Pitching a Tent: Practical Resources for Navigating A Tribal Age (Introducing the Series)

By faith Abraham dwelt in the promised land as a stranger in a foreign country. He lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob” – The Epistle to the Hebrews 11:9

This post introduces a four-part series on Christianity and tribalism.

Confessions of a Tribalist 

I want to start this blog post with a confession. In recent weeks, I have to admit that I have been left reeling as our news cycle in the UK has moved from one major societal upheaval after another. 

I remember the distinct sense of national unity that followed the news of lockdown. Culture wars seemed for a brief moment to pause as we took stock of an enemy that, at least at face value, cared little about differences. In its face, we were all human beings. 

As we all know, that sense of unity didn’t last long. (And, to be fair, some of that unquestioned “unity” needed to be challenged, as I wrote about here). 

There was Cummings-gate, the Black Lives Matter protests and counter-protests. As many remarked, the world seemed to be on fire in June 2020. 

In all of this, what struck me the most was not the time and effort I was spending in forming opinions on the big topics of the day. Rather, it was that these events came to be invested with rich meaning. As I read and had conversations with others, the positions I took, and didn’t take, came to define me. Whereas I thought I was informing myself on complex and hot-button issues, what was actually happening was that I was being formed by them—or more accurately, I was being formed by the positions I took on those issues. 

And I’ve been wondering why that is…

At one level, I’m sure that part of it is down to being confined to home with (seemingly) little to do. Boredom, in other words. But I think there’s a deeper explanation for the profound and formational impact that these stances were having on me, than sheer ennui. 

Meaning, Belonging and Tribal Identity

I do think there’s something deeper going on, something to do with identity, with who we are as human beings. More broadly, the last 6-7 years or so has revealed a deep crisis of identity in the West. With the issue of Brexit, for instance, we were forced to ask deep questions about who we are as individuals and as a society, and questions about where we find meaning. 

We came face to face with the basic fact that we find meaning and belonging in group identity—what some refer to as the tribe. Now, the word tribe has serious baggage for many of us. Much of this is down to the many obvious examples where groups have behaved badly—which is another way of saying “tribally”. By tribalism or acting tribally, I refer to occasions where we might offer unconditional, uncritical and at times unthinking, support to individuals or programmes whilst rejecting (any dialogue with) those who might think differently to us. 

And yet…if we take the tribe to simply mean a group larger than ourselves, then in this particular sense, the human person is inescapably tribal. I use the word tribe in this very particular way. Tribes are groups organised around place, cause or creed.

I distinguish the tribe from “tribalism” or tribalistic behaviour. Tribalism is, to be sure, a perennial part of the human experience. But as we will see, recent data shows that tribalism in the UK has recently taken on some distinct characteristics. These include:

1) The Tribe as Cult: Frequently, tribes exist as online, virtual communities which engage in name calling or in which dissent from the party line can result in expulsion and harassment. Perhaps more anecdotally, what this suggests is a greater willingness than ever for late-moderns to put all the eggs of meaning and identity in the basket of the tribe. Some might dispute whether the cultic and religious nature of tribal identity is distinctive to our age, but I hope to show in later posts that it is, and that it has something to do with the loss of common narratives provided, most obviously, by the nation-state and faith.

2) Affective Polarisation: KCL’s Divided Britain report from just after the 2016 EU referendum helpfully identifies one of the main characteristics of division as “affective polarisation”—the increasingly intense dislike of the “opposing side” even where substantive agreement exists on particular issues.

3) Common Enemy Identity Politics: this characteristic sees a tribe use group identity not to bring people together (as with “common humanity” identity politics in which we might say, “we are all British”). Rather, with common enemy identity politics, the tribe uses its tribal identity to pull people apart along certain identity markers. As Jonathan Haidt writes, in this mode “[p]eople see everything as a zero-sum game and you’re fighting for slices of a fixed pie”.

On each of these points, the situation seems to be getting more and more pronounced by the day. 

Staying Above the Fray: The Purpose of this Series

Why is this? And how should we respond? 

In taking an issue-centred approach to tribalism, commentators frequently have failed to address these questions. Discussing issues has its place, of course, and allows one to form an opinion and stay informed. I have read a number of very good arguments on the Remain and Leave side in the Brexit debate or responses to the national governments’ approaches to the pandemic, or to the issue of race in the West. But what I have seen less of, is an attempt to move beyond the issues themselves, to hover above the fray of discussion and consider some of the deeper questions, questions to do with how we form these identities (increasingly in online communities), why we invest so much—too much—meaning in the tribes we join and how we might model a healthy group identity.

Consider this mini-series, then, as an attempt to stay above the fray and probe some of these deeper questions to do with tribalism. The big question I want to address is both a meta-level one as well as one that is deeply practical. It can be put simply as follows: how can the late modern individual, and particularly the Christian, navigate the tribalism of the current moment? At one level, this a higher-level question. It has less to do with particular issues—Brexit, say—or drawing on information to take a particular stance. Rather, it has more to do with our attitudes, habits and postures—how we form our identities and are, as often as not, formed by the groups around us. At another level, it is a highly practical question. To ask how we can navigate tribes is to ask: How do I treat the person at work or in my church or religious community (or, dare I say it, my friend group!) who disagrees with me? When it comes to habits and practices, do I turn to Twitter, or some other online community (or tribe), first thing in the morning or as I drift off to sleep at night? What am I doing as I engage in these patterns of behaviour and what are they doing to me? These imminently practical, even quotidian, questions force you and I to re-consider how we treat others and to examine the practices we adopt as we live and operate in groups bigger than ourselves. How can the “I” live in healthy relation to the “we”? This is where the rubber hits the road.

Pitching a Tent: The Argument of this Series

In this spirit, I will be posting a series of 4 thought-pieces on tribalism over the next couple of weeks. My goal is to offer a set of resources from the Christian tradition which I believe might help us—whether you are Christian or not—to understand tribes and tribalism more deeply and provide constructive ways forward for thinking through the pitfalls and opportunities that belonging to a tribe presents. 

A bit about my own approach. I come to this question as a Christian and as a historian of early Christianity. Therefore, I am deeply interested in reading the Christian scriptures and letting them read our own cultural moment. I am convinced that the Christian tradition, understood and applied wisely, offers rich resources for understanding and navigating our tribal age. What follows, then, will involve the close reading of early Christian texts and engaging with the insights of Christian thinkers, past and present. I also draw heavily on the work of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has probably done more than anyone else in the Anglophone world to understand and diagnose the tribalism of contemporary Western societies. 

My aim is broadly twofold: 

1. I wish to rehabilitate the concept of the tribe as a site of meaning and belonging which each of us inhabits 

even as 

2. I move against tribalism—the inclinations, practices and habits we adopt through which we seek a kind of salvation in something bigger than ourselves and erect walls of hostility that barricade us from those different from ourselves. 

I also want to offer something constructive to the conversation.

My main contribution, I think, is to suggest that the controlling metaphor for thinking about tribalism should be that of pitching a tent. One of the ways I have begun to think about the tribe is as a tent—or perhaps as individual members of a tribe with their own individual tents, living side by side. A tent is not a permanent home but the dwelling of a sojourner who makes his home here while awaiting her final destination. To pitch one’s tent in a tribe, then, means to both inhabit the tribe while also anchoring one’s identity, hopes and desires Somewhere Other (or, more accurately, in Someone Other) than the tribe. The epigraph, taken from chapter 11 of the Epistle to the Hebrews captures this perfectly: “By faith Abraham dwelt in the promised land as a stranger in a foreign country. He lived in tents”. 

In part 3 of this series, I will provide a close reading of this text. But for now, what should be noted is that like Abraham, the tent-pitcher grounds her tent pegs firmly within the tribe. It is not that tent-pitchers are uncommitted to the group or cause (though the shape of that commitment, as we will see, will look different). No, they remain deeply committed to the issue or cause around which the group organises itself. At the same time, though, tent-pitchers recognises that the tribe is not their final destination—their hearts are anchored and rooted in God. The eggs of meaning are not all placed in the basket of the tribe. 

From this position of radical security, the tent-pitcher is free to adopt a posture of cautious commitment towards the tribes and groups he finds himself in. The logic of the posture of “pitching a tent” is found in its call to sit lightly, though firmly, to our convictions. We earnestly commit ourselves to the ideals and people with whom we share a common cause, while holding loosely to them, and not basing our identity or pinning our hopes and dreams upon them. From this place of security—with our identity’s firmly rooted in Another—we can meet the differences around us with a greater sense of perspective. We approach the tribe not as a group that will fulfil all of our hopes and dreams. That attitude, I will suggest, soon sees us trading the tent for a fortress. 

Another way to bring this metaphor home is to ask ourselves a question. I spoke above about a crisis of identity in the West. By crisis, I am not primarily referring to a disastrous situation but to the other sense of the word—a crisis as a decision-point or crossroads. This sense of the word evokes the image of a fork in the road at which we must decide on our direction of travel. When we apply this insight to how we navigate the tribalism around and within us, two options are put before us: we can either choose to pitch our tents in a tribe, or build a fortress around our tribal allegiances. The tent-pitcher is grounded in the marriage of loving conviction and firm compassion precisely because her identity is not her own but has been inhabited by Christ. By contrast, the fortress-builder, in seeking salvation in the tribe, soon begins to police its borders, shore up what Grant Mackasill calls “symbolic or social capital”, shun those who think differently and and cast out those who do not conform. So, then, when it comes to tribes, are we those who pitch a tent or build a fortress? 

Before I go on, I should clarify what I am not saying. I am not arguing that we should care less about the issues that matter to us. My point, rather, is precisely about how we care about these issues and the positions we come to. Our caring is, or at the very least should be, qualitatively different.

Of course, Christians have not always lived up to this vision and it would be dishonest to deny this fact. At times, the tribalism of followers of Christ has had an incredibly damaging impact on those around them. Acknowledging this fact isn’t an exercise in self-hate, but is to be honest and humble about our failings so that we can move forward. On other occasions, though, Christians have held to their convictions not only at great personal cost but also in a way that has brought significant and positive change to those around them (I think here of the work of Desmond Tutu in fostering a ministry of reconciliation in war-torn, apartheid South Africa). I believe that we can honestly face the ugly episodes in our past—warts and all—whilst still pursuing the beautiful vision found in the Christian tradition. It is a vision which, as the author of Revelation writes, culminates with people from every nation, language and yes, tribe—here, referring to ethnic groupings but which might even extend to the political, social and cultural tribes I am addressing in this series—find their true home in God and are reconciled, one to another.

***

This post serves to introduce the series by providing you with a brief taster of the four pieces that will follow. Each post clusters around a single point, with each hopefully unfolding the central argument and building on the next. Together, they map on to what some would see as the dramatic framework of the Christian scriptures, moving from creation and fall to redemption and new creation.

1. Homo Tribuus: To Be Human is to Belong to Tribes

At heart, man yearns to belong. The heart seeks to make a home in a larger group that organises and mobilises itself around a common cause—whether political, social, cultural or religious. Each one of us affiliates with a particular community or communities that give us meaning and draw us into something bigger than ourselves. The question, then, is not whether or not we belong to a tribe. We simply do. In this very particular sense, the human person is an inescapably tribal creature. In this post, I look at how, in fractured and isolated Western societies we can look to rehabilitate tribes as places of meaning and common cause.

2. Things Fall Apart: Examining Tribalism with St Paul of Tarsus and Jonathan Haidt 

And yet, things have fallen apart. In the West, we have given ourselves over to a party-spiritedness that is fracturing families, friendships and communities. We are increasingly relating to one another in deeply unhealthy and destructive ways. The patient is critical, and the diagnosis does not look promising. Symptoms include “cancelling” those with whom we disagree, patterns of group-think, ad hominem arguments that focus on labels rather than ideas (and to the extent that we focus on the person, it is the person as a highly dehumanised label). Our tribal impulses have spun out of control, causing us to live in an increasingly fractured state of existence. Factionalism, though, is nothing new. I engage with one early Christian text—Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian churches—which helps to insightfully highlight some of the contours and causes of tribalism. I bring this together with the work of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt to sketch a profile of tribalism that lays the groundwork for moving forward with constructive solutions. 

3. Pitching a Tent or Building a Fortress?: How the Christian Tradition Re-Shapes the Goals and Methods of The Tribe 

There is hope. I want to suggest that the concept of tribes can be redeemed. But to do so, we must profoundly re-think precisely how we approach our tribal allegiances. I suggest that we might want to consider the scriptural image of “pitching a tent”. At heart, to pitch one’s tent in the world means that one’s hopes and desires are ultimately anchored—we might say that they find a permanent abode—in God. From this position of radical security, one is free to adopt a posture of cautious commitment towards the tribes and groups one finds oneself in. The logic of this posture is found in its call to sit lightly, though firmly, to our convictions. We earnestly commit ourselves to the ideals and people with whom we share a common cause, while holding loosely to them, and not basing our identity or pinning our hopes and dreams upon them. From this place of security—with our identity’s are firmly rooted in Another—we can meet the differences around us with a greater sense of perspective. The result of this posture is that the goal of our tribal activities is transformed—we no longer focus purely on winning, but rather on persuading and growing through exchange. The methods we employ, as a result, are no longer coercive or manipulative, but focus on seeking what is good, beautiful and true.

4. Moral Resources for an Ethical Problem: Habits, Postures and Attitudes for Tent-Pitchers 

Our tribalism is at root a moral problem for which we need moral solutions. The problem of tribalism is not a cognitive one—”why do others think differently than I do?” Diversity of opinion is simply a given. Rather the problem is, at root, a moral one: “how do I treat those who think differently to me”. That is, the antidote to tribalism does not simply revolve around the exchange of ideas or opinions. Rather, it must more fundamentally take stock of the human person and the relational context of belonging. For too long, the human person has either been removed from the equation or become the subject of intense attack. In fact, these are two sides of the same coin since the (often faceless) avatars of social media might lead us to more tempted to engage in personal attack. This is a moral problem and therefore we need moral solutions. I complete this series with a number of practical suggestions that focus on ethical resources—habits, postures and attitudes—that might help us begin to navigate what is, at heart, a moral problem. 

Image Credit: https://www.artranked.com/topic/Tent#&gid=1&pid=7

Reformed Protestantism and The Origins of the Progressive Left

Over on his Youtube page, Nathan Hood has posted an extremely erudite discussion about reformed Protestantism and the origins of the modern left.

Nathan confronts the argument that it is Calvin and the Puritans that lie behind contemporary left wing politics, and particularly the form of progressive left-wing identity politics that exists in the West today. Nathan is careful to define his terms, making clear from the outset that he is dealing primarily, though not exclusively, with the “progressive left” (think Jeremy Corbyn), which focusses on certain dogmas around gender, sexuality and race and promotes an identity that is “multicultural, inclusive, politically correct, social justice-oriented, eco-friendly, and so on”. Nathan dialogues carefully with one proponent of “the Left as heir to Calvinism” view—the blogger Mencius Moldbug—though one need not look far to find the Crypto-Calvinist argument (“the left is puritanical”) in a wide variety of sources.

Against the claim that it is Calvinism that lies behind the progressive Left, Nathan argues that we can find its origins more precisely in those who, in fact, reacted against Calvin and his reformed successors: the seventeenth century Anglican sect known as the Latitudinarians. Known beyond their own lifetime as “broad church” Christians, the Latitudinarians argued that doctrine was inherently divisive and that the Christian should instead focus on right living. Crucially, Latitudinarians determined the principles of a moral life through reason, aided by the Spirit. Nathan does a good job of contrasting the vastly different theological presuppositions of the Latitudinarians and Puritans. For the latter, scripture was the ground of their doctrinal convictions and moral life and indeed their religious experiences of the Spirit. By contrast, the Latitudinarians believed that ethical principles could be derived from abstract reasoning and so merited universal application. Nathan suggests that there are a plurality of “lefts” in contemporary politics that might trace their lineage back to various kinds of modern Reformed Protestantism. But he suggests that it is not so much Calvin as the liberal Protestantism of the Latitudinarians that influenced Rousseau and therefore more naturally act as the grandfather of the kind of progressive politics that has erupted in recent years in the Anglophone West, and elsewhere.

If I have understood Nathan correctly here, then I would want to follow him in looking more closely at the origin points of different forms of left-wing politics. Here, I would want to query whether or not this specific form of progressive left-wing politics can claim the Latitudinarians as their forebears. I greatly appreciate Nathan’s insistence that there are different strands of modern Protestant Christianity that fed into the various forms of left-wing politics we see today. But on this point, I wonder if the progressive left-wing politics he describes at the beginning entirely fits the bill here. The Latitudinarian emphasis on human reason and the application of universal ethical injunctions sounds to me a lot more like the “liberal left” or “centre left” of, for instance, Tony Blair. Blairite policy was often grounded in universal principles which could ostensibly be applied anywhere. The invasion of Iraq was undergirded by the conviction that the Iraqi people would embrace democracy, the most ethical form of government in existence. This attitude seems to run completely counter to progressives who would completely resist Blair’s universalist idea on the basis that a country like Iraq should be free from Western (read “white imperial”) influence.

So where might we find the origins of the progressive left? I agree with Nathan that Calvin and the Puritans don’t entirely match up here, though one does witness in the progressive left the influence of distributivism found in Calvin’s Geneva or the doctrines of original sin (I frequently come across the suggestion that progressive politics majors on original sin without divine grace or forgiveness…and I find this extremely compelling as a hypothesis). But for my money, the progressive left, rightly or wrongly, seems to me to be guided by certain dogmas that are neither purely based on pure reason (as per the Latitudinarians) or a kind of external body of tradition like scripture (as per Puritans and Calvinists) but to a greater extent based on strongly-held internal feelings which come to form unassailable dogma. Of course, this isn’t the whole picture and it would be unfair to suggest it was. The emphasis on personal experience seems to me to be married with other quasi-religious elements such as a realised eschatology (“the long awaited kingdom has come now”) as well a strong emphasis on activism. On each of these points, I wonder if Nathan might be on to something when he makes mention of Quakerism or, we might add, Methodism and even forms of Pentecostalism. Each of these groups, in its own way, places huge stock in personal experience, an active faith and, at points, might implicitly espouse a realised eschatology. Particularly with personal experiences, it is important to note that these might exist independently from scripture or other anchoring forces and hold authority in their own right. This sounds a lot closer to the underlying presuppositions of progressive politics on the controversial issues of the day.

None of this is meant to misrepresent let alone smear particular groups. Rather, what I offer here is simply offered as a way of understanding what makes us tick. More positively, the exercise of tracing the lineage of ideas and their intellectual history has important social effects. Robust intellectual history, believe it or not, can help us build bridges across difference, or at least breed more understanding of how we approach particular matters. In other words, it can help us develop greater social empathy. If I can understand that my neighbour prioritises personal experience when approaching a hot-button issue, I can take efforts to not speak past them, while also explaining that my own reading of the situation prioritises a different way of knowing. At the very least the source of our disagreements will become clearer and, if there is sufficient maturity, we might be able to learn from one another.

Understanding the origins of various contemporary political ideas or movements is more than just a passing fancy, then. To live in the present is to breathe in the air of previous ages. Yet precisely because that air is invisible to our eyes, most of us live unawares of the heritage of the past. To be aware that the air that we breathe is inherited is to be in a position to critically adopt what is good and question and reject what is bad.

As someone who is passionate about discussing contemporary culture and politics in conversation with the history of Christianity, Nathan’s post provided much food for thought. We are in great need of more historically nuanced discussions like this one, that help to show us where we are and how we got there. I look forward to more of these kinds of discussions in the near future!

Once Again on the Location of Worship: The Persecuted Church and Domestic Space

Kings College Chapel (photo: author)

It’s been over a month since I’ve kept my Covid diary. The long weekend has afforded me a bit more time to write and reflect. Part of my thinking has revolved once again around the whole “location” controversy in the Church of England.

In my piece on worship location as adiaphoron (where I argued that the matter is ultimately non-essential), there were a couple of points that I didn’t get to discuss that I’d like to touch on briefly now.

On the term adiaphoron itself, I realise that this argument works from my perspective. I want to worship together, and yes in a church building, but the church building does not take pre-eminence at the moment. To refer to the location of worship as non-essential clearly fits with a more Reformed perspective. While I prefer to eschew labels in favour of substantive dialogue, they are useful heuristic tools. Laying my cards on the table, I would consider myself a liturgical reformed Anglican, which is probably massively redundant as the Reformed tradition within Anglicanism was liturgical to its core…In any case, I recognise that the term adiaphoron does not really work for Anglo-Catholic friends, for whom the location of worship isn’t an optional luxury or choice since the church building is a consecrated space in which the priest acts as representative of the people. So adiaphoron isn’t perhaps the best argument for bridge-building, I admit, even if it is true to my more Reformed convictions. (I suppose this would be a good point for me to outline my own ecclesiology but, perhaps cheekily, I’ll save that for another blog).

I also would like to have discussed the role of church buildings, sacred and domestic space and the persecuted church a bit more.

In terms of church buildings, I focussed on the role of aesthetics, but really I should have acknowledged the variety of roles a church building plays. As I found in my research whilst a research associate at Theos, a church building is often the hub of the community, functioning through a cafe or food bank or classroom as a rich source of social capital. Moreover, as noted above, the church building is also, in certain traditions, seen as holy space where worshippers connect with the throng of heaven throughout space and time.

As I outlined in my piece, I worship in just a such context currently and hugely appreciate this emphasis on sacred space and the historical rootedness and capaciousness of the Christian tradition. But while we’re talking about the communion of saints and the church catholic, what of those sisters and brothers who cannot worship in church buildings for fear of humiliation, persecution or death? OpenDoors has recorded many such cases, including this one from North India.

Closer to home, Stephen Holmes has provided a timely Baptist intervention, noting that Baptists in the seventeenth (and sometimes up until the nineteenth) century in England faced horrific persecution from Anglican clergy and bishops for non-conformism. As Holmes writes, Baptists frequently employed kitchen tables as eucharists and hidden pools for baptisms. The domestic setting for worship is part of the warp and weft of the ecclesial history of these isles and we would do well to consider this fact before denigrating “retreats to the kitchen”.

But thankfully, all of this now seems to be water under the bridge, as the house of bishops decided last week to allow priests to enter churches. This will be welcomed by, among others, a good number of my Anglo-Catholic brothers and sisters. I think it is right that there is now greater licence for those who wish to enter the church and it is good that bishops can no longer penalise or pressurise priests who want to enter their churches. It’s important that the hierarchy has also allowed for individual dioceses to emphasise that those who cannot enter their churches (whether for health reasons and the like) may continue to hold services from home. 

To be honest, I’m just glad that the issue seems to have been resolved so that the peace is kept. I do worry, though, that deep fissures have appeared around this issue and may well resurface in the future. I was reminded in reading a fantastic blog by Iona Morphet, that the most important thing in all of this is to consider how we have these debates. To be clear, I think these discussions need to be had, and I do believe that a pandemic is a good time to have them. But let’s do so with gentleness and respect. On many occasions, we’ve fallen short of this standard, myself included.

Perhaps on this issue, as with others, we need to recapture the beauty of the Elizabethan Settlement which upholds the freedom of conscience for Reformed and Anglo-Catholic congregations (and others) alike. Settlement and compromise is a difficult thing to come to, but our future together depends on it.

Hopeful Realism: Night Reflection for Compline (1 Peter 1:3-5)

Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Resurrection, 2007. Oil on canvas, 178 × 122 cm (http://jyotiartashram.blogspot.com/2007/10/sign-of-jonas.html)

Night Reflection for Compline, Trinity College Chapel via Zoom (Easter Season in Coronatide). Weds 6th May 2020

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

May I speak in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

In times like these, death seems to be omnipresent. We knew it’s name before, of course. But in these days of Corona-tide, as some have taken to calling this season, we know with greater clarity the painful reality of death. There’s no mistaking the long, dark shadow it has cast over our nation’s public life.

In the UK, during the month of April alone, 25,000 souls were lost to the coronavirus. Just last week, in a single day 600 died of Covid-19—in a one 24-hour period, what is equivalent to a medium sized Cambridge college lost to the ravages of this horrible pandemic. 

It is no surprise that in times such as these, our assumptions about that most basic reality of our existence—death—are laid bare. 

In some of us is revealed a strong and persistent fatalism; call it pessimism, cynicism, or stoicism. We resign ourselves to death. To the fatalist, death is the natural end of life, the point at which our existence runs its logical course. Nothing else is to be said or done as death has the final word.

For others of us, it isn’t fatalism but idealism that characterises our response to this pandemic. Death seems everywhere present, and yet we would rather not talk about it. As late-moderns so used to the idea of being in control of our destinies, we run a million miles from death. We prefer to laugh it off. In disparagement, we refer to those with any kind of interest in facing their own mortality as “morbid”. 

And yet into the fatalism and idealism of our own hearts, our scripture tonight counters with two assertions of its own. Death is real. Christ has been raised. 

Hear these words again from tonight’s reading:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

For the Christian, death is a topic that is very much on the table. Of all the major world religions, it is only Christianity that has God in Jesus Christ take on mortal, vulnerable, corruptible flesh and die. As our creeds state: “he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified and buried. He descended to the dead”. I am reminded of my family in rural Northern Ireland who, as per custom, included in their most recent phone call “update”, the news of those who in the local town had died recently. Here, I thought to myself, is a community that is honest about the reality of death. The Christian faith does not shy away from our mortality. Death isn’t something we laugh off, or shut our ears and eyes to in reckless idealism. But nor is it something we fatalistically ascribe to the natural course of a life. In the face of death, the Christian exclaims, “how long O Lord?” This is emphatically not how it should be!

But our scripture this evening makes a second, far more remarkable counter-assertion. Yes death is real. But we also believe that Christ was raised from the dead, and we who trust in him will be raised as well. This is no lame attempt at emotional uplift, or a vague offer of bodyless, paradisal bliss. No, our text declares that God in Christ has given birth to a new world; he has literally birthed us anew. The language of giving birth in early Christianity held apocalyptic resonance—apocalyptic in the sense of a revealing, an unveiling. In raising Christ from the dead, in vindicating him, God unveils a new creation in which we are beginning to participate and which will be brought to full completion in the last time. 

But until then, we grieve and lament the loss of life. We are honest and realistic about the reality of death. But we do not grieve as those without hope. We are neither fatalistic nor idealistic, but realistic. And we are hopefully realistic. For we have the greatest hope of all—that Christ has defeated death in giving up his own life for us and in being raised victorious. Ours is a hopeful realism that neither idealistically turns a blind eye to death nor cynically scoffs at the living hope achieved through Christ’s death and resurrection. 

Yes, death will do its worst. But Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and we will be too. Do we dare entrust our lives, and our deaths to him? Perhaps the better question is, how could we do otherwise? 

Amen. 

Location, Location: Does It Matter Where Church Services Happen During the Coronavirus?

Peterborough Cathedral (photo by the author)

The Problem

On 24th March, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York penned a joint letter in which they advised clergy not to enter churches to conduct services.

For some, this decision has spelled not only a missed opportunity but a dereliction of duty. Giles Fraser has complained that in abandoning its church buildings, the Church of England has retreated from public life. Fraser echoes Bishop Selby who has similarly registered his despondency over the church hierarchy’s decision to go beyond government advice. In doing so, Selby writes, those in positions of leadership

…seem to have accepted the idea that Christianity is a matter for the domestic realm, that our cathedrals and parish churches are just optional when useful and available, no longer the eloquent signs of the consecration of our public life and public spaces. The conviction that the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the places of beauty set apart is an “essential work” undertaken by “key workers” will have become a wistful “BC” [Before Coronovirus] memory. 

I take a very different view.

It seems to me that there is enough leeway in the Archbishops’ guidance for particular bishops and dioceses to conduct services from their churches. Of course, this will depend on the viewpoint of the particular bishop, the greatest strength and weakness of Episcopalian ecclesiology. It seems especially strange to not permit clergy who live next to the church, or where they have access through a side door, to enter, should they want to.

And of course, that phrase “should they want to” is key. Some clergy will actually want to abstain from running a church service from their church building, perhaps out of solidarity with their congregations and communities, out of obedience to their bishop or some other reason. Some clergy I have spoken have expressed the sadness of streaming a service from an empty church in comparison to a warm study or the room of a house.

The current advice from the archbishops seems, to me at least, to be typically Anglican: it allows for those with a firm conviction (theological or otherwise) that the service should be held in the church to do so (again, depending of course on the bishop…though that might not stop some!). At the same time, it permits others who for their own reasons prefer, in this instance, to abstain, to do so. There is a merciful wideness to it.

I found Giles Fraser’s article thought-provoking and he made a number of good points. For instance, the use of the church building makes sense for those vicars whose home lives are chaotic, or the fact that vicars often check on the building for insurance purposes but not for worship-services). As an aside, I thought the title—”The CoE has retreated to the kitchen”—was poorly chosen. I don’t see any anti-feminist agenda to what Giles has written, but the language of retreating to the kitchen is open to that interpretation. The assumptions about secular and sacred spaces would be an entirely different blog post, however, and one I hope to return to!

More substantively, I do think that his piece, and others like it, rest on certain theological convictions and historical judgments that require discussion. To his credit, Giles has raised these points for discussion. This is surely one of the benefits of Anglicanism: a measure of top-down ruling that also has the capacity to take account of voices “from below”.

What I want to focus on in this piece is the issue of location of worship specifically under the circumstances of the current lockdown. I am not discussing the location of collective worship generally but only services held during “Corona-tide”, as some have come to name it. I sense it is only right to consider our current and (as we like to call them) unprecedented circumstances.

All are in agreement that collective church services cannot be held. So the main two choices are:

  1. the vicar/priest streams the service from his/her church
  2. the vicar/priest streaming a service from his/her home

The question can be put like this: Does it matter where church services are held during Corona-tide? Is the location of worship services held under lockdown important?

My short answer is that in the current circumstances, no it does not ultimately matter. What matters is how we address the fact that we are apart from one another. Yes, we are apart from church buildings, and these buildings matter enormously. However, the vicar streaming the service from the church does not, in my view, bring us back together under the one roof of the church.

My judgment that the location of worship being non-essential in these circumstances betrays my own reading of history and theology. Allow me to explain.

The Location of Christian Worship Historically is An Adiaphoron

I hold to the view that the location of Christian worship is non-essential. The technical term for this is adiaphoron, meaning something that is neither morally bad nor good, but neutral. The location of Christian gatherings is, morally speaking, indifferent. (For more on the Stoic origins of this term and Paul’s borrowing of it, see Alex Muir’s blogpost here).

What matters is that Christians are together. And this view coheres with the biblical and theological traditions.

To risk gross over-simplification, there seems to me to be a movement in Judaism and Christianity from an informal setting for worship towards the development of more formal structures and locations for rites and ceremonies.

In Abraham and his descendants, we read of a pilgrim people searching for a land in which to dwell, settling in Egypt under Joseph only to be enslaved by a newly ascendant Pharaoh. Having been miraculously delivered by God in the Exodus, the people wander for 40 years in the desert before finally entering the Promised Land. We then read of the building of the temple under Solomon, a significantly new development. The construction of the the temple is followed, however, by a series of disastrous exiles during which the temple is destroyed, rebuilt, and then destroyed once more.

In early Christianity, there is, mutatis mutandis, a similar movement away from informal attitudes towards venues towards the desire for more formal locations of worship. A few texts demonstrate the earlier attitude of indifference towards location:

1. John 4:19-24

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

2. Revelation 21:1-4

John’s vision of the new heavens and a new earth at the end of the book of Revelation is one in which God is with his people. No temple for the new heavens and new earth, as God communes directly with his worshippers.

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them’”.

Alongside such texts, there is also a strain of tradition that identifies Jesus himself as the new temple of God.

3. John 2:18–22

“The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken. ”

4. Matthew 26:60–62

“Finally two came forward and declared, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’” Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer?’”

In identifying himself, and in being identified by his followers, as the temple of God, Jesus pointed to the true purpose of the temple: to be the place where God met with his people.

***

So we’ve witnessed the strain of indifference to the particular location of worship in the earliest Christian documents. This raises the question: where, then, did early Christians worship?

Early Christians in the first two centuries, as far as we can tell, did not meet in anything resembling what we think of today as consecrated church buildings. As far as we can tell, such buildings, often referred to as basilicas, emerged later under Constantine the Great.

By contrast, the early Christian gathering (or ekklesia; Greek: ἐκκλησία) most often took the form of a house-church. A wealthy patron or benefactor allowed the use of their home for gatherings for singing, the reading of scripture, baptism, the sharing of the Eucharist and preaching.

The historian of early Christianity Eddy Adams has recently encouraged us to expand the list of early Christian meeting places. On the basis of existing textual and archaeological data, he concludes that early Christians also met in retail spaces such as workshops, leisure areas and burial places. Indeed, early Christians often employed public places like the outer temple for their worship, as several episodes from Luke’s Acts of the Apostles demonstrate (see Acts 2:46).

This indifference to location is also born out by slightly later Christian texts. The testimony of Justin Martyr (dated sometime to the mid second century but extant in later sources, including the Acta Martyrum) is remarkable for the evidence it provides of early Christian convictions about the location of worship. Justin’s defence before the Roman prefect Rusticus before his martyrdom is worth citing in full.

Rusticus the prefect said, ‘Where do you assemble?‘ Justin said, ‘Where each one chooses and can: for do you fancy that we all meet in the very same place? Not so; because the God of the Christians is not circumscribed by place; but being invisible, fills heaven and earth, and everywhere is worshipped and glorified by the faithful‘. Rusticus the prefect said, ‘Tell me where you assemble, or into what place do you collect your followers?’ Justin said, ‘I live above one Martinus, at the Timiotinian Bath; and during the whole time (and I am now living in Rome for the second time) I am unaware of any other meeting than his. And if any one wished to come to me, I communicated to him the doctrines of truth‘. Rusticus said, ‘Are you not, then, a Christian?’ Justin said, ‘Yes, I am a Christian’.

Justin roots his indifference towards the location of assembly in the nature and character of God: “for God is not circumscribed by place”. Since he is invisible and “fills heaven and earth” he is worshipped “everywhere”. This isn’t simply a ploy on Justin’s part to avoid revealing the identity of other Christians (note that he does provide the name of “one Martinus” in his response to Rusticus). Rather, Justin continues the trajectory of adiaphoron attested to in the New Testament texts listed above.

***

Why does all of this matter for us?

The history of early Christian worship points to the general indifference of early Christians towards the location of worship.

Then as now, what matters is that Christians are together. For us living in lockdown, this means “being together” virtually, in eager anticipation of later being together in person. The practice of worshipping Almighty God should, for now, take precedence over where we do so.

Yes, aesthetics matter. I firmly believe that. Those traditions (or parts of a tradition) that enjoy the heritage of beautiful buildings adorned with artwork, sculpture and architectural wonders will rightly miss these places. I find myself just now worshipping in this part of the Anglican Church. I personally prefer this kind of aesthetic. I haven’t always worshipped in these kinds of settings. I have been part of churches that met in bowling greens, town halls and urban warehouses.

My preference for aesthetic beauty, though, is exactly that—a preference. It’s not a norm that should be enforced on others. Clearly those without the means or the desire to worship in such a space are not deficient in faith. On the contrary, they often complement those more architecturally blessed traditions with fervour in the faith, often expressed in terms of active discipleship, professionally produced modern music and an infectious enthusiasm to engage those outside their walls. In line with the location of worship being a preference, the archbishops’ decision appears to be a pragmatic one, taken in light of the current circumstances.

We clearly live in a tension between our particular places of worship and the universality of God whom, as Justin wrote so long ago, can be worshipped anywhere. There is surely an important piece to be written on how our church buildings reflect the particularity of place. I hope to return to this issue in another blog, and have touched on it here. But what the lockdown is bringing out in full colour is this universal dimension to the Christian faith. As Christians, we can worship God anywhere. He is not bound by time and space. And we are connected to a universal, “catholic” church that extends through space and time.

We long to be back together, and yes we long to be under the roof of the church. Until then, we worship apart, but together, in spirit and in truth.

CovidDiary Day 19 (Weds 8th April 2020)

What if this quarantine is just saving middle-class lives? That’s the question raised in this New York Times piece. The article runs with the headline: “white-collar quarantine”.

Sweden’s approach to the virus would appear to agree with this assessment. The Scandinavian country has famously taken a very different approach to the pandemic, with mitigation being preferred to a full-scale lockdown. One of the very interesting justifications given for this approach is equality—how could the government expect blue collar workers to “work from home” when their jobs required them to be out of their houses. Sweden’s chief epedemiologist, Anders Tegnell, put it this way:

Some people can work from home, but not everybody. How to maintain an equal society in that way? How can we maintain equality so that everybody has the same chance of staying well.”

Whatever we think of Sweden’s approach—and I happen to think it is certainly risky from a health stand-point—it at least acknowledges that economically vulnerable people are bound to be hit badly by a lockdown. Not everyone has the luxury of an office-based job that can be done remotely.

We are caught in a choice between saving lives now from the pandemic but storing up a range of economic and emotional problems in the future or losing a good number of lives now to help to balance this economic and emotional deficit. Sweden’s choice reminds us that difficult decisions have to be made. Some lose out, whichever decision is taken.

In light of such a bleak scenario, all this talk of “a year of jubilee” can stick in the throat.

I wrote about billionaires and footballers in my post from a few days ago. But what of me? I have a home office to work from, a job to go to, and a job that protects me from the elements and from interaction.

Of course, it isn’t quite true that this is a white-collar quarantine. Or at least, it isn’t true that those with means are left unaffected by the pandemic. We are all affected by the situation in different ways, some more hidden than others. Even the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has the virus and has recently been admitted to intensive care. As Theresa May tweeted a few nights ago, in many ways when it comes to health, this “horrific virus does not discriminate“.

Yet it’s certainly true that some are bearing the brunt more than others. I’m not a big fan of sociological theories that divide society up into various categories of difference. I often find them facile. But what I do believe to be incontrovertible is that some bear the marks of privilege—a steady home background, socio-economic security, health. All of these bring access to opportunities and, in a very real sense, open doors that for others are closed.

I enjoy these privileges.

What to do, then? I am not sure that responses of hand-wringing, or renunciation and guilt are appropriate, unless the privileges we possess are actually used for ill.

More profitable, I think, is to ask: what am I doing with these privileges? This question immediately turns us away from focussing on ourselves and has us centre our attention on others.

There are two proper attitudes to cultivate here, which are appropriate for Holy Week, that week where Christians remember Christ’s journey to Golgotha. These attitudes, or practices even, are generosity and lament.

  1. Generosity: we can keep others safe by avoiding physical contact. It is is strange how physical and spatial distancing have become forms of neighbour-love, but such are the times we are living in. But even as we are apart, we can support those worst hit by this virus and ensure that care is available for the most vulnerable. Organisations like Partners in Health are doing great work that is worthy of our support. The YourNeighbour initiative is linking local churches to the relief effort, mobilising volunteers to offer phone calls and deliver much needed shopping and medical items.
  2. Lament: we lament the tragedy of death and disease, declaring emphatically that this is not how things should be while hoping, waiting, praying and working for things to be different. We lament the hardship that many have fallen into, or now face even more starkly, as a result of being out of work. As Good Friday approaches, Christians remember how God in Christ went to the deepest and darkest place both in our place and also for us. God is therefore not aloof from our misery, suffering and hardship. Scripture is filled with examples of saints appealing to God to remember the suffering of his people. As Christians today lament, we too appeal to God for his mercy for all, on the basis of his character and covenant.

CovidDiary Day 12 (Weds 1st April 2020)

A purse inscribed with the words, “Remember the Poore” (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge: Feast and Fast Exhibition; Photo: Simeon Burke)

Reading the news about football clubs who are placing non-playing staff on furlough, I can’t help but reflect on the moral state of our contemporary economy. I am left feeling pretty depressed.

I’m depressed at the absolute prioritisation of profit over people. As Julian Knight (MP) has put it, “This exposes the crazy economics in English football and the moral vacuum at its centre…It sticks in the throat”.

We have made the acquisition of capital itself a virtue. At the same time, we appear to have abandoned those true virtues of philanthropy, generosity and helping one’s fellow man.

But I’m also saddened that it took a crisis such as the current one to reveal this order of things to me. I confess to an uncaring apathy. I don’t think it’s self-flagellatory to say that I am partly implicated in this mess as I have enjoyed and followed these clubs for many years.

I want to be clear that I am not against the acquisition of wealth per se. I also think that any salary that is offered to non-playing staff should be done so voluntarily. I could partly sympathise with Corbyn’s harsh words towards the billionaires in election season last year. While I am slightly wary of actions taken by the state on this front, I do wonder if our taxation system is working as it should, particularly as many avoid taxes through off-shore accounts and the like.

Nor am I, at this point, willing to say we should scrap capitalism altogether. It’s the best system that we have, which is not to say it is a perfect one. As one commentator humorously relayed today, “Coronavirustide is ‘capitalism’s Lent'”. Indeed, capitalism needs serious re-thinking and serious chastening through virtues like generosity and philanthropy.

Tom Holland discusses Basil the Great and his brother Gregory of Nyssa in his chapter on Charity (Image Credit: The Times).

The history of Christianity has much to teach us here. I am reminded of Tom Holland’s wonderful chapter on Charity in his book Dominion. Holland argues that with Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great, we find examples of individuals who embodied charity. As Holland explains, the virtue of generosity they took up was established on a realistic anthropology:

Do not despise these people in their abjection; do not think they merit no respect…Reflect on who they are, and you will understand their dignity; they have taken upon them the person of the Saviour. For he, the compassionate, has given them his own person.

Gregory, On the Love of the Poor 1

God’s love for the poor and outcast, created just as much in his image as you or I, demands a similar ethic of love and generosity. For Gregory and Basil, this worked itself out, as Holland demonstrates, in opposition to the slavetrade. For Martin of Tours, it led to a life of poverty and associating with the lepers and lowly. For other Christians, it involved rescuing the most defenceless of all—unwanted children (often girls) exposed to the elements and left to die.

There are countless chapters of Christian philanthropy throughout the centuries (one of my favourites is the Earl of Shaftesbury). Uniting most, or all of these chapters, though, is the conviction of the inherent dignity of every human person, whether wealthy football player or casual catering staff. As the words emblazoned on the 17th century purse in the photo above remind us (echoing Paul’s own to the Galatians), “remember the poore”.

****

Returning to the subject at hand, I understand that billionaires often make their billions through a bright and novel idea that changes society. At the same time, there is nothing “bright” about doing so when one’s workers are on zero-hour contracts.

Thankfully, there are some very generous billionaires out there. I think of Bill Gates who, with other billionaires, plans to give all of his wealth away. In the context of sport, I am also gladdened when I hear that Juventus’s team and manager have chosen to freeze their wages for four months and Barcelona players have taken a 70% pay cut so that staff receive pay.

Amidst the greed of the “normal” status quo, then, are these some of the shoots emerging in this strange Spring of Change?

CovidDiary Day 11 (Tues 31st March 2020)

For all of us, the pandemic will be an experience to get through, to survive before things return “to normal”. We should all be involved in this effort to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, no question.

At the same time, and I don’t wish to say this callously, I think it is also important to consider that this pandemic is “not just a disaster to get through, but a moment to seize and change the world”.

OK, that’s perhaps a grand way of putting it. In less grandiose terms, perhaps, these times offer an opportunity to allow ourselves to be changed.

As I reflect on this shift in perspective—on the pandemic as a moment of change and opportunity—I think at one level of the massive structural changes that are happening in the UK:

  1. the intervention of the state and the medical and economic guarantees it has made (which I reflect on here)
  2. the changing nature of capitalism
  3. the public recognition of those we so easily took for granted, including NHS nurses and doctors, carers, restaurant owners, delivery drivers, cleaners. The scale of this recognition is at biblical proportions (“the last shall become first”).
  4. relatedly, our prioritisation of the elderly and vulnerable in public health policy

Other developments stare us in the face just waiting for those in power to do something. There is, for instance, a desperate need for a social stimulus to support charities and non-for-profits to carry out their important work in promoting social cohesion and care (for more on this, and the need for the government to let charities register more quickly and so receive gift aid status and to lessen the time for DBS checks, listen to Will Tanner between 19:00 and 32:00 here).

But at another level, I am thinking of transformation at the personal level. I have recently noticed a shift in my own habits, thinking and attitudes, and even some rare moments of moral insight.

The hesitant but unmistakeable wave to the bus driver on my morning walk. The conversation with the Sainsbury steward. The nod to the cleaner who passes my window in the morning.

I become more aware of people around me. Shared suffering creates this kind of solidarity. It reminds me of our inter-connectedness. Deeper still, it also offers an opportunity to create habits that work against the default mode of selfishness, to embody practices that go against the grain of modern life. In the time of the pandemic, there are more readily available, more pressing opportunities to look beyond myself and so challenge the prevailing individualism of late-modern life.

This condition naturally arises from a consciousness of shared fragility—the potential to be a carrier of the virus and so infect others, regardless of whether or not they are a stranger, is strong. As Peter Franklin puts it, “There’s nothing like a contagious disease to remind us that individual actions have collective consequences”.

So I give thanks for these moments of change amidst all the difficulty of this season in our national and global life.

******

Since starting these diary entries, I have reflected on whether the pandemic is an abnormal time or whether, in fact, we are living in “the normal times” (I was convinced more towards the latter point when listening to Rowan Williams discuss the plight of those in the majority world, for whom the conditions of the plague are, at least materially, no different from their daily reality; full episode here).

But I’ve now come to a different conclusion. Or at least, a different way of looking at the matter. What if strained times such as these offer us the opportunity to re-think and re-shape the normal?

This isn’t to instrumentalise the pandemic. Rather, it is to reflect carefully and candidly on the social, economic and spiritual implications of the situation in which we find ourselves.

Of course these are abnormal times with their sad but necessary blend of spatial distancing and social isolation. And we hope for a return to “peace time” and an end to the virus and the tragic suffering and loss of life it has caused.

What if, in the midst of the survival, the mitigation, the spatial distancing and self-isolating, we also took time to re-think the “normal” order of things?

To challenge our assumptions not only about how our world might look, but about how I, how we, might be in it?

I think we have the chance to not only re-imagine the macro-structures of our society and world, but to also re-conceive of the individual habits, attitudes and desires of our own hearts (more on that in this wonderful piece).

All along, we assume that things will return to normal. And in medical terms, we certainly hope that will be soon. But what if the new normal we return to, will in some sense, be new? How, then, would we want to shape it?

By all means, let’s first and foremost survive and protect lives.

But please forgive me if I am also interested to see what new shoots might be growing up…and consider how I might tend to them in the days ahead.

CovidDiary Day 6 (Thurs March 26th 2020)

LockdownTV from Unherd (Elizabeth Oldfield b-right)

A brief post to flag up the stimulating conversations happening over at Unherd on #LockdownTV. Today’s episode focussed on the virus and the environment. The climate is a fraught enough topic in normal circumstances without needing to throw in a global pandemic. In the anxious times we’re living in at the moment, it has been sad and frustrating to sometimes see the issues of the climate be handled so badly by some environmentalists. Take for instance the recent XR posters stating that “humans are the problem and Corona is the cure”. This is deeply disturbing, anti-human and frankly eugenicist stuff.

This was why I was encouraged by Elizabeth Oldfield’s strong contribution to the debate (see the video below). Oldfield rejected the approach outlined above but wisely cautioned against throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We can still use this moment to think about our personal individual decisions as well as the need for governments to re-think global capital’s reliance on fossil fuels.

On the point about individuals taking responsibility, I was encouraged and challenged by Liz’s bridge-building instincts (around 8:50) as she made reference to conservative doyen Roger Scruton’s writings on the environment (Liz makes reference to working transgenerationally and in local contexts that we call home). I also greatly appreciated her refusal to decide between the local and the global by making reference to the interdependence that has arisen so clearly in recent weeks between individuals within communities and between communities across borders.

Check out the video below and have a read of Liz’s most recent post on the issue here. It rightly avoids what she calls the “triumphalist crowing” from some in environmentalist circles just now, while still remaining faithfully and positively committed to the care of creation.

CovidDiary Day 5 (Weds March 25th 2020)

Today’s post is slightly more political so if you’re not into that kind of thing…then be sure to read it!

In the wake of Covid-19, libertarianism appears to be on the back foot. From tacitly enforced government social distancing and isolation, to top-down regulation and intervention in markets and business, it looks in many ways like we are witnessing the limits of the libertarian creed…

From my perspective, this marks a positive development. Before I go on, I want to state some of my premises and define my terms: I am wary of those who place unfailing trust either in the market or in the state—these two poles seem to have the common fatal flaw of misplaced trust and a poorly worked out anthropology. What usually functions as a spectrum moving from more statist solutions to more market-centric ones, on closer inspection appears to bend and meet where these two positions are concerned. And yet this is a broken world. The markets are broken, and the state is broken. Because people are broken. When all is said and done, that’s the baseline, the undercurrent of my thinking on the matter.

What sparked my thinking on libertarianism was seeing this piece from James Kirkup (of The Social Market Foundation) on Unherd today. Kirkup tackles the social elements of libertarianism and argues that it places too much faith in the human individual and, more particularly, errs by attributing too much rationality and kindness to the human agent. We have only to see the response of individuals, pre-lockdown, piling into pubs and ignoring government advice to remain socially distant and save lives. The cracks immediately begin to appear in the rational actor theory underpinning social libertarianism .

Libertarianism also reared its head in today’s first episode of Unherd’s new #LockdownTV, with Timandra Harkness and Tom Chivers discussing whether or not the government’s lockdown strategy is utilitarian (more on that another time…).

The other thing that got me thinking was an interesting virtual discussion I had today with a couple of friends today over the government’s handling of the crisis, particularly as it relates to economics and markets. Few topics make my blood run colder than economics (the maxim “man shall not live on spreadsheets alone” just about sums up my attitude on the matter at the moment). But I felt compelled to weigh in…

In the course of the discussion, my friends argued that the market operates as a super intelligence that should regulate itself. Why, they argued, is the government (particularly a Conservative one) intervening with high spending and borrowing when this will only lead to economic decline in the medium to long term? And surely this intervention will result in ineffective, bad businesses being kept alive through government aid when, if the markets were left to run their course, they would naturally and rightly die a death.

I want to engage in a bit of bridge-building here, first.

To begin with, I can agree and acknowledge that free markets have a way of showing up ineffectively run business. There might be some valid concerns here about who is being supported…should the whiskey shop or the boutique sunglasses store on my street receive the 80% government funding to cover wages, we might ask?

Then and again, these businesses (and many like them) are already facing difficulty as a result of being deemed non-essential. They might be able to pay their staffs salaries through the Job Retention Scheme, but the result of being shut for weeks, and probably months, will probably spell the end for them already. Are they to be punished for events outside of their control?

More gravely, Libertarian economics assumes that the market will unfailingly tell us what businesses should survive. But there are clearly some businesses that through no fault of their own have fallen into difficult times and require state intervention. The airline business is just one such example (though there are many). A halt on flights due to lockdown means that no one can fly; with no passengers due to the virus, airlines face severe losses. The UK government has unveiled £330bn of loans to airlines and has recently been considering buying equity stakes. The economic situation of airlines like BA is not the result of poor management but a freak virus.

So I have some practical doubts around the ability of the market to decide which businesses should survive.

But what about moral arguments that often circulate and have to do with liberty from state intervention? To be sure, I value liberty highly. We must remember, I think, that to place absolute faith in the state causes all sorts of problems, ranging from a loss of personal responsibility to more extreme forms of collectivisation that remove the dignity and individuality of the human person by apportioning to everyone the same product (usually having the quality of being equally substandard). I have family who grew up in the Soviet Union and believe me when they say they would rather not return to such a state of political economy.

But, as ever, there are two ways to fall off the horse. If we can place too much faith in the state, then we can also do the same with markets. The credo of economic libertarianism is the freedom of markets guided by the invisible hand. This is, of course, an overt reference to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.

And yet, as Jesse Norman has powerfully argued, Smith is radically misunderstood when he is claimed as the father of laissez-faire economics (moreover, the invisible hand appears only once in The Wealth of Nations).

Smith, Norman argues, was a proponent of government regulation under certain conditions. In his thought (and in his time), markets operated differently, were embedded and embodied with a set of social norms rather than some calculating “super-intelligence”. As Norman puts it,

markets for Smith are very different to those of economists today. They are not the disembodied mathematical constructs of modern economics and policymaking, and his view of individuals is not that of a desiccated economic atomism. Rather — recalling his insights about language and ethics — markets are living institutions embedded in specific cultures and mediated by social norms and trust. They shape and are shaped by their participants, in a dynamic and evolving way. They often have common features, but they are as different from one another as individual humans are: markets for land and labour and capital, asset markets from product markets and all the innumerable rest of them. Yes, markets typically generate economic value, and they are unmatched in their ability to allocate goods and services and encourage innovation and technological improvement. But…what matters is not the largely empty rhetoric of “free markets”, but the reality of effective competition. And effective competition requires mechanisms that force companies to internalise their own costs and not push them on to others, that bear down on crony capitalism, rent extraction, “insider” vs “outsider” asymmetries of information and power, and political lobbying.

One of the biggest problems I have with libertarian absolute faith in the market, then, is that it’s lost what markets are for. To coin a phrase, markets are for people and people are not for markets.

Pre-Covid, I would have said that I am in favour of capitalism with safety nets (of course we need to define what we mean by capitalism—this article is a good place to start). I did, and still do, advocate greater regulation of companies like Amazon, Uber and Facebook.

But if governments should regulate free markets in “peace time” then a fortiori should they do so in extreme times such as ours, where perfectly good businesses are rent asunder by circumstances beyond their control.

Rather than placing all my faith in the state or in the market, I would want to espouse a realism that acknowledges the inadequacies of both, precisely because both are ultimately human, which is to say socially embedded, institutions. There is much to say here about a constructive view of the relation between market and state. I have already discussed one example above, but here and here are other, albeit different, attempts that are worth engaging with.

If I was to go one step further, and venture beyond economics and into theology, I would want to say that absolute faith is best placed in One who does not fail us. Even when market and state forsake us, He will take us up.