Epiphany, the great Universalist feast of the church, is as good a point as any to to re-consider the defining cultural issue of our day: the relationship between national and international identity.
Late January finds us racing through the season of Epiphany, the great “universalist” feast of the church.
For those unfamiliar with it, Epiphany is the point in the liturgical calendar at which the Western Church celebrates the coming of the magi to the baby Jesus. Those unacquainted with the ins and outs of the story will know the moment immortalised as it is in the carol, We Three Kings Of Orient Are.
At Epiphany, learned astrologers “from the east” enter the Christmas story, breaking into what has up until now been a parochial and particular narrative, taking place in backwater Bethlehem of Roman Judea. The magi have come to represent the brightest and best minds of their day. These great scholars of the Gentile world make the long trek before offering the fruits of their learning at the feet of the King of Israel. At Epiphany, the universal and the particular collide.
Epiphany is therefore an appropriate juncture at which to re-consider the local and international scope of the Christian faith.
At the first Epiphany, the relationship between national identity and global identity loomed large.
Plus ça change. As then, so also now the relationship between the national and the international remains the key issue of our time. As David Goodhart has put it, in Britain the split between those who were brought up in and committed to a particular place (the Somewheres) and those whose ties stretch beyond the limits of a specific geographical locale to encompass the globe (the Anywheres) is the defining cultural divide of our age.
For these British Isles, the 2016 EU referendum forced us to come face-to-face with the Somewhere v Anywhere question in important and sometimes uncomfortable ways.
To whom do we belong? The question is as blunt as this.
Epiphany seems a natural point at which to consider this stark question head-on.
What might the Christian say in response?
A False Choice
Discussions surrounding national and global identity have been uncomfortable because of the terms in which the EU Referendum was presented to us. As Graham Tomlin has noted, the choice in the Referendum was, broadly speaking, between an exclusive love of the local (one’s fellow countrymen and women) and an exclusive love of the universal.
In many ways, this is a false choice.
For Christians, the great love command of Christ in Matthew’s Gospel consists of the injunction to “love your neighbour as yourself” as well as the demanding and challenging directive to “love your enemies”.
We can imagine the love to which Christ calls his followers as a set of water ripples that move outwards from the point of impact.
At the immediate centre of the ripple effect are those we have a duty of care towards—our own selves, our family and friends. This is the love of the local, the love of those close knit ties of family and loved ones. It is beautifully expressed by the conservative intellectual Sir Roger Scruton, who died this month, as oikaphilia, the love of home, the love of this particular place and the people within it. This is a love for our streets, neighbourhoods and nation.
Yet if we love only those “like us”, our love is defective. As Jesus puts it, “if you love those who are like you, what credit do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do that?” In other words, in only loving your own, how are you different from those around you?
For Jesus’s command “to love our neighbours” is also the call to love those who are not like us, those we involuntarily bump into each day.
It is also a command to love our enemies, those who intentionally make life difficult for us. This is an ethic that flies in the face of its day, where goodness was derived through comparing one’s actions to “ordinary decent folk”.
Jesus calls out such an attitude by radically rooting his moral directive in the very character of God himself— “be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect”.
Jesus’s love command shows up the exclusive choice between national and transnational identities for what it is—a false choice.
Nationalist and Globalist Idolatry and Disdain
A love for the local and a love for the universal are, in themselves, natural, good and beautiful impulses.
They can also spill over in some unhealthy and damaging ways, however.
As I see it, those who love the nation and those who favour a more global identity have both committed the sins of idolatry and prideful disdain.
What do I mean by this?
Put crudely, nationalist idolatry and globalist idolatry can be defined as placing all one’s sense of worth, identity and meaning in the nation-state or some transnational alliance. The disdain that follows on from this is the scornful attitude that hardens our hearts to the views of those we disagree with. Expressions of idolatry and disdain in recent years, and there have been quite a few, have been committed by those on both sides of this divide.
We need reminding, to return to my point above, that Christ doesn’t call us to exclusively choose between the love of those like us and those not like us (or the love of near and the love of far, if you will). The love of the “one from afar” does not lessen the need, the duty even, to care for the one who lives near. And the reverse is equally true.
Those who voted for Brexit rightly feel a sense of disappointment, when some of those who voted to Remain treat them as objects of scorn, derision and disdain for loving these British Isles.
Love for home, after all, can be the basis for loving the other. Giles Fraser uses the example of the love he has for his children to make this point:
There is no inconsistency here if we start to think about our rootedness in, and love for, a specific community — our community — as being the basis for our love of others; its grounding, rather than its contradiction. I may love my children more than yours. But it is precisely because I love my children as I do that I understand and value the love that you have for yours.
Likewise, my patriotism, my pride and commitment to the historical and cultural specificity of my own community, is not a denunciation of other people’s. It is the reason I appreciate why others will want to do the same. This too is love. Perhaps it is too much eros and not enough agape for some. But it is love, nonetheless.
Fraser is essentially saying that love expresses itself as the universal through the particular.
Love, if it is to maintain any semblance of coherence, sense or meaning, must always be particular. This is where the “citizen of the world” identity can fall into utopian idealism (utopia, of course, literally meaning “not a place”). A universal love of man easily becomes abstract and void of meaning if it loses the particularity of place. As Doestoevsky put it so well, “The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular”.
At the same time, those who voted to remain in the EU can rightly feel a sense of sadness when some of those on the side of Leave ridicule them for valuing their connectedness with those from outside these British Isles.
So, if we agree that our love either for the nation or for a transnational entity sometimes require keeping in check, then how can this be achieved?
A Way Forward: Finding a Home in the Church
Readers of this blog won’t be surprised to find me offering the Christian tradition as a possible way through this complex problem. The Christian faith offers a resource or map for re-orientation, allowing us to see where we are and how, with the help of past thinkers, we might get back on track.
As I see it, the Christian faith has the tools to avoid the twin excesses of nationalist and globalist idolatry while also acknowledging that our desire for a universal and national sense of belonging can find meaningful expression.
The Christian tradition avoids these excesses by sublimating (not erasing!) all identities to Christ. “There is neither Jew nor Greek”, as Paul would have it. Geographical identity, while of great significance, is no longer of ultimate significance.
The Christian faith, when done right, can transcend and re-orient our nationalist and globalist impulses with the challenge of an ultimate identity marker— “in Christ”. When we come to see our identity “in Christ” as all-important, national or international identity take their rightful place.
As followers of Christ, each of us will feel different levels of affinity to the local, the national and the international. Our ultimate sense of belonging, though, is in Christ. All other identities are ultimately penultimate.
At the same time, the Christian tradition also acknowledges our need to be rooted to a place or, as the case may be, our difficulty with finding roots in a particular community (on this latter point, I’d recommend the honest blog-reflections of my friend Aneurin, here). In fact, it is precisely because it acknowledges our desire for a community that is local and universal that the Christian faith can offer a cogent and compelling way forward.
On the one hand, we belong to the church universal (or the “church catholic” as the creeds put it). As one Old Testament scholar has put it, we worship a global God, not a minor local deity. On the other hand, we also worship in a particular church congregation that belongs to a particular place. In the church, then, the universal and the local can meet in a beautiful exchange.
As Giles Fraser has suggested, particularity and universalism have been hardwired into the Christian faith from the very get-go. Jesus was a stalwart Somewhere, preaching to the particular people of Israel a gospel of renewal and repentance. In a startling revelation, Jesus declares, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. Paul, for his part, was an Anywhere, preaching that to be a follower of Christ, one need not be ethnically Jewish. Those protagonists of the Epiphany story, the magi, are another clear reminder of the universal dimension of the Christian faith.
That particularity and universalism are, so to speak, written into the DNA of Christianity should be both a comfort and a challenge to both sides of the debate.
The universality of the church comforts Anywheres and challenges Somewheres with the reminder that we belong to a universal body that spans across space and time.
The particularity of the church congregation is a comfort to Somewheres and a challenge to Anywheres because it reminds us that while the Church is indifferent to geography as an identity marker, the place of the local still matters greatly.
Ultimately, the Christian identity has the potential to re-orient our loves, defanging any overweening sense of national pride while also avoiding an abstract universalism by rooting us in a particular locale. We find ourselves in communities that are, to quote Fraser again, “both diverse and yet together, indifferent to ethnicity yet also rooted in the specifics of place”.
At Epiphany, then, let us heed the reminder that in the church, somewheres and anywheres can together find a home.
Image of signpost from Shutterstock
Image of water ripples from Vector Stock
Photo of Cambridge by the author