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Time to Grasp the Nettle

A personal response by Stuart Mitchell to an inter-denominational church initiative aimed at transforming the public understanding of the main issues in the Science/God debate. In this essay, he welcomes the opportunity to revisit the basic values of the Christian faith.

We live in seismic times, and not only in Nepal have the august peaks of our planet been under assault from awesome, tectonic forces of destructive malignity, for the annual congress of Scotland’s Church has lately been confronted by the facts of the nation’s drift from a state of centuries-long, Christian orientation. Urgent therapy it is said, will alone secure the Kirk’s future as an institution of stable influence upon the turbulent sea of Scottish society.

“Starker secularisation in Scotland than anywhere in the world” is the typically blunt verdict of the Kirk’s Free Church cousin, and no astute observer of the country’s social and spiritual trends would disagree. “Bible-loving Scotland” was once a commonplace among commentators upon our unique powerhouse of a nation. But such a label today seems quaintly misplaced.

Think of just two of our literary colossi, Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. Burns’ deepest spiritual convictions are somewhat ambivalent, as reflected in the epitaph he wrote for William Muir - lines, strangely enough, popular at humanist funerals : “An honest man here lies at rest, As e’er God with His image blest…...If there’s another world, he lives in bliss; If there is none, he made the best of this.” However, he has no doubt at all about the wellspring of Scotland’s greatness when he pens his exquisite “Cotter’s Saturday Night.” The week of toil is over; November’s blast batters the remote cottage; the family gathers, simple pleasures ensue; but the evening’s climax approaches with Dad’s devout mantra, “Let us worship God.” Out came the big family bible, its 66 books brilliantly summarised in two stanzas, and an affecting prayer for everyone present. Here Burns is unequivocal, in words that must deeply embarrass the Scots body politic of the 21st century :

“From scenes like these old Scotia’s grandeur springs,
That makes her loved at home, revered abroad.”

Scott lies on his deathbed, and John Lockhart his biographer records the great man’s request for “the book” from his vast library. “But which ?” asks Lockhart. “There is but one book,” comes the faint response, and his bible is brought.

Sadly, today’s intelligentsia may smirk at such naïve faith of our forefathers. Times change, we are assured, and our sophisticated culture has slowly but decisively outgrown the foundational beliefs of days past when God was the ultimate reality and His scriptures the bedrock of Scotland’s stature. “A supreme deity is fantasy; Dawkins and his atheist cohorts call the tune; and religion is to be banished from the public arena, school assemblies, the science lab and any other context where the impressionable are exposed to persuasive argument.” “We don’t do God,” quipped Tony Blair’s adjutant.

Nevertheless, the crucial question might be asked: has the national trend away from Scotland’s ecclesiastical heritage been a form of drift on the winds of unthinking fashion or a deliberate and reasoned retreat from all matters religious and morally constraining? And regardless of which of these explanations is accurate is it not time to re-evaluate whether our default atheism and secularism has separated us from a rational understanding of our origins?

One of the greatest Scottish headteachers of the last century was James Scobbie, of Dalziel High School, Motherwell. No more revered figurehead ever graced the teaching profession. His considered view of the place of religion in the daily lives of his charges was uncompromising. To excise it from the school experience was an action of much gravity, for to obliterate Jesus’ teachings - accepted even by those who don’t follow them as the supreme statement about human potentiality - was to scorn the key factor in our history, language, literature, art, law, government and great movements of social reform. For Scobbie, life was “meaningless unless one has formed some kind of relationship, however tenuous, with the infinite.”

Might the time therefore be right for a movement of solid resistance to the ideology of the anti-faith brigade whose aim is to abolish the theologians’ orthodoxy and substitute their own brand of ortho-toxicity? It would be an unforgivable betrayal of our generation to allow the faith-presuppositions of militant secularists to monopolise the debate and shape the discourse of our day towards an abandonment of religious commitment and radical departure from the Christian allegiance and practice which once made our land a beacon of brilliance and prime source of humane enlightenment. For the fact is, man’s spectacular advances in science have by no means rendered God redundant. There are still many authoritative voices at the vanguard of scientific progress who robustly defend the compatibility of faith with science and testify to the enrichment and illumination that are thus brought to the practice of their profession.

For that reason, among others, I welcome that there is in the process of being born an initiative called “GRASPING THE NETTLE” which intends to bring back centre-stage an opportunity, not only for the Church to re-evaluate its faith position in the face of the revelations of contemporary science, but also for our culture to reacquaint itself with the rational basis for belief in a creator God. The Grasping the Nettle launch was at the Thistle Hotel, Glasgow, on June 11th, 2015, with leaders and activists from the country’s mainstream churches.

This is no propagandist backlash against our culture’s assumed atheism but a positive invitation to engagement with those not persuaded of the Christian faith’s indispensability to our world. It will offer an invitation to discuss the compelling strength of the case for God with strong evidence from cosmology, nature, the mind and consciousness, and eventually and supremely, Jesus Christ.”

June 2015

Stuart Mitchell