SETS Conference 2012 - Report

A Godly Commonwealth? The Gospel and Scottish Identity

Abstracts of the papers/sessions at the 2012 SETS Annual Conference. Keep an eye on Seraph Media’s SETS Audio Page for MP3 recordings which we hope will be available soon (with thanks to Stephen Carter).

A Biblical Theology of Nationhood (Jamie Grant)

Jamie Grant offered us four biblical principles for discussing nationhood:

  • The biblical trajectory is always towards inclusion. This implies the breaking down of ethnic and national barriers, while affirming cultural diversity.
  • As Christians, our citizenship of the kingdom of God takes priority over other citizenships. Our Christian identity relativizes all other identities. Further, we are called to work for the actualization of the kingdom of God in this world. Thus a fundamental question for Christians thinking about Scottish independence must be: Would independence lead to a better or a worse forum for such actualization?
  • For Christians, nationalism can have no place for cultural arrogance. We are called to work for an inclusive community that is tolerant of cultural diversity. Nationalisms based on dislike of others are excluded.
  • Since mission is of fundamental importance to the Church, we must ask how independence would affect our missional calling.

Christian Theology and Scottish National Identity (David Fergusson)

To what extent is Christianity a marker of Scottish identity? David Fergusson addressed this question by contrasting the anniversaries of the Scottish Reformation 1960 and 2010 and then taking a number of historical soundings (exploring the role of religion in pre-Reformation Scotland, the eighteenth century as the 'golden age' of Scottish religious identity, and the fragmentation and decline of Scottish religion in the nineteenth century).

The short answer to his question is that Scottish identity is no longer defined by religion (if it ever was) and that such a religious identity is not recoverable. However, the churches remain the largest institutions in Scottish society.

Scottish Nationhood: Personal Visions

Four Christians who are actively involved in politics in Scotland shared their personal visions of Scottish nationhood.

  • Murdo Fraser (Conservative) acknowledged the contemporary resurgence in awareness of a Scottish identity. However, since this is not based on ethnicity and since Scots, in his view, share a similar outlook to the people of the other UK nations, his emphasis was on interdependence and shared sovereignty.
  • John Mason (SNP) told us that his support for Scottish self-determination originated in his personal experience of working in Nepal. He offered a number of economic and political arguments in favour of independence. While acknowledging that the case for independence should not be merely economic, he said he could see no clear biblical argument one way or the other.
  • Graham McMeekin (Liberal Democrat) focused on the importance of localism and subsidiarity rather than independence.
  • Michael McMahon (Labour) argued that while local identities (including Scottish identity) were important, a larger political entity was required to facilitate the pursuit of social justice.

Making Theological Sense of Being Welsh (Dewi Hughes)

The Finlayson Lecture this year was delivered by Dewi Hughes (Theological Adviser for Tearfund). He offered a trenchant critique of English imperial nationalism from a Welsh perspective. More generally he was critical of the modern nation-state, arguing that it is inherently monocultural and thus lies at the root of much contemporary ethnic conflict. A new concept of nation and nationhood is needed to deal with pluricultural situations.

Looking specifically at Welsh identity, he described how it was maintained by the preservation of the Welsh language largely as a result of the churches in Wales (e.g. through Bible translation and the Sunday school movement). As a result, Welsh theologians have paid more attention to questions of nationhood than has perhaps been the case elsewhere in the UK. Thus Emrys ap Iwan understood nations (defined by language) to be ordained by God. This linguistic diversity is justified by Babel/Pentecost, and national sovereignty thus defined can be seen as an aid to evangelism. For R. Tudur Jones, nations are human institutions, part of the cultural mandate implicit in subduing the earth. As such, the formation and existence of nations is beneficial for humanity. However, there is an ever-present temptation to empire (the Babel syndrome).

Nations are inevitable, but different types of nationalism are possible. Christians are called to claim every aspect of culture (including our nationalisms) for God.

What should be the relationship between nation and state? Hughes suggests that the nation should define the state and that the state should exist to serve the nation. However, the reality is there a British state but no British nation. Rather, of the four nations that comprise the UK, England is often covertly identified with Britain. The modern Westphalian state is incapable of serving more than one nation at once. Hence the rise of nationalism in the peripheral nations.

Christian Witness in Postmodern Scotland (Angus Morrison)

Angus Morrison presented a downbeat picture of postmodern culture as it relates to Scotland. In his view, postmodernity is a mood created by the failure of modernity. It rejects modernity's (hopeless) quest for rational mastery and with it all worldviews that might be perceived as in any way repressive. This dethronement of all metanarratives means that there is no longer a common source of authority or a unifying centre of reality. In certain respects, Christianity is actually more in tune with this new mood than with modernity (e.g. its insistence on the relationality of all human existence and its rejection of 'principalities and powers').

So what is the place of the church in a postmodern (and hence post-Christendom) Scotland? Morrison suggested that we need to find fresh expressions of the gospel, focusing on the mission of God as allowing that to reshape our ecclesiology.

Is a Christian Vision of Scottish Identity Viable in the Early 21st Century? (Doug Gay)

Doug Gay argued that there is a place for a redeemed nationalism in Christian thinking. However, we need to break nationalism in order to redeem it.

He began by surveying various types of unredeemed nationalism and points out how the history of nationalism in the twentieth century has led many to reject it as inherently toxic. However, this liberal disdain for nationalism has itself resulted in a variety of problems (not least the invisibility of liberals' own banal nationalism).

The biblical approach is to relativize nationalism rather than repudiate it. The unity of humanity (reflected in and symbolized by the unity of the church) is the primary reality. But within that wider unity there is scope for a biblical nationalism, which can be characterized as anti-imperialist, concerned with the stewardship of cultural diversity, and displaying an ethic of neighbourliness.

Gay proposed a set of public goods that would be displayed by an ethical nationalism. These include humility, peace, equity, hospitality, mutuality, subsidiarity and ecology.

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