The Heart of the Matter: Christ and the Fleshly Politics of Our Age

“The flesh desires against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh…” Galatians 5:17

“My kingdom is not of this world…” John 18:36

The Fleshliness of Contemporary Politics

Human systems of government fail because they mistake means for ends, or subsidiary ends for ultimate ones. The problem, for the Christian, is not simply that these philosophies are materialist, in the sense of having a concern for one’s material state of affairs (money, property, means etc.). Though, of course, these philosophies are materialist as well, and deeply so. Capitalism seeks to alter the material state of the individual and communism that of the collective via the proletariat. It is a problem when material change becomes the ultimate end. But their concern with matter is not the heart of their failure. For Christianity, after all, is also interested in the material and in man’s material means. Yet it does not seek to alter the material as a chief and ultimate end. If Christianity does alter a person’s material status, then this is always indirect. It is always sublimated to a higher end—that of the conversion of her soul, her character, her heart, her very self.

The problem is not simply that human systems of government and politics are too “material”, then, but that they are fleshly. That is, they leave man in a state that is unconverted and self-centred, apart from God. St Paul often uses flesh in the sense of “human nature” apart from God and left to its own devices. Our human systems are fleshly in the sense that they would make us materially wealthy or transformed (through whatever means), but leave our very selves languishing in a prison of despair, our souls shackled to the flesh which, left to its own devices, will only do us damage. These philosophies and systems of thought would leave us free to our own devices which is precisely the problem. Free to our own devices, we are free to destroy ourselves.

Christ comes to put the flesh to death, by his own death, and to convert the soul. If the material means of a person are changed, then this is a side-effect, an important side-effect, but a side-effect nonetheless.

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Resolutions for 2021 and a Personal Review of 2020

I wrote a list of New Year’s Resolutions for last year and found it a pretty helpful exercise on the whole, especially in terms of setting and re-setting priorities throughout the year. I’m back at again this year but with slightly more specific goals (using Full Focus’s Executive Planner). I haven’t stuck in the dates by which I want to complete all of the goals because, well, this is a public blog. But most of the goals and dates are out there and will, hopefully, keep me accountable. So, here goes, in no particular order…

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Courage and Competence in the UK Coronavirus Response: A Counterfactual

It’s fair to say that the driving motivator of the UK government’s response to the coronavirus has been fear. Fear of widespread cases and fatalities and fear of an overwhelmed health service. Fear, by and large, leads to, and is undergirded by, concerns with safety.

And there was much to fear when the virus appeared on the scene in early 2020. The virus was a kind of unknown; we did not know how it would operate. Indeed, it seemed to affect different populations, and different parts of a given population, differently. Fear seemed a natural response to the unknown. It seemed right to prioritise safety above all else. So, here in the UK, we went into a series of national lockdowns—two, in fact, as well as other measures that came pretty close to the life-altering existence that lockdowns represent.

Courage

But what if the government had appealed to alternative motivators for tackling this pandemic? Specifically, what if it had appealed to the courage of its citizenry?

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Churches Should Stay Open

Following the announcement of a second national lockdown in the UK starting this coming Thursday, the thoughts of church leaders, and religious leaders more broadly, have turned to how this will affect the live worship of their congregations. The published government guidance is not entirely clear on this point, though it seems to point to the end of gathered worship and its replacement by services broadcast by priests from church buildings (the guidance is also clear that buildings remain open for private prayer).

I believe that churches, and other places of worship, should stay open throughout the second lockdown.

Some might be surprised to hear me say this. 

After all, in two previous blog posts on the subject (here and here), I took a more optimistic view of church closures. I was prepared, at that point, to give the Church of England’s leadership the benefit of the doubt given the novelty of the virus and, as I explored, the theological reasons for home worship (I did, however, register my frustration at the prohibition of clergy entering church buildings to film worship). 

I am no longer convinced that my reasons hold in the current situation. I want to explain why I think this, why I have changed my mind.

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When Realism Isn’t Enough: Cultivating Hopeful Lament in an Age of Disillusionment

The observant reader will notice that the strapline of this blog contains the phrase, “refreshingly realistic”. As I explain here, this is my attempt to pay homage to realism, which I describe as a way of sailing between the extremes of utopianism and cynicism. I argue that for realism to work, it must be thoroughly Christian in nature. That is, it must be shaped by the church’s teaching on who we are and the times we are living in.

Another way of saying this is that realism must be shaped by the Christian conceptions of lament and hope.

Without lament and hope, realism is a gateway to cynicism, a “contemptuous distrust of human nature and motives”. This post is an attempt to explain why our realism desperately needs to be characterised by practices of hopeful lament.

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My Politics Needs Christianity

The British public has perhaps been never more politically engaged, and yet never more politically disillusioned.

As the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement for 2018 and 2019 show, opinions of the governing systems are are their lowest point in 15 years, even as the appetite for political change and engagement has grown.

On the one hand, the number of elections post-2014, including of the most significance of these, the Referendum on EU Membership, has generated an unprecedented level of active political activism among the British population. The Hansard Society refers to the increase in electoral events as an “‘electric shock therapy’ for political engagement”.

On the other hand, there is a general weariness and dissatisfaction just now with political parties and candidates. In particular, there’s a suspicion that the options on offer appear to propagate the interests of the financial and cultural establishment. In the US, this is largely made up of different types of big business, as American academic and commentator Bret Weinstein explains. Disillusioned with the candidates on the ticket, various individuals have formed the Unity 2020 campaign, a movement for a third party candidate, and alternative form of politics. Closer to home, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) has sought to transcend the traditional divides between capital and labour, nation and world and even private and public sector (see their New Declaration from 2018, one of the more powerful pieces of political writing in recent years).

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Will Marxism Re-unite Classical Liberals and Conservatives?

What is the relationship between classical liberalism, conservativism and Marxism? I’ve been pondering this question today having read a recent Quillette article by Jewish political philosopher Yoram Hazony (“The Challenge of Marxism”) and in making my way through Roger Scruton’s book, Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition.

Hazony’s piece offers a description of Neo-marxism, its power and pitfalls and its take-over of institutions in the English-speaking world. He is careful to note that he is not using the term Marxist as an ad hominem smear, but instead to describe a genuine attempt to rewrite the history and re-shape the culture of the West. The fatal flaws of Marxism he describes include:

  • the simplistic assumption “that wherever one discovers a relationship between a more powerful group and a weaker one, that relation will be one of oppressor and oppressed”. This ignores the real state of affairs in which mixed relationships more often are the norm with powerful and weaker groups mutually benefiting one another in civil life. It is possible for the more powerful interest groups to seek to “balance the benefits and the burdens of the existing order so as to avoid actual oppression”.
  • the assumption “that every society is so exploitative that it must be heading toward the overthrow of the dominant class or group”. But if Hazony is right, and weaker groups favour the general preservation of the current order (surely with some reform), then there would be a preference not for the overthrow of current institutions but for an order that seeks to address the challenges of inevitable inequalities, with the help of custom and all with a view to improving, rather than tearing up, the social fabric.
  • the lack of consideration given to what the revolting class would construct once the revolution has been completed. Hazony goes on to suggest that the overthrow of an oppressive class by the revolters can, and indeed will, breed more oppression (assuming that Marx was right about relationships of power being the norm for human existence).

To his credit, Hazony also notes aspects missing in Enlightenment liberalism that Marxism helpfully fills in: it’s awareness of class and the formation of cohesive groups within society (which liberalism ignores because of its obsessive focus on the individual) and its aliveness to abuses of power in liberal Western societies (which liberals erroneously tend to think exist only in totalitarian societies “over there”).

However, on the question of the relationship between the three political philosophies, the article contains two points that stand out for me:

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The Patron Saint of Restless Hearts

St Augustine, Fitzwilliam Museum (author’s photo)

Today is the feast day of St Augustine, the patron saint of restless hearts.

I have come to a greater appreciation of Augustine more recently through reading and re-reading Jamie Smith’s On the Road With St Augustine: A RealWorld Spirituality for Restless Hearts.

I’ve come back to many passages of the book. But there’s one I come back to the most:

I won’t pretend there isn’t something scandalous about his advice. Augustine will unapologetically suggest that you were made for God—that home is found beyond yourself, that Jesus is the way, the the cross is a raft in the storm-tossed sea we call “the world”. But what I hope you’ll hear in this is not a solution or an answer, not merely a dogmatic claim or demand. For Augustine, this was a hard-fought epiphany that emerged after trying everything else, after a long time on the road, at the end of his rope. The Christian gospel, for Augustine, wasn’t just the answer to an intellectual question (though it was that); it was more like a shelter in a storm, a port for a wayward soul, nourishment for a prodigal who was famished, whose own heart had become, he said, ‘a famished land’. It was, he would later testify, like someone had finally shown him his home country, even though he’d never been there before. It was the Father he’d spent a lifetime looking for, saying to him, ‘Welcome home’.

Friends’ Obsession with Negative Freedom and Porn

Perhaps against my better judgment, I’ve been making my way through the 90s-early 2000s cult show, Friends.

Like any TV programme or film that is over a couple years old (and sometimes even younger—see the 2019 Aladdin film!), Friends has been coming in for cancellation over its outdated views on sexuality, gender and body image. Much of the critique seems fair, though I would much prefer discussion of the issues rather than introducing either a blanket ban or some other kind of warning.

Yet from briefly scouring the internet, what very few seem to have been talking about are the copious references to pornography in the show. As a very rough guesstimate, I’d wager that every other episode contains some mention of porn (it usually takes the form of one or more the guys referencing that they have viewed porn). The references to porn are always positive and the consumption of pornographic content is accepted without the blink of an eye. I’d venture that Friends essentially normalised pornography for a generation of men and women growing up at this time.

Raising this issue might seem prudish to readers, but the effects of the scourge of pornography—what is essentially an endemic war on all of our minds, and particularly the minds of the young —are now clear for all to see. A recent British Board of Film Classification survey of 16-17 olds reported that almost half of young people of these ages had recently viewed pornographic content (almost certainly a conservative estimate). Violent pornographic content has probably never been more easy to access or produced in such a high volume, resulting in the normalisation of violent sexual acts and rape among young people.

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