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Posted on Mon 13 June 2016

Christianity must relate to Europe but...

... that does not mean being part of the United States of Europe: an address

The first thing that struck me when I was invited to speak here was that when appeals are made to a common European civilisation, as they often are in promoting the European union, they are to a real extent anachronistic because, of course, the civilisation to which they appeal, was not limited to the north west end of the Eurasia Peninsula. Classical civilisation, as you know, was spread over three continents, what we now call Europe of course, South Western Asia and Northern Africa and this is worth remembering because I think it has relevance to how we shall see the future of Europe.

So there is an anachronism: the myth of Europa itself was the kidnapping by Zeus of the daughter of the King of Tyre, on the Western Asia Coast, and her seduction in Crete, so you already have this connection as it were amongst Mediterranean countries, East and West. This anachronism, if you like, of restricting European civilisation to one corner, as it were, of the ancient world, this is corrected by the recognition of the arrival of ideas in southern Europe from the Orient, particularly moral and spiritual ideas and practices.

So J.B. Lightfoot, focusing on the relationship between St Paul and Seneca, points out that the moral fibre of the Stoics was due to oriental influence. This reminded me of the assertion sometimes made by the church fathers, perhaps exaggerated but there’s certainly general truth in them, that many of the moral ideas of the Greek thinkers actually had their origin in Moses. They were a borrowing from Moses and therefore from the Bible. If we are talking about arrivals, the arrival of a preacher from Troy, or coming from Troy, he left from Troy to arrive in Philippi in Macedonia, is of crucial importance to the history of Europe and of course by that I mean the arrival of St Paul. Pope Benedict called this a turning point, not only in European history but in world history because it changed everything for ever and it is the obstinate refusal of the architects of the European Union to recognise and to accommodate this fact, that has struck me as remarkable. But these arrivals, the arrival of Christianity in Europe, this cross fertilisation of Jerusalem with Athens, with the developing by Christianity of what Benedict also called purified Hellenism is, as I say, responsible for so many incredible moral and spiritual changes on the map of what we now call Europe.

I mean one of the first things that Christianity did was to challenge the widespread practice of female infanticide. The killing of unwanted children. Well that’s still going on under another name as we all know of course and you may remember eighteen months ago there was an article, in a medical journal here in this country, describing something called ‘post-birth’ abortion. Well that is what Christians are against. How quickly slavery came to an end in this country and also elsewhere in Europe after the arrival of Christianity, I mean St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, declared it unchristian in the 12th century. And, of course, the ending of the games. You know we are becoming once again a bread and circuses culture aren’t we? We can’t survive without some games going on somewhere at some time. But the ending of the games was the ending of a feature of Roman civilisation which particularly took pleasure in cruelty. So these arrivals were significant in shaping what was to become western civilisation. But there was of course an immediate assault no sooner had Christian ideas begun to take roots and to change culture, to change values.

There was the eruption as you know of the barbarian invasions arising in those parts of what we now call Europe, that had not really come under the influence of either Rome or of its civilisation. It was the eruption as it were of the Germanic tribes and the destruction in the West of the Roman Empire. Now this could have been the end of any European project whatsoever if it had not been for Christianity. Of course the Eastern Roman Empire survived for several centuries until it was overtaken by Islam, that’s another, though relevant story for us today. But in the West, it was the Christian Church and the Christian faith that made it possible for civilisation to survive at all after these great eruptions that took place and the point that I would want to make this afternoon is that the contribution that Christianity made, as Europe developed its politics, was different in different places with different people.

It was not monolithic. So, for instance, first of all, paralleling what is happening with the European Union, there is the emergence of what came to be called the Holy Roman Empire. The way in which Charlemagne organised his people, how he extended his authority so that eventually Leo III had to recognise him in some way and he was given the title of Holy Roman Emperor. This was an attempt to restore in the West some notion of a unified civilisation. Of course, Charlemagne was very interested in its Christian aspects and made very sure that Christian moral and spiritual ideas informed the emergence and the development of his empire. I mean the merits and demerits of that we can go into later on, but this was the way in which the re-building, as it were, began to take place. But the other was the emergence in places like Italy and Switzerland of city states.

The city states were quite different, one of the catalysts in the emergence of the city states it seems was the resident Bishop. Bishops had their uses! But I suspect it was not just the individual but someone representing an institution that promoted literacy, building and other civilisational values. But then the third is the unique instance of England. So England, at first anyway, did not develop as an empire, in the sense of the Holy Roman Empire, nor was it a collection of city states. But from the very beginning it had a quite centralised understanding of itself and there are a number of reasons for this. Two individuals, who both came from outside actually, provided for something of the unification of the English people. If you read Bede’s history, which is the history of the people, not just of the church, the two he identifies are Adrian the African and Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury, who of course also came funnily enough from Tarsus.

But the unifying of the Church, the gathering of the disparate elements of English Christianity by these two, by the creation of the parochial system, the beginning of provision for education, which was for a long time provided by the church and not by the state was also a unifying of the nation as much as the Church. By the way, the state was a very late comer to the business of universal education and so when people ask about church schools, I think the very least we can say is we were here first by quite a long way! The long history of a monarchy thought of as accountable to divine law and the increasing recognition of the rights and liberties of the people, from the Charter of Liberties, through Magna Carta, to the Bill of Rights and beyond are also national in scope. This is also so of provision for the poor. In stark contrast to Europe, where such provision was made by cities. In England, this was increasingly, national.

All of this has resulted in a sense of unity of the English people, of the development of forms of government. So the rebuilding inspired by Christianity was not monolithic as well and then wherever it took place it seems to be that there were two poles to it. There was what you might call the top down, built from the top down, which had to do with society being organised according to Christian ideas. So the Christian adoption of God, of God the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit of course was hugely influential in this because here there is both order and mutuality. The Son is not the Father, the Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son. So there is order but also mutuality: the Son loves the Father, the Father loves the Son, the Holy Spirit is the relationship of love amongst them, between them and this brought about a society which was based on divine law, but also on a recognition of natural law and of human positive law, but which reflected both order and interdependence. Mutual obligation was recognised in other words. It was not a society where people stood on their rights but where they recognised their obligation to their neighbour.

Now of course people misused this sense of interdependence and of order for their own interests, I do not in any way deny that. Secondly, it was a society that took seriously the importance of the Ten Commandments. It was King Alfred, who when he was devising the common law, what became to be known as the common law tradition, made sure that the different elements of the laws of the different peoples in his kingdom, when they were being synthesized into this common law, were always consistent with the teaching of the Bible.

The third main idea in this top down building if you like, of society in Europe was the idea of the Godly Ruler. The Ruler is as much accountable for what he or she does as anyone else, and this continues to be reflected in our Coronation Service where almost the first promise the monarch has to make, is to promote obedience of the laws of God and the true profession of the gospel. If you’re looking for a basis of the constitution in this country, that’s quite a good place to begin.

So there was the top down movement, but there was also a bottom up movement and it is here that we encounter again and again the expression ‘made in God’s image.’ So the idea of the fundamental dignity of the human person, the freedom limited but nevertheless real of the human person, of the power of agency, all of this had to do with being made in God’s image. From this came two things that became very important and remain very important today, the first was the importance of conscience, that if this person is really free, then conscience becomes very important, because how you act makes a difference in the world around you, for yourself and to other people and the other idea was out of consent. That however God given and providential the political and social order might be, it is not legitimate until it has the consent of those who are going to be governed by it.

Interestingly enough it had another life, if you like, across the ocean because when Europeans began to arrive in the Americas, the question arose about the status of the indigenous people and there were of course many then who were quite keen to deny any status to the indigenous. There was then the removal of those people, taking their land, using them in forced labour and all of those things that undoubtedly happened. Against this stood out many Christian leaders, I have in mind the Bishop of Mexico, Bishop Bartolome Las Casas who said no, this cannot be done because these people are also made in God’s image. Therefore, they also have rights. They also have family rights and obligations. They have a right to earn their living, they have the right to mobility and so on. This debate got back to Europe through the University of Salamanca and the work of people like Francisco Vitoria. Against those who believed not in natural freedom but in natural slavery following Aristotle. Greek democracy is not all it’s cracked up to be, it would be very unsafe for us because it was very selective, very exclusive and very often degenerated into mere oligarchy.

The point is that this discussion which was really a Dominican one for a long time, was picked up by some of the moderate Enlightenment and I think we must distinguish between the moderate and the radical Enlightenment. Newton, Locke, and Boyle, they represent the moderate Enlightenment, which was an attempt to bring Christian thinking to bear on a new scientific and social situation. The radical Enlightenment is quite different. But if you read John Locke, he also almost word for word, refers to some of the things that Las Casas and Vitoria were talking about and again explicitly like them refers to the ‘image of God’. This is also the case in legislation today. I mean sometimes when we are looking at fundamental issues that are touching on human dignity, on the sacredness of the human person, things like that, we have to appeal to transcendent principles. Utilitarianism, opinion polls and focus groups are simply not enough.

Now natural rights talk mutated in to that of human rights. Of course there were other reasons as well. People talk about the influence of Roman law, in the development of law in Europe, and even in parts of this country. But the Roman law that contributed to this development was not just classical Roman Law, but actually Roman law as mediated to us by Christians. It was the codes of Justinian and Theodosius. It was not without Christian reflection if you like and then there was the Reformation. We have to acknowledge that the insistence amongst the reformers, that the Word of God should be made available to ordinary people, whatever it’s religious effects might have been, was one of the reasons for the spread of literacy, not just the spread of it but the virtual creation of languages like English and I sometimes say that Shakespeare’s unthinkable without Tyndale. The way in which the English language was formed and developed because of the translation of the Bible and its long use among people, made it part of ordinary discourse.

Now I’ve talked about the moderate Enlightenment, many of these achievements of this re-creation, of this renewal, rebuilding, were strongly challenged by what you might call the radical Enlightenment. If the moderate Enlightenment had drawn on Christian principles, here was something different and we have to ask whether these European projects that, to what extent are they influenced by this moderate Christian Enlightenment and how much by something else. It seems to me one way of reading history, certainly after the Second World War, is to see a move away from the moderate to the radical Enlightenment and that maybe part of our problem. Many things can be said about the radical Enlightenment, some of them not very polite, I shan’t say them, but just to have, first of all, Rousseau’s idea of the noble savage. The Christian idea is of the creation of human beings as a community. You see when they are created God’s image, man and woman he made them, together he made them, together they are given their mission. So there’s no brutal savage of Hobbes and there is no noble savage. What you have from the very beginning is human society. But then also, the bible recognises not just the image of God but that this image has become tarnished, it has become obscured, it has been damaged, not destroyed but certainly all of those things. What did William Golding say? That he thought of human beings as permeated by darkness, but somehow even in that darkness there is an emerging light, that redeeming light if you like. What makes it possible for us to do good and not be radically evil?

So both the brutal and the noble savage ideas stand against a Christian anthropology. Feuerbach said that all theology was anthropology and that a proper study of man is man. Against this is the Christian idea that man cannot be understood without reference to God. That in fact all anthropology is theology. Otherwise you have absurdity and irrationality: rational observers being in an irrational universe that is without purpose. The third idea of course is that of Marx and my original objection to Marx was not his economic theories but his historic determinism, the basic denial of human freedom. Christianity stands both for the priority of the mind and the spirit and for human freedom against Marx, and then the fourth idea belated perhaps is the Freudian and Jungian, let us say obsession with the self. With the self and the autonomy of the self, if you like.

Christianity will always emphasise the interdependence of human beings. But it is this obsession with the therapeutic, if you like, which is leading to the rise of narcissism that we find all around us. I was interested to read that 70% of all the pictures taken on mobile telephones are of ourselves.

Those who began with the reconstruction of Europe, some of them anyway, were people with a Christian vision and their instinct was to recover the historical and cultural commonality that there is because of this incredible influence of the Christian faith, even in mediating the classical traditions to us. They were also concerned that Europe should not again, never again, be involved in the kind of bloody ideological wars in which it had been in the first part of the 20th century and they were concerned of course also for economic prosperity, for the rebuilding, the reconstruction of Europe itself.

This is very far from the vision of the super state of Europe into which it has mutated. There are things about the European idea that we should affirm. There’s nothing wrong with them. Living at peace with our neighbours, cooperating economically with our neighbours. Celebrating a common culture and the achievements of that culture, there’s nothing wrong with it. But that is not a super state and the super state idea is, I think, informed not by the moderate Enlightenment, not by Christianity, but by the radical Enlightenment and that is why it is resulting in certain dangers with which you are no doubt familiar, but I just want quickly to pin point what those are.

There is first of all the growth of an overweening bureaucracy which seems not to be accountable to anyone. This goes against the Christian idea of the godly ruler who is accountable to a moral law, who is accountable to other people and of course who is accountable to God. This bureaucracy seems to be unaccountable on every side, on every front and it is not just the bureaucracy but there is an emerging bondage to totalitarianism. Again and again we see a restriction not just of practice but of ideas, so the Italian minister who was denied confirmation as a commissioner of the European Union, was denied confirmation, not because of something he had done or even that he said he would do, but simply because of what he thought. Similarly hate speech laws: there’s a book called Censored by Robert Coleman, it is an account of how hate speech laws are restricting freedom more and more. So the question here is not whether at the European or at the state level, what someone has said has incited people to violence or even to discrimination, that’s not the question. The question is simply that they have said those thing. I mean where will that end? Criticism of other people, not liking their views, not liking their religion perhaps, or what they wear etc. We have to be very careful to maintain the presumption in law of freedom of speech which can be restricted in only highly specific circumstances.

More and more, both the European and the domestic courts are refusing to recognise the importance of conscience. Remember how the emergence of conscience was the result of the emphasis on the dignity of the human person? Britain has had a very long and honourable history of recognising conscience in law. Conscientious objection was recognised even during the war and the Abortion Act is not my favourite piece of legislation, but even that recognises conscience in certain circumstances for medical practitioners. The Human Fertilisation & Embryology Act again is not a favourite, but, nevertheless, it also recognises conscience. But recent legislation, equality legislation, for instance, does not make any room for conscience and this is reflected in the decisions of both domestic courts and the European Court itself. Nor is there recognition of reasonable accommodation at the workplace for people’s beliefs and it is this that has resulted in removal from employment, dismissals, deregistration from professional bodies, all of those things that you undoubtedly know about. So the bureaucracy is leading to the bondage of totalitarianism.

At particular risk, of course, are our children, because as Peter Hitchens has said one of the signs of totalitarianism is when the state starts taking responsibility for our children rather than for the parents to be the primary people responsible for them and their education. The emergence of a super state of this kind will in the end result in barbarism because it will destroy the fundamental values that people hold and it is these values that create culture. Materially, intellectually or socially or whatever it may be. This is in fact the thesis of this very suggestive book of George Weigel’s called The Cube and the Cathedral, which is a comparison of Notre Dame Cathedral with the modernist ‘Fraternity Arch’. Here he compares the featurelessness of modern and postmodern architecture with the glorious asymmetry of our cathedrals which have been born out of a spiritual vision and the point that he makes is that without a spiritual and moral vision, high culture is not possible.

Now to finish, what can we do with these circumstances? I think the first thing is that we must at all costs resist the emergence of the super state, particularly I think where England is concerned which has a long history of a completely different kind of development as a state, quite different from the rest of Europe, but even from the city states, certainly from the Holy Roman Empire, such as it was. Secondly we must make sure that our laws continue to provide for a recognition of conscience and of reasonable accommodation. Without this, the super state will make sure that even the sort of thing that I’m saying at the moment, will become more and more difficult, if not impossible to say. There have been incidences of this where, for instance, Oxbridge Colleges and big conference centres in London will not host a conference on marriage, if it is the traditional Christian view of marriage. So that’s the kind of thing we are facing, and thirdly, finally, I think it is important to say the Christian tradition is more important for this country than any one church. When I argue for the public importance of Christian tradition in policy, in legislation, I am not talking about the privilege or advantage of a particular church, that is a separate argument. But without the Judeo-Christian tradition, we are left with opinion polls, we are left with a kind of naïve consequentialism that will not in the end respect the human person, particularly when the human person is at the early stages of life, at the later stages and even when, for some reason or the other, we find ourselves in a situation where our natural faculties merely weaken from disease. Nor will there be respect for the natural institutions of society, such as the family, which will be regarded, more and more, as a cultural construct rather than being deeply embedded in how things are.

Because of its geography and history, Britain must, of course, relate to Europe in friendship, for trade and for common cultural projects. Appropriate ways must be found to do this. This is not the same as subscribing to the idea of a United States of Europe. England’s, and Britain’s, development has been too distinctive to warrant participation in any erection of such a monolith.

- Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali

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