wholly resolved” – when we appreciate this, it helps us to “listen”.

It’s not surprising that if Church of England leaders believe this about the bible, they look to the secular world for authoritative guidance on a message of hope for today. 

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