Only those who understand, will understand. (via James at the Matrix)

The crisis of political correctness

Courier article – written before the UKIP fostering fiasco in Rotherham, which is a remarkably timely demonstration of what I’m talking about.

In his seminal work on the philosophy of science, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, Thomas Kuhn describes what happens when one way of viewing the world gives way to another. Essentially, any way of viewing the world – what Kuhn calls a ‘paradigm’ – is always going to be incomplete. Slowly, over time, that incompleteness gives rise to ‘anomalies’, that is, there are things which are seen which cannot be explained in terms of the existing paradigm. So, for example, the Ptolemaic paradigm for understanding the movement of the planets (which had the earth at the centre) slowly gave way to the Copernican paradigm (which had the sun at the centre) because the former had to start making exception after exception in order to account for what was actually being observed. In other words, the old ways of thinking, the old paradigms, break down when they can no longer account for the piling up of new evidence – there are too many anomalies, things which don’t fit. What is most interesting about Kuhn’s account is the way in which he describes the resistance that takes place to the transition to a new paradigm. According to Kuhn the consensus of opinion changes, not because the majority are convinced by reasoning and evidence (which is the mythology of scientific progress) but rather that those coming into the field for the first time, without preconceptions, find a new paradigm to be more intellectually interesting, and those committed to the old paradigm simply and literally die out.

I find this understanding of intellectual change quite persuasive, and I believe that it applies to other fields just as naturally as science. A paradigm, a way of looking at the world, gets taken up and used for a long period of time because it seems to work. However, when the anomalies – those things that can’t be explained within the paradigm – accumulate too far, then there is a revolution of understanding. The old guard is never persuaded, they are simply left behind as new thinkers develop more fruitful lines of enquiry. I believe that just such a process is now taking place with regard to ‘political correctness’, or, put differently, the established left-wing pieties are now being pitilessly exposed as inadequate to address the major problems that we face. As a result political correctness is in crisis.

To explore this further, I want to look at the BBC and some recent stories that they have been involved in. I want to look particularly at the BBC, not because I don’t support it – I very much do – but because I see it, along with the Guardian newspaper (which I read daily) as the repository of this particular pattern of thought. So what are the recent stories?

The first is the Jimmy Saville scandal. One particularly telling detail about this was the way that the organiser of the Children in Need event had barred Saville from having any involvement with it. Why did this not set off any alarm bells? It would appear – and obviously a proper understanding needs to await the results of the relevant inquiries – but it would appear that there was a culture of ‘protect the celebrity’ in place at the BBC. Where there is no understanding of virtue, celebrity is the plastic substitute for character, and this blindness to the importance of classical values leads directly to such horrors.

In contrast to the protecting of celebrities there remains, on the other hand, a culture of ‘hate the Tories’ in place. There are plentiful examples of this stretching back over a long period of time, but the attitude has been brought into particular salience through the catastrophic Newsnight programme which led to the calumnies against Lord McAlpine. The default assumption amongst the politically correct is that to be right-wing is to be uncaring. Anyone remember the vilification of Margaret Thatcher after she made the comment ‘there is no such thing as society?’ Studying her remarks now, it is clear that she was making an important point – yet the coverage at that time simply assumed that as a Tory she was by definition heartless, and that this was the point that she was making. So alongside the blindness to classical virtues runs a self-righteous smugness and sense of moral superiority.

What do we actually need from the BBC? Something like a fair and balanced coverage of the issues that confront our society, and, perhaps, some indication of how to treat with them in order to make progress – to reform the bad and affirm the good. Some of you may have heard about the appalling situation in Rochdale where young girls were groomed and sexually attacked by groups of Muslim men – but of course, to use the word ‘Muslim’ in this context is to breach a taboo. For some reason the racial epithet ‘Asian’ is preferred, despite being so broad as to be meaningless (and also profoundly racist). Now, of course, it is not the case that being Muslim of itself means that a man is more likely to perpetrate such barbaric acts, but it is the case that there is a toxic fragment of ‘Muslim’ culture that fosters an attitude of treating white women as disposable trash. We are not going to be able to deal with such a situation unless we are able to speak honestly and openly about it. (I should add, for clarity, that the vast majority of similar grooming and sexual attacks is carried out by nominally Christian white males – that doesn’t alter the point that I am making here). Alongside the blindness to classical virtues, and the self-righteous smugness, there is such a fear of being accused of racism or Islamophobia that mealy-mouthed equivocations and circumlocutions have to be employed to dance around the shocking truth.

Finally I want to touch on the coverage that the BBC is providing with regard to the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians – a conflict which is likely to become larger in due course. That the BBC is anti-Israel is something of a truism, yet it is in such coverage that the contradictions of political correctness seem to me to come into very visible focus. The organisation Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel – it is a part of their founding charter – and if they succeed in their aims then the one place in the entire Middle East where a gay man, or a woman, or a Christian or Hindu can live in peace will be destroyed. Somehow, the need to support the apparent underdog against Israel trumps all the other elements of political correctness.

There is, I believe, an escalating disconnect between the claims being made by the adherents of political correctness, who pay lip service to issues of justice and equality, and the actual working out of their behaviour in practice. If we are truly committed to, for example, the rights of girls to be educated, to marry a partner of their own choosing, to work out their own path in life – then that also means at the very same time that the construction of sharia law in the United Kingdom is something that needs to be struggled against. It is not possible to be in favour of both – to support the rights of women, or gays, or religious minorities and at the same time to offer equal respect to an ideology that opposes such things.

I believe that the adherents of left-wing orthodoxy, political correctness, are being put to the test. What is it that they actually believe in? Put differently, I believe that what we are seeing is the working out of a contradiction that has always been at the heart of the secular enlightenment. The best of the enlightenment is, both as a matter of historical fact and philosophical necessity, bound up with the religious faith in which it originally formed. That is, a properly tolerant, rational and humane society can only exist on the basis of the religious and specifically Christian commitments which offer such things as their fruit. Where those religious commitments are discarded, the branches bearing fruit are cut off from the trunk and the roots – and so they die. There is a contradiction – an anomaly – between an enlightenment which accepts and rejoices in a full humanity open to all and an enlightenment which simply genuflects before the conventional left-wing pieties and is only concerned to be in with the crowd of ‘right on’ celebrities. If we believe in the former then we must, of necessity, reject the latter. It is not possible to straddle this fence – and that is the crisis for political correctness.

TBLA(6): Pecca Fortiter

One of the key theological insights that I hang on to, which came to me from Bonhoeffer (articulating the Lutheran tradition) is ‘Pecca Fortiter’ – ‘sin boldly’. There is, I think, a right way to understand this, and a wrong.

The wrong is the one that Bonhoeffer chastises in ‘Cost of Discipleship’, which is ‘cheap grace’. This way of understanding the phrase effectively means – do what you like because you’re covered by grace anyway. It becomes an antinomianism only half a breath removed from a complete licentiousness. One of my favourite quotations of Wittgenstein: ‘If what we do now makes no difference in the end, then all the seriousness of life is done away with.’ What we do matters in the long run and this way of understanding the action of grace seems to me to do away with all sense of better and worse, all that speaks to us of quality, or excellence, or holiness.

In contrast to this I would argue for a way of understanding ‘pecca fortiter’ which is centred upon relieving us of our burden of guilt and sense of failure. It is true that we cannot earn our way to heaven; it is also true that everything that we do is going to be tainted by our sin and failures. What this phrase means in this context is that we should not let the fear of failure prevent us from seeking to grow in faith. Of course, what we do might be a fearsome failure, a spectacular example of what not to do – but there is no place where we can go that will take us away from the love of God revealed in Christ. So long as we are constantly seeking him, constantly seeking to grow closer to him, then we can trust that he will hold on to us and no matter what sort of mess we find ourselves in, he will be able to pull us out of it. So I take ‘pecca fortiter’ to be a realistic maxim of encouragement. We have the authority to judge the angels, yet we will not be able to exercise such judgement unless we have grown in maturity ourselves. It is through being set free from the fear of failure that we will learn and develop that capacity for judgement. We are rather like toddlers learning to walk – we have to try and fail many, many times before we can start making strides.

In other words, if a group of Christians, after a great deal of prayer and reflection, come to the conclusion that a radical change in behaviour is led by the Spirit – then a fear of the consequences (or a reference to keeping the rules) is not enough to say that it is wrong. That group of Christians themselves have the authority and the right to test that particular spirit and to see if the changes tend towards holiness and righteousness or otherwise. This, after all, is what happened in the first-century debates about circumcision and kosher food laws. I think the same applies to our struggles over sexuality today. Put simply, we need to trust the baptism of our brothers and sisters.

Veni Sancte Spiritus – but please don’t tell us anything we’d rather not hear

This is a guest post by Rev Edward Dowler

First of all, let me state my own position, somewhat fence-sitting thought it is. Although I long for closer communion with my Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters, I realise that there is an anomaly about a church in which a certain category of priests cannot be considered for ordination to the episcopate. However, some aspects of the reaction to the recent vote on women bishops have deeply disturbed me.

The first of these was majoritarianism. One bishop pronounced with perhaps some sleight of hand that ‘the clear majority of the Church of England demands it, the people of this country expect it, and I believe that the Holy Spirit yearns for it’. Since forty two out of forty four dioceses (or, more accurately, diocesan synods) have expressed support for women bishops, it has been widely concluded that the legislation should certainly have been passed, despite not receiving the required majority in the General Synod. But majoritarianism is not democracy: as the American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has recently pointed out, democracy is not just about enacting the will of the majority, but also, just as importantly, it is about protecting the rights of the minority: exactly the point about which the House of Laity was concerned.

Secondly, in the aftermath of the vote, there has been a nasty strain of clericalism in evidence. Members of the House of Laity were, it seemed, simply too thick and reactionary to get it; no surprises there if you believe in any case that they are ‘life-denying fun sponges obsessed with being right and with other people not having sex’. But it was noticeable that the key swing voters whose votes ensured that the legislation was defeated were in fact people who actually support the ordination of women to the episcopate. However, they felt unable to ignore an uncomfortable feeling that charity was not served by what seemed to them to be a ‘winner takes it all’ piece of legislation. At what has already turned out to be very considerable cost to themselves, they were not prepared to endorse this, despite their own desire to see women bishops.

Thirdly, there has been erastianism of the worst kind. As John Milbank has pointed out, the purpose of having an established Church is so that ‘the political nation is answerable to the Church: to God, to Christ and to Scripture’. But the Church of England seems largely to have accepted that it now goes the other way. The Prime Minister, in one of the milder comments from the House of Commons, has told the Church of England that it needs to ‘get with the programme (of secular equalities legislation)’. Despite all of the lessons that the twentieth century might teach us, even the Archbishop of Canterbury seems to believe that the Church should essentially keep in step with modern ‘trends and priorities’, as if it were in these that true wisdom is to be found. Other bishops meanwhile contend that the answer to this disagreement within the Church is to put it all in the hands of the secular courts (cf. 1 Cor 6.1-8).

Fourthly, we have seen what one might describe as a pneumatological deficiency. Are the prayers for guidance, the talk about seeking God’s will, the Synod Eucharists and all the rest of it just so many platitudes and pieces of empty flummery? For, rather than asking what it is that the Holy Spirit might be saying to the Church of England in and through this vote, the immediate response to the decision is hotly to protest that a way must be found of overturning it as soon as possible. In the words of the Greek Orthodox priest, Fr Stephen Maxfield (scroll to the last letter), ‘The Church of England is very odd. It invokes the Holy Spirit before meetings of its General Synod, but then it flatly refuses to believe that He has anything to do with the results of its deliberations’.

As several commentators have pointed out, one problem is a chronic lack of theology. Since we do not have an agreed theology of the episcopacy, we do not know whether bishops exist to provide leadership in the manner of secular gurus of that discipline, or bureaucratic managers, or fathers within a family. And because we do not know this, the conversation all too easily defaults to regarding episcopacy as just another ‘senior position’.

Similarly, since we do not have theology of gender, or indeed of the human person more generally, we default to secularised discourses of rights and equal opportunities. In the words of one priest in my own diocese, ‘young professional women aren’t used to being told they can’t do things’. So, putting it bluntly, we have been trying to decide whether to have women bishops without really having a clue what either a bishop or a woman (or a man) actually is.

Perhaps the egregious Chris Bryant MP is right – although not for the reasons that he thinks he is – that we should simply appoint no more bishops of either gender for the time being. Perhaps (and I owe this point to the Anglican solitary, Maggie Ross) we need to put aside our anxious, self-preoccupied strivings, our worldly perceptions that things can be fixed if only this or that group of people can be outflanked and defeated. Perhaps the Holy Spirit has indicated to us in and through this vote that the old way of doing things has now reached a dead end and that, instead, we must now just wait in stillness and silence before the Lord who waits to be gracious to us. If we did that, people really might take some notice.

The Revd Dr Edward Dowler is Vicar of Clay Hill, Enfield in the Diocese of London. He was formerly Vice-Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford and a member of the Theology Faculty at the University of Oxford. He has recently written the SCM Core Text in Christian Ethics (SCM: 2011) and The Church and the Big Society (Grove Books: forthcoming).

Sarah Coakley agrees with me! (perhaps they will listen to her)

Please forgive the egotistical title for this blog-entry, but my inner cheer is too buoyant to repress. I’ve been banging on about the lack of theological seriousness in the Church, the creeping managerialism, and the effect it has on clergy morale for a long time – and focussed all those concerns on the women bishops question here. In the aftermath of the Synod debacle, Professor Sarah Coakley, who is an all round star, weighs in here. Go read.

TBLA(5): radical non-judgement

One of the most salient teachings of Jesus – and one of the very hardest to follow – is ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged’. I see this as the expression of a core spiritual truth; that if we live as ones who are forgiven, not from merit but from grace, that we are enabled to share that mercy and forgiveness and grace with others. It is about the divine love overflowing through us. To judge – and I take that in the sense of ‘to condemn’ – is to separate ourselves out from that overflowing grace and thereby to invoke a solemn judgement upon ourselves. “The measure that you give will be the measure that you receive”; “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” – these are expressions of the same core spiritual law. I do sometimes wonder whether this is the only thing that needs to be known and lived in order to be a Christian.

However, for my purposes in this sequence, the conclusion that I draw is that if a Christian brother or sister has prayed through a situation and come to a particular discernment then it is not for any other Christian to stand in judgement and condemnation over them. To start denouncing a fellow Christian as a sinner is a) to state the obvious, but b) more importantly, to demonstrate a failure to understand the gospel, and thus, to exclude oneself from the Kingdom.

This is not to say that all discrimination is abandoned, that ‘anything goes’ – it is simply to affirm the profound spiritual respect which we are called to offer one another as fellow baptised Christians. We are all sinners, and we do not get to heaven through our own merit. Possibly a divergence of view will lead to a failure of shared communion – ‘let them be to you as a gentile and a tax collector’ and so on – but that can be done in a Christian spirit or in a judgemental spirit. Only one of those is Holy.

So this is absolutely key to the discussion about marriage. That is, if we are to truly and mutually discern what is God’s will for our community today, we need to be able to listen with holy ears to things that might otherwise shock us. I do not believe we need to be afraid of this.

Please can we now do women bishops the right way?

Three step process:

1. Formally decide that the period of reception is at an end, and that the Church of England definitively accepts women priests.
2. Construct a generous, loving – dare I say ‘Christian’ – settlement with all those who on reasons of conscience cannot accept #1, involving transfer of property and so on – at least one new denomination, but let’s be fraternal about it.
3. Synod passes a remarkably simple single-clause measure bringing in women bishops by unanimous consent.

Is it really so hard to do things the right way, rather than descending into so much appalling political bickering?

A good election to lose

Courier article

I write this article on the morning after the US elections, as Barack Obama celebrates his re-election as president of the United States. I can’t escape the feeling that, rather like the Conservatives in 1992, this might have been a good election to lose. In 1992, a little surprisingly, John Major led the Conservatives to a small victory, and the following September the pound was ejected from the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Whilst this was clearly a good thing for the British economy, it was just as clearly a very bad thing politically for the Conservative party, whose reputation for economic competence took such a hit that it has arguably not yet recovered, some twenty years later. I think that a similar sort of ‘black swan’ type event – in fact, several – lie in wait for the President of the United States, and I want to briefly indicate the sorts of things that might be lurking.

Firstly, the economic issues, which I have touched on in this column several times before. The Western economic system is bankrupt, and at the moment is persisting purely via a sequence of confidence tricks – that is, lots of measures, principally printing money, designed to keep confidence in the financial system going. If at any point that confidence is damaged, then people will start to seek a safer place to park their financial assets. In other words, debts will start to be called in, and instead of the value of any debt being an abstract item on a putative balance sheet, that debt will become a very real obligation. As there is not enough wealth in the world to balance out the existing debts, there will be defaults – that will make people more nervous, causing them to call in more debts, which will make more people go bankrupt, making people more nervous… Rinse and repeat until enough of the bad debt has been properly accounted for and a solvent economy – at a much smaller size than the present economy – emerges from the wreckage. Human nature being what it is, this is likely to take the form of some very visible event, like a stock market crash or a spectacular bank failure – and the person in power, whether innocent or not, will have to take responsibility.

Another aspect of the economic situation is the US government’s own financial position. As a result of the huge level of deficits built up over many years – but massively accelerated over the last four – the US government is practically bankrupt. It has been able to fend off the implications of this situation for the simple reason that the US dollar remains, for now, the ‘reserve currency’ for the world financial system. In other words, for a great deal of international trade, especially oil, the transactions take place in dollars. The US government can therefore keep printing dollars because people need them, and there is a lot of ‘wealth’ in other government accounts that people do not wish to see collapse in value. However, that is not a situation that can or will last forever. Indeed, this aspect may come to a head very soon, as unless the US government agrees a new budget in the next few months, it will drive off a ‘fiscal cliff’ – there are some $600 billion worth of tax increases about to take effect, and if that is allowed to happen then it will have a severe impact on the US economy. There will be lots of coverage on this topic over the next few weeks.

Thirdly, an under-reported but major factor in our ongoing economic problems is the developing impact of Peak Oil. Ignoring the ‘blip’ in 2008 (when oil hit $150 per barrel) the price of oil has been significantly increasing year on year for nearly ten years now. The reason for this is simple – there is less oil available than there is demand for it, and that is because there has been no significant increase in the oil supply since 2005. Indeed, if you break the numbers down, the amount of oil available for export (in other words, the amount of oil not being used by the nations that produce the oil) has been declining by about 0.7% a year since 2005. This problem is not going to go away, it is only going to get worse, and for an indication for how it might affect the United States, just look at the coverage of ‘superstorm’ Sandy, and what happened there when the fuel supply was interrupted.

Of course, economic issues aren’t the only ones that can cause problems to a President, although I suspect that they will be the major ones. The field of foreign affairs is also looking scarier as time goes on. Principally that relates to the Middle East. I tried to explain to a friend the other day why the situation is so bad, and simply tried to list the different actors and their motivations. I stopped when I had reached eight! The situation is obviously very complex, but it seems equally obvious that things like the accession to power in Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood, and their shift from a pro-US stance to one that is, at the very least, independent and welcoming to Iran, will have significant long-term consequences. More broadly, the increasing level of hostility between China and its neighbours in the Far East is worrisome, and if the Chinese leadership elects a more ‘hawkish’ new President, that would be a dark omen.

As MacMillan once put it, ‘events, dear boy, events!’ are what govern political careers. It is quite possible that there will be one particular event that triggers a cascade of consequences bringing all of these issues to a head. Imagine, for example, that Israel launches an attack on Iran, triggering a wider war involving Saudi Arabia; that the oil supply through the Straits of Hormuz is interrupted, even if only briefly; that the resulting spike in the oil price causes many of our fragile financial institutions to pass over into bankruptcy; and that the US dollar – as a result of political hostility to the United States – loses its role as a reserve currency. I don’t want to say that these problems will be impossible to solve only that, as I said at the beginning, if you’re going to lose an election, this isn’t a bad one to lose. Barack Obama’s in-tray is unlikely to have much good news in it for many years to come.

I’ll finish by sticking my neck out and making a bold prediction (containing just a smidgen of wish-fulfilment) – either at the head of a purged Republican party, or at the head of an independent ‘Tea Party’ ticket, the US will elect Sarah Palin as president in 2016. You read it here first…

TBLA(4): The question of truth

One of the corollaries of my last post is: given that the church has the authority to decide what is right and what is not right (the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven) – how are we to do make such a determination?

This is simply ‘the question of truth’ – that is, the truth shall set us free, nothing that is true is foreign to Jesus, so the pursuit of truth is something that necessarily leads us into the light. This does not mean that ‘truth’ as a construct can be placed in an antagonistic relationship to the gospel, in order that one must be defeated. It is more a question of humility and willingness to be challenged.

One of the most ignored instructions from the infamous Lambeth Conference of 1998 was surely the injunction to listen to the homosexual Christian community about their understandings and experience. It is not possible to listen in the relevant sense if there is an irrevocable commitment to “you are a sinner”. However, if listening is genuinely entered into, then so does the Holy Spirit – and together, the truth of a situation becomes discernible.

One of the best books that I have read on this subject is Gareth Moore’s “A Question of Truth”. He makes the argument there that it is not good enough to appeal to authority. If we believe – as Christians have always maintained that they do believe – in a God of order and reason, then that reason and order is open to an appreciation by the community. This is what drives the theological question. In his book, Moore slowly takes apart the standard Roman Catholic dogma and simply points out that ‘this is not true’.

So for my purposes, this is another foundational plank in the overall argument. If we are to come to a proper understanding of the nature of Christian marriage, appeals to authority are insufficient, however important the authority may be (and it is not an accident that I began this sequence with Jesus’ own teaching). We must be able to demonstrate the truth of our position.

To that end, I will in due course be drawing on contemporary scientific research about sexuality. If anyone wants a hint as to what sort of thing I’ll be using, have a look at this book.