religious self-hatred

You know, there’s a term, ‘linguistic self-hatred’, which was widely used at one time to describe the attitude of Scots towards the way they spoke. When Prof Angus McIntosh was investigating language attitudes back in the day (or was it David Abercrombie?), he rarely came across a Scot who would admit to speaking anything other than “slang,” pejoratively understood, and whoever spoke the “best” Scottish, it was certainly somebody else.

Things are bound to be different now, decades after the era of McIntosh/Abercrombie/Aitken, and there is bound to be less self-consciousness and self-denigration about how you speak.

But consider a somewhat similar attitude, in the realm of Scottish religion. Several conversations over the past week or so have made me ponder attitudes towards the church and Scottish religion, as held within the church in Scotland. This is, of course, the 450th anniversary of the Reformation in Scotland, meaning that for 450 years, we have been freed to a greater or lesser extent from superstition and blatant corruption in the clergy, superstition and bible-illiteracy in the pulpit, superstition and lukewarm moralism in the pew – and in society we have felt the benefits of descending from an intelligent and upright populace, individuals who lived and acted in a context steeped in biblical, Christian morality even when they were not always themselves professedly Christian.

Contemporary Christians who follow in the line of the Reformation generally develop a fairly thick skin to handle the constant equation of Reformation-style theology and practice with all that is dour, joyless, calvinistic, puritannical, sabbatarian, oppressive, repressive, hypocritical, and legalistic. We know it’s not actually like that, but nobody wants to know, so what can you do.

More worrying, though, is the way that contemporary Christians in the Reformation tradition are liable to let their confidence in the theological underpinnings of their practice leach away. There is, for example, a clearly articulated theology of preaching and the sacraments. ‘The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.’ And, ‘The sacraments become effectual means of salvation … by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them.’ So why do we have such low expectations from the plain, ordinary, preaching of the Word week in and week out? Why do we attach so much importance to (perfectly good in themselves) things like bible studies and conferences? Why do we expect so much in the way of conversions and edification from conferences and youth camps, when we don’t greatly trouble ourselves to look for these things in the communion of the saints around Word and sacrament? We are, surely, too fearful of the criticism that the regular plain preaching of the word is boring and ineffective, or that our deliberate and theologically motivated simplicity of worship is inadequate for contemporary congregations.

It’s exactly the same with the principle that when the Holy Spirit converts a sinner he also sanctifies them. Is there not too much of a tendency to secretly agree with kneejerk criticisms from people outside the church who persistently refuse to believe that Christian living is anything more than hypocrisy and self-righteous moralism. For sure, there are enough people putting themselves forward as Christians who don’t live up to the name particularly well, but Reformed Christians in Reformed Christian circles know enough of the real thing to be able to refute this quite thoroughly. Yet Reformed Christians themselves sometimes retain the suspicion that the godliness and piety of the past was a bit of a show and really quite unnecessarily strict. And sometimes they themselves perpetuate the myth that old-time religion consisted mainly in the rabid tithing of mint and cumin, and narrow-minded fuss about whether you wore red or black. No doubt sanctification is never total, and how sanctification manifests itself must vary slightly depending on the wider social or cultural context, but there is a danger of slackening in our conviction that it is nevertheless real. It is also more valuable and you could almost say glorious, even when attended by many quirks and foibles, than our spiritual short-sightedness often allows us to recognise.

Scottish Presbyterians of the old school: we need to get over our religious self-hatred. There’s nothing to be proud of, but we don’t need to be ashamed of it either.  There is nothing to be embarrassed about, when we attach so much importance to the preaching of the word, the singing of psalms, the simplicity of the sacraments, and the life of godliness. That theory should work itself out in practice as a hearty conviction that the plain preaching of the Word itself will be effective in converting sinners and edifying saints – that worship is real and at its best when most stringently conformed to the scriptural pattern – that the ordinances in the hand of the Spirit are effectual means of grace – that genuine godliness is possible, ought to be normal in Christian circles, and not to be denigrated in the lives of previous generations of Christians. ‘Whereas thou hast been forsaken and hated, so that no man went through thee, I will make thee an eternal excellency, a joy of many generations.’

11 thoughts on “religious self-hatred

  1. we have been freed to a greater or lesser extent fromsuperstition and blatant corruption in the clergy, superstition and bible-illiteracy in the pulpit, superstition and lukewarm moralism in the pew

    aye, right. :)

    and in society we have felt the benefits of descending from an intelligent and upright populace, individuals who lived and acted in a context steeped in biblical, Christian morality even when they were not always themselves professedly Christian.

    Well, speaking from reasonably extensive personal experience of two countries, it’s not the nominally Protestant one whose society is in better shape :)

    Best wishes to the spiritual desert of Edinburgh! :schadenfreude: :D


  2. ? That was meant to be the uncontroversial stuff.

    In varying degrees and at some times more than others, the men ordained to office in the post-Reformation church were educated, morally upright, faithful to the scriptures, and preached the gospel rather than (+/- superstitious) moralism. From Patrick Hamilton, George Wishart and John Knox, to Rutherford, Dickson, Traill, to Boston, and the Disruption fathers. And onwards. The people who sat in the pews knew their bibles and their catechisms and lived respectable lives, characterised by, I don’t know, integrity and whatnot.

    Not to say there hasn’t been massive changes in the last ~50 years, but these (in both social life and religious life) are distinctly at odds with Reformation theology and piety.


  3. That was definitely the controversial stuff. Superstition, indeed! Or were you referring to the Druids? :-D

    But I have to say that I have admired tales of, and proverbs handed down by, my mother’s Presbyterian forebears. And the most famous fictional Canadian of all time, Anne Shirley Blythe (aka Anne of Green Gables) was a Presbyterian, and the good old Canadian/Scots Presbyterianism of the 19th century was carefully preserved in the entire Lucy Maud Montgomery corpus, and it makes for very wholesome and wistful reading.

    I don’t think any church-going Presbyterian should ever feel ashamed of his or her faith, and I’m a Roman Catholic. My only wee suggestion is that Wee Frees stop reflexively trashing the Roman Catholic Church. I don’t think this provides the communal glue it used to (or does it?), and it’s darned annoying for the folks who are fighting alongside you against the decadence and decay of secularism.


  4. Maybe I need an “intended audience” label then, because stirring up FP vs RC hostilities was not in fact today’s objective! :-/ Like, once we all agree we think each other are heretics, we can get on with battling the decadence of secularism just fine. (The trashing is tiresome for plenty presbyterians too.)

    Although my understanding was that the religious scene pre-Reformation was generally felt to be pretty abysmal, ie not living up to anybody’s standards of what the church should look like, Reformed or not.

    But the main point was an in-house observation, although going on past form, the chances of any reaction in the comment box from my respectably sized but apparently timid traditional presbyterian readership seem quite low…


  5. OK here I am ;-) a member of a presbyterian church for you, complete with a reaction.

    I’ve just spotted that back a few centuries the singing of psalms in Scotland was seen by a Dutch outsider as “jubilant” (by comparison with the “stately and dignified” tunes in the Dutch church):

    Strangely, in the previous congregation I attended up until recently, the more well known praise psalms – the sort of thing you hear on psalm cassettes and CDs – seemed rarely sung.

    Best wishes



    • Ok, although I think that same perception of the style of singing is still current, for Dutch congregations whose tunes have all the notes the same length, in contrast to the Scottish/N.Irish psalters, which don’t. Re choice of psalms, interesting observation.


  6. Really there are three trends which seem to me to potentially be undermining what the Scottish church has in the past stood firm on, and this was the (perhaps too obscure) main point of the post.

    One is basically a very good thing, that we seem to organise more conferences, both denominational and non-denominational, as opportunities for teaching, fellowship, edification, and even evangelism. This is fine, and everyone should take advantage of these opportunities whenever possible. But it would be even better if it went hand in hand with explicit affirmation of the primacy of the actual ordained means of grace – preaching, sacraments, and the communion of the saints – such that people who expect so much, and in all likelihood actually benefit so much, from Christian conferences would consciously and believingly go looking for the same benefits from the ordinary, regular use of the ordinary, regular, stated, ordained means of grace. The lack of such an expectation seems to come from a sneaking lack of confidence in these means of grace, particularly preaching, and this is a worry.

    A second thing is less good – the drift away from the psalms in worship – which again is characterised by too many missed opportunities – at every point where you might expect to hear a ringing affirmation that the psalms are after all wholly appropriate for use in contempoary congregations, it never seems to come. It doesn’t mean that people are consciously dismissive of the psalms or overtly disrespectful about them as part of the scriptures, just as presumably all these conference organisers/attenders retain their principles about the value of the word preached – but again it leaves you wondering whether there isn’t just something of a lack of confidence, a certain discomfort over whether the psalms can really meet the theological and spiritual needs of today’s worshippers.

    And the third is just a bit silly – the lack of confidence that the piety/godliness/Christianity of our forebears in the faith can really stand up to scrutiny. But just as Packer likened the English Puritans to theological and spiritual giants in comparison to today’s pygmies, we can look back to the Scottish Reformers, the Covenanters, Boston and the Erskines, the Disruption fathers, and co, and be entirely justified in seeing ourselves as the ones who are the pygmies. But instead, increasingly it would seem, the last bastions of the Scottish reformed heritage are buying in to the hostile/worldly assessment of Scottish religion as joyless, fearful, legalistic, etc. Obviously our grandparents and greatgrandparents in the faith weren’t perfect, but there seems to be very little sensitivity to (i) the rather different cultural contexts, and (ii) the need to distinguish between joy and joy, fear and fear, etc. If today’s Christians are less particular about the demands of the moral law, does that actually mean they’re less legalistic? If we hear less about the awfulness of not being saved, are we safe to be less fearful? Does our perceived greater joyfulness really stem from being even more convinced than our forebears were that ‘at his right hand there are pleasures evermore,’ and even more satisfied than they were in the blessings which do accompany or flow from justification, adoption, and sanctifcation. I just don’t see it. And so in the meantime surely it would be wiser to pay our respects to those that went before us, rather than treating our heritage so cheaply as to abandon its piety under the scornful looks of outside observers who were never going to be impressed anyway.


  7. Hmm. I’m always wary of any appeal to a rose tinted age, whether it’s the reformation, early church, pre Vat II Church. All denominations have had their strengths / weaknesses institutionally, & rogues / saints at all time since Christ.

    I’m sure most people are the same as me, they can think of great ministers / priests they have met / heard and others, ahem, less great.

    I’m afraid as a cradle C of S and now R.C. I’m with BXVI, the reformation was a ‘rupture with Scotland’s Catholic past’.

    I much prefer the minister who registered his disagrement than the secularist / p.c. view of ‘well we all have to keep our views to ourselves so we don’t offend’ – translation – We think your mental to believe in God and don’t want to hear about it’.


  8. ‘linguistic self-hatred’, was widely used at one time to describe the attitude of Scots towards the way they spoke

    That’s a shame — I am hard-pressed to think of an accent I enjoy listening to more! Ashley Jensen just kills me, and I wish I could stay up late for Craig Ferguson every night. And there’s always Trainspotting.

    Then again, maybe the best movie where an accent has enough character to practically have a role of it’s own: District 9. (although that’s obviously not scottish)

    Taking a wild tangent, I once read that Britain is distinct from America in that it is socially acceptable for a speaker to don the accent of some other region or class for the purposes of humor. Quite true. It’s very hard in American to put on somebody else’s accent without sounding sarcastic or mean-spirited.


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