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Supplements » Liberty, Licence and Norman Dennis (September 2004)
Liberty, Licence and Norman Dennis by David Holloway
The philosophy of Jesmond Parish Church is summarized as "Godly Living, Church Growth and Changing Britain". We want to see people mature as Christians; we want to see more Christians; and we want to see our country living more and more as God intended - for everyone's benefit.
One area for change was highlighted by Norman Dennis, the social scientist who taught for many years at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. In his recent book The Uncertain Trumpet - a history of Church of England School Education to AD 2001 he reported the following:
"In January 2001 a Mr Griffin, the owner of a sex-shop, was fined £5,826 after pleading guilty before York magistrates to the charge brought by the local authority that he had sold videos in his Grimsby and York shops that were only 'soft pornography', or were not reasonably pornographic at all (e.g. Secrets of a Sensual Nurse and Confessions of a Sex Maniac). His customers had thought from the titles they had selected for themselves that they were buying 'hard pornography'."
What is happening?
It beggars belief that our sexual culture has so degenerated that you can be fined thousands of pounds for not selling hard pornography. What is happening? There is, what has been called, a "Loss of Outrage" in the post-modern world. Emile Durkeim, one of the founders of sociology, would say this was a desecration of the sacred. He argued for the importance of the distinction made (or ignored) between the sacred and the profane or what was taboo and what was common. He believed this was fundamental to understanding any society or group. What do people feel is serious or unimportant? What do people show reverence and respect for? What do they treat with indifference? When you ask these questions of the UK, you can see we now have a complete inversion of many values or beliefs. The "politically correct" is the new sacred, and fundamental beliefs and morals as taught by the Bible are "profaned". Many "call evil good and good evil" (Isaiah 5.20).
Dennis' own answer to the question "what is happening?" includes the role of popular culture:
"Modern art, drama and popular entertainment have been preoccupied with seeking out what is 'sacred' precisely in order to profane it. The disappearance of the sacred is not a problem only for the Church of England and its schools. For from the opposite standpoint, both art and entertainment, confronted with the thoroughly blasť audiences they have created, face the problem (apparently unbeknown to them) that they have almost exhausted their own raw material. The century-long project of 'shocking the bourgeoisie' itself loses all its meaning when there are so few English people left, bourgeoisie or respectable working class, whose sense of the sacred make them shockable by any profanity at all."
The loss of true liberalism
A deeper reason, apart from blatant human sin and the defiance of God's law, is the emergence of a new revisionist liberalism. The (old) western liberal tradition that is looked to with envy by many developing countries is one that accepts the rightness of the Christian or Judeao-Christian world view, but is tolerant of those with other beliefs or none. However, according to John Locke (the father of this tradition at the end of the 17th century), violence and (we must note) sexual immorality had to be restrained. Nor is this tolerance indifferentism.
This tradition, however, is being eroded by a new liberalism that says the public square has to be "naked". It has no place for any "right" tradition. This new liberalism, of course, goes back to the Biblical book of Judges, where "everyone did as he saw fit" (Judg 17.6). Its more recent lineage, however, goes back to the German philosopher Friederich Nietzsche who, as an atheist, was the first to speak of "the death of God". Naturally he said there was no absolute morality. You make it up for yourself. You are the arbiter of what is moral. However, your choices are not totally random because of the "will to power". He said that what people really want is power over others. So down the centuries structures have been built up and ways of speaking and acting - moralities - have evolved that enable some people to dominate others. Nietzsche was then followed by existentialists and relativists of various hues. What all had (and have) in common was (and is) a rejection of God's Divine Law or his Natural Law such as is summarized in the Ten Commandments and that even non-believers can recognize (Romans 2.14-15).
Sharing this perspective new Liberals hold that the State (or our life together in the public realm) is not entitled to reflect any one idea of "the good life". No particular set of beliefs, virtues or values can be considered better than others. The only value that is to be protected is "individual choice".
I first met Norman Dennis years ago when I was asked to give a lecture on Christianity and Politics to students at the University of Newcastle. At the end, in answer to a question I said that I would rather live in Newcastle, where there was freedom for Christian churches and for mosques, than in Tehran under the mullahs. But this public expression of preference was treated with horror by a number of students. One threatened to report me to the Race Relations Board.
Norman Dennis comments on this incident in his book as follows:
"In this new scheme of intolerant liberty - passionately upheld on this occasion not by the most ignorant in society but by the best educated - everyone is permitted to hold any belief about data or morals they like, except the belief that they have good grounds for preferring, for the present, their version of the facts and morals to anybody else's."
But such absolute openness leads to a devaluing of all values. You no longer respect another person for their views. Argument becomes impossible and irrelevant, if one preference is always as good as another. All that is left is for personal emotional reaction.
No society can cohere on this basis. We are having a sophisticated form of licence or "libertinism", not liberalism. Our liberal forefathers would be horrified. John Locke wanted to steer a middle course between "a spirit of persecution" and "impunity for libertinism and licentiousness."
What was new with Locke and clearly defined by him, was the principle that religious beliefs may not be enforced by the State. After the Wars of Religion, conscience was now to be free. The State should never again exert its authority and power to make someone believe or confess what they did not believe or were willing to confess. Jesus, of course, had never enforced belief.
And the Christian doctrine of hell especially safeguards the concept of human freedom. If God does not compel people to trust him, but allows them to reject him even ultimately, so must we. In consequence there were to be no more burnings at the stake and no more imprisonment for the John Bunyans of this world. Every belief was to be tolerated. But you were not required to be silent over what you considered wrong or false. Toleration was not indifferentism. By definition, you can only tolerate what you think is wrong. In his (first) Letter Concerning Toleration of 1668 John Locke wrote this about not enforcing beliefs:
"But I would not have this understood as if I meant hereby to condemn all charitable admonitions and affectionate endeavours to reduce men from errors which are indeed the greatest duty of a Christian. Anyone may employ as many exhortations and arguments as he pleases, towards the promoting of another man's salvation. But all force and compulsion are to be forborne."
Nor was there to be absolute toleration. Toleration has its limits. The State was not to tolerate violence or "promiscuous uncleanness" on the part of anybody, and certainly not on the part of those professing religious faith:
"If some congregations should have a mind to sacrifice infants, or, as the primitive Christians were falsely accused, lustfully pollute themselves in promiscuous uncleanness, or practice any other such heinous enormities, is the magistrate obliged to tolerate them, because they are committed in religious assembly? I answer, No."
There are only three options for public life: to live under an authoritarian regime (as Islam often imposes); to live an autonomous existence where each is a law to themselves (as new secular liberalism is enforcing); or to live with a freely recognized authority. That authority, of course, needs to be the tolerant authority of Almighty God. His authority has been the ultimate authority of the western liberal tradition, certainly in the UK and the USA. Pray that it is so once again. And take action and speak out as and when it is appropriate. As Jesus said: "the truth [God's truth] will set you free" (John 8.32).