Only God Can Save Us from Ourselves

Bishop Nazir-Ali: Abandoning Judaeo-Christian values has led to the abolition of the family and a moral collapse in business and public life

Faith Features Modern Life The Church of England
Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester

It is hard to believe that a whole year has passed since the launch of Standpoint with my article, “Breaking Faith with Britain”, in the inaugural issue. In that article, I tried to show how there was a descending theme of Christian influence on the systems of governance, the rule of law and the assumptions of trust in our common life. The ascending theme of the importance of the person as a moral agent and, therefore, as free was also seen to arise out of the biblical vision of humans as made in God’s image and as exercising stewardship in the world. This discourse became hugely important in the emergence of natural or human rights language, particularly, but not only, as it was developed by the Enlightenment. I noted that there had been an Evangelical-Enlightenment consensus in place until the 1950s, which had brought about huge changes in society in its attitudes towards slavery, the treatment of workers, universal education, care of the sick and the dying and a host of other areas of life. It has been the dissolution of this consensus that has created the situation in which we now find ourselves. A basically Judaeo-Christian framework for public life has been seriously weakened, some aspects of it have disappeared entirely and others survive only in vestigial form.

By any standard of measurement, the past year has been momentous. The financial crisis had us reeling as the value of our savings and our homes plummeted. As people felt less secure about their jobs, they spent less and gave less. Not only did High Street businesses suffer but charities were also affected. It is true, of course, that the financial crisis was brought about by a failure of regulation, especially in taking account of the growing complexity of global market transactions. But it was also brought about by moral failure. Even if we grant that market processes are “amoral” in themselves, we cannot deny that we are moral agents as we act within those processes and are thus responsible for our actions. In the past, the best of British financial and commercial life was characterised by the values of responsibility, honesty, trust and hard work. Such values arose from a specifically Christian view of accountability before God, the sacredness of even the most humble task (as George Herbert said, “Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws, makes that and the action fine”) and the recognition of mutual obligation by people of all classes and callings, one towards another. This rich tradition was set aside in favour of an entrepreneurial free for all and winner takes all ethos. We are now seeing the results. Far from engendering the wealth which would have benefited society as a whole, it has actually left not only this generation but future ones as well in such significant debt that it will affect the lives of us all for the foreseeable future.

Just as we were staggering back to our feet, we have been hit this time by the political fireball. Once again, it is important to see this as a moral, and even a spiritual, crisis. This is so in two ways: first, the weakening of a moral and spiritual framework for society has left people without an anchor for the mooring of their moral lives and without guidance by which to steer through the Scylla and Charybdis of contemporary dilemmas. Second, the lack of a framework has meant that there is no touchstone by which to judge a person’s actions as right or wrong. No wonder everyone has been doing what is right in their own eyes and to their own advantage. It is clear that simply tinkering with political structures and processes will not solve the problems. A smaller Parliament or electoral reform may be good things to have, but they will not address the questions we are facing and have to answer. These have to do with a clear moral and spiritual framework for public life. The values of human dignity, equality, liberty and security, as well as virtues like selflessness, sacrifice and service, have arisen from a Judaeo-Christian worldview. It cannot be assumed that they would also necessarily have arisen from other worldviews, though agreed values with people of different world-view can, of course, be negotiated on the basis of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Any code of conduct for MPs, for example, should both acknowledge and draw upon such a rich moral and spiritual tradition rather than, once again, dishing out the familiar panaceas of the past, politically correct, but empty of content.

Simply extolling “Britishness” or “British values” is not enough. It is not enough even to remind ourselves of the importance of Christian faith for Britain. We need to ask, first of all, how our understanding of the basic political and social institutions of public life is affected by our knowledge of the ways in which Christianity has shaped them. This will shed, I believe, a flood of light on their basic purpose, on how they have developed and what shape they might take in the future. If our understanding of these institutions, their origin and purpose is superficial and functional, this will have an adverse effect on the depth of our commitment to them.

We have to go on and ask how a Christian vision, its values and virtues, impinge on our day-to-day life and the questions this raises. We have seen already how this is crucial to personal integrity in public life. So many of our moral dilemmas have to do with a proper estimate of the human person. These arise, in their sharpest forms, when people are most vulnerable, when they cannot defend themselves and where society has the task of protecting them. In other words, they arise at the earliest stages of personhood and at the latest, when there are questions of mental capacity or even of mental illness. Without a lodestar, such as the imago dei, we could quickly run aground on the rocks of crude utilitarianism (the weak can be sacrificed for some greater good or the good of a larger number) or be marooned on the shifting sands of public opinion polls. For instance, while it may be correct to take a developmental view of the emergence of a human person through the stages of fertilisation, implantation, the beginning of brain activity and so on, we still cannot say exactly when there is a person. Instead of greater permissiveness, this should lead to greater caution about any procedures, which aim to manipulate the early foetus or embryo to benefit someone else. We should also be concerned for its integrity as personhood unfolds.

At the other end of the life-cycle, while it is never permissible to kill, we are not required officiously to keep alive either. People may decline medical intervention, if they are competent to do so, and death may result when the primary aim is to relieve pain. Living wills may also be respected, though they pose certain dilemmas of their own. If, for instance, they are made too far in advance of the circumstances contemplated, they may not be able to specify exactly what the person concerned is wishing to refuse or to accept. If, on the other hand, they are made in the course of a serious illness, the question would be whether a person’s judgment is clouded by their illness or even by direct or indirect pressure from relatives. In any event, it cannot be permissible actively to take life, or to assist in doing so, even in situations where a person is alive but not responsive to our signals or to the environment generally. This is because the dignity of personhood is inalienable and cannot be taken away by human agency, except, perhaps, in clearly specified circumstances such as self-defence or a just war.

A widespread nihilism in culture has led to a lack of consensus about the sacredness of the human person and, in turn, this provides a context for the horrendous and mindless violence inflicted on people, even on young children. We cannot expect respect for the person if we do not give any reasons why persons should be respected. Mutatis mutandis, this is also true of racism. The Judaeo-Christian tradition, based on the Bible, teaches the common origin and equality of all human beings. It may be that Christians have not always upheld such equality in practice but without its basis, as we have seen in doctrines of “scientific racism” and eugenics, the weak will have no defence against oppression and exploitation by the powerful.

The family is an important aspect of biblical anthropology which sees man and woman as ordered to one another in a stable relationship of receiving and giving. It is this mutuality and complementarity, which provides not only support and companionship but the stability required for the nurture of children. The family then is a basic unit of society and any dysfunction will surely affect other areas of our social life. It is true, of course, that Christians themselves have sometimes used family structures to abuse and exploit the more vulnerable members of the family, often women, children or the elderly. In this, they are not alone as such abuse of the family is widespread and can be seen in many parts of the world. But does such abuse or misuse justify the full frontal attack on the family, which we have seen in most Western countries in the last 30 years or so? The Office for National Statistics and other bodies regularly publish figures for marriage, divorce, single-parent families, cohabitation and how long it lasts, etc. This is not the place to go into the detail of these figures save to note the social devastation they represent: families everywhere with a parent (usually the father) absent, the psychological trauma of broken relationships, children without crucial bonding with one parent (usually the father) and for boys the lack of a role model as they grow up.

In fact, the attack on the family has been part of a wider aim to subvert the fundamental institutions of society because they were regarded as bourgeois, patriarchal or exclusive. At first, this was to prepare the ground for a Marxist-type political revolution. When this did not come about, the social revolution became an end in itself, the purpose of which was to free individuals from cumbersome ties so they could better fulfil themselves. Relationships should be entered into freely without social coercion, it is held, and should last only as long as they nurture individuals’ self-fulfilment. Criticism by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and others of those who regard heterosexual marriage as “absolute, exclusive and ideal” is based on such views of “pure relationships”, which are about mutual desire and its fulfilment. If and when such desire ceases, it is both wicked and useless to seek a continuation of the relationship that is generated by the persons themselves, as Anthony Giddens has taught, and is not about satisfying a formal socio-religious criterion.

It is not a surprise that with these views, a plethora of relationships, where there is due consent and which do not exploit the young or vulnerable, will increasingly be seen as valid expressions of being family. Such social constructivism will either treat with amused contempt or actively oppose any attempt to uphold a normative view of the family which values permanence, stability, responsibility towards one another and towards any children or, indeed, which regards the family as a basic unit of society and thus fulfilling a vital social function.

The abolition of the family is certainly one of the causes of social dysfunction and of fragmentation in our society but it is not the only one. An all-pervasive historical amnesia is another. People are simply not told about the foundations on which their society is built or about the “perfectly virtuous pages” of their history. No wonder then that when they have to grapple with cultural and religious difference, they have no vantage point from which to tackle the issues arising in a plural society. Let it be understood straightaway that diversity is to be celebrated and respected and can enrich any society. A Christian view of society would have emphasised hospitality for those coming to live in this country as well as being the means of welcoming their contribution to the development of social and political discourse. At the same time, it would have continued to uphold the common good which would necessarily have included a concern for the most disenfranchised of those who were here already and also for the social and economic fabric of the nation in relation to a changing demography. What we got was a multiculturalism built on amnesia. On the grounds of tolerance, it consigned newer arrivals to ghettoes where, it was imagined, they would be happier with their own kind. The housing, education and social policies of the elite, who were themselves largely unaffected by them, reinforced the separation, fostering, as we have seen, 

ignorance rather than engagement, fear rather than neighbourliness and resentment rather than generosity. It has led to extremism, of different kinds, flourishing because of the lack of a vision of a just, compassionate and neighbourly society based on a meta-narrative which provided the grounding for adequate social capital.

We certainly need a recovery of memory: regarding the basis of our national life, a tradition of civil liberties set in train by the Magna Carta, the Reformation’s insistence on direct access to the sources of the authority (the Scriptures) for everyone, the Counter-Reformation’s missionary zeal, the Christian origins of “natural rights” language, campaigns to abolish the slave trade and slavery, to restrict working hours and to improve working conditions for men, women and children, universal education, the emergence of nursing as a profession, the hospice movement and much else besides. Such a recovery of memory in our schools and other educational institutions, for instance, would not be for the sake of nostalgia or to foster national pride but to provide the basis for an engagement with contemporary issues whether these have to do with fundamental liberties, the inclusion of the marginalised, the care of the sick or concern for the poor, whether in this country or abroad.

Such a recovery of memory will make it possible for people once again to invoke fundamental principles, what Professor Peter Hennessey has called “the timeliness of the timeless”. It is not necessary, by the way, for such an owning of the Christian vision to require a special position for a particular Church. It is quite possible to distinguish, as Martin Marty has done in the American context, between civic and ecclesial religion. While the churches would remain concerned, of course, to promote a Christian vision of society, a Christian-inspired civic religious sense would be distinct from each of them, as well as related to and responsive to their view of the role of religion in the public sphere.

Even and, perhaps specially, in this context, the Church’s prophetic role will be needed. It will still be necessary to ask for proper discernment before policies are made or legislation passed, churches will remain in the business of forming consciences and in “telling it like it is”. There will have to be both a clear foretelling in terms of what is good for society and what would harm it, or people within it, and a foretelling about the consequences of misgovernment, corruption, self-indulgence and the rest. Christian faith is not simply an endorsement of the status quo or even a justification of history. It must also be able to bring a powerful critique to bear on our national life.

Any vision of a Christian society is strongly challenged by what may be called “programmatic secularism”. This has its own worldview where there is progress but no purpose, where human dignity, equality and liberty may be affirmed but there is no underlying narrative why they should be. It often has a libertarian focus, which emphasises individual liberty but is weak on upholding vital social institutions. Its permissiveness can endanger not only social institutions, like the family, but also, for example, the human person at the earliest, most vulnerable and latest stages of life. It can be in thrall to the latest scientific possibilities and willing to give its imprimatur to them, regardless sometimes of personal and social consequences.

In addition to this, and arguably more widespread, is what has been called “procedural secularism”. This assumes that the public space is a tabula rasa and that consensus about the issues of the day will develop as all sides contribute to the debate. In its best forms, it is willing to allow religious perspectives to be active in this debate. The problem is, of course, that the public space is not, and never has been, a blank slate on which anything can be written. It has its own plausibility structures, assumptions and norms. If these are not informed by a Christian vision, they will undoubtedly be informed by some other paradigm, whether that is Marxism, programmatic secularism or some other worldview. The people of this country have to decide which they would rather have: the tried and tested paradigm of the Christian faith, which, even if imperfectly understood and applied, has served them well, or untested theories which may appear to confer greater liberty on individuals but which can lead to social disaster.

The crises have revealed the peril in which we find ourselves. What is the way out of danger? We should not put too much hope in the institutions somehow renewing themselves. What we need are genuinely popular movements for the renewal of national life as a whole. One of the elements missing in the political life of this country is Christian Democracy. I am not saying that we should simply imitate what happens in Europe and elsewhere but politicians of all kinds should consider whether political movements founded on Christian principles would be beneficial for the political process.

It may be that we need a grand assembly of political and community leaders and the Third Sector, as well as representatives of churches and faith communities to discuss these issues openly and thoroughly so that a national consensus may emerge. We want a nation at ease with itself where relationships, each in its own way, are deep and enduring, where there is opportunity for the nurture of the soul as well as the body and where there is a clear moral and spiritual vision which is about the destiny of persons as well as communities. If we can obtain a consensus, which is not only political and economic but also spiritual and moral, then these crises we are facing will have been worth it.