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Thursday, 4 July 2013

Tim Farron is either "wrong or compellingly correct"

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
Tim Farron: "Christianity is not a bit true.
It's either wrong or utterly compellingly true."

I know what I believe.

I also know what I don't believe.

I don't think it's a terribly positive testimony for the President of the Liberal Democrats to chair a prayer breakfast in Westminster Hall at which Oxford University's Professor John Lennox described atheism as a "fairy tale for those afraid of the light". Worse still, when the President of the Liberal Democrats follows that up with the assertion that "Christianity is not a bit true. It's either wrong or utterly compellingly true", questions have to be asked about whether Tim Farron is able to separate his personal faith from the responsibilities of his secular position.

Farron has proved himself a very capable party president, as well as an excellent campaigner. No-one can deny his incredible work ethic and infectious enthusiasm. There is no question that the Liberal Democrats are stronger for having him as President. He has enormous political intelligence - and yet, when it comes to the matter of his personal faith, he seems not to grasp how unwise it is to make public proclamations in support of a particularly fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity.

It's not the first time he's done this, of course. Farron has upset a few people with his voting on sections of equal marriage legislation. He also made a few headlines when he co-signed a letter to the Advertising Standards Agency apparently arguing for the literal, physical healing power of God and demanding that the agency produce "indisputable scientific evidence" to the contrary after it banned a leaflet. He did later admit this was a mistake and that he should not have signed the letter "as it was written", but he clearly believes that God's in the healing business.  I thought his apology was well-considered, but highlighted the lack of thought given to signing the initial letter. Furthermore, he has intervened on the sensitive matter of terminating pregnancy by stating that "Abortion is wrong. Society has to climb down from the position that says there is nothing morally objectionable about abortion before a certain time. If abortion is wrong, it is wrong at any time." (The War Cry, 24.2.07).

It's not so much that he makes these statements and believes in them that concerns me, but the lack of consideration shown for those who think differently. No doubt he'll disagree, but in referring to "Bible-believing Christians" in a speech at a conference fringe meeting in 2011, he makes the distinctions between "real" Christians and those who presumably are less than real. This is particularly offensive from the perspective of the inclusive and tolerant liberalism that he has been elected to represent.

I was invited to the prayer breakfast (as a member of LDCF) but I'm pleased I wasn't present because the contribution of Professor Lennox would not have sat comfortably with my interpretation of Christian values. But I'm more disturbed by Tim Farron: what exactly does he mean when he says "'Christianity is not a bit true. It's either wrong or utterly compellingly true"?  Is he suggesting Christianity is merely an inflexibly prescriptive and fixed set of beliefs?  Is he asserting the moral and spiritual superiority of Christianity? Is he reducing the truth of all religion and spirituality to the simplistic test of scientific scrutiny - something that surely hands the argument to atheism? Furthermore, what precisely does Tim define as "Christianity"? More seriously, does he not realise that there is usually some truth in all faiths and ideologies...and that (in respect of the "absolutely true" assertion) any belief that believes it has an absolute majority on truth is fundamentally dangerous?

I have my own personal faith. I still call it Christianity, because that's what it is. I rejected fundamentalism years ago. I no longer believe in a theistic, all powerful God living somewhere beyond the visible sky intervening in response to appeals to direct the course of human history. That understanding of God is not credible. But I have an attraction to many of the reported teachings of Christ and I still believe in "God" - although my God is unlimited and boundless, the expression of life itself. As someone who has actually taken the time to study theology, while I may have rejected many of the claims made for Christianity I continue to have time for liberal, inclusive religion and indeed spirituality more generally.

It is not Christianity that is either utterly wrong or completely correct. It is Tim Farron. There is no scope in his thinking for any "middle ground"; his views are either entirely true or completely mistaken. Very few theologians of standing, let alone the vast majority of moderate church leaders, would make this kind of claim. There is truth in Christianity, as indeed there tends to be in most religious, social and political philosophies. There is also a fair amount of error - at least in regards the claims often made for Christianity by its more fundamentalist advocates who have subjected Biblical interpretation to the straitjacket of literalism. It is thoroughly depressing that Farron is unable to grasp that truth goes beyond the mere literal and indeed is far more subjective that he cares to believe. In any case, Christianity is more than a list of alleged "absolutes" and the Bible itself a collection of historically confusing and theologically contradictory texts, some more reliable than others and each written for various religious or political purposes. This does not negate that there is indeed some truth within its pages, but the idea of accepting it as a single globule of divinely-inspired Truth is frankly absurd in the light of 21st century theological understanding.

However, I accept that Christianity as Tim understands it must be right or wrong - the notion that the meaning of Biblical texts must be either accepted in full or wholly rejected (irrespective of the varying interpretations that may be made of such) is not an academically sustainable position to take. What stems from Farron's assertions is an intolerance towards other expressions of Christianity (and indeed atheism and other religions), an assumption that issues of faith are black-and-white (and "his" Christianity is presumably always right) and a disregard for the values of secularism. Fortunately, however, Farron's brand of Christianity is not the only one out there.

There are many Christians within the Liberal Democrats who do not see their faith as having a monopoly on truth and who value - indeed, even promote - secular society.  It is disappointing that Tim Farron's increasing ventures into religious controversy have the effect of making him, and therefore the party, appear more than faintly ridiculous. It is not a mainstream Christian view to characterise atheists as "afraid of the light"; nor is assertion of absolute correctness of Christianity (as inevitably interpreted by the individual) something most Christians cling to.

Tim Farron is the obvious favourite to succeed Nick Clegg when he eventually steps down as party leader. He has evident attributes, but while I would happily have Tim as an MP and campaigner within the party I'm becoming gradually more uncomfortable with the idea that someone who so frequently courts controversy on the basis on his religious beliefs (or, more accurately, his inability to express them in sensible, moderate ways) leading our party.

Of course, this issue not merely about one man - it's about how these values are being communicated and promoted within the Liberal Democrats. We had a number of Lib Dem MPs either vote against or abstain on the issue of marriage equality; more worryingly we have the likes of anti-abortion and Gay-cure promoting Christian "charity" CARE providing interns to parliamentarians including Scottish leader Willie Rennie and, in the recent past, Mr Farron.

Perhaps a step forward would be for someone to run for party president next year on a secularist platform?

N.B. I did ask Mr Farron to explain his comments further, which is why I have waited a week before publishing this piece, but he declined to respond. Therefore I have accepted the quote as reported.

18 comments:

Caron Lindsay said...

I get what you are saying here. Just one thing - Tim can't run for President next year as there's a two term limit. I wondered if you knew that.

Andrew said...

Hi Caron, Yes - I did know that. It's not so much an anti-Farron candidate I'd want (I really like Tim when he's not expressing his narrow religious views, and I admit he brings quite a lot to the presidency) because that would make it too personal, but someone who can bring secularism to the fore and hopefully use the presidential election as a means of having the internal party discussion on this that we need.

Talking about secular candidates, and people who might make a good party president, I think it would also useful to use the election as a means of furthering the cause of gender equality. A Scottish woman would be good....!!!

Jonathan Calder said...

Andrew

Tim's argument is borrowed from C.S. Lewis - and it was no more persuasive when Lewis made it.

Jonathan

Tracy said...

"Christianity is not a bit true. It's either wrong or utterly compellingly true"

Tim being a Christian and saying this then believes it is 'utterly compellingly true'. Which,as you suggest, leaves no middle ground.

As an atheist I believe it to be wrong. I'm not saying all atheists would say that. I don't like any religion. In my book religion has a lot to answer for.

Tim is entitled to his views and recently said on twitter "My religion is just that, it's mine." Which is just fine by me as long as does not influence reactions by him that have an impact on politics, people and society who do not believe the same as he.

It's a dangerous thing to express these views publicly I think and may hinder any leadership ambitions he may have.

Andrew said...

Tracy,

Of course Tim's religion is his. As of course is everyone's. Ultimately it's a very personal thing.

However, it ceases to be a private matter when aired very publicly at a parliamentary prayer breakfast. It's not merely his religion when then becomes public, but the type of religion he subscribes to. it seems Tim's Christianity is a very exclusive one; it's either black or white, it's right or wrong, you're either for me or against me. It's not the kind of rhetoric that I like to associate with a Lib Dem president.

Of course religion has a lot to answer for - especially those interpretations that create the kind of worldview where everything is an absolute, where there can be no middle ground.

One thing I'd disagree with you on..."Tim being a Christian and saying this then believes it is 'utterly compellingly true'. Which,as you suggest, leaves no middle ground." It's not Tim BEING A CHRISTIAN that leads him to such perspectives, but Tim's embracing of a rigid orthodoxy. There are multiple versions and interpretations of Christianity and Tim's apparent treatment of it as a single homogenous blob of infallible truth is not only unhelpful but offensive to other Christians who take a more liberal approach to their faith.

Matt Lake said...

Andrew - another interesting and challenging post. My related question is this - are you saying that holding to an evangelical Christian faith position is incompatible with membership of the Liberal Democrats and/or holding of a senior or representative position within the party? Or that this can only be held if not expressed publicly?

It's a genuine question as I very much value your engagement with LDCF but some LDCF members have described feeling increasing pressure in recent years not to reference their Christian faith as the main motivating factor in their involvement in political action within the party.

By the way I've shared this post on the LDCF facebook page as I thought that the very broad church that is represented by the diversity of LDCF members (Catholic, evangelical, Methodist, Quaker and much more) would appreciate being aware of it.

Perhaps we could catch up on this at Conference in Glasgow if you will be there. Really enjoy the blog by the way, so do keep posting!

Andrew said...

Hi Matt,

Thanks for your reply.

"Am I saying that holding to an evangelical Christian faith position is incompatible with membership of the Liberal Democrats and/or holding of a senior or representative position within the party?" No, but that we're a very broad church (in every possible way) and I think it is wrong for anyone of religious faith to believe (let alone make a public declaration) that they are right in their beliefs to the point that all others, by implication, must be wrong. It's the spiritual arrogance I'm opposed to.

I have my own faith, as you will see and know. No doubt many Christians will share some but not all of my views. I do not believe Christianity must be either entirely wrong or entirely false. I find it a very unhelpful thing to say, irrespective of who said it. The fact that it is the President of the Liberal Democrats, who really should be better clued up as to what is and isn't a wise thing to say, makes this worse.

It'snot a question of whether or not we should be public with our faith. I certainly don't deny mine, and I accept an individual's faith is a significant aspect of who they are. But distinctions must also be made between personal faith, to which we are all entitled, and a secular position. Tim was not elected to preach sermons but to represent the views of a) his constituents and b) his party. Rather, this is a question of whether such an intervention is wise, and I think it shows a certain disdain for other interpretations of Christianity that are perhaps not so fundamentalist/evangelical.

My personal faith certainly is a motivating factor in my political activity, although I'm not entirely sure it's the principal one. By all means we should not be afraid of being honest to who we are, but if that honesty means demonstrating an intellectual intolerance, spiritual arrogance or an ignorance of how broad the Christian church is then perhaps we need to think about the ramifications of doing so before we speak.

justaChristiangirl said...

Jesus said 'I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
So you can't sit on the fence- you're either with Jesus or against him...

Andrew said...

I'm not sitting on the fence, and to make that suggestion shows a lack of understanding as to where I'm coming from.

I reject literalist interpretations and applications of Biblical truth. That's not fence-sitting, it;sa legitimate theological and academic position to take.

The idea that we can reduce the complex messages of the Bible to a single, homogenous blob of "truth" stands up to no kind of intellectuial scrutiny.

As for whether you're with Jesus or against him, I would suggest that those who seek to define Jesus so rigidly and make him conform to their black-and-white view of the world are in fact denying Him.

There is not one "correct" expression of Christianity. It is a very broad church - and that is something that should be celebrated, rather than for people of evangelical persuasions suggesting the rest of us are "apostate" or "functional atheists".

AlexC said...

See, I don't see Tim's claim that "Christianity is either wrong or right" as "spiritual arrogance", or as him stating that he's "right in his beliefs to the point that all others, by implication, must be wrong".

He's stating that the real Christianity is true. I believe that. But I don't believe that I fully understand real Christianity. I'm an evangelical - I believe in the gospel, the life-changing power of Jesus and what he did on the cross. I think I understand just about enough to say that. But I certainly don't have a monopoly on truth, and I'm very sure there are parts of my theology that aren't right. The many branches of the Church have a lot to learn from each other, and should celebrate our diversity.

I'm glad to say that my experience of evangelical churches has been that despite their differences on baptism, sacraments, worship styles, charismatic gifts and more, they're very happy to work together with each other in the great causes of serving the poor, protecting the needy and preaching the gospel.

Evangelicals don't have to think they have a monopoly on the truth. Stating that the gospel is "either wrong or utterly compellingly true" has to be accurate. But that's a different thing to claiming "my theology in every respect is either wrong or utterly compellingly true". That certainly would be "spiritual arrogance", and that seems to be how you've taken him as speaking, but I don't think that's what he meant.

Bob Hutton said...

The people who go on about tolerance are the most intolerant bigots going. They want to promote homosexuality as a right but they would deny the right of reply to anyone who believes the Bible.

Andrew said...

Thanks for more of that tolerance, Bob. i tend to refrain from referring to people as bigots, because that's not really showing anyone much tolerance.

Actually, you appear to have arrived on the wrong thread. What does this have to do with homosexuality?

However, as you're here, what do you mean by "anyone who believes the Bible"? Presumably only those who believe in it in precisely the same way you do?

Which is actually the point I was intending to make two years ago - that there are multiple ways to see the Bible as truth and to believe in Jesus Christ, and that no particular belief can claim to have a monopoly on truth.

I don't consider yourself or other Biblical literalists not to be Christians, as I find you to be sincere (if sincerely wrong on some points). However, the hostility often directed at me by people who, without taking the time to get to know me, judge me as "functionally atheist", "lapsed" or "heretical" (to use some of the more polite terms) suggests they don't see me as one.

We're a broad church after all, and I hope there is space in it for those of us who are uncomfortable with rigid interpretations of Christianity.

Anonymous said...

Tim may be politically unwise to talk about this stuff but "whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven."

Andrew said...

Thats for that comment anonymous.

I am not suggesting that anyone deny their faith, nor their God.

However, how we express that is vitally important.

I would suggest there are more positive ways to being a Christian witness than co-signing silly letters written by Gary Streeter, making what might appear to be arrogant assertions about the inerrant truth of Christianity, or suggesting that "society has to" change it's mind on abortion.

(I am quite happy for Tim to adopt a personal moral position on abortion - what I objected to was his insistence that society, and therefore all of us, should somehow conform to his view).

There have been many Christian parliamentarians who have been a positive witness to their faith. The most effective, such as Roger Roberts, Charles Kennedy, Chris Bryant, and David Cairns manage to embrace the secular nature of their position while remaining true to who they are spiritually. No-one could eveer accuse them of denying God.

Obviously this can be a difficult balancing act at times (David Cairns on at least one occasion voted in the way he thought his constituents would want rather than personal conscience), but when you're the president of a political party, or its leader, you have to be aware of the dangers of communicating in ways that alienate.

I'm not a believer in the "we don't do God" school of politics - just someone who thinks that how we do God matters. There have been occasions when I think Tim Farron's interventions have risked bringing the party into disrepute - not only is this regrettable but totally avoidable.

It shouldn't be hard for someone of Tim's near-legendary communication skills to "do God" in a more responsible way.

AlexC said...

The thing is, as (political) liberals we believe in the right of individuals to make their own choices, right? So we believe it's fair for people to choose who to get married to. As a Christian I might choose not to marry someone of my own gender, but I'm not about to tell non-Christians who they can or can't marry. Nor is Tim - he might not have as 100% a voting record on this as some groups might like, but he abstained rather than vote against, and he's explicitly stated he'd vote in favour of equal marriage now. (The ability to identify one's mistakes and publicly admit to them is very much a good trait in a politician.)

The problem with abortion, though, is that from the Christian point of view, it's denying one very basic right of individuals: the right to live. If you believe that life begins at conception, an abortion is a killing. Now I'll freely admit that there's no single scientific definition of when life begins, and philosophers vary greatly on this. But Lib Dems believe in protecting individuals from externalities that stop people fulfilling their potential, such as poverty. "Being killed" is very much an externality that stops someone from fulfilling their potential.

And yes, I understand that most secular liberals don't consider a foetus to be an individual. And that from that point of view, the freedom to abort is clearly just providing an extra option to women who don't want to bring up a child, with no other individual involved. But I'd ask that you understand why an evangelical Christian would consider "that society should conform to [this] view" - it's the same reason we'd want to end extreme poverty, or arrest a serial killer, or provide better mental health treatment: to protect those who don't have the power to protect themselves, and to allow individuals the opportunity to reach their potential.

AlexC said...

And just as another point: Tim explicitly stated in an interview with a Christian magazine that "The danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn't.... You don't create Christian institutions and impose them on people who are not Christian. That is illiberal and it's counter-productive."

Andrew said...

Thanks AlexC - a great addition to the ongoing conversation!

Yes, the Christian position on abortion is more difficult. My own, personal, view is I think quite similar to yours. I find it morally abhorrent, but that's a personal view. I've worked in maternity services where clearly any such belief I have was stretched and challenged to its limit - suffice to say that both my Christianity and my experience tell me that every individual has to be free to make their own moral decision, while being as supported as much as possible to make the decision that they genuinely want to.

There is certainly no absolutely concrete Christian perspective on abortion. And it's one of those difficult moral situations where it is easier to develop a personal ethic than create a societal one. That was what irked me most about Tim's abortion comment - not his moral conviction, but that somehow "society had to climb down" from a particlar view. As you, and Tim himself, have said, it is indeed very unchristian to impose one's views on others.

I can understand why evangelical Christians would take that view, of course - I once thought like that. But what is also the liberal, not to mention the pragmatic perspective? What happens in societies where abortion is banned? I don't accept the false dichotomy of pro-life versus pro-choice: it's much more nuanced and complex a question.

Stuart said...

Hi Andrew - you might be interested in this, which made me think a bit: http://www.chriscreegan.com/blog/item/39-ten-fault-lines-at-the-heart-of-the-farron-affair