To seek values shared though culture divides

April 12, 2001

Is it true that Christianity has no unified view? asks Richard Harries.

The assumption running through this book is one that we have to take seriously: that we live in a postmodern world. In short, Raymond Plant maintains that we are bedded down in particular cultures and shaped by a specific language. We cannot, as it were, throw off the clothes of our language and stand naked before experience. For experience is always experience suffused and shaped by the presuppositions and values of a particular vocabulary. Nor is there an eagle's-eye view above all cultures from which we can survey the world and evaluate its different moralities and belief systems.

Given this assumption, how is it possible to provide a moral basis for a liberal-democratic society that can commend itself universally? And how could Christianity contribute to such a moral foundation? These two questions drive this scholarly and important book. A liberal society can be seen simply as a set of morally neutral institutions and structures that allow for a wide range of views to be expressed and that mitigate the possibility of violent conflict between them. Such a society might be welcomed with a sense of blessed relief after, say, wars of religion.

But if it has no firm moral foundation itself, only the minimum of political structures to allow a range of voices to be heard, is this society strong enough to stand against other societies built on passionate conviction? Plant points out that the alternative can be a Nietzschean politics of the will, one adopted by Hitler for example. "Moral scepticism can be overcome as much as coped with ." One is reminded of T. S. Eliot's appalled sense, in 1938, that the United Kingdom seemed to have no alternative to Nazism except a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends.

Plant argues that when we reflect seriously on the nature of liberal-democratic society, on a market economy and on concepts such as the common good or community, we cannot escape the need to have a moral foundation and dimension. Markets, for example, are based on contracts that depend "upon a set of indispensable moral attitudes such as trust, promise-keeping and truth-telling".

Laws against monopolies, which are essential to the effective operation of a market economy, need to have some kind of moral justification. Through too much emphasis on a very narrow understanding of self-interest, "capitalism depletes the moral inheritance and a sense of virtue on which its own efficiency rests". And since markets have this inevitable moral dimension, religious belief can - and indeed should - address them.

If we grant this, from where can we derive moral values, let alone beliefs, that can command universal assent? It is probably true that there are some moral propositions that can do this: eating people is wrong, for example, and so is torturing children. But the problem is that these are so general as to be of no real use. Plant follows John Rawls here in distinguishing between a concept and a conception . Concepts may gain universal recognition, but they are too thin and unspecific to be of any use. We need conceptions that provide specific interpretations of what, for example, is meant by justice, and that confront us with the challenge that different societies can have very different understandings of what is just.

Plant explores this tension in a number of areas. In the Bible, for example, when the prophets appealed to a set of moral values, were these specific to the covenant with Israel or did they belong to humanity as a whole? Traditionally, the church has appealed to a concept of natural law as providing a universal, moral dimension. But Plant is sceptical about any neutral view of human nature. All depends on a culture-specific set of values that as often as not is rooted in a particular understanding of God.

We might think there are certain basic goods that all human beings have in common, but Plant quotes Michael Walzer: "A single necessary good and one that is always necessary - food, for example, carries different meanings in different places. Bread is the staff of life, the body of Christ, the symbol of the Sabbath, the meaning of hospitality and so on." One cannot assume that underlying these different social meanings for bread, the basic one has to do with physiological need. Social goods have social meanings and there is no neutral account that can be used as a standard to determine which forms of human society meet human needs most fully.

One of the strengths of this book is the way that the author moves easily both in the world of modern philosophy and in the Christian social thought of an earlier generation. In particular, he has brought the Christendom group back into focus, notably V. A. Demant. However, he suggests that the Christian tradition suffers from a number of weaknesses in trying to supply a religious basis for society. First, there is no unified Christian view. He looks at Augustine, Calvin, Barth and Pannenberg and finds their approaches very different. The result is that Christianity cannot speak authoritatively in this field. This I think highlights both the strength and the weakness of Plant's approach to these issues. His strength is a detailed, dispassionate and charitable analysis of particular writers, which highlights the difficulties of their positions. But he is not a natural unifier, and it could be that there is more in common than he allows between different Christian writers and more in common between different cultures than he is prepared to recognise.

The other weakness he highlights is the way that the Christian church uses terms such as justice, common good and community without providing any detailed understanding of what is meant by these. The church remains in the world of concept, rather than setting out conceptions that might actually be of some use. Or, if there are conceptions, they are ones that are totally bound up with the Christian narrative without any attempt to cross the bridge to other narratives. What Plant writes about community and the common good should probably be compulsory reading before any of us teaches or preaches on these themes again.

The impasse between the universal and the particular is at the heart of all modern theology, philosophy and political theory. Plant is perhaps too modest in saying: "I do not have the intellectual resources to suggest in any detail how such an impasse can be resolved." However, he does suggest a way forward that I believe is entirely tenable, and perhaps the only one we can find in our time. He argues: "Despite all that can be said on the narrative and particularist side of the arguments, we are still a long way from the moment when we should give up the idea of a common nature and common value." He points to the way a wide range of societies reacted against Nazism, for example, by invoking a sense of common humanity to justify what they did in standing against the impact of that particularism.

From a more philosophical point of view, he argues that though we learn the meaning of particular words within a particular context, it is possible to free them from that original context. They are not tied in an internal way to a particular narrative. Out of narrative contexts can emerge a common set of values. "Such commonalities could be built upon as a way of constructing a moral framework which could expand outside the boundaries of particular narratives while, at the same time, respecting the narratives of the cultural context in which the language is learnt and taught." Doing this is not directly a philosophical or theological task. "It can only be achieved practically by dialogue and involvement."

To this, one might add an older point, namely that the very possibility of conversation between people from two different cultures about moral values or religious beliefs implies a realm of discourse in common. This is especially so if it is taken with an agreed understanding of what, for example, justice might consist of in a particular context, against which other elaborations of justice could be tested.

Then there is a point made by MacIntyre in his later writing to which Plant does not refer. He suggests that to make any judgement implies that valid comparisons can be made. If, for example, one judges that one culture's example of fairness is better than an example from another culture, this implies understanding something of that culture in one's own terms and language.

MacIntyre's rather abstract discussion could be filled out by reference to particular people. Aung San Suu Kyi, for instance, begins her day with an hour's Buddhist meditation and speaks quite naturally about her Buddhist principles, yet her stance resonates widely throughout the world and she herself has been influenced in her stance and indeed in her whole understanding of Buddhism by her contact with the West. So we can accept, as a postmodern world obliges us to, that we are bedded down in particular cultures with specific languages - but in our dialogue with other moral and religious traditions, it is possible to find a common realm of discourse and build up a set of values in common, which if not as "thick" as any one particular narrative, can be elaborated more fully than simple concepts such as truth-telling or fairness.

In his busy life as master of St Catherine's College, Oxford, and as a Labour peer in the House of Lords, Raymond Plant has struggled for a number of years to pull together this book on a vital subject. Understandably, he has drawn on a number of prestigious lectures he has given in recent years. The result is perhaps not a totally unified whole, but every chapter is well worth reading in itself.

The Rt Revd Richard Harries is bishop of Oxford and the author of Is There a Gospel for the Rich?

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