Connecting with Culture
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As Christians, we’re called to join in God’s mission to see shalom fill his world. He invites us to seek the peace and prosperity of the places we’re in, helping everyone and everything around us flourish. In other words, we all have a duty to work towards ‘the common good’.
But that’s a lot easier said than done. It can feel like our world is constantly fragmenting into factions, in our personal lives as well as on the national stage. How can we counter these divisions and truly work for the good of all – not just the people we agree with?
That’s the question this blog series explores. In four articles, four authors will have a conversation, responding to each other’s work and ‘triple listening’ to wisdom from the word of God, the world, and one another. Together, they’ll give you ideas for how to live faithfully and distinctively – not as an embattled fringe, but as a ‘creative minority’, right in the midst of the disagreements that plague everyday life.
The series also accompanies our Wisdom Lab: The Common Good event, in which each of the authors will deliver a TED-style talk about their topic.
In this piece, Matt Jolley, part of LICC’s Culture & Discipleship team, helps us listen to our culture, so we can understand why division is so pervasive, and get to grips with some of the challenges in working for the common good. In the rest of the series, we’ll imagine what Scripture has to say, learn to create a healing response, and think about how to communicate the good news in such polarising times.
‘The common good’: not always easy to define
Let me introduce you to Sarah.
Sarah graduated from uni a few years ago, and landed a decent job with an accountancy firm. Now a couple of years into the role, she’s fully qualified, and a bit more of an established presence in the organisation.
Having been part of the Christian Union at uni, she was happy to join a group of Christian colleagues who regularly meet in her office. It’s been a great way to meet others who follow Jesus, and was a lifeline through lonely pandemic lockdowns.
Now that people have largely returned to the office, this small band of believers plan on running an evangelistic lunchtime event exploring a Christian perspective on capitalism and accounting. They book a guest speaker and send out an email inviting the whole organisation.
That’s where things get difficult. Alongside the Christians, there are a number of other workplace groups in the firm, formed out of shared interests or characteristics like political affiliation, women’s rights, sexuality, and disability awareness, as well as other religious groups. A number of these groups take issue with the planned event.
There are cries of ‘double standards’ from people who haven’t yet been able to host events of their own. Some don’t think it’s appropriate to host a Christian talk in a ‘secular’ workplace, and reject evangelism as an imposition. Then there’s opposition to the speaker, who’s previously said and tweeted things which some of their colleagues find offensive. In the end, opponents of the event plan to stand outside the conference room with signs and leaflets attacking the speaker, Christian beliefs, and the very idea of religious workplace groups.
Soon a rift begins to emerge between those who support the idea of a Christian event and those who oppose it. Conversations at the water cooler turn malicious and personal. The speaker, meanwhile, publicly complains of being deplatformed.
Clearly, this is bubbling up to a point of real division, threatening the future of the Christian group, the integrity of work teams, and even the productivity and reputation of the organisation. And at the heart of all this is Sarah – bewildered, nervous, unsure how to respond. How might she seek ‘the common good’ in her particular time and place?
What’s going on here?
But before we can answer that question, we need ask why there is such division in the first place. When you think of polarisation like this, where does your mind go? To Westminster politics, to click-bait media headlines, or to controversial opinions on your social media feed?
Perhaps you think a bit closer to home. Awkward conversations with family members whose opinions rub you up the wrong way. Fellow students or school-run parents who view your faith with suspicion. Or, as in Sarah’s story, the workplace where all sorts of people are chucked together. All too often, the division we see at a national level manifests itself on our frontlines – the everyday places where we regularly spend time with people who aren’t Christians – as different worldviews collide around us. The public sphere knocks on our front door.
These frontlines are the places where we’re called to pursue peace and prosperity, a common good that is truly good for all – individually, corporately, and creationally. But, to think about how we might do this, we need to first listen to what’s going on and why, to understand the cultural forces at play. In fractured times, being ‘quick to listen and slow to speak’ might just be the key to being ‘slow to become angry’ (James 1:19).
Learning to Listen
So, how could Sarah work for the common good when there seem to be so many different opinions of what ‘good’ is? Well, firstly, she (and we) needs to understand those views. In Sarah’s workplace, we can distil three broad groups.
First, we have those advocating for faith to be excluded from the workplace. They see religion as a purely private matter, fine at home or in a church building but inappropriate in wider public life.
Second, there are those advocating for their workplace to be saturated with their views, whether religious or ideological. They believe deeply-held beliefs cannot be compartmentalised, and should be authentically expressed at work. And beyond that, they feel the organisation would be at its best if everyone in it was converted, and it was run according to their convictions and principles.
The third group believe that pluralism is the way forward: that multiple different belief systems coexisting is actually a good thing. At its extreme, this perspective argues that no option is better or worse than another, and no-one should impose their view on anyone else.[i]
For each of these groups, we can listen to what’s going on under the surface – and so be in a better place to respond to them as Jesus would – by asking some good questions. For example:
By taking the time to think through these questions, we can better understand the motivations, frustrations, and dreams of each group. As we look at what’s going on, and explore the wider cultural forces shaping these perspectives, we’ll understand why any common good seems so elusive.
For the rest of this article, we’ll look at the answers to these questions for each of the groups in Sarah’s story. But don’t just stop there – next time you come up against disagreement in your own context, try using these same questions to ‘listen’ to what’s going with the people around you.[ii]
Exclusionists: keep faith out of the workplace
For this group, the only thing that matters is the core task of the organisation – accounting. All additional ideologies are equally excluded. The main responsibility each colleague has is their paid work.
People in this group may be sceptical about religion due to past hurts, or perhaps the public failures of religious leaders have ruined their perception of religious workplace groups. Their hope is for a ‘secular’ society where people are set free from damaging religion to progress towards a better future. Business leaders and self-help gurus (among others) provide wisdom. Happiness, they believe, is found in achieving success in the here and now.
The roots of this particular perspective are largely found in secularism, which has the ambition of removing religion from the public sphere. The 2021 census revealed that, for the first time, a minority of the UK population identify as Christian, whilst the percentage of people who have ‘no religion’ jumped up to 37%, an increase of over 8 million people since 2011.[iii] As fewer people identify as Christian, Christianity’s cultural weight shrinks. In its place, secularism attempts to create a ‘neutral’ space, meaning faith doesn’t belong in the public square.
With all that in mind, the ‘exclusionists’ seek to prevent religious dogma being expressed in their workplace – hence why some Christians feel uncomfortable wearing religious symbols at work.
In theory, secularism should be a good thing, providing a fair, equal playing field. However, as many have noted, neutrality is an impossible ambition. Instead, by removing religion as a source of moral authority, we’re left with a spiritual and moral vacuum which a variety of ideologies then compete to fill.
In Sarah’s workplace, those seeking to exclude faith groups from the workplace may be driven by this kind of secularising narrative. Their desire for neutrality stands in opposition to religious groups and other evangelistically-minded ideologues, which in this case brings the organisers of the event into sharp disagreement with their secular colleagues, causing a potential rift.
Saturationists: faith should influence the workplace
Put yourself back in Sarah’s shoes. She and her colleagues in the Christian group are taking flak for this event, much of it from other members of staff who want to bring their own views to the workplace. They might belong to other religious groups, or pursue a particular cause so strongly that it takes on a religious zeal, such as confronting racism or climate change.
These groups – often Christians included – want to see the firm saturated with their view. Success is measured by how ‘religious’ the workplace is becoming, how far their convictions influence the way things are done. For them, people have a responsibility to evangelise for their own position.
Heroic stories circulate throughout their community – special interest groups of like-minded people – of where they’ve stuck to their convictions at work, or perhaps where others have been converted. Saturationists are happy when they feel like they’re able to express themselves, and disappointed when colleagues deny them space to ‘bring their whole selves to work’. Their hope is that, one day, the organisation will be run completely according to their ethics.
What might be causing all this?
As Helen Lewis explores in the BBC documentary ‘The Church of Social Justice’, when traditional religion declines, other views take on religious significance. For example, look at the recent Football World Cup: many said that Qatar should change laws and customs around homosexuality and women’s rights, coming to resemble the liberal, progressive West. What’s going on here is an expectation that Qataris start sharing our worldview – that the Western perspective should saturate the way things are done the world over. On a much smaller scale, we can see a similar thing going on for Sarah in her workplace.
This approach doesn’t leave much room for people who disagree with us. The result can be that people begin to censor themselves. A recent YouGov study found that 57% of Brits sometimes refrain from expressing political and social views for fear of being judged. This simply drives us further into echo chambers, where we know our views will receive a warm acceptance. However, when we saturate our mind and timelines with people who reflect our own perspective, our views become more entrenched, and division is even harder to overcome.
Pluralists: live and let live
Last, there’s those who watch the whole situation unfold with despair. They’re happy for the event to happen, as attendance is voluntary. They’re also welcoming of the chance for other groups to stand outside and offer their perspective. But the priority of this group is for everyone to get on and tolerate each other.
The stories they tell are of peace, making heroes of people with diverse views who come together and reach a compromise. They see their role in terms of mediation where necessary. People in this group have seen the potential damage that can be done by ideological crusades, and they want to heal these wounds. Underpinning all this is a pluralistic mentality, which celebrates a number of perspectives coexisting in our society.
Some, though, go further than celebrating such diversity, and advocate for moral relativism: there’s no right or wrong belief system, and trying to win someone over to your perspective is dangerously wrongheaded. Instead, ‘you do you’: your perspective is fine as long as it doesn’t harm others.
The issue with that approach, though, is that ideologies all make truth claims, and are inherently evangelistic. Sarah’s colleagues feel that Christianity isn’t just different, but backward and wrong. The same problem lies behind much of our division: in practice, if we think something is good for us, we also think it’s good for our neighbour. Our disposition to people who disagree with us often isn’t apathy, but antipathy.
Depending on our background and experiences, we understand morality in different ways. This understanding then informs our priorities. It’s hard to simultaneously seek multiple visions of what is good or right, and so disagreement is inevitable.
Things are complicated further by that fact that the debate is no longer simply right versus left. As the forces of individualism gain influence, the number of perspectives present in our pluralistic world grow too. Pete Nicholas, writing about the way we see ourselves, suggests the narrative is now ‘be who you want to be’, as we define ourselves around particular identity markers.
The result is even more difficulty reconciling views, and increased fragmentation of the public sphere. In Sarah’s workplace, this looks like a proliferation of different interest groups who each have their own agenda. Whilst this can be liberating for many people who have historically been denied a voice, it does also make finding a single common good fraught with difficulty.
Consequently, many are now asking if there can be a singular ‘common good’ at all. Are we doomed to either be saturationists, pushing our views on those around us, or pluralists, accepting all perspectives as equally valid? Is it possible to find common ground when there are chasms between us?
What about Christians?
In a 2021 New York Times article, David Brooks outlines four mind-sets that a minority – like Christians in our society – can take. For each of the three groups we’ve looked at, there’s a corresponding posture that Sarah could take in response.
As an exclusionist, Sarah might take flight and withdraw into a Christian bubble, privatising her faith. But this constitutes a failure to steward the sphere of influence God has given us.
As a saturationist, Sarah could assert her perspective and impose her views coercively on her colleagues. Christians become an embattled minority, and our vision of human flourishing – as well as the gospel itself – is reduced down to a particular controversy.
Third, as a more relativistic pluralist, Sarah could allow her faith to simply become another ideological viewpoint, no better or worse than the rest. But this thinking undermines the unique truth of the gospel.
None of these responses do justice to how Christians are called to live. But there’s a fourth mind-set that Brooks mentions: ‘integration without assimilation’, celebrating the diverse mixing of groups, whilst cherishing your own. In this pluralistic age, might this be the most biblical way to respond? And what other wisdom might Scripture give for how Sarah should respond in her workplace? That’s where we’re headed next, as we imagine what should be going on.
Research & Implementation Manager
[i] John Stackhouse, in Humble Apologetics talks about three kinds of pluralism: pluralism as fact, which is the simple recognition that there are multiple perspectives in the modern world, pluralism as preference, which argues we should support multiple voices being present in the public sphere, and pluralism as relativism, where no option is better than any other and proselytism is deemed dangerous.
[iii] We have discussed this in our Connecting with Culture blog: ‘The Census Results: Should We Panic?’ Of course, whilst the exact beliefs of this non-religious group are largely unknown, it’s likely to include many people who are spiritual (but not religious) or agnostic. The percentage of atheists would be much smaller.
Peter Berger, in Faith in a Pluralist Age, edited by Kaye Cook (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2018), looks at the challenges and opportunities for Christianity in a pluralistic world, noting that pluralism doesn’t just exist on an intellectual level, but between ordinary people in ordinary places.
Stanley Hauerwas criticises the idea of neutrality in After Christendom (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1999), and James Smith outlines the religious nature of political debates in Awaiting the King (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017).
Jake Meador, in In Search of the Common Good (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2019), frames the ‘saturationist’ narrative as a zero-sum game: if your agenda wins then, de facto, my agenda loses.
Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind (New York: Penguin, 2013), outlines several ‘moral taste buds’, ways in which we can interpret things to be moral or immoral. In political terms, the left look for care and protection, whereas the right seeks out authority and sanctity. The wider list included in ‘Moral Foundations Theory’ includes care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression.
Justin Giboney, Michael Wear, and Chris Butler, in Compassion (&) Conviction (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2020), argue for a Christian engagement in politics which moves beyond partisanship and is underpinned by a biblical worldview.
John Inazu, in Confident Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), tackles the problem of pluralism head on. In a world of conflicting conceptions of meaning and purpose, he advocates for a way forward marked by confidence in what we believe, and generosity towards others who disagree, with reciprocity in rules (‘do unto others what you would have them do unto you’) safeguarding the freedom of all.
Mark Sayers, in A Non-Anxious Presence (Chicago: Moody, 2022), argues that the growth of postmodernism, and the consequential decline in the authority of institutions, has caused power to be decentralised. Now, our world is a network of individuals with no uniting narrative, leading to fragmentation, conflict, and society-wide anxiety (see chapters 6 and 7 in particular).
Miroslav Volf, in A Public Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2011), sketches a compelling vision for Christianity’s contribution to public life, avoiding faith’s malfunctions of both idleness and coerciveness. This term, we’re hosting an three-part discussion going through A Public Faith. Join us!