Christianity, Secularisation and Islam

In the second in our series on religion and public life, a leading Dominican theologian argues that only a recovery of the Judeo-Christian tradition can enable Islam to find its place in Britain

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Secularisation is far more of a challenge to Christianity in England than is Islam, and yet by seemingly strengthening the case for secularism, the issue of Islam has moved centre-stage. I believe that England, or more widely the United Kingdom, has to decide between three possible responses to the growth of the Islamic community not only in numbers but also in self-confidence.

The first of these is communitarianism, which allows each faith community (or non-faith community for that matter) its own version of public space. This seems to be the road along which — at least in the judgment of some of his more careful interpreters — Archbishop -Rowan Williams would wish to travel. But communitarianism means the further disintegration of the cultural system of the nation as a whole. The phrase “the community” must signify first and foremost the national community, which is the form humanity has taken under Providence in this piece of earth.

Other communities within this greater whole need to “own” the overall public space, while simultaneously, no doubt, making a -distinctive contribution to it. For an immigrant population with a -peculiar (in the non-pejorative sense) religious and, in part, ethical system, that will take considerable energies of adaptation. It is, it would seem, unwise to deflect its members from that primary task. On the other hand, a distinctive contribution by Muslims will mean their maintenance of whatever in their own customs and practices is noble and of good report.

One important criterion of those qualities — nobility, good report — is congruence with the common law, whose name means: what is accepted in the King’s (Queen’s) courts as legal norms, which all other juridical instances must respect. Unfortunately, in recent times the effect of parliamentary statute (and European legislation) has been to elide certain norms that were based on the good custom and proper tradition of a Christian society. The constitution of the family by the heterosexual, monogamous household, and the invulnerability of -innocent human life from before birth until natural death, are no longer secure at law. On the second count, and to a degree on the first (monogamy aside), traditional Islam concurs with Christianity. The pertinent legal developments — which license abortion, civil partnerships between the identically gendered, and the withdrawal of basic medical care from the irreversibly ill — are unthinkable without the aggressive incursion of secular liberalism. Typically, secular liberalism finds it impossible to base rights discourse on anything other than the parity of each and all as they choose the way of life they prefer to follow, whether their preferences be well-founded in the objective moral order or not. Inevitably, this is a recipe for irresoluble quandaries in matters social: how should one adjudicate the preference of a feminist employer not to accept a polygamous employee?

The second possible response to the challenge of Islam in Britain is the outright adoption of secular liberalism. By privatising religious -aspiration, the public square can be cleared of all religious claims from whatever quarter. This also comes with a hefty price tag. It means the increasing exhaustion of the moral capital of the culture, which -derives from its historic (Judaeo-Christian) patrimony. It entails the shrinking of the metaphysical imagination in public life, which will be unable to advert to the spiritual dimension of human existence. The -legal establishment of secularism would amount to a declaration that agnosticism has become the (anti-)religion of the state. Since most of the remainder of this essay will concern that issue, I shall -reserve further comment until I have described the third possible -response I see.

The third response is recovery of the Judaeo-Christian tradition as what is most foundationally form-giving in English society and culture, while allowing that, on grounds of conscience, there are individuals and groups who cannot make that tradition fully their own. Freedom of conscience can and should be balanced against the interests of a particular historic society as a whole. What can be said in favour of this option?

A nation, like a civilisation, needs a shared vision of reality, at any rate in fair degree. It is unclear that a great civilisation can be formed except on the ground of metaphysical or religious principle. There is no other obvious way in which to secure the foundations of ethics, or to inspire a high artistic culture, or to animate institutions that will be seedbeds of the virtues. In the case of England, whose emergence as a nation coincides with its conversion, this can only be Christianity, with its Judaic background, and more especially, I unfashionably suggest, the “New Israel” of the Catholic Church.

The thousand years of Catholic Christianity that preceded the -Reformation settlement are responsible for the origins of the English -literary imagination, for the principles of the common law, for the concept of a covenanted people under God that permeates the induction of the sovereign, and for the range of virtues that have been comm-ended, and sometimes practised, in English society and culture. In the context of an international Church, this entailed a measured trans-nationalism.

When the medieval idea of Christendom weakened, the early modern nation-state tried more vigorously to instrumentalise the Church, politicising the divine rather than — by exposure to a transcendent Good — divinising the polis. Of course the post-Reformation history of this country cannot be airbrushed out. Consonant with its presence — along with a promise to uphold the Catholic faith — in the coronation of the monarch, it has left its own legacy of moral exemplars and inspirational literary texts, as well as institutions involved in education and pastoral care. Despite the ecclesial differences, which at their worst led to the vilification of the older Church, much of this Anglican development built on foundations already laid.

In a national community, not to be able to situate oneself as a -bearer of a shared narrative is bad for mental and moral health. The civic community should help me to answer the question, “Who am I?” even if my eventual answer entails some criticism and even a degree of detachment from that story. Along with the formation of identity goes the acquiring of criteria for defining a shared good, for some range of non-arbitrary values I can cherish.

The human poverty of secular liberalism can already be inferred from the results of contemporary secularisation. In modern England, moral discourse is in danger of becoming a parody of infantile egoism. What I want becomes what I need, which in turn becomes my ‘right’. The moral life becomes a matter of wishes, preferences, needs and desires.

It is true that the moral life begins with desire. But such desire, as Plato argued, is not the desire that leads us to pursue “enlightened” self-interest, in the form of the hedonistic calculus that asks how I can maximise pleasure. The desire that impels the moral life is, rather, -desire for the good because it is beautiful. To dignify with the term “ethical” the expression of preference by reference to wants contravenes this principle. In terms of moral aesthetics, it is also ugly. That can be seen in the way typically secular liberal ethicists find it difficult to avoid the justification of moral pathologies: for example, the choices of those who freely contract to inflict physical pain on each other for the purposes of sadistic satisfaction.

Contrast that with the moral beauty to be found in the lives of the Church’s saints, canonised or not, in the full spectrum of the values they embody. Between them, they span all the main sectors of human living, from public service through education and healthcare to the arts and domesticity, and in those realms give live demonstrations of an impressive range of virtues. The exemplars we have in this island from the Christian past and present — and those who today without personal faith show in decency of life the effects of the Christian faith — constitute a spiritual commonwealth that is our most precious form of national wealth. In terms of real function, that commonwealth is the most important part of the body politic, since it shows us the telos, or goal, at which life lived in the light of a common good aims.

Without that telos — which is best observed in the symbolism of the English coronation rite — executive, legislature, judiciary, the other agencies of the state, the forms of voluntary association in civil society, can only be disoriented in the original sense of that word. They can only be without clear orientation to a good. Too much modern human-rights talk elevates freedom over virtue, not realising that any significant freedom — as distinct from my indifferently choosing a vanilla rather than a chocolate-flavoured ice cream — is always freedom for the good.

In comparison, secular liberalism, even where not anti-humane, is pretty thin gruel. Those who have adopted a secular mindset from -exalted motives may view a secular state as simply a pragmatic response to cultural diversity, albeit an important piece of pragmatism since it holds out the hope of social peace. They fail to see that every such response carries its own ideological load, which may include substantial negatives. Considered as a state ideology, secular liberalism, paradoxically enough, has one attribute in common with the Islamist militancy that is propelling it toward power and prospective hege-mony. It will not address questions of the common good in a way that can build up a firm texture for the social fabric. While Islamist terrorism seeks the outright dissolution of that texture, such liberalism merely allows it to unravel. But the result may be much the same: an atomism that destroys effective solidarity.

Nor is that by any means the only objection against this fashionable nostrum. Secular liberalism cannot help looking for a politics without memory, which is why it allies so readily with mass-media pundits bound to the instant contemporaneity captured in the soundbite. It seeks emancipation from the long process of historical time with its often fruitful ambiguities and replaces it by subjugation to the present. It is a modernism insouciant of the past, but its attempt to sever the past from the future produces an attitude to human living that devalues the real present, depriving it of richness of reference. The theorists of secular liberalism have their own (contractarian) “tradition”, which is not one of life but of thought-experiments by ratiocination, hence the inverted commas. It is a “tradition” defined by enquiry into what any rational agent would do to acquire minimum security, and hence is always inclined to deny history and particularity, including those of a religion.

Philosophical liberals do not understand the foundational character of metaphysical and religious belief and thought, which turn on how human beings are made with the desire to seek and worship God. Secularism marries readily with philosophical liberalism since secularism wants to suppress the public relevance of man’s orientation to transcendence, while philosophical liberalism has already lost the sense of it. Often enough, a secular state is a device to ease life for the a-religious. That reminds us how secularisation is not an inevitable process, but the work of elites who want to free themselves and the world they inhabit from any appeal to an authority that invokes transcendence.

Moreover, secularists misunderstand the nature of the state. Some people — secularists or not — defend a “minimal” state. They would limit its responsibilities to defending the borders of the national territory, and protecting of its citizens at home and, where possible, abroad, in their enjoyment of life, liberty and property. Whether and to what extent the state should take over tasks previously left to charitable agencies or the voluntary efforts of individuals is an issue to be adjudicated (in Catholic social teaching) by reference to the principle of “subsidiarity”. Intervention by a remoter authority must always be justified as a special case. On any given topic of social welfare, that is an open question that has to be decided prudentially. But what is never an open question — pace the secularists — is that the state has the duty to guard the spiritual civilisation of its own society.

For the legislature and judiciary, that means being guided in the formulation and interpretation of laws by the moral ethos that forms a society’s spiritual patrimony. For the executive, it means self–restraint, since the urge to intervene at as many points as possible in civil society, whether administratively or by proposing new laws, -undermines the will of citizens to collaborate with each other in -community-building projects at all levels of life.

Where charities and other voluntary associations are so managed by state action that they become little more than expressions of a government project, the result will eventually be for civil society to wither away, as happened under Soviet Communism. Recent legislation obliging Catholic adoption agencies to place children with foster parents of the same sex in civil partnerships offended on both counts – respect for the historic moral ethos and the need to leave civil society its proper space. On this issue, Catholic spokesmen were accused of seeking to gain for the Church a special exemption – which could all too easily be compared with the wish of some Muslims for the institution of a form of sharia law in England.

In a sense, the critics were – after a Pickwickian fashion – right. Archbishop Cormac Murphy-O’Connor was concerned for consist-ency of religious practice in his own Communion, as no doubt zealous Muslims are for the coherence of their Umma, or community of the faithful. But because the reaction of the Church was to a signal transgression of a prime principle of a spiritual civilisation formed by the historic Christianity of the English people, the Church was protesting in the name of the historic moral ethos of this island, which politicians should respect, if not serve.

In another sense, the critics were altogether wrong, since in a complementary perspective the Church’s opposition was entirely without self-regard. Catholics objected to the inflation of state power vis-à-vis civil society, with its attendant threat to other groups — and, for that matter, individuals — seeking to pursue charitable ends that could only benefit the social whole. On both counts, the case was an instructive one, as others, notably Evangelicals, were quick to notice.

There is a prima facie contradiction here, since England remains a Christian state, albeit a decayed example of the genre. I advert for the third time to the coronation ritual, since it is the clearest, though by no means the only, manifestation of the continuing sacrality of the public order. In this connection, the retention by the Church of England of its established status is an essential requirement if the nation as a whole is to retain narrative continuity with its own origins, which are found in the baptismal covenant reflected in the laws of the Anglo-Saxon kings.

The establishment of the Church of England at law is far from rendering superfluous the public role of the English Catholic Church. The capacity of the sacerdotium to influence the regnum was gravely weakened by the mid-16th century break with Rome, for this rendered -official English Christianity Erastian, blunting its cutting edge. “No -Popery” — anti-Catholicism, whether popular or sophisticated — drew its force from a disturbed conscience: one can sense its discomfort in the ambivalences of Shakespeare’s plays. The recusant community witnessed to something once well-known to the English people: the transnational reality of Christendom in the Catholic Church centred on Peter’s chair, and the consequent capacity of a wider communion to offset narrowness of temper, or distortion of aim.Protestant Nonconformity added its own protest against, not an organic relation between polity and ecclesia, but the effective identification of the two.

These non-Anglican churches and ecclesial communities are not merely associations of citizens who can, if they wish, lobby for their interests or points of view. Under the umbrella of the Crown in Parliament, there should be allowance for a plurality of public authorities, representing historic elements in the national community. Indeed, this is the only view that enables monarchy and Parliament to reclaim their own constitutive origins in the history of the country. In this perspective, the Catholic Church, as others, can be regarded civilly as an authoritative voice, albeit not one of an institution specially recognised at law. So may the Jewish rabbinate, whose religious humanism parallels the Christian ministry in its commitment to biblical virtues pertinent to the life of a people under God, the -supremely integrating Good. These authorities are not likely to teach against each other, though some (and notably one) may teach more -lucidly than others.

In a specifically Judeo-Christian culture, such concession of a degree of authority to the public voice of religious leaderships cannot be indefinitely extended without a self-contradiction. A Judeo-Christian society is by definition not a multicultural one, athough it should make generous provision for members of other cultures always providing they are willing to become, to the extent of their ability, bicultural themselves. It is altogether reasonable, however, for generosity of provision to extend so far as providing channels through which other religious groupings can make known charateristic concerns.

In the parliamentary context, this can happen in the Lower House through members’ raising constituents’ questions. But there is also a case for a more institutional arrangement for adverting to these other voices, not least with a view to helping overcome the alienation of those who feel not only culturally different, but politically estranged. If the difficulties of obtaining representatives who really speak for acceptable traditions in Islam can be overcome, the Islamic imamate could take its place in the Upper House, once Islam has found its right place and role in England. In this essay, I have indicated what that place and role should be: the making of a distinctive contribution on condition of the “owning” of the public space by the community as a whole.

Meanwhile, for Catholic Christians there remains a charge more onerous (even) than that of reflection on the necessary and sufficient conditions of the civil good. What the faith of the Catholic Church can offer is a framework — intellectual, imaginative and moral — for the pursuit of all the good that pertains to human destiny, and its effective bestowal in the grace of conversion. The Church civilises while she evangelises. But she evangelises first.