Christian Community and the Failure Of Liberalism - Lent Lecture 2
Updated: May 23
"When I look at our society, our Church, our forms of political activism, increasingly what strikes me is not arguments nor agendas but the growing intransigence of people. I see a lot of anger, fear, shame and anxiety. It is as if not reason or power but these very feelings were the real drivers of our actions, both individually and socially, and that people were just trying to find a relief to them".
When they will look back at our times, future generations might characterise us in a way similar to how we see late Western Antiquity, namely as a crepuscular age. Our culture and politics are still driven by a mindset which we broadly call ‘modern’ or ‘liberal’ or ‘secular’, which we consider definitive, as if history had reached its apex and our only problem was finding ways of extending it to the whole of humanity and implementing it more effectively. This mindset is based on a view of the individual self as autonomous and self-referential; on all human beings having equal worth and therefore equal rights.
This has crucial implications on the way we see ourselves as communities, whether as members of a nation, in our workplace and in our churches. Individuals come before the group and commit to it only to the extent that they benefit from it. We have duties and there are rules but we accept them only as the reverse side of the real advantage we draw from society, that is the protection of our rights. In classical liberalism, these rights are mainly ‘negative’, insofar as their main purpose is to prevent interference in a person’s freedom of action and thought. In more recent, and mainly European, egalitarian forms of liberalism, this notion has been expanded to include ‘positive’ rights like equality of opportunities and entitlement to the resources necessary to flourish as an individual, in a word what we call the ‘welfare state’.
Nothing wrong with this, we might think. Indeed, we should be grateful that we live in a culture committed to these principles. The problem with this model, however, is its reluctance to take into account any unifying social factor other than our rights or our entitlements.
This is based on the separation between facts and values which underpins modernity. ‘Values’ are our belief systems, our notions of what is good, and it is true that we often disagree about them - more than ever in our intensely polarized society. Precisely because values and belief systems are so divisive and subjective, as a society we have come to the conclusion that it is better to base our common life on ‘facts’, things so self-evident that cannot be disputed, at least in principle. Thus, we decided to consider a ‘fact’ that all human beings are equal and therefore that they should all be granted the same rights and, increasingly, the same benefits.
Nothing more is required for social cohesion since the ambition of this model is not heart-felt solidarity but the preservation of individual freedom and equality of opportunity. We do not need friendship, companionship, reciprocal fondness to live together. In fact, we can remain pretty indifferent to most of our fellows, colleagues, even co-religionaries. To function as a group the only thing we need is making sure we all agree on following the same procedures. Social cohesion is entrusted to a Weberian bureaucratic and managerial framework which churns increasingly detailed regulations and asserts an ever growing power to enforce them thanks to the capillary (and frightening) control afforded by our modern digital surveillance state.
Even the staunchest defenders of this model, however, are starting to have some qualms about its narrative. A recent astute and yet self-critical article on The Economist acknowledges that “Enlightenment liberalism is losing ground in the debate about race. A new ideology is emerging” [June 9th 2020]. Reflecting on the recent surge of racial unrest in the US and more generally in the Western hemisphere, this essay recognizes that despite its professed commitment to equality of rights and access to resources, liberalism has neglected ethnic minorities, and toyed with racism, imperialism and paternalism.
Grudgingly, liberalism is accepting the need for collective action under the form of ‘group identity’: the victims of racial, gender or disability related discrimination who cannot make their voice heard as individuals have the right to be empowered as groups and claim recognition of their identity. We are moving from a society of competing individuals to another of competing groups, but the logic is the same: it is about establishing rights and making sure that they are enshrined in social behaviour, in political correctness, and of course in regulations. It does not really matter whether or not we all agree on the reasons why we should respect and support each other. We have given up on trying. To use a sentence from St Augustine recently brought to prominence by President Joe Biden, we have lost faith on the possibility of ever finding “common objects of love”.
It is at this junction that we see the crisis of Modernity compounded by the dead-end of Post-Modernity. In a nutshell, Modernity things we all are rational beings who can agree on some basic universal and self-evident principles (and human rights belong to this category) and, if not kindly, at least politely rally around them. Post-Modernity claims that any pretence to establish universal and rational principles is just a trick used by whomever is in power at the time to protect and extend their privilege and authority. All we ever do is inventing narratives, or stories and making sure enough people believe that they are true. Rights, democracy, religions, family values, genre, group identities are all stories, all tricks, none of them is intrinsically true. A story takes the upper hand only because some categories of people are more skilful at promoting, branding, diffusing and imposing them. Social media have intensified this problem. Both socially and politically today we are driven not by thinkers but by influencers.
Thus, Modernity wants us to think that we are driven by reason, and Post-Modernity that we are manipulated by power through stories.
At this point, I would like to bring in an apparently incongruous observation. When I look at our society, our Church, our forms of political activism, increasingly what strikes me is not arguments nor agendas but the growing intransigence of people. I see a lot of anger, fear, shame and anxiety. It is as if not reason or power but these very feelings were the real drivers of our actions, both individually and socially, and that people were just trying to find a relief to them. We pursue our political discourse as if it was still possible to reason people with facts and manipulate them with the help of inspiring stories, but we forget that what drives us as human beings at a fundamental level is what we love and what we hate, and that if these potent forces are not taken into account, listened to, if they are not offered a relief, they keep building up a pressure that can burst out of control at any time.
Nobody has a magic solution to these problems, but I would like to point to two things which have always struck me about the fundamental nature of Christianity.
The first is that Jesus never wrote anything. He was a product of Judaism, the religion of the book par excellence, he did teach and talk, but he must not have thought that the key thing about his legacy was the exact wording of his message. He was quite happy to risk being interpreted, translated and inevitably misquoted by his disciples. I remember well the joke of this exegete concerning the gigantic effort of some 20th century German scholars to reconstruct the ipsissima verba of Jesus, that is the words we can be absolutely, totally, unequivocally sure he pronounced. His view was that the only word which can be traced back to Jesus with certainty, maybe, was Amen.
Then, the more I studied theology and meditated on Scripture, the more I became amused by a peculiar obsession, almost a pathology, of some forms of Catholicism (both Roman and Anglican) for the words of consecration during the eucharistic prayer. At what precise instant does the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ? Classically, this answer has been: in the precise instant in which the priest pronounces the word This is my body, which are often staged quite dramatically, with genuflexions, ostensions, and the ringing of bells. I am not against this of course. I grew up with it and am emotionally attached to these practices – so I would miss them if they were abolished. And yet, is it not odd that during the last supper Jesus should not have asked his disciples to Say this in memory of me, but to Do this in memory of me. What makes him present among us is the act of gathering in his name, of becoming one body through thanksgiving and through feeding together on the one bread of Christ’s own body.
My point here, is that Christianity gets something basic and primary about human nature and community which our Modern and Post-Modern mindsets miss spectacularly. Before being rational and linguistic beings, we are bodies permeable and responsive to our environment, sensing and reacting to an infinity of stimuli, alternatively excited, startled, interested or afraid, disgusted, distressed, enraged. These feelings, these affects are not impervious to reason and language of course. The aim of education is learn to recognize, control, espouse, assuage them, as well as we can.
However, as already Thomas Aquinas acknowledged in the Middle Ages, these feelings are intractable or highly unpredictable agencies and the only effective way of dealing with them is negotiating. Rather than to reason and language, these feelings (or passions, or affects) respond to purely physical activities: stress is calmed by a walk, anger by breathing deeply, fear by the reassuring bodily proximity of other people. It seems to me that one of the reasons Christianity is not first of all about precise wording, nor even stories (however important these elements obviously are), is that it knows better. The fundamental thing that gave shape to Christianity was and still is the dominical bodily gathering around a table to eat and drink in remembrance of Jesus – with all that this implies: moving our body somewhere, gathering together to sit, stand, kneel, sing, eat, drink and, why not, play with vestments, candles, smells, bells – playing, after all, is the first social activity through which we learn to interact with others.
This reminds me of something I saw during a walk in one of Beijing’s immense parks few years ago. Every morning, thousands of people gather spontaneously in huge groups to perform synchronised activities: gymnastic, breathing exercises, choreographed movements.
Nothing more than this experience taught me how liturgy builds genuine political communities. Not first of all on the basis of individual rights, universal benefits, affirmative action, political correctness, and identity politics. Nor even primarily trying to establish a consensus on ‘common objects of love’, that is on common good, however valuable this would certainly prove to be.
Rather, liturgy provides a space that shapes us as a community by taking seriously our senses, our passions, our affects, and our feelings through giving full hospitality to our bodies – liturgy, in the end, is a place more akin to dance floors and playgrounds than a]to debating chambers.