Friday, May 30, 2008

Nice Schmattes, Your Grace

We at the Egg have a terrible confession to make.  We are dreadfully, pitifully shallow.

Here's a f'rinstance:  The Rt. Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester (that would be, ahem, the one in Britain) is one of the most potentially important figures in the emerging conversation about Christianity and Islam as they meet in the public square.  He is a native of Pakistan, and has served a priest both there and in England; he was an assistant to Archbishop Runcie, and advisor to Prince Charles.  And he has recently published an essay which lays out, as clearly as one could hope, the position of cultural conservatives, especially Christian ones, with regard to the vexed matter of passionate Muslims residing in a nation that grows steadily less Christian.

It is well-written, and not the least foolish.  Nazir-Ali describes the loss of a national identity, and national consensus on ethics, which emerged from and depended largely upon, Christianity. He contends that Islam, and specifically radical Islam, will fill the void, replacing "the Christian virtues of humility, service and sacrifice" with the Islamic ones, which he identifies as "honour, piety, and the importance of 'saving face.'"  (We may quibble with his lists -- both religions have a more complex value system, but certainly both can be reduced to something like this in the popular imagination).

While formally renouncing any vision of theocracy or legal coercion, he calls for his government to take greater notice of religious values, and for Christians to be more persuasive in arguing for the superiority of our values.  (He puts it more tactfully:  "to argue our case in terms of the common good.")  He also takes a swipe at Rowan Williams -- we almost typed Rowan Atkinson, such is our fury on this matter -- when he argues that although Muslims will "of course" continue to be guided by sharia law, "recognising its jurisdiction in terms of public law is fraught with difficulties because it arises from a different set of assumptions from the traditions of law here."  To say the least.

Irritatingly, Nazir-Ali roots the "fragmentation" of national identity in the student and related movements of the 1960s, and cites a series of almost-certainly-rightist scholars to support this. This is trite conservative cant.  In fact, worries about the loss of an ethical tradition, in which theology and  national identity were bound up, was at the heart of literary Modernism, from the First World War forward.  Think of Yeats' deaf falcon, or of every single word ever written by T.S. Eliot, including but and the.  It takes a lot more than some whiny undergrads, and a lot longer than a decade, to undermine centuries of social evolution.  The blame-the-60s crowd has always been shortsighted on this, probably because of Boomer self-regard.

So we do not by any means endorse or agree with everything in Bishop Nazir-Ali's essay, but we find the piece thoughtful, well-informed, and frank.  By all means click on the link to read it.

Ah, yes.  But what, you ask makes us shallow?  Only this:

Copy and paste the link to read a so-so press summary of the bishop's essay.  And then look at the picture.  Nazir-Ali may be thoughtful and all that, but he is wearing what must be the ugliest cope and mitre we have ever seen, and it breaks our shallow, shallow heart.

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