History

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This chapter serves as a general conclusion. It summarises the main arguments and the key ‘middle ways’ structuring each chapter. It then pulls back to locate the Oldham group in the context of 1930s and 1940s British Christianity and public intellectual debate. The book’s contribution to the topics of the relation of Christianity to social life; British reactions to totalitarianism, war, and social reconstruction; intellectual responses to ‘modernity’; and secularisation are drawn out. A few ‘blind spots’ in the group’s thinking – especially with regard to gender and imperialism – are considered. A final section considers the continuing relevance of the Oldham group’s efforts to solve inherent contradictions in modern society and to define a legitimate place for faith in ‘secular’ societies.

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Chapter 2 introduces one of the group’s key concepts – what Oldham called the ‘frontier’ between faith and social life – and examines how the group defined a socially relevant religious worldview despite there being dramatically divergent viewpoints among Christians about the relationship between faith and society. The group saw an emerging ‘convergence’ in Christian demands for a radical reshaping of dominant ideas, cultural norms and social practice in accordance with Christian understandings of human nature and the purposes of social life. They sought ‘middle axioms’ to express how eternal, universal Christian principles applied to modern, complex societies. Five theological influences on the group stand out: (1) a self-critical theological ‘liberalism’, (2) the ‘Christian realism’ of Reinhold Niebuhr, (3) the neo-Thomist philosophy of Jacques Maritain, (4) ‘continental’ Protestant theology (which was largely rejected) and (5) varieties of ‘personalism’

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The group aimed to bring Christian principles and secular knowledge into creative relationship. Urging Christians to be more open to scientific knowledge, its members, however, also condemned what they saw as extreme forms of secular ‘materialism’: they sought a modus vivendi to enable Christianity to influence the ‘common life’. Secularisation, it was argued, had led to totalitarianism, which was seen – whether in its Communist, Fascist or National Socialist forms – as an ersatz religion. But secular knowledge was also believed to offer something to Christians, and since the group perceived Britain as a deeply ‘secular’ society (and likely to remain so), a constructive relationship between Christians and non-Christians was a key goal: it should be possible, Oldham argued, to go ‘part of the way together’, even if finding a middle way along the ‘frontier’ also meant emphasising faith’s distinctive strengths and insights into the human condition.

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‘This is your hour’

The Oldham group were British Christian intellectuals, with each term locating it in a key sphere: a national (British) context with specific identities and assumptions; a religious (Christian) context defined against ‘secularism’; and a public (intellectual) context marked by certain forms of cultural authority. After a long period of neglect, there is increasing interest in Christian responses to the Second World War, the crises that preceded it and the social rebuilding that followed. The concept of ‘middle ways’ is introduced to describe the group’s recurring intellectual approach, referring either to taking a moderate position between perceived extremes or constructing a synthesis of different – even contradictory – elements. Middle ways reflected the intellectual content of the group’s ideas or also strategies for implementing them. Various kinds of ‘betweenness’ were involved and define the chapters that follow: paths were sought between Protestantism and Catholicism, faith and secularity, laissez-faire capitalism and collectivist socialism, rootless internationalism and nationalism, freedom and order, and egalitarianism and elitism.

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People, organisations and aims

The Oldham group emerged out of J. H. Oldham’s efforts to carry forward the ideas of the 1937 Oxford ecumenical conference on ‘Church, Community and State’, one of the most important international gatherings of Christian clergy and lay thinkers in the twentieth century. Though wracked by disputes, the conference issued a clear call for Christians to respond to the political, cultural and social threats of the age, particularly totalitarianism. The organisations and projects that composed the Oldham group – the ‘Council on the Christian Faith and the Common Life’, the ‘Christian Frontier Council’, the Christian News-Letter and the discussion group known as ‘the Moot’ – are introduced along with the eight-member ‘inner circle’ on whom the book focuses: J. H. Oldham, Karl Mannheim, T. S. Eliot, John Middleton Murry, John Baillie, Alec Vidler, H. A. Hodges and Kathleen Bliss. The Oldham group foresaw the need for a ‘revolution from above’ among the British political and cultural establishment, as well as a broader effort to use media and established Christian organisations to create a Christian cultural ‘leaven’ that would enable new forms of ‘community’.

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Egalitarianism and elitism

The Oldham group had ambivalent views about social inequality. Britain was seen as an unfair ‘plutocracy’ that betrayed the nation’s Christian traditions, and breaking the power of ‘privilege’ and reducing disparities in wealth and educational opportunity were seen as prerequisites for a more Christian society. But ‘mass’ society was also seen to threaten principles of excellence and moral and cultural standards. These tensions between egalitarianism and elitism were apparent in discussions about the need for a culturally guiding elite in a new planned society and about educational reform. The discussions around a Christian ‘elite’ or ‘clerisy’ remained inconclusive, but the group’s thinking influenced discussions about educational reform. Some group members were involved in consultations with minister of education R. A. Butler during the drafting of what became the 1944 Education Act, and played prominent roles in early post-war debates about university education policy.

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Nationalism, universalism and Europe

The group’s participants preferred the attachments of ‘nationality’ to an allegedly ‘rootless’ internationalism, but nationalism was seen as an idolatrous form of national identity that was most visible in (though hardly limited to) Fascism and National Socialism. The middle way here was a ‘Christian patriotism’ combining positive commitments to national traditions with an emphasis on universalism, national humility and an ‘ethic of service’ towards other nations. What were seen as distinctively British (or, often, ‘English’) traditions of liberty and localism were believed to be crucial resources for a better world (particularly after the Dunkirk evacuation and through the ‘Battle of Britain’); indeed, Britain was deemed to have a national ‘mission’ to reshape the post-war world. It was also considered how British identity might be embedded in larger imagined communities, such as Christian ‘universalism’, ‘Christendom’, ‘Federal Union’, ‘Europe’ and ‘the West’. Notably, however, interest in European unification subsided in the post-war period, as the alternative contexts of the Commonwealth and global Christianity took precedence.

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Christian intellectuals in Britain and the crisis of Europe, 1937–1949

From the late 1930s to the end of the 1940s a high-profile group of mostly Christian intellectuals met to discuss the related crises of totalitarianism, war and cultural decline in the democratic West. Brought together by the leading missionary and ecumenist Joseph H. Oldham, the group included prominent writers, thinkers, activists and scholars, among them T. S. Eliot, John Middleton Murry, Karl Mannheim, John Baillie, Alec Vidler, H. A. Hodges, Christopher Dawson, Kathleen Bliss and Michael Polanyi. Among its wider circle of correspondents and supporters were the era’s most influential Christian authors and thinkers – such as Reinhold Niebuhr, William Temple, Jacques Maritain, Dorothy L. Sayers and C. S. Lewis. The participants in the Oldham group saw faith as a uniquely powerful resource for cultural and social renewal, and they sought to integrate diverse Christian viewpoints, reconcile faith and secular society, and reshape post-war British society. In an ‘age of extremes’ they pursued a variety of ‘middle ways’ with regard to topics such as the social relevance of faith, the relationship of Christianity to secularity, the legitimacy of capitalism, the role of State planning, the value of patriotism, the meaning of freedom and the value of egalitarianism.

Katie Cannon's famous work Black Womanist Ethics begins with arguments aimed at establishing the existence of a 'Black woman's literary tradition' and the cultural specificity of black women's writing. This chapter traces a trajectory away from representing women's literature as 'everywoman' in cultural form towards a recognition that literature may embody rather the specific, the located and the particular. The work of Kathleen Sands carries the engagement of feminist theology with women's writing into a new epoch in which a cautious engagement with critical theory is brought into dialogue with the liberative traditions of religious feminism. Sands outlines how Christian theology has sought to protect itself from knowledge of evil using two main strategies. She terms these the 'rationalist' and 'dualist' responses. Sands approves her adoption of a Foucauldian analysis which rejects alien moral absolutes and which locates knowledge and power in the discursive activities of dominating or subjugated groups.

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Hélène Cixous' unusual position as an academic critic/poet has made the reception of her work problematic. In marking the continuity between writing and the feminine Cixous is deeply indebted to Jacques Derrida who was a personal friend and intellectual soul-mate for many years. Her work leads her to acknowledge that her feminist politics do not promise a resolution to the darkest mysteries. Thus she declares that politics leads her to faith and faith leads her to cast her lot with those who do not deny 'the mysteries that beat in the heart of the world'. The image of writing as child returns us to the central theme of Cixous' work, and that is that writing belongs to the body, but not only to the body in its procreative power.

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