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Cross of Christ

Christianity sees history in teleological terms – that is as having a purpose and leading to an end; in our case the Second Coming in Glory when the living and the dead will be judged and the first world will pass away and we shall see a new one, and the dead will be resurrected. It is not the only faith, or belief system, which has a teleology. Islam has one, and it sees history as the process by which the whole world will be brought to Allah. From the rise of Islam through to the late eighteenth century, it was easy enough to see this teleology playing itself out, as, in amazing fashion, a group of nomads from the Arabian desert, and their successors, conquered the whole Roman Empire by the 1450s. It was not until 1774 that the great Islamic Empire gave up territory it had conquered; from that point on, the teleology became more a matter of faith than historical fact, as the realm of Islam shrank, and its influence dwindled. This baffled and angered many Muslims – it was not how history was supposed to play out. But it fed into another teleology which had another vision of how history was supposed to turn out – that of the Enlightenment – and today, I would suggest, we might be on the verge of having to do what Islam has had to do, which is to question that teleology.

What, for the sake of convenience we label ‘the West’, had believed, is that the Enlightenment values, of liberty, equality and fraternity, would spread across the world until the less enlightened societies become more like our own. For the last three centuries, such a narrative was not only plausible, but, like the earlier Islamic one, could be ‘proved’ from ‘history’. So, if, in the early 1970s, one looked at the old Islamic world from the point of view of the West, the story was indeed one of progress: from Algeria through Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and through to Kabul, there were universities, schools and societies modelled on our own – there was a process we called ‘modernisation’, or sometimes, more accurately, ‘westernisation’. On the campuses and in the streets of these capitals, one would see women in Western dress, driving cars, going to University, and there was a palpable sense that the future would, indeed, see the triumph of ‘Western values’. A swift survey of all those places now reveals the hollowness of those hopes. Far from, as some believed at the time, even the rigid Islamic society of Saudi Arabia eventually catching up with the West, the Islamic world has chosen to go in their direction. The teleology is no longer so clear.

In part this is because Western secular liberalism seems to have lost faith in itself. If one said that all it takes for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing, our reaction as a society would be to question whether ‘evil’ existed and how one would judge, and to ask whether that was not rather elitist of us? Who, after all, are we. to define ‘good’? Someone would be sure to add that the use of the word ‘men’ was everyday sexism. If we wanted to say that ‘the worst’ were ‘full of passionate intensity’, the same relativistic reflexes would be liable to paralyse us.

Yes, faced with something like the events last week in Paris, our leaders will (well, most of them, some found the football more engrossing) seize a photo opportunity, and we still enjoy enough power in the world for others to wish to be seen to join in, but as for actually doing anything – well, that’s another matter. We can be ‘Charlie’, but that other ‘hashtag’ – ‘bring back our girls’ – well, Nigeria is a far away country about which, in reality, we know little and care less; were this not so we would do something.

Western liberal secularism has many good things to be said for it, but it lacks any animating spirituality. It does not comprehend what it sees in Islam, or, for that matter, Putin and China, and so it projects its teleology on them. These things are ‘blips’, the ‘rise of the West’ is the ‘end of history’, and the world will, surely, get back to moving in the direction ‘we’ want. That may be so, but it is no more inevitable than the Islamic teleology, and it may we that like the Muslims, we in the West may have to cope with the shock of realising history is not moving in our direction, and we are not riding its tide.

Where does the Christian sit here? On the whole, he or she tends to be in favour of ‘Western values’, which is not surprising as so many of them derive from a Judeo-Christian heritage which we are busy trying to forget. But the experiment, began in the eighteenth century and run through to now, of seeing whether those values could stand up by themselves without the spirituality which animated them has, I suspect, failed. Man was not ‘born good’ and enslaved by religion. He was born fatally flawed, and Christianity, with its offer of redemption and its moral codes underpinned by the belief they were God’s Law, helped provide not only hope of eternal life, but frameworks within which men and women could restrain the bad and encourage the good in them. It also provided, as we can see form our culture, the impetus for great music, art and literature, as well as for the impulse to evangelise the world.

Perhaps the effort of giving birth to all of that has left our society effete, in the real meaning of that word? At any rate, it is becoming clear that lacking the spirituality which once animated the society which proclaimed ‘Western values’. the West lacks the vitality and the will to spread them – and perhaps – ultimately, to defend them in the face of those who will die for their beliefs.