Sunday, 2 July 2017

What kind of nation do we want to be?



He who finds his life (psychē) will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.
- Matthew 10:39

This paradoxical verse is a powerful summation of Christian teaching on self-realisation. The word ‘life’ here stands for the Greek psyche, which means the ‘breath of life,’ or the soul, and is of course the root of our modern word, ‘psychology.’ To find yourself, you have to put yourself to the Cross.

Our Lord lived in a philosophical milieu wherein the highest ideal was to “know yourself,” gnōthi seauton, as was famously inscribed on the Temple to Apollo at Delphi. Later Christian writers adopted and adapted this tenet to the Christian faith, notably St Augustine, for whom true knowledge of the self led to knowledge of the divine image in which the self is made, and so to God himself, ‘deeper than my innermost depth,’ Deus interior intimo meo, yet at the same time superior summo meo, ‘higher than my highest height.’ The 19th century American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson captures the paradox in his poem named after that same philosophical maxim, Gnōthi Seauton:
Give up to thy soul-----
Let it have its way-----
It is, I tell thee, God himself,
The selfsame One that rules the Whole...

More modern study of the psyche, a Jesuit priest told me at a recent conference for school chaplains, tells us that the most important question that adolescents need to answer for the sake of their later psychological wellbeing is “what kind of person do I want to be?” In other words, the question of self-definition, which can only really be answered with some degree of self-searching and self-knowledge. Failure to come up with any answer to this question apparently leaves people psychologically rootless, unstable and unmoored.

This led me to think about the political instability of Great Britain at the moment. I wonder to what extent the polarisation, the wild pendulum of public opinion and the anger we are seeing materialise into extremism and violent protest is to do with our collective failure of our nation to know itself and to answer the question of what sort of nation it really wants to be. And I want to suggest that the Christian paradox of finding the self in yielding the self – which in fact overlaps with the sensibility of other ancient religions and philosophies – might offer a corrective to modern Europe’s overwhelmingly materialistic mindset: a manifesto for a nation with a spiritual and not just an economic purpose.

“The Church has had 1800 years to improve the world and has done nothing. Now we must do it ourselves.” Over the last century, Karl Marx’s opinion has become so widespread in Europe as to become almost a defining doctrine of modern polity: the only ‘heaven’ will be the one we humans can make on earth. This worldview, widely propagated in schools, universities and the media, is generally expressed in evolutionary terms to lend a veneer of scientific respectability. Once upon a time, we were governed by an oppressive Church which kept people in their place and dictated the minutiae of their personal lives. Then, happily, the modern democratic state took control, and since then humanity has been evolving naturally towards an egalitarian utopia of our own making, where all will be given the highest possible freedom of choice to decide exactly who and what we want to be.

And yet this supposed evolution of secularism has not in fact come about naturally. It has been forced and contrived. In some cases, such as revolutionary France and Russia, it was far from gradual, but achieved by extreme violence and coercion. But even in Northern Europe, the eradication of Christianity from the fabric of the State and the popular conscience has been quite deliberate – and far more effective. Social reformers in the twentieth century purposely mined Christian tradition for ethical content when it was useful and reframed it in humanistic terms. The early Labour Movement has been described as a new ‘gospel of social amelioration,’ the ‘transference of religious enthusiasms to the secular sphere.’ If you have been to Walsingham, you will have the walls of the stately homes built from the rubble of monastery dissolved at the Reformation. Likewise you can see to this day purloined fragments of Christian ethical teaching in the modern creed of human rights, and even in the newfangled system of ‘British values’ taught in our schools, which bear only a passing relation to the meaning of the three crosses overlaid on our national flag.

Yet behind this was a will to destroy the Church. Marx, who called for the ‘abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of man,’ was a hero to Ramsay McDonald, whose government dismissed evidence given by Archbishop Cosmo Gordon Lang and Free Church leaders of the thousands of Christians sent to prison camps or summarily executed on Lenin and Stalin’s personal orders - much as Europe ignores the systematic extermination of Christians in Arab lands today. George Bernard Shaw, whose name adorns the council block next door to me, declared that a the state should remove children from parents who taught them the catechism of the Church – a policy now effected in a milder form by the refusal of social workers to allow families who do not profess the state orthodoxy on sexuality to adopt, and the closure of Catholic adoption agencies. The Proletarian Sunday Schools movement developed its own baby-naming ceremony and ten commandments, starting with the maxim ‘Thou shalt not be a patriot’ – and nowadays, the young are more likely to identify with the EU than the UK. None of these developments against the Church, the family and the nation, was natural or organic. Their ‘evolution’ has been planned by progressives.

Some good has come of these changes of attitude, such as abandoning the persecution of sexual minorities, for which the Church was and is much to blame. But other developments are more questionable. In the most recent survey of British attitudes, 70% say that an abortion should be allowed because a woman decides she does not want a child or a couple cannot afford one. 77% say that a person with an incurable disease should be able to ask a doctor to end their life. 75% say that sex before marriage is not at all wrong, and 41% believe that there is no such thing as a film too violent or too pornographic to be watched by adults. The Christian teaching of the sanctity of every human life, illumined by St Augustine’s ‘God within,’ has been garbled into the right to exercise the greatest possible individual choice.

The essence of the Christian God is what theologians call kenōsis, self-emptying: the emptying of God’s self in the gift of creation, of his divine power in becoming human, of his humanity in dying on the Cross. Utter self-gift freely given. This kind of altruism is anathema to the Marxist, for whom moral actions are not for the sake of others per se, but are entirely dictated by the interest of the working class. Even more moderate Socialism risks falling into seeing people as problems to solve, and the State as the means of solving then. But this leaves many taxpayers asking questions like, “why should I help the homeless, the poor, the sick, when I am paying for the State to do it for me?” And of course, those taxes are not voluntary contributions, they are levied on threat of imprisonment. Nor do the solutions always work, as anyone who has been passed through the sausage machines of state bureaucracy knows. The idea of the Camerados’ Living Room was to get away from reducing people to dependency on services and help them find themselves precisely by giving themselves to each other, helping each other, and that is why I supported it. Diminishing our moral responsibility for one another by systematising it can end up dehumanising people - especially the unborn, the disabled and the dying.

But if Socialism is stony ground for the seed of the Kingdom, consumerism does not offer any better soil: reducing life to a set of supermarket choices and calling this freedom. Adolescents had a tough enough job of working out what kind of person they wanted to be when the choices were limited. Nobody chooses to be born and nobody chooses their parents, but children are now offered the chance to choose their own religion, their own set of values, their ethnic or national loyalties – and even whether they are male or female cannot now be taken for granted. When everything except the fact of birth becomes a matter of choice, choice itself becomes a tyranny, a mere illusion of freedom.

No one political system is sufficient for true human flourishing and freedom. Capitalism and socialism are merely rival systems to ensure the greatest wealth for the greatest number. Any questions of higher purpose end up relegated to the realm of personal, private choice. And so no party dares ask that fundamental question: what kind of nation do we want to be? 

A Christian society would be one shaped by the Cross, one which finds itself in yielding itself for the sake of others. There are, thank God, still instances of this pattern repeating in our society. We can see it in the hundreds of council workers and emergency service personnel working unpaid hours for the sake of the people evicted from tower blocks nearby. We can see it in the institution of marriage, which for now is still two persons giving themselves unconditionally to one another. We can see it in the ethos of the Armed Forces of the Crown, and we can see it in the Monarch herself, who through no choice of her own but by the grace of God gives not just a few years but her entire life to the service of the nation. I would go so far as to say that we still have some hope of being a Christian country in more than just name as long as we have at the spiritual Head of our nation one chosen not by people but by God and anointed by his Church, a living icon of self-giving love.

In the end, the Christian manifesto for life cannot be contained in writing, not even in the Bible, because the Word has been made flesh, written in a person, Jesus Christ – God incarnate, crucified. It is through not just emulating but sacramentally joining with his self-emptying sacrifice that we find our true self and with it the freedom of God. This cannot be reduced down to sets of values or systematised into a state bureaucracy. It must be impressed into the very character of the self and so of the nation – and that is what the altar is for.

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