Frank Turner’s Philosophy on Tap

July 12th, 2016

Frank Turner’s Philosophy on Tap


Philosophy on Tap, London, 20th June 2016,


As an experienced student and fairly experienced teacher, I always take care to ‘answer the question’. Tonight’s question is not ‘Is political engagement a proper activity for a Christian?’. We are looking first at the nature of politics, and asking about the contribution of (1) faith communities and (2) personal faith commitment: I’ll go on to characterise this contribution as I see it.




I’ll begin at a personal level, and end with some personal convictions: with some general reflections in between.


I joined the Jesuits with  a clear sense of a commitment of justice that I can explain in terms of my previous experience. I had been a junior seminarian for the Lancaster Diocese (aged 11-18), and left with a clear sense that I was rejecting the kind of clerical life I thought (rightly or wrongly) was exemplified there. If you had said to me when I was 19 that I would be a priest I would have laughed bitterly.


The seminary did not prepare students for university entrance. On leaving therefore, I needed a job. I worked six years in banking: the last 15 months, crucially for me, in Ghana. I realised I would never appreciate banking no matter what promotions I might get, and I had by this time regretted not going to university. I had also developed a real interest in Africa and a sense of the injustices of colonialism: Ghana was politically independent, but a kind of economic colonialism was very much alive.


At university (Durham, English Language and Literature) I came back into the Church – it was a different church and I had a different sense of the relationship between my emerging convictions and public life. I went further (too far?) and decided to join the Jesuits.


In my novitiate, there took place the 32nd General Congregation of the Society. Its clear orientation of the Jesuits to ‘the service of faith of which the promotion of justice is an indispensable requirement’ seemed to me a kind of confirmation of my vocation. Since then this clear thread has been the integrating factor of my Jesuit life, despite, various twists and turns, sometimes surprising.


Now to amy theme. Let’s view our question negatively. What are the implications if there is no place for faith in politics?


  • either politics is a trivial, mechanical act that does not engage our deeper personality (as you might plausibly say, ‘There is no place for Faith in stamp-collecting’). One of the reasons I got out of banking was that it was not much more to me than a means of making money for my ‘real life’ outside the office. I was uncomfortable with that split between ‘work’ and ‘life’ (it’s the basis of what I’m going to say that we only have one life) and I had the luxury of following my own path. If, say, I’d been married with a baby, I would presumably have stuck it out.)


  • or an important aspect of our life commitments must be sealed off from God and our faithfulness to God. That would mean that God was no longer ‘God for us’ but was relevant only to certain segmented elements of our lives. That does not make sense. There is no coherent account of faith (or morality) that confines it to some limited spheres of our life. What would these segmented areas of our lives be? Family and direct personal relationships? The family, though, is a highly politicised topic in our day, not just in terms of the politically and culturally-shaped definition of what ‘a family’ is at all, but also of the conditions of peace/justice that permit someone to bring up a family with due love and attention (e.g. not being slaves to unreasonable working schedules and conditions).


Here is the witness of Theophilus of Antioch, from the end of the 2nd century.


A pagan asked ‘What is your god?’. Theophilus replied, ‘The question is badly put. You ought to have asked me what for me, is the human person. It is from that basis that I could have talked to you about God’. The Christian is, like others, most deeply concerned for human welfare, and must bring this voice to the political order.


So to answer our question I begin with anthropology. I have often argued that there are five key dimensions of every human life, none of which is in principle secondary or subordinate to the others. Spirituality, or ‘living in the power of the Spirit’ means being present and faithful in all these dimensions. I’ll just list them and then focus on one:-


  • Our bodily lives: We are not persons who ‘own’ bodies, as if these were somehow detached from our identity. Our experience is embodied experience, our perceptions and thoughts are inseparable from our senses, from their openness to the world and their active response to it.


  • Our interior lives: We are not human apart from our ‘inner life’: our consciousness, our joys and sorrows, our dreams, our hopes and fears, which are unique, replicated by no other person.


  • Our personal relationships: It is false to think of ourselves as essentially isolated persons who just happen to meet others. We are not human apart from our relationships with others. These relationships may be casual (with shop assistants, with people we ‘know’ only on the telephone) or intimate (with spouses, partners, one’s children or parents, close friends). In either case they are part of who we are. The self does not end at the boundary of the skin.


  • Our lives as members of society: I expand this point. The society in which we live is not merely a stage or backdrop, against which we live out our independent (but related ) individual lives. A line of thought running from Plato and Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas and beyond is that human beings are ‘political animals’. In the Politics Aristotle writes, ‘He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god’.  (S..1253a). (The Greek word idiotes means both a private individual who renounces any care for the state, and ‘an ill-informed or ignorant person’!)  Only in the polis, argues Aristotle, can the full range of goods be realised and the full range of ‘excellences’ be expressed, and the state’s specific function is to enable such fulfilment. Our society affects our lives at their very heart, and it is we, together, who are ‘society’.  In Hitler’s Germany, people’s Jewish or Aryan identity must have determined their deepest experiences, including their most apparently ‘private’ ones. We are related to each other, therefore, not merely as individuals but as members of groups, which affect each others’ lives for better or worse.  It follows that we are truly involved with people whom we shall never meet face to face.  (This is the dimension of politics.)


  • Our Lives as Dwellers on Earth: That we inhabit the earth is not incidental to our lives, but is of their essence. We rely on the earth to support us, and we cannot survive if we destroy it.  We are the children or tenants of the earth, not its owners. Even the specific good of the human species, therefore, requires the ‘good’ of this dimension: freedom from the actions (impelled by a distorted sense of our own falsely separate ‘species good’) that pollute or ruin our habitat.


  • Life as a Unity: Clearly the fifth category the environmental, overlaps with the fourth, the societal. Pollution harms other people, especially the poor who have little chance of escaping it. In fact all the dimensions constantly merge, because , as I said we only have one life. Our lives are a unity led in all dimensions at once. A person’s ‘sexual’ life has obvious bodily and inter-personal aspects. But our sexuality is lived out no less in our inmost psyche (in our daydreams and our fears); and in our membership of society (since sexual embodiment is inextricably connected with culturally constructed ‘gender roles’ and with society’s expectations of us). Whether we conform to these expectations or challenge them, we are profoundly affected by them. It is impossible to say a priori whether some dimensions of human experience are rightly to be ‘objectively’ prioritised as focuses of energy or reflection. They come into the foreground largely in response to felt need, to life-stages, to social realities. In times of political emergency, as in war, family relationships become almost expendable. Yet it’s still true that a state which consistently denies personal space and freedom is ‘totalitarian’.


In the light of this anthropology, how do religion and politics relate to each other?  How should they relate?  Should they be, as French laïcité for example would have us think, entirely separate realms?  Or are there some ways in which religion and politics influence each other that are legitimate and proper?


  • Many religions are powerful worldwide forces, and thus affect international politics. As I saw in Brussels it is the international resurgence of an expansionist Islam that has provoked or reheated the whole ‘religion-politics’ debate.


  • Some countries have religious parties: in Lebanon, the political Constitution itself specifies a balance in government between Christian, Muslim and Druze representatives. Elsewhere, religious views often affect voting behaviour – and therefore, affect electoral politics.


  • Religious conflicts can intensify divisions within and between states. Sudan (Muslim North, Christian-animist South), within Christianity (Ukraine-Russia). In the Middle East, the political conflict is exacerbated by religious views of certain Jewish and Muslim groups that hold the entire land the might call the Holy Land to be a gift from God to them, therefore politically inalienable. But (just as important) religions can also help heal, or at least humanise, such divisions. Other Orthodox Jews reject any Zionism of such a kind as blasphemous. The basis of Christian faith allows Christians to reject any such idolatry of land. In the Middle East, the senior leaders of the three Abrahamic Faiths, in the Alexandria Declaration of 2002, joined in insisting that all killing of the innocent is a desecration of the ‘Holy Name of God’;


Here, though, I shall focus on the ‘Church-State’ dynamic. The classical modern nation-state, as it developed from the seventeenth century onward, was linguistically and culturally based. But religious affiliation could serve as an additional marker of national iden­tity, sometimes with consequent problems for mi­nority groups (Pakistan, India under the BJP, but in some measure also, Ireland till recently, and Poland even today.)


Before the Reformation the Church in Europe was a great civil power. The Reformation fragmented and divided Christianity, lessened its political power but simultaneously increased its potential as a source of political conflict. For example the doctrine of Cuius regio eius religio meant that rulers could throw their subjects into wars to defend and promote the rulers’ own religious beliefs, even if the people did not share them and even if the war was mainly about rulers’ own political ambitions.


Take the Thirty Years’ Wa, fought between 1618 and 1648, mainly on the territory of today’s Germany. Most major European continental powers were involved. In this thirty years, 20% of Germans died by violence. It was amongst other things a religious war. But it mainly stemmed from the rivalry between the Hapsburg dynasty (Austria, Hungary, parts of what is now Germany) and other powers (France, Spain, Bohemia, Denmark) on grounds that had little to do with religion. Catholic France even supported the Protestant anti-Hapsburg side. Even so, it came to seem intolerable that religious difference should animate such slaughter. In reaction, the principle of the separation of Church and State became prominent in Europe and elsewhere (e.g. the US Constitution). The Church was gradually excluded from civil power. In fact the Church itself slowly and reluctantly accepted this outcome, with deep reservations among church leaders, who sought exceptions where possible. But religious affiliation gradually became a free choice of citizens, rather than part of the fabric of the state.


Hence the historical development of a model of secularist (not merely secular) politics that excludes the Church: that is, the Church maintains freedom to operate in its internal life and only there, as in the French mode of laïcité.


It seems to me that the results of the ‘tough’ secularist position are self-defeating – or perhaps self-fulfilling! For if secularism excludes religion then religion is likely develop in a crude way as a counter‑power and become societally extremist. In an environment of genuine pluralism, religion can supply social deficits (of social service, of community and belonging, of meaning, etc) and thus play a constructive and peaceful social role. But religion under the pressure of its effective social exclusion becomes more prone to the total rejection of social norms. Given the risks of confining it to the private sphere (against the self‑understanding of almost any religious person) the state should accept some public presence of religion, which does not imply a choice between the various different models.


The US has a very different model. As in France, the state must be impartial between religious groups and between religion and the rejection of religion. It cannot sponsor any group. But it cannot (as in France) exclude any group either: they are free to make their case. The result is very different.


In conclusion, three convictions of my own:


  • I think the French separation of Church and State s understandable, perhaps justified, as a historical trend. But I don’t think separation cannot be sustained as a principle. Those of us who proclaim a faith in God accept God as Lord of the whole of our life, our life in all its dimensions. No religious believer can accept that faith is excluded from a central dimension of human life: and faithfulness to the Gospel must be sought across all dimensions. In other words, we can and must distinguish the religious and political spheres but never separate To exclude religious believers from any public debate about politics alls impoverishes political debate itself, lends it an air of unreality, for it excludes the deepest convictions of very substantial groups of people.


  • This does not mean, however, that it is proper to invoke God directly in the public discussion of moral and political affairs. Theologically speaking, all mainstream Christian churches accept the key truth put most concisely by the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth. God transcends all human thought – or would not be God – and cannot be captured in human reasoning. Strategically, if the Church wishes to engage in a public discussion about morality, rights, justice, it is ill-advised to appeal to a discourse (about ‘Revelation’) that those without Christian faith cannot possibly share.


  • God, then, is the ‘absolute’: in New Testament language, the one to whom one will grant what we do not grant to Caesar. This absolute functions both negative and positively:-


  1. Negatively, it prevents other commitments, however genuine and powerful, from becoming themselves absolute. I suspect that at least three of these commitments always threaten to become more or less absolute: family well-being; national allegiance; the market economy. Absolute national allegiance, for example, is what Christians would call an ‘idol’ (and I think this point is relevant to the Brexit debate). I was once very struck in a Brussels debate, when an eminent Indian university professor of European Studies was questioned about India’s attitude towards human rights.  He acknowledged that India resists international interference in its internal affairs. ‘However, the EU . . . should accept that, for some countries, human rights are defined by national interests.’  Belief in God would prevent our accepting that ‘human rights may be defined by national interests’. We need a creative relationship, which is also an inherent tension, between these distinct but not separate dimensions of life.  Returning to the notion of laīcité, no one would exclude business executives from the public sphere on the grounds that the market principle is distinct from and sometimes conflicts with the political principle. So why exclude religious bodies?


  1. Positively, belief in God underpins our human commitments, our freedom, our energies, and our hope.  God cannot be worshipped ‘neat’, apart from the service and love of our ‘neighbour’, and the concept of the ‘neighbour’ in the New Testament is universal (it’s the alien, the Samaritan, not your friend next door) . The Church claims to be universal across the globe and across generations.  I have experienced this sense of universal community strongly in Africa and Latin America. It is no coincidence that the churches are today’s foremost defenders of refugees.  Accepting the practical consequences of universal human dignity is part of what it means to believe in God. The principle is accessible to human reason, no doubt, but it also derives from a sense of human universality that is linked with faith in God as Creator.


Frank Turner

June 2016