on 27 March 2013
Frances Ward summarizes her book:
'What does Christianity have to offer in today’s world? Many have concluded that religion, and Christianity in particular, has had a poisonous impact upon the development of Western culture. Such people say that those few adherents who still follow Jesus Christ are blinded by a wilful irrationality and have failed to grasp the benefits of the Enlightenment. A world without God is a better world: a secular world does not need a God to shore up morality or to provide false myths instead of the truths of scientific knowledge. Humanity is quite capable of living the good life without God: it has a secular soul, if it has one at all, a soul that finds fulfilment in self-actualisation.
I have put a different case here. I have commended Christianity as a power for good throughout the centuries, politically, aesthetically and morally. Rather than present a Christianity that is hamstrung by guilt for the past (although, of course, it has been responsible for its fair share of hypocrisies, atrocities and failures), I have argued that Christianity shapes the human soul positively: away from excessive individualism and into a true individuality that comes when we know ourselves, first and foremost, to be social beings; away from an instrumental, utilitarian mindset, and towards the enjoyment of things, people and God as ends in themselves; and away from the notion of ‘identity’ ubiquitous in society today, towards the second nature that comes as we acquire a virtuous character.
In short, I have contended that human beings do have souls, and that they are best nurtured on the rich feast that Christianity provides, rather than the thin gruel of secular humanism. I have shown the philosophical antecedents of each of the three themes – excessive individualism, utilitarian and instrumental rationality, the concept of ‘identity’.'
I'm a Quaker. We see ourselves as 'humble learners in the School of Christ', which for us includes what reason has to say. But reason does not produce love either in the individaul or in the wider world. Frances Ward has taught me much and will teach others much. Let's hope she's a Bishop soon!
on 19 May 2013
First, I need to declare that I am - unexpectedly and flatteringly - mentioned in this book's acknowledgements.
But that is probably because I am interested in what Frances Ward is interested in - the values and assumptions of modern society. The book explores our obsession with individuality and reminds us that social connections, responsibility, being a part of Donne's 'main' rather than being an island are what really matter.
The book is written in a style that is both readable and provoking, and it helps us to stand back from some of the prevailing orthodoxies of our society. Recommended.
on 27 May 2013
Frances Ward believes that the secular soul casts three long shadows over modern Britain: individualism understood as isolation and self-seeking; a grimly utilitarian view of human life and achievement; and identity conceived as something to be first possessed and then jealously asserted in the public square.
She argues that secular souls end up narcissistic, resentful, greedy, lonely and unhappy, and that they rely too much and too uncritically on the language of `rights' to negotiate their relationships and especially their disagreements. Although she does not think that Britain composed of such secular souls is completely broken, she does believe that it is worryingly brittle and it is this brittleness that she sets out to address in Why Rousseau Was Wrong.
The roots of the secular soul, for Frances, lie in the Enlightenment and in particular in Rousseau. She concedes that Jean-Jacques did not get absolutely everything wrong (he was the founder of the Romantic Movement, after all, and his ideas are a handy first stop for resisting tyranny). Nonetheless, it is to his views of the social contract, individual autonomy and sovereign power that our brittle secular condition can be traced.
The social liberalism of the 1960s and the economic neo-liberalism of the 1980s are both recent ideological flowerings of this flawed enlightenment tradition for Frances. And both contribute significantly to the banking scandals and urban riots of recent years where rich and poor took it in turns to show-case their moral bankruptcy. When it comes to enlightenment brittleness, it seems, we really are all in it together.
Frances's diagnosis of the problems of our secular condition is well written and sensibly constructed. She draws on Roger Scruton, David Lammy and Phillip Blond as well as Isabel Dalhousie, an agnostic but morally articulate fictional creation of Alistair McCall Smith, who pops up from time to time in italics to clarify or emphasise a point.
Why Rousseau Was Wrong becomes most interesting and most daring, however, in its proposal for how we might hope to heal our brittleness. Frances argues that the Church of England and particularly the liturgy will be a (the?) main ingredient of the medicine Britain requires to correct the unhappy and unintended consequences of the Enlightenment. In the Anglican liturgy, she suggests, Rousseau's children can discover a healthily corporate anthropology to counter enlightenment individualism. They will also absorb a quality of (profoundly serious) liturgical playfulness which will teach them that `there are ends beyond ours' and so challenge their utilitarian outlook. Finally, they will learn virtue and character, and these will provide a more truthful language than that of identity and rights with which to reflect on their lives and relationships.
Frances's writing in commending the Church of England to non-believers is beautiful. She defends what she concedes to be a flawed institution with great passion and love, and the effect is moving and impressive.
I am left with two concerns, however, the first of which is about how Frances's scheme for getting modern people to benefit from Anglicanism and specifically the Anglican liturgy would actually work. Frances wants her secular friends to park the question of God's existence in order that they might reflect on the benefits to society of Christian religion. She further wants them to edge away from their Cartesian suspicion of institutions and traditional knowledge (holding their `radical doubt in radical doubt') in order to approach the riches of the Christian tradition and particularly Christian worship with an open mind. Agnostic moderns are to suspend their disbelief, turn up at their parish church and give worship a go for a few months, on the basis that, even if they do not eventually come to faith, the religious practices of Anglican Christianity have a social value regardless of whether or not God exists. I am not sure if this is completely convincing.
A consequence of Frances's view is that she tends to commend worship in rather human and moral (one might even say utilitarian) terms. The liturgy makes a `gracious spaciousness' available to worshippers, it turns them away from the `brittle rationalities of the world', it enables people who attend to `grow in moral habits of heart'. In fairness there are also references to `entering a realm of God' and `finding rest in God's eternal glory'. But worship as it is described in Why Rousseau Was Wrong is mostly about curing social ills, and sometimes it's even about making yourself feel better. I don't think that Frances says anywhere that the primary purpose of the liturgy (and of humanity itself) is to give right glory to God.
My second concern is related to the first. It is this: I am not sure how genuinely theological Frances's argument is, which is to say that I am not sure how much it relies on God, or Jesus or grace. As she articulates it, Anglican Christianity is a profound, shrewd and generous school of wisdom which is rooted in antiquity, embodied in tried-and-tested religious practices, expressed in beautiful music and still more beautiful prose, and formative of good character. Anglicanism has resources available to heal Britain's brittleness and, by virtue of its establishment, it is the Church of England's great privilege and responsibility to deploy those resources for the good of the whole country - Anglican or not. If this is all true, and Frances makes a good case that it is, then the English are very lucky indeed to have such an institution woven into the fabric of their common life and history. But throughout Why Rousseau Was Wrong Frances articulates the worldly and social benefits of Christianity at the expense of the other-worldly, spiritual ones. There is very little that is Christological and still less that is eschatological in the book. Everything feels somewhat Pelagian. I was left unsure, for instance, how the Burkean and Anglican wisdom that Frances praises, which creates and then sustains wise, character-forming institutions, relates to the foolishness of Christ crucified. The result is that the Christianity on offer in Why Rousseau Was Wrong sometimes lacks fire and mystery. Occasionally it seems to be more about moral improvement and social stability than the always-astonishing gift of God's own self to sinners.
Of course, Frances is writing to challenge natural, social wrongs from a Christian perspective so perhaps it is not appropriate to dwell for too long on the supernatural aspects of the faith. Perhaps to do so would alienate the secular audience. Perhaps the theological/Christological/eschatological stuff is simply assumed all along, but if this is the case it would be nice to have more explicit references to it, to make it clear that the Christian church is full of the Holy Trinity as well as being the fixer of national brittleness. As such the Church always sits awkwardly in this world and always keeps one eye on the next.
After all, we are all somewhat brittle in this life and we always will be. We need not just a wise tradition but a foolish saviour to unbrittle us permanently.
Why Rousseau Was Wrong is a big bold book which asks all the right questions with intelligence and generosity. This reader was not convinced that it answered all the questions quite satisfactorily but that is not to take away from the scale of Frances's achievement. It is to be hoped that the work is read and debated widely by brittle Britons of all ideological shades.