A year of giving dangerously?

Christians often tend to be a bit rubbish when it comes to discussing money.  In many secular contexts, there’s an implicit ban on discussing religion or politics – in a Christian setting, it’s money that gets the cold shoulder, which is strange when you notice that Jesus had quite a bit to say about it.  If you raise the topic, it’s either because you are guilting someone else to dispense from their largesse, or because you have something to brag about.

Believe me, this is neither.  It’s because my wife and I tried an experiment and it has left us excited and wanting to repeat the exercise.  But, first a word of background.

I was raised in a ‘generous church’ in my home village.  JB, one of the church leaders, got up at 4.00am to milk the cows.  Then he cycled several miles to the nearest railway station, and commuted into London where he put in a day’s work at the Bank of England.  At the end of the day, the same practice in reverse.  He and his wife gave away most of what he earned.  One of my best friends decided with his new wife, that they would ‘tithe’ 90% of their income and keep 10% (tithing is the other way around) and see how they managed.  And they discovered that they managed just fine.  Another good friend, who only recently went home to glory, gave away 50% of everything he earned over his entire lifetime.

That kind of background tends to influence your outlook.  It has meant that there has never been any room for complacency when it comes to charitable giving, and led to that restless sense that we could always do more.  Last year, during COVID, because there was so much that we could now not do, due to lockdown, we found ourselves looking more closely at the money question.

This coincided with an increasing involvement in Great Lakes Outreach, a Christian charity engaged in genuinely transformative work in Burundi, and where the indigenous Christians appear not to have our hangups over money.  Here, in the UK, we take our time to mull over our vision and mission statements.  We analyse to the nth degree the nature of our projects.  We construct intricate business plans, create carefully-weighted budgets, in order to see whether or not we can do this thing which seems important.  Over there in Burundi, they crack on with the mission, and worry about the funds for it later on.  Here in the UK, we have the luxury of navel-gazing – out there, they really don’t.  It’s a matter of life and death, and that requires real faithfulness.

Against that background, and having become part of a praying community which is focused on making a real difference, we found that giving became a natural part of what we are about.  Not a kind of non-specific, scattergun approach, triggered by oversensitive consciences, but rather a very specific, need-related motivation.  We helped a little boy receive a life-saving operation.  We helped pay for a prosthetic limb.  We supported some supremely gifted Christians active in public service.  We were involved in a project which distributed 9,000 healthcards to families that could not afford healthcare – and which is continuing to support families in this basic way.  We helped buy sewing machines for women rescued from prostitution.  There were more instances, but those are the initiatives which I can now recall from memory.

Naturally enough, this led to an increase in giving, at a time when our income has dropped by 60%, as I move into retirement.  Initially, we were a little cautious about this change, and it’s only yesterday that I took the step of totting the figures up, to discover that, during the 20/21 tax year, we gave away 46% of our net income.  This represented a doubling on the previous year, but here’s the thing – not only was it not painful, and we managed just fine on 54% of our reduced income, but God seemed to compensate for us in other ways.  Our experience has been less about giving than it has been about investing. The Bible speaks of God being ‘no man’s debtor’, and that has certainly been our own experience – and we’re just blown away to see what has actually been done, on the ground, with our relatively modest contributions.

As we enter the new tax-year, my wife and I are asking ourselves, what more can we do this year?  Whilst we are earnestly praying that we may soon emerge from lockdown, so that we can better serve, it remains the case that financial giving has been the means of freeing up others to make such a profound difference.  But that doesn’t happen in a vacuum:  will you be intentional in your giving in 2021?

Book Recommendation:

Earlier this year, I read ‘Gospel Patrons’ by John Rinehart – a challenging introduction to three groups of Christians who literally changed their culture through giving. If you’re looking for a mission in your life, why not read the book and take steps to become a ‘Gospel Patron’?

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Return of the God Hypothesis?

There’s been quite a bit of advance publicity for this new book from Dr. Steve Meyer, which won’t be available here in the UK before the end of April.  I was fortunate to obtain a copy from a friend in the US, and it took me a week to read it and annotate the content carefully.  This is a book which repays careful study.

I have also benefitted from reading the author’s other two significant works, Signature in the Cell (2009), and Darwin’s Doubt (2013), both of which were widely acclaimed.  This is another substantial text (450 pages excluding references), and it demonstrates Dr. Meyer’s remarkable ability to take extremely complex ideas (there’s quite a bit on quantum cosmology, for instance) and make them accessible to the public.  It was, at times, a challenging read, but then for anyone other than the High Priests of Theoretical Physics, I suspect that attempting to get one’s head around the Universal Wave Function, or the quantum cosmological models of Vilenkin and Hawkins-Hartle is going to result in some overheating of the neurological circuits.

In fact, Meyer makes the journey as easy as he can.  The book takes us at a steady pace through a series of logical stages of his argument, an argument which builds on the extensive review of the scientific data in his previous two books.  Wherever possible, he reminds us of the main themes and conclusions in previous chapters.  Often there’s a bit or reiteration, to help the significance of the ideas sink in: initially, I found that the repetition grated a little, until I realised the importance of holding multiple complex ideas in one’s head simultaneously in order to understand their synergies. The book is well-written: it doesn’t talk down to its readers, neither does it make unrealistic assumptions about our capacity to interact with the highly abstract concepts that the academics work with.

In the runup to the publication of ROTGH, I have witnessed first hand the nature of the kind of atheistic fightback against the very idea of such a book.  Repeatedly, we’re told that Meyer is ‘not a proper scientist’, that he’s just pushing ‘creationist polemic’.  The widespread success of his previous publications is used to argue that he’s just in it for the money – and the sceptics who come up with that one, use it to justify their determination not to read the book.  And, of course, there’s the repetition of that hoary old chestnut, that Meyer is ‘just pushing religion’ – and as we’re all supposed to know, religion has nothing to do with science, indeed its adherents must huddle away in dark corners and self-censor.

Of course, none of those kinds of accusations are even remotely true.  They are the product of a mindset which delights in its own intellectual prison, and is determined never to venture outside its own self-imposed constraints.  Meyer is handing them the key to get out of gaol, but the signs are that there are plenty who wouldn’t take it.  Indeed, based upon the fact that history seems to repeat itself ad nauseam, I’m bracing myself for the usual slew of highly negative reviews which, if they tell us anything dependable, absolutely demonstrate that the reviewers have not read the book.

For those familiar with Meyer’s other work, there are few surprises here.  The level of rigour, and the very extensive and balanced treatment of the full scope of the academic research is consistent throughout.  There are exquisite moments when he goes behind the kind of popularist science (Hawking and Dawkins) to show that these atheistic catechisms often do not accurately reflect the uncertainties and ambiguities of the actual scientific research, from which they form their metaphysical  conclusions.  There’s some helpful analysis where Meyer checks out the actual historical background to the kind of polemic routinely used by popularisers of atheism masquerading as science (Neil deGrasse Tyson being a good example) and discovers clear evidence of systemic misrepresentation.  And there’s a persuasive enough sampling of the views of prominent scientists who, whilst adhering to a materialistic view of the universe, are not so prone to self-hypnosis that they would claim that they have espoused this position because of the data.

Meyer conclusively demonstrates that the constructs and speculations of quantum cosmology, conceived to avoid the design implications of the Big Bang, ultimately have the effect of completely undermining the objectivity of scientific endeavour.  As he develops his ‘God Hypothesis’, there is an elegance and a simplicity to his demonstration of theism as the best explanation of the universe as we know it, underpinned by his clear and explicit reliance on exactly the kinds of methodology resorted to by Darwin and other scientists who do not share his beliefs.  

I’m not sure that the ‘God Hypothesis’ ever really went away, largely because the overarching project of science was only ever possible because of the presuppositions of Christian theology.  The kind of binary reductionism (Science v Religion) which became the new dogma when the atheists took over the academic establishment may only be maintained by severely restricting our comprehension of history and philosophy.  Meyer’s book draws all these threads together and concludes with a brief resumé of the disastrous existential impact on us of a universe as redrawn by atheism, leading to a loss of identity, of telos, of moral grounding and ultimately of hope.

This is a substantive and worthwhile book – one that I intend to re-read and cross-reference.  It will be welcomed and read by open-minded people who wish to scrutinise the subject beyond the kind of hand-waving generalisations that we tend to get from the advocates for materialism.

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Fingers and what to do with them

Social media is beginning to resemble a kind of geological column of atheistic memes, cumulatively attesting to a steady erosion of human rational capacity. To wit, the latest example posted by ‘David Attenborough Fans‘ on social media…

Attached to this image of a gorilla finger (left) juxtaposed alongside a human digit (right), we are given the following inspirational thought:

A chimpanzee’s finger and a human finger. Identical in practically every aspect. We don’t come from primates, we are primates.

We are not a race, we are a species. We are animals. We are mammals. We are a product of nature. We belong to it and we are a part of it..

I’m hoping that I don’t need to unpack the direction that this meme is intended to take us in, but it’s difficult to know quite where to begin when faced with this kind of banality. The fact that it is posted uncritically is symptomatic of the sheer scale of damage done to our intellectual culture. And, get this, the damage is being done by those purporting to speak the language of ‘science’.

One introductory thought might be to question the meme’s reliance upon physical appearance. After all, in 1986, Richard Dawkins published The Blind Watchmaker, which quite specifically taught us that the ‘appearance of design’ in biological systems was simply a chimera foisted upon us by those cunning co-conspirators, random mutation and natural selection. Quite clearly, in Dawkins-Land, the appearance of something is not a reliable basis for the kind of intuitive response that an image such as the one above might provoke. Indeed, from this perspective, the uncannily-detailed artefacts of intelligent design must be discarded in favour of the kinds of explanation which bear a more direct resemblance to the writings of Ovid or Democritus than to the kind of empiricism which developed during the 16th & 17th centuries within a distinctively Christian framework. If this is science, Bud, then it’s not science as we once knew it.

But to leave the matter at that level is to artificially constrain our own capacity, as observers uniquely placed to interpret the world around us. After all, the real significance of a digit is what we are capable or inclined to do with it, rather than the mere physical appearance of the thing. Did the owner of the lefthand version paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling? Design The Shard in London? Pen In Parenthesis, the greatest poem of WW1? Come up with the distinct treatments of palliative medicine? Compose Night Train or The Messiah? Design weapons of mass-destruction? Put satellites into space? Construct that searching meditation on suffering in the Book of Job? Willingly set aside a brilliant career in the law in order to care for impoverished and vulnerable people? Methodically torture innocent people in the Lubyanka prison in Moscow?

No. And ‘No’ is without any shadow of a doubt. There is no library on the planet big enough to document all the examples of things which gorilla fingers have never done, that humans have done. Things that exhibit such a spectrum of both glory and evil, that any attempt at a direct comparison between simian and human demonstrates a profound disconnect with reality.

Or rather, perhaps, the raising of two fingers to one’s Creator.

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It’s all about Easter

Daffodils at Parker’s Piece, Cambridge

According to Oliver Wiseman, The Critic’s US Editor (‘Out of this world?’, March 2021), 66% of Americans believe that there is life on other planets, 57% believe there is intelligent life on other planets, and just under 50% believe that UFOs exist and have visited the earth.  This tells us a great deal about how beliefs are now formed in a postmodern world.

Firstly, one is reminded of G. K. Chesterton’s famous quotation: ‘When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.’  Our culture supplies an apparently inexhaustible stream of examples of what happens when we dispense with the only external objective benchmark of human identity or morality, and morph overnight into a generation of selfie-obsessed narcissists without the faintest clue as to what we actually are.

Secondly, the presumption in favour of the inevitability of life on other planets is palpable evidence of the way in which evolutionary theory has become the vehicle for advancing the unscientific philosophy of Naturalism.  Despite everything that is now known, quantifiably, about the vanishingly minute probability of Big Bang cosmology allowing for the chance conditions that would permit biological life, children are being educated into the belief that if you just sprinkle a few choice elements onto the rim of a volcano, and be patient for a few billion years, then David Attenborough will crawl out of the primeval sludge to tell the tale.  It’s not just that there is no evidence for abiogenesis.  Rather it is that everything that we do know about living organisms tells us that it could not have happened that way (ie. based upon Naturalistic presuppositions).

And thirdly, the expensive fascination with the Life On Other Planets myth tells us something about the way in which people will resolutely look away from the One Life On This Planet that tells us everything we need to know about the structure of reality.  Yes, I am speaking of the historic person of Jesus Christ, whose resurrection from the dead Christians will celebrate this coming Easter.  Christianity has always been, at one level, an evidence-based religion.  The Apostle Paul who, until his conversion, was one of the most violent opponents of Christ’s followers, speaks at length not only of the evidences (ie. the many categories of witness), but also of the testable nature of the resurrection claims and the pivotal importance of their truth (1 Corinthians 15).  In that sense, Christianity’s books are always open to inspection, and it is a mystery therefore why atheistic critics tend to tiptoe around the subject.  

Richard Dawkins, in his 2006 anti-God blockbuster The God Delusion, supplies 406 pages of questionable verbiage without demonstrating any sense that the resurrection of Christ might somehow be important.  This is a man who does not care to rest his polemic on anything substantive.  Christopher Hitchens, in his 2007 entertaining rant, God Is Not Great, somehow is able to bring himself to mention, en passant, the R-Word, but only with the lightest of inconsequential touches.  As if Christ’s resurrection is a kind of incidental flourish, or like the sprinkling of silver balls on the icing of a cake.

It is possible that I am now slightly behind the curve, but the only substantive atheistic critique of the resurrection I have encountered takes the form of The Empty Tomb (2005, Prometheus Books), a collection of sceptical essays edited by Robert M. Price and Jeffery Jay Lowder.  It was required reading for my Masters’ Degree, and what depressing reading it was.  I have rarely encountered such a marshalling of strange, arcane and abstract ideas, glued together with sets of presuppositions which were immediately questionable.  For anyone who has read the literature widely enough, this highly selective presentation of certain kinds of data, may actually lead you to believe that perhaps there are alien life-forms, after all.

The Resurrection is important.  From a Christian perspective, it’s all about Easter.  Christ’s crucifixion and subsequent victory over death actually tells you everything you need to know about his identity, and about the nature of reality.  It also provides a rather persuasive confirmation of the authority of his teaching.

Indeed, the Resurrection of Christ is so important, that at Christian Heritage we are very glad to confirm that Dr. Gary Habermas, one of the world’s leading academics on this very subject, will be speaking at our webinar on the 29th March.  Please sign up for this unmissable event.

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Senseless Census

The next Census is on its way, and the folks at Humanists UK, are encouraging the Great British Public to self-identify as irreligious. Two examples of their latest adverts are shown here and they lead to the usual questions about rationality.

Firstly, the whole census is ‘intrusive’, not just those questions about ‘religion’. Whether one chooses not to answer the question at all, or supply the kind of clever, disparaging answer that proclaims to the world just how little regard you have for people who do not share your own views, the nature of the Census is always going, to some extent, to be intrusive.

Secondly, it would be difficult to conclude with any reliability how the results from the last census were actually used – but the reason that there are more faith schools is because there is a demand for them. If the intellectual foundations of atheism are so fragile and vulnerable, then parents clearly have every right not to send their children to a school where they might get infected with such scurrilous ideas as the Christian basis of modern science, or the notion that education itself was the direct product of the Christian worldview. Atheists should have the right to bring their kids up in a hermetically-sealed bubble where they never come into contact with any inconvenient ideas, or have to work hard at the significant questions of life.

Thirdly, if it was ever rational or responsible to answer the Census question on religion by putting ‘Jedi’, then clearly ‘No religion’ will do just fine when representing a worldview which believes that intelligent life can spontaneously emerge from dead elements, and that highly complex life-forms with sophisticated body-plans can appear out of nowhere without any precursors, and without leaving any evidence behind. Modern science has advanced a long way since Paracelsus and Dr. Dee but this ‘no religion’ worldview seems to be heavily dependent upon the kind of religious outlook which gave rise to alchemy.

Fourthly, whilst it is at times quite difficult to detect explicit examples of ‘religion in politics’, the fact is that amongst all of those politicos there are Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Christians and a whole range of other believers. Heck, there are even folks who sincerely believe that Cray supercomputers evolve all on their own. If those Humanists UK folk want to ‘keep religion out of politics’, there’s going to have to be a whole lot of culling. Perhaps that’s what the Woke Agenda is about…

And, fifthly, didn’t I read recently that Humanists UK were lobbying for atheism to be taught in schools alongside religion ?

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Rediscovering Solzhenitsyn

℅ Verhoeff, Bert / Anefo

I’m afraid I was a bit of a late developer when it came to reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s magnum opus, The Gulag Archipelago. In the end, won over I suspect by Jordan Peterson’s emphasis of its significance, in 2017 I bought the condensed volume which incorporated all three instalments of Solzhenitsyn’s monumental treatment of the phenomenon of the Soviet Gulags. My review on the page linked above will hopefully convey my sense of the utter relevance of what is described here.

There are several layers to a work such as this. One is as a record of a particular period in history, describing a cultural phenomenon which happened on the other side of the world, and which, in its sheer scale and brutality is almost beyond Western comprehension. The Wikipedia listing of the Gulag camps is a helpful first point of reference, as it powerfully conveys the scale of the whole machinery of oppression, reminding us that this is very far from being the kind of minor consideration that is of little relevance. Solzhenitsyn makes it clear that there is a very specific kind of human pathology which leads directly to this treatment of our fellows – so neither geographical or cultural remoteness should excuse complacency. After all, as the recent James Norton film demonstrates, there was no shortage of Westerners, including leading politicians, prepared to applaud the Communist regime for its proclaimed successes, despite that remoteness. In a more contemporary context, that lingering admiration and support for Stalin persists through organisations such as the Stalin Society, and various incarnations of the Communist Party in the UK. And as we have noted in the media, whilst various factions are intent on tearing down statues in the West, a new statue of Lenin was erected in Germany in 2020, and an older one has been elevated to a new position in New York. You can find out about the worldwide distribution of Stalin statues here, and of Lenin statues here. Needless to say, there is a noticeable absence of iconoclastic agitation in relation to these visual reminders of one of the greatest evils the world has ever seen.

Solzhenitsyn does not merely narrate his own experience, in the way that some kinds of contemporary account do, as a simple retelling of a series of events where he is the principal witness. He does not cave into the postmodern turn of leaving his reader to draw their own conclusions from a bare narrative. In fact, the nature of his thought processes is laid out throughout his account: there is a painful and continual reflecting on what is happening to him and his compatriots, what he is learning about himself, and what he is discovering about his own culture. David Robertson provides a rather helpful summary of some of these key themes in his own treatment. It is this characteristic of the writing which is most stimulating to our own consideration – Solzhenitsyn is not merely some lab rat, or some tiny component of a bigger dehumanised mass which is consigned to the Siberian wastes. He self-identifies as a unique person who is capable of standing outside of himself in order to observe his own suffering and draw conclusions from it, even whilst he simultaneously remains a prisoner of the subjective experience of it. I still find it remarkable that he was able to write the chapters of the entire book within his own head, and commit the text to memory in readiness for his release.

It is significant, of course, that the nature of Solzhenitsyn’s experience brought him from a Marxist worldview to a very firm Christian commitment. He experienced firsthand the fruits of an ideology which plays with human populations by assigning us to groups, categories that ideologues come up with. He fully understood the proposition that once we have arrived at a model of society which is carved up into groups, then the next and inevitable stage is that those groups are pitted against each other. There are ‘in’ groups and ‘out’ groups. There is an inequitable apportionment of resources or ‘rights’ depending upon which kind of group one is assigned to. There is the ascendancy of a particular category of group, depending upon nothing more objective than the current prevailing ideology. Solzhenitsyn saw right through all of that. It is notable that The Gulag Archipelago includes so many intriguing character studies of individuals, as if the author is contrasting his increasingly Christianised view with the results of Marxist groupthink. Having worked for the last 38 years of my life within a now heavily regulated sector, it seems that Solzhenitsyn’s analysis forms a highly relevant antidote to the current lottery of regulation, where success or suffering are the direct product of group membership, rather than of individual circumstances.

A recent sermon by Rico Tice on Jesus’ parable on the ‘Lost Sheep’ (Luke 15:1-7) made that point quite powerfully. The Pharisees (the religious legalists) reacted negatively to Jesus’ popularity with people who were damaged, or frail, or outcasts by sneering “This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.” In their binary worldview, the Venn diagram comprised two groups, ‘sinners’ and ‘religious’, and there was zero overlap. Jesus responds to that kind of simplistic reductionism by telling three interrelated parables which demonstrate that (a) everyone’s in the same boat, and (b) God sees the value of each individual human being. This was exactly the discovery that Solzhenitsyn made for himself within the Gulag. I finish with his own words:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

(From The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn)

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Ghetto contentment

The Jewish cemetery, in the Prague ghetto (personal photo, 2009)

In the wake of the recent insanities on Capitol Hill, I have taken to re-reading Gertrude Himmelfarb’s excellent book, On Looking Into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society. Published in 1994, it is perhaps unlikely that Himmelfarb (who died towards the end of 2019) would have anticipated these events, as unlikely as it would have been for John Stuart Mill to have anticipated the outworking of his thesis, On Liberty, the book which has been a foundational influence on modern liberalism. Mill’s work benefits from a very clear-sighted critique in Chapter IV of Himmelfarb’s book, entitled Liberty: “One Very Simple Principle”? which demonstrates that the kind of reductionism at the heart of On Liberty has not weathered the passage of time very well. Indeed, the clue to the fundamental weakness in Mill’s optimism about liberalism is to be found in another of his essays, Nature, written only a few months before he commenced On Liberty. It would be difficult to find two views of human nature which had less in common, but it was the naïvely optimistic one which prevailed, because it was the view which most suited the mood of a particular faction of Enlightenment thinkers.

In the USA, Himmelfarb was regarded as a conservative, but in the UK seems to have been favoured by those on the Left (Gordon Brown was a bit of a fan). Certainly, her analysis of the history of ideas has relatively few peers, and upon re-reading it, I was struck afresh by the way in which current secular discourse demonstrates a kind of indifference to its past. Political polemic, certainly in its modern guise, appears to float, unsupported, in mid-air, and therein lies the danger of any superficial attractions for Christians who wish to be ‘salt and light’ within Western culture, given the intimate entwining of secular polemic and political ideology.

Himmelfarb demonstrates how swiftly the secular embodiment of political constructs tends to morph. In her chapter From Marx to Hegel, in commenting on the movement from Hegel to Marx (and back again), via the ‘Young Hegelians’, she comments “What is so fascinating about this story is how rapidly this movement of ideas worked itself out . . . Each deviation inspired a greater deviation, until the entire, beautifully articulated structure of Hegelianism lay in ruins.” (p.58). A few pages later, she follows through this theme, stating that, “. . . this movement of thought – from Hegelianism to Nietzscheanism, one might say – took place in a single decade and on the part of a very small group of very bright, very bold, very articulate and very young men.” (p.61, my emphasis). This was a world of ideas which kicked off by creating a God of reason rather than revelation (Hegel), then evolved into the idea of the man-god (Feuerbach) and swiftly moved onto the godless man (Stirner). Marx’s deeply unflattering concept of the proletariat flowed out of this process, and there are prevalent echoes of this model within modern identity politics.

John Stuart Mill would no doubt be somewhat shocked to see what modern liberalism looks like today. Nietzsche had understood that Mill’s attempt to secularise morality by divorcing it from Christianity was doomed (he called Mill a ‘Flathead’), but at least Mill had some sort of sense of what morality looked like (albeit borrowed from a Christianised memory). In that matter, he was certainly not a relativist, whereas now, unless one is evangelically promulgating some latest flavour of extremist ideology, any perspective other than relativism is regarded as the unforgivable sin. (As Himmelfarb demonstrates, these kinds of ideology do not exactly strive to excel themselves when it comes to consistency). And, in its modern guise, secular liberalism has retained within itself one key component of Mill’s liberalism – namely a profound intolerance towards the public articulation or manifestation of Christian belief. Mill graciously ‘allowed’ (within his model of a liberal society) for such outmoded worldviews to persist, but he wanted them to remain firmly within the ghetto – there is, in his treatment of the subject a very stark, almost binary distinction between the public and the private spheres. He really does not like the idea of a morality which is sanctioned by religion, and demonstrates something of an aversion to the concept of respect for orthodox belief (but heterodoxy – that’s quite another matter). The message is clear: in this model of the liberal society, Christian belief is still permitted (by whom?) but it must remain shut-up in its own (preferably sound-proof) box. It must not be permitted to hold equal standing within the free marketplace of ideas, a marketplace which shows every evidence of entropy without the articulation of a coherent, balancing Christian worldview.

That such an approach is actually, fundamentally, illiberal does not require an especially penetrating mind to see – and yet one encounters variants of it everywhere. The BBC maintains a J. S. Mill model by segregating ‘religious’ broadcasting, so that we might all be very clear that this is something other than ‘normal’ life and culture. Conversely, other, questionable ideologies are given almost limitless airtime, and benefit from a kind of institutional presumption in their favour. Our education system teaches Darwinian Evolution as ‘science’ whilst scrupulously avoiding any kind of historical or cultural insight which might hint at its religious or metaphysical underpinnings. Christians, seeking to offer any kind of public commentary on our culture are now routinely critiqued from some party-political perspective, as if there were no other permissible frame of reference. There is a strong temptation to simply fall into line, resorting to the kinds of terminology and aphorisms which one would expect from a shop-steward, as if that were the only way to be heard. In fact, it seems evident that this is a sure-fire way to get tuned out. One ends up with a vacuous political polemic, garnished with sufficient Christianese to disguise the fatal absence of insight, in order to satisfy the market for religious complacency.

There is an urgent need for Christians to be working hard to think Christianly about our culture. All too-often, what one actually encounters are instances of well-meaning believers reframing matters of faith whilst using a lens borrowed from the secularists. That sort of compromise leads nowhere, very fast. It creates the false impression that secularism possesses the cogency and consistency to which it pretends, and it mutes the genius of Christian faith, so badly needed as public truth today.

For further reading:

Gertrude Himmelfarb – On Looking Into the Abyss

Graeme Smith – A Short History of Secularism

Jacques Barzun – Darwin, Marx, Wagner

Francis Schaeffer – Whatever Happened to the Human Race?

John M. Frame – A History of Western Philosophy and Theology

Roger Scruton – Where we are

Douglas Murray – The Madness of Crowds

Anthony Esolen – Out of the Ashes

Jonathan Haidt – The Righteous Mind

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All memed out

Displayed above is just a representative selection of the memes which now dominate FaceBook. Picking these examples was far from a challenging exercise, because social media is not merely awash with this material, but it could be argued has been wholly overwhelmed by the tsunami of ad-hominems. The above items surfaced over the Christmas period, demonstrating that the ‘season of goodwill’ is a foreign concept to those possessed of a particular kind of ideology. One does not need to adopt an uncritical mien when it comes to the UK Government’s policies to have profound reservations about the kind of message being sent by those who manufacture these memes, and their accomplices who distribute them with a kind of unbridled enthusiasm.

(Incidentally, I accept that memes do not emanate from a single ideological source, and in this article I seek to argue that, irrespective of political bias, they are a far from healthy indicator of the state of our culture. Nevertheless, those that I collated were those that were in plentiful supply, whereas I struggled to locate examples that reflected the other end of the spectrum.)

My guess is that we might possibly engage with these memes differently, if they were accompanied by some kind of careful, rational argument that could be considered in a similar manner. But they are not. The meme has become the message. Those who delight in using them have effectively reduced the entire substance of civil discourse to the use of ad-hominems. Several in the above selection are specifically designed to impugn the moral integrity of others (BoJo and Daniel Hannan). Others are clearly intended to send the message that those Britons who voted for Brexit are simply too stupid to merit consideration. A number of others demonstrate an unquestioning loyalty to the motivations of EU bureaucrats, contrasted with the alleged childish, immature behaviours of British leaders, who could not possibly have any genuine rationale for their actions.

I have racked my brains, and cannot recall any class of politician who was so inviolably in the right, so as to justify portraying others in such a destructive, one-dimensional light. I am pretty sure that those who create these memes, and their acolytes who distribute them would struggle in a similar way. And given that they are clearly not unintelligent people, I suspect that they must know that – in which case the entire machinery for the origination and distribution of these memes is knowingly engaged in the character assassination of those it disagrees with. Nothing more.

From a Christian point of view, there are several points to be made. Firstly, if, as is clear, the promotion of ad-hominems has become a proxy for public discourse, then Christians should have nothing to do with it. Jesus models for us the character of good public discourse, and it is evident that he will have nothing to do with hearsay, nor does he suffer stereotypes gladly (indeed, he delights in subverting stereotypes). Even when he disagrees profoundly with certain individuals (teachers of the law come to mind), you find him pursuing a carefully-reasoned line of argument with them. It is only when his opponents resist rational discourse, that he pronounces judgement upon their stance – and one has to allow that the Son of God is reasonably placed to do so.

Secondly, the overarching purpose of these memes is to simply debase or degrade the status of a perceived opponent. This is exactly what anti-semites in the 19th and 20th centuries set out to do with their posters and cartoons aimed at the Jews. Some of those memes exhibited above attempt to pull off this feat not only with specific named individuals, but also with a sizeable chunk of the electorate. We are being told that there is a particular section of the population which is so stupid, so luddite, and so lacking in basic insights, that these deficiencies give the elite the right to talk down to them (take a look at the paper-clip meme). We should take great care here – our culture is not sufficiently aware of its own history to be immune to repeating past mistakes. Again, Christians cannot become parties to this kind of tactic – the dignity and rights of each individual human being is grounded in the Creation ordinance (Genesis 1:26), not in some arbitrary pronouncement from the UN or the EU. Clearly, those who take their marching orders from those secular humanistic initiatives have little problem in denying to others the rights and dignities that trip so lightly off the tongue, when it suits them.

Thirdly, Jesus teaches us that what we think about others, in our hearts, can be just as wicked as deeds done in the flesh. The ‘judge not lest you be judged’ commandment in Matthew 6 is not an encouragement to abandon critical thinking and rational evaluations of truth and falsehood – but rather a warning that we are not morally better than others around us. In Matthew 5, Jesus draws the direct line between an angry and critical attitude sustained towards others, and the act of murder. It seems reasonable to apply that kind of teaching to the circulation of memes which are clearly intended to damage another person. The nature of a transformed Christian outlook prohibits the kind of copycat hate-crimes embodied in these memes.

Within Western secular culture, over the last couple of decades, there has been a gathering trend towards attacking the individual, rather than ideas. ‘Cancel culture’ deals with an inconvenient perspective by attacking a person’s integrity or reputation, encouraging colleagues and acquaintances to shun the dissident, and ultimately to plot their economic destruction. This is happening too frequently, and in too widespread contexts to merely be a kind of unfortunate anomaly. We can conclude that there is an intentionality here, the same kind of intentionality which lies behind the issuance of these toxic memes. It goes without saying that the Christian community can and should have nothing to do with this kind of phenomenon. Clearly, we are not to be passive and compliant consumers of culture – you only need to look at examples such as William Wilberforce, Dr. Martin Luther King and Dame Cicely Saunders to realise that. As we move into 2021, our culture needs Christians who will speak truthfully, prophetically and lovingly, rather than those who will get sucked into this kind of nihilism.

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Ideology and the dismissal of history

℅ Chris Madden and Don’t Divide Us

One of the many joys of historical research is that one gets to meet great minds that have somehow fallen through the cracks of popular history.  One such, for me, has been Johann Georg Hamann (1730-88), a profound German Enlightenment thinker with a propensity for dark and enigmatic writings.  In recent years, there has been a gentle flourishing of translations of his literary contributions (many remain untranslated from the German), and I have recently benefited enormously from John R. Betz’ After Enlightenment, the Post-Secular Vision of J. G. Hamann (2012, Wiley-Blackwell).

Hamann’s is an unusual mind, given his context.  He turned from the sterility of continental Enlightenment to a robust, evangelical Christian faith – and in that turning became something of a focus for secular acquaintances who regarded his sincere faith as an affront to their values.  Through their influence, he was introduced to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in the hope that the great philosopher would reclaim this errant Enlightenment heretic, but what actually emerged was an improbable friendship, one where Hamann certainly gave as good as he got.  Essentially, Hamann provided one of the best, and certainly one of the earliest, rebuttals to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and there is every reason to think that everything that Kant learned about the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776), came to him through Hamann’s mediation.

Hamann enjoyed a fruitful intellectual collaboration with Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), and it turns out that his writings were a profound influence on Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55), the Danish philosopher.  It is a mysterious thing to discover an individual who has simultaneously been so overlooked, and at the same time, so pivotal in the development of the more prominent European thinkers.  Hamann is, in microcosm, proof positive that those sweeping Enlightenment tropes are simply not an accurate reflection of reality.  Here is a man, intensely and consistently rational, and in every sense embodying the Lockean underpinnings of this worldview, who recognises the fundamental, presuppositional importance of faith, as the means of making sense of the world.  And it is something of a shock to see how immediately, and how clearly Hamann decoded Diderot’s Encyclopédie as a largely reductionist attempt to rewrite history on the basis of the new materialistic polemic.  Peter Gay, and others like him, wants us to see this period as a face-off between the ‘new paganism’ of Enlightenment thinking, and the ‘old superstitions’ of a Christian worldview, but that kind of simplistic, binary distinction is disproved in a moment when one considers the contributions of thinkers such as Hamann, or Jonathan Edwards (New England), or Isaac Watts (Britain), or John Witherspoon (Scotland and New Jersey).  Not only does one not have to make the choice, but Hamann takes exceptional glee in demonstrating that the new Enlightenment thinkers such as Kant are relentlessly plagiarising the Christian canon, in order to argue their point.  One is reminded of the present-day ‘Atheist Churches’ meeting in deconsecrated church buildings, and in a real sense aping the very thing that they disparage (during times when it was permissible to meet).

One of Hamann’s great contributions is the exploration of the significance of philology, and he describes himself in his writings as “a lover of the Word”.  Ultimately, that applies to his view of Scripture, but in a more mediate sense, you can see it work out in the very serious way in which Hamann treated the text on the page.  For example, he sees science as “a matter of hermeneutics, of interpretation” (Betz), and argues that all philosophy is necessarily grounded in a textual tradition.  Whereas the continental philosophes relentlessly continued their strategy of grinding language down into an essentially meaningless combinations of noises, the byproduct of an undirected, telos-free process, Hamann saw language as something far more profound, the means by which we reliably handle reality, and may have a degree of confidence that we are doing so.  Betz tells us that he had a particularly clear view of the way in which regulation, through the forcible imposition of its own ideological overlays, and aesthetic norms, has the effect of “depriving language of its primal power”.  In Hamann’s day, such an idea was radical and novel but with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that it is prophetic:  the fruit of that kind of unrestrained secularism has seen the proliferation of regulation beyond the human capacity to comprehend it, coupled with the radicals’ hegemony over our language.  Last night, I was discussing with academic colleagues the wisdom of using acronyms such as ‘BAME’, coined (fairly recently) by proponents of Critical Race Theory (CRT).  The new, politically-correct acronym promulgated this week, is swiftly succeeded by the next iteration, and woe to the luddite who has the misfortune to use last week’s version.  In this secular-sanctioned chaos, where accepted words and concepts are sucked into the maelstrom, violently centrifuged, and spat out of some ideological orifice, language itself has become weaponised against the unwary user.  It has been adroitly converted into a tool of oppression, and it is being used with brutal force within our higher education system, the media, and other key loci of influence by those occupying an arguably extreme position on the political spectrum.  The Free Speech Union, inaugurated early this year, is working flat out to defend individuals (many academics) who were either simply doing their job, or articulating blindingly obvious points of historical or scientific fact.  Generally, it has been found that the CRT activists have been acting outside of the parameters of the law, as they seek to attack dissenting voices, demonstrating that this is as much of a power game as has been the redefinition of language.

The modern, value-free, evolutionary view of history carries with it an implicitly patronising and dismissive view of the past, especially when elements of that past are inconvenient for the new, polarised view of reality.  The Medieval period, a time of huge cultural and scientific advance is invariably dismissed as the ‘dark ages’, and prophetic individuals such as Johann Georg Hamann are systematically ignored because they do not fit the ideologically-simplified version of history, where the dogmatic presupposition appears to be that Christian belief cannot possibly be enlightening.

And a cowed, submissive and often highly-paganised ‘church’ is letting them get away with it. A smattering of Luthers, Calvins or Knoxs would be helpful, right now.

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The secularist type-casting of Christianity

At the time of writing, in Lockdown Wales, this graphic forms part of the Welsh Government’s attempt to convey to the populace what is permissible, and what is not.

There is a danger of simply reading too much ironical content into this, and it is (of course) possible that our revered leaders have actually not considered the implications of their own graphic. However, it is difficult to simply apply the old “Nothing to see here, folks, just walk on” mantra, which the secularists now appear to expect of Christian people, as a default response to each and every curtailment of historic freedoms. Three initial observations come to mind…

Firstly, the perhaps simple point that the politicians consider ‘places of worship’ an obvious target for closure during a crisis of this kind, when it should be clear to any sentient being that the nature of the suffering and emotional trauma experienced by the population is as much a spiritual issue as it is a clinical one. The despair of seriously sick patients who know they’re not going to get treated because of COVID. The separation of families and friends. The deep existential angst of millions battling against a government-induced sense of futility and disempowerment.

Secondly, the fact that ‘places of worship’ are placed last in a list which opens with ‘hair and beauty salons’. There’s no alphabetical sorting of categories applied here. It is as if the designers of the graphic have asked themselves, ‘What else can I add? What other, utterly insignificant venue haven’t I already covered? Oh yes, those places.’ This is a graphic which tells you something about the values at the heart of (Welsh) government.

Thirdly, there is the footnoted sop ‘**Open for wedding vows and funerals’, which really does highlight the secularist’s fond notion that places of worship are essentially empty buildings that only become relevant when they cater in some way for rites which overlap the civil space. It is difficult to speak in a universal sense of all places of worship, but when I consider my own, in central Cardiff, the phrase ‘all life is here’ seems the most appropriate descriptor. A community resource, open seven days a week, where ‘weddings and funerals’ form a very tiny proportion of all the social good that results.

Christian churches should clearly be in the green box, because they:

  • not only provide physical food and other provisions to the homeless, but they also supply essential and nutritious spiritual food to those who understand their fundamental need as persons, created in the image of God;
  • communicate the latest news about the exciting progress of Christianity around the world, and the profound areas of need which require our focus;
  • are able to effectively treat the spiritual malaise afflicting our hollowed-out culture;
  • provide financial and other support to those in greatest need (Christians Against Poverty comes to mind);
  • facilitate good communication, free exchange of ideas and means of mutual support, all via one central location;
  • provide a free supply of high-octane spiritual fuel to keep a whole multitude of essential charitable initiatives on the road;
  • deliver high-quality, free education available for all ages;
  • support the widest range of healthcare professionals in their work, whilst minimising risk to the vulnerable;
  • facilitate all kinds of support for those in our community who need it (shopping, decorating, car repairs, clothes-washing, to name but a few).

All these functions very clearly are characteristics of those permitted entities which appear in the green box (above). For our secular government to be placing Christian churches in the red box, is an indication that they no longer understand the culture that they purport to govern.

Postscript…

For the record, and at the time of writing, our own church, one of the largest, and fastest-growing churches in Wales, has applied meticulous COVID-protection standards, and have no evidence of community transfer. This is entirely consistent with what hundreds of other churches have reported.

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