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Christianity, morality and the global crisis

John Milbank - The Tablet - Wed, May 1st 2019

Christianity, morality and the global crisis

Traders at the London International Financial Futures Exchange in 1995 Photo: PA, Neil Munns

The current global crisis might be the last chance we have to bring the Christian social vision that inspired the post-war settlement in Europe back from the margins to the centre

The genuine horror of Christchurch and the somewhat comic nightmare that is Brexit: these are two manifestations of a global general crisis. One dimension of this crisis is a widespread breakdown of trust in established institutions and a searching for alternatives, some of them extreme. 

It is tempting to think of this in terms of a collapse of a liberal, secular order that has held sway since 1945. Anything international is shunned: we see a rise in prejudice against minorities and incomers and an increase in atavistic attitudes that often take religious forms. In this context, traditional Christians often think of themselves as bystanders, just as dismayed as their secular fellows at the rapid debasement of a common coin of decency. This response is a mistake. The order that is being abandoned was, to a large degree, as historians increasingly recognise, not a purely secular one; rather, it was the last Christian settlement in the West, however imperfectly so, and however much its Christian character was being eroded almost from the outset.

To understand this, it is useful to think of the parallels between today and the 1930s. Then, as now, one witnessed the clash of virulent and incompatible ideologies: then, of American-style liberalism, fascism and communism; today, of neoliberalism and national populisms of right and left. Then, as now, there were also awkward hybrids. Christians of all kinds made a creative and, to a degree, concerted response to the situation in the years before the war, allied to a certain Christian revival after the existential disillusionments following World War One.

For the most part, they rejected both individualism and collectivism, along with the reduction of human beings to the levels of animal and machine. In proclaiming “personalist” philosophies, leading Christian thinkers insisted on the priority of social relating and reciprocity over either a controlling state or an anarchic market. They insisted on the dignity of each person. They emphasised that human fulfilment is achieved only through performing a meaningful social role. This personalism often involved a link with “corporatism” in the sense of recognising the political bearing of the economic: each working person should act as a participatory citizen rather than as a narcissistic, passive, bourgeois subject.

Christian thinkers like Nikolai Berdyaev, Max Scheler, Emmanuel Mounier and Jacques Maritain thought that the primacy of the person, of the social, and of reconciling processes over both money and the law, required a sense of the spiritual dimension and the orientation of natural justice to the supernatural ends of charity. Christendom was not seen as merely a social, cultural and geographical reality; Christian faith was regarded as inseparable from it. A desire for a qualification of state sovereign power internally – the idea of “subsidiarity” – was matched by a call for a merging of sovereign authorities externally – the idea of “solidarity”.

The defeat of fascism and the subsequent fear of communism gave these ideas more traction. In the face of atrocity, it appeared plausible that mere human rights must be supplemented with a natural law sense of human dignity and of equivalent human duty. Eugenics, a progressive cause in the pre-war years, was shunned. While natural birth processes were newly favoured, within Catholicism there was a new appreciation of marriage as an honoured spiritual vocation. Since democratic votes had in some instances led to elected dictatorships, democracy tended to be understood as ensuring the equal dignity and right to flourishing of every citizen rather than as a free vote followed by “winner takes all”. This encouraged the rise of welfare programmes and state aid for industry – borrowing from totalitarian examples in order to resist their future lure. 

All these elements contributed to the foundation of the UN, the beginnings of the European project, the emergence of the welfare state in Britain and the sustaining of the New Deal in the United States. Christian activists and theologians were to the fore in each case (Maritain was involved in drafting the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Together with many secular sympathisers, they crafted an order which to some extent engendered a remarkable period of Western peace and prosperity. One can argue that it did so because it successfully tempered extreme liberalism and capitalism. A sense of inherent human dignity and the proper modes of human flourishing in society qualified a culture of mere rights and utility. In each nation, some sense of belonging and of the common good prevailed.

How did this collapse? Some complain that after 1945 a purely secular order was warped by Christian influence. The trouble was that just the opposite happened. The fear of totalitarianism was so strong that too many concessions were made to mere rights and democracy. The enterprise of a “new Christendom” was dropped. Christian Democrats became complacent about a supposedly “purely natural” order dominated by family selfishness, capitalism and consumerism and careless of the environment. Mediating civil institutions started to languish, leaving the field free to state and market.

In Britain it was worse, and this explains some of our current impasse. On the Continent, fear of the over-mighty state and even of democracy prevailed: the power of individual states was qualified in various ways, and much of the older personalist and corporatist ethos was sustained, producing various modes of social market. Vocationalism and craft training were encouraged. But in Britain, success in war produced a great confidence in the state, while corporate, mediating and vocational structures were now somewhat tainted with the memory of fascism. 

Across Europe, the Christian dimension of the post-war settlement was rapidly thinned out. The more political pronouncements of the second Vatican Council only confirmed this surrender. The children of this settlement understood little of its spiritual dimension: the only values they imbibed were freedom and democracy. Hence their outrage in the 1960s, when they discovered that not everything was permitted. They abandoned not only a Christian horizon but an older socialist one also. Their cultural liberalism quickly and inevitably ushered in the value-free unregulated economic free-for-all that arrived in the 1980s. Mammon came to power with theological and ecclesial complicity, with Christian thinkers often embracing the secular as if it were the will of Providence. In reality, this surrender helped to confirm a secularisation whose 
triumph was as yet not so certain after all.

Today we understand the real sacrificial price of the monetary god. On the one hand, we have the mobile, global super-rich and their metropolitan allies concentrated within the finance and information economies. They share a common liberal culture and often benefit from cheaper migrant labour. On the other, we have the sedentary majority, working and middle class, who inhabit the peripheries in every sense. They are often both less well-off and subject to the negative impact of migration, and silently alienated from the novel mores and artistic obsessions of the metropolitan elites and their media outlets. We are all too familiar with the political upshots. The shallow meaning inherent in endless change means nothing to those outside the smarter post codes. Deprived of religious and metaphysical goals, they reach for land and blood, sometimes following leaders that cynically borrow religious slogans and tropes. Genuine religion is reduced to just another “identity” and even, insultingly, to race – as with Jacinda Ardern’s superficial response to the atrocity in Christchurch. 

As in the 1930s, so now it is up to religious people – especially Christians – to assert a true, natural-law based alternative, which will put the personal and the interpersonal before either procedure or contract; which will refuse the simplistic alternative of a sterile cosmopolitanism versus a bigoted belonging. Only the sense of what we all have in common under God, and the way this is diversely and sacramentally mediated by sacred places and their organic linkages across borders, will save us. Christians cannot count on, nor of course hope for, another global war to puncture our illusions. Somehow, we have to drag our political vision from the margins back to the centre. Perhaps the current crisis may provide the opportunity.

John Milbank is a theologian, philosopher, poet and political theorist. His latest book, co-authored with Adrian Pabst, is The Politics of Virtue.

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