Seumas Milne is Partly Right ; a personal note

I apologise immediately for the length and occasional personal fatuity that may strike you in the following post.

Yesterday's Guardian carried a piece by Seamus Milne, who is very much a man of the left, and who was in his time a man of the far left, which called for a strategic alliance between the forces of the progressive left and religion.

Mr Milne pointed to populist campaigns that were based around the idea of social justice--a Catholic term--and drew a contrast between those aspects of religion that he did not like (based around constraints on sexual behaviour and reproductive technology) and those that were associated with the campaigns that he did approve of.

Mr Milne also noted--and I am summarizing here-- that liberalism was characterised increasingly by a defence of consumption, capitalism, and wars for ostensibly liberal aims. He noted that many religious individuals had seen these things for what they were. He didn't, but he might have done, point to the late Pope John Paul II's identification of materialism with a 'culture of death' to support some of the links in his article.

I also note that Seumas Milne pointed to Venezuelan populism and the way the culture there is imbued with Catholicism to make his point. He has attracted the expected amount of swearing, half-informed atheist prejudice and some thoughtful comment from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free' crowd, and no doubt from their self-styled antibodies.

Up to a point, I agree with him. Common cause with the spiritual disciplines that give people of all ranks comfort and solace beyond anything else ever invented attract to the side of the left a very powerful and neglected force. The cleaners on their knees in church or in remembrance of those they lost or whom they miss at home are as important to any successful and moral left as those in the corridor.

From the Christian Methodists, Baptists and Irish catholics who founded Britain's non-Marxist Labour Party, to the economic populism of Mike Huckabee and William Jennings Bryan, and the Christian Democracy of post-war West Germany, there is a natural fit between certain sorts of outrage at injustice and certain sorts of response. Britain still has many Christian movements that are broadly of the left, for instance, if you wish to categorize them at all. Many of those who go to Africa and Asia and South America from the rich world, and many of those who give their lives to the poor and the sick and the dispossessed, do so because they are Christian and because they understand the radicalism of that religion regardless of any American businessmen.

Christ did drive the money changers out of the temple; the attempted destruction of his human dignity and that of his betrayer did commence with thirty pieces of silver and end with dice games for the legitimation of theft at the foot of the cross. The cross itself was erected by a fascistic, power-hungry Roman superpower. The sign that hung above is head was a mockery born of realpolitik cynicism. Contemplate that story of what happened to a preacher of love, regardless of your denomination.

Even the medieval church's aggrandizement of itself, which added mightily to human art that can't be dismissed because it is as fetid and uplifted as we can be, can be seen in part as the demonstration of how contemptible money is. Look how freely money was treated and how much it was recognised as worthless by those of the time.

'Money is the Root of all Evil' isn't a modern phrase after all. It comes from Geoffrey Chaucer, more of a representative medieval catholic than the contemporary Popes and antipopes I would have thought.

It is also very noticeable how atheists and liberal materialists fall over themselves these days to give themselves the appearance of intellectual depth and spiritual honesty. Some of them are very sincere in this. Some of them, frankly, are boorish charlatans.

There are people whom I love very much who have no faith in God or religion, but who do hold to a sort of human decency that springs from what is good within them. I'd say that their wish to be good was associated with a wider religious culture, but my awareness of how flawed humanity is--which comes from my religion--would acknowledge their listing of religion's wrongs.

However, I think that Mr Milne is making a bit of a mistake if he thinks that religions like the Baptists, Pentacostalists, Catholics, most Calvinists, or Muslims of goodwill, could simply file sections of their moral logic away and not connect populist or collective campaigns with the issue of human dignity and the organisation of society. That could no more be done than knees could be removed when people used to walking went swimming.

Let me be clear, for once. The reason that, from my perspective, the Catholic Church can resist capitalism, materialism, and communism, is that it lifts adherents out of their secular time and space with reference to a coherent religious logic. That logic, like that of Immanuel Kant which in a soi-disant 'illuminated' way mirrors it, holds that the dignity of the human person is fundamental to any decent order. It is an end in itself.

That dignity is grounded in a right to life and to respect. There are flaws and evils in the world that stem from those in humanity ourself, but forgiveness and love should be the only guiding lights.

At all points, loving the sinner but hating the sin is to be recalled, and any attempt by hatred to take over or corrode our minds like it did with many catholics of all estates and none over the years is to be resisted. When evils cannot be overcome, lesser evils must be selected over worse ones and repented for; a rule of categorical exception that proves the wider rule.

Fundamentally, the people from all over the world of all colours and both sexes who surround me at mass on Sundays at whatever church I go to are also taught from a very young age that they are responsible for their conscience.

That rule of individual responsibility holds that, though we come together as people in a ritual established and amended by trial and error over thousands of years, we are accountable for our actions. It is also very comforting to know that many many keen philosophical minds, much greater than mine, and many devout hearts stronger than mine helped establish this flawed but beautiful tradition.

I have to say that this tradition that I find myself in is much more global than globalism. I feel more secure in my freedom than I do when mad desktop warriors glory in the slaughter of misguided Muslims or in the destruction of those given over to an evil cult of death that springs from the dark places of the human heart.

I feel more capable of achieving worthwhile things in the world, and more understanding of what worthwhile is, listening to kind clever priests than, say, when Polly Toynbee and her ilk strain to find some reason for morality to be more than situationally or rhetorically useful.

And my multiple failings are more bearable when I consider that any one's failings are weighed in the balance by a God of love and that my best self ought to protect what is right and to forgive.

Religion at its best lifts those who are honest in their reason into the humility that stems from the understanding that faith is about what we do not and cannot know. Those who never take the step of acknowledging that everything might be wrong, and that there is always room for a respectful argument, are doomed to discontent, and often to the intemperate abuse of others.

There are of course alternatives. I could embrace the biotechnology industry and whatever mad curious scientist wants to audition by degrees for the role of Dr Moreau today; or accept that human dignity can be hung upon a sexual act that could define a person; or strain to find righteousness in war; or fall for a near-enemy caricature of religion that would leave me sneering and smaller.

I don't want to work myself up too much. I am a deeply flawed person, and there are many atheists and agnostics who are better people than I am. But I return to my original point; Protecting life from the temptations of sexual convenience, the curiosity of a scientific lobby seeking an easy path to the satisfaction of curiosity, from the legitimisation of bureaucratised self-murder, and from the institutionalisation of vengeance on the scaffold is part of the logic of religion.

There is a direct link from that logic to viewing 'gayness' as irrelevant to the measure of a man or woman, holding back from war unless it is forced upon one, condemning hatred of any people or group wherever one finds it, and supporting social justice. It also involves understanding that social engineering to destroy the primacy of the traditional family, however diverse society is, has serious consequences.

That is what will cause deep trouble to a project of reconciling the post-1968 Left, now in charge of things, with traditions based upon ideas of 'natural law' that have been prone to bigotry in the past. The effort in itself, however, is worthwhile.

The left and Catholicism should start out not from 1789 nor from 1968, but from 1962 and 1989 respectively. The first date is the refoundation, after Vatican II, of catholic tradition, which did along with other traditions incubate some very bad things before it began to turn away and to try to be less wrong. The latter date is the effective end of the French revolution as a socialist source, if not for islamists.

If a new relationship is to be forged, both groups must be sure of their logic and of their agreements. A marriage can't start in delusion and deception, but the people in it must read each other in full.

Here's a video about personal growth involving Malcolm X, whose own growth was tragically cut short and whose talents I admire very much.


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