I’ve got a problem. But it’s not the sort of problem that you’re going to have much sympathy for. In fact, it’s not the sort of problem that you’re allowed to have much sympathy for. Because my problem is that i’m far too privileged – for my own good or for anyone else’s good. Which is why, in this day and age, anything I say or claim will be subject to greater suspicion than what practically anyone else on the planet will say or claim. If you don’t believe me, check this succinct quote out from Gene Veith: Read more
Reductio ad absurdum: one of those nice little Latin phrases that comes in handy every now and then. It has a noble pedigree and describes an age-old form of argument designed to pick one’s opponent’s claims apart. It means ‘reduction to the absurd’, or ‘to the point of absurdity’. And it is definitely worth mastering. Read more
- Martin Bashir is interviewed about his interview of Rob Bell. I was particularly struck by his perception of what C S Lewis called chronological snobbery in contemporary theological debates – whereby those over a certain age (ie 30!) are dismissed out of hand.
- Ian Paul has offered a really helpful response to the BBC1 series Bible’s Buried Secrets
- A wonderful example of doing good to all – let’s hope it works in all senses… Christopher Hitchens and Francis Collins.
- And while we’re thinking about him, here’s a nice if brief interview with Francis Collins – quite old now (originally from 2007), but I’ve only just seen it.
- At the other end of of the spectrum, here is a list of the 25 most influential atheists (though quite how you measure influence is anyone’s guess)
- In case you missed it, here is the extraordinary testimony of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s assassinated government minister: Read more
I’d not really appreciated before quite how controversial Bernard Lewis (left) is seen in some circles (perhaps especially because he was regularly consulted by the Bush administration – though others had before him). But one of the foremost western scholars of Islam is a Jewish, British-born and now naturalised American, professor emeritus at Princeton. He has written many books and offered profoundly nuanced and scholarly reflections on the knotty issue of Islam’s relationship with the wider world – which is of course perhaps the biggest unresolved question of our times. He is feted or reviled (depending on your perspective) as the originator of the phrase (so famously taken up by Samuel Huntington in his book of the same name) ‘the clash of civilisations‘.
I’m returning to Turkey next week for a few days and so wanted to read this book, on the recommendation of a friend I was with in Albania last month. It was written in 2000/2001 on the back of a series of lectures (and summarised in this 2002 article from Atlantic Monthly) – but then published very soon after 9/11. Pretty timely, then.
A very provocative question!
Lewis asks a provocative but very significant question. How did the centuries-old Islamic civilisation, which was by any measure, an extraordinary historical phenomenon – fall so behind the rest of the world? It’s all the more surprising when it is recognised that they had been at the forefront of scientific, artistic and philosophical development, when the rest of Europe and many parts of Asia were in chaotic turmoil. Of course, the ‘Dark Ages’ is in many ways an unfair misnomer. But Europe wasn’t a patch on the Ottoman and Persian empires for example. And then from, say, the 1450s onwards, the tables started turning. As Lewis says:
… the Renaissance, the Reformation, the technological revolution passed virtually unnoticed in the lands of Islam, where they were still inclined to dismiss the denizens of the lands beyond the Western frontier as benighted barbarians, much inferior even to the more sophisticated Asian infidels to the east. These had useful skills and devices to impart; the Europeans had neither. It was a judgement that had for long been reasonably accurate. It was becoming dangerously out of date. (p7)
One example, which seems to remain to this day, is the issue of economics and manufacturing.
Later attempts to catch up with the Industrial Revolution fared little better. Unlike the rising power of Asia, most of which started from a lower economic base than the Middle East, the countries in the region still lag behind in investment, job creation, productivity and therefore in exports and incomes. According to a World Bank estimate, the total exports of the Arab world other than fossil fuels amount to less than those of Finland, a country of five million inhabitants. Nor is much coming into the region by way of capital investment. On the contrary, wealthy Middle Easterners prefer to invest their capital abroad, in the developed world. (p47)
I suppose the one exception to this is investment in property (as opposed to Middle Eastern oil revenues). But as Dubai’s recent meltdown has shown, this is built on sand (in more ways than one). To make matters worse, the cultural climate underpinning the business world leaves many things to be desired. Lewis offers this astute, if somewhat barbed, observation:
The difference between Middle Eastern and Western economic approaches can be seen even in their distinctive forms of corruption, from which neither society is exempt. In the West, one makes money in the market, and uses it buy or influence power. In the East, one seizes power, and uses it to make money. Morally there is no difference between the two, but their impact on the economy and on the polity is very different. (p63)
It’s hard to deny the truth of either claim – though why restrict it to the Islamic Middle East? It could certainly be said to be true of many parts of so-called ‘Christian’ sub-Saharan Africa, as we discovered more than once when we lived in Uganda.
The problem with Islamic Secularism
The book’s title question is certainly a loaded one, presupposing, for example, that the west went right. And towards the end of the book, it’s clear from his perceptions of so-called fundamentalist Islam (a description he takes issue with) that there are many from Bin Laden down who feel that Islam failed precisely when it attempted to assimilate western development.
A good illustration of this problem is the wildly divergent attitudes to secularism, which was perceived by some in the Islamic world as (rightly or wrongly) being essential to European success. The problems were inherent at the start it seems:
Secularism in the modern political meaning – the idea that religion and political authority, church and state are different, and can or should be separated – is, in a profound sense, Christian. Its origins may be traced in the teachings of Christ, confirmed by the experience of the first Christians; its later development was shaped and, in a sense, imposed by the subsequent history of Christendom. The persecutions endured by the early church made it clear that a separation between the two was possible; the persecutions inflicted by the later churches persuaded many Christians that such a separation was necessary.
… in this, the practice of Christianity was in marked contrast with both its precursors and its competitors. (p96)
Of course, as a Christian, it is interesting to read this analysis. For many are alarmed about what is perceived as a creeping secularising agenda in European and American society, whereby religious faith (and Christian faith in particular) are being deliberately privatised and marginalised. But that’s a whole other issue!
And yet, despite its Christian origins, I was very struck by the fact that one of the reasons why Muslims started taking secularism seriously was the 1789 French Revolution (which came at a time when Europe’s social, political, economic and cultural development was far outstripping the Ottoman world). The urgency to catch up and not be left behind was growing – but the attraction for some in the revolution was that it wasn’t Christian.
The first Muslim encounter with secularism was in the French Revolution, which they say, not as secular (a word and concept equally meaningless to them at the time), but as de-Christianised, and therefore deserving of some consideration. All previous movements of ideas in Europe had been, to a greater or lesser extent, Christian, at least in their expression, and were accordingly discounted in advance from a Muslim point of view. The French Revolution was the first movement of ideas in Europe that was seen as non-Christian or even anti-Christian, and some Muslims therefore looked to France in the hope of finding, in these ideas, the motors of Western science and progress, freed from Christian encumbrances. These ideas provided the main ideological inspiration of many of the modernising and reforming movements in the Islamic world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (p104)
Yet the problem with such secularising agendas is that they run completely counter to an Islamic worldview – where there is no dualism between civil and sacred, for example. The attempt to force the distinction is one reason why there has been such a strong reaction against it:
The arch-enemy for most of them is Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic and the first great secularising reformer in the Muslim world. Characters as diverse as King Faruq and Presidents Nasser and Sadat in Egypt, Hafiz al-Asad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Shah of Persia and the kings and princes of Arabia, were denounced as the most dangerous enemies of Islam, the enemies from within.
[Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj, the ideological guide of the group that murdered President Sadat of Egypt [wrote]:
Fighting the near enemy is more important than fighting the distant enemy. In jihad, the blood of the Muslims must flow until victory is achieved… There can be no doubt that the first battlefield of the jihad is the extirpation of these infidel leaderships and their replacement by a perfect Islamic order. From this will come release. (p107)
This culture clash (and I use the word only because Lewis does) over the appropriateness of secularism explains a great deal about the tensions we see around. I’ll follow this up tomorrow with some other things i picked up from this fascinating book.
So I want to mention 2 books which have made a big impression on me over the last few months. Both books force us to reconsider how we look at the world and cultures around us, albeit in very different ways. And for those involved in the task of articulating and defending the heart of the Christian message, this is essential. I’ll come to Tim Keller’s stuff in a future post, but want to focus on Wade Bradshaw’s SEARCHING FOR A BETTER GOD today. I read it on holiday this summer, and couldn’t put it down.
I met Wade almost 20 years ago when he was a member of staff at English L’Abri, but he is now a pastor back in his native US. He has noticed profound changes in the ways in which people argue against the gospel, and he has summarised the differences in what he calls ‘The Old Story’ and ‘The New Story’. While obviously not an exact parallel, seismic changes in perception led to many in the Roman Empire converting from the Olympian pantheon to the Christian Trinity. As he says:
If I am right, Zeus ‘died’ not because a scientific expedition to the top of Mount Olympus found it deserted but because people saw that he was morally inferior to them and unworthy of their devotion. The God of the Christians, on the other hand, seemed noble and properly austere. This God didn’t date anyone at all. (p23)
Articulating The New Story
Something similar has happened in our generation, but unfortunately, it has gone the other way. ‘The New Story’ maintains that far from the Christian God being morally good and pure, he is oppressive at worst, morally flawed at best.
In Devil’s Advocate, it dawns on the audience only slowly that the unnerving character portrayed by Al Pacino, the head of a multinational law firm, is Satan himself. He oozes a constant sexual hunger, but it is not until the end of the film, when everyone’s identity is known, that he finally drops his usual aplomb and rants at the human he is trying to seduce with his power. It’s a fine piece of acting that leaves one admiring (and a bit worried for) Pacino:
Let me give you a little inside information about God. God likes to watch. He’s a prankster. Think about it: he gives man instincts – he gives you this extraordinary gift – and then what does he do? I swear for his own amusement, his own private gag reel, he sets the rules in opposition. It’s the goof of all time. Look – but don’t touch. Touch – but don’t taste. Taste – but don’t swallow. And while you’re jumping from one foot to the next he’s laughing. He’s a sadist, an absentee landlord! Worship that? Never!
This is an example of what I call the New Story. This is not the scientific skepticism that doubts God’s existence or His role as Creator. Nor is it the pride of Milton’s 17th century Satan, for whom it was better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven. The great suspicion here is that God exists but is not worthy of our affection or devotion. He cannot be a source of hope, not because He isn’t real, but because He would not be god to know and to live with forever. (p17)
A Better God
This New Story works itself out in a whole host of ways in what Bradshaw terms ‘common-sense theology’. These are the axioms that our tolerant western culture adopts unthinkingly, and which render a defence of orthodox Christianity complex and even fraught. The flash points for ‘common-sense theology’ are obvious once they’re pointed out:
- issues of gender
- issues sexuality
- divine judgment
- universalism/uniqueness of Christ.
In each of these areas (and of course, many others), people reject the gospel, not because they can’t believe in God (the old, atheist & Enlightenment, story) but because, quite frankly, they don’t think this god is worthy of they belief. They are therefore ‘searching for a better God’. Better than the Christian God… Now, it is interesting that the New Atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens and co have jumped on this New Story bandwagon – the former’s God Delusion is an action-packed rant about the immorality of what is (to be fair) a distortion of the OT God. But most people won’t go the whole Dawkins hog and reject theism altogether – which is why they are often as critical of Dawkins as they are of the gospel.
A film like Fight Club confuses and terrifies us when the character Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) expresses contempt for both redemption and damnation. And the Church must revise its thinking to comprehend something like the novel Hannibal, the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, where the serial killer Hannibal Lector
… had not been bothered by any considerations of deity, other than to recognize how his own modest predations paled beside those of God, who is in irony matchless, and in wanton malice beyond measure.
Unspeakable statements are becoming everyday, throwaway observations, and the Church is shocked, slapped in the face, punched in the head, and reeling. (p36)
There’s a lot of work to do
Quite how we respond, Bradshaw goes onto explain. And perhaps that is a post for another day. He is determined not to retreat into a safer apologetic (that might have been useful a generation ago), nor will he compromise or change the message to fit with the culture. Forging a new path to engage with the new story is bound to be risky – but it is VITAL. He gives some very helpful pointers in how to go about that. But at this stage, I simply want to whet appetites and strongly encourage people to read this book. What I found so helpful was that it articulates what I’d vaguely been aware of, but never quite been able to put my finger on. In London, observing that we live in a culture that prizes tolerance above all other virtues is a common place – but this book helped me to grasp how profoundly this means people reject traditional orthodoxy. And once you get it, it’s everywhere.
A case in point is the recent hoo-ha about the so-called Top 10 Worst Bible Passages, published last week in the Telegraph (of all places), picked up from The Ship of Fools. The Apostle Paul comes in with 3, and most of the others are gruesome OT narratives or laws. Quite apart from the many and inherent dangers in plucking the most spine-chilling and tabloidy verses out from context (yes, I know that’s what people always say, but it’s still true), what do you notice about the list? Don’t they all belong to the New Story’s rejection of trad. Christianity?
We have a lot of work to do. Society’s anti-Christian (and indeed anti-religion) narrative has undergone a paradigm shift. I’m just not sure that (for the most part) the Church’s apologetic has yet caught up at all.
Blonde Roots is a remarkable book. That should be reason enough to check it out – but of course, most will need more than that to go on. I spotted a Saturday supplement review of it and so picked it up – and couldn’t put it down.
It was one of those books that got under the skin and provoked a response – so i ended up reviewing it for Damaris, here on their CultureWatch site. But to give you a hint of why it stuck in my mind, here is an excerpt from the review:
How on earth do we help an ethnic majority to understand the realities of racism? What needs to be done to expose any lurking prejudice?
Bernardine Evaristo’s answer was to write a novel. Blonde Roots is the daring and shocking result. Her premise is simple. What if it had been Africans who enslaved Europeans for 400 years, and not the other way around? What would that have looked and, more importantly, felt like? As someone who is half-English, half-Nigerian, she is perhaps more well-suited to write this book than most.
The book depicts a universe that is both eerily alien and yet also unnervingly familiar. Geography and place names are familiar but in the wrong place or spelled differently; history is not so much revised as ransacked – and yet the way she does it leaves one in no doubt about the horrors of ‘real’ history.
But the reason I found this book so challenging in the end was not its utterly reasonable attacks on racism and slavery. No instead, it is the fact that Evaristo makes a pretty well crafted case for dismissing all truth claims on the grounds that they tend to be at root power claims. And that is a challenge that is not easy to dismiss.
I’ve just come back from an extraordinary week’s travels. What a privilege. 3 days in Turkey and 4 days in Romania, in both places with a view to helping local church leaders develop preaching movements for their respective countries. I think i should blog about them separately because of their marked differences – there are only 3000 evangelicals/protestants in the whole of Turkey (nat. pop. = 70+ million) and roughly half a million in Romania (nat. pop. = 23 million). My entire time in Turkey was spent in Istanbul, which has to be one of the most beguiling and overwhelming cities on earth (and it’s crazily big – 20 million residents!) – i got trigger happy with my camera and so took 100s – I’ve added collages of Bosphorus views here (one from each side). And the folks i spent time with were inspirational. But the context for living as Christians in that part of the world is far from it.
Turkish Secularism Or Turkish Democracy?
Inevitably, a key element of our discussions in Turkey was the extent to which religious freedom that exists there. I am by no means an expert and so could only pick up a few things here and there in my short visit but the 20th Century background is key. After the 1st World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a new political reality was forged by Mustafa Kemal (dubbed Atatürk or Father of the Turks) when he sought to create a new secular Muslim state, influenced by enlightenment values. He was both a soldier (left, one side of his monument in Taksim Sq) and statesman (right, the other side). Ever since there has been an inevitable tension between secularism (defended by the military) and Islam (adhered to by the vast majority of Turks).
This was shrewdly summed up by one of the folks I spent time with this weekend, and is perhaps understood by way of contrast to what in Europe and North America we are used to. In the west, it is almost axiomatic that secularism and democracy go hand in hand, and western countries, to varying degrees, attempt to keep religion at arm’s length. That might be more acceptable to post-enlightenment protestants especially, but it is hardly going to wash with an Islam that has no concept of public/private or sacred/secular distinctions.
So in Turkey, if you want secularism, you are effectively opting for military rule; if you want democracy, you are opting to support a government that will increasingly ‘Islamify’ the nations institutions and culture.
But here’s the catch – if you’re Christian, you are caught in between both stools:
- The military regards you as subversive and not truly Turkish (even if you are Turkish) because they are seeking to sustain secularism.
- Then the Muslim powers-that-be oppose your very presence in what should be the global heart of Islam (the Ottoman Empire used to control the entire Middle East after all); the Turkish flag is emblazoned with the Crescent moon of Islam, and the Old Sultan’s Palace in Istanbul, the Topkapı, houses amongst other things, the Sacred Trusts of Islam (like Mohammed’s sword, beard, cloak and a handwritten letter).
The Fate of Christians in Turkey
For generations, Christians in Turkey were almost by definition not Turks. There were thousands of Greeks and Armenians who were predominately orthodox. The Armenian genocide is a rightly matter of wide concern and horror even to this day. But far less well known has been the drip-drip of hostility, oppression and ostracism of Christians within Turkey. I cannot vouch for these stats at all, so don’t quote me – however, they fit more or less with what a number of people told me last weekend.
- In the early 1970s there were over 8500 Orthodox churches in regular use as places of worship in Turkey. Now there are only 500 or so – the rest were forcibly taken over by state authorities.
- In the second half of the 20th Century it was estimated that there were over 20,000 Greeks living in Istanbul. There are now barely more than 1000. I’ve no idea how it was done – but a range of intimidation tactics was certainly used to make sure people knew they were not wanted.
- I gather that if you are a Christian, certain professions like being a practising lawyer are barred to you.
- Whenever you buy a building, you have to indicate what use it will have (eg residence, business, school etc). It is impossible to do this for a church. In fact there is only one building in the whole of Turkey registered as a Protestant church. A number of Istanbul protestant churches therefore end up renting the chapels of western consulates for their services. Those that do use other buildings live on the edge.
- It is not possible to set up a seminary in Turkey because of restrictions. Being a pastor is not really recognised in law and so because they don’t really exist, they don’t need training! Anyone therefore wanting to do this is allowed to give them “instruction” (because ‘instruction’ doesn’t necessarily lead to anything) but they cannot give them “education” with its implication of recognised degrees and status. Muslim leaders have even offered their own training institutions to church leaders with the suggestion that they train Christian pastors and priests on their behalf! Can you imagine what would happen if Anglican colleges in the UK offered that to Regents’ Park Mosque!?
- Then of course, there has been the recent Malatya murders. One can’t help but wonder whether or not this only hit the headlines because one of the victims was German, and thus caused the Turkish government acute diplomatic embarrassment.
Facing the Future
Persecution is never far from the surface, either from the state or from the neighbourhood. One tiny example – it’s petty in one sense. You see the Turkish flag everywhere. But in a little church I visited last week, the street was festooned with Turkish flag bunting, presumably because in their midst was a little Christian community. The implication was clear: if you’re Christian, you can’t be Turkish, because Turks are Muslims. So what did the church do in response? Well, they bought a huge Turkish flag and they now hang it from their meeting place. Gloriously gracious but absolutely the right response. We might be Christian but we’re Turks too, it eloquently proclaims. And i think this is the interesting thing about what’s happening. For in contrast to previous centuries and decades, where Christians were effectively foreign or at least ethnically different, this is no longer the case. Turks are becoming Christians, in their ones or twos. And this is fantastic – but to some, it’s intolerable. So for the future of the Turkish church, these brothers and sisters are the greatest hope but also at greatest threat – because the phenomenon of Turkish Christians shouldn’t actually exist, if Turkish Muslims are to be believed. We must pray for them. Now, i repeat, i was only there for a few days – and I may have got some or much of this wrong. But there was no doubt, that in all my conversations with people, the issue of the stresses faced by Turkish Christians was a key subject.
Religious Tolerance because of Europe?
It seems to me that just as the secular west completely fails to understand what tolerance should be (see this blog, passim) so does Islam. I, as a creedal Christian, absolutely uphold the right of people to express their views and religion. I don’t have a problem with people building mosques in England (although the proposed super-mosque at the Olympics site is different and seems merely to me to be a power-play). But talk about double-standards! Freedom for Muslims to proselytize in the West does not bring Christian freedom even to exist and grow in the Muslim world. This was a point that Ed Husain in his book The Islamist makes as well.
And as i’ve been thinking about all this, there comes the timely post by Cranmer about the plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt. They are apparently on the verge of extinction.
It all makes me wonder – I am by nature more Eurosceptic than not – but i do think that enlargement is a great thing for a number of reasons. The more countries that join, the more the absurd super-state ideals of some are rendered increasingly inoperable. And should Turkey ever be allowed to join, it would hopefully provide a powerful protection for the Christian minority there to grow and flourish. But that looks far off – there are far too many vested interests both in Europe and Turkey to make it desirable, despite the political, economic and justice advantages that it could bring. Europeans are terrified of the thought of 70 million Turks suddenly having freedom to live and work anywhere, and the Islamic groups in Turkey fear their influence being undermined.
Some will call me sad – but i have two monthly highlights which come in the form of 2 magazines that I subscribe to: EMPIRE magazine (not about the British Empire, but the mag all about movies), and BBC HISTORY magazine. Well I got the latter at the weekend, and as ever, it is a treasure trove of fascination. Call me ignorant, but until I’d read this month’s edition, I had never even heard of Khazaria. Can you believe that? Huge apologies if that is one of your specialist subjects. But according to the mag’s breaking news section, it seems that archaeologists have discovered the remains of the long-lost capital of Khazaria, Itil – which stood at the Caspian Sea delta of the River Volga (see top right of map – taken from Palestine Remembered).
This is the gen: the empire’s peak lasted from the 8th-10th Centuries AD and covered roughly 600,000 sq miles (= England x12!). This is what the article (written by David Keys – BBC History – May 2008 p10-11) says:
Although Jewish in terms of religion, the vast majority of Khazars were ethnically Turkic. The Khazar empire started to convert to Judaism in the 8th century – completing the process by the mid-ninth century – yet remained culturally Turkic in all other respects throughout its history.
This is truly an historical anomaly – i don’t know of another instance of anything like this happening. Perhaps you can comment and fill in my gaps… But the article goes on to provide this helpful background info to explain how on earth this happened.
“Dishonoured and humiliated in our dispersion we have to listen in silence to those who say: ‘Every nation has its own land and you [the Jews] alone possess not even the shadow of a country on this earth’. I feel the urge to know the truth, whether there is really a place on this earth where harassed Israel can rule itself, where it is subjected to nobody.”
These were the words that the Jewish chief minister of Muslim Moorish Spain wrote to the Jewish king of Khazaria on hearing that far away a Jewish Empire existed. In the 8th century, sandwiched between the Muslim Arab world and the Christian Byzantine Empire, the original pagan Khazar kingdom was under pressure to convert to a non-pagan faith – either Islam to please the Arabs or Christianity to please the Byzantines. Instead they converted to Judaism, so avoided taking sides with Islam or Christianity.
At first, Khazar Judaism seems to have been a very conservative version of the faith, accepting the Old Testament, but possibly ignoring the post-biblical Jewish writings of the Talmud. At that stage, it’s likely that only the king and the ruling elite converted. But within 100 years Khazar Judaism had come into line with conventional Judaism and much of the population converted. Following the collapse of the Khazar state in the late tenth century, it is possible that some Khazar Jews migrated west and merged with the medieval European Jewish community.
Fascinating. From the diggers’ discoveries in Itil, it seems that the city was made up of all kinds of diverse groups and cultures. Because the city was an international trading centre, the archaeologists have found:
- turquoise-glazed ceramics from Iran
- stone cauldrons from Uzbekistan
- amber beads from the Baltic
- a dragon-adorned belt end from China
- a rare copper crucifix pointing to the presence of a Christian community
- various references and sources also point to the presence of a Muslim imperial guard who protected the Jewish emperor.
I don’t have naive or rosy-tinted images of the past as I’m sure there were all kinds of things about ancient cultures that we postmoderns would find (rightly) difficult, uncomfortable or downright abhorrent. But here at least we see what sounds like a model of tolerant mutual respect – or at least it sounds better than what pomos come up with these days (see this previous postings, almost everywhere!). No doubt someone will prove me wrong and come up with evidence for the grim intolerance of Khazars -but even if they did, it wouldn’t shake my concerns about the ways in which the word is defined in contemporary western culture.
Sorry if you were not intrigued by all that ancient stuff – but then you didn’t have to read this far!
It’s an emotive word. After all, who would ever be happy to be called a misogynist? And so at one level, it is a clever, albeit rather desperate, strategy. Because this week, Elton John did a big fundraiser for Hillary Clinton in Manhattan (apparently bagging her as much as $2.5 million in the process!!). Having said that there was no one more qualified to lead America, he went on to say:
I never cease to be amazed at the misogynistic attitude of some people in this country. And I say to hell with them.
The reason I’m here tonight is to play music, but more importantly as someone who comes from abroad, and is in America quite a lot of the time (and) is extremely interested in the political process because it effects the whole world.
Many would agree with that last point – the world is waiting with bated breath for the result of November’s presidential – it can’t come soon enough. But misogyny? It’s an easy slur and hard to refute. But it is in fact futile and ultimately an insult of despair. For while misogynists abound in all walks of life, is it really the case that it is the main reason many people won’t vote for Hillary? Could it possibly have something to do with her policies, or her track record, or even her agendas (whatever they might be)? You see, this goes far beyond the American election. It illustrates an aspect of what is going on all around us.
The Hermeneutic of Suspicion
And that is what some rather pompously term the hermeneutic of suspicion – but while the description sounds rather esoteric, the phenomenon is far from it. It is happening all the time and all around us., from street level to academia. Hermeneutics is the business of interpretation (whether of texts, statements or reality) – but it is a contemporary obsession to be suspicious of every such statement. As such, it implies the absence (or perhaps merely the unattainability) of truth because it suggests the impossibility or irrelevance of a convincing argument. Instead, every claim to truth is merely a claim to power. The flip side of this is the assumption that any rejection of someone else’s view is motivated by some deep-seated prejudice or even ‘hatred’. Hence the hermeneutic of suspicion.
The Flaws and Dangers
This is all very serious – but the flaws in this approach abound and it is vital to expose them. To fail to do so is to have .
- For one thing, it is pretty arrogant because it subtly lays claim to an almost divine insight into others’ minds and hearts – as if Sir Elton had a unique mass telepathic ability.
- Furthermore, it tries to have its cake and eat it – you defend the people you support by attacking opponents as misogynists; and accuse them of just seeking after power. But at the same time, make claims of competence, integrity and sound policies as if their own motivations were whiter than snow. Hence Hillary is the best person to lead the country…
- And most scarily, the knock-on effect of all this is a total disintegration of tolerance (see previous post). What people say has become irrelevant – and free speech no longer needs protection. Rather, we need protection from the spouters of such speech; we need protection from the ‘hateful’ and the prejudiced. We no longer need to tolerate these people – in fact, we should not tolerate these people – not because of their intolerable views but because of their intolerable prejudices. Lock ‘em up – they are a danger to society!
But this is, of course, ultimately self-defeating. Think of where this ends up. For the US Election:
- Anyone who fails to vote for Barack Obama is racist.
- Anyone who fails to vote for John McCain is ageist.
For the up and coming London Mayoral elections next month:
- Anyone who fails to vote for Ken Livingstone is a snob
- Anyone who fails to vote for Boris Johnson is an inverted snob
- Anyone who fails to vote for Brian Paddick is homophobic
And so it goes on. It gets you nowhere. Surely we should avoid such language altogether – and start considering the usual – and important – things like ability, policies, integrity etc.
The problem is that this trend invades all walks of life – including the church. When you are told that you hold or reject a particular theological position because of your Myers-Briggs score… or education… or upbringing… surely this is pretty much the same thing? Isn’t it? It is an easy and convenient put-down – and buys you some time perhaps. But in the end it merely buries you deeper into the pit of nebulous truth claims and counter claims.
C S Lewis & Bulverism
C S Lewis spotted this years ago – and he even gave it a name: Bulverism. This is what he wrote in an essay by that name, published in his essay collection, God in the Dock.
You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.
In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism”. Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father — who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than a third — “Oh you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment”, E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.
I find the fruits of his discovery almost everywhere. Thus I see my religion dismissed on the grounds that “the comfortable parson had every reason for assuring the nineteenth century worker that poverty would be rewarded in another world.” Well, no doubt he had. On the assumption that Christianity is an error, I can see clearly enough that some people would still have a motive for inculcating it. I see it so easily that I can, of course, play the game the other way round, by saying that “the modern man has every reason for trying to convince himself that there are no eternal sanctions behind the morality he is rejecting.” For Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long, and that it give no unfair advantage to the small and offensive minority who reason. But of course it gets us not one inch nearer to deciding whether, as a matter of fact, the Christian religion is true or false. That question remains to be discussed on quite different grounds – a matter of philosophical and historical argument. However it were decided, the improper motives of some people, both for believing it and for disbelieving it, would remain just as they are.
I see Bulverism at work in every political argument. The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally Communists must be bad economists because we know why they want Communism. Thus, the Bulverists on both sides. In reality, of course, either the doctrines of the capitalists are false, or the doctrines of the Communists, or both; but you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning – never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology
Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs.
Lewis at his brilliant best. Let’s banish Bulver forever. His approach has no place in a truly tolerant and sane society!