First re: work, getting used to a full time job has more or less prevented me writing anything online. In fact outside work hours (when I was working) I have not even been at a computer till today. This is my first full time job since I have been in a committed relationship and I now realise that if you have both you literally have no time for anything except those two things. No time for hobbies, no time for “self improvement”, no time for any other kind of socialising even really. I feel ok with that, its actually quite nice to not be constantly naval gazing and trying to measure up to some idealised sense of what I “ought” to be doing because I don’t have time to do anything apart from pre-arranged commitments. I wasted a lot of time before.
The other day walking home from work, along side a heavily congested dual carriageway, I noticed a bird soaring over the road to a cluster of trees on the other side of it, and for some reason, this sight, for I have seen soaring birds a million times, struck me with awe. I marvelled at the bird – I thought at all the magnificent machines we humans have created, cars (because they were in my line of sight), aeroplanes and so on, and I figured that the bird was also a magnificent machine. Yet I felt the bird was so much more tremendous than any car, or any plane or any of man’s creations . And I wondered, why do I feel this way? Why does a bird impress me so much more than a car? Both are tremendous feats of engineering (even if one was “developed” rather than engineered). And I decided after thinking about it that the bird impresses me so much more than the car because the bird is free.
A bird does not exist to serve man’s purposes – even if say God did indeed give man dominion over the “beasts of the field and the birds of the air” this takes nothing from their freedom, any more than man being under the dominion of God takes from his. We can certainly command the creatures of the earth and utterly dominate their lives and environment if we so wish, but does this make them less free – not at all – in response to kindness they can choose to submit to man’s advances, or in response to cruelty they can because vicious and reject us. Living beings are free – they are free in a deeper and more meaningful sense than “having a choice” which is a very superficial manifestation of freedom. They are free in having their own purposes, purposes ingrained in their very being, which are not imposed upon them, but which are “emergent” from their very nature. There is something incredibly majestic about that freedom, incredibly humbling to witness it in another living creature. It is something no man made machine has ever managed to replicate – we have never made a machine that creates it’s own purpose, that is truly “pointless” according to human purposes and only purposeful according to its own.
I have always been fascinated and utterly enamoured by life, that which is living, life is inherently free, sometimes terribly so, other times beautifully so – often terrifyingly so. We are frightened by things we cannot control, but “beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear, and we revere it so because it calmly disdains to destroy us.”
If good were what man naturally assumes is good, life would be quite simple – but how to deal with the colours on the canvas that are darker, more complex and maybe even immediately repulsive? How do we deal with the Truth and Beauty that horrifies and engages all in one fell swoop? That terrible freedom, the tremendous love, those wonderful chains, that righteous anger, that horrific forgiveness? When will we admit that “the good” is a lot more complex (and often a lot simpler too) than we are willing to deal with – that Love is more loving than we perhaps can sometimes bear?
We read too much I think, or watch too much for the illiterate – we digest ideas instead of experiencing life. We are closer to one another than we really know because we let ourselves be enamoured of the novelty of new arrangements of words as though they were a symphony, we make them a barrier and a shibboleth. Love and freedom doesn’t know anything about that, life is chaotic in man’s perception, but it’s also the delight of an eternal and ancient counterpoint.
In recent years I have come to think a lot on the topic of “liberalism” as it is presented today and as I conceive of it apart from that presentation. Over the years I have often argued against liberalism, perhaps out of a sense of contrariness, and also because I feel in many ways insecure in the modern world and I am attracted because of that to some of the authoritarian solutions which seek to address that form of insecurity.
I have thought over it long and hard though, and I have come to the conclusion that I am basically a liberal. By that I mean in the way I conceive of it, not in the way it is presented. I am not a liberal because my particular views are in the minority generally either, I feel as uncomfortable with the idea of suppressing people with popular ideas I disagree with as with unpopular ones I agree with. I still believe it is possible for everyone to live together with very different world views and outlooks and not start killing each other or even repressing each other over our differences. A liberal polity is not impossible – even with Muslims, even with immense diversity of cultures that stretch the ingenuity of mankind to breaking point as how to resolve the conflicts of interest. It may not be easy, but it is possible.
So what of this “Muscular Liberalism”? Honestly I see very little liberal about it, and very little muscular about it. In terms of liberalism, it is a confusion of form and essence. “Liberals” being generally live and let live types tend to approve of various things, sexual freedom, the lack of distinct roles for men and women (or any other divided group of humans) and so on. Therefore it surely must be the liberal thing to do to force everyone to approve of those same things, or at least act as though they do in the public square? And in the forcing, isn’t that “muscular” – after all, you need muscles to force people.
But liberalism is not holding particular views. Liberalism means supporting and open and tolerant society – not approving – tolerant. It means creating a public space where a creationist muslim who believes women should not go out on the street without a guardian, a secularist who believes unfit parents should be sterilised – and surely all religious parents are unfit, and a wooly jumpered 60 year old church cake lady who thinks everyone is just lovely and why can’t we just all bake a nice cake, can all come together and peacefully, no matter how hard that is for all of them, deal with one another in the public square. After which they are free to go home to their respective private squares and live out their way of life, so long as none of the participants are in a state of capture and unfree to leave their respective private spheres.
There’s plenty of problems with liberalism, as illustrated by such luminaries as Marx and Joseph De Maistre. The arguments against it are strong and well worth engaging with. But basically, it’s a nice idea, and I think across the Anglosphere, it’s an idea that still has massive resonance.
A genuinely muscular liberalism is a liberalism that is comfortable enough in liberalism’s strength that it can allow people to be themselves in private – and even in public – so long as they don’t start fighting all out wars. They can fight all they want with words, so long as it never progresses to swords. The second the state sides with any set of popular opinions, even if those opinions be liberal opinions, and fights a war, a real war of batons and credible threats rather than mere verbal advocacy, on behalf of those opinions – the state ceases to be a liberal state.
I think most people in the Anglophone countries still aspire to having a liberal state, but there are taboos that seem so beyond the pale that they can’t help themselves but advocate for the state to war against them. Racism, sexism, homophobia, dressing in strange floor length black veils – these things go against what ordinary people see as fundamental, and they are frightened of what might happen if people were allowed to break these taboos. But when the liberal state was conceived (and it was a slow gestation lasting hundreds of years which could probably be said to come to fruition with the emancipation of Jews and Catholics in the 19th century) there were equally fundamental issues at stake, whether blasted papists might get hold of the throne, whether religious non-conformists might turn the whole world upside-down with their strange and surely unpatriotic views and attitudes, and what of the suspicious Jews with their strange manners and disproportionate wealth? The struggles between the strength of private convictions (and private prejudices) and the need to work together in peace publicly, were just as intense and heated as they are now – and the answer was found, after centuries of bloody wars failed to deal with all these sectarian and tribal differences – and that answer was freedom and the liberal state.
I’m not a libertarian by any stretch of the imagination, but I think I probably am a liberal, I think the natural cynical response that liberalism contains the seeds of it’s own destruction is laughable. The only way it can destroy itself is to stop advocating itself – to give in to the urge to say that peace in the public square is beyond human capacities and be pulled down by the undertow of sectarian tensions. Who really wants endless war? A little bit of war now and again to chasten the spoiled maybe, but war upon war upon war? One against the other until the other is bound in chains of domination or crushed underfoot? Does anyone really want that (maybe some mad souls do, so let them be restrained – in deed rather than in word)? And then what? Schism and back on the roundabout? Give me the liberal state any day!
Keep your sword sheathed, but speak your mind, and let us treat one another as brothers.
I was not baptised as a baby, and I did not grow up in a Christian home. When I sought to become a Christian, I first sought to get baptised. I didn’t really think about what would come after that. I mean I did, but I had no idea how to picture it (I pictured it with me being a lot less doubtful and sinful than I really am) and I was driven forward by the desire to become something I knew I wasn’t.
Having been baptised and chrismated, am I now a Christian? I am going to say – n0… sort of.
Well, one thing I didn’t really think about is that to be a Christian is not just to believe in this or that (to affirm that Christ rose from the dead). Ceirtainly without that there is a sort of emptiness to it, but that is not it. To be a Christian is to live in a particular manner – to pray, to live in the sacramental life of the Church, to give to the poor, to support the weak, to resist evil, trust in God – and do all that in a very mundane, everyday way. In a sense to live as a Christian requires fully “re-enchanting” the mundane universe in which the atheist me was brought up in. It means the discovery of the meaning of the word “sacred” and the sacralisation of life itself.
Which is great and all, certainly sounds great – but… well, how do you live like that? Everyone brought up in a Christian home, even from very dubious denominations, has a pattern of life which to a greater or lesser extent models that form of life. For sure some more than others, but I have no such pattern of life. I have no model to base it on – except things looked on from afar, or romantic idealisms promoted for various purposes, or the images in old films perhaps. If I happen on one day to wake up with the grace of gratitude to God for the joy of life and the morning, I have no way, no pattern on which to express such a feeling – and trying to create my own patterns feels in this weak, uncertain stage of my Christian life – feels dangerous and distancing, like a 2 year old trying to create its own language instead of speaking the language of it’s parents.
I have no parents, well I have biological parents, and I also have godparents – but they are each on other sides of the country from me, and they would not serve the role I need them for. Because parents live with their children, they in the beginning guide their children every moment of the day, until their children are used to days and used to nights and so need less guidance.
In order to become a Christian I need someone to tell me what to do. I can’t deal with suggestions, I can’t deal with simply seeing things from afar. Suggest something and I will find every cowardly excuse not to do it, I don’t want people to get the idea I am a “try hard” – even if I’d very much like to be. Let no-one mistake me for one of those dreadful people who attempts to be pious! Let me be gruff and rude and weak, it’s much more comfortable and it doesn’t offend people half so much. As for things seen from afar – I don’t even know if I am allowed to do those. Might they not be reserved for people who are better than me, or from some other culture, or whose parents made them do it when they were children? Those things cannot be for the likes of me…
I am not used to days or nights as a Christian, left to my own devices I will simply revert to days and nights as a nihilist – because I know how to do those very well indeed. This is a difficult dilemma in our culture because most movement goes in the other direction… from Christianity to nihilism (usually via some variant of humanism). I wonder if people going in that direction find it as awkward as this one. But they have the whole country to model themselves on…
Firstly I’d like to thank everyone who supported me, financially, emotionally and otherwise, in this gruelling period of unemployment. Full time work may impact the frequency of my posts quite substantially. I’ll try and write once a week still anyway.