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.
Over at Unherd, Aris Roussinos has written a provocative piece that strikes at the heart of the new world order. The future of global politics, he argues, is the civilisation-state, that nation state (like China, Russia, Turkey, India) which consciously describes itself as a distinctive civilisation and which is prepared to enter the international stage and strongly assert its cultural values and political institutions.
It isn’t central to his article, but I think Roussinos offers a good and necessary counter-balance to some of the exclusively parochial and national focus of post-liberalism (emphases which I think are much-needed, I should add, but which should not be asserted to the exclusion of robust international activity). The implication of Roussinos’s piece is that Western nations should take more seriously the need to act on the world stage. He points to Macron as an example of a Western leader who understands the future battle of civilisation-states, and the need for Western states to offer a strong cultural and political alternative.
For Britain’s part, we shouldn’t have to choose between national and international interests. Yet, in a post-Brexit Britain where the national will naturally come to greater prominence (as it should), we might be in danger of losing our sense of perspective on global affairs.
I watched Lars and the Real Girl again tonight. It’s a beautifully theological film, rich and layered with meaning. It’s particularly perfect, I think, for students training for ministry, as it touches on mental illness, family relationships, grief, death, community, purpose and patience. And it does so through the most bizarre of plot devices—a sex doll. It’s truly genre-defying stuff.
It was my third watch (and my wife’s first) but I still saw new things I hadn’t seen before.
There’s the obvious references to Easter, Bianca’s Christian faith and missionary career (“Bianca said that’s why God made her, to help people”) the church services (with the pastor’s reference to Paul’s words, “when I was a child I spake as a child” just before the point of Lars’ epiphany). But I also noticed the dynamic of the Two Sons/Brothers and Bianca’s “baptism” in the lake.
I was struck most of all, though, by the care and compassion of the little community that gather around Lars as Bianca gets sick. When Lars’ brother Gus and sister-in-law Karin go out to get some rest, three older ladies from the community come over to keep Lars company with their knitting. “We came over to sit”, they explain. “That’s what people do when tragedy strikes”. “They come over to sit”.
This scene was such an apt illustration of what I had been thinking today about the benefits of the tribe. Here is a community that stood in solidarity and grief, allowing Lars the space to come to terms with the death of his own mother and so make peace with the past and move on to a healthier future.
“As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognised them”—Genesis 42:7
“One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his people were and watched them at their hard labour. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people”—Exodus 2:11
My aim in this series on Christianity and tribalism is twofold:
to rehabilitate the concept of the tribe as a site of meaning and belonging which each of us inhabits
2. I move against tribalism—the inclinations, practices and habits we adopt through which we seek salvation in something bigger than ourselves and erect walls of hostility that barricade us from those different from ourselves.
This first post unfolds the first of these two goals—the rehabilitation of the tribe in our collective imaginations.
We Cannot and Should Not Get Rid of Tribes
My main point is that we cannot get rid of tribes and, even if we could, we shouldn’t. Let me explain each of these points.
There’s a humorous meme that’s been making the rounds recently that goes something like this: “there any many things in life that you and I do not choose: parents, nationality, appearance…and the Queen of England”.
Chuckles aside, this meme gets at something rather profound about life and our response as late-moderns to it. I’m talking about the givenness of much of human experience. As this joke expresses, we do not choose how we look or who our parents might be. Rather, they are given to us.
Bound up with this givenness is particularity. Each of us is given, which is to say born into, a particular place and a particular family. The particular aspects that make me “me” and you “you” are very often things that you and I do not choose.
I have a hunch that in the West, we are slowly but surely turning our backs on the givenness and particularity of certain aspects of life. We are increasingly suspicious of “particular” attachments to place and kin, which we view as parochial, burdensome, even oppressive. Conversely, we increasingly seek attachments to groups with universal causes and values.
We’re over half way through the year and it was my birthday recently, so, I’ve been in a slightly reflective mood. I thought it would be useful to review my new year’s resolutions (see here). The coronavirus was an interesting time for testing these habits and developing new ones along the way.