But the point of this first contribution, as it affects civil society, is this: the presence of the Church, not as a clamorous interest group but as a community confident of its rootedness in something beyond the merely political, expresses a vision of human dignity and mutual human obligation which, because of its indifference to popular success or official legitimation, poses to every other community a special sort of challenge. ”˜Civil society’ is the recognized shorthand description for all those varieties of human association that rest on willing co-operation for the sake of social goods that belong to the whole group, not just to any individual or faction, and which are not created or wholly controlled by state authority. As such, their very existence presupposes persons who are able to take responsibility for themselves and to trust one another in this enterprise. The presence of the Christian community puts to civil society the question of where we look for the foundation of such confidence about responsibility and trustworthiness: does this set of assumptions about humanity rest on a fragile human agreement, on the decision of human beings to behave as if they were responsible, or on something deeper and less contingent, something to which any and every human society is finally answerable? Is the social creativity which civil society takes for granted part of a human ”˜birthright’?
The second major contribution made by the presence of the Church is what we might in shorthand call universalism ”“ not in the technical theological sense, but simply meaning the conviction that every human agent is involved in either creating or frustrating a common good that relates to the whole human race. In plainer terms, we cannot as Christians settle down with the conclusion that what is lastingly and truly good for any one individual or group is completely different from what is lastingly and truly good for any other. Justice is not local in an exclusive sense or limited by circumstances; there are no classes or subgroups of humanity who are entitled to less of God’s love; and so there are no classes entitled to lower levels of human respect or compassion or service. And since an important aspect of civil society is the assumption that human welfare is not achieved by utilitarian generalities imposed from above but requires active and particularized labour, the fact of the Christian community’ presence once again puts the question of how human society holds together the need for action appropriate to specific and local conditions with the lively awareness of what is due to all people everywhere. This is not only about a vision of universal human justice as we normally think of it, but also applies to how we act justly towards those who are not yet born ”“ how we create a just understanding of our relation to the environment.
In short, the significance of the Church for civil society is in keeping alive a concern both to honour and to justify the absolute and non-negotiable character of the human vision of responsibility and justice that is at work in all human association for the common good. It is about connecting the life of civil society with its deepest roots, acknowledged or not. The conviction of being answerable to God for how we serve and respect God’s human and non-human creation at the very least serves to ensure that the human search for shared welfare and responsible liberty will not be reduced to a matter of human consensus alone. And if the Church ”“ or any other community of faith ”“ asks of society the respect that will allow it to be itself, it does so not because it is anxious about its survival (which is in God’s hands), but because it asks the freedom to remind the society or societies in which it lives of their own vulnerability and their need to stay close to some fundamental questions about the nature of the humanity they seek to nourish. Such a request from Church to society will be heard and responded to, of course, only if the Church genuinely looks as though it were speaking for more than a self-protecting set of ”˜religious’ concerns; if it appears as concerned for something more than self-defence. To return to what was said earlier, it needs to establish its credentials as ”˜non-violent’ ”“ that is, as not contending against other kinds of human group for a share in ordinary political power. To put it in severely condensed form, the Church is most credible when least preoccupied with its security and most engaged with the human health of its environment; and to say ”˜credible’ here is not to say ”˜popular’, since engagement with this human health may run sharply against a prevailing consensus. Recent debates on euthanasia offer a case in point; and even here, it is surprisingly often claimed that the churches are concerned here only to sustain their control of human lives ”“ which sadly illustrates what all too many in our society have come to expect of the Church.
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