Just recently I read a really good, and interesting, piece by Mary Harrington over on Unherd entitled ‘Cultural Christianity an Empty Idea’. Which makes a convincing argument addressing the crisis of conservativism attempting to dress itself in Christian clothing in Europe. A big point in it is the fact that a good number of those who identify as Christians, may not actually be Christians. Harrington writes:

And the problem with identification is that it remains separate from whatever it identifies as. Just like the modern dating marketplace, where commitment is radically undermined by the ease of swiping right, modern cultural conservatism is radically undermined by the fear that without a reliable foundation of authority, and with more identity-choice options only a click away, we are never fully the thing we claim as our identity.

Mary Harrington, ‘Cultural Christian’ is an empty idea, Unherd

Christianity to these conservatives is, to borrow from Martin Buber, an ‘It’ that might appear expedient rather than a ‘Thou’ one has a deep relationship and experience of. When reading I couldn’t help but think of the recent conference on National Conservativism Conference that recently took place in Italy. In attendance was Viktor Orban and Matteo Salvini who are both singled out in the piece as being examples of Cultural Christianity, this is in addition to Marion Marechal who wasn’t mentioned but might well fit under the label. Helping to head up the conference was Yoram Hazony, the Israeli academic who published the book The Virtues of Nationalism. It is Hazony, however, who I think helps contextualise how Christianity is being exercised in this context.

If we look at the phenomenon that Harrington describes I think we can get a bit more mileage by looking through the lens of Hazony’s nationalist politics, principally in its rejection of liberalism. Hazony writes in his book:

The new world they (imperialists) envision is one in which liberal theories of the rule of law, the market economy, and individual rights – all of which evolved in the domestic context of national states such as Britain, the Netherlands, and America – are regarded as universal truths and considered the appropriate basis for an international regime that will make the independence of the national state unnecessary.

Yoram Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism

So when Harrington states that the only sure-fire way for Christian Conservativism to define itself is via negativa (‘The only way of defining what a Christian is, is in terms of what it is not: foreigners’) this is only half true. The late and great Roger Scruton wrote of conservativism more broadly:

For Conservatives, all disputes over law, liberty and justice are addressed to a historic and existing community. The root of politics, they believe, is attachment – the motive in human beings that binds them to the place, the customs, the history and the people who are theirs.

Roger Scruton, Why it’s so much harder to think like a Conservative, The Guardian

Cultural Christianity in this sense is really speaking about a European nationalist conservativism. Yet the problem with conservativism, and cultural Christianity, is that is isn’t fixed. Harrington points to the example of this in the UK’s SDP party:

Even those whose stated desire is to defend the place of faith in public and political life seem keen that the faith itself stop short of imposing actual obligations. To take a more moderate example of the new cultural conservatism, the Social Democratic Party took a broadly post-liberal, culturally conservative stance in its 2018 relaunch. The New Declaration made an energetic defence of our right to hold even illiberal religious views openly in public life, stating that “Citizens holding a traditional, patriotic or religious outlook are often bullied and marginalised, stifling the open debate upon which a free and democratic society depends.”

Then, about a year later, the SDP lost its only donor over a bitter intra-party dispute about whether or not it should be party policy to ban religious non-stun slaughter — a position markedly at odds with the party’s previous defence of religious pluralism. And when the Church of England recently reiterated its long-held position on sex and marriage, prominent SDP member Patrick O’Flynn took to the pages of the Daily Express to mock “the otherworldliness of these Men of God”. Instead of insisting on “out of touch” doctrine, O’Flynn suggested, in order to attract more young people to weekly worship the Church should adjust its doctrines on sex and marriage to reflect their values.

Mary Harrington, ‘Cultural Christian’ is an empty idea, Unherd

Such incidents are a good example of the contradictions that exist for institutions and individuals that wish to wear the clothing of Christianity but stop short of actually practising it. This is a distinct way of viewing the world and I think can be seen in Hazony’s own writing:

The desire for imperial conquest has a long history of being fueled by universal theories of mankind’s salvation. Christianity, Islam, liberalism, Marxism, and Nazism have all served, in the recent past, as engines for the construction of empire. And what all of them have in common is the assertion that the truths that will bring salvation to the families of the earth have at last been found, and that what is needed now is for all to embrace the one doctrine that can usher in the longed-for redemption.

Yoram Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism

Such a statement from Hazony is essentially reiterating the sentiment expressed by O’Flynn that Christianity, rather than telling people how to live, should rather acknowledge how people live and adjust accordingly. This is consistent with the conservative principle to reject what it perceives as abstract thought for precedent and custom. Hazony appreciates Christianity to the degree to which it doesn’t make universal appeals, or in the words of Harrington goes about ‘imposing actual obligations’.

In such a setting a practising Christian like myself has more in common with a Brother or Sister in the faith who doesn’t share my nationality or my culture. These things might be important to me but they are secondary compared to what unites me to say a believer in India, China, or Brazil. Indeed I would be at odds with a conservative who might support the practices of the BJP in India, in the name of conservativism, who persecutes a Christian under the pretext that Indians can’t, or shan’t, be Christians. My own parish church is made up of a majority of people who hold to Christian doctrine and anthropology and whose ethnicity isn’t traditionally British, let alone Europe.

So the cultural Christians in Harrington’s piece I think are better stood as national conservatives in Europe. She finishes the piece by writing: 

Does it follow from this that those who long for place, limits, love, family, faith and meaning should just sit in the rubble and watch it all burn? I do not think so. But when there is nothing solid to go back to, anyone attracted to what is left of the ideology that used to be called “conservative” needs to find a new name for their yearning. “Constructionists”, perhaps. There is a lot of building to do.

Mary Harrington, ‘Cultural Christian’ is an empty idea, Unherd

Constructionists as a term is a little vague, a little universalist, but reaching for the term highlights the very valid point that conservativism isn’t going to dig us out of this hole. We need to be working towards something. This is the same realisation that a number of Christians wrestled with at the close of the Second World War and is beautifully captured by Alan Jacob’s The Year of our Lord who recounts the struggle of Christian luminaries like TS Eliot, CS Lewis, Simone Weil, WH Auden, and Jacques Maritain who struggled, and failed, to find a post-war way forward for Europe as Christians. They were, in essence, the true Cultural Christians who did not merely wear Christianity but were professed Christ for themselves and the society they lived in. Jacobs aggregates these individuals under the term of ‘Christian Humanism’ which one reviewer summarises as:

The Christian God, we’re told, delights in human variety and leaves man “in the hands of his own counsel” in many areas. These thinkers therefore pursued their different muses and put their talents at the service of their Lord, their fellow man, country, and civilization. There is a second lesson to be found here as well: respect for conscience. These days, however, one needs to add: “informed conscience,” perhaps even “trembling conscience.” These men and women were acutely aware that they were under their Lord’s judgment. Public judgments about war and peace, social order and disorder, the formation and deformation of the human person, were not to be lightly rendered. And talents were given to be exercised and to bear fruit. We will be “required to give an account of ourselves” is found twice in the New Testament.

The Christian God thus bestows gifts and freedom and conscience upon his favored creature and Christianity calls its adherents to employ them in tandem for His glory and the salvation of men. Moreover, since Christians belong to two cities, they owe duties to both. And finally, since Western civilization is a civilization deeply bound up with Christianity, having absorbed paganism and spawned modernity, its fate is of concern as well. Something of a first sketch or indication of Christian humanism emerges: It is the thoughtful Christian’s response to his manifold duties and complex vocation.

It needs to be further specified, however. Christian humanism follows, and is a response to, humanism tout court. In other words, it is a decidedly modern phenomenon, a response of modern Christians to modernity itself. The rise of fascism, the outbreak of total war, the dangers to and decadence of the democracies—all these were parts of the modern phenomenon. These talented and thoughtful Christians tried to rise to the level of the challenges they posed. To do so, they draw from deep wells, while adapting them to the times.

Paul Seaton, Christian Humanism: A Path Not Taken, Law and Liberty

Amongst those mentioned even they were not immune to the appeal of cultural Christianity. TS Eliot wrote in his series of lectures, The Idea of a Christian Society:

A Christian community is one in which there is a unified religious-social code of behaviour. It should not be necessary for the ordinary individual to be wholly conscious of what elements are distinctly religious and Christian, and what are merely social and identified with his religion by no logical implication. I am not requiring that the community should contain more ‘good Christians’ than one would expect to find under favourable conditions. The religious life of the people would be largely a matter of behaviour and conformity … The rulers, I have said, will, qua rulers, accept Christianity not simply as their own faith to guide their actions, but as the system under which they are to govern. The people will accept it as a matter of behaviour and habit. In the abstraction which I have erected, it is obvious that the tendency of the State is toward expediency that may become cynical manipulation, the tendency of the people toward intellectual lethargy and superstition. We need therefore what I have called ‘the Community of Christians’, by which I mean, not local groups, and not the Church in any one of its senses, unless we call it ‘the Church within the Church’. These will be the consciously and thoughtfully practising Christians, especially those of intellectual and spiritual superiority. 

TS Eliot, The Idea of A Christian Society: Lecture Three

Under which definition a society like Orban’s Hungary could, arguably, be called Christian despite only 12% attending church regularly. In any case it is greater than the 5% of the UK and the 2% of a country like Finland, despite 70% of people paying the Church tax in that nation. So if we struggle for an absolute definition, relatively speaking there is an argument that Hungary is more Christian than Britain is according to TS Eliot. Especially if we talk about the ‘operating system’ a country works under. After all, Humans are religious creatures and if we do not have a good one it will inevitably be bad and I think it is a rather flat view of religion that objects to a society’s stated wishes on this.

Yet Eliot imagined a way forward which essentially involved a Christian aristocracy gently dragging a nation kicking and screaming back to the cross. Hungary might manage this but countries like the UK cannot even if we wanted to. Eliot’s proposed methodology reflected the approach of many of those mentioned by Jacobs, they wrote but nothing happened, and thus moved on. They were academics, not activists, with the exception of Weil. Their biggest obstacle was what they considered technocracy. The centralisation of power in a world increasingly dictated by data to ends progressively outside the control of growing numbers of people. Seaton writes:

Many of them, however, foresaw their defeat, or at least named the enemy: technological rationality, with its attendant dimming of the intellect and dazzling of the will with the prospect of power and earthly paradise. Jacobs recounts a telling vignette of an encounter between the technocratic Harvard University president, James Conant, and W.H. Auden. Auden later wrote: I saw him as the enemy and I’m sure he saw me likewise. As always, clashing anthropologies and social philosophies were implicated in educational debates. The Christian humanists saw this clearly.

They also saw that modernity could assume various forms: pagan nationalist, Christian humanistic, or deracinated techno-progressive. Their proposal was that only Christian humanism could safeguard the best of paganism and of modernity in a way worthy of man. 

Paul Seaton, Christian Humanism: A Path Not Taken, Law and Liberty

Christian Humanism, therefore, is the sole means to charting the via media between the dehumanising and deforming rocks of nationalism and liberalism. It is a step away from the opportunistic adoption of Christianity by conservatism in the West and a return to a fuller and more enchanted vision of Humanism than that which we see in liberalism.

As if hinting at a way forward, Jacobs, in his afterword, points to another figure who emerged a generation later than those he followed in his book. This was Jacques Ellul, a radical French Protestant Pastor, Local Politician, and Academic who Jacobs offers as someone who names the beast and provides the tools by which to fight it. Ellul in the epilogue of his most pointed work on the topic, The Betrayal of the West, states that the West is in the midst of a culture of death, of suicide, and that it is consumed by self-negation. A post-liberal response is to reject this self-negation, but we must not fall into the opposite trap of the conservatives by trying to appreciate the gift without the giver. We must not be like Lot’s wife who looks back as Sodom is consumed. The West was the fruit of a society baptised in Christ and this generation, along with its institutions, must be baptised again if things are to be made aright. To create a new society, in the shell of the old, that runs in parallel and will one day will be delivered from captivity. Ellul wrote that, like the Christians in Rome, we can’t escape the trappings of this culture we find ourselves in, we can’t escape technique, but we can mitigate it and we can redeem it.

10 thoughts on “Christian Humanism Is a Potent Idea

  1. I don’t think Ellul ever believed in “redeeming” culture besides it being radically negated through an eschatological gesture. The church doesn’t have social policies, but relativizes all worldly goods through an appeal to the coming judgement. I don’t think Ellul would ever get close to Elliot; if he defends the west, he defends a culturally hollowed space that has delayed the sacralist drive present in political theologies like Marxism or Islam.

    I sometimes think a radically secular politics would do the church well, allowing Christians to speak simply as Christians and allowing infidels to speak as infidels without confusing. It’s something that I think was present in Roger Williams’ Rhode Island and, reading Oliver O’Donovan in a slightly anabaptistic way, in Constantine’s imperial tenure (especially in something like the Edit of Milan).

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    1. Eliot and Ellul are pretty far apart, so was CS Lewis and TS Elliot, (Ellul and Weil are much closer I think) but they were all essentially asking this question ‘how should we then live’ after Christendom. Ellul was later and I think more adjusted to the new landscape and if you read his books “The New Demons” and “The Betrayal of the West” you see that whilst he is critical doesn’t wish to partner in what he sees as the suicide of West culture but allow something to live on after its death. That was to be primarily realised in local expressions in the light of his criticism of societal or cultural Christianity.

      I guess one person that was in my mind, who I didn’t mention, was Herman Dooyeweerd. He argued, and I agree, that you can really have a genuinely neutral space in society – atleast not on any sustainable basis. So society does need some sort of organising principle and its better to be honest about where we are coming from rather than appealing to some sort of neutrality or feigned objectivity. So I agree let Christians speak as Christians and Infidels as Infidels but we’ve never really had a society with truly free speech (I believe), the question then is what speech – and what modes of life and belief are allowed and to what degree, who defines this? Who defines the common good? Dooyeweerd’s Dutch Reformed tradition linked secularism with enlightenment liberalism and I think there is a pervasiveness in secular politics that abrogates and obstructs any attempt to live a life organised in the light of the Christian faith. Dooyeweerd, Kuyper, and those like them I think offered a good vision of what this might look like. Their criticism of liberalism I think is something Ellul would agree with. However, unless one is content to live as the exception perennially on the margins one needs to find a scalable vision of society that might be equally realised at both a local and national level.

      I think there is no doubt that Christianity in our lifetimes, especially in Europe, will need to look more radical and disassociate itself from the spirit of the age. I just question if we believe it is to remain such or that we should prepare the ground such that when things fall apart our descendants might be in a position to build something out of what’s left.

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  2. I guess the question really is whether Christendom is a huge category error in the first place, as Ellul believed (e.g. in The Subversion of Christianity, or Christianity and Anarchism, neither of which are that great, even though I agree with the substance) – i.e. can any society really be genuinely Christian outside the church (to paraphrase, ‘the natural man cannot understand the things of the Spirit, for they are foolishness to him’). In this time a cultural Christianity tends to manifest itself in alarmingly fascistic directions – as with T.S. Eliot and Viktor Orban, or with Belloc, Chesterton and Tolkien’s admiration for Franco.

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    1. Ellul I don’t think wrote off Christendom, rather the conditions for it in this technical age. In his book “The New Demons” he wrote:

      “The shape Christendom takes will depend on the energy of Christians, on the one hand, and on the extent of social disorder and the inadequacy of the political powers, on the other. But it is impossible to refuse to establish a Christian society. If we want each Christian to live out his faith in a concrete way in his personal life, how can we not want all Christians to do so in a collective way? And if Christianity is political, can we help but want a political order that is inspired by faith?”

      Which might, in a light, look like something approximating TS Eliot on this. He goes on to make a defence for a the society of the Middle Ages based on this.

      Yet he concludes his book “The Betrayal of the West” by basically saying the West is now dead. That Europe has it worst because it lives in a culture that has decided to reject Christianity, even if many are ignorant of it. The momentum is now decidedly against it. So Christianity, if it is to survive, must adopt a more radical posture. The danger is in rejecting Christendom, or just acknowledging it is past, we simply opt out of any attempt to live out our faith in a concrete and collective way, that we opt for individualism and pietism. Some form of Christian Society must exist, according to Ellul, and how intentional it is depends on the energy of the Christians in question.

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      1. That’s interesting – I haven’t read those two from Ellul, so thanks for that. I wonder if he vacillated on these questions: the title and content of Subversion obviously indicates that he considered post-Constantine Christendom to be such. I think he said in an interview that his ideal society would be of an anarchist nature, but that he had no real hope of it being possible – more something to aim for.

        I suppose I see the only Christian society as the Church, both in and out of the Bible. That can be both concrete and collective even in an antagonistic culture (or perhaps only in such a space – ‘Woe to you when all men speak well of you’).

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      2. I agree and I think Ellul would agree that the only Christian society is the Church. Christendom, I think he would say, is when it’s presumed everyone in the society is a Christian, everyone is in the Church. I guess the question is, in Ellul’s mind, is Christ the Lord of all? So should we work towards the baptism of all things? Now one could say yes but that is what we ‘ought’ to have it isn’t the ‘is’ we currently inhabit and so there will be some discrepancy there. I think we need to atleast explore how the gap can be bridged, however, something I don’t see in the more traditional expressions of radical Christianity.

        I think Ellul also shares the Continental Reformed view of those like Kuyper and Dooyeweerd that you can’t really have a neutral state. It is always predicated on something, what Dooyeweerd would call, the ‘ground motives’ of an individual or community. These need to be worked out holistically in a society otherwise someone else will do it for you according to their own ground motive.

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      3. I agree that there’s no neutral ground (something Ellul explored brilliantly from certain angles in The Technological Society and The Political Society). I just question whether it’s possible to find anything in the Bible that would allow us to construct a bridge at all. Taken together, Luke 16:15-16 and the end of 1 Cor 1 (‘to shame down the strong’) are suggestive of quite a radically sceptical stance on worldly power. Anarcho-communism (as Marx ultiamtely hope for!) is probably a good approximation of Church society (2 Cor: ‘that there might be equality among you’), but it requires everyone to be very well co-ordinated and sinless.

        It’s interesting, because the description of Ellul’s possibility of rebuilding things after the collapse is what I held to for a while. My Christendom thinking was never in the Reconstructionist vein, accepting of post-industrial capitalism and democratic politics, but more a Chestertonian anti-capital form that had given up all hope of real change until drastic rebuilding is needed after dystopian collapse (a new feudalism? I wasn’t clear on that). The few groups in the UK who seek to change politics in a ‘Christian’ direction don’t realise the magnitude of what they’re up against – an entire form of civilization, no less, which isn’t going to be reversed by altering abortion laws or outlawing gay marriage. It’s why I rabbit on about the value of radical left critique and the spuriousness of the Cultural Marxism narrative so much.

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      4. The problem with Marx is his anthropology – it’s a fruit of the enlightenment which places theory over individuals and has no room for the fall. I think a more realistic view is something like Distributism, of which Chesterton was a proponent, but the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus reminds us that Christians can fit-in and be found in nearly any society. So I wouldn’t be too prescriptive in that sense. I also think there is a value in what we inherit, sometimes it is easier to fix or preserve something rather than build it from scratch based on an idea. But then I am happy associating myself with a movement like the Red Tories, and the thought of those like Philip Blonde on this.

        I agree that going after abortion laws, or marriage, is too downstream of whats needed. Ellul praised the Middle Ages as a time when economic prosperity isn’t held up as the primary good in a society. In a similar way I think a positive articulation of Christian Humanism can serve as a pointed critique of late-liberal capitalism. This is opposed to the conservative desire to lament any change without a proposed alternative, other than lingering reactionary temptation to go backwards and the liberal temptation to go forwards just a bit slower. James KA Smith has helped a good many people really think about what forces they are being shaped by in society and in turn begin to be intentional about shaping themselves in ways that align with their professed loves. A move which I think has pointed a lot of people in Ellul’s direction on this, even if they are unaware of his writing on this. Unfortunately I think a lot of institutional Churches have essentially turned quietest on this topic, knowing they are a minority or worse accepting core premises of liberalism. More radical expressions of the faith, or traditions with long-developed anti-modernist streaks (like Roman Catholicism), might fare the best over the coming years. Many Evangelical and traditionally Mainline Churches seem too deeply intertwined with the spirit of the age, with roots too withered or shallow, to make much substantial progress in this area. Although I’m hoping and happy to be wrong.

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      5. Yes, although I think Marx’s critique (or a certain use of it) provides one of the best ways to analyse a commodity society, his solutions will never be reached, except on the basis of voluntary love within the Church. That said, he gave very few details beyond ‘no money, no State, all needs met’ as to what communism would even look like (and I think he was inconsistent in espousing socialism as the ‘first stage’ while endorsing Engels’s ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’ which talks of ‘state capitalism’ in very similar terms to the ‘socialism’ of Marx’s notes on the Gotha Programme).

        I find William Morris more genial as a socialist than Marx: he represented something of the ‘radical conservatism’ you speak of, acknowledging certain beneficial elements of medieval life, expanding the conversation beyond basic needs to quality of life.

        You’re right on the mainline denominations: for all the rhetoric, they’re about as radical as Sainsbury’s sponsoring Pride.

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