Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Red Dean

I've been thinking about Faith and Works lately, and the arguments which the modern Church has about them. My whole take on the issue: faith is the crucial cornerstone of Christian belief and attitude. That doesn't minimise the importance of works, and people who say you have to emphasise one or the other are building a false dichotomy. They can and do go together. However, it is not enough to entice people into Christianity by telling them it's all about loving one another and doing good. It is impossible to love your enemies or to do good to your enemies without first accepting that we have all sinned, and that God has forgiven us all. Faith in Christ's sacrifice and resurrection comes first.

Anyway, that's my current opinion.

And it's slightly influenced by some of the sources I've been looking at for my research - which is about British worldviews of the Soviet Union, and how they developed and were challenged over the period 1928-1943. It's a dramatic period, and I can see why many people really wanted Soviet Russia to succeed in building Utopia. But the wishful thinking of these people led them to ignore or excuse extreme brutality.

Especially interesting to me as a Christian are the Christians who supported the Soviet Union and tried to make excuses for it. Hewlett Johnson, who was the Dean of Canterbury in this period (nicknamed "the Red Dean"), is the most famous example of this. I'm currently reading his book The Socialist Sixth of the World.

"Unquestionably the material results [of Russian industrialisation] are astonishingly great, and may well be envied. The moral results are still more striking, and cannot be obscured by all the mistakes and crimes which from time to time have caused triumph to Soviet enemies and sadness to Soviet friends."

Johnson's whole argument is: Okay. So the Soviet leaders are atheists who believe that religion is the opiate of the masses. But they are fundamentally Christian, because they want to provide for everyone equally, economically, and raise the masses from illiteracy and poverty. This is what Christ would have wanted, and Christ laid the most emphasis on this.

A more specific example of his theory, perhaps? Here's one quote:

"The vast moral achievements of the Soviet Union are in no small measure due to the removal of fear. Fear haunts workers in a capitalist land. Fear of dismissal, fear that a thousand workless men stand outside the gate eager to get his job, breaks the spirit of man and breeds servility. ... Christian moralists are right in their attack on fear. To remove fear is to release energy. ... 'Fear not' was a word constantly on the lips of Christ."

So basically, a) Christ told us not to fear - it's irrelevant that he told us not to fear precisely because of God's control of the world, which is a matter of faith. Johnson is twisting Christ's words. Christ never told us that fear itself is just wrong - he said it's a waste of time for the Christian because of our faith in a God who cares for us. Not because of our faith in a government that will provide job security.

b) The only thing to fear is the loss of a job. This ignores the numbing fear that millions lived with in the Soviet Union, the fear of not being quite enthusiastic enough, the fear of making some mistake of theory that results in purge, the fear of the NKVD knocking on your door in the middle of the night, the fear of disappearing into exile or death.

Finally, in perhaps one of the more ridiculous sections, he says: "They are working for a common good that seems to me essentially Christian in its morality, however much they may deny the fact."

Looking back from the vantage point of the historian, we can see just how wrong Johnson was. To be fair to him, he didn't know the extent of the Terror in Russia. But he knew enough, and what he didn't know was often because he didn't want to know. Because, in theory, the Soviets promised economic freedom to the masses, he thought this was enough to make them Christian in morality - faith in God was unimportant, or at least not as important as works. This was shortsightedness.