Actively challenging resonant claptrap - so liberalism doesn't go to hell in a hand cart

Last week I suggested that the Flower Communion service, when, that is, it remains clearly rooted in its Czech particularities and the struggle against the intolerances left behind from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then the Nazi and Communist regimes which followed, is for us a profound tangible expression of our desire to do the same in our own age. As an example I used it as a way of encouraging us to show our commitment to challenging the increasing influence of right wing political views in Europe. And last week, as we now all know, this need became more pressing because the British people elected two fascists to the European Parliament in the form of the BNP's Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons.

I've been keeping an eye on them for a while now - and have always found them abhorrent - but it remains important to know and even (in very limited ways) to respect your enemy and never, NEVER, to underestimate him. Now, even when you are appalled at what the BNP desires for this country, one should acknowledge one 'admirable' quality about them, namely, the fact that when they talk to the media you know they are not talking in the usual political tongues where the meaning of words skate away before your very eyes and where nothing seems to mean what it appears to say. Of course, like all politicians, the full ramifications of what they are saying are kept from view but at the level of basic rhetoric the BNP are astute operators. Here is a recent example and, although which ever way interpret it I don't like the message, when Gordon Brown used the phrase "British jobs for British workers" everybody knew he didn't mean it in all kinds of ways – you knew it would be so qualified as to make it meaningless. However, when Nick Griffin and the BNP uses it you know they do meant it - just like it says. Of course what Griffin is offering is dangerous claptrap but, as Michael Roberts, the poet and critic who died in 1948, said of similar stuff in the 1930s, we need to be alert to the fact that for many people it is "resonant claptrap".

Now I have quoted Roberts before on this matter but I make no apologies for, citing him again. I'm doing this for two related reasons. On the one hand, to shake us awake from the dangerous liberal slumber we are in and, on the other, to try to explain something about why I'm doing what I'm doing in this pulpit.

Liberal culture has to wise up and get its message and rhetoric sorted out because the costs of not doing are very frightening to contemplate indeed. In 1935 Robert's wrote a critical review of the leading left-wing intellectual Leonard Woolf's book called "Quack, Quack!" (I append the full review to the end of this blog) in which Woolf poured scorn upon the right-wing politicians of his own day. Roberts observes:

"[Woolf] mocks at intuitions and absolute beliefs, they are all quackery, but he does not see the limitations of reason. Reason can show us how a thing can best be done, but it cannot modify or co-ordinate our basic inclinations, as religion and poetry attempt to do, and as the politician needs to do. We need some criteria of right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, as well as of truth and falsity, and we need to persuade others to accept those criteria. The problem is not to destroy all rhetoric but to teach people to distinguish between good rhetoric and bad, good poetry and bad. The liberal-rationalist assumes that he can get on without rhetoric or poetic use of language at all, and that every relation of power between individuals is bad: consequently he speaks only to people like himself, and the field is left to the quacks with their false rhetoric, their sentimental poetry and their bullying use of the power of personality" (Bloomsbury Views? by Michael Roberts Review of Quack, Quack! by Leonard Woolf, from The Listener 1935).

Right - here, in this church, the only simple message I and this liberal Christian tradition has on offer to modify and co-ordinate our basic inclinations is that one can trust God (whether you gloss it as the Absolute, Nature, Father or Mother) and that a properly fulfilled human life - and therefore, what gets called salvation (which can be a present reality of course) - can be had by any one who, in a disciplined fashion, models their life on the example of Jesus of Nazareth. It can be considered a simple form of Christianity because it removes from the centre of the community almost all of the metaphysical doctrines of Christianity. This is done because we feel they distract us from getting on with the basic human task of putting into practice Jesus' moral and ethical teachings.

Those of you who know me personally will know that my own prefered expression of this kind of simple Christianity is found in Tolstoy's writings - particularly his "Gospel in Brief."

In saying all the above this does not mean that we are saying there are no other religious (and non-religious) possibilities to follow - to claim that is clearly wrong - but it is to be clear that this is the solution to the problem of life on offer here. So that's the basic, simple, non-equivocal religious message I think we should be proclaiming.

But - once that is clear - we need to go on to consider our audience - after all, if you are going to get your rhetoric sorted out you need to know who is going to be your audience!

We may start by observing one thing. It is clear the intellectual liberal centre-left (whether political or religious) is today only talking to, and concerned about itself and that is why disaffected working and lower middle-class Labour voters either didn't vote at all or actually turned to the BNP. The tricky-dicky, super-nuanced, always equivocal and relativist language of modern liberalism just isn’t attractive to any person faced with hard-in-you-face difficulties such as the loss of jobs, high levels of debt, poor housing, and a rapidly diminishing sense of personal worth and identity. In fact it could be said, with real justification, that this local church is an archetypal church of the intellectual liberal centre-left that is not good at talking to these people but just navel gazes while the rest of the country goes to hell in a hand cart (see blog picture - In Fairford church, Gloucestershire, there can be seen in the great West window installed sometime before 1517 AD - a depiction of the Day of Judgement in which the innocent are going to heaven and the guilty are going to hell. Among the latter can be seen an old woman in a wheelbarrow, being pushed to her doom by a blue devil.)

This is, in part, why I am making the case to get back to particularities and away from metaphysical abstractions (once a great passion of mine). However, given this realisation you might be tempted to think that what I and this church should then be doing is getting out of this febrile and pointless intellectually chattering class and into other, more down to earth and working class arenas and eschewing complexities and nuances.

Yes, this is clearly one possible solution and some of my liberal Christian colleagues are doing just that if they are in the right geographical areas. But we have limited resources and our own particulars and consequently we need to be a bit canny about this and see what is *really* the best thing we can do. The chief particularity it seems to me is that we are in Cambridge, a major global centre of education for precisely that chattering class of liberal centre-left people (of which I am one – mea-culpa, mea maxima culpa). It seems to me, therefore, that our mission field - if I may use such a phrase - is precisely this group of people. My job - and then yours if you agree with me - is to persuade what two centuries ago the liberal theologian Schleiermacher called the many "cultural despisers of religion" (Found in his 1799 On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers - here is a link to a German Edition of 1880) to readopt a simple form of Christianity that will be effective in inspiring them in their professional lives to stop equivocating and to face their public with a renewed clarity and honesty and a confident liberal rhetoric that isn't slippery as hell.

But if you have grown up, as I have grown up, with the powerful influence of science and the rational traditions of the Enlightenment, then it is hard beyond imagining to be a committed public Christian of any sort - even the very liberal non-metaphysical kind I espouse. It's just feels embarrassing (see my recent sermon on the subject of Good Friday) to admit this and it’s something I have often felt like I must hide from my friends, neighbours and wife even (though I've long got over this last one!).

My often less than simple addresses (I know that), which draw particularly heavily upon Epicurus, Lucretius, Spinoza and Wittgenstein, are deliberate strategies (though honestly used) by which I hope I might persuade sceptics (cultured despisers of religion) to make, like me, what for them is (as it was for me), the frightening leap of faith into becoming committed apprentices in the school of Jesus of Nazareth.

My whole ministry is centred on this because, like Michael Roberts, I’m convinced we desperately "need some criteria of right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, as well as of truth and falsity, and we need to persuade others to accept those criteria. The problem is not to destroy all rhetoric but to teach people to distinguish between good rhetoric and bad, good poetry and bad."

To conclude here is something that Tolstoy reminds us Jesus said:

"Jesus once saw a tax-gatherer receiving taxes. The tax-gatherer was called Matthew. Jesus began to speak with him, and Matthew understood him, liked his teaching, and invited him to his house, and showed him hospitality. When Jesus came to Matthew, there came also Matthew's friends, tax-gatherers and unbelievers, and Jesus did not disdain them, and sat down, he and his disciples. And the orthodox saw this, and said to Jesus' disciples: 'How is it that your teacher eats with tax-gatherers and unbelievers?' According to the teaching of the orthodox, God forbade communion with unbelievers. Jesus heard and said: 'He who is satisfied with his health does not need a doctor, but he who is ill, does. Understand what is the meaning of God's words: 'I desire love and not sacrifice.' I cannot teach a change of faith to those who consider themselves orthodox, but I teach those who consider themselves unbelievers" (Gospel in Brief p. 47).


And there, today, I rest my case because liberalism is sick unto death and needs a doctor and, as a disciple (apprentice) of Jesus, I have a duty to help cure this sickness. Sometimes the medicine I need to dispense is unpleasant tasting and difficult to digest (I know because I have had to take it myself) – but the consequences of not taking it (or something similar) are too great to contemplate.

-o0o-

Bloomsbury Views? by Michael Roberts
Review of Quack, Quack! by Leonard Woolf, from The Listener 1935
(reprinted in: Michael Roberts - selected poems and prose edited by Frederick Grubb, Carcanet Press, Manchester 1980, p. 109)


MR WOOLF is a passionate champion of reason - too passionate and too bitter to be the perfect exponent of the quiet methods of discussion which he advocates. Civilisation, he says, is a precarious thing, imposed upon the community by a few people, mostly belonging to the comparatively wealthy class. But, he argues, most people remain savages at heart, and a time comes when, if continuity is to be preserved, the advantages of civilisation - the wealth as well as the orderly civilised habits - must be shared by all. At that time, many of the ruling group prefer to destroy their civilisation rather than to share it. Reason is then attacked as a degenerate weakness, and all that is primitive and savage in man is revived. The primitive fear of the stranger is encouraged, 'national' sentiment is fostered, the truth about political events is stifled, the individual is subjugated to the tribe, and each man, instead of thinking earnestly about the problems of his age, salutes a tribal leader whose oracular pronouncements are regarded with superstitious awe. Against all this, and against similar but less developed tendencies in England, Mr Woolf believes in the civilised patriotism of a Pericles, in reason, in government by free discussion, and in the gradual abolition of all class distinctions. These are chill ideas for most people, especially when treated unrhetorically: they call to the future, not the deeply rooted past, there is a greater appeal in the resonant claptrap of the new dictators. Mr Woolf is acute, bitter, and amusing: he quotes some fine nonsense from his enemies, and his exposure of the dangers which they offer to what most of us consider a civilised and decent life deserves to be widely read, but there is a deep pessimism about his writing, a sense of weariness and futility, spurred for a moment into protest. He knows that it is useless to demonstrate that Mussolini's speeches are empty of constructive thought, yet he can think of no other approach to the problem. He gibes at the mummification of Lenin's body, yet he ignores the practical achievements of Bolshevism and Fascismo. A fascist would call him the typical 'anaemic', 'futile', `degenerate' pacifist intellectual whose liberalism has broken down before the overpowering confidence of Fascism and Communism. There is some truth in this, but Mr Woolf does not look for the flaw in himself and his own doctrines. He attacks Carlyle, Spengler, Bergson and Keyserling, for their varying betrayals of the intellectual-liberal position. He mocks at intuitions and absolute beliefs, they are all quackery, but he does not see the limitations of reason. Reason can show us how a thing can best be done, but it cannot modify or co-ordinate our basic inclinations, as religion and poetry attempt to do, and as the politician needs to do. We need some criteria of right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, as well as of truth and falsity, and we need to persuade others to accept those criteria. The problem is not to destroy all rhetoric but to teach people to distinguish between good rhetoric and bad, good poetry and bad. The liberal-rationalist assumes that he can get on without rhetoric or poetic use of language at all, and that every relation of power between individuals is bad: consequently he speaks only to people like himself, and the field is left to the quacks with their false rhetoric, their sentimental poetry and their bullying use of the power of personality.

Mr Woolf prints some amusing comparative photographs of Mussolini, Hitler, and the Hawaiian War God, Kukailimoku. The similarities of expression are very striking, and there is certainly a case for arguing that the psychological effects of the faces are, and are intended to be, the same, but heaven help us all if this method of argument is to become general.
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