Three Podcasts to Listen to in 2020

My previous job involved a long commute. I didn’t always have the energy to read books or the newspaper. Inevitably, podcasts became a way to explore fresh ideas. Here are 3 of my favourite podcasts from 2019. Consider it a list of recommended sources for all things Christianity and/or politics in the year ahead. (You can read my list of the ten best podcast episodes of 2019 here).

John Dickson’s Undeceptions winsomely and honestly presents episodes in the history of Christianity with a view to exposing some hidden or under-appreciated contribution of the Christian faith to contemporary society.

2019 saw respected public Christian John Dickson launch the Undeceptions podcast. I have been a fan of Dickson ever since a good friend introduced me to his book on mission at a point where I was rather jaded about the subject. Dickson managed to salvage the activity of promoting Christ in a winsome and non-cringeworthy way, and I am deeply grateful to him for that.

I then came across the Australian based Centre for Public Christianity (or CPX) which Dickson helped to establish. I have valued greatly their clarity of conviction and generosity of spirit. If you haven’t seen their documentary, For the Love of God: How the Church is Better and Worse Than You Ever Imagined, stop what you are doing and check it out now.

John Dickson left CPX this year to take up a position at Ridley College, Melbourne and, among other things, has started the Undeceptions podcast. The goal of the podcast is to “explore some aspect of life, faith, history, culture, or ethics that is either much misunderstood or mostly forgotten. With the help of people who know what they’re talking about, we’ll be trying to ‘undeceive ourselves’, and let the truth ‘out’”.

You’ll be exposed to a variety of views from leading Christians in the academy, the church, politics, sport and the public sector. One of my favourite parts of each episode is the “5 minute Jesus” (I honestly wished these were longer!). This section of the podcast is like a mini-presentation of the Christian faith as it relates to the topic under discussion. John’s explanation of the Creed in Dominus Illuminatio is one I will frequently return to.

John Dickson’s is a voice of reason in a sceptical age. He has a way of getting to the heart of things by asking the difficult questions–is Christianity opposed to science? How did Christian morality compare to. the ethical systems of the day? Can we trust the Gospels? Is Jesus history? And what good is Christianity to politics, anyway? Have a listen and be prepared to be amazed at what you learn.

2. Confessions

Confessions, presented by Christian intellectual-priest Giles Fraser, explores the fascinating lives of the movers and shakers of Western cultural life, with a frequent dose of post-liberal insight.

Giles Fraser is one of the most provocative voices out there in contemporary British political commentary at the moment. Now part of the Unherd team which is taking the political commentary world by storm, Fraser is of course a household name due to his frequent and radical interventions on the issues of the day.

On paper, he and I should have very little in common (though much more than I once thought…more on that another time). His Twitter handle reads: “Post-liberal, Hard left Tory, Zionist. Leaving is the Plan”. I think it’s fair to say that Giles Fraser is not one for half measures.

He is also someone who reviews his positions with rigour and honesty. He isn’t afraid to say that he got it wrong before. And for that, I have tremendous respect. Take his stance on Jeremy Corbyn in the light of the anti-Semitism crisis in the Labour Party. Or his views on liberalism in the wake of a conversation with Larry Siedentop.

Fraser also represents a fascinating and compelling “bridge figure” in the great political re-alignment that is happening at the moment in Britain: a re-alignment that can broadly be described as left-wing economically and leaning right on certain issues of culture (notably Britain’s relationship to the European).

Back to the podcast. Confessions features Giles Fraser as the “Confessor” who explores the lives and ideas of leading cultural and political figures. In each episode, he “drills down into” a guest’s “core beliefs” and finds out “what makes them tick”.

Confessions bears a distinctively post-liberal outlook (think Blue Labour). Most of Fraser’s guests share a common disillusionment with either (or both) the divisive identity politics of the left (for instance, Melanie Philips) or/and the free-market, Thatcherite capitalism of the right (Jesse Norman and perhaps Roger Scruton are notable exceptions on this latter point, and it is a tribute to Fraser’s generosity that he manages to dig down to the some of the source of their respective differences of opinion).

While Fraser is the self-avowed Confessor, we frequently get a fascinating set of honest and insightful confessions from Fraser himself, and I think our lives are all the richer for them.

3. Triggernometry

Image result for triggernometry podcast
If you’re even remotely suspicious that the liberal left has lost its way, then Triggernometry is the podcast for you.

Comedy duo Francis Foster and Konstantin Kisin started the Trigger Pod out of the conviction that people are “bored of people arguing on the internet about subjects they know nothing about”. Resolved to meet this problem head on, Foster and Kisin opt not to “pretend be the experts”, but to ask the experts.

As you’d expect from a podcast that features “trigger” in its title, there is a strong flavour of critiquing the liberal left (particularly for its relentless focus on issues that divide human beings into various categories). The overly cynical attitude towards those on the left can honestly get a little wearing at times. But if you’re prepared to endure that, you’re sure to be frequently rewarded.

The strength of the podcast is its unflinching discussion of various sacred cows that exist at the moment. For example, their interview with Posie Parker, in which she asserted that trans women are not women, was rather infamously removed by Youtube on the grounds of inciting hate speech. Youtube subsequently reposted the video without providing any reason.

Credit also goes to the co-hosts for interviewing figures who act as bridges between the left and right (Matthew Goodwin, David Goodhart and others). These interviews lend the pod a constructive edge that those from across the political spectrum can learn from.

Kisin recently tweeted, “diversity of opinion is our strength”. The Trigger pod certainly lives up to this tagline. And for that reason, I think it deserves a place in your podcast library for 2020.

The Ten Best Podcast Episodes of 2019

Here is my list of the ten best podcast episodes from 2019. You can also read my list of the three podcasts you should listen to in 2020 here.

1. Triggernometry- Matthew Goodwin: Why Labour Lost the Election

This remains simply the best analysis of the General Election (as well as the last 15 years of British politics). Goodwin lectures on political science at the University of Kent and has made a career out of understanding populist movements in Europe. He pretty much predicted the re-alignment that we saw in this month’s election result back in 2014.

Goodwin is another of these bridge voices I mentioned above who understand that most Britons lean a little bit left on economics and a little bit right on issues of culture. His a voice that those on the liberal left ignore at their peril.

2. Confessions – Roger Scruton: Faith, Family and Finding Conservatism

Roger Scruton discusses his turn to conservatism after the riots in France in 1968, his views on family, Islam and faith. Ever found yourself asking, how the conservative impulse to…well, conserve, reconciles itself to capitalism, the greatest agent of change the modern world has seen? Thankfully Giles Fraser poses this question and the conversation that ensues is fascinating.

3. The Holy Political Pod- Jamie Smith’s lecture to Christians in Parliament

The Holy Political Pod posted infrequently in 2019, but their interviews were impactful and always peppered with good humour. I am cheating slightly here as this episode was actually from December 2018. But it was so good that I want to flag it up here.

In his lecture to CiP, James KA Smith provides his quintessentially compelling and realistic framework for the political life as Christians. Christians are called to avoid “living ahead of time”, steering clear of the utopias of the left and the right. He also speaks of the local church as the imagination station where we have our hearts shaped by the liturgical rhythms of the church calendar. Powerful stuff.

Smith has in many ways provided the underpinning for how I think about politics, as you’ll see from my introductory post here.

Incidentally, the Holy Political pod also featured insightful conversations with a panel of experts on religious persecution as well as a variety of interviews with public Christians in the UK. They appear to have taken a hiatus, but I hope they make a return in 2020.

4. The Sacred- Teresa Bejan

How can we improve the tone of our public conversations surrounding the controversial issues of our day? Listen to Elizabeth Oldfield’s The Sacred to find out.

In The Sacred, Elizabeth Oldfield models a way for us to improve the state of our public conversations through examining the sacred values that drive our lives.

As with the one above, this episode actually comes from 2018, though I have listened and re-listened to it in 2019. Moreover, because it so nicely overlaps with the aims of the Saeculum—where I seek to draw critically on the past as a rich resource for thinking through our common life in the present—I want to share it here.

In the episode, Teresa Bejan, historian at Oriel College, Oxford, provides us with a fascinating and extremely useful case-study (in the form of seventeenth century Puritan Roger Williams) for approaching contemporary debates around civility, religious freedom and dissent.

5. Triggernometry- Melissa Chen : US vs. China is the New Cold War

Melissa Chen explores the New Cold War that increasingly appears to be defining our age—the conflict between the Pax Americana and the Pax Sinaitica. Hong Kong and the NBA make an appearance in this enlightening interview. A clearer orientation to China and its relationship to the West you will struggle to find.

6. Onscript- John Behr on Origen and the Early Church (Part 1 and Part 2)

“My wife used to ask me, where would I put the different church fathers on a football team? Irenaeus would be in defence, Dionysius out on left field somewhere. But Origen was the schoolboy who picked up the ball and ran with it. He invented the game of rugby. He got kicked off the team but everybody played rugby thereafter”. Join John Behr on a journey to third century Alexandria where Origen re-defined the way we think about the Christian scriptures.

7. Undeceptions- Teresa Morgan: Moral Classics

How did Christian ethics compare with the ethics of Roman-era Greeks and Romans? Teresa Morgan, one of the world’s leading classicists, leads you on a fascinating tour of moral literature and charts Christianity’s place in the ethical universe of the ancient world. In doing so, we come to see Christianity’s contribution to the world as we now know it.

8. Uncommon Knowledge- Jimmy Lai and the Fight for Freedom in Hong Kong.

Jimmy Lai’s impassioned 3 minute speech at the beginning of his conversation with Peter Robinson is a bombshell (honestly, if you don’t listen to the rest of it, just listen to this, or read it here). China isn’t apologising off for asserting its values, Lai rightly contends. Nor should the West. This is a speech I’ll be pondering for a while yet.

9. GodpodEpisode 135

One of the podcasts I hope to listen to more of in 2020 is the GodPod. Cohosts Jane Williams, Graham Tomlin and Michael Lloyd entertain you with profound and frequently humorous discussions concerning the big topics facing the church and society. This episode provided me with some of the vocabulary I had been looking for to describe the problematic attitudes I had come across towards theology in the charismatic traditions of the Church of England (traditions I have been a part of and of which I am fond). The aim of their critique is not to accuse but to inform and equip.

10. Big Boy TV- Big Boy’s interview with Kanye West

I also want to mention, in closing, the Kanye West phenomenon which took off in 2019 (Katherine Ajibade’s take helps to orient us in our thinking about religion and pop culture). West launched Sunday Services and then released his new album, Jesus is King. In his interview with Big Boy, Kanye was in turns inspiring, frustrating and bizarre. The conversation covered his new album, in which he is as demonstrative has he has ever been about his Christian faith, as well as his relationship to African-American culture, wealth and Donald Trump.

West’s interview with Big Boy had me both nodding in agreement and not infrequently raising an eyebrow in bemusement.

For my money, the best discussion of Kanye’s new album still remains Nathan Mladin’s which is honest in its bewilderment whilst still remaining hopeful about the good that already has and might still yet come about through Kanye’s story.

Gifts, Then and Now

Reciprocal gift-giving, for all of its potential pitfalls, can build stronger relationships.  

Image from Stock Adobe

In his 2018 Ecumenical Christmas Letter, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, appropriately chose to address a practice that is virtually ubiquitous at Christmas time—gift-giving. Describing the celebration of Christmas, Welby writes that “a gift given with the expectation of something in return is not a gift”. In other words, the divine gift of Christ is non-reciprocal, or offered without the intention of the receiver giving something back. While Welby’s statement about non-reciprocal gift-giving might well describe the divine gift to humans, it is worth pausing to ask—does non-reciprocity set the tone for human gift-giving?

In his recent book on gift-giving in the ancient world, the Durham-based historian John Barclay makes the following provocative argument: “it is only in modern times and in Western culture that we have idealized the notion of the ‘pure gift’ without strings attached”. By contrast, the offering of gifts in antiquity was rarely separated from the set of human relationships in which giving took place. The giver offered “strings-attached” gifts in the firm hope of receiving something in return from the recipient. Yet the “strings” attached to the gift were not intended to manipulate the receiver; rather, they were the means of strengthening the relationship shared between the two parties. This important insight raises a significant and often-ignored question: if mutual gift-giving can strengthen relationships, then why would we not want to give reciprocally?

The answer, at one level, is fairly obvious. The abuses of reciprocity are well-documented, and Barclay is quick to point them out—these range from self-interested, manipulative gift-giving to bribery. Yet the failings of reciprocal gift-giving do not mean that we need to discard of the practice altogether. 

One of the most promising aspects of reciprocity is the fact that it has the potential to contribute to the common good. As both parties give of what they are and have, they are brought into closer relationship. Mutual giving, in contrast to the altruistic or one-way gift, affords the recipient honour and dignity through the opportunity to offer something in return. And this brings us to the heart of the reciprocal model of gift-giving, as described by Barclay: reciprocity assumes that both sides have something to offer. It therefore implicitly challenges modern, Western conceptions of “deprivation” that have defined “needs” almost exclusively in monetary terms. While money should, of course, contribute to the assessment of a person or community’s “wealth” or lack thereof, there are a range of ways in which one can be “rich” or “poor”—relational poverty, for instance, now affects 1 in 3 adults in Britain across the socio-economic spectrum. Barclay therefore encourages Westerners to consider an individual or community less from the perspective of the needs they have and more from the standpoint of the gifts they might offer. Viewed in this way, mutual gift-giving allows plenty to fill lack in both directions

None of this is to deny the large and important place that rightly belongs to non-reciprocal gift-giving—one thinks of humanitarian disasters or famine aid, for example. Yet it is also worth reflecting on why Western cultures have so often moved away from reciprocal models of giving. For all of its pitfalls, reciprocal gift-offering has the potential to enrich relationships for the common good. 

2019 General Election Results Review: The Big Picture and Four Take Aways

The party leaders for the 2019 General Election (Image Credit: Bloomberg)

The 2019 General Election has come and gone and my oh my was it a seismic one!

In the months leading up to the vote, most polls were steadily forecasting a Conservative Majority. But then a day or so before the vote, YouGov published its MPR poll showing that while a Conservative majority was likely, a hung parliament was within the margin of error.

The exit poll swiftly put paid to that. As the clock struck 10, an 80 seat majority was forecasted with Conservatives taking 364 seats.

Then the results came in, thick and fast, with traditional Labour seats one by one turning blue. It was staggering to watch. Labour heartlands in the north east England yielded Conservative seats, many for the first time in 50, 60 even 70 years…and some for the first time ever. An emotional Ian Levy, the new Conservative MP for the former mining community of Blythe Valley, scarcely seemed to believe that he had won as he delivered his victory speech.

By dawn the results were there for all to see: Conservatives with 365 seats, Labour with 203.

The scale of the victory is breath-taking. The largest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher in 1987. The worst Labour performance in terms of haul of seats since the Second World War (oustripping Michael Foot’s 209 seats in 1983). Lewis Baston has rightly referred to it as a landslide.

But what are we to make of all this?

Here are my four big take-aways from the 2019 UK General Election.

1. An End to the Parliamentary Gridlock

First of all, with a Conservative majority in the House of Commons we have an end to the deadlock that has plagued Brexit negotiations the past three and a half years.

Throughout the campaign, three words dominated the Conservative airwaves: “Get Brexit done”. A poll by Unherd suggests that these were the three words that won the election.

We asked a representative sample of 2,000 voters on the day of the election how they had voted and why. Of those who said they voted Conservative, 85% put ‘to get Brexit done’ in their top three reasons. That was also the choice of almost nine in 10 of the people who voted Conservative for the first time yesterday.

James Johnson, Unherd

To be sure, there remains a heck of a lot of work to be done for Boris Johnson and his MPs “to get Brexit done”.

But there is now light at the end of the tunnel after months, years even, of uncertainty. And Johnson appears to be wasting no time, holding a vote on the Withdrawal Agreement next week which will secure the UK’s exit on 31st January. That of course is only the beginning. We then have the transition period during which parliament will thrash out (or square the circle of?) a variety of complex post-Brexit issues, including most prominently, the Irish border and a trade agreement.

Crucially, though, with the mandate this election has brought, there is finally some much needed clarity about our fate vis-a-vis the EU.

2. Corbyn Defeated and the Hope of a Credible Leader of the Opposition

Perhaps the biggest story of the night was the Conservative gain of stronghold Labour seats, particularly in the Northeast of the country (as this graphic makes clear). Commentators spoke of a “red wall” falling in Bishop Auckland, Durham North West, Sedgefield (Tony Blair’s old seat) Darlington, Stockton South, and Redcar (which Johnson quipped had now become “Bluecar”).

As much as the promise of “getting Brexit done” seems to have worked to great effect for the Conservatives, the spectre of Jeremy Corbyn greatly aided for the Tory cause.

There was the ever-present scourge of deep anti-Semitism. Then the betrayal of Labour Leave voters with the promise of a Second Referendum.

The most revealing moment of the night came as Alan Johnson berated Jon Lansman, the head of Momentum (the Corbyn pressure group within Labour), for turning his back on the working class voters who voted Leave. It is a must watch.

The results in the Northeast raise the question: was this election more of a victory for the Conservatives or a loss Labour? A YouGov poll suggests that the general population perceives the result as more of a Labour loss (51%) than a Conservative victory (37%). It is a question that will continue to be asked and pondered in the months and years to come.

For my part, I hope that Labour think long and hard about who their next leader will be. Corbyn was simply toxic for vast swathes of the population and it is a wonder Labour stuck by him for so long. Moving forward, Britain will need a credible opposition to hold the government to account. This election has hastened that process.

3. The Union Looks in Doubt

While the reality of Brexit is now a certainty, big questions have been raised about the state of the Union. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted in nationalist parties in large numbers.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) swept Scotland, taking 48 of a possible 59 seats and claiming 45% of the share of the vote. In line with her party’s manifesto, Nicola Sturgeon has already called for an IndyRef2, severely testing the unionist credentials of the PM.

Across the Irish Sea, there were changes in Northern Ireland as nationalists made gains and unionists lost seats. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (moderate nationalists) earned two seats while the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) lost two of their own including, most notably, that of Nigel Dodds, their deputy leader. Talk of an Irish independence referendum looms, even as the status of Northern Ireland’s relationship to the UK in Brexit negotiations remains uncertain.

I will admit to the state of the Union being my greatest source of anxiety stemming from this election. A crucial year or two lies ahead.

4. The Great Realignment of British Politics

Perhaps most significantly of all, though, the results of this election signal a seismic shift in the way we map British politics. The Blue Dawn in the northeast shows this realignment in particularly clear terms. Kent-based political scientist Matthew Goodwin has neatly summed up this shift as being “left-wing economically” and “broadly conservative socially”.

Goodwin puts it this way:

This realignment-of-sorts will, in itself, raise important questions. How will Johnson, an instinctive social and economic liberal, appease and retain voters who instinctively lean a little Left on the economy and a little Right on culture? Reflected in our changing political geography is a new Conservative electorate that will be looking not only for a meaningful break from the European Union, a tougher stance on crime, reform of immigration and a general slowing of the pace of change but also a more interventionist or even protectionist economic regime. Boris Johnson might be about to inherit a Conservative electorate of whom 86% want to see immigration reduced and 40% rail renationalised.

Matthew Goodwin

In the eyes of many, Johnson appears to have squared this circle. His victory speech (bar the odd reference to anti-socialism) appeared conciliatory, magnanimous, even at points humble. He recognised that many would have voted for him for the first time. That many of them were Labour voters. Then, in his speech outside Downing Street, he spoke of the need to heal as a nation and his willingness to listen to those who felt an affinity to the EU.

So Johnson seems to tapping into something here. Here’s Goodwin again:

Johnson and his team are clearly aware of the dilemma. They already stand a little to the Left of where David Cameron and George Osborne were, revealing how it is the centre-right, and not the centre-left, that has a stronger grasp of where most voters instinctively are. Those who have spent recent months shrieking about Johnson’s desire to build a ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ — a libertarian settlement fixated with deregulation and financial services — are today struggling to make sense of a Conservative manifesto that advocates higher public spending, a higher minimum wage, more money for the National Health Service, more money for infrastructure, more redistribution, more action on regional inequality, state aid for failing businesses and a buy-British procurement policy.

If Goodwin is right, and we are seeing a shift that is “left-wing economically” and “right-wing socially”, then this has some significant implications. Perhaps most importantly of all, this election suggests that those that live in places that are (or would describe themselves as) “liberal left”—socially liberal and economically liberal, or free-market—need to wake up to the fact that they are at odds with the pervading ethos of the country.

Whether or not we agree with this trajectory, we first of all need to acknowledge its explanatory power and seek to understand it. Judging by my social media feed, and the number of conversations I have had today with people in Cambridge, I’m not sure that many people have woken up. In the anger and hurt, the results are hastily blamed on racism and xenophobia. The urgency of stepping back, asking questions, getting out of our bubbles has never been more pressing.

In the wake of the EU referendum, many of us have had to “wake up” to the prevailing sense of public opinion. I know I’ve had to wake up.

This doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with the public opinion; what it does mean is trying to understand it so as to better engage with it.

My own story is that this process has been one of transformation and richness.

As the dust settles, I am cautiously optimistic. There are big opportunities and dangers ahead. We will need all the critical powers, all the grace at our disposal to meet these head-on, together.

Book Review—Graham Tomlin, Looking Beyond Brexit: Bringing The Country Back Together (SPCK, 2019)

To move forward with Brexit as a nation, we need to recognise that both sides of the debate are right in what they affirm, Graham Tomlin suggests.

Graham Tomlin, Looking Beyond Brexit: Bringing The Country Back Together (SPCK, 2019).

In this 30 page treatise, Graham Tomlin (Bishop of Kensington) somehow manages to breathe fresh life into how I think about Brexit. He does so not by focussing on the Brexit debate itself as a set of complex political or economic issues. Rather, he looks at how we might begin to heal and move forward as a nation post-Brexit. For my money, three things make his short book worth reading.

  1. The Historical Parallels to the English Reformation

“‘Britain goes it alone’. It’s a headline that could have been written nearly 500 years ago”. Tomlin is speaking, of course, about the English Reformation.

English Christians in the sixteenth century vigorously and often violently debated whether the Church should break away from a different pan-European project—not the EU in Brussels, but the Catholic Church headquartered in Rome.

At the heart of the debate was the tussle between the local and the universal, the decision to create a national church or continue to identify with its centre in Rome.

The English Church, Tomlin explains, took the decision to exist independently of Rome. The Church of England was the result (though the journey to the Elizabethan settlement was by no means a smooth one). Crucially, this national church sought to balance the local and the universal. It did so through the parish system. Here, churches were both local and universal. They were local since they existed as relatively independent congregations tied to a geographical location. And they were universal (or at least national) by dint of sharing creeds and a common form of worship as well as allegiance to bishops and the Monarch. Tomlin emphasises that because congregations existed with relative autonomy, each parish was free to embrace either Protestant or Catholic styles of worship.

It is important to place this mixed form within the context of the Reformation, more generally. On the one hand, the radical reformers sought to establish completely independent parishes with no ties to other structures. These existed almost like independent communes. At the other extreme, the Catholic church existed as a universal project with power centred in Rome and decisions taken and dictated from that centre.

Enter the Church of England. In Tomlin’s words,

The emerging Church of England, tried to hold together the local and the national, the Protestant and the Catholic. There was no attempt to blend them, to make a composite of the two that would blur their identities, but rather a search for unity that would embrace both, allow space for each perspective and expression, and yet hold to a set of common values, hard though it might be…

I found the historical parallel between the English Reformation and Brexit extremely illuminating and helpful. So have others. Giles Fraser has commented lucidly on the English Reformation as a positive case for Brexit, here and here. Diarmaid MacCulloch takes the opposite view to Fraser, here, arguing that the Church of England was a part of the great internationalist religious movement of its day. Both authors are worth reading. They represent exemplary cases that engage critically with the past which they use as a resource for thinking about the present and future.

Tomlin belongs firmly within this group as well. What he offers is something slightly different to Fraser and McCullough, however. He’s not using history to argue for Leave or Remain (which I have no problem with, by the way, so long as it’s done well).

For Tomlin, the English Reformation, and the Elizabethan Settlement in particular, offers a way to think about how we might begin to heal, how we might come together to form a common life after the great decision has been made.

How convincing is Tomlin’s use of this historical example? I agree that the the Church of England was both a movement with strong continental ties (and so universal), while at the same time possessing a strong national identity*. The ties between Cranmer and Calvin (and indeed Edward VI and Calvin, who were pen pals) are well documented. What these links show is an independently functioning national church with an international flavour.

What does this mean for Brexit? For what it’s worth, I think it means that it is very possible for us to be independent of the structures of the EU whilst still sharing links (whether that be trade or security) with nations on the European continent. Just as with the English Reformation, so also with Brexit, it is possible to be independent of a large super-structure whilst at the same time being connected to other like-minded entities existing within that super-structure.

More important is Tomlin’s insightful point about pursuing a common life at a time of great national division. I think he is right in suggesting that the English Reformation offers one example of compromise in a messy world. It’s a realistic model, even if (or perhaps precisely because) it can be extremely difficult to achieve.

*On the point about national identity, and as a slight side note, I would have loved to hear more about English vernacular translations of the bible (Wyclif, Tyndale, Coverdale, Geneva Bible and so on) and how this reflected the desire to render the scriptures in the language of the man and woman in the field.

2. The Local and the Universal: What Both Sides Rightly Affirm

I’ve already touched on the local v universal issue but it’s worth a discussion in its own right. Tomlin incisively draws on David Goodhart’s useful heuristic of “somewheres” and “anywheres” (*Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics remains one of the most useful and convincing analyses of the Brexit referendum and the rise of Trump).

As Goodhart explains, anywheres live portable lives and possess “achieved” identities. They tend to pass school exams, attend residential universities before moving on to jobs in London or even overseas. Somewheres, meanwhile, belong to particular places and tend to have lived there most of their lives. They possess “ascribed” identities (identities given to them by the place and family in which they grow up). In very general terms, somewheres tended to vote Leave, with anywheres casting their ballots for Remain.

Here’s the crucial point: Tomlin argues that both anywheres and somewheres are right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny.

Somewheres stress rootedness in a place with distinct customs, sense of humour, culture, norms, commitments and stories that give that place meaning. As Tomlin explains,

Every society needs to value what makes it distinct. We are born to particular parents, into a specific family and neighbourhood at a certain time in history…we need a common sense of our underlying common bonds.

If a society loses its particular cultural memory, people begin to feel rootless and life can appear shallow.

At the same time, the emphasis on the local or the national can turn poisonous if this is all there is. A lack of cultural or political diversity can lead to the fossilisation of a particular nation or an overweening sense of national pride.

Meanwhile, we find the universal impulse channelling itself into the celebration of other cultures and their achievements and customs. This typically expresses itself in university education, connections with other parts of the world through foreign travel and networks of colleagues and friends. As with the local, so also can the universal impulse turn poisonous and erode a unified sense of identity as it crowds out the distinctive customs of a given place.

Where does this leave us? Tomlin reasons that,

Both are necessary. Every healthy society needs a careful balance of these two impulses. A loss of identity and rootedness leads to a fading of cultural memory, a lack of belonging and a diminishing sense of who we are as a nation…Yet what if we close ourselves off from other cultures, shut the door to neighbours (especially when they are in trouble), fail to play our part in wider conversations about the global future, and show reluctance to change? Such behaviour is dangerous…

Whether or not we like to admit it, and hard as it may to acknowledge due to the heat generated by the arguments of the last few years, both sides of the debate have a point.

And yet, as Tomlin goes on to note, in the referendum we were forced to make a choice between these two impulses. While one impulse might be dominant at any given time, Tomlin is right to note that this choice, insofar as it was permanent and irrevocable, was in many ways a false one.

3. Practicing Love…Even for Our Enemies

The Brexit referendum, Tomlin concludes, also involved “competing loves”. We can either love our nearest and dearest—those “like us”. Or, we can love and treat with dignity those unlike us.

The Christian tradition meets these competing loves head on. For Christians, to present these as competing loves is to offer yet another false choice. At the heart of the Christian tradition which infuses much of Western culture is Jesus’s command to “love your neighbour as yourself”:

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[a] and hate your enemy.’44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:43-47

Tomlin categorises the loves in this passage into four types:

1. Loving yourself: we are to assume responsibility for ourselves by making sure we obtain adequate food, sleep and maintain good health. But if this is all we aspire to, we are narcissists.

2. Loving the one like you: We are also called to lavish the same benefits we have enjoyed on those immediately around us (family and friends). But this comes naturally to us since we surround ourselves with those “like us”. Even the tax collectors do that, Jesus says.

3. Loving your neighbour: the neighbour is the one you come into contact with whom you do not necessarily choose and whom you do not necessarily love or have any reason to love.

4. Loving your enemy: Jesus goes beyond neighbourly love to include our enemies.

This is being capable of loving those who make life hard for you…Loving your enemy feels a stretch. It demands much of us to love the person who is after our job, or changing our neighbourhood or nation into something unrecognisable, or taking the opposite view from us on everything—including Brexit.

This is a hard saying! I think I would want to add (and I’m sure Tomlin would affirm this as well) that we can resist those seeking to change our neighbourhood into something we don’t recognise whilst still doing so lovingly and respectfully.

Indeed, Tomlin notes that these are not necessarily competing loves. That we do not need to choose between them. We can love those around us, those like us and that this ‘natural’ love should not be taken for selfishness (or racism), “but as the first stage in learning to love the stranger”. And yet, if we love only those like us, our love is deficient. At the same time, there are times when love for the immigrant or stranger can lead us to ignore the needs of those closest to home. This too, is a failure to love.

Tomlin’s short book ends with a plea for the future in the form of 5 things the nation needs to heal. I won’t end with these (buy the book!). Instead, I want to leave you with his important reminder that the Brexit divide is not simply a political or legal or economic challenge. Of course it is no less than these things. But at heart, it is a spiritual challenge which leaves us with lingering spiritual questions. How can we love our neighbour? How can we love even our enemy?

One final question which is perhaps the most important of all: Will we rise to this spiritual challenge?

Reading List—December 2019

Here’s a select sample of books I’m reading at the moment.

  1. James KA Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts (Brazos, 2019)
  2. Tom Holland, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (Little, Brown, 2019)
  3. Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity (Bloomsbury, 2019)
  4. Graham Tomlin, Looking Beyond Brexit: Bringing the Country Back Together (SPCK, 2019)
  5. Roger Scruton, Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously about the Planet (Atlantic, 2012)
  6. Roger Scruton, Conservatism: An Introduction to the Great Tradition (All Points, 2018)

No. 6 (Scruton’s Conservatism) appears because Conservatism is the first Western political philosophy I will be reviewing in my Western Political Philosophy 101 series.

On that note, I’m currently looking for recommendations for the other political philosophies I will be reviewing (Socialism, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Post-Liberalism). If you have any recommendations, please leave them below in a comment. Thank you.

Welcome to the Saeculum

Welcome to the Saeculum, a new blog that offers a refreshingly realistic take on Christianity and politics. I intend this post as a kind of orientation to the blog and an explanation of why I have decided to start it.

What is this blog about?

In very broad terms, I write about Christianity and politics. I look at how the Christian faith interacts with our common life in the twenty-first century (and more particularly, twenty-first Britain, where I live). I use the term common life since that is what politics (πολιτικά) at its root means—the affairs of a particular place (the πολις or city). I hope to show you that the Christian tradition, when engaged with critically, offers a rich resource for thinking through some of the knotty problems of our day. I also strive to probe the complex relationship between Christian identity and political commitments.

Why another blog about Christianity and politics?

Time is a valuable, finite resource! So why should you spend it reading my thoughts, especially when there are a number of other resources out there on the topic (more on these another time)?

There are four reasons why you should read my blog. Now, on their own, these four reasons might not amount to much. However, when taken cumulatively, I think they amount to a convincing case. So, without further ado, here are four reasons why you should read my blog:

  1. You’ll get an historical perspective on Christianity and politics. My aim is to engage critically with the history of Christian thought and action. Why does this matter? For starters, perspectives from the past (whether from the first century or the last) can break through the argumentative deadlocks we get ourselves into. These deadlocks often result from our preoccupation with the present. An historical perspective can realise that we do not hold all the answers. That the past can offer some way forward. We also find ourselves at an impasse because of the nature of our conversations, frequently held online and on social media. These discussions can often feel like the battle of assertions or preferences (“I believe this…” “well, I believe the opposite”). The undergirding assumptions for those preferences often receive little, if any, discussion. An historical perspective can expose us to some of the different ways that people have approached issues. As a result, we can firm up our own way of thinking about a particular matter without recourse to mere preference.
  2. You’ll get an informed perspective. I completed a doctorate in the history of early Christianity at the University of Edinburgh. I have worked as a researcher in politics and Christianity, both in higher education and at Theos, a Christian think tank. So I hope to let that use that training and thinking in the blog posts I produce. In addition to this background, I am naturally inquisitive. When I don’t know the answer to something, I’ll do my research to arrive at conclusions.
  3. You’ll get an honest perspective. I am not funded by anyone and so have editorial independence both in terms of the questions I ask and the conclusions I reach.
  4. You’ll get an engaged perspective. I will engage with your comments and thoughts with the goal of stirring up debate and mutual learning.

What do you mean by a “refreshingly realistic” take on Christianity and politics?

Thanks for reading the tagline! Let me explain. In this blog, I will try (and the emphasis is on the word try) to look at our political life realistically. When I use the term “realistic”, I mean looking at our common life with appropriate perspective.

Because, you see, we easily lose perspective. And we do so in one of two ways. First, we ride the wave of overweening and utopian optimism, investing all our hopes and expectations in a political leader, placing all our eggs in the basket of a particular manifesto. Til’, that is, the wave crashes down around us as the leader we followed with great expectation fails to bring about the revolution we had hoped for and the manifesto we poured our lives into fails to make the impact it had promised to.

Alternatively, we might look askance at our political world with a mixture of wry cynicism and hopeless despair. On this view, the world is heading to hell in a hand basket. What’s the use in getting involved?

Pessimism and optimism look, at face value, like stark opposites. In fact, they’re a lot closer than they first appear. We all find it quite easy to flit between optimism and pessimism. Consider the familiar scenario. A certain figure comes along. All appears lost. If only the leader of our choice would ascend to power, all would be well. Said leader comes along, fails to make an impact and we’re back at Pessimism Central.

So…if we’ve lost perspective on our political life, how might we go about re-gaining it?

There are, of course, many ways of answering this question. The way I want to approach it, however, involves asking two more. In asking, and hopefully answering these questions, we can begin to chart a yet more excellent way between the extremes of political pessimism and optimism.

These two questions are:

  1. Who are we?
  2. What time is it?

When I say “appropriate perspective”, I am referring to our perspective on these two questions—first, who are we as humans (the anthropological question)? And second, what time is it (the eschatological question)? I think the Christian tradition holds out rich and compelling answers to both of these questions which can offer absolutely vital anchoring points as we approach political life. A bold claim I realise, but hear me out! For more, check out John Dickson’s wonderful explanation of the Creed (between 17:53-25:13 in the link attached).

Who are we?

I am convinced that a robust answer to that first question (who are we?), must include awareness of (1) our createdness by God and (2) our brokenness as human beings.

Createdness. Central to the Christian story is the creation of the universe by a good God. Creation is the great gift of a good Father to his children. In Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures inherited by Christians, the writers observe that God creates the human person “in his image”. The implications of this statement are massive and too immense for exploration here. But to be created in the image of God means to be endowed with dignity. Each person is of equally immeasurable value because they reflect To be created in the image of God also means that women and men are ambassadors of God in the world, bearing some of the creative power of the Creator. It also means that we are free to offend that Creator…

Brokenness. As the Genesis story continues, we come to the heart wrenching moment where human beings continue to enjoy the gifts of the Creator, while turning away from the giver of those gifts. In the Christian tradition, the word for this brokenness is “sin”. I realise that’s not a terribly fashionable word nowadays. But what the root of this word in the Greek (ἁμαρτία; hamartia) should conjure up in our imaginations is the vivid image of the archer missing the intended mark ahead of him. That there is a mark or target reminds us that we have a purpose as human beings—to be God’s image bearers. What this look at the etymology of the word sin also says is that sin isn’t just the sense that we have committed infractions…although it does include that, of course. More fundamentally, it gets at the uncomfortable fact that the moral arc of our lives is bent out of shape. Or, as the Prayer Book puts it, “there is no health in us”.

So what?

Lest you think I am being a misery guts, let me explain why this is important. A robust understanding of the createdness of each individual entails that we treat others with the dignity and respect God has endowed them with…particularly those we disagree with. A robust understanding of our fallenness entails an appropriate humility towards our own political action and thought.

What time is it?

The Christian tradition also has something to say to the question, What moment are we living in? The Christian story that is enacted throughout the Sundays of the year and told through the Scriptures reminds us that we live between the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and his second coming (I write this, appropriately, during the Season of Advent, when Christians recall the first coming of Christ and await his second coming as ruler of the cosmos). The Kingdom of God has emerged in the ministry of Jesus, but it has not reached its fulfilment; it has been inaugurated but not fully consummated. We are, in short, living in an in-between period. What kind of posture should this instil in us as we think and act politically?

So what?

The Canadian philosopher James KA Smith puts this beautifully in his lecture to Christians in Parliament, when he claims that Christian hope, rightly conceived, means “not living ahead of time”. Not living ahead of time. To refuse to live ahead of time means to reject all forms of utopianism and dystopianism. To not live ahead of time is to reject the despair that we can do nothing and the overweening optimism that our efforts will save the world. This doesn’t mean that we fritter away our time in passive quietism. And neither does it mean that we launch ourselves into a frenzy of activity that assumes we are moving towards an ever brighter horizon. Rather, realism—or more accurately, Christian realism—as Smith describes it, is “bold but circumspect, tempered but hopeful”.

So, in sum, to be realistic about what we can achieve in our common life is to be aware of who we are (fallen image-bearers) and what time we are living in (the in-between period).

Why the Saeculum?

This brings us to the title of this blog. The Saeculum. Another word for this “in-between period” which we have just been talking about is…you guessed it, the saeculum. The saeculum is the time we are living in right now. The great Christian theologian St Augustine (354-430 AD/CE) used the term saeculum to refer to the period between the fall and the Second Coming.

In reflecting on Augustine’s notion of the saeculum, the great scholar of Augustine Robert A. Markus puts it this way:

The saeculum for Augustine was the sphere of temporal realities in which the two ‘cities’ share an interest. In Augustine’s language, the saeculum is the whole stretch of time in which the two cities are ‘inextricably intertwined’; it is the sphere of human living, history, society and its institutions…

A quick word on the two cities here. In his magisterial work The City of God, explains that there are two cities—the city of God and the city of Man. The difference between the two isn’t merely drawn along the lines of a spiritual-material division with the city of man referring to an earthly and the city of God to a heavenly plane. Rather, the two cities denote two loves, two libidos: the city of man is driven by the love of self, of power and domination (Libido Dominandi), the city of God, by love for God and love of neighbour (City of God 14.28)

Augustine talks about the saeculum being the temporal reality in which these two cities share an interest. What does he mean? To tease out the implications, here is Markus again:

The citizen of the heavenly city was no more a stranger to the saeculum than was the citizen of the earthly city, for here and now the two cities between them are, quite simply, what the saeculum is. It is neither a third thing somewhere between, nor is it, except eschatologically, resolvable into its two constituents. For the citizen of the heavenly city, concern for the saeculum is the temporal dimension of his concern for the eternal city.

In other words, we all inhabit this time, this age, this saeculum. The saeculum is no “third thing”, separate from the City of God or the City of Man. In the saeculum, we all rub shoulders with one another

The saeculum is also the word from which we get the term “secular”. To be secular in the contemporary Western world is to have no connection to religion or spirituality. But in an interesting twist on things, Markus goes on to argue that Augustine is responsible for secularising the church. By this, Markus emphatically does not mean that Augustine made the church more atheistic. Rather, Augustine “secularises” the church by seeking to engage those aspects of creation that fall appropriately within the remit of both the Heavenly and Earthly cities. Augustine has in mind a church that refuses to retreat into an ecclesial enclave while at the same always remembering its ultimate allegiance to God.

On this reading, Augustine’s concept of the saeculum offers a realistic model for thinking about Christianity and politics.

I’m interested. Can you tell me more?

Sure. You can read more about the purpose of the blog, and more about me, here.

What can I expect?

I hope to publish postings roughly once a week.

Here’s a very brief sneak preview of what’s around the corner:

  1. A World of Nation States or A World of Empires? In this series of blogs, I will explore the return of the nation state in recent political philosophy and pose some questions about the role of empires in contemporary British and international politics. I even hope to sneak in a bit of reflection on the political context of Jesus and the first century church!
  2. Western Political Philosophy 101: Under the book reviews tab, I will review the great Western political philosophies (conservatism, liberalism, libertarianism, socialism, post-liberalism) with my own take on each. This is a longer term project which I am excited about developing. I’d like through time to move this series from the written to the spoken word. My hope here is to host at some point a series of conversations with Christians who subscribe to each of these schools of thought. I would love to drill down into why Christians adhere to certain political positions and how they relate this to their Christian faith.
  3. Oikaphilia and Exile (Exploring Identity on Earth and Citizenship in Heaven): I have some ideas brewing on the themes of local identity. In this post, I will investigate the theme of rootedness and love of a particular place and how these relate to (1) a global church and globalised world and (2) the Christian notion of citizenship in heaven.

These are just three ideas in the pipeline, to let you know what’s coming up. No doubt other unplanned reflections will appear.

So, thank you for reading.

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