Fr Thomas Plant, Anglican Priest and Comparative Theologian

Month: April 2011

The Libyan Crusade

Right since the beginning of the Anglo-French intervention in Libya, Colonel Gadaffi has called it ‘a crusade.’ It pains me to say it, but he may have a point.
The word ‘Crusade’ of course points back to grim old days of yore when Western Christendom decided to export its clearly superior and universally applicable mores to degenerate pagan lands.  It was patently clear that anyone in their right mind would agree with the indisputable reasoning by which the Church governed our society.  So when the foreigners failed to warm to our ideas and renounce their inferior barbaric philosophies, we could not understand why.  We had to liberate their lands and people from the darkness of ignorance by all means – and it seemed the only thing they would listen to was force.

Fortunately, of course, we are much more civilised these days. We have grown out of the barbaric philosophies of our Christian past.  In fact, we’re so civilised that anyone in their right mind must surely agree with the indisputable reasoning by which we govern our societies.  Democracy, capitalism, human rights: who could fail to warm to these universal values?
I think you get my point.
Funnily enough, not everyone does warm to our supposedly universal values. So, just like the old masters of Christendom, when we flex the biceps of our ‘muscular Liberalism,’ we cannot understand why Johnny Foreigner fails to yield in fawning admiration.
Here’s a clue: maybe democracy, capitalism and human rights are not universal values at all.  Maybe they are Western values moulded in historical continuity with their specifically post-Christian, secular culture.  Maybe the idea that they are in some way universal, rationally objective and value-neutral is a pretence, and just as imperialistic as the old cultural hubris of Christendom.
Nowhere is the lie of Western secularism’s value-neutrality more vividly exposed than in the imposition of democracy in the Middle East.  When we finally manage, generally by force, to ‘liberate’ nations with the gift of democracy, we do not understand why the people routinely vote away their newfound freedoms.  We assume that they will naturally want their societies to mirror ours, given our obvious superiority.  Yet they do not.
This is true even where democracy has been established by popular revolution, as in Egypt.  On the eve of the revolution, Yasmin Alibhi-Brown appeared on Newsnight exuberantly proclaiming the inevitable victory of liberalism, poo-pooing more cautious voices that suggested the future may not be so rosy.  Such prophets of the myth of progress are starting to look very naive indeed.  Quite clearly, a desire for the kind of society we enjoy is not hardwired into every human heart, nor is it the inevitable fruit of every rational mind.  We think so, not just because it has been educated into us from the earliest age, but because the worldview that underpins it has developed organically over centuries.  We may take it for granted, but you cannot expect others to turn their worldviews upside-down quite literally overnight.
Herein lies the problem.  Despite its rhetoric of tolerance, Western secularism cannot really engage with any other worldview.  It supposes its own values to be neutral, scientific and objective, and any disagreement therefore to be a matter of fact rather than opinion.  In short, it believes that it is superior to all other worldviews.  It cannot cooperate with them or argue with them, because it rejects their terms outright.  So, like a giant child, well-meaning but unaware of its own strength, all it can do is trample them, and start crying with surprise when their thorns stick in its foot.
One dogma of the secularist credo is that democracy goes hand-in-hand with its other values, which will naturally shine through in due course.  Yet democracy per se has created nothing but an open arena for a conflict of political wills.  The supposedly value-free public space that secularism creates is just a space for the exercise of raw power.  And the most powerful contenders in such a conflict are not going to be the undertrodden, the uneducated, the women and children and poor.  They are going to be the best funded, the best organised and all too often the best armed.
In the Middle East’s public ring, there are very few serious contenders.  Communism is little more than a spectre since we helped Al Qaeda fight off the Russians in Afghanistan.  Capitalism – the power of the markets – is the Western candidate of choice.  But not everyone wants a capitalist society, and looking at ours, we can hardly blame them.  The most powerful and best organised by far is Islamism.  This is not a savoury prospect, but the secular West is going to have to learn to deal with it in a way that doesn’t involve stamping about in its size twelves.  But how?
The answer to this, I think, lies in the locus of genuine engagement and dialogue between non-Western worldviews and traditions.  This locus is certainly not given by the supposedly value-neutral secular public square, which discounts a priori the fundamental grounds of non-secular worldviews: that is, the existence of something that transcends the material world.  We do not need to look hard to see that religious groups are already engaged with each other far more deeply than secularism is engaged with any of them.  And so, ironically, we need to get back to precisely that institution that secularism tries hard to shrug off: the Church.
We are right to look sceptically at the Church’s past.  But we risk throwing the baby out with the baptismal water.  Bereft of its former political and military might, the Church has in many ways been forced to become much closer to what it was always meant to be.  We find this particularly in its modern engagement with non-Christian faiths, not just at a theoretical level, but very much locally and in parts of the world where few westerners dare tread.  Whether it is the work of the Jesuits among Hindus in India and Buddhists in Sri Lanka, the presence of monastics in the Middle East so movingly portrayed in the recent film “Of Gods and Men,” or the work of inner-city priests and pastors in our own country, the Church is at work reconciling people of different worldviews at the grassroots, supported by the inter-faith work of university theology deparments.
Meaningful interaction with people who profess to be Muslim simply cannot happen without reference to God.  And so, Islamism is as much a theological problem as a political one.  We may not hold the values of democracy, capitalism and human rights in common, but we do at least hold the common belief that we follow the God of Abraham.  Where Islamists can reject human rights discourse, quite reasonably, as crusading Western imperialism, they cannot so reasonably withdraw from debates on human worth and dignity that are grounded on honest and respectful engagement with their own Muslim tradition.
The Church is by and large blessedly reticent to engage in crusades these days: it can leave that to its secular progeny.  In the case of Libya, preventative action may well have been necessary, but if it is to be avoid becoming the crusade that Gaddafi declaims, our political masters would be well advised, when they get round to formulating the ultimate aim of their mission, to take a lesson or two in theology.  

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Altar of repose

At Little St Mary’s, Cambridge. The garden in the Lady Chapel is about to be dismantled after the Good Friday liturgy. It looked marvellous back-lit last night during the Vigil. I’ve also attached photos of the tomb, ready for the Blessed Sacrament, and the stripped altar after today’s veneration of the Cross.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Selwyn in bloom

Spring is here at last and the scaffolding around the Chapel is gone. Perfect day for hopping into a punt with a bottle of prosecco, I’d say.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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