by John Lampard.
The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee offers the nation an opportunity to indulge in a burst of nostalgia, from remembering the 1953 Coronation (for older readers!) to ‘it was better then than it is now’ etc. What is the role and place of nostalgia when it comes to re-calling our church history or in theological thinking?
A recent book, Rule Nostalgia: A Backwards History of Britain, by Hannah Rose Woods, examines the use of nostalgia as a means of critical analysis.
She argues that we use nostalgia primarily as a means of fuelling or bolstering modern debates. To illustrate this, she reminds us of the wonderful words of William Rees-Mogg, spoken after June 2016, that Brexit was ‘Magna Carta! It’s Waterloo! It’s Agincourt! It’s Crecy! We won all of these things!’ Only the most ardent Brexiteer might spare a blush.
The problem for me is that history and nostalgia are almost inextricably linked once one tries to use historical knowledge to critique the modern world. My interest is obviously in the matter of church history and the situation faced today by almost all the churches of the western world (it’s not just Methodism!). We can look back to the time when bishops ruled the roost across the land. Or we can look back to the great church-going period of the mid-Victorian era when about half the population were in church on a Sunday. Or the practice of family prayers and Bible reading at the beginning of the day – or even saying grace before meals. Or I can look back on the 1950s crime-free Eden of my youth, with lively Youth Clubs and when the church was packed on Parade Sunday with uniformed organisations. Each of these memories or recollections can be used as a means of criticising what is going on in the church and world today. Is the Christian faith, the church or society in a ‘better’ or ‘worse’ state today?
Nostalgia can be a very selective means of criticism. When the bishops ruled the land, people were punished in unspeakable ways, apart from a lack of any human rights. In the ‘Christian’ mid-Victorian era there were estimated to be 80,000 child prostitutes in London alone. Family prayers could be a means of harsh family control, and seventy years ago two boys attempted to rob me at knife point in a ‘respectable’ part of London. As soon as we draw from the nostalgic past to contrast how things have deteriorated today, we urgently need to find other facts which suggest that such a picture is incomplete.
Thinking on Woods’s book draws me to two further reflections.
How much does nostalgia, particularly for the life of the early church as depicted in the Bible, affect our reading of it today? Apart from the ‘communist’ ideal of having everything in common in the early Jerusalem church (which may have led to near famine and the need for the first example of ‘Christian Aid’ from other churches), the life of the early church depicted by Paul offers little material for a nostalgic view. I suspect that our Methodist Discipline Committee would be overwhelmed by life in the Corinth church. A rosy view of the Primitive church offers little to appeal in a current world of human complexities.
A more complicated question arises over the extent to which our study of and expressions of theology today is overlaid with nostalgia. Our language and symbolic thought structures still hark back to a ‘biblical’ understanding of the universe. I struggle (as did John Robinson in the 1960s) with phrases such as ‘God sent…’, ‘come down from heaven’, or ‘Jesus came…’, on any occasion other than when we quote the Bible, rather than expressing what lies behind the words, in a sense of revelation and discovery. Too much theology is based on a nostalgic world view created by still taking the Bible too literally, in a world which is being revealed by the Hubble telescope and the Large Hadron Collider. Am I alone in getting spiritual excitement and sustenance in the exploration of the amazingly complex and wonderful world around us discovered by scientists looking at either the indescribably massive or infinitesimally small? Our understanding of the nature of time revealed by scientists must surely impact on ‘eternity’ and ‘everlasting life’. I get more visceral spiritual excitement from the discoveries of scientists, almost lost for words by the sheer wonder of what they are revealing, than wading through the dull, endless attempts by worthy theologians to ‘re-create’ an outdated world view. A nostalgia for a simple ‘up’ and ‘down’, which we hark back to by our overreliance on what we might have grown up with, will not enable relevant theological thinking. It is all God’s world, but our nostalgia for the past hinders us from trying to re-think our theology in terms for today.
So, I will wave my flag and remember 1953, but I will not be nostalgic! And I hope theologians will be limbering up for the reign of King Charles III.