Muscular Liberalism

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.

On Becoming Christian

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…

I got a job

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.

Why are you afraid?

Breathe. In and ouut.

What do you fear? Rejection, humiliation? Are these things not worse than death? Wouldn’t you in the moment rather die than endure through humiliation, rejection? But endure you must. Humiliation passes, God has blessed us with a short memory. Rejection’s sting lasts until the next smile or heartfelt greeting. Wait, calmly, do not be afraid.

“They will think I am a fool, they will ask questions, I will have nothing to say, I don’t know what to expect, how should I dress, how should I talk, what if my face does that weird thing it does when I am not quite sure what emotion to fake, what if they laugh at me, what if I start crying, I won’t know what to say, I’ll be so anxious and I will look a fool, everyone will hate me, they will expect things of me I can’t provide and then be angry when I don’t provide them, I have no experience with a situation like this, I don’t know, I can’t speak, I can’t think, please, help…”

Be humiliated and endure, and live. Humiliation is better than death.


Sex. Even the word disturbs you slightly. You don’t know why, you can rationalise backwards, devise neat little psychological theories about your childhood. But there is something that cuts through those stories and tells another.

Because you are as prudish about God as you are about sex. You feel as uncomfortable attempting to pray as you do thinking about uniting with your lover. Prudishness is the same, one and other. It is the same as Adam and Eve in the garden, you realise you are naked.

Standing vulnerable before God, standing vulnerable before your lover – how different are they really? But how much more vulnerable do you find yourself before God than before your beloved? How much more hushed the tones as you strain to speak.

Oh for a crowd to hide in, or to run like a child behind the legs of your mother, holding tightly to her hand and peeking through the gaps of her fingers, as if no-one could see you there.

Even for all that, you don’t really want to be alone… why else would you be peeking?