Believing and belonging, choice and duty

cultural change seen in theological context

David Kettle


In her book  Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging (1994), sociologist of religion Grace Davie used the phrase 'believing without belonging' to characterise 'the persistence of the sacred in contemporary society despite the undeniable decline in churchgoing' (p.94), and made the disjunction between believing and belonging the main framework for the major arguments of her book1. This characterisation of contemporary religiosity has since been picked up and employed widely by many including Christians concerned with the setting of Christian ministry today. For example, when in 2002 the World Council of Churches held an international mission consultation in Germany, it chose for this the title 'Believing without Belonging? In search of new paradigms of church and mission in secularised and postmodern contexts'.


In her more recent writings Grace Davie has also drawn attention to the gradual emergence in religious matters of an 'ethic of consumption' in place of an 'ethic of obligation'. Increasingly, she writes, 'I go to church … because I want to… to fulfil a particular rather than a general need in my life and where I will continue my attachment so long as it provides what I want, but I have no obligation either to attend in the first place or to continue if I don't want to'.2


Would sociologists of religion expect these findings to be seen by Christians as relevant for pursuing Christian ministry, and if so, in what way? Grace Davie writes herself that 'a firm and necessary grasp of the sociological realities' is the starting point for Christian ministry, but that it is only the starting point: 'working out appropriate ministerial strategies is the … task of the religious professional'3. In this article I shall explore the relevance of sociological realities to Christian mission and ministry. I shall challenge the idea that sociological realities may be understood as in any straightforward way the starting-point for Christian ministry. In particular, I shall oppose any view of sociology of religion as presenting 'given' facts to which Christians bring their own private values in order to work out, in an exercise complementary to that of sociologists, the implications for ministry. Again, I shall oppose any idea that sociology of religion describes a 'market', its description of which carries implications directly for Christian ministry.


My argument is that if sociologists of religion would take seriously the religious referent 'Christian', they must take seriously that the distinctive, radical starting-point of Christian ministry and mission - and for understanding sociological realities themselves - is the mysterion of Christ. It is this which demands to inform decisively our identification and understanding of what constitute relevant sociological referents in the first place. This includes the realities of  believing, belonging, obligation and choice. To the extent that these referents are taken otherwise, as 'givens' apart from Christ, then as starting-points for ministry and mission these are of a provisional and ambiguous nature. In the mysterion of Christ all aspects of human life are opened up to their fulfilment in the kingdom of God, and their true or normative meaning revealed in its light; and this includes believing, belonging, obligation and choice. They must be viewed, in their present sociological forms, in the context of the fulfilment to which they are summoned by the approach of God's kingdom.


On the other hand, Christians must be open to the possibility that present sociological forms of believing, belonging, obligation and choice may help them, as they ponder them, to explore further the meaning these terms acquire precisely in the mysterion of Christ. It may be that what Christians have taken traditionally as their Christian meaning applied only in the particular cultural context in which they arose, or that it even represented a cultural distortion of the Gospel, and that present sociological realities can help them to recognise forms of Christian life which are at once more authentic to the Gospel and to their cultural context today. Fundamentally there is a need for a new and deeper dialogue between sociologists of religion and Christian theologians to explore these matters further.


Sometimes the Church with its Gospel has pictured itself as like a rock standing unmoved amidst the turbulent currents of history, society and culture. This picture fails to reflect the truth that the Gospel always comes to us embedded in human culture. However, equally misleading would be the picture of society and culture as a mould into which the Gospel flows like liquid, a rock-hard landscape by which the Gospel is shaped.  This paper is concerned to demonstrate to sociologists of religion why it would be mistaken of Christians to construct such a landscape from their sociological data, and to call for a deeper dialogue about this between Christians and sociologists of religion.



Grace Davie on religion in Britain and Europe


Among sociologists the 'secularisation' thesis has been widespread (although not uncontested) until recently. According to this, in post-Enlightenment modern societies an irreversible process of marginalisation and decline in religious belief and practice is under way.  Grace Davie for her part, however, while acknowledging the progressive decline of institutional church life, sees religion today as rather in process of change than of decline. 'Religious life is not so much disappearing as mutating' she writes. Although formal religious practice is generally in decline, levels of reported religious belief remain high towards the reality of basic religious referents if not so much the truth of 'credal' doctrines. She sees the growing divergence between belief and participation in formal religious groups as reflecting parallel changes in wider society. These include changes in the relationship between public and private life, changes from an ethic of obligation (in which modes of life are primarily imposed or inherited) to an ethic of consumption (in which modes of life are primarily a matter of personal choice), and a general decline in voluntary associations.4


More recently, Grace Davie has developed a complementary account of 'vicarious' religion.5 This has arisen from her encounter with European scholars who say that in their own countries, religion is not so much a matter of 'believing without belonging' as a matter of 'belonging without believing'. 'Vicarious' religion concerns religion which, although it is actively maintained only by a minority, is widely claimed by the majority as part of their cultural heritage. They see it as a resource to call upon when the situation demands, as for example when a funeral is required.


Vicarious religion is found in Britain too, of course, although it is less prevalent today than in the past. Indeed it could be said, I think, that both in Britain and in mainland Europe, and allowing for regional differences, contemporary Christian religion can be characterised both as 'believing without belonging' and as 'belonging without believing'. At first sight this appears a contradiction, of course, but this is explained by differing uses of the terms 'believing' and 'belonging'. Here, however, a vital issue arises: does Christian religion itself have anything to say about what counts as religious 'believing' and 'belonging'? Indeed it does. 'Believing' and 'belonging' find certain meanings in the Gospel itself which are fundamental to the Christian vocation and Christian self-understanding. An adequate account of contemporary religion must involve dialogue between contemporary forms of believing and belonging and the meanings these find in the Gospel.


My focus in what follows will be in the first instance upon the emergence in contemporary religion of 'believing without belonging' and the shift within it from an 'ethic of obligation' towards an 'ethic of consumption'. Grace Davie's account of religion in Britain and Europe contains far more than this, of course; it is more comprehensive, nuanced and sensitive to the diversity of religion from one country to another. My intention in this paper is to ask what is the relevance to Christian ministry of the basic characteristics of contemporary religion which she identifies in this way.



Implications for Christian ministry


What implications do these basic characteristics of contemporary religion carry for Christian ministry today? In particular, what implications might follow from the relation described here between religion and (1) believing, (2) belonging, (3) personal choice, and (4) obligation?


In principle, we might take the view that the relations with religion described here - of positive association in the case of (1) and (3), and  negative association in the case of (2) and (4) - might be that they yield imperatives directly for ministry. More precisely, if it is accepted that that these relations characterise religion today, and it is believed that the purpose of the churches is to nurture religion, then in principle the following view may be taken of the ministry task today:

(1)    believing: religion is widely prevalent in the profession of religious beliefs by people who do not belong to a religious group or institution. Accordingly nurture of such religious belief defines the purpose of the churches today.

(2)   belonging: religion is widely prevalent without involving participation in a religious group or institution. Accordingly nurture of religion, which is the purpose of the churches, does not entail nurture of belonging today.

(3)   personal choice: religion is primarily a matter of personal choice. Accordingly the provision and satisfaction of religious choices defines the purpose of the churches today.

(4)    obligation: religion is no longer a matter primarily of obligation. Accordingly nurture of religion does not entail fostering a sense of obligation today.


The view that these imperatives for ministry follow directly from the relations given may be held with three variants. These may be loosely called 'morally progressive', 'morally derivative', and 'strategic' standpoints:


(a)    Morally progressive: here the shift within religion from an ethic of obligation to an ethic of personal choice, and from belonging to believing without belonging, is itself regarded as morally progressive. This is a standpoint of moral commitment which perceives here a moral advance to be celebrated.

(b)     Morally derivative: here the shift within religion from an ethic of obligation to an ethic of personal choice, and from belonging to believing without belonging, is registered without moral status in itself. However, the fact that this shift has been incorporated into religion 'baptises' it; it derives from religion a moral status: 'Religion pursues what is right; if this shift is evident in religion today, it is shown thereby to be right'. This is a standpoint of religious commitment which perceives here a religious advance to be celebrated.

(c)    Strategic: here the shift within religion from an ethic of obligation to an ethic of personal choice, and from belonging to believing without belonging, is once again registered without moral status in itself. However, it is seen as having strategic implications for the churches: it provides evidence of what is practical and prudent for religious institutions given the sociological realities of the 'religious market' today. This is a utilitarian standpoint.


It is important to recognise that each of these standpoints reflects a different view of the relation between religion on the one hand and the issues of believing, belonging, choice and obligation on the other. That is to say, although each of these standpoints assumes to read imperatives for ministry directly off Grace Davie's account of religion today, in reality such 'direct reading' involves one or another alternative views of this relation. Likewise they each presuppose one or another alternative views of the relation between Christian ministry, and religion. Fundamentally here, they each use the terms religion, believing, belonging, choice and obligation with one or another particular meanings. From where have these views and meanings derived? Here we arrive at a key problem for taking Grace Davie's account of religious believing, belonging, choice and obligation as offering directly ministry imperatives.


This problem concerns the fact that the terms used in this account have each been enlivened historically with Christian meaning by the Gospel itself, in which the imperative of ministry is truly grounded. It would be inadequate, if not misleading, to use them in an account which is taken to offer directly ministry imperatives, without taking account of this Gospel meaning.


Let us now explore briefly this Gospel meaning: let us explore by reference to the Gospel itself, the relation between the Gospel and religion, and between the Gospel and believing, belonging, choice and obligation, and the meaning with which these are imbued through their relation to the Gospel.



In the context of faith: believing and belonging, choice and obligation


If ministry imperatives were 'directly read off' as above, this would involve an underlying assumption that the purpose of the churches is to nurture religion, and also that a given sociological account of religion and of its relation to believing, belonging, choice and obligation define what religion means today. However, in reality these matters involve theological discernment. Each one of the things mentioned here - religion, believing, belonging, choice and obligation - has been the subject of much reflection, prayer and experience in Christian tradition itself. Each has a background of meaning and exploration deeply embedded in this tradition and shaped through encounter with the Gospel; indeed each has been understood in this context as integral to life lived in relation to the mystery of God.  Recognition of this background is vital to the task of discerning theologically the relevance of these - in their contemporary sociological form - to ministry today.


Let us recall briefly this background. It is important to be clear here, that our aim in doing so is not simply to recount a history of the usage of certain terms. It is to consider historical testimony to the true reference of these terms. It is to remind ourselves of ways of thinking disclosed by the Gospel and testified in Christian tradition as normative.6 I shall return to this point later.


Consider firstly the term 'religion' itself. In Christian tradition, religion is given definitive meaning in and by the Gospel. For Jesus of Nazareth himself, the approach of God testified by and embodied in himself reveals the definitive meaning of God-given religion. It discloses in itself the sovereignty of God, the divine covenant, the temple and sacrificial rites, and the Law, in their definitive meaning. In so doing it relativises these elements of religion as they had been understood traditionally. Thus regarding the Law, on the one hand Jesus attacks the exaltation of religious ritual at the expense of religion in its God-given meaning (see Mark 7.1-23; see also controversies related to keeping the sabbath. This critique was carried forward by the early church when it decided not to impose the Law upon gentile Christians). On the other hand Jesus 'radicalises' the law of Moses (see Matthew 5.17-48), disclosing the true intentions of God which had lain behind it. Such concern for the true meaning of religion had precedent, of course, within Jewish religion, above all in the teaching of the prophets: the temple, sacrificial rites, and the monarchy had all been challenged by the prophets when they had become wrongly exalted in place of, rather than mediating, God's call to obedience in matters of justice and mercy.


When religion is allowed to be defined radically by the Gospel in this way, how shall we see in relation to this, 'religion' as it is otherwise defined e.g. by sociologists? The latter will be seen to stand in ambiguous relation to the promises and purposes of God proclaimed by the Gospel; it may be a matter relatively indifferent to, or even resistant to, Christian mission. Therefore Lesslie Newbigin, recalling the fourth Gospel's description of Jesus as 'the light that gives light to every man', can remark: '"the light" is not to be identified with the religious life of men; religion is in fact too often the sphere of darkness, Christian religion not excluded'7. The ambiguities here are complex. Often 'secular' sociological definitions of religion conceal the tacit influence of the Gospel, including the meaning of the terms in which such definitions are couched. Again, world religions as they confront us today have often been affected by exposure to the Gospel and to Western culture which itself stands in real, although ambiguous, relation to its own Christian heritage.  At the same time the Gospel repeatedly inspires among its own converts impatience with Christian religion in its common forms. This impatience is found both on the one hand among Christians who call their fellow-believers to greater commitment to the public, social dimensions of the Gospel, and on the other hand among Christians who call their fellow-believers to greater personal commitment to and relationship with God.


When we turn from the relation to the Gospel of religion in Christian tradition to consider the relation to the Gospel of  believing, belonging, choice and obligation, we meet with parallel issues. Turning firstly to belief, we find something at the heart of the Gospel itself. God is acclaimed as acting through Jesus Christ to awaken belief in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. This belief is foundational for Christian life. It involves recognising and turning to Christ as the source and goal of life, and entrusting oneself to him in obedience; it means at once 'belief in' and 'faith in' Christ. Such belief is a prominent theme in all four Gospels; especially in the Gospel according to John one finds passages such as 'so that through him all might become believers' (1.7); 'this is the work that God requires: to believe in the one whom he has sent' (6.29); 'whoever believes has eternal life' (6.47). In many Gospel stories, healing and deliverance follow upon the awakening of belief and trust in Jesus as the awaited Messiah. In the Church, public declaration of belief in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is central to the admission of individuals, at their baptism, into its fellowship.


The nature of such belief reflects precisely the mystery of the One in whom belief and trust are placed. Importantly, we should note, for the believer belief is also irreducibly belief and trust in One to whom we all belong. Believing and belonging are inseparable. I shall return to this below.


How does such belief relate to belief otherwise defined - for example, to belief understood as the affirmation that certain propositions are true? On the one hand it is by no means divorced from such intellectual understanding; indeed it properly gives rise to credal affirmations. On the other hand it is not reducible to assent which is merely intellectual; in itself the latter grasps neither the primary reference and intentionality of Christian belief, nor its own relation to other affirmations within the whole, life-embracing commitment of faith.


When we turn to belonging, again we find something at the heart of the Gospel itself. Those who respond to the call of Christ are 'a people claimed by God for his own' (1 Peter 2.9): they belong to God. The disciples of Jesus are God's gifts to him, and Jesus dwells in them and they in him, and they are indwelt by the Spirit: those who respond to the Gospel are drawn into the life of the Triune God (St John's Gospel). Christians are God's adopted children, members of the 'body of Christ' living 'in Christ' and 'in the Spirit' (St Paul). All those who belong to God in Christ belong to each other as 'brothers and sisters in Christ': belonging to God brings mutual belonging among believers.


Again the nature of such belonging reflects precisely the mystery of the One to whom we know ourselves as belonging when we respond to Christ. Importantly, we should note, such belonging involves recognition that we belong to God, and readiness to live in service to God; that is to say, it involves belief of the kind awakened by the Gospel. Belonging and believing are inseparable.


How does such belonging relate to belonging otherwise defined, such as inherited belonging to an ethnic group, or belonging by virtue of contract or by choice of affiliation? On the one hand, belonging to God and thus to the family of all who belong to God in Christ will normally find social expression; in this way is Church life constituted, and the unity of humankind in Christ pursued. However, belonging to God can never be reduced to social belonging in any specific form. For example, when Christians see themselves as inheriting the covenant promises of God, they reject any basis for this covenant in the inherited belonging of ethnicity. Indeed it is precisely when God calls Christians out from among those to whom they belong socially, to discover mutual belonging among those different from themselves, that they discover more of the One to whom they belong.


Turning now to personal choice, once again we find something at the heart of the Gospel. Famously, Jesus asks Simon Peter 'Who do you say that I am?' He asks for a personal verdict. In the verdict that Jesus is the Christ lies the definitive free choice: total commitment to God who in Christ calls us to freedom. It is the decision to reject slavery to forces and authorities of any kind and find liberty as children of the God whose service is perfect freedom. It is the choice of seeking and seeing for ourselves what God is doing, and of taking personal responsibility for our part in this as required.


Once again, the nature of such choice reflects precisely the mystery of the One who has chosen to act towards us in his sovereign goodness. Importantly, we should note, such choice involves recognising and yielding freely to the obligation of response imposed by God's free action towards ourselves: 'you did not choose me; I chose you…' (John 15.16). Choice and obligation are inseparable. I shall return to this below.


How does this exercise of choice relate to choice otherwise defined, for example as the exercise of personal preference by consumers buying products? On the one hand it is a choice for which we take full personal responsibility; it is our own choice. On the other hand it cannot be reduced to an exercise of private preference within a public framework we have no freedom to question in the light of this choice.


Finally obligation lies at the heart of the Gospel. We are commanded to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves: this, says Jesus, sums up the law and the prophets. In Christ this love - and thus, obligation - are given new, definitive meaning.


Once again, the nature of such obligation reflects precisely the mystery of the One who summons us - whose love calls for and births our own love. Importantly, we should note, such obligation involves personal choice: free-ranging discernment is required to recognise what love demands in any given situation. Obligation and choice are inseparable.


How does such obligation relate to obligation otherwise defined, for example as obedience to those in authority or conformity to rules and customs? On the one hand love is often expressed through conformity to certain norms of behaviour; indeed it often generates such norms. On the other hand the obligation of love can never be reduced to the obligation of conformity or obedience in merely external matters.



In the context of faith: Christian ministry and sociological realities


Given the normative meanings unfolded within Christian tradition for religion, believing, belonging, personal choice and obligation - meanings which arise in intimate relation to the Gospel - how do the sociological realities presented by Grace Davie appear in the context of the ministry task? What are their implications for mission? This will depend upon how they appear in the context of the considerations above. Broadly it will depend how far we Christians are led to appraise them positively, and how far negatively, in the light of the Gospel, as follows.


Regarding contemporary religious 'believing without belonging', Christian appraisal will be broadly positive insofar as such 'believing' appears to be an expression of personal acclamation and trust of the sort elicited by the Gospel, and insofar as such 'non-belonging' is about an indifference to or rejection of forms of belonging (received or voluntary) which do not flow directly from our distinctive form of belonging to God. Christian appraisal will be broadly negative insofar as such 'believing' appears to be a distorted (say, merely intellectual or sentimental) version of committed faith, and insofar as such 'non-belonging' expresses a rejection of the true bonds of communion between those whom God gives to each other as brothers and sisters.


Parallel considerations apply with respect to the religious shift 'from an ethic of obligation to an ethic of consumption'. Christian appraisal will be broadly positive insofar as the personal choice exercised here appears to be an expression of personal judgement of the sort formed by the Gospel and empowered by the Holy Spirit, and the shift from an 'ethic of obligation' expresses rejection of forms of conformity to social convention, rules and authority which do not flow directly from the distinctive obligation to love God. Christian appraisal will be broadly negative insofar as such choice appears to be an assumption of private authority of the sort which denies public responsibility before God, and the shift from an 'ethic of obligation' is about rejection of the demands of creative, loving obedience to God.


Where these appraisals are broadly positive, there will follow a ministry imperative to affirm present forms of religion. This may lead to new forms of church life which enhance and bring to greater maturity in Christ, personal responsibility for 'owning' religious beliefs and decisions, while continuing to express the distinctive belonging and obligation at the heart of the Gospel. Here the church moves 'towards' or 'with' culture.8  Where these appraisals are broadly negative, there will follow a ministry imperative to help people re-discover authentic belonging to God and to each other under God, and to scorn possession of 'private religious beliefs'; and a ministry imperative to help people re-discover the authentic obligation of love, and to shun a false ethic of consumption and illusory claims made for private autonomy. Here the church is called to 'counter' culture. 9



Culture as context and Gospel as context


The Gospel, then, sets sociological realities in a new context. That is to say, these realities are not a prior context to which the Gospel must accommodate itself; rather they are themselves to be properly understood in the context of the Gospel. Sociological realities are to be engaged as belonging to the Christian  starting-point, certainly, but in a provisional way as they are opened up for transformation in the light of the Gospel. While to start from the Gospel involves starting from a social and cultural context, fundamentally this means opening up this context to a deeper and more ultimate context which it mediates and by which it is judged and transformed. In this way, on the one hand the Gospel is always and essentially 'inculturated'; on the other hand, it is never domesticated to culture: its radical relevance lies in its freedom to appraise the social or cultural context which it engages. 'Contextualising' the Gospel is not about adopting this context as a normative starting-point, but about opening this context up to the deeper context of God. While the Gospel always presents itself in the context of culture, culture is always to be seen fundamentally in the context of the Gospel.


Such opening up is not only to the Gospel, however, but to the meaning of culture itself; it is about cultural self-awareness and responsibility. When the Gospel brings to light that within a culture which is relevant to the Gospel itself, it bring to light that within a culture which is fundamental to that culture itself as a culture - that which is relevant to its fulfilment as that which culturally mediates the truth of God and ourselves, rather than being irrelevant to, or subversive of, this.



Gospel as the context of culture: believing and belonging, choice and obligation


Let me now attempt to appraise, in the context of the Gospel, the sociological realities of religious believing, belonging, choice and obligation in their contemporary forms. Grace Davie sees these as reflecting changes in the nature of social life today, in the same way as does the decline in institutional religion:


'If it is true that the churches as institutions have declined markedly in the post-war period, the same is true of almost all parallel activities in the secular life of Northern European (and indeed other) societies… Situating the churches within this broader economic and social context is crucial for a proper understanding of what is going on. In my view, it indicates that the reduction in church life in this part of Europe should be seen as part of a profound change in the nature of social life; it is not, in contrast, an unequivocal indicator of religious indifference'.10


But now we must go further: our task is to appraise these social changes themselves in the context of the Gospel. We may do so in the following terms. The social changes to which Grace Davie refers have a history stretching back to the beginnings of the modern period. They reflect the influence of particular ideas about the individual, society and the relation between them. These ideas and their practical implementation have achieved new penetration throughout many societies in recent decades notably with the help of dramatic advances in information and communication technology.


These 'modern' ideas and their consequences have been appraised in the light of Christian faith by numerous Christian authors. The story can be sketched only very briefly here. Modern society has its origins in the remarkably dynamic society of medieval Christendom. Under Christian patronage, communities of association had grown up in which monasteries were formative and in which they remained influential; the uniqueness of individual human beings had gained new appreciation; the older, immutable patterns of 'received' belonging and obligation found in traditional, 'sacral' societies had been loosened. Nevertheless medieval Christian patronage retained many of the 'sacral' ways of its cultural forebears including Roman imperial culture. When this patronage was torn asunder by religious wars, new foundations for an unknown future were attempted by thinkers who gave their project the title 'Enlightenment'. These thinkers placed their confidence for the future in what they conceived as the innately good, autonomous, questioning, rational individual. They conceived such an individual as challenging not only unquestioned social conventions of belief and practice but also more widely all prevailing tradition and authority. In so doing they failed to appreciate that rationality and autonomy are themselves inseparable in their functioning from tradition and authority, belonging and obligation in the deeper, wider forms which find fulfilment in the Gospel. Modern society tended therefore to be pulled between two poles - between on the one hand, autonomous individuals who exercise their powers of reason, and on the other hand, the state which now took upon itself to civil-ise or cultivate its members to be fit, rational participants in civil society. In both respects, the effect of Enlightenment ideas was to subvert tradition and authority in a largely indiscriminate way.


Now on the one hand, the Enlightenment (positively) carried forward with new impetus the Christian erosion of unquestioned, 'sacral'  beliefs and practices, bringing new social differentiation and new patterns of believing and belonging, choice and obligation. In the course of this, Enlightenment thinking was often, despite its self-understanding as opposed to tradition and authority, tacitly shaped by its Christian heritage; importantly, the fabric of informal community and of intermediate structures of society remained its practical setting. On the other hand, however, the exaltation of Enlightenment ideas about the rational individual and the cultivating state - each at the expense of tradition and authority - could work precisely to subvert the functioning of these informal, intermediate structures of community themselves. This brought a tendency towards a society marked by totalitarian state government on the one hand , and solitary individuals on the other.11 More recently the poles have shifted: the tendency today is towards polarisation between a global capitalist system on the one hand and individual consumers on the other.


In this way, the Enlightenment conception of the innately good, rational, autonomous individual has distorted the truth of that fundamental believing and belonging, choice and obligation towards which human life is directed and which is revealed in the Gospel. It has generated plausibility structures in society which effectively obscure these fundamental realities. On the other hand, precisely because this conception is a distortion of the truth, it and the structures it generates give rise to contradictions and self-deceptions. Let us briefly consider these.


Consider, firstly, the shift away from an ethic of obligation towards an ethic of consumption. In this shift, opportunities to make a choice - the choice of purchasing particular goods or services - move increasingly to the fore of peoples' attention. However, the reality goes largely unnoticed that such a focus of attention also has the effect of limiting choice. Obviously consumer choices are conditional upon payment of money: without payment no choice can be made. But this means firstly that the poor have many fewer choices than the rich - although the availability of 'credit' (i.e. of the option of paying to go into debt) may defer their awareness of this. Secondly, the intensification of capitalism, the extension of private property rights and continuing economic rationalisation together channel choices increasingly into, and require their mediation through, acts of purchase. This constricts further the availability of choice outside of purchase. Thirdly, even the very range of choices available for purchase atrophies in certain ways, as the rich diversity of products available through small local businesses is eroded by the economic power of mass production and mass retailing through chain stores.


Meanwhile, the limitation of choice to that exercised within consumption operates fundamentally by consent of the general population to the socially constructed reality of capitalist consumer society. Such consent is, however, by no means a matter of acknowledged obligation to a system embraced as morally authoritative; rather it is largely a matter of an unreflective acceptance that 'this is the way the world is'. That is to say, in consumer society, choice does not extend to awareness of and the exercise of that deeper moral choice (inseparable from the fundamental pursuit of obligation) in which social reality is responsibly constructed, and which is the shared responsibility of consumers, business and government within a shared moral rationality. Rather, such deeper, corporate exercise of choice is displaced by an unreflective granting of authority to business aims on the one hand and the mass of consumers (which is an abstraction reflecting the statistics of consumption) on the other. 12 These incommensurate authorities now function as opposed powers. In this way consumerism has the effect of marginalising, both practically and theoretically, the deeper exercise of choice which is inseparable from the pursuit of obligation.


All this is somewhat parallel to what happens in the broad context of bureaucracy, as described by Alasdair MacIntyre.13 Here individual freedom of choice is framed within the discourse of rights, but this is conditional upon deferment to the authority of bureaucracy to define obligations tacitly though (today) the setting of targets etc. Individual exercise of choice does not extend to moral judgement upon the goals of bureaucracy itself - a judgement in which individuals are called to share with those holding institutional power and which pursues a shared moral rationality. Instead authority is unreflectively granted to the mass of individuals on the one hand and to institutions on the other. This is articulated (although without the explicit language of authority or obligation) in the corresponding incommensurate moral discourses of individual rights and of bureaucratic, utilitarian ethics. The deeper exercise of choice, inseparable from the pursuit of obligation, is again marginalised.


Consider, secondly, the sociological phenomenon of believing without belonging. The actual character of this reflects the influence of a post-Enlightenment distinction between knowledge and belief. Here knowledge is seen as that which lies beyond doubt for rational individuals; rationality, meanwhile, is conceived as a universal endowment to individuals which they exercise autonomously rather than by virtue of belonging to any tradition or culture but which is subject to criticism by any other rational individual.  Belief is seen as that which, by contrast, remains open to doubt; commitment to a belief is a  matter of personal autonomy, but it is not accepted as binding by others. However, in both cases the reality conceals within itself forms of belonging. In the case of knowledge and its pursuit, the exercise of reason is shaped by belonging within a tradition of enquiry which may be either relatively vital and creative, or relatively ideological - merely breeding what has been called the 'herd of independent minds'.14 In the case of belief, the exercise of autonomy is constrained in hidden ways by forms of belonging: today it may be constrained by shared cultural impulses which shape what we pick when we 'pick 'n mix'; it may be constrained by our belonging to a culture which precisely encourages pick 'n mix by distracting people from paying serious moral attention towards what matters; it may be constrained, ironically, by our belonging among those who, feeling the isolation of not belonging, affirm belief in order (supposedly) to belong - whether by joining a moral crusade, or sharing in the mass affirmations of 'postemotional society'15 or merely by acquiring retailers' 'loyalty' cards. Of course all such unreflective belonging makes those who hold beliefs and values open to manipulation by 'spin doctors' and by marketing agencies. Meanwhile there is a marginalisation, both practically and theoretically, of believing of the fundamental sort which is inseparable from belonging.


If these sociological realities of religious believing, belonging, choice and obligation as they are today were mistakenly taken as an absolute starting-point for ministry, such ministry would betray the true believing, belonging, choice and obligation towards which human life is directed and which is revealed in the Gospel, and domesticate the Gospel to this social and cultural context. Instead, it must accept these sociological realities as a provisional starting-point for ministry, appraising them in the light of the Gospel and of the true believing, belonging, choice and obligation to which they ambiguously point.





To summarise: Grace Davie's account of contemporary religious 'believing without belonging' and of a change in religion from an 'ethic of obligation' to an 'ethic of consumption' may seem in principle to provide irreducible raw data of direct relevance for Christian ministry. When we take her account in this way, however, we ignore the normative meanings which these terms - believing, belonging, choice and obligation - have acquired historically at the heart of the Gospel which we affirm. These meanings are not 'private' to Christian tradition but provide a deeper context within which the sociological realities of today are to be recognised and appraised. It is in the light of these Gospel meanings that ministry imperatives are to be discerned. However reflection upon contemporary sociological realities may help Christians to recognise where their own tradition is captive to past culture.


There follows from this a need for new and deeper dialogue between Christians and sociologists. Within such dialogue, a range of issues call for further reflection and clarification. Among these are the following.


1.            Serious attention must be given by sociologists to the Christian claim that Gospel is the ultimate starting-point for understanding God, ourselves and our world, and to how this claim is to be understood. This raises questions about the status of sociological realities. In particular, it challenges the view that the sociological study of religion and Christian witness are simply complementary, as might be inferred from Grace Davie's remark that 'working out appropriate ministerial strategies for this … context is the central and very demanding task of the religious professional. A firm and necessary grasp of the sociological realities is but the starting point.' Rather the Gospel relativises this starting-point; by its nature it claims freedom to bring to light and appraise sociological realities relative to the Gospel itself. Sociologists of religion are urged by the Gospel to work in continuing dialogue with itself, with the help of those who seek to be faithful to the Gospel, in exploring this. I have indicated material for such dialogue in relation to the themes of believing, belonging, choice and obligation; other material for such dialogue is offered, for example, by Edward Farley in his book Deep Symbols: Their Postmodern Effacement and Reclamation.16


2.            But with what exactly are sociologists of religion called to work in continuing dialogue? What do I mean by the Gospel? The content of the Gospel is a matter of continuing reflection and debate among Christians themselves: who has the right to say what is the Gospel? These questions invite exploration of the role of scripture, tradition and prayer in Christian faith and the nature of their authority as testimonies to the Gospel. Especially these questions invite attention to the anthropological implications of the Gospel which imbue a Christian understanding of sociological realities. Fundamentally, these questions must remain part of the dialogue itself with the Gospel; sociologists of religion must not settle for definitions of the Gospel or of Christian religion which, although they appear to simplify the methodological task, fail to engage authentically with the Gospel. This requirement is echoed, I suggest, in Tim Jenkins' plea that sociologists of religion should give due weight to religion in its most vital forms.17


3.            But is this really an invitation to dialogue? Since I claim that the Gospel is the ultimate starting-point for understanding both itself and sociological realities, is this not really an invitation to religious monologue? Two things may be said here. On the one hand, Christians themselves live with the challenge of responding faithfully to an at once transcendent and inculturated Gospel. This calls them to a continuing dialogue between Gospel and culture within and among themselves. Christians must be ready to listen and learn from a culture in order to discover both this culture and the Gospel as it speaks to this culture. These are not two entirely separate matters: when Christians enter into a culture they may find themselves shown the Gospel in new ways, while the Gospel may set this culture in a new light both for them and for those who inhabit it. Without such listening and learning, the Gospel may distort for Christians into a form domesticated to their own culture or to past culture .Within this listening and learning, attention must be given to sociologists of religion. On the other hand, sociologists of religion fail to engage authentically with Christian faith as a referent if they assume that it offers a 'private' view of the world. Dialogue between sociologists of religion and Christians regarding the meaning of such terms as believing and belonging, choice and obligation is not an argument about linguistic private property or linguistic property rights. It is a shared exploration of the reality to which discourse refers, an exploration in which the presuppositions of those in dialogue are open to exploration and challenge. 


4.            As the sociological realities of religion are appraised in dialogue with Christian faith, a distinction needs to be drawn between:

(1) actual religious experience and practice

(2)how these are described explicitly by people testifying to them, and

(3) how (1) and (2) are each understood and reported by sociologists.

For example, it may happen that a person who testifies to exercising religious choice in some matter exercises this choice in a manner quite consistent with a Christian understanding of obligation to God, but that when they describe this for themselves they see themselves (or sociologists see them) as tacitly rejecting obligation in their exercise of choice since they understand obligation not in a Christian way but narrowly in terms of conformity to rules.


5.            A fundamental philosophical task is to understand well the relation between social or cultural context and the Gospel - between provisional and ultimate contexts. Here, I believe, cartesian habits of imagination present a major obstacle by prompting us to think of such contexts by analogy with the knowing subject standing over against that which is known. This leads us to picture our social or cultural context as an irreducible 'location' offering a particular, given perspective upon the world. This picture hinders us in turn from conceiving the transformation of our cultural context by the Gospel as its deeper context. The basic epistemological issue raised here is raised in a unique way by the Gospel as that which essentially engages each context to transform it. Resources to help us address this issue are to be found especially, I believe, in a radical reading of Michael Polanyi's account of the knower and the known, and of the context of knowledge as belonging tacitly to the act of knowing itself. 18



(1)   Grace Davie, Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging, Blackwell, 1994. Davie writes 'The terms 'believing' and 'belonging' are not to be considered too rigidly. The disjunction between them is intended to capture a mood, to suggest an area of enquiry, a way of looking at a problem, not to describe a detailed set of characteristics' (p.93).

(2)   Grace Davie, Europe: The Exceptional Case: Parameters of Faith in the Modern World, Darton Longman & Todd, 2002, p.148.

(3)   Grace Davie, in a presentation to the Bishops' Study Day in the Diocese of St Albans, U.K., 4th September, 2002.  A revised version will be published as part of a collection on Comparative Secularity - the papers from a project directed by the Institute on Religion and World Affairs at Boston University (Project Directors: Peter Berger and Daniele Hervieu-Leger).

(4)   Davie, ibid.

(5)   Grace Davie, Religion in Europe: A Memory Mutates, Oxford University Press, 2000, p177f.

(6)   On the distinction between 'use' and 'usage', see Michael Foster, '"We" in Modern Philosophy', in Basil Mitchell (ed), Faith and Logic, George Allen & Unwin, 1957, pp.194-220.

(7)   Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret, Eerdmans 1978, p.198.

(8)   This might include, for example, more creative use of liturgy and communal gathering to mark occasions recognisable as significant personal or communal events. A good illustration of this is Human Rites: Worship Resources for an Age of Change, compiled by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild (Mowbray, 1995).

(9)   This might include, for example, creative further provision of opportunities to participate in residential Christian communities 'alternative' to the prevailing culture.

(10)Davie, in a presentation to the Bishops' Study Day in the Diocese of St Albans, U.K., 4th September, 2002

(11)A sample of such writing might include John Milbank, 'On Complex Space', in Milbank, The Word Made Strange, 1997, pp. 268-292; Dan Hardy, 'God and the Form of Society', in D. W. Hardy and P. H. Sedgwick (eds), The Weight of Glory, 1991; Peter Berger, 'In Praise of Particularity: The Concept of Mediating Structures', in Berger, Facing Up to Modernity, 1977.

(12)Thus the title of the helpful book of essays edited by Russell Keat, Nigel Whiteley and Nicholas Abercrombie, The Authority of the Consumer, Routledge, 1994.

(13)See Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, University of Notre Dame Press, 1981, p.65-69.

(14) See Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.

(15) See Stjepan Mestrovic, Postemotional Society, Sage, 1997.

(16) Edward Farley, Deep Symbols: Their Postmodern Effacement and Reclamation, Trinity Press International, 1996. Although Farley does not root his 'deep symbols' fundamentally in the Gospel, his reflections upon them present material of the sort with which the Gospel calls sociologists of religion to engage.

(17)Tim Jenkins, 'Two Sociological Approaches to Religion in Modern Britain', Religion, 26, 1996, pp. 331-342, p.337-8.

(18)Polanyi's major work is Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, Routledge, 1958. On the resources he provides for breaking with cartesian habits of imagination, see David Kettle, 'Cartesian Habits and the "Radical Line" of Inquiry', Tradition & Discovery, Vol. XXVII, No.1, 2000-2001, pp.22-31.