The Secular Experience of God

by Kenneth Cragg

Published by Gracewing – Christian Mission and Modern Culture Series 1998 (74pp)

Reviewed by Jenny James


As a missionary-theologian and possibly Britain’s most creative Islamicist, Cragg is well-placed to describe how the three major Abrahamic religions do and might accommodate themselves to ‘secularity’ or ‘secularization’ – he uses both terms which are not entirely interchangeable. ‘Secularity interrogates them’, he writes. ‘ It is a vast commonizer, searching and shattering their privacies and presenting them all, alike and differently, with duties to their populations, their demographic factors, their political forms, and their economic obligations.’ Yet, while Christianity has had to come to terms with ‘the negligibility of God’ in those very societies for which it is particularly responsible, Islam on the other hand has the greatest problems. ‘What still remains mandatory to the Islamic mind is that this religious faith assumes, desires, and proceeds by state-and-power expression’ he writes 1.

That Islam now exists everywhere in a minority situation – contrary to its own instinct and establishment – is to say that it is already ‘de-Islamized’. That is because ‘Mohammed was his own Constantine’ 2. ‘The post-Hijra Islamic “establishment” at Yathrib (Medina) was an amalgam of faith and power so strong that apostasy from the one was treason tothe other. Submission to divine revelation meant submission to its power expression in the Ummah and Dawlah of Islam.’ And of the Islamic expansion: ‘The sanction was power in concert with preaching. Islam was thus the most political of all the great religions, and that without inhibition or any sense of compromise. Indeed, the logic of Muhammad’s Hijrah was precisely the legitimacy of religious power and the powered legitimacy of religion.’

How therefore can it adapt to modern realities and remain true to itself? Cragg is hopeful – but only by quoting those academics like Shabbir Akhtar and Fazlur Rahman who have been forced into a kind of exile from Islamic states – Malaysia and Pakistan respectively – where their work is anathema.

That being said, Cragg courageously and necessarily wrestles with the co-existence of different religio-political instincts within the modern context. He does this first by helpfully separating out two different definitions of ‘secularity’. He distinguishes between ‘secular’ as describing a state or society in which religious allegiance might freely vary within a common citizenship and share common civil and political rights ‘equally’, and secondly, ‘secular’ denoting a condition or attitude of mind that rejects or ignores divine transcendent reference altogether.’ i.e. ‘…there is only us’. He sees with the penetration of the long-practiced missionary the pathos and even the necessity of that denial, given the self-kenosis (a kind of denial, says Cragg) of God Himself. Yet, if the most deeply religious things – liberty, honesty and compassion – lead inevitably to privatization, since they cannot be coerced, what becomes of society’s cohesion, to those ‘norms, values and traditions by which alone bodies politic and social identify and know themselves?’ 3. The way the faiths answer this question will determine the future of the world.

While Cragg articulates the question with a rare sensibility for the yearning and integrity that is at the heart of the ‘secular mind’, his answers are surprisingly vague and unsatisfactory, given the enormity of what confronts him. And that is probably down to the unfamiliarity of the theologian and pastor with the disciplines of politics and sociology. It is not good enough to do as he does and consign those with more precise ideas to the lumpen category of ‘rigorists’, and ‘enforcers’. To see with Berger the religions’ role in ‘world-building’ is not to be a religious militarist. It is to examine the hard evidence that secular liberalism has already provided of its inability to safeguard both religious freedom and truth. 4. Cragg’s answer to the contest of faiths for political legitimacy lies in ‘state neutrality’ – a term he leaves totally unexamined as indeed he does the term ‘equal rights’:

‘this… political-national structure of religion can be secularized in the legal sense without that in any necessary way implying or requiring secular abandonment of religious belief, ritual, and practice. It has already been stressed that the secular state concept can, and should, be emphatically distinguished from any making irreligious of society. It is entirely valid to combine a system in which the state is neutral in respect to freedom and faith-allegiance, with some continuing tradition of faith, worship and religion.

There is a significant body of work by academic lawyers that demonstrates that the state is not, nor can be ‘neutral in respect to freedom and faith-allegiance.’ Different religions have already been granted lop-sided legal dispensation in respect to how they perceive their needs and their earthly trajectories. Cragg however side-steps the practical realities when he writes: ‘The case made here is that a single religion could properly continue to play the major role in the spirituality of secular statehood, on condition that it respected and recruited the contribution of faiths present in the body politic but not hitherto sharing its historic definition or its cultural assumptions…’ While he can see the disconcerting political logic of pluralism, and how asymmetrical are the different traditions in their treatment of minorities, it is not good enough to assume that this is simply a question of ‘spirituality’. What, without legal and constitutional underpinning, does that actually amount to? How does one contend for the ‘truth’ in the public domain except in practical, political terms? As Sanneh so penetratingly writes: ‘The secular programme for religious pluralism has focused primarily on rescinding the claims of Christian uniqueness, a strategy that lowers the threshold for the religious uniqueness represented by other religions, and opens the way for Muslim radicalism 5‘.

Cragg’s approach is typically complacent: he assumes that ‘our’ type of body politic would go on because it has always gone on. As if those who seek to safeguard the religion that undergirds secularity are merely ‘those of a certain mentality’ and can therefore be banished to the margins of debate. The Cross is the clue, as much for Cragg as for Newbigin. However, unlike Newbigin who sees the Cross as the symbol of a struggle that cannot resort to violence, Cragg finds it in a kind of self-abnegation that cannot resort to politics. ‘Mission’, he says, ‘is done with the God of patience in a secularity thoroughly refusing… its sacred meanings’. It will be ‘guided by the clue we have studied concerning what that patience is as measured in the Cross…’ as ‘a mission that will kindle into life this perception in order to interrogate its neglect.’ One only has to look to the state of the church in its former heartlands – predictions abound that there will soon be no more Christians at all in the Holy Land – and the centuries-long spiritual deep-freeze over north Africa, where Tertullian and Augustine once strode, to ask: how much ‘interrogation of neglect’ is conducive of the common good? Shouldn’t we rather take up a Cross that is integral to the daily struggle of public, political witness and action than a Cross of our own inertia?

As Sanneh says: ‘The issue… has to be faced that the development of a democratic West was conceivable at all by virtue only of its Christian classical and Puritan developments, more specifically, by virtue of those marks… works and motives that belong with the… influence of the gospel. What is plain now is that society cannot be content with drawing on the reserves of Christian moral capital without attention to replenishing the source’ 6. That demands political will.

  1. p. 17
  2. p. 16
  3. p. 6
  4. See Newbigin, Sanneh and Taylor, 1998
  5. 1998:65
  6. p.71