Sunday, 18 December 2011

The "soul of Europe" and a Christian country

Recent days have seen two contributions to discussion about the place of religion, and Christianity in particular, to the present day culture of Europe.

The first was the lecture given by the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, at the Gregorian University in Rome on 12th December.

The second, which referred particularly to the United Kingdom, was Prime Minister David Cameron's speech at a celebration to mark the end of the 400th anniversary year of the King James version of the Bible. The speech was delivered on 16th December.

I would suggest that it is important to read the original texts of these two addresses, and not to rely on media reporting of them.

Each of these contributions has its own distinct character. The Chief Rabbi, in asking "Has Europe lost its soul?", examines the market economy and democratic capitalism of the developed nations in the light of the Jewish (and Christian) faith, and in the context of the financial crisis experienced in recent times. It is, if you like, a presentation of how the Judaeo-Christian religious heritage is relevant to economics today. The Prime Minister asserts the relevance of the King James translation of the Bible, and of the Bible in general, today. He does so on the grounds of its contribution to the language and culture of Britain, on the grounds that the politics of Britain is steeped in the Bible and on the grounds that the Bible has helped to shape the values which define Britain. That having been said, there are some interesting points of commonality (or near but not quite commonality) between the two addresses; and it is very interesting, too, to read them both in the light of the address of Pope Benedict XVI in Westminster Hall, as it addressed the subject of the relationship between religion and political and cultural life. If we quote a part of that address it gives a context for a study of both Lord Sacks and David Cameron's addresses.
The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. This “corrective” role of religion vis-à-vis reason is not always welcomed, though, partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems themselves. And in their turn, these distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. It is a two-way process. Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person. Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.
I do think that we can see David Cameron's address as an engagement with the agenda set by Pope Benedict's address, even if the passing reference to the abolition of slavery, to which Pope Benedict also referred, was an accidental coincidence. That the Prime Minister of our country should engage with this agenda is very significant, and something that we should not underestimate. I think we can also welcome the wide ranging way in which David Cameron describes the place of the King James Bible, and the Bible in general, in our literary and musical culture (the word "heritage" implies that this occurs only in the past, whereas I think the Prime Minister's address is really trying to say that this is something that still lives in the Britain of today) and in inspiring much social action in our country. This in itself represents a strong assertion against those who would argue that Britain is in some way a "secular country".

However, there are nuances contained in David Cameron's words that need to be read very carefully. The references to "equality" alongside the terms "human dignity" and "human rights" suggest an understanding of human dignity that, rather than being based in a Biblical idea of the image of God, is drawn instead from a contemporary ideology. We need to be very careful how we view the appropriate boundaries implicit, but not made explicit, in this statement about the role of politicians, and by implication, legislation with regard to religious institutions:
.... it’s legitimate for political leaders to say something about religious institutions as they see them affecting our society, not least in the vital areas of equality and tolerance.
David Cameron's strictures against "secular neutrality" and in favour of a willingness to identify behaviours as morally right and or morally wrong, also need to be read carefully. In so far as he offers a source of such moral judgement (David Cameron does use this word at one point in his address) it lies in recognising a Christian contribution to many of the "values" that characterise Britain:
The Bible has helped to shape the values which define our country....

Responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love… pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities…these are the values we treasure.

Yes, they are Christian values.  And we should not be afraid to acknowledge that. But they are also values that speak to us all – to people of every faith and none.
This all remains just a little bit aloof from providing a basis for evaluating specific behaviours and, in a Conservative Party context, one can see how it might appeal to a particular political constituency. It seems to me to be consonant with the Prime Minister's self identification as a "committed .. [but]vaguely practising Church of England Christian".

Lord Sacks lecture contained one passage that interested me, as a physics teacher, quite specifically. The argument that it was the matrix in Europe of Christian life and doctrine, particularly the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, that gave rise in the 16th/17th centuries to science as a self-sustaining enterprise with an autonomy from theology, has been made very familiar by the writing of Stanley Jaki. We also see how, today, that self-sustaining science has advocates who use it to attack the religious matrix from which it first arose. Lord Sacks presents a very similar account of the rise of the market economy and democratic capitalism, also in Europe. The Chief Rabbi also suggests how, once independent of its Judaeo-Christian origin, the market economy contains a tendency to erode the moral roots from which it emerged. Contemporay consumerism represents the outcome of this erosion, and Lord Sacks describes it as "sapping our moral strength".

Across the different sections of his lecture, the Chief Rabbi develops a wide ranging Biblical analysis of the strengths and limits of the idea of the market economy, applying that analysis to the present day situation. It is well worth reading, and impossible to summarise in a blog post! He clearly identifies the need for an individual moral conversion (David Cameron also makes reference at one point to lack of a moral code):
[This is] perhaps the most profound truth of the Judeo-Christian ethic. That ethic, based on justice, compassion and respect for human dignity, took moral restraint from “out there”to “in here.” Good conduct was not dependent on governments, laws, police, inspectorates, regulatory bodies, civil courts and legal penalties. It was dependent on the still, small voice of God within the human heart. It became part of character, virtue and an internalised sense of obligation. Jews and Christians devoted immense energies to training the young in the ways of goodness and righteousness. A moral vision, a clear sense of right and wrong, was present in the stories they told, the texts they read, the rituals they performed, the prayers they said and the standards the community expected of its members.
Lord Sacks identifies five features of Judaism, largely shared by Christianity, which protect human living from the unwarranted invasion of the market:
A good society has its own ecology which depends on multiple sources of meaning, each with its own integrity. I want to draw attention briefly to five features of Judaism, largely shared by Christianity, whose role over the centuries has been to preserve a space uninvaded by the market ethic....

So the Sabbath, the family, the educational system, the concept of ownership as trusteeship, and the discipline of religious law, were not constructed on the basis of economic calculation. To the contrary, they were ways in which Judaism in effect said to the market: thus far and no further. There are realms in which you may not intrude.

The concept of the holy is precisely the domain in which the worth of things is not judged by their market price or economic value. This fundamental insight of Judaism and Christianity is all the more striking given their respect for the market. Their strength is that they resisted the temptation to believe that the market governs the totality of our lives, when it fact it governs only a limited part of it, that which concerns goods subject to production and exchange. There are things fundamental to being human that we do not produce; instead we receive from those who came before us and from God Himself.
If you read David Cameron's address alongside Lord Sacks' lecture, you will find a number of points where they come close. These points of proximity are interesting to note, though, as I have suggested, one needs to be aware of the nuances contained in the Prime Minister's address.
It is David Cameron's assertion that Britain is a Christian country, and should not be shy of its Christian heritage, that may be attracting most comment, both supportive and hostile.

My view is that the question is not properly framed as one of whether we should describe Britian in some generic way as a Christian country.  It is rather a question of recognising what it is that gives Christianity entitlement to a particular stake in the life of Britain today. I do not believe that a Christian heritage - and Britain certainly has that - represents a sufficient argument on its own for Christians to claim a particular stake in society today. It is the continued living of that heritage today, by those who are active Christian believers and by those who live received Christian values at the level of culture though perhaps not at the level of faith, that justifies a claim for a particular Christian contribution in public life, in politics and in social action. The second element of this claim to a particular place for Christianity in British life is that, in David Cameron's terminology with its inherent weakness, Christian values have something to offer for the good of the life of every human being in society, whatever their religious beliefs or lack thereof. The stronger, and more effective, expression of this principle can be found in Pope Benedict's assertion of the role of reason in discerning the moral foundations of public action, that a realm of the "natural law" is accessible to both believer and non-believer, and his assertion of the role of religion in purifying that exercise of reason.

Additional comment can be found here:

We should not be afraid to say we are a Christian country, Outraged atheists attack and ridicule PM Cameron’s defence of Christianity and Jews and Catholics should unite to challenge aggressive scientific atheism –Chief Rabbi Sacks

Cameron doing religion (and read the comments to this post)

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