David J Warden Reply to on 15 June 2018
|Despite a privileged education (Eton and Trinity College Cambridge) Welby is not, on the basis of this book at any rate, a top flight intellectual. He is not a sharp thinker nor a good writer. He wades into economics, foreign policy, the housing crisis, climate change, education policy, the national health service and other huge topics without the depth of knowledge to offer much of substance on any of them. After the first chapter I was wondering when he was actually going to say something. By page 100 I was beginning to lose hope. Long before the end I realised, of course, that he was going to studiously avoid saying anything just in case it might cause some controversy (God forbid!). Just when you think he might say something he diverts himself into a little homily about the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan - surely the world's two most overworked stories, as if that's pretty much all that Jesus had to contribute to world religion. Welby finds them 'inexhaustible'.
On the plus side I agree with his emphasis on values but he makes the arbitrary claim that 'we find in our history three groups of values: community, courage, and stability' and under these headings he offers a confusing miscellany of values including the common good, solidarity, gratuity, subsidiarity, creativity, aspiration, competition, reconciliation, resilience, and sustainability. References to these values are scattered through the text like lead weights. Where are the values of liberty, democracy, reason, tolerance, knowledge, evidence, happiness, and compassion?
For an evangelical Christian, I was puzzled by his avoidance of standard evangelical doctrine which is that human beings are universally condemned to die for eternity unless they submit their rebellious intellects to belief in God and the substitionary death of Jesus. Instead, Welby recasts the gospel as 'love in action', an incarnational outworking of the original incarnation of God in Jesus. This amounts either to a dishonest rendering of the gospel or a softly spoken 'coming out' as a liberal Christian. He focuses attention on Matthew 25: 32-41 in which Jesus at the Last Judgement separates the sheep from the goats on the basis of whether those before him fed the hungry, clothed the naked, looked after the sick, visited the prisoner, welcomed the stranger and so on. This is the ethical and existential challenge of Christianity according to Welby but there's a complete absence of critical reflection of what these imperatives might mean in practice. For example, there is no discussion of moral hazard or self-sufficiency or individual responsibility or the right balance between state welfare and private charity. In Welby's hands it all sounds like an insipid 'Thought for the Day'.
It all amounts to a missed opportunity. The UK is crying out for a post-neoliberal and post-EU 'reimagining' but there are much better visionary writers such as Will Hutton on the left and Daniel Hannan on the right. Is this book ultimately a vanity project for the Archbishop, prompted by the need for his office to be publishing something 'relevant' rather than overtly religious? He claims to be 'writing for himself'. If he wasn't archbishop, surely this book would not have seen the light of day.
One last word. I liked his use of the word 'metanarrative' to categorise Christianity. Of course Welby thinks that the Christian metanarrative is the 'absolute truth'. He disdains postmodernism but surely there can be few people who still believe in 'absolute truth' except as an empty assertion of power. The metanarrative he is complaining about is neoliberalism although he doesn't name it. There are more credible alternatives to neoliberalism than Christian 'love-in-action' such as a reinvigorated social democracy which places 'the common good' centre stage as opposed to market fundamentalism. If Welby's book nudges anyone towards the post-neoliberal world we so badly need then it won't have been an entirely wasted effort.