One of the important lessons of 2020 is that it is relatively easy to dismantle and deconstruct history, culture and institutions. Conversely, it is far more difficult to build-bridges, construct things and move forward with solutions. We desperately need the latter kind of person in Western society.
Now, we need such people across the political and cultural spectrum, of course. But we particularly need them among small c-conservatives, which is, broadly speaking, how I would describe myself.
As recent articles by Mary Harrington and Niall Gooch have shown, those on the right have, in recent years, become sucked into the culture wars of the day, often mirroring and mimicking the style and tone of cultural warriors on the left. While there are some notable exceptions, conservative public intellectuals of the last decade or so have been more characterised by their polemical prowess than their philosophical powers, as Ben Sixsmith has recently highlighted. In the wake of the death of Sir Roger Scruton (who, it must be said, wielded the pen of the pugilist and philosopher in equal measure), the question of who will take up the mantle of conservative philosophy, casting a vision of the good and beautiful for society at large, remains largely unanswered. Where are the constructionists?
In a recent Saeculum Short, I wrote about how the future of the West politically might not be in the West but in places fighting for democracy and the foundational values of Western civilisation. Minsk and Hong Kong are major exhibits of this phenomenon and, I suggested, call forth the good in Westerners by reminding us of what we have stood and should stand for and what we could be.
I have since recalled that similar arguments have been made regarding the Church.
Just as the future of the West politically lies elsewhere, so too does its Christian identity rely on the growth and vitality of the Church in other parts of the world.
The state of the Church in the West is complex, but it’s fair to say that it is broadly in decline, and has been for quite a while. At the same time, the numbers of those committing to being followers of Christ has grown exponentially in corners of Asia and Africa, often under intense persecution. Fascinatingly, where growth is occurring in parts of the West, it is often among diaspora communities. Take, for instance, the movement of African pentecostal churches in urban centres in the UK (a phenomenon often referred to as “reverse mission”). Of course, the West and Christianity are not one and the same thing. Indeed, Christianity is not even a western religion. And yet, Christianity has been foundational to Western identity and the West has for a long time been a key centre of the Christian faith.
In this post, I want to suggest that the loss of Christian identity in the West is partly linked to the decline of Western consciousness. The reverse, I think, is also true: the decline of the West is partly the result of the decline of a vital Christian faith, though in this post I will focus on the former.
I recall reading somewhere (it might have been in Spurgeon, or perhaps someone else) that the Psalms are not merely to be read but sung. The Lord, Mark’s Gospel tells us, sang a song with his disciples before he went to the Garden of Gethsemane. Church traditions (and Jewish traditions to this day) throughout the ages have sung versions of the Psalms in their liturgies.
The sung version of the Psalms I grew up with were from Church of Scotland Minister Ian White. My parents took Ian White LPs and tapes with them when they worked overseas in Nigeria and played them often at home when my brother and I were growing up. When I read certain Psalms now, I hear Ian White’s renditions of them. Singing the Psalms has meant that the words have become embedded in my memory.
I have since expanded my list of sung versions of the Psalms, though I come back to Ian White’s version frequently. I compile and share this list of some of the Psalms which are dear to me and which, when I read I them, immediately recall sung versions. Some of the versions are choral, some are contemporary, some are old hymns. Some, like CH Lloyd’s Psalm 137 I only heard this year around the time of the remembrance of the Shoah. I hope to add to the list over time. Please feel free to add your favourites in the comments.
One thing that has struck me is the juxtaposition of those in the streets of Minsk for whom the West is an important ideal and symbol of freedom and democracy, with the widespread embarrassment, and even hatred, among certain gatekeepers in the US and UK, for all that the West stands for. (By the West, I mean the coherent cultural entity that is comprised of nations that hold to values of the rule of law, self-determination, democratic elections, individual freedom, and I would add, the presence of an active1 Christian faith).
While I welcome the Education Minister’s U-turn on A level results, it’s fair to say that this debacle has shown up vast incompetencies at the heart of government.
I was initially sympathetic to the government’s plight. It’s banal to say it, but the best approach would have been to actually sit final year students down to take exams (with some measures of leniency in place), as has been done at universities across the country. But without that as an option, what do you do? The government was left in a bit of a bind. If you don’t hold exams, then using mock exams/predicted grades on their own can be seen as unjust on previous cohorts or currents ones (it’s not standardised and you get teachers who grade cautiously etc). Equally, you can’t just cancel exams. So what do you do?
I’m not entirely sure, but you definitely don’t oversee the production of an algorithm that actively works against students’ efforts, and particularly against those already facing massive obstacles to attaining a university place. Teacher predictions weren’t the only factor in the algorithm and in many cases weren’t even the starting point. As Timandra Harkness has pointed out, underlying Ofqual’s standardising algorithm was a whole set of troubling assumptions, including the presupposition that “you are homogenous with your older schoolmates” or that “the future will look like the past and the present, in significant ways”.
It’s simply foolish to have not seen this coming and to have not stopped it, or at least warned students of the problems. In fact, the government probably shouldn’t even have involved itself in the process at all.