One thing guaranteed to raise a smile in these perilous times is to mention that there was a moment when someone wrote about ‘the end of history’, thinking that with the end of the Cold War, the values of liberal humanism had triumphed, and all that was left was for its many benefits to be bestowed on those who still lacked them. As predictions go, it is up there with Pitt the Younger in 1789 thinking that Europe was in for an unprecedented period of peace, or Sir Samuel Hoare in 1939 talking about a new ‘golden age’, or Chamberlain in the spring of 1940 saying ‘Hitler had missed the bus’. We can list the dangers simply enough: Islamic militancy; Russian expansionism; Chinese ambitions; the fall out from failed states in Africa and the Middle East; economic instability; the rise of parties in the West for whom democracy is not necessarily a desired end, but could be a means to another end. All of these pose challenges as great, if not greater, than those we faced during the Cold War. The certainties of the early 1990s seem as quaint as some of its technology. But the greatest danger comes from another source – a collapse in a common moral consensus.
Even to talk about ‘British values’ is now to invite both a discussion and some scepticism. We live, after all, in a society which can discourse with passion about women’s rights, and pass over the number of aborted females with the comment that it is a ‘woman’s right to choose’; not if you are a female foetus it isn’t. This same society talks about choice in an amoral way, but one which shows that what it really values in people is their ability to choose to consume large amounts of ‘stuff’. To do that requires earning substantial amounts of money, which means both adults in a relationship have to go out to work, which often means deferring child-bearing until later in a woman’s life – not always to her advantage. Population growth falls below the ‘replacement’ level, and does so even more when you take into account the number of abortions, and so immigration becomes a necessity. The irony of people complaining about immigration during the recent referendum campaign needs no underlining. It is those ‘choices’ we are all enjoined to make which led in this direction, but like adolescents, we seem to want our own way and for the consequences of that always ot be benign – and if they aren’t, we can blame someone else. In the UK it has tended to be the EU, and no doubt will be for some time.
When Jesus said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, he was referring to the effect of a materialist mindset on our spiritual life. Being encouraged to believe that there is nothing beyond this world stimulates a short-term, consumptionist approach to life, summed up in the old phrase: ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’. Death is the one certain thing, and where our Victorian ancestors embraced it and has elaborate rituals which surrounded it, our society avoids mentioning it, and old people can be conveniently shunted into ‘homes’ which are anything but that, until parliament can be persuaded to allow legal euthanasia.
We certainly face a plethora of external enemies – and in that we resemble the Roman Empire in its dying days. But the resemblance goes deeper. Like it, we have rotted from the inside, we have become decadent and rudderless, perhaps it is a sense of self-disgust which underlies the uncertainty about our ‘values’; perhaps we sense, uneasily, that whatever they are, society’s dominant values are not really worth defending. Christianity offers now what it offered then – an alternative which speaks to our condition and how to cure it – and ourselves and our sick society.