There’s a very good piece here by Andrew Sullivan on the dehumanising distractions of ‘our always-wired world’.
There’s a very good piece here by Andrew Sullivan on the dehumanising distractions of ‘our always-wired world’.
Almost 50 years ago, at the height of and in direct response to his own government’s involvement in the Vietnam War, one courageous theologian by the name of Robert McAfee Brown, compelled by a conscience captive to the freedom of the love and justice of God, and having ‘utterly lost confidence in the Johnson Administration’, explained why he had moved from ‘curiosity, to study, to mild concern, to deep concern, to signing statements, to genteel protest, to marching, to moral outrage, to increasingly vigorous protest, to civil disobedience’. His words are as relevant and as timely today as ever, and that not only in the United States:
With each act of military escalation, the moral horror of the war is escalated. We have been killing women and children all along; now, we kill more of them. We have been destroying the villages of civilians all along; now, we destroy more of them. We have been breaking almost every one of the rules that civilized men have agreed constitute the minimal standards of decency men must maintain even in the indecency of war; now, we break them more often.
This escalation of military power demands the escalation of moral protest. Those of us who condemn this war, who are repulsed by it and who realize that history is going to judge our nation very harshly for its part in it, must see more and more clearly that it is not enough any longer to sign another advertisement or send another telegram or give another speech or write another article. The ways of genteel, legal protest have shown themselves to be ineffective. During the time of their impact, escalation has not lessened, it has increased …
Military escalation has become our Government’s stock response to every problem, and in its exercise, our leaders have demonstrated themselves incapable of change. Their only response, now no more than a conditioned reflex, is to hit a little harder. They have become prisoners of their own propaganda. Their rationalizations of their policy become more frantic, their attacks on their critics more strident, their defense of their actions more removed from the realm of reality …
The decision to cast no vote at all cannot be justified by those who believe in the democratic process. All that is left, then, is to vote for a protest candidate who will not win … There comes a time when it is important for the future of a nation that it be recorded that in an era of great folly, there were at least some within that nation who recognized the folly for what it was and were willing, at personal cost, to stand against it. There comes a time when, in the words of Father Pius-Raymond Regamey, one has to oppose evil even if one cannot prevent it, when one has to choose to be a victim rather than an accomplice. There comes a time when thinking people must give some indication for their children and their children’s children that the national conscience was not totally numbed by Washington rhetoric into supporting a policy that is evil, vicious and morally intolerable.
If such language sounds harsh and judgmental, it is meant precisely to be such. The time is past for gentility, pretty speeches and coy evasions of blunt truth. Evil deeds must be called evil. Deliberate killing of civilians – by the tens of thousands – must be called murder. Forcible removal of people from their homes must be called inhumane and brutal. A country that permits such things to be done in its name deserves to be condemned, not only by the decent people of other countries but particularly by the decent people who are its citizens, who will call things what they are and who recognize finally and irrevocably that the most evil deed of all is not to do bestial things but to do bestial things and call them humane.
You can read the full article here. [Many thanks to George Hunsinger for drawing my attention to this article.]
Robert Jenson concludes this reflection on his involvement in the ecumenical movement with these speculations:
‘The ecumenical movement centered on “the dialogues” was carried by these now distracted and enfeebled bodies [i.e., Anglicans and Lutherans] and the Roman Catholic Church. And there is no one to pick up the burden on the Protestant side. Evangelicals are rarely bothered by questions of eucharistic fellowship — or by sacramental matters generally — and when they do think about such fellowship they assume that they are all in it anyway. In the dialogue days, when a meeting included evangelicals they would regularly demand moving from worries about sacramental fellowship to more interesting matters.
So what do we do now? I think the first thing is to remember that we pray for something we will not do: “thy Kingdom come.” God will take care of that, and when he does he will sort out his Church in ways that will surely surprise us. It may happen any minute, so let us keep on praying for the unity of the Church.
If there is to be a long meantime, perhaps we may suppose that God will be up to something in it. Perhaps he is indeed winding down the Protestant experiment, as has been suggested. If things go on as they are, he will carry on the ecumene with the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern churches, and Pentecostal groups. (We will not reckon with an “emerging church,” whatever may be brewing in the religious murk. Church — ekklesia — does not emerge; it is summoned.) We relics of an earlier providence — and there doubtless will be some — may be permitted to contribute by raising voices from antiquity.
Or perhaps God has something more drastic in mind. When Joseph Ratzinger was a cardinal he used to say that further progress toward overcoming the major divisions of the Church would require a great and unpredictable intervention of the Spirit. (I know he really said this because one time it was to me.)
Or perhaps the Spirit will act yet more eschatologically than the cardinal was contemplating. Perhaps an unimaginable rehearsal of final judgment will upset the entire ecclesial fruit basket, so that God may sort the kinds as he chooses.
These speculative scenarios are of things only God can do. If nothing so theodramatic comes to pass and we simply face more of the same for an indefinite future, what do we — who are not Roman Catholic or Eastern — do? There is no going back.
There will be faithful congregations, some in and some out of the mummies of the mainline. There will surely be surviving faithful churchly institutions, broke but struggling on. There already are societies of clergy and laity, formed for survival in spiritual hard times. There will be desperate persons and families, holding faith in unfriendly seas. There are Pentecostal groups with high understandings of Eucharist and its fellowship. There are theologians who write for the Church of the creed. Let all these come together, catch as catch can. Let them cling to baptism, and after that not be too precise about further conditions of fellowship.
And let all of this be a waiting on the Lord. We do not need to know what for, short of the Kingdom’.
A minister reflects on her living with the black dog, and on the gift that the Christian community can, at its best, be:
Depression causes a variety of bizarre symptoms … But the most horrible symptom of depression that I experience is my feeling that I am useless and worthless and that the people who love me would be better off without me. When I’m well I know how ludicrous that is, but when I’m sick it feels absolutely plausible … Worst of all for me is that when I’m depressed I cannot believe that God loves me, I can’t sense God’s presence, and I can’t pray. That for me is the biggest difference between depression and grief … In the midst of depression it feels as though I am alone.
This is when I need the Christian community most. When I can’t pray, I desperately need to know that other people are praying for me. When there’s a God-shaped hole in my life, I need the faith of the church to fill it. When I’m well I love casual, friendly, informal worship services in which we all get to chat to each other and to God, but when I’m sick I can’t worship like that. In the first month of sick leave I went to a Uniting Church that used a very formal liturgy because at that worship it didn’t matter how I felt. What mattered was what the whole church believed. All I needed to do was listen and recite words that Christians have been using for centuries. When I repeated the Apostles’ Creed with the rest of the congregation it didn’t matter that those weren’t my words. I was held by the belief of Christians throughout all of space and time who have said those words. When all I could sense was the absence of God, I had to rely on the church telling me that God was still present even when I felt alone.
Today is World Mental Health Day.
Readers of this blog will know of my deep admiration, gratitude, and respect for the work of Jonathan Sacks. He is among those few contemporary religious leaders who, in my judgement, diagnoses and communicates back to a wide public desperate for wisdom the maladies of our time, and does so with piercing soberness and profound hopefulness.
A week or so ago he was in Brussels speaking at a conference at the European Parliament on ‘The Future of the Jewish Communities in Europe’. His address was titled ‘The Mutating Virus: Understanding Antisemitism’. While I think that Rabbi Sacks has partially misjudged (for reasons I need not articulate here) the source of much of the antipathy towards the State of Israel, particularly from those in the West, I do think he’s right about antisemitism, racism, and prejudice, and possibly about Europe too. Here’s a snippet from that address, and below is the video:
The hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews … Antisemitism is not about Jews. It is about anti-Semites. It is about people who cannot accept responsibility for their own failures and have instead to blame someone else … The appearance of antisemitism in a culture is the first symptom of a disease, the early warning sign of collective breakdown. If Europe allows antisemitism to flourish, that will be the beginning of the end of Europe …
If there is one thing I and my contemporaries did not expect, it was that antisemitism would reappear in Europe within living memory of the Holocaust. The reason we did not expect it was that Europe had undertaken the greatest collective effort in all of history to ensure that the virus of antisemitism would never again infect the body politic. It was a magnificent effort of antiracist legislation, Holocaust education and interfaith dialogue. Yet antisemitism has returned despite everything … If this continues, Jews will continue to leave Europe, until, barring the frail and the elderly, Europe will finally have become Judenrein.
How did this happen? It happened the way viruses always defeat the human immune system, namely, by mutating …
Anti-Semitism is a form of cognitive failure, and it happens when groups feel that their world is spinning out of control. It began in the Middle Ages, when Christians saw that Islam had defeated them in places they regarded as their own, especially Jerusalem. That was when, in 1096, on their way to the Holy Land, the Crusaders stopped first to massacre Jewish communities in Northern Europe. It was born in the Middle East in the 1920s with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Antisemitism re-emerged in Europe in the 1870s during a period of economic recession and resurgent nationalism. And it is re-appearing in Europe now for the same reasons: recession, nationalism, and a backlash against immigrants and other minorities. Antisemitism happens when the politics of hope gives way to the politics of fear, which quickly becomes the politics of hate.
You can read the whole address here.
‘It is a paradox that the one thing a “Church leader” cannot very often do is to lead. He [or she] sees [their] task more as one of preservation. Not always, I agree, but often enough to make the Johannine Caiaphas intelligible not as providing a shallow excuse for anti-semitism but for understanding the ultimate tragedy of Jesus of Nazareth’.
– Mr MacKinnon
[Image: Rembrandt, ‘Christ before Caiaphas’ (c. 1649–50)]
On 18 November 2016, Zadok will partner with the University of Divinity Field C Research Group and Whitley College to host a colloquium, the program for which is as below.
All are welcome to attend. If you are planning to come along, however, for catering purposes it would be great if you could let me know via email.
1340–1415 Paul Tyson, ‘On being of the world but not in the world – how secularism defines our religion and renders our worship harmless’
Dr Tyson is Director of the Emmanuel Centre for the Study of Science, Religion and Society, Emmanuel College, University of Queensland.
Abstract: As Peter Harrison points out ‘religion’ is as new an idea as ‘science’. Both of these notions are alien to the Biblical revelation and to the beliefs the practises of the Church before modern times. Yet the ideas that there are discrete ‘supernatural’ and ‘natural’ realms, that true knowledge only concerns material things and mathematical relations, that religion is a private matter separated out from the realm of secular public life, define contemporary Australian Christian beliefs and practises. In this manner thinking that has come to define what the New Testament calls ‘the world’ sets the terms of Christian belief and practise, relegating faith to the civically harmless realm of distinctly personal, non-political, non-scientific religion. Our faith is defined out of public life and becomes a sectional interest identity concern (surely a debasement of both faith and politics) at best. It is no surprise that Australia is worshipping the Golden Calf of financialized functional materialism, and that this idolatry is just as at home inside the Church as it is in ‘the world.’ The paper concludes with a few tentative ideas about how the Church might seek to change this situation.
1415–1445 Barbara Deutschmann, ‘Gender and the Garden Story’
Since retiring from TEAR Australia last year, Barbara Deutschmann has been largely working on how scripture speaks relevantly to current life issues. She is currently doing a PhD on gender and the Garden narrative in Genesis.
Abstract: Same-sex marriage, gender violence, post-feminism, queer discourse: gender-framed topics pulse through Western society’s political and social conversations. People of faith are driven back to their foundational narratives, such as the Garden Story of Genesis 2-3, in search of faith-full perspectives on these matters. This paper will give an overview of trends in interpretation of Genesis 2-3, then, looking at the narrative afresh, draw out some implications for current conversations on sex/gender. In the exploration, just as we are driven to ask questions of scripture, we find that scripture, in turn asks questions of us.
1445–1515 Keith Sewell, ‘The Crisis of Evangelical Christianity: Roots, Consequences & Resolutions’
Dr Sewell is Emeritus Professor of History, Dordt College, IA, USA.
1530–1600 Karen Pack, ‘Mateship – a holy alliance: rediscovering covenant friendship in the contemporary Australian Church’
Abstract: There was a time in Australian society when ‘mateship’ was revered as one of society’s grounding realities – an ANZAC value. Understood as a relationship of unbreakable loyalty, mateship held deep friendship to be a reverent, almost sacred thing. In today’s society, the lines of friendship have been blurred and the notion of loyalty sacrificed to the ego-centric ideal of ‘doing what is right for me’. Friends are no longer life-long mates, but seasonal or situational companions to be picked up and discarded according to convenience. Even more concerning, however, is the blurring of lines between friendship and sexual recreation. Rather than being the domain of ‘platonic’, non-romantic connection, friendship is now seen as a safe place to satisfy one’s irresistible need for sexual intimacy. To express this reality, we have even spawned a new lexicon, including ‘friends with benefits’, CSBF (Casual Sex Between Friends), ‘booty call’ and numerous far less savoury terms. When a friendship between men seems to involve an emotional connection or attraction, it ceases to be simply a friendship and becomes a ‘bromance’. For a Christian, this sexualisation of friendship and intimacy should be alarming, given the ideals of friendship and commitment taught in the Biblical narrative. This paper seeks to address the sexualisation of friendship in contemporary Australia, and contrast this with the Biblical ideal of covenant friendship. This paper will consider how such covenant friendships can be a nexus of hope in the midst of despair, an expression of the Ahava of God. Ultimately, it will seek to answer the question, ‘How can covenant friendships nurture holiness and wholeness, serving as a witness to the holy and tenacious love that God has shown us?’
1600–1630 Graham Leo, ‘Reading the Book of Esther: A Theology of Work for the 21st Century in the West’
Graham is a DMin student exploring the engagement of churches with male workers in their congregations. His work is investigating how men perceive the significance of their own work, and how their own churches perceive and respond to that work. Graham is a retired school Principal from the Gold Coast.
Abstract: The world of politics is the field in which our perceptions of human work are set in Esther. This paper will consider ways that notions of Jewry in fifth century (BCE) Persia clearly sound many resonances to the social milieu in which many in the West find themselves, especially Christians in ‘secular’ workplaces and various typical urban or rural environments.
Marty Folsom, author of the Face-to-Face trilogy of works on relational theology, will be visiting Whitley College on Saturday 15 October, from 0900-1030. He will offer a presentation and share in conversation with those gathered.
Marty is the Executive Director of the Pacific Association for Theological Studies (USA). He maintains a marriage and family counselling practice, and teaches theology in the Seattle area. He has a particular interest in family systems theory and its relationship with theology.
All are welcome to come along and hear Marty. If you plan on doing so, please flick me a quick email and let me know so that I can make sure that there are enough coffee beans in the cupboard.
It came to this, the panic at not being loved,
an overdose in the middle of the morning.
She slept for five days
strapped down in a hospital cot,
and when she woke to stew in her shame,
her father was by her bedside.
For a moment as long as a word of praise, neither spoke.
In that small silence, questions ripened.
She stood waiting for an ambulance
to take her to a psychiatric hospital.
She was dressed in a hospital robe and booties,
one size fits all, worn thin by other people’s fear.
The linoleum was as cold as the sea in winter.
She held a paper bag containing a toothbrush
and a copy of Tribune, which a cleaner had given her.
The air tasted bitter, of walnuts gone black in the shell.
– Kate Jennings, ‘Father and Daughter’, in Cats, Dogs and Pitchforks (Port Melbourne: Heinemann, 1993), 14.
A friend in Tweetland (and Zuckerland) is wondering whether his kids, who are Christians and who are about to start school, should be encouraged or discouraged to sing the Australian National Anthem – ‘Advance Australia Fair’. I couldn’t resist a quick reply.
I’ve threatened my kids with homelessness and disinheritance if I ever learn that they’ve sung the Australian national anthem, or encouraged others to do so. Even standing during such, were I to hear about it, would be met with their pocket money being docked. Put simply, you can’t sing the national anthem and celebrate the Eucharist. Not only is the theological disconnect as huge (in a Pythonesque kind of way) as one could imagine, but bread and wine are simply so much more interesting than any anthem, and one should set one’s mind, heart, and voice unreservedly upon the most interesting things. The only reasonable alternative I can think of is to deliberately sing the anthem very badly, as out of tune and as out of time as one can muster, to do with it what Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd once did with a Colt Python .357 Magnum. To do otherwise is to put your salvation in doubt.
There is also the matter of the song being an appalling and anaemic piece of writing. That a school should torment its students with such horrid literature is tantamount to nothing short of abuse (something, to be sure, that the country is getting very good at). That a Christian – a Christian for God’s sake! – would let such a situation pass as if it were neither here nor there is probably best explained by the fact that most churchgoers have been made immune to such heresy though years of being fed a liturgical diet of equally squalid and giddy songs and prayers. Mornings of the Lord’s Day might be much better kept by reading Shakespeare or Robinson or Flanagan while listening to Springsteen on the couch in one’s pyjamas than by enduring such torment; unless of course one believes that such activity might function as a kind of training ground, a kind of school perhaps, for the purgatory that awaits the saints. Indeed, this might be among the best of reasons to go to church. But that an institution set apart to teach literature (as laughable as that sounds in today’s climate) should promote the singing of such vacuity is reason enough to have the entire school’s curriculum reviewed by a state parliamentary committee. Her majesty could not possibly expect anything less of her government.
On another note, I understand that the anthem’s election was the fruit of a plebiscite. Enough said.
I’ve previously mentioned that next month Richard Kidd, Anne Mallaby, and myself will be teaching an intensive unit on theology and the arts. I’m really looking forward to being part of what is shaping up to be a great week of learning. (Spaces are still available for anyone keen to be involved.)
In addition, Richard Kidd will be exhibiting some of his work at Chapel on Station Gallery, in Box Hill. The exhibition will be accompanied by three related events:
Thursday 8 September, 1830–2000: Official Opening and Book Launch (with drinks, nibbles, and poetry).
Sunday 11 September, 1630–1830: Conversation and Cake. Richard Kidd and Anne Mallaby invite you to explore art and theology … and cake.
All events are free and will take place at Chapel on Station Gallery, cnr Station St & Ellingworth Pde, Box Hill.
A guest post by Andie Hider
In June last year, I was invited to attend a conference held by the Australian Paediatric Endocrine Group at which was discussed the vexed issue of how to treat a group of infants born with a particular group of genetic conditions. Present at the conference were surgeons, endocrinologists, and other medical specialists from some of Australia’s leading children’s hospitals, representatives from support groups that support parents of infants, and people born with the conditions, as well as ethicists and the current and former Chief Justices of the Family Court of Australia.
Earlier last year, in March, I shared my story growing up with one of these conditions with my congregation. My best friend, a devoted Christian, and friend of hers, who is a Deacon with whom I had shared my story long before, were amongst those visiting our congregation on that day to give me moral support. Standing up and telling my story living with my genetic condition is something I am very used to doing, but standing up and telling my story to my own faith community made me very nervous and was the reason for the moral support present on that day.
By now you may be asking yourselves what could be so complex, so difficult to treat, about these particular genetic conditions that would warrant such a formidable gathering of medical and legal expertise? What could possibly be so awful in the medical suffering I faced that telling my story to my own faith community would need the moral support I had? The answer to both of those questions is there is nothing medical about these genetic conditions that demands that sort of attention and fear. No, the difficulty faced here in both situations is a social problem.
The genetic condition I was born with is called an Intersex condition and, without wanting to get into complex discussions about genetics and embryonic development, it quite simply means I was born biologically both male and female. There are thousands of people like me in Australia, millions across the world, and the conditions and the people born with them have been around since the dawn of God’s creation. The problem is that for thousands of years we have not understood the conditions, and then once we understood them we did our best to hide the people with them away.
Society has spent so much time neatly dividing God’s creation up into male and female that once we realised there were plants, animals, and people who did not fit into one of our categories we didn’t know what to do with them. Throughout history people with Intersex conditions have either been humiliated, put on public display as curiosities, or, in some cultures, given specific ‘elevated’ roles in society (most often as shaman or healers) that allowed them to be set apart from others. As a result of this history the medical profession has been forced into the position they make a ‘best guess’ about the gender a child with an Intersex condition should be raised.
Placing the medical profession in the position they must make a decision on behalf of a child who is not yet old enough to speak their mind about who they are is unfair. The reason for the gathering of medical and legal expertise at the Australian Paediatric Endocrine Group conference is because things have now come to a difficult place. A decision about gender of rearing is often reinforced medically and irreversibly and if it is wrong the later consequences for that child and their family are horrific. Medical professionals and support groups are then again left to work with the families to try to pick up the pieces of the resulting harm to that child. As a result of this, and because of law suits brought against hospitals and medical practitioners, the Family Court has had to become involved in protecting the rights of the children involved. Conspicuous by their absence at the conference to discuss such an important and vulnerable group were our Christian leaders and we need to ask ourselves why that is?
‘Male’ and ‘female’ are words, part of human language and our attempt to reduce God’s creation to a level we can understand in our human simplicity. Once God created Eve, regardless of how you personally believe that came to be, God gave us the gift of creating life. God also meant for the beauty of creation to be realised in all of God’s forms. Creating Eve from one of Adam’s ribs would also have meant that Eve, our greatest of mothers, had some male in her and was by medical definition Intersex. We live in a world of striking and wonderful creations of God where we marvel at the diversity of plant and animal life we are privileged to enjoy. We are not the masters of God’s creation, and nor are we some immutable caretakers of that creation; we are part of it.
The reason our Christian leaders were not part of the conference is because we are part of the problem, not the solution. There is a very public debate about the issue of ‘gay marriage’ going on at the moment, and central to the debate is the oft-cited statement ‘Marriage is between a man and a woman’. Apart from the artificial line we have created to try to reduce God’s creation to our level of understanding, there is no division between male and female. God saw to that when He created Eve from Adam. Male and female are attributes and we all have some mix of both and we all fit somewhere along a spectrum.
Every time a Christian leader or one of our politicians makes the statement about marriage being between a man and a woman they are reinforcing a statement that science and medicine has long understood to be untrue. Worse than that, every time we make a statement about male and female in that way we keep doctors and infants with Intersex conditions and their families trapped in a circle of shame, secrecy, and hurt. Every time we make a statement about male and female in that way we force the Family Court to have to intervene in the lives of families that have enough to cope with. Every time we make that statement we deny God’s wonder and the diversity of creation, and reduce it to something merely human and insignificant.
Worst of all, every time we make a statement that God created man and woman to reinforce the view there is some inviolate division between them, people with Intersex conditions or parents of infants with the conditions that need our support turn away from our churches and our faith because we turn them away. We, Christians, limit and deny God’s creation and turn other Christians away from our church by making them feel unwelcome and misunderstood. A friend of mine that helps run our support group and has the same condition I do is also a member of the Uniting Church. There will be other members of our church that either have the conditions or are parents of an infant or child with an Intersex condition. When was the last time that one of them spoke to anyone reading this about the trials they are facing because God created them in a way that we, as human beings, are unable to accept because it would mean admitting that we cannot define God’s creation in human terms?
We as Christians should be at the forefront of helping understand God’s creation in all of its wonderful diversity. We should not be adding to the discomfort and shame and misunderstanding of people born with Intersex conditions by taking a hard, and incorrect, stance about God’s creation in our over-enthusiasm to define something that cannot be defined by us, but only by God. Our leadership should be part of the discussion about supporting infants with Intersex conditions and their parents, not excluding us because we add to the problem. We are challenged as Christians to welcome all who believe in Christ as our savior into our Christian family, and to understand, accept, and love them. We cannot do these things if we refuse to acknowledge some people even exist because they are the living proof our binary construct of male and female is wrong. It should not be that hard for us because we have grappled with the concept of a triune God since the beginnings of our faith.
We live in our own world,
A world that is too small
For you to stoop and enter
Even on hands and knees,
The adult subterfuge.
And though you probe and pry
With analytic eye,
And eavesdrop all our talk
With an amused look,
You cannot find the centre
Where we dance, where we play,
Where life is still asleep
Under the closed flower,
Under the smooth shell
Of eggs in the cupped nest
That mock the faded blue
Of your remoter heaven.
– R. S. Thomas
[Image: Pat Scala/SMH]
Is there anything behind the façade
of performance and pretence
any bottom to the abyss
of self-doubt and self-condemnation?
Stretches of the road
are long and lonely times of bleak unknowing
plagued by anxiety, uncertainty
memories burdened by guilt, inadequacy,
ineptitude, inaction, time not taken to listen
and there is no dawn
no other side.
– Noel Davis, ‘And there is no dawn’, in Together at the Edge – Trust Me: One Live to Live, Love, Reverence, Give Thanks (Narooma: Lifeflow Education, 2011).
[Image: Songs from the Forest]
Zadie Smith’s recent piece on Brexit is one of the best-of-its-kind analyses I’ve read on what’s happening in the West – around us, in us, because of us, in spite of us. It is also an invitation to do some seriously-uncomfortable work around dismantling those fences which have become symbols of the end of the risk we must learn to embrace again if the days in front of us are to be less dark than are those behind us. There are echoes here of calls that have been made by others – Jonathan Sacks’s outstanding book The Dignity of Difference comes to mind – but Smith’s is grounded in a more explicitly local context and is illustrated with some powerful domestic examples that work to underscore that the challenges before us are more proximate than most of us dare imagine. (Read through Christian eyes, Smith’s piece also functions as a call to take seriously the profound political and cultural implications of venturing to believe that God is a community of difference, of otherness, and of extraordinary risk vis-à-vis the world.)
[Image: Derrick Santini]
Rachel Aviv’s piece on Martha Nussbaum, published in The New Yorker, really is a wonderful read:
“To be a good human being,” [Nussbaum] has said, “is to have a kind of openness to the world, the ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control that can lead you to be shattered” …
For a society to remain stable and committed to democratic principles, [Nussbaum] argued, it needs more than detached moral principles: it has to cultivate certain emotions and teach people to enter empathetically into others’ lives …
Last year, Nussbaum had a colonoscopy. She didn’t want to miss a workday, so she refused sedation. She was thrilled by the sight of her appendix, so pink and tiny. “It’s such a big part of you and you don’t get to meet these parts,” she told me. “I love that kind of familiarization: it’s like coming to terms with yourself.”
Some characteristically thoughtful words here from Jonathan Sacks in his acceptance speech for the Templeton Prize:
A free society is a moral achievement. Without self-restraint, without the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct, and without the habits of heart and deed that we call virtues, we will eventually lose our freedom … At some point the West abandoned this belief …
Morality itself was outsourced to the market. The market gives us choices, and morality itself is just a set of choices in which right or wrong have no meaning beyond the satisfaction or frustration of desire. The result is that we find it increasingly hard to understand why there might be things we want to do, can afford to do, and have a legal right to do, that nonetheless we should not do because they are unjust or dishonourable or disloyal or demeaning: in a word, unethical. Ethics was reduced to economics … [And] having reduced moral choice to economics, we transferred the consequences of our choices to politics.
And it seemed to work, at least for a generation or two. But by now problems have arisen that can’t be solved by the market or the state alone …
You can’t outsource conscience. You can’t delegate moral responsibility away …
But the West has, in the immortal words of Queen Elsa in Frozen, “Let it go”. It has externalised what it once internalised. It has outsourced responsibility. It’s reduced ethics to economics and politics. Which means we are dependent on the market and the state, forces we can do little to control. And one day our descendants will look back and ask, How did the West lose what once made it great?
Every observer of the grand sweep of history, from the prophets of Israel to the Islamic sage Ibn Khaldun, from Giambattista Vico to John Stuart Mill, and Bertrand Russell to Will Durant, has said essentially the same thing: that civilisations begin to die when they lose the moral passion that brought them into being in the first place. It happened to Greece and Rome, and it can happen to the West. The sure signs are these: a falling birthrate, moral decay, growing inequalities, a loss of trust in social institutions, self-indulgence on the part of the rich, hopelessness on the part of the poor, unintegrated minorities, a failure to make sacrifices in the present for the sake of the future, a loss of faith in old beliefs and no new vision to take their place. These are the danger signals and they are flashing now.
There is an alternative: to become inner-directed again. This means recovering the moral dimension that links our welfare to the welfare of others, making us collectively responsible for the common good. It means recovering the spiritual dimension that helps us tell the difference between the value of things and their price. We are more than consumers and voters; our dignity transcends what we earn and own. It means remembering that what’s important is not just satisfying our desires but also knowing which desires to satisfy. It means restraining ourselves in the present so that our children may have a viable future. It means reclaiming collective memory and identity so that society becomes less of a hotel and more of a home. In short, it means learning that there are some things we cannot or should not outsource, some responsibilities we cannot or should not delegate away.
We owe it to our children and grandchildren not to throw away what once made the West great, and not for the sake of some idealized past, but for the sake of a demanding and deeply challenging future. If we do simply let it go, if we continue to forget that a free society is a moral achievement that depends on habits of responsibility and restraint, then what will come next – be it Russia, China, ISIS or Iran – will be neither liberal nor democratic, and it will certainly not be free. We need to restate the moral and spiritual dimensions in the language of the twenty-first century, using the media of the twenty-first century, and in ways that are uniting rather than divisive.
One can read the full lecture here.