This is a transcript of a talk given at St Michaels Church, Chester Square, 23rd January 2019.
The title I have chosen for this talk, “Things fall apart: the centre cannot hold”, is a line from a poem, the Second Coming, by the Irish poet W.B.Yeats which was published in 1919. It was written against the background of troubles in Ireland, the Russian Revolution (1917) and the devastation of the First World War (1914-018) in which over 20 million soldiers died. Yeats was subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in and appointed to serve two terms as a senator of the Irish Free State.
The poem uses a metaphor of falconry- the hunting of wild animals by a trained bird of prey- to illuminate the uncertain future of the state of the world. In the poem the falcon has become separated from the falconer and is rising higher and higher, spiralling around in ever widening gyrations. Things fall apart because the relationship between falcon and falconer has broken. Anarchy, violence and bloodshed seemed to be everywhere. The forces which bring order have collapsed and so there is a terrifying sense of disintegration and chaos. Meanwhile, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”.
Then the poet imagines the second coming; a vast image of a creature emerges, part lion, part man, the collective soul of mankind, Spiritus Mundi, appearing from a wasteland of sand and desert, slouching towards Bethlehem to be born. Unlike the first advent of the Christian faith this is a harbinger not of peace and goodwill but darkness and terror.
The reason I chose this title is because of the number of times in the past twelve months I have heard or read this line quoted as a comment on the current state of the world. It seems to me that at present pessimism exists in three different overlapping ways;
In the UK Brexit has revealed deep divisions in our society, while the political crisis we now face over the way forward has only emphasised and exacerbated the divisions and led to a greater bitterness and lack of civility in Westminster than I have known over the past three.
In France the ‘gilets jaunes’ grassroots political protest grew spontaneously, rapidly and violently, without leaders and has been about far more than a change in the tax on fuel.
In Germany, the far right Alternative for Germany (AFD) has now won seats in the Bundestag, the first time since the end of the Second World War and in all provincial governments (the Länder), reflecting “the fragility of the whole society” (The New Yorker, Jan 28 2019).
Throughout the European Union there is a breakdown in trust between the centre and the periphery, and there are deep fault lines between those who wish to see future integration based on liberal, democratic, internationalist principles and those who wish to see no further powers transferred to Brussels or even to exit altogether.
In the US President Trump, with his slogan ‘America First’, ‘Making America Great Again’, has proved more divisive than any other president in my lifetime and his trade war with China is undermining the multi- lateral international economic order which has developed since 1945.
It might be argued that we have survived crises before: Suez in 1956, the student protests of 1968, the miners’ strike of 1982. There is however a difference.
What is happening now is against a background of disturbing long-term trends which is different from the past:
In the US this has been well documented by Charles Murray in his book, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 (2013) and Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert Putnam (2015). In the UK the nature of the deep divisions in our society which we saw in the 2016 referendum are set out very clearly in The Road to Somewhere by David Goodhart (2017).
Third and most disturbing of all, however, is third cause of pessimism is, a feeling that liberalism as a world view is in crisis; some would even suggest meta-crisis. Back in October The Economist celebrated its 175th birthday. It was set up in 1843 to campaign for the repeal of the Corn Laws and economic liberalism. These were laws which taxed imports of grain into Britain in order to protect the incomes of wealthy gentry, at a time when 20% of the income of factory workers was spent on bread. As part of its anniversary edition The Economist issued “A manifesto” which began:
“Liberalism made the modern world, but the modern world is turning against it…..Europe and America are in the throes of a popular rebellion against liberal elites…..elsewhere a 25 year shift towards freedom and open markets has gone into reverse”
It is not just The Economist which is pessimistic. A number of books have been published in 2018 with titles such as Why Liberalism Failed, (Patrick J. Deneen, Yale University Press 2018), The Suicide of the West (Jonah Goldberg, Crown Forum 2018) The Retreat of Liberalism (Edward Luce, Abacus 2018), The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties (Sir Paul Collier, Allen lame 2018), The Death of Truth (Michiko Kakutani, William Collins, 2018) and How Democracy Ends (Profile Books 2018), the last by David Runciman, head of the Politics department at Cambridge University. The previous year John Milbank and Adrian Pabst published The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future arguing that liberalism was in meta- crisis and putting forward the case for a new centre left agenda in the tradition of ethical socialism.
Our natural instinct is to break down the proximate causes of pessimism into separate boxes and analyse each separately:
However within each of these boxes there is a common thread- namely the question of the culture, values and ideology necessary for liberal societies to flourish.
Democratic institutions assume certain shared values and shared understandings: a common purpose, obligations, trust. In economic life a market economy assumes honesty, a sense of fairness and fair play, ideals greater than the interests of just myself. Our societies function because of the enormous reserves of goodwill which exists within families, within communities, in religious congregations, in voluntary and charitable activities. Without these values and common understanding politics, economic life and society becomes dysfunctional.
Only 14 per cent of the British people questioned in Edelman’s annual trust barometer believed the country worked for them. This view was held by rich, poor, old, young, metropolitan, rural. Divisions are about more than Brexit. A majority from across the spectrum believe that the institution of government is broken. It fails to listen to “people like me”.
In the Yeats poem the centre could not hold because the falcon and the falconer had become separated? Has the creation became separated from the Creator? Have we collectively and individually become separated from God? Is our future the second coming of a terrifying monster?
Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.
But where do the shared values and understanding come from? Do they have their roots in tradition or history or ethical reason? Do they have any relationship to our religious heritage? Is the current wave of pessimism in the West linked to the fact that we are rejecting the ‘givenness’ of our condition. Have we embraced a vision of unrestricted freedom? What is the source of our anthropology?
The crisis of liberalism can be traced to the two great liberalisms of the past fifty years: the social liberalism of the 1960’s – sexual freedom, rejection of traditional values, experimentation – and the economic liberalism of the nineteen seventies and eighties, popularly associated with President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher; free markets, freedom of choice, extending the market economy into areas previously dominated by the state and reducing regulatory burdens on business.
Underlying both these liberalisms is a philosophy associated with Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Mill, Ayn Rand, John Rawls . It is that people are born free.
According to Locke all persons are born in “perfect freedom” and “perfect equality”. For Rousseau ‘man is born free but everywhere in chains’. For Mill each person should be free to pursue their own interests, subject only to not harming others.
Traditionally liberalism meant the rule of law, the freedom of the person, equality before the law, private property rights, freedom of speech. However in the last fifty years liberalism has morphed into libertarianism so that each individual is free to abandon traditional institutions and practices and to decide for oneself, the meaning of what is truth, what is goodness and what is beauty. Restoring the past is impossible and in any case there was never some ideal world. But is there no hope anywhere?
I chose the title for this talk – “things fall apart: the centre cannot hold” to recognise the pessimism of our time
I chose the subtitle to state, that despite the pessimism of our time, the Christian story is the basis of hope for the whole world and for each person. It is the hope of every Christian and it is my hope.
Christian hope is founded on two things: First, the promises of Jesus and his trustworthiness as a person and second the evidence for the resurrection.
Jesus’ promises are many and explicit:
His promises have weight because in his life he was the true human being.
The evidence for the Resurrection was well expressed in a low key way by Charles J. Caput, the Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia in his book ‘Strangers in a Strange Land’ (Henry Hold and Company, New York 2017). Christian hope he says:
“springs from a simple historical fact. On a quiet Sunday morning two thousand years ago God (Yahweh, the God of Abraham) raised Jesus of Nazareth (a historic person and a Jew) from the dead. This small moment, unseen by the human eye, turned the world upside down and changed history forever. It confirmed Jesus’ victory over death and evil”.
The Apostle Paul argued that the resurrection was the key to his faith: “If Christ was not raised, then all our preaching is useless and your trust in God is useless” (1 Cor: 15v14)
The resurrection is a non-repeatable event and because of that some people automatically rule it out. The classic study of the evidence for the resurrection remains a book “Who Moved the Stone?” by Frank Morrison published by Faber and Faber in 1920. It has been repeatedly reprinted and translated into several languages. In it the author examines in great detail the evidence for the death and burial of Jesus, the empty tomb, the post-resurrection appearances, as well as three theories which have been advanced to explain the event. Morrison was sceptical about the evidence and set out to write a book to show that in all probability the resurrection was a myth. T.S.Eliot was on the editorial board of Faber at the time, read the manuscript and recommended publication. G.K Chesterton said that he initially thought the book was a detective story but in his review described how the case for the resurrection was “treated in such a logical and even legal manner”.
Anyone who has read it will certainly agree with that. It’s hard work.
First, Christian Hope becomes a Reality through an Encounter with Jesus.
Christian hope is something real not just wishful thinking. It is not simply a feeling. It is not optimism. Optimism is seeing what we want to see and not seeing what we don’t want to see. Hope can look at the future with eyes wide open to everything which might frustrate hope- failure, rejection, fear, exclusion even death itself.
The experience of Christians throughout the ages, the church Fathers, Augustine, the Saints of Middle Ages, Luther, Calvin, John Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa is that hope becomes real through a personal encounter with the risen Jesus. The Christian faith is not simply recognition of an historical fact or membership of a particular church or intellectual assent to a creed. It is a personal experience.
Earlier this year my wife and I were invited to a conference in Rome, one of the highlights of which was a visit to the Pope’s personal residence in the Vatican and to meet Archbishop George Gänswein, who is Prefect of the Papal Household, Pope Francis and personal secretary to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Incidentally his nickname is ‘Bel Georgio’, Gorgeous George, for his film star looks. Each morning he works for Pope Francis, then has lunch with Pope Benedict for whom he works in the afternoon. After the tour of the residence we sat down in one of the state rooms with the Archbishop, who talked about his work. I think we were the only non-Catholics in the group. The discussion lasted the best part of one and a half hours and twice in the discussion Archbishop Gänswein said “Pope Francis stresses the point that you cannot be a Catholic Christian without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ”. In the context of St. Michaels such a way of expressing the Christian faith might be normal. But for the Pope to use that form of words was as the Archbishop hinted somewhat unusual, but he drew our attention to it because for Pope Francis this is the heart of the Christian message. It is something he clearly expressed in his book Evangeli Gaudium, 2013,
“I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of his Gospel. Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or lofty idea but the encounter with an event, a person which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”
(Evangeli Gaudium, para 7)
Jesus promised that those who committed to following him would experience a new kind of life, eternal life.Simply extending the longevity of this life could become tedious. This new life is the promise of life after death but also the promise of a new life here and now: a new intensity in the experience of living, a new vitality, a fullness in life, a new view of relationships, a new meaning of love and a new hope for the future. It gives us in the present something of the reality we are waiting for.
In this way, faith draws the future into the present so the fact that the future exists changes the present. As a consequence our present life is not just the departure lounge for eternity.
Frequently in the New Testament, faith and hope are used almost interchangeably. The apostle Paul in his letter to Christians in Ephesus reminds them that in their previous life they were “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2 v 18). There were many gods being worshipped in Ephesian temples but they did not worship the true creator God. He says that as a result their thinking was “futile” (Eph 3:17) and their understanding was “darkened” (Eph 4:18).
The Christian faith is a destinctive world view. It is presented to us in the Bible as a meta-narrative: creation, the fall, redemption, restoration, a new heavens and a new earth.
It can never be proved using the methodology of science but it is not contrary to reason and is based supremely on the historical record of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We are part of a moral universe of right and wrong, good and evil. The brokenness and suffering of our world is our rejection of God and of our decision to pursue an independent path, which theologians term “the fall”. The pinnacle of creation is the human person possessed of a god-like quality and infinite dignity. This world view has profound implications for politics, economics and society. Within the Christian Church it is set out most clearly in Roman Catholic social teaching and in the Reformed tradition following Calvin can be found in the writing of Abraham Kuyper, who was Prime Minister of the Netherlands (1901-4).
Some years ago I met one of the great theologians of the twentieth century, Jurgen Moltman. We had a lively discussion on the ethics of capitalism, following which he sent me a copy of his autobiography. In it he wrote:
“In God we trust, In us God trusts”
He had a tortured early life. He was seventeen in 1943 and describes vividly the experience of living in Hamburg and witnessing it being bombed in Operation Gomorrah by the British and allied forces in which 40,000 people died. The following year he was recruited into the German army and subsequently captured by the British, spending three years in a prisoner of war camp in Scotland. They were for him the dark night of the soul but it was in Britain through that experience that he became a Christian and subsequently wrote three books on the theology and ethics of Christian hope.
Throughout his distinguished career he had a long term friend, Johannes Rau, who became a social democrat politician and in 1999 the President of the German Federal Republic. Moltman devoted one of his books to Rau, who was a strong Christian.
Because of his faith he was mocked by his friends as “Brother John”. In the year he died Rau’s sermons and addresses were published under the title The One Who Hopes Can Act.
I believe that title contains great insight. St. Paul says that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature. Behold everything has become new” (2 Cor5:17). It is because the Christian has a new view of the created order, of the physical world, of each human person created in the image of God, of our political and economic life together that Christian hope is the spur to fight economic injustice, political oppression, religious persecution.
C.S.Lewis suggests that if you read history you will find that those who did most for this world were those who thought most of the next. The Apostles of the early church set out to evangelise the Roman Empire. In the early nineteenth century.
Anglican Evangelicals such as William Wilberforce led the campaign to abolish slavery. Lord Shaftesbury reformed working practices in factories, Harold Wilson said that the British Labour movement owed more to Methodism than it did to Marx.
Today Christians are active in the UK Parliament tackling modern slavery, low paid work, the preservation of rain forests and many other injustices.
I have had the privilege of being involved in the establishment of a Christian University in Romania and with four micro-finance organisations to help the poor, especially women, in Africa. It has been Christians who because of their faith, have initiated these ventures.
Only this afternoon I spoke to Frank Field, a member of the House of Commons who has been active throughout his 38 years in Parliament in fighting the cause of the poor, supporting initiatives to help parents in the early years, campaigning with practical policies to support the rain forests and many initiatives in his own constituency of Birkenhead, who said ‘The Holy Spirit cannot operate unless we work’, in which he included prayer as work.
I need hardly say that Christians are not the only people who have fought injustice, taken up the cause of the poor, set up schools, hospitals, night shelters. People of other faiths, no faiths and even those hostile to faith have also shown true compassion and set up initiatives. The point I simply wish to make is that Christian hope is an inspiration to action. Pessimism must not become fatalism.
In conclusion Christian hope is something real, based on history, in no-way contrary to reason, adding a vitality and fullness to life here and now and providing an inspiration despite the pessimism to pursue peace and serve others in the name of Jesus. It deserves to be explored.
The Second Coming By
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart: the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is dawned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand
Surely the second coming is at hand
The second coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles My Sight: a waste of desert and sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
In moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour comes around at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Lord Griffiths is the Chairman of CEME. For more information please click here.