It is one thing for religion to die on the vine, and it is another thing for it to be forcibly uprooted
by Phil Hall
One of the things that was obvious to anyone visiting Soviet Russia in 1984 was its emptiness. They pretended to have the answers initially, and, after Stalin’s mass murder and mass incarceration and mass starvation and mass collectivisation, the words turned to ash in their mouths.
In all the universities and schools, the students studied the history of the Communist Party. Meanwhile, the children of the children of revolutionaries who murdered their fellow revolutionary comrades under Stalin’s orders edged the system in order to get better flats, better dachas, more access to the best consumer produce. They stayed in hotels built for communist party members. They jumped queues. They got first dibs on everything.
But the ravaged humanism of the first revolutionaries did bear some fruit. Jobs were available. Everyone was fed. Everything was affordable. The old and the young were looked after. Most vulnerable people had somewhere to go to. Students were given holidays and support.
In a socially conservative society, many people fell through the cracks and ended up being labeled as malcontents. They were institutionalised or imprisoned. Rarely ignored.
The USSR was vast and empty. You could spend half your monthly salary and travel to Sakhalin or Kamchatka. You couldn’t visit Italy or France or Spain, but you could cross many time zones travelling east. The Russians speak of ‘Tosca‘, an incredible feeling of longing for their empty landscape, empty of people. The greatest forest in the world is not the Amazon but the Taiga. If Alaskans and Canadians complain of impassable coniferous forests, multiply that by ten.
And yes, in the Soviet character, without the Darwinian ideology of capitalism, social solidarity strengthened into something very different, so that people from abroad would fall in love with the USSR (or Cuba) and not understand why.
But the emptiness was not only in the land, it was in the soul. After orthodoxy was replaced with communism, the taste that left in people’s mouths was rancid. The spirituality of the USSR was foul and rancid. Where before there was a mystique and bearded voices singing in unison, now it was the high screech of some alienated poet. It was a red and grey poster. It was sunlit fields and muscles. Breasts slapped on Stakhanovites.
And the post-traumatic memory of war became the spiritual touchstone. A corpse as a touchstone. The relics of the sieges. The diaries of the dead.
‘Yesterday daddy died, the day before mummy died, the week before that Ivan and Sonia died.’ The next entry closes the diary. ‘Natasha died.’
And the churches were turned into toilets. The last capitalist was strangled with the guts of the last priest and the result was not paradise, but The Castle, The Trial. And a museum of atheism and religion where cathedrals became warrens for Soviet bureau-rats.
Who wants to read the books of the Soviet dissidents about this period of Soviet history? I don’t. A lot of the people writing were disgusting people themselves, working for the CIA or MI6; full of reaction and snobbery. These dissidents were ‘tuneyadstvo, padonki‘. Who would want to read what they wrote. But Zoshchenko and Bulgakov wrote about it well. Bulgakov, falling back into Christ. Tarkovsky falling back into Christianity, and both of them blasphemers and desecrators because they were not Christians, but re-inventors of their own brands of Christianity. Christian revisionists.
And so, the hole that was spirituality in the USSR became filled with tradition and nonsense. Russian Orthodoxy died and was not reborn. The longing of Russians for their lost religion will never die, but they have not and will never recover it. What they have now is ersatz rubbish. It is mere nationalism complemented by a rubbishy form of New Age spiritual elitism.
Do you think Putin and his cohorts and the current nomenklatura are religious in any meaningful way? They are not. They are merely great Russian nationalists.
The alternative to God is not Not-God. Rather it is something INSTEAD of God. But then what in heaven’s name would that be? Applying Ockham’s razor must not produce an absurdity. You cannot dispense with the notion of God without producing an absurdity (Try not to stumble over the irony in that statement.). And, by the way, William of Occam was a Franciscan Friar.
God is not an unwarranted presupposition. God is just a placeholder linguistic term for human existential angst. We do not know why things are the way they are, so we have faith that they are the way they are for a reason, though we do not know that reason. The alternative is nihilism and irrationalism and strange, inhuman belief systems which go against humanity and our values, like dog-eat-dog social Darwinism, so harmonious with predatory late stage capitalism.
You cannot replace the idea of God with nothingness. This is what the Soviets discovered. This is what all atheists discover. What is very amusing is to watch just how weird people’s ideas become once they remove the concept of God. For example. You ask a rational and scientific minded person the reason for human existence and they couldn’t tell you to save their lives. So they have to say weird things like: ‘Oh it just is.’ or ‘It’s all an illusion generated by the brain.’ All kinds of squittering non sequiturs.
These are people who claim to be rational who say this strange things. Still, they certainly don’t trust their own imaginations or subjectivity. Even worse, they follow strange comfortably exotic belief systems without really believing in them; merely for the benefits they feel they get from them. So, in removing God, they now develop a system of thought with self deceit underpinning it.
One mustn’t misunderstand the nature and importance of language and the human imagination. A lack of a faith in human morality and imagination can lead us into some very dark places: nihilistic existentialism, for example. Euthanasia, eugenics, racism, gender bias, worship of the rich, despising the poor failure, eliminating disabled people. Things like that.
People look around them and see order and beauty and wonder – everything. And then they infer that something (or someone) is behind it all. Now what that someone or something is they don’t know. So they invent a word for something they do not understand. The meaning behind it all.
To describe what is (which is all science can ever do) is not to describe why it is. But perhaps people have some ideas about why it is that do not require a place holder concept like ‘God’. Ask any truly religious person about God and they will say God is utterly unknowable and unfathomable. What’s in a name?
God is a deictic concept for why everything is the way it is. It is just a finger pointing. Don’t confuse the finger for what it points at. Don’t confuse religion for divinity. It is the product of the human mind.
‘To say: ‘it is what it is’ is nuts because we live in a universe or structure and causation, of complex systems.‘
But remove the placeholder concept God and you are still left with a question: Why is everything the way it is? To say: ‘it is what it is’ is nuts because we live in a universe of structure and causation, of complex systems. Who made the rules? Who caused causation to be? Who made it so that things panned out the way they did?
Well, let’s get rid of the who. If you do that, then there must still be a what. I am in complete disagreement with people who say everything emerges from matter. Meaning does not emerge from matter. What a ridiculous statement! It is an alienating asseveration. The programmer creates a programming language and is then programmed by his own language – basically this is to allow yourself to be manipulated, narcissistically, by your own fossilised thought processes and inventions.
Forget the word God. It is just a stupid debating point for bullies and trolls who are full of certainty – on both sides.
It upsets me when the human imagination, poetry, philosophy and art are all relegated into behaving like the pot boys of scientism. This is a form of philistine, intellectual self-mutilation. The imagination should stand at the prow.
I don’t need anything instead of a god’ says one person.
And I think that that is the problem. Because if there is nothing instead of God (and the word God is only a word – according to respectable religious people themselves – for something utterly unknowable) then what is the explanation for why things are the way they are?
Not HOWthey came about, mind you, but WHY they came about.
Forget the word God. It is just a stupid debating point for bullies and trolls who are full of certainty – on both sides. To me the concept of God is a patch on the sun. The concept of God is just a finger that points at reality. People who define God with certitude and what God ‘wants‘ are pulling your leg. I think we can all agree on that. But people who point at God are not. God is just a word for the reason and meaning of everything.
What is the non-religious explanation for why things are the way they are? Is there one? There has to be one in the end, because here we all are. What do you want to call it? Nature? Buddha?
You might posit, from an Hegelian perspective, and given the long-term goals of history, that reformations of one kind or another cannot be avoided. There can be no refining process otherwise. If the long-term goal of human history is spiritual as much as material, then an intractable problem occurs in the latter part of that equation. Humanity goes wrong, with its warring kings and its disputes over territory, and the tribal conflicts for supremacy over competitors and control of natural resources. A prophet arrives, in the guise of the human, and lives a human life, but it is written later must have been divine. In a very short span of worldly time that prophet has gathered followers, has ministered to those who will hear, and as part of the mission has delivered instruction as to the founding of a church, and has chosen disciples to begin that work of construction. The prophet returns to whatever divine realm is co-extensive with our earthly reality, and it is a mere band of humans left to carry on with the mission, and from it form a religion. If the religion survives, it becomes an institution, because that is the way we humans organise things.
The problem as Valson Thampu sees it is that we have found no way of practising religion other than through such institutions, whose presence is necessarily material – buildings, monuments, temples – and whose perpetuation is a hierarchy of those who are learned in the religion and officiate over its ordinances – bishops, priests and other clergy – or those who deliver the teaching, the evangelists and preachers. It might well be that in the beginning the laity is unlettered, and so must take on trust what is purveyed through official or sacred scripture. The prophet said this. The prophet said that.
That arrangement probably works well at the outset, but over time – long tracts of Hegelian historical time – what the philosophy envisages doesn’t quite come about, and the human soul isn’t perfected. We have not shaken off those warring kings and their disputes over territory, and now it’s a world of multiple religions or a single religion in its many denominations, all acting their parts in the political domain. As with any earthly power, all such factions vie with each other for possession and direction of the human spirit. To the medieval mind and the upholders of the one true faith (whatever that faith might be) war is justified as the duty to rid the earth of its infidels, and in so doing make of the earth’s environs a freehold fit for the God who is worshipped.
There are of course rebels, and dissenters, the more so the firmer is entrenched the politicisation of the religious institution. The sixteenth-century Reformation saw Martin Luther condemn the Catholic priesthood, which did not allow the individual unmediated exchange with God, but stood between those two parties and determined what their relationship would be. Thomas Müntzer (c1489–1525) was a leading German activist during the Reformation, whose oratory was fiery and prophetic. In 1524–25 he took part in the abortive Peasants’ Revolt in Thuringia, and is now seen as a major force in the religious and social history of modern Europe. In the twentieth century Marxists came to characterise him as an early agitator in the struggle against feudalism and for a classless society. Valson Thampu calls for a similar reformation, conducted in both the material and spiritual realms. It is his contention that the human soul is perfectible, but that there is no religion and no political initiative on earth that will facilitate the adherent, acolyte or believer in attaining to that state. He points to the paradox of God in the twenty-first century, still said to be omnipresent, but in the way religion is practised is reduced to a supernatural being confined to the temple, church or mosque. The counter-argument has a different view of the concrete embodiment of our religions—
The temple, church or mosque ‘can serve as meeting places for people, but not presume to be exclusive habitats of God.’
The point being that if the priesthood really wished to teach us about God, that teaching would centre on a supra-parental being present in our lives everywhere and at all times. Faith has been tested and has failed if that is not the belief. Nor does the priesthood do much to demonstrate that its religion is the true religion (and not just a chant). As Thampu tells us—
‘We believe in only two possibilities: either all religions are one or none is true’ and so underlines the emotionally arrived at notion that the ‘“Priesthood,” [according to] Arthur Schopenhauer, “is born in hypocrisy.”’
We see already that Thampu’s argument is more with the priesthood, less with the religion. Religion he would like to see practised without priestly intervention, whose claims to truth are easily brushed aside (and it doesn’t necessarily take the Scottish Enlightenment to tell us so)—
‘David Hume has argued that each religion is a proof of the falsity of the other, because if each of them claims to be the true religion, then all the others must be false.’
If no religion is true, then there is no god at the apex of each religion, and if that is too harsh a reality for those inclined to believe, then faith promotes itself as faith in itself, not in God. That is a state of affairs that reduces the priesthood to the status of carpet-baggers, no better than commercial hucksters disinclined to offer any valuable contribution to the life of the polis—
‘Avoidance of physical work, as Thorstein Veblen points out, is the insignia of the priestly class. He observes that priestly vestments are designed with a view to excluding manual work: “the end of vicarious consumption is to enhance, not the fullness of life of the consumer, but the pecuniary repute of the master for whose behoof the consumption takes place. Therefore, priestly class vestments are notoriously expensive, ornate, and inconvenient…”,’ with leisure a necessary ornament of priestly identity.
You see how we’ve been duped. This is faith as masquerade. It isn’t faith with reason, or a reason to believe. Nor is it a reason for Thampu to advocate that we don’t believe, when above all he wants to see in his fellow-human beings full scope for spiritual development. According to Marc D. Guerra (see his essay Christians as Political Animals), and his words quoted in Jon Elsby’s Seeing is Believing—
‘…because human reason will inevitably be brought into collision with the objective reality of its own limits, hubristic claims of the absolute self-sufficiency of human reason and its adequacy to the task of establishing and grasping the truth in all its fullness, will be disappointed, and will therefore either have to be abandoned or will lead ineluctably to a universal skepticism, nihilism, and irrationalism.’
While we do not want blind faith in a career-driven, money-oriented priesthood, we should not embrace scepticism, nihilism and irrationalism either. Thampu’s remedy for all these ills dispenses with the priesthood altogether, with the individual communing with God in a both private and communitarian way. Private because one’s innermost experience is personal and largely unshared with others. Communitarian because faith in a God cannot be relativistic, where the kind of god I have created for myself suits my purposes just as much as the one you have chosen suits yours, the religion relegated from something shared, social and conducive to human flourishing, to no more than a lifestyle choice, apt to change anyway once we get bored with the wallpaper. As Thampu says—
‘The very first thing that we need to do is to wish passionately to be free and at peace with oneself. The second is to be willing to do whatever we can to achieve that end. The third is to acknowledge that the means for our liberation and inner coherence are at our disposal. The fourth is to realize that it is futile to wait to be liberated by some agency external to us, when everything required for us to liberate ourselves is ready to hand. We must resolve to be liberated, no matter what the cost; get up from where we are, and walk!’
And so Thampu picks up where Müntzer left off.
Valson Thampu, for over three decades, has been a voice of reason on issues of national importance in India, covering education, politics, religion and culture. Prize-winning translations from Malayalam are among his fourteen other books. Commencing his life of public service as a member of the faculty in St Stephen’s College, Delhi, he served as Principal from 2008–16. During this time, his interests grew, blossomed and covered the Indian sub-continent, a process of growth in which he followed in the footsteps of illustrious predecessor C. F. Andrews, who was a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi and Gurudev Tagore. Beyond Religion: Imaging a New Humanity is published by Pippa Rann Books and Media.
Salt Desert Media Group Ltd (SDMG), UK, was established in 2019, and currently publishes under the imprints Pippa Rann Books and Media (PRBM) and Global Resilience Publishing (GRP). Pippa Rann Books and Media publishes books about India and the Indian diaspora, for everyone who has an interest in the sub-continent, its peoples and cultures. At a time of political challenge, Pippa Rann Books aims to nurture the values of democracy, liberty, equality and fraternity that inspired the founders of the modern state of India. Titles on the Global Resilience Publishing (GRP) list explore how global challenges can be addressed and resolved with an inter-disciplinary and transnational approach. The imprint focuses on subjects such as climate change, the global financial system, multilateral and corporate governance, etc. In addition to its own publications, Salt Desert Media provides distribution services in English-speaking territories for several authors and publishers.
George Weigel is a controversial figure. A Catholic intellectual and a political and cultural conservative of a distinctively American kind, he is greatly admired by those who share his convictions and severely criticized by those who do not, including some of his co-religionists. But reactions to Weigel are rarely mild. For better or worse, he tends to polarize opinion into irreconcilable camps – for and against. His admirers praise the quality of his prose, the clarity of his arguments, and the scope of his knowledge. His detractors criticize the conservative assumptions, the sometimes superficial analyses of complex phenomena, and the absolute self-confidence with which he invariably delivers his judgments, as if no other conclusion were rationally possible.
I may be in a minority of one, but it seems to me that both admirers and detractors are right. Weigel is a fine prose writer, his arguments are clearly and forcefully stated, and he does have an impressive breadth of scholarly knowledge. On the other hand, he assumes very conservative positions politically and theologically, his analyses of phenomena such as the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church and the causes of the First World War are too hasty and somewhat simplistic, and his tone both in speech and in writing has a dogmatic certitude and an air of finality – of having said the last possible word on the subject – which recall what William Lamb, the second Viscount Melbourne is reported to have said of Macaulay: “I wish I were as certain of anything as Tom Macaulay is of everything.”
Another trait of Weigel’s – related to, but not identical with, that air of certitude and finality already mentioned – no doubt delights his admirers as much as it infuriates his detractors, viz: his pugnacity in controversy. He does not pull his punches. He seldom, if ever, shows any tenderness for the feelings of people who happen to think differently from himself, dismissing their views with contemptuous or witheringly sarcastic putdowns. This may be effective polemically, but it will alienate some readers unnecessarily.
Examples of Weigel’s over-confidence in his own judgment and the lack of depth in his analyses can be found more or less wherever one cares to look in his essays. The first essay in his collection, The Fragility of Order (2018) – an essay entitled “The Great War Revisited” – affords an apt illustration of both those attributes. The essay bears the subtitle, “Why It Began, Why It Continued, and What That Means for Today”. The essay consists of fourteen-and-a-half pages. Yet the English historian, A. J. P. Taylor, devoted an entire volume – and a substantial one – of his magisterial five-volume A Century of Conflict 1848-1948 to the causes of the First World War: a subject which Weigel disposes of in a mere four pages. The causes of the Great War 1914-18 (according to Weigel) were a combination of Balkan instability, rising Serbian nationalism, the political decadence of Austria-Hungary, and the web of unwise and counter-productive alliances entered into by European powers driven by a mutual distrust amounting almost to paranoia, and a desire to protect or advance their own interests, together with a notable failure to perceive where their true interests lay. For good measure, Weigel mentions what he regards as the malign role played by certain allegedly pervasive intellectual influences, including a distorted understanding of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Nietzschean Prometheanism, the Bergsonian notion of the élan vital, and the emerging political ideologies of Teutonic supremacy and Pan-Slavism.
Weigel does not offer much in the way of hard evidence or reasoned arguments to support his thesis. He merely states it assertorically, as if it were certainly and demonstrably true – too obvious to need proof, in fact. Now, it may be true, and I think certain parts of it would probably be accepted without demur by most historians (although they would prefer to see the evidence). The only points I would make are—
(1) that some elements of Weigel’s analysis are rationally contestable, and
(2) that, by any criteria, his analysis is inadequate because (among other reasons) it takes little or no account of the personalities of the decision-makers, the loci of power and the processes of decision-making in the various European states, or the psychology, predispositions, prejudices, perceptions, and personal motivations of the principal actors.
Weigel’s air of certitude goes with a tendency to see the world and both historical and contemporary issues in black-and-white terms. Thus (to cite one example) he thinks communism is evil, period. But he does not consider whether aspects of Marx’s diagnosis of the ills of capitalism might be correct. He does not ask whether communism in the Soviet Union and China represented improvements in any respects over the regimes that had preceded them, or whether communism could fairly claim certain achievements – e.g. universal employment, housing, education, healthcare, low crime rates, and the eradication of socially harmful levels of inequality – which have eluded some liberal democracies. He does not ask why so many people in the newly liberated states of eastern Europe now look back on the communist period with a certain wistfulness, or why, having initially welcomed the promises of liberal democracy and capitalist economics, they seem so disenchanted with the realities. Nor does he seem willing to consider seriously the possibility that free and unregulated markets might become dysfunctional and require urgent government intervention if they are to be prevented from being socially destructive. He champions Republican policies to the extent of claiming justification for the Iraq wars, while excoriating Democrat policies on healthcare, welfare programmes, foreign affairs, the economy, and just about everything else. He describes President Obama as having “a mind awash in the intellectual exhaust fumes of postmodernism”. It need hardly be said that such abusive language and naked partisanship are not calculated to win him any friends on the left – or, it might be added, anywhere on the political spectrum in Europe, where the majority view, even on the right, is (1) that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were calamitous and costly mistakes, and (2) that President Obama, whatever his flaws, had a far better record on the economy, foreign policy, the environment, and social justice than the Republican presidents who preceded and followed him.
Weigel has been severely critical of the western European powers, and especially of the European Union, which he sees, not entirely inaccurately, as an instrument of social and philosophical liberalism opposed in principle to the American neo-conservative political positions that he has consistently advocated throughout his career. His views on Europe are set out most comprehensively in The Cube and the Cathedral (2005), in which he claimed that below-replacement birthrates in most European countries meant that Europe was “committing demographic suicide” and undermining its own culture by increasing its dependence on (mainly Muslim) immigration. Weigel and other right-wing American Catholic intellectuals (of whom William Kilpatrick is an example) view a resurgent Islam and the liberal commitment to an unsustainable multiculturalism as threats both to Christianity and to the survival of the western culture which grew out of the Christian religion. He does not consider the possibility that closer contact with (and direct experience of) both Christianity and secular liberalism might, in the medium to long term, affect Muslims and Islam in ways that cannot yet be foreseen.
When we turn to the scandal of clerical sex abuse, Weigel follows Pope Benedict XVI in ascribing such cases to a lack of faith – more specifically, to the crisis of faith that occurred after 1968, as the Church struggled to absorb the full implications of the changes wrought by the Second Vatican Council and the sexual revolution. No doubt, all of these played their part. But the incidence of clerical sex abuse and the attempts to cover up the scandal instead of dealing with it, cannot be satisfactorily explained by a monocausal account. Other factors were at work, including an instinct on the part of the Catholic hierarchy to avoid adverse publicity whatever the cost, and an ingrained culture of clericalism and deference by the laity towards ecclesial authority. If the Church is to deal effectively with this crisis and prevent its recurrence, her investigations must be conducted thoroughly, fearlessly, honestly, and transparently.
Weigel is an intelligent, stimulating, and thought-provoking interlocutor. But he is an unreliable guide. The Catholic Faith does not encourage such certainty as his: on the contrary, it teaches us how to live without it. We strive to do the best we can, and for the rest we place our trust in God, acknowledging our own limitations, which include the fact that we are not omniscient. We should not overestimate the deliverances of our reasoning, or our own powers of understanding and foresight. Nor should we assume that, simply because not everything in the world is as we should like it to be, it is going to hell in a handcart. The world is not under a duty to comport itself according to our desires, prescriptions, and preferences; and, if it fails to do so, it does not follow that an apocalypse is imminent. Catholics believe in a doctrine of divine providence. This includes, in the words of the Dominican theologian, Père Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, “God’s loving care for man and the need for confidence in Almighty God.” It is not the least of Weigel’s flaws that he persistently seems to place greater trust in his own reasoning than in God.
In several respects, Weigel resembles an English philosopher, the late Roger Scruton. Like Scruton, he is politically conservative and a polemical defender of conservative positions. Like Scruton, he is a clear thinker – although both sometimes display a greater degree of certitude in matters of opinion than their arguments appear to warrant – and an outstanding writer. And, again like Scruton, Weigel is a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank based in Washington DC. And, of course, Weigel and Scruton share an allegiance to Christianity.
They also share, or so it seems to me, a tendency to see the world in black-and-white terms, and to attack more nuanced thinking as “woolly” and “liberal”. The title of Scruton’s final broadside against left-wing intellectuals – Fools, Frauds and Firebrands – reveals perhaps more than he intended about his attitudes. It would surely have been more polite – and more becoming in a philosopher – to have conceded at least the abstract possibility that there might be some merit in the arguments of his opponents. Instead, Scruton employs the rhetorical weapons of scorn, ridicule, and invective, as well as the logical weapons of reasoned philosophical arguments. Similarly, Weigel, in his essays, although he sometimes quotes approvingly from other conservative thinkers, including Jews and Protestants, invariably lambastes and lampoons liberals and left-wing radicals, even among his co-religionists. His depictions of communists are almost cartoonish, like pantomime villains. The ideas that nations with histories, tribal ethnicities, and cultures like Russia’s or China’s might be unsuited to liberal democracy as it has developed in the West, or that the rulers of such nations might have valid points of view of their own, or that there might exist such things as “Asian values” with which the West is imperfectly acquainted but which Asian countries wish to uphold and defend as an intrinsic part of their culture, are never entertained for a moment. He would probably dismiss all such talk as cultural relativism.
Well, is it? And, if it is, is it necessarily to be dismissed on that account? A people’s history and culture are surely relevant to deciding what system of government might work best for them. And it is surely unlikely that a form of government developed elsewhere, and in very different circumstances, could simply be imposed on a nation which lacks the political and governmental infrastructure, the cultural traditions, the popular customs, the social institutions, and the philosophical beliefs to support it. Like Scruton, Weigel has a dogmatic approach to ethical and political questions which effectively precludes any possibility of a rapprochement with people who do not share his basic philosophical assumptions and political orientation. This coming from a member of the Catholic Church, which invented the term “inculturation,” and which includes, in its incomparably rich and varied pastoral tradition, the Ignatian ideas of “discernment,” “accompaniment,” and “meeting people where they are,” is, to say the least, a little puzzling.
It is possible to defend a point of view without implying that anyone who thinks differently is a knave or a fool. It is possible to grant that an opponent’s arguments have some merit without capitulating in argument or abjuring one’s own opinions. It is possible to argue eloquently and passionately, but with civility and respect for one’s adversaries. It is possible to advance truth-claims for one’s faith without claiming for oneself a monopoly on truth or wisdom or rationality. It is possible for equally intelligent, rational, and well-informed people to hold different beliefs and, even when confronted with the same evidence, to reach different conclusions. It is possible for people to agree to differ without harbouring feelings of contempt, animosity, anger, or resentment. It is possible for people of different cultures and religions to live side by side as neighbours on terms of mutual amity and respect. Acceptance of these propositions is, I would argue, necessary if we are to live amicably and peaceably with others in the pluralistic, multicultural, yet law-governed society of a modern liberal democracy. It is necessary if we are to share the same public square without causing violence or disorder. I would also argue that the truth of all these propositions has been empirically and emphatically demonstrated at many times and in many places.
Polemical writing is often entertaining, especially when the writer is not only partisan, but witty. But readers who care more for balance and fairness in argument, or who see the world in more nuanced terms, or who believe that people of different convictions may sometimes coöperate in the service of the common good, or who just prefer courtesy to confrontation in discourse, might want something a bit different from what either of these gifted, but combative, thinkers has to offer.
A final point: Weigel is primarily a Christian theologian, and his work as a social, cultural, and political commentator is an off-shoot of his theological concerns. But it is a curious and striking fact that, in his extensive output, there is very little mention of Our Lord. There is a great deal about God, the Church, the Pope, the Catholic Faith, doctrine and dogma, and modern evils, but not much about the Founder of the Church. One cannot help but wonder why. Is it, perhaps, because Our Lord was not enough of a neo-con to be recruited to Weigel’s cause?
It is not, however, surprising to find that George Weigel is no admirer of Pope Francis, or that he has volubly expressed his negative views of the current pope in several articles. Ironically, the title of an earlier book of Weigel’s, concerning Pope Benedict XVI, was God’s Choice. Was God otherwise occupied, then, when Pope Francis was elected?
Jon Elsby’s spiritual and intellectual journey has been from Protestantism to atheism, and finally to Catholicism, an evolution he has traced in his memoir Wrestling With the Angel: A Convert’s Tale, published in paperback by CentreHouse Press. His most recent book, also published by CentreHouse Press, is Seeing is Believing, which develops themes touched on in his memoir, but with greater focus on the relations between faith and culture, an issue addressed by several American apologists, though very few on the UK side of the Atlantic have taken it up. Seeing is Believing is available on Amazon Kindle.
Socialist arguments against the use of religion are not always arguments against the idea of an ordering presence in the universe, or against an Earth and a cosmos full of meaning, or against a transcendent expansive all including love, or against beautiful metaphors that equate prophets of love to sons and messengers of ‘God’.
Nowadays, socialist arguments tend to put questions of spirituality to one side and focus on developing practical ways to achieving social justice for believers and non-believers alike. Enlightenment socialists believe in the freedom of belief. Liberation theologists are welcomed with open arms into the socialist ranks.
The socialist argument against religion is that it has been used as an ideological tool to control ordinary people. The socialist argument against religion can be summed up like this: the rich tell ordinary people, using the megaphone of a church pulpit, that being a victim, that allowing themselves to be exploited, used and abused, makes them better people.
Ordinary people, robbed of control over their own lives, working like dogs for private companies and then cast aside onto the rubbish heap, according to religion, should comfort themselves with the possibility of receiving a future reward in heaven. The rich told ordinary people for centuries, through the religion they sponsored and supported, that there would be pie in the sky when they died.
People who own less, or little, or nothing usually feel that they have had their labour and human potential stolen. We work to make a profit which other people steal from us. This is a cause for depression and despair.
But we have our injured sense of self soothed by religion; by priests, ministers, imams and gurus. These religious authorities ask us to view our relative poverty and lack of power over the outcomes of our lives as a condition of moral superiority.
Of course, the wool of religion can only be pulled over people’s eyes so long as ordinary people are uneducated, and so long as they need religion as a mental refuge and way of self-comforting and justifying their feeling of failure and helplessness. As George Monbiot, the British journalist ecologist and social activist says: ‘If wealth were the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.’.
The poorest of us make great sacrifices and often work incredibly hard. But when ordinary people are uneducated and busy trying to survive, they don’t always have the time to study in order to identify the actual reasons and causes of their difficult economic situation, and rise up to change thier society to make it fairer. There is no time to read Paulo Freire or Robert Tressell.
Confronting the power of a mafias takes enormous courage, and support from your whole community; whether that mafia is a criminal organisation selling drugs under the counter or a criminal organisation selling drugs over the counter.
Religion asks you to have faith your life will get better if you ‘trust in God’, when the reality is different and contradicts the belief in things getting better. Things will not get better until we uproot capitalism! the whole aim of most companies is to pay you less for more work and make you work in worse conditions. It is easier to hide your head in the sand like an ostrich when facing corporate mafias that are so powerful. Some of these mafias own vast arms companies. They declare war at the drop of a hat and are responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands. Instead of opposing them and suffering the consequences, we prefer to imagine everything will get better.
Nowadays, religion is less and less the preferred ideological tool of the oppressor. They, the powerful and wealthy, own the mass media and exert most of their power to influence and persuade through that. But when religion was the preferred tool of the powerful, it taught nonviolence because a peaceful response to violent oppression (submission) is always preferred by the oppressor. The people who suggest it are lionised.
First, to throw off the chains of the slave drivers in factories and offices requires unionisation and solidarity: organised collective opposition to exploitation. There are only a handful of good capitalists and eventually, even these sell off their companies to people whose only motivation is to squeeze even more profit out of people.
Next, opposition to oppression requires the creation of political parties. You need new laws and political parties to push them through. Political parties who, alongside the Trade Unions, fight for pensions and safe work conditions, for free health care and education.
But when all that is achieved, we must face the cruel reality that changing the rules of the game is not enough, because there is no game. Ultimately, when ordinary people really try to get more control over their lives and the fruits of their labour and partially succeed under the existing rules of democracy, the response is a fist: subterfuge, targeted assassination, eventually a coup and then the imposition of tyranny. How do you confront this? Religion argues for submission. Socialism opposes that cop out.
The socialist argument against religion is also that it can sometimes prevent people from thinking clearly. If you are a mystic, lost in mystical thoughts and mumbo jumbo about nature and guardian angels, djinns, destiny and reincarnation, and the idea of a big angry eye in the sky judging your every little movement, then you are far less likely to behave rationally and in concert with others; far less likely to be able to develop a clear strategy to combat oppression and exploitation and change society.
The socialist argument against religion is not a spiritual argument, and socialists are only concerned with the spiritual beliefs of religion when they are disempowering. It is true that socialism, as a product of the enlightenment, looked down on religion as obscurantism, but they were not concerned with debunking unprovable ideas that were intrinsic to people’s culture and well-being, rather they were concerned to oppose the use of religion by the powerful as a tool of social control.
When religion ceases to be a useful tool for social control and instead starts to become a rallying cry against oppression, when progressive religious ideas that stress social solidarity and social justice come to the fore, then that is the moment when the powerful abandon religion as a useful tool of social control and rely more on the mass media and think tanks. When religion begins to oppose the powerful and wealthy, that’s they begin to search for a new kind of priesthood to oppose it.
The Preacher and the Slave
By Joe Hill
Long-haired preachers come out every night, Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right; But when asked how ’bout something to eat They will answer with voices so sweet:
You will eat, bye and bye, In that glorious land above the sky; Work and pray, live on hay, You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.
And the starvation army they play, And they sing and they clap and they pray, Till they get all your coin on the drum, Then they tell you when you’re on the bum:
Holy Rollers and Jumpers come out, And they holler, they jump and they shout “Give your money to Jesus,” they say, “He will cure all diseases today.”
If you fight hard for children and wife, Try to get something good in this life, You’re a sinner and bad man, they tell, When you die you will sure go to hell.
Workingmen of all countries, unite, Side by side we for freedom will fight: When the world and its wealth we have gained To the grafters we’ll sing this refrain:
You will eat, bye and bye, When you’ve learned how to cook and to fry; Chop some wood, ’twill do you good, And you’ll eat in the sweet bye and bye.
Does the answer lie in the ideas of Teilhard de Chardin?
By Matthew Taylor
In 2014, Pope Francis confirmed that the idea of the expanding universe (the Big Bang) and Evolution are both true and compatible with Christian belief. At a meeting at the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for the Sciences, Pope Francis said that God;
… created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfilment. Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve
(BBC News, 2014)
These comments by the Pope provoked debate. The supporters of the papal statement viewed it as a sign of the church progressing. In contrast, many conservative commentators, including prominent creationists, criticised and opposed the Pope’s comments.
The idea that Creation, the Big Bang and evolution are compatible with each other has become increasingly popular within progressive and mainstream Christianity. Christianity is adapting to the 21st century. In fact, in a 2019 interview on Newsnight, renowned New Atheist Richard Dawkins expressed his satisfaction that the majority of Church of England bishops now believe in evolution, dismissing overly literal interpretations of the bible, like the story of Adam and Eve.
The overlap between the Creation and the Big Bang is even promoted in popular culture. For example in the 2014 film, Noah, there is a sequence where the audience is shown the Big Bang and evolution while the Book of Genesis is recited.
It is Georges Lemaître, a Roman Catholic priest and astronomer, who is credited with being the first to suggest that the universe is expanding.
Many people think religion and science can coexist amicably. Evidently, for the church to be relevant in contemporary society, it must adapt and incorporate new scientific ideas. Those who think the Creation, the Big Bang and evolution are compatible have their heroes. It is Georges Lemaître, a Roman Catholic priest and astronomer who is credited with being the first to suggest that the universe is expanding. Lemaître is widely accepted as having founded the theory of the ‘Big Bang’.
In my previous article, Towards A New British Liberation Theology , I discussed how the church needed to adapt to an increasingly secular society by adopting the progressive ideas of Liberation Theology. Religion and science coexisting in closer harmony is also a part of the solution. By accepting and incorporating the important ideas of science, the church stays relevant, and as a result, it can engage more effectively in debates surrounding science and the use and abuse of technology.
From the time of the Enlightenment, science and reason have been portrayed by its advocates as being superior to religion and in opposition to it. According to the enlightenment thinkers, religion would become extinct and science and reason would reign over the world. This legacy is alive today, and reflected in the fact that European society is becoming more and more secular.
More religious people should accept and adopt proven scientific discoveries and facts, rather than opposing them.
It appears then, that the predictions of the Enlightenment could be accurate. But religion and science do not have to be at loggerheads with each other at all. One of them does not have to win out over the other. They can be compatible and coexist. There is no need for false enmity. More religious people should accept and adopt proven scientific discoveries and facts, rather than opposing them.
The 19th century saw great advancement in science and technology and in all fields. Unfortunately, the initial response of the church was to reject modernity. Instead of deferring to science, the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) reaffirmed papal infallibility. In the 19th century, fundamentalist Christianity started up in North America and gave birth to America’s powerful Bible Belt. Many people in the US Bible Belt, notoriously, oppose the idea of evolution.
Unfortunately, the initial response of the church was to reject modernity.
In the end, are religion and science compatible? What theology, philosophy or theory can align them both with each other? Who can achieve this task? Perhaps the answer lies in the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). Teilhard was a French Roman Catholic priest, theologian and a scientist and palaeontologist. Teilhard also believed in the idea of evolution. Teilhard worked towards establishing a creation theology that reconciled religion and science and modernised the church’s outlook.
When they were first published, Teilhard’s views were divisive and rejected by the Roman Catholic church, even resulting in a posthumous condemnation in 1962 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. The Congregation accused him of doctrinal error.
In the 19th century, fundamentalist Christianity started up in North America and gave birth to America’s powerful Bible Belt. Many people there, notoriously, oppose the idea of evolution.
Then, slowly, within the church, attitudes towards Teilhard became more positive. Teilhard’s views on reconciling Catholicism with science may have influenced Pope Francis’s 2014 comments that evolution is consistent with creation. Meanwhile, the majority of scientists remain highly critical of Teilhard’s ideas. The majority reject these ideas outright, dismissing them as metaphysics.
Teilhard is not the only theologian to try to reconcile religion and science and his ideas are not the only ones available. Nevertheless, Teilhard has been highly influential in this debate about religion and science and he has won the respect of prominent church leaders over the years. He should be given greater recognition.
According to Teilhard, Homo Sapiens are not the final outcome of the evolutionary process.
Teilhard’s best known theory is that of the Omega Point. The Omega Point, according to Draper (2015) is a supposed future event where, eventually, the universe containing all matter, energy and thought will reach a point of divine unification. Teilhard outlines his theory in a book published posthumously in 1959, The Phenomenon of Man.
In Teilhard’s version, evolution is a progression that starts with matter and energy. That matter and energy transform into life and all life will evolve into a state of divine consciousness. According to Teilhard, Homo Sapiens are not the final outcome of the evolutionary process. Instead, life causes a cerebral layer to come into being in the form of thought. This produces what Teilhard calls theNoosphere.
The evolutionary process continues and the Noosphere gains in strength, eventually becoming the Omega Point, the moment when all creation is united into a divine consciousness. In other words, for Teilhard, evolution is a work in progress until it reaches its final destination – unity with God. For Teilhard, as Hickey (2016) points out, Jesus Christ is the Logosand draws all things to him. In Christology, Jesus is the Word of God. The ‘Word became flesh’ (John 1:14, NRSV). By this logic, Jesus is God and he symbolises the future divine unification.
Pope Francis’s use of the word fulfillment in the context of evolution, strongly suggests the influence of Teilhard de Chardin.
Teilhard blends theology and science. His intention is to create a new Christianity that can coexist with modern science and that draws from science. However, Teilhard’s theory departs from traditional Christian beliefs. Mainstream Christianity believes that Jesus is God come to earth to atone for sins of humanity, whilst Teilhard’s Christianity focuses heavily on the cosmos and how eventually everything will unite in God.
Mainstream Christianity looks forward to a future event called the Second Coming of Christ, however this religious idea does not have anything to say about the fate of the cosmos, so perhaps there is room for Teilhard’s ideas in traditional Christianity.
… for Teilhard, evolution is a work in progress until it reaches its final destination – unity with God.
Many of my progressive Christian friends reconcile religion and science in cosmic terms in a more straightforward way. For them, the trigger that caused the Big Bang was God. This is a traditional, commonly held Christian view. They find no obvious contradiction between their Christianity and the concept of an expanding universe. Perhaps, Pope Francis also takes this simpler view. However, Pope Francis’s use of the word fulfillment in the context of evolution, suggests the influence of Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard is an influential figure.
There are different ways to reconcile religion with science. This article does not argue in favour of Teilhard’s ideas or against them, rather it argues that Christians and non-Christians alike should take Teilhard’s ideas into account in their conversations and give him more recognition.
All Bible Quotations are from NRSV
Aronofsky, D. (Director). (2014). Noah [Film]. Regency Enterprises, Protoza Pictures.
Matthew Taylor lives in North Wales. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from University of Chester. Matthew has an interest in the humanities and current affairs and which he writes on. He is an active member of Christian, voluntary and campaign groups.
We want a church that’s on the side of the poor and the persecuted.
By Matthew Taylor
Excitingly, Matthew Taylor proposes a new British Liberation theology as a way forward for the church to get back to where it belongs; in the community. There are precedents for a British Liberation Theology. Matthew Taylor argues that ‘Benn was also a proponent of Christian socialism and it is within his Christian socialism where we see this example of Liberation Theology at work in Britain.’ He points to Justin Welby’s opposition to austerity, and the progressive politics of Rowan Williams, Welby’s predecessor.
When we consider the theology of liberation, we mostly associate it with the continent where it was born, Latin America. It all began in 1968, where Roman Catholic bishops met at the Second Episcopal Conference of Latin America, which washeld in Medellín Columbia. Their purpose was to interpret the outcome of the Second Vatican Council in the regional context of Latin America.
The mid-twentieth century was a time of much cultural change. The conference was at the time of the Swinging Sixties, the Cold War, and neo-colonialism. Many of Latin America’s countries were trying to forge their own economic, political and social paths free of the influence of the dominant imperial power in the region, the USA.
Liberation Theology enabled people in academia and the clergy to call for justice in a world where it seemed there was none
This new direction in theology was part of a broader struggle centring around issues of poverty and inequality. In most Latin American countries there was a social divide, with high rates of poor living conditions and poverty. At the same time, wealthy Latin Americans enriched themselves even more. In other countries in the region there was political unrest that resulted in dictatorships and military governments such as Peron in Argentina.
These issues were the concerns of the bishops, who met at the conference. That summit marked the symbolic birth of Liberation Theology, It was a theology which provided justification for many in academia and the clergy, to call for justice in a world where it seemed there was none.
Liberation Theology was opposed fiercely by the regimes it spoke out against and by the USA. Even people who you would think would be on the same side opposed the Liberation Theologists on the grounds that the church should have no role in politics. The Roman Catholic church itself was divided over the question of Liberation Theology andthere is a famous picture of Pope John Paul II berating a Latin American priest. Many liberation theologians were silenced or censored or even martyred. St. Oscar Romero and the UCA scholars were assassinated and martyred.
… it is in this unjust world where Christianity finds its role, purpose, and mission in the contemporary era.
In the 21st century however Liberation Theology has become more accepted, even influencing the role of church leaders. Much of Pope Francis’ work and many of his remarks and comments resemble the ideas put forward by Liberation Theologians. Liberation theology has given the church relevance in the modern world. When Liberation Theology arrived in North America it inspired feminist and black theology.
Although, prior to the birth of Liberation Theology, there was the work of Mary Cady Stanton and The Woman’s Bible. Liberation Theology is a now considered to be a popular tradition in the contemporary church.
The church after all has a history of patriarchy, enforcing gender roles, inspiring social discrimination against the LGBT community, supporting colonialism and slavery (as well as financially gaining from it) persecuting indigenous peoples, and inspiring attitudes such as antisemitism.
Much of the work in theology we have seen over the past century has questioned how the Christian faith should respond to an ever-changing world. Christianity must change and adapt. Theology must respond to historical context and be practical.
Gone is the time when theology was the queen of the sciences. Gone are the days when the church was part of the British state. Gone are the days when the church had significant influence and privilege in society. Gone are the times when the people relied on the church for guidance, council, education and even healthcare.
Christianity is no longer mainstream in the UK, with many questioning its relevance in modern society; Christians are side-lined.
Nowadays, in the UK, Christians are side-lined. In an era of scientific enlightenment and progress, religion is pushed back and many regard it as mere superstition and myth. The church has become starved and stretched socially, politically, culturally, and economically. Modernity seems to have truly turned the tables on religion. Capitalism shows no sign of ending. In fact, we are in late-stage capitalism, which encourages the growth of individualism and thrives on selfishness. Capitalism creates great social divides. However, it is exactly here, in this unjust world, where Christianity can find its role, purpose, and mission in the contemporary era.
The church has become starved and stretched socially, politically, culturally, and economically
As secularisation marches on, the church joins the poor, the starving. Church members link arms with the oppressed and the ignored. Yet, despite the fact that the church is now actively derided and sidelined and despite the fact that it has such limited resources, it is still portrayed by some as a source of injustice.
In part, this image of the church is justifiable. The church of the 20th century has a dark side: more recently – and more difficult to forgive – there was the uncovering of the abuse scandals in the church. The church, after all, upheld the patriarchy, enforced gender roles and inspired social discrimination against the LGBT community. It supported colonialism and slavery, and even benefitted financially from it, it persecuted indigenous peoples, and inspired and tolerated antisemitism.
In the UK, the Christian church – religion in general – is regarded as a prime cause of many social evils, and its critics support secularism and the disestablishment of the church from the state.
The increasing distance between state and church in the UK makes religion less influential, but it also protects the church from the corruption that goes along with collaborating with the British establishment. This is the stance of many pro-secular Christians. They do not want the church to cosy up to power.
There is a window of opportunity here for us to develop a theology to explain the reasons for secularisation and coexist peacefully with it; a theology that attempts to come to terms with the controversial past of the church and to understand what Christianity’s current place is in a world that is increasingly against it, or indifferent. Such a theology is the theology of liberation. This theology provides the answers to the questions asked about the church’s place in the British society in the first quarter of the 21st century.
Towards a new British Liberation Theology
Early Christianity was not the Christianity of grand cathedrals and political influence which people commonly associate with the established church today. There were no paid positions, either. Jesus and the apostles congregated in each other’s homes. No one bowed down to them. Christianity’s early leaders lived in the same streets and alleys as the poor and the outcasts. Their ministry was practical, reaching out to those in need, teaching and healing.
The Christianity of the New Testament was poor, homeless, and persecuted.
It was the life the disciples chose; to give up their possessions and follow Christ. It was an uncomfortable life. Christians in the early church needed each other, supported each other and reached out to others who were also suffering and cast out. The early church was a community, a family, a collective. The central figure of the faith, Jesus, was born poor, yet he said things and did things that astonished and moved everyone. Then, unjustly, Jesus was betrayed, humiliated, tortured and executed for his message – which was love.
It has to be asked, has the church gone in the right direction? Is this the church that Jesus would recognise? Have we become the Pharisees whom Jesus warned his disciples against?
The early church was poor and downtrodden and the early church was with the poor and downtrodden. This was the church of the New Testament. When the church became a prestigious, wealthy and powerful institution Christianity departed from its humble beginnings and the problems began. To quote Mark Twain “If Christ were here there is one thing he would not be – a Christian”. Christianity, as a whole, lost its way. Jesus taught that his followers should be willing to lose their life (Mark 8:35, NRSV) and sell all that they own, to follow him (Matthew 19:16 -30, NRSV).
… is this the church that Jesus would recognise?
But, in the end, the power and influence of the church didn’t last. Over the past several decades, it has seen a rapid decline. Churches in the UK are downsizing, relying more and more on their congregations – members of the laity – to help at services. The church is closing and selling off many of its buildings, buildings which are being converted into luxury flats and office space. The church is considering drastic changes and cuts.
Practically and financially, the situation is no longer viable. Now it is time for the church to return to the way it was when it started. We must live in the community and be a part of it. We must share the suffering of the poor. We must practice liberation theology.
It’s happening: the Christianity that began with nothing but a community and its faith is going back to that model again. In the secular age, the church is returning to its New Testament roots; it is going back to being as it should be. In the 21st century churches are used as homeless shelters, food banks, Covid test centres, vaccine centres; as places for group counselling and for a range of community outreach organisations and support groups.
Today, the church is starting to return to its original mission; it is reaching out to the community again. Where before the church was seen to be asserting its authority, now it is offering practical, psychological and spiritual aid.
if the church identifies itself with the Jesus of history then it is obliged to side with the poor and marginalised.
Although the UK was the first country to industrialise, and despite the fact that it is the 5th or 6th richest country in the world, in 2020, 14.4 million people in Britain were living in relative poverty. In 2019 Shelter reported that 280,000 people in Britain were homeless. According to the National Literacy Trust, 16% of adults in Britain are illiterate, and life expectancy has stopped falling.
Since 2010 Britain has had successive conservative governments who introduced austerity measures and made cuts to public services. These cuts have caused such poverty, that many people need to rely on food banks in order to feed their children.
Most notably, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has spoken out against the Conservative government’s austerity measures. Since he became Archbishop in 2013, Welby has criticised austerity measures, and voiced his concerns over welfare reforms and the lack of social housing. In fact, Welby provided the government with an ambitious plan to help solve the UK housing crisis by building houses on church owned land. Welby also caused controversy by speaking at the 2018 Trade Union Conference, saying:
‘justice is who God is……The bible is political from one end to the other……Jesus was highly political, He told the rich that they would face woes. He criticised the King of the time as a fox. He spoke harsh words to leaders of the nations when they were uncaring of the needy’
Christianity has often come out in defense of the poor in the UK. Welby is not the first Archbishop of Canterbury to be outspoken. I also noted his predecessor Rowan Williams spoke out on the issue of poverty in Britain. We could add St. Thomas Becket and High Chancellor St Thomas More to the list of religious people who opposed arbitrary and unjust power. William Wilberforce was a devout Christian. Chapels played a strong part in the foundation of trade unions in Britain in the 19th century.
Since he became Archbishop in 2013, [Justin] Welby has criticised austerity measures, voicing his concerns over the consequences of welfare reforms and the lack of social housing,
Welby is part of a trend. Pope Francis and the established clergy, are now more accepting of Liberation Theology and open to discussing it and even implementing it. In the same Trade Union Conference speech given by Welby, he referred to a time when the Church of England opposed Trade Unions and then he delivered the arguments of Archbishop Tait in 1879 century who urged the church to accept and support the Trade Union movement.
Today’s church has been active in society, supporting communities and fighting poverty. Increasingly, this is becoming the visible role of the church in British society. The Church of England’s current leader clearly thinks that one of his most important missions is to combat poverty..
… the church must now embrace this new place, whereby it may no longer be on the side of power and wealth and instead on the other side, with the poor and marginalised.
Tony Benn is best remembered as a socialist writer, a Member of Parliament, and Harold Wilson’s Postmaster General. He was also a pilot during the war. Benn was an eloquent supporter of socialism, but, at the same time, Benn was also a proponent of Christian socialism and it is from the example of his Christian socialism that we see a modern day Liberation Theology at work in Britain. Benn was the son of Margaret Wedgwood Benn, a feminist theologian who quarrelled with the Church of England over its then views on women in the church, particularly its opposition to women to in positions of leaderships.
Tony Benn’s mother was also President of the Congregational Federation and a member of the League of the Church Militant. Benn was a committed Christian. Benn viewed Jesus as a political figure. Benn focused on the figure of the carpenter who was the Jesus of history who called for social justice and equality. According to Benn, a Christ of faith divorced from the Christ of history is often used to justify power and wealth. Focusing on the Christ of history, makes Jesus more relevant, according to Benn. From Benn’s Christianity we see that if the church identifies itself with the Jesus of history, then it is obliged to side with the poor and marginalised.
Welby and Benn each provide a separate contribution to make up the whole: Benn demonstrates that such thinking exists, and Welby proves that it can be put into practice. Together they exemplify the British Theology of Liberation.
British Liberation Theology emerges from the Latin American tradition.
In Latin America, Liberation Theology, struggles in a world where there are gaping social divides. Britain is economically developed, yet many citizens lived in poverty here and here too there is a great social divide between rich and poor. Therefore, British Liberation Theology can emerge and develop from the Latin American tradition; it addresses the same issues of inequality, but in a different, more developed context. Addressing the genuine issues faced by a society in specific contexts as they emerge is the heart of Liberation Theology.
Welby and Benn are not the only figures in British Liberation Theology, there are many others. Britain prides itself in having a long and diverse history and heritage, so it is also rich in this contemporary Christian tradition: Trevor Huddleston, Emily Davison, Elizabeth Fry are all figures of the church. They are also important to British theology. They had a faith in Jesus Christ. They were inspired to work towards a better world and we Christians should follow their example.
I have attempted to explore the church’s place in this new Great Britain. If Christians want to have an active yet positive impact, then the direction for the church to take is liberation theology.
Matthew Taylor lives in North Wales. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from University of Chester. Matthew has an interest in the humanities and current affairs and which he writes on. He is an active member of Christian, voluntary and campaign groups.
I’ve recently decided to become a Quaker. I went to a Quaker boarding school in North Yorkshire when I was a boy and hated the skinheads there, but loved the silences. The Quakers are extremely progressive. Christianity can be quite as profound as the most profound Eastern philosophy.
From St John of the Cross
To reach satisfaction in all desire its possession in nothing.
To come to possession in all desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all desire to be nothing.
To come to the knowledge of all desire the knowledge of nothing.
To come to the pleasure you have not you must go by the way in which you enjoy not.
To come to the knowledge you have not you must go by the way in which you know not.
To come to the possession you have not you must go by the way in which you possess not.
To come by the what you are not you must go by a way in which you are not.
When you turn toward something you cease to cast yourself upon the all.
For to go from all to the all you must deny yourself of all in all.
Translation by Kieran Kavanaugh
What are the benefits of religion?
Religion can transform us into moral actors. It anchors us in history. It is co-operative and collective philanthropy. Our religion, whichever that may be, gives us access to a well spring of values. Religion is the secret skeleton key that opens up art and culture.
Theology and philosophy are intertwined like snakes on the staff of Caduceus. Our religion offers us the low hanging fruit of profound introspections carried out into the nature of life and reality by many thinkers like St Augustine, St Francis, Thomas Aquinas, Spinoza, and even Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
By embracing religion every chapel, church and cathedral in the world becomes yours and every mosque and temple becomes a place where your cousins go to worship.
By embracing religion every chapel, church and cathedral in the world becomes yours and every mosque and temple becomes a place where your cousins go to worship.
The meaning of everything changes when you choose to become a spiritual practitioner rather than a mere spectator. When you practice your religion collectively and responsibly and hold faith with its principles of equality and service and social justice religion becomes deeply political. Tony Benn understood. The Jesuits in Latin America have fought for indigenous rights from the moment they reached the Americas.
An atheist misses the point. An atheist might walk to Notre Dame and remark on the amazing flying buttresses and the abundance of sculptural decoration. The flying buttresses, of course, carry the weight of the structure, allowing the walls to be higher and thinner giving the interior a sense of open space. The use of six part rib vaults means the ceilings are higher in Notre Dame than in other cathedrals and there is more light at the altar thanks to the larger transepts.
An atheist might be moved by the beauty of the Rose window and note that Notre Dame was one of the three most important buildings in Paris. He sees that Napoleon was crowned here and an English king and that Notre Dame contains many pieces of great art: tapestries, carvings, beautiful inlay and work in gold, paintings.
But all this is not the essence of Notre Dame.
My mother was born in the Marais, from where, she told me, you can see the cathedral. We planned a holiday to France, my family and I. However, just before the holiday I was called away to my mother’s death bed in South Africa.
My family went ahead, and left to Paris. They were terribly sad, but they went. My wife decided that they would pray for my mother so they went to the nearest church, which happened to be Notre Dame. They went into Notre Dame and lit a candle and prayed there for an hour or so for my mother. We found out later that it was in that hour she died.
Notre Dame’s essence is that it has a purpose, a use.
Nine hundred years ago someone else was in Notre Dame praying for the soul of someone they loved, and any Catholic, from anywhere in the world feels at home in all Catholic churches, chapels and cathedrals everywhere. There is a unity of worship in the church that has arisen across time and space. Catholics put their religion to good use.
A cathedral like Notre Dame is to be inhabited by collective prayer, not to be examined at arms length with a quizzical expression.
Choose the religion of your community
I once witnessed an interesting argument. Culturally, from nose to toes, Nadeem is a Muslim. Isaac, on the other hand converted to Islam. Now, there is a very good reason for everyone who is religious and a monotheist to convert to Islam and that is Tawhid. Christianity is a little messed up by the nonsense of the trinity and there is always someone or other in front of you ‘interpreting’ God to you.
Islam puts it more simply. For example, even the house of the Prophet is demolished in Mecca because to worship a human being is shirk. Islam says that there is God on the one hand and then there is what God created. Nothing can or should be worshipped except God. You may venerate and respect Mohammed and the Virgin Mary and Abraham and Jesus, but you must never worship them. Never worship the presence of God in yourself or God in another human being either because he just isn’t there.
Tawhid gives you an enormous freedom. All Muslims are created equal and they are all buried in the same way; in a clean winding sheet in the sand or the earth. It doesn’t matter how powerful or influential you are, your body goes into the ground unclothed.
The freedom that Islam gives you is an immediate and direct relationship with God the creator which is only filtered through the word of the creator, which is the Koran. This gives people enormous scope because what it does is say that there is nothing between you and your God and whatever happens between you and God is immediate, all encompassing and utterly intimate. There is no Jesus to melt your heart, just the infinite omnipotent, omniscience.
Isaac read all about this in Cheam and chose Islam, despite the fact that he came from Cheam, because he was a lucid and rational man and rather alienated. He certainly paid his dues. He went to Medina and lived there for years studying the Koran from the age of 18. He shared a room with six other students and survived in Medina on a pittance. His Arabic is almost perfect, though it is only Fus’ha, not the common speech of Arabia.
Isaac and Nadeem liked the same Islamic scholar. The name of the scholar escapes me, but Nadeem is a Muslim by culture and Isaac a Muslim by conversion and Nadeem is older and complicated and contradictory and he regards Isaac with suspicion.
Isaac regarded Nadeem with annoyance. What is the difference between Isaac’s Islam and Nadeem’s? I would say that Nadeem’s Islam is far more profound and that Isaac’s Islam is oversimplified because, t some extent, it ignores the cultural and social dimension of Islam.
No matter how educated and intense and hard fought for his knowledge of Islam is, it is still shallower in comparison with Nadeem’s because Nadeem is a Muslim by culture. Isaac would claim that his idea of Islam is ‘purer’ and closer to the fundamentals of his religion, but simplification is not purity.
For me, the point is that we need to pick low hanging fruit. If we have religious instincts we should be more like Nadeem and less like Isaac. We should reach for what is closest to us, what is only a breath away; for our lapsed Christianity, not for some creed, written in a language that takes most people a lifetime to master.
Remember the awful spiritual poverty of the USSR
When the Soviets stripped Russia, and many other countries, of religion in the name of progress they didn’t understand that they were stripping off a living, breathing part of people’s lives.
They were, however, aware that they were destroying a competing value system. There was no freedom of belief for the Soviet people in the western part of the USSR. The Soviets behaved like Tsar Peter, whom they admired. But while Tsar Peter ordered that in the name of progress all men had to shave off their beards the Soviets ordered everyone to abandon God, a great beating heart of Russian culture and life.
Religion, to the Soviets, was there for the rich to keep the poor in their place, an instrument of the oppressor, so they banned it and set up museums of atheism and religion where they mocked people’s beliefs.
In so doing the Soviets left a religion sized hole that could not be filled by science or hero worship. It could not be filled by evolutionary theory. It was a hole that could not even be filled by the glorification of work. Not even the greatest achievements of humanity sufficed; nor art, romantic love or philanthropy.
There was no replacement for religion and when it was removed. What flowed into its place instead was vodka and a form of WWII patriotism; a cult of the worship of dead heroes.
Socialists need to fight back against right-wing evangelism
Through religion, as a form of concerted political action, we could also organise a fight back against the mad and bad right wing bowdlerisers of spirituality who try to shape it into an ideological defense of the American dream and capitalism.
Bad people don’t abandon religion, they use it as a weapon. Good people shouldn’t abandon it either. We can’t leave the running to nutcases like Trump’s Paula White and her ‘angels dispatched from Africa’.
We need to stop being religious tourists, spiritual spectators and non-combatants. Socialists need to reconsider the question of how they deal with spiritual matters, and start by standing up for the progressive elements of religion – by putting some skin in the game.
I said to my Catholic wife that I would like to be a Catholic. She blanched, grimaced and answered:
‘I am a Catholic because I was born a Catholic. If I were born something else I would be something else. You should look for your own thing.’
So, I have decided to join the Quakers instead. I went to a Quaker boarding school in the north for years. I love Quaker silences. That’s the community of belief for me – and they are very progressive on Palestine.
Post script:After I published the article on different socialist group sites the reaction was an eye opener. The level of intolerance towards religious people seems very high. While the Labour Party and other organisations seem concerned with reducing anti-Muslim prejudice and anti-Semitism many of the people who consider themselves to be socialists and supporters of socialism express strongly anti-religious views. These views serves to disguise their anti-Semitism, their anti-Muslim feeling and their anti-Catholicism. A vituperative attack on ‘all religion’ is their cipher for an attack on Muslims and Catholics; this despite the fact that many Muslims and Catholics identify themselves as socialists. Anti-Catholicism, while seeming justified after many abuse scandals, has a long and shameful past in the UK since the Reformation. On several websites the moderators seem to have shared the intolerant view on religion of the people posting below the line. I was contacted privately and thanked by several Christians who felt that as socialists they had been ignored, sidelined or insulted.
Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.