"Anthony Giddens, who used to sit behind me in the House of Lords..."
I can't help being impressed by someone who can casually deliver an aside like that. So I was very impressed by former Anglican bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, who gave a talk on "Aggressive Secularism" in the Davenport Hotel last night. It was organized by the dauntless Iona Institute, the professional pariahs of Irish cultural and political life.
It was a drizzly evening, but there was still a fairly good turnout-- perhaps a hundred or a hundred and fifty people. The majority seemed to be in their fifties and sixties, though this would probably be true of almost any talk on a serious subject, unless it was delivered to a professional organization of some kind. There was a sprinkling of younger people there, including one very young attendee who gurgled through much of the proceedings-- the Bishop, with his dry sense of humour, noted that the average age of the audience had been drastically reduced by that one addition.
Bishop Nazir-Ali was something of a surprise to me. I have to admit that I have, in the past, tended to accept the lazy caricature of today's Church of England as a coterie of tea-sipping, weak-chinned agnostics, more interested in cake sales and CND than the gospel of Christ.
I have realized more recently how unfair a generalization this is, and it certainly doesn't apply to Bishop Nazir-Ali. This man, soft-spoken but exuding an underlying steely certitude, is no wishy-washy liberal or timeserver. He was born in Pakistan, and has both Islam and Christianity in his family background. Both his worldly experience and his deep reading were obvious, and he spoke without notes or visual aids-- and pretty much without interruption, repetition, or hesitation-- for perhaps an hour or more.
His great scholarship was worn lightly but was still very plain to see. It was strangely exhilarating to hear to him describe the Christianization of England, and the role this played in the making of English society and law-- including such achievements as Magna Carta and the protection of workers in the Industrial Revolution. Suddenly it was brought home to me, as I sat there listening, that the missionaries and priests and bishops of English history had been living, breathing people like us, people who lived a moment at a time, people who had no guarantee that the Faith would take hold or survive, that the Danish invaders would not wipe it out completely, that the Moors would not march undefeated through all of Europe.
It was brought home to me, too, that there was nothing inevitable about secularization, the rise of illiberal liberalism, or the turn towards multiculturalism. (Nazir-Ali, who by liberal logic should be a poster boy of multiculturalism, dismissed it as a form of "amnesia"). The Bishop, though he mentioned Callum Brown's "sudden death" thesis of British secularization, as outlined in Brown's book The Death of Christian Britain, seemed to lean instead towards a "long view" of secularization, seeing it rooted in the de-sacralization of time and space and the mechanistic turn in human enquiry, when we became preoccupied with questions of "how" and "what" to the exclusion of "why"-- that is, of any concern for teleology, final causes or essences.
The Bishop was insistent that the value system and laws of Britain, and of Western Civilization, had been built upon Christianity, and that post-Christian society had nothing to replace them with. This, he said, leaves our society with no protection against the advance of militant Islam, which does have a value system and is not afraid to proclaim it. This reminds me of Belloc's couplet:
Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight
But Roaring Bill (who killed him) taught it right.
I was especially interested to hear Bishop Nazir-Ali's thoughts on the different religions of the world, and how non-Christian religions (of which he spoke respectfully) could provide no basis for such Western values as liberty and equality and the dignity of the individual. Islam values social solidity over the rights of the individual. Hinduism gave rise to the caste system, which is totally contrary to our notions of equality. Buddhism, which Westerners see as a rather benign and fluffy religion, contends that there is no such thing as the self, and this undermining of personal identity leaves the door open to abortion and euthanasia and the desecration of the human embryo. (I hope I am not distorting the Bishop's words here; he may have put it less stridently.)
I think the value of events like last night's talk is that they remind us of reality, of the battle of ideas that is always going on around us. Ultimately it is not legislation or firepower or technical knowledge that shapes society, but the beliefs and decisions of free human individuals. We have no more excuse to quail before the secular phalanx than King Alfred had to flee from the apparently unstoppable advance of the Danes. Everything is to play for, and Christ has no body but ours.
All in all, I left the Davenport Hotel feeling fortified and heartened, knowing that there are thinking minds and feeling hearts and strong wills firmly set against the barbarities of our age. Thank God for the Iona Institute!
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