The post-Christian identity crisis
Three books portray a West unconscious of its past and uncertain of its future
In 2018 the Royal Navy announced that a new frigate would be called HMS London. Its motto would be the same as the City of London’s: “Domine, Dirige Nos.” (“Lord, lead us.”) Except — whether by accident or design — it would omit the first word. A cry to the heavens would be replaced by a hapless-sounding “Lead us.” A moralist might find an analogy here for what has happened to the nations of the West. Whereas they once looked to God, they now gaze round helplessly: won’t somebody lead us, please? This strange historical moment is the subject of three perceptive new books, by a journalist, a historian and a think-tanker, which clarify the problem without quite providing a solution.
Douglas Murray’s The Madness of Crowds (Bloomsbury Continuum) states its thesis on page one. Over the last few decades, “all our grand narratives have collapsed”. Religious and political hopes have lost their hold on the imagination; in default of any other “story to give life purpose”, the gap has been filled by something else — social justice, intersectionality, identity politics, call it what you like. I sometimes think it should be called the Thing, reflecting its mysterious but frightening identity: a shape-shifting force which periodically sweeps through the public square, destroying reputations, careers and lives.
A book about the Thing could easily become a wearying catalogue of stupidity and injustice. And The Madness of Crowds does drive the reader to the brink of despair, as it carefully details the absurdities of the new politics. Yes, it’s even worse than you think. It’s not just that the Thing punishes people for a single offence: the punishment can even be passed down the generations, as with the racing driver Conor Daly, stripped of a sponsorship arrangement because his father used an offensive racial epithet on the radio some time before Daly was born.
Transgender identity has caused confusion in cycling and athletics; and in the ultra-violent world of Mixed Martial Arts, a woman suffered concussion and a broken eye socket in a fight with a trans opponent, Fallon Fox, who had undergone male-to-female surgery at the age of 31. Those examples happen to be from the world of sport, but alarming stories can be found in politics, business, academia, the media — you name it.
Murray names them all, but he also provides a compelling analysis of what’s going on. Behind the rhetoric of compassion, he detects the triumphant grin of the bully. News reporting on minority groups, he observes, often “goes beyond ‘This will be good for you’ and nearer to the realm of ‘See how you like this, bigot.’” There’s something “strange and vaguely retributive in the air”. Google Images, which directs searches for “European art” or “straight couples” to politically correct pictures, seems to be making “a very deliberate attempt to upset, throw, disorientate or enrage”. And curiously, the Thing is most aggressive on just those matters where society is most confused.
Is the male/female binary an archaism which only a chauvinist would think amounts to a major division in human nature, or is it so fundamental a reality that being “in the wrong body” is unbearable? Is sexual freedom something to be celebrated and revelled in, as films, music videos and chat shows urge us to, or something to be feared and reined in by consent classes and sexual harassment workshops? Should we avoid categorising people by their race, or should white people live in perpetual shame at their whiteness? These are questions worth thinking about — but it’s notoriously risky to do so. The new politics, Murray writes, “sacrifices truth in the pursuit of a political goal. Indeed, it decides that truth is part of the problem — a hurdle that must be got over.” Even the truth is sacrificed to the weird need for revenge.
How to defend society against the Thing is another matter, and to Murray’s credit he eschews simple answers. He refuses to blame the tender feelings of “snowflake” students, pointing out that young people are trying to keep it together in a world of ever-increasing complexity. Nor does he propose an onslaught against “the left”. The first way to resist the new derangement, Murray writes, is to look outside politics for meaning: to love our families and friends, to cherish the best of our culture. But the book isn’t especially optimistic that this will be enough. The “call to politicise everything and then fight for it has an undoubted attraction”, he points out. “It fills life with meaning, of a kind.” In a secularised society, that gives the Thing a head start.
Assuming, that is, that the world really is secularised — an assumption which the historian Tom Holland strongly doubts. In the battles over sex, gender and race, he observes in his new book Dominion (Little, Brown, reviewed by James Orr in the December issue), it is always understood that the victims should be heard first: that those who have suffered deserve a special respect, and those in positions of “privilege” should doubt their own perspective. But where did that idea, that suffering bestows a particular dignity, originate? The Romans would have thought it bizarre. Nietzsche considered it an embarrassing delusion. Only in a Christian context, Holland argues, where God has suffered a humiliating death on a cross, could victims be seen as the centre of things. The second-century bishop Irenaeus bore witness to this when he praised a martyred slave girl called Blandina. “Those things reckoned by men low, and invisible, and contemptible,” wrote Irenaeus, “are precisely what God ranks as deserving of great glory.”
Holland’s account of how Christianity shaped the West is a rebuke to the kind of liberal complacency which supposes that in the stagnant, superstitious past, people were cruel and treated their inferiors mercilessly, but that our secular, scientific world is gradually moving in the direction of equality and human rights. As Holland points out, this is worse than a caricature. Christian principles, far from conserving a static world, have led to constant political upheaval. It was Christian saints who attacked superstition, mocking pagan gods and chopping down allegedly sacred trees; it was a Christian culture that produced the scientific revolution. (Holland’s account of the Galileo case — more farce than tragedy — is one of the book’s many highlights.) Egalitarianism can be dated back to St Paul’s earth-shaking declaration that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Human rights were developed by twelfth-century canon lawyers at the University of Bologna.
Although versions of this argument have appeared before, it has rarely been presented in a narrative of such cinematic pace and drama. Time and again Holland demonstrates how civilisations are transformed by great shifts in the human imagination. In 369, for instance, the bishop Basil of Caesarea constructs a huge complex of buildings to shelter the poor and tend for the sick — and the bishop himself greets lepers with a kiss and tends to the suffering.
Basil’s actions, combined with his exhortations to the rich to hear the cry of the poor, mark the end of an era. “The days when a wealthy man had only to sponsor a self-aggrandising piece of architecture to be hailed as a public benefactor were well and truly gone.” This, for Holland, is the power of Christianity — to change the world, at times almost by accident.
He has fun showing how revolutionaries were actually drawing on the creeds they thought they had escaped. Despite Marx’s well-known views on religion, he could scarcely have written as he did of the suffering masses without his Christian inheritance. The Beatles treated faith with bored disdain, but were wholly indebted to the New Testament for their big idea that all you need is love. “The retreat of Christian belief,” Holland writes, does not “seem to imply any necessary retreat of Christian values. Quite the contrary.”
Holland has a strong hand, and he plays it with tremendous flair. But he also overplays it. The focus on “Christian values” doesn’t really do justice to Christian beliefs, to Christian history, or to the urgent questions of the present moment. It distorts Christianity, by overlooking the questions at the heart of believers’ lives: who is Jesus Christ? (The Arian crisis, which made this question into the most important controversy of the early Church, goes unmentioned.) What exactly happens in Christianity’s central ritual? (The debates over the Eucharist, which played such a decisive role in the Reformation, are similarly overlooked.)
Holland’s language of “values”, meanwhile, neglects how much of Christian history has been about defining the limits of belief: you might say, about turning values into doctrines. Holland is fascinated by the paradoxes of Christianity: it seems to produce contradictory impulses, both revolutionary and conservative, and struggles to hold them together. But Holland is reluctant to admit that some forces are simply anti-Christian. Because the Soviet Union copied various aspects of Christianity, Holland argues, its atheism “was less a repudiation of the Church than a dark and deadly parody of it”. Well, no. By the time the fifty-thousandth priest was executed and dumped into a mass grave, it was more a repudiation than a parody. Dominion emphasises the continuity between Christian and apparently secular societies, but downplays the real conflicts.
As for christianity’s enduring influence, Holland’s case is a mixed bag. He offers a compelling reading of the immigration debate: while someone like Viktor Orbán wants to defend “Christian Europe”, a leader like Angela Merkel is moved by an ideal of human fraternity which one would expect of a pastor’s daughter. But the book is less persuasive on other matters — unborn life, for instance. On Holland’s reading, pro-life campaigners may be in the tradition of the early Christians, rescuing abandoned Roman babies from hillsides and latrines; yet defenders of abortion are “likewise drawing on a deeply rooted Christian supposition: that every woman’s body was her own, and to be respected as such by every man”.
Even if there is something in that, it overlooks another side of pro-choice rhetoric: the idea that there are some lives which are not worth defending. Take the recent campaign by Belgian doctors to legalise the killing of actual newborns in “unbearable suffering”, or the articles like Lynn Beisner’s in the Guardian in 2012, headlined: “I wish my mother had aborted me.” Or, at the other end of life, consider the late Baroness Warnock’s view that those with dementia may have a duty to die, because they are “wasting people’s lives”. That is an authentically post-Christian voice.
For Holland, there is no such thing as a post-Christian West. “Europe,” he writes in a concluding chapter on our times, “had new expectations, new identities, new ideals. None, though, was neutral; none was anything other than the fruit of Christian history.” But while this may be true of our attachment to equality and human rights, it is less true of other aspects of Western identity. The growing cult of physical beauty and strength looks much more like a return to paganism than anything in Christian history. Celebrity culture bears only the faintest resemblance to the veneration of the saints. State socialism and free-market capitalism, though they owe much to the Christian past, are also in crucial ways rejections of it.
As a riposte to, say, Richard Dawkins’s view of history, this book is unanswerable. But by eliding the Christian past with the post-Christian here-and-now, it fails to capture our present discontents. For that we need a book like Ben Ryan’s How the West Was Lost (Hurst).
Ryan, who works for the religion-and-politics think tank Theos, portrays what he calls “the angry helplessness among a liberal elite that has lost power”. Ryan has some sympathy with that elite, but he is also mordantly witty about their delusions. A symbolic moment, he suggests, came in the 2016 US presidential debates, when Hillary Clinton spluttered in response to some preposterous claim from her opponent: “That’s a — that’s — go to the — please, fact-checkers, get to work!” The fact-checkers, Ryan observes, “were never going to come to her rescue. The entire debate was one long ode to the basic fact that nobody cared.” What mattered was that Trump had a more compelling story to tell. Even if that story was “empty and meaningless”, so are many other stories which nevertheless do pretty well at the cinema box office.
If Murray’s book is about the madness that has gripped Western societies, and Holland’s is about the method hidden within the madness, then Ryan’s is about the sheer banality which eclipses both. “It is not that the West today is without values,” Ryan writes. “On the contrary, what we are witnessing today is an epidemic of suggested values, of varying degrees of vapidity.” Every corporation, charity and political party announces what it stands for — and none of us really believe that they believe it.
Western societies, Ryan argues, used to uphold — or at least try to uphold — liberty, equality and solidarity. They had some idea of progress towards a better future, whether it was the Kingdom of Heaven or a Marxist utopia. They believed that their values were universally applicable. Today, he writes, this confidence has been lost. Establishment parties are in crisis. The EU, which began in a wave of post-war idealism, has drifted into justifying itself merely as an engine of economic success, which after 2008 hasn’t been so persuasive. And the younger generation seems even more cynical than younger generations are meant to be.
What about the new populist movements, which are harnessing popular disillusionment? Ryan isn’t impressed with them either. He cites a study by the Dutch political scientist Matthijs Rooduijn, which examined 15 of Europe’s populist parties and found no significant shared ideology. The only common thread is discontent.
How the West Was Lost is full of smart ideas and lightly-worn learning. If you haven’t quite kept up with the poll ratings of the Czech Republic social democrats, or happen not to be familiar with the work of Eric Groenendyk on “dual motivations”, Ryan will tell you why they matter. He puts his finger on the West’s crisis, noting that our political choice at the moment is “between technocratic rationalists with nothing to offer the soul, and emotive populists prepared to abandon the rational”. But you have to doubt that Ryan’s proposed ways of bridging this gap — environmental policy, promoting human rights around the world, citizens’ assemblies — are going to do the trick.
Taken together, these books depict a West unsure of its identity, mostly unconscious of a past which continues to shape its choices, and tearing itself apart over mad new ideologies. It’s pretty much what Matthew Arnold saw when he looked out from Dover Beach around 1850, and what any number of observers have seen since. Given the state of Christian institutions, an imminent mass reconversion looks unlikely. Given the state of secular institutions, the emergence of some other kind of unifying leadership looks even unlikelier. But what our civilisation’s existential crisis will look like after the coronavirus — which broke out just as this article went to press — is anyone’s guess.
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