Saturday, May 31, 2008

Why the plebs need God to keep them nice

There are two failsafe ways of getting drivel published: the first is to run your own blog (I thank you), and the second is to be a bishop (archly or otherwise).

Michael Nazir-Ali has chosen the latter route, being Bishop of Rochester. His article is a fool’s goldmine, the general spiel being that Western values were built upon Christianity, and that discarding these foundations will lead to selfishness, relativism, the death of the family, violent Islamism and Deal or No Deal.

But in the process of making this argument, he also accidentally undermines it.

Society needs something to unite around, he says, and this “cannot be [done] only in terms of the ‘thin’ values, such as respect, tolerance and good behaviour, which are usually served up by those scratching around for something to say”; he also dismisses “decency and fairness” as “extremely thin gruel and hardly adequate for the task before us”.

Frankly, if everyone did display respect, tolerance, good behaviour, decency and fairness, the world would be dazzlingly better than it ever has been, but Nazir-Ali’s case is that in practice we can’t have these things without some sort of ballast – which can only be provided by religion, i.e. Christianity.

While some acknowledge the debt which Britain owes to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, they claim also that the values derived from it are now free-standing and that they can also be derived from other world-views. As to them being free-standing, the danger, rather, is that we are living on past capital which is showing increasing signs of being exhausted. Values and virtues by which we live require what Bishop Lesslie Newbigin called “plausibility structures” for their continuing credibility. They cannot indefinitely exist in a vacuum.

But a world without supernatural deities isn’t a “vacuum”, it’s a world full of real people with real hopes and dreams and fears and needs and opportunities and relationships. I don’t think that adding theological constructs to common decency does anything other than diminish “plausibility”.

(I find the idea of grounding values in theism to be inadequate and unnecessary, but that’s another story.)

But, as I said, Nazir-Ali undermines his own case. In describing Christianity’s historical role in shaping common values, he notes that a central part of this was driven by “the rediscovery of Aristotle by Europe”:

One of the features of the rediscovery was a further appreciation of the human person as agent by Christian thinkers such as St Thomas Aquinas. They were driven to read the Bible in the light of Aristotle and this had several results which remain important for us today.
One was the discovery of conscience. If the individual is morally and spiritually responsible before God, then we have to think also of how conscience is formed by the Word of God and the Church’s proclamation of it so that freedom can be exercised responsibly. Another result was the emergence of the idea that because human beings were moral agents, their consent was needed in the business of governance.

Aristotle (384-322BC) was neither a Christian nor influenced by Christianity. If his writings could explore the notions of individual moral responsibility and government by consent, then why not look to that rather than Christianity? And if it took the rediscovery of his work for this centuries-old religion to stumble upon these notions, then that doesn’t speak too well of its own internal resources.

Since the Roman Empire decided to co-opt Christianity, moral thought in Europe has had to take place in the context of that religion – its position of political dominance explains its influence at least as much as its theological merits. In many ways, it came to act as the repository of the (sometimes brilliant) thinking that took place on its watch.

But things have gone wrong; society is fragmenting. The Bishop blames the 1960s:

Callum Brown has argued that it was the cultural revolution of the 1960s which brought Christianity’s role in society to an abrupt and catastrophic end. He notes, particularly, the part played by women in upholding piety and in passing on the faith in the home. It was the loss of this faith and piety among women which caused the steep decline in Christian observance in all sections of society.

Yep, pesky women. With their wanting to be free to think for themselves and spreading this monstrous idea, it’s all women’s fault – it goes right back to that bitch with the apple.

Nice. As is Nazir-Ali’s rueing “the destruction of the family because of the alleged parity of different forms of life together”. We all know what that means. And “alleged parity” is a pretty good paraphrase of Section 28’s distaste for “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. Lovely.

The upshot is that we’re now in a “moral and spiritual vacuum”, and in public debate “crude utilitarianism, public approbation or revulsion (the so-called yuck factor) or the counting of heads are being found increasingly unsatisfactory” as grounds for ethical discussion. So we need Christianity to take a much bigger role in public life.

But that sounds like “crude utilitarianism” to me: support the Church not because it has the truth but because its prominence is socially useful. Crude, and no longer even remotely true.


Anonymous said...

Yup, the sort of propaganda you'd expect from a nazi rally ;-)

anticant said...

As someone who was very much around in the 1960s, I get utterly fed up by the twaddle that is talked about them by those who, like this bishop, were too young to have been there and have no first-hand knowledge.

Yes, the Sixties were a time of flamboyant youthful experimenting and questioning of traditional values in art and life which outraged many of their stuffily conventional elders. They were also a time of much greater optimism, tolerance, kindness, gentleness and - yes - decency than the depressed, fear-ridden, strident, verbally and physically violent decade we're now enduring.