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Press: Lord Sumption backlash shows post-Christian void

22 January 2021

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THE backlash against Lord Sumption was a wonderful illumination of the hole left by the disappearance of Christianity. Lord Sumption, a former Supreme Court judge, has been a noted campaigner against lockdowns and similar measures to cope with the pandemic.

He wrote in The Times, last April: “Epidemics are not new. Bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, typhoid, meningitis, Spanish flu all took a heavy toll in their time. An earlier generation would not have understood the current hysteria over Covid-19, whose symptoms are milder and whose case mortality is lower than any of these. . .

“We have also acquired an irrational horror of death. Today death is the great obscenity, inevitable but somehow unnatural. In the midst of life, our ancestors lived with death, an ever-present fact that they understood and accommodated.”

But what got him most recently into trouble was that, on BBC1’s The Big Questions, he told a woman with advanced cancer that her life was less valuable than those of young people. This was met with a storm of opprobrium: one human-rights barrister called his statement “inhumane, almost grotesque”; a spokesman for a cancer charity said: “What’s important is to protect the NHS and each and every life that depends on it, not pit one person against another.”

Deborah James, the woman whose life he’d said was less valuable, said: “Life is sacred and I don’t think we should make these judgement calls. All life is worth saving, regardless of what life it is people are living.”

All of this seems to me nonsense on stilts, as Bentham said about human rights. Value is not an absolute, inherent quality, but a relational one — something is always valuable, or not, to some other being. These values can always be ranked or prioritised to other values. And this way of analysing the relations in the world seems to hold not just for humans but for every living thing. The cat values mice very highly, but not for the qualities that mice might appreciate in one another.

When we take out life insurance, we do so for fixed sums, not for our supposedly infinite worth. The NHS even has a bureaucratised procedure for deciding which lives are worth how much of taxpayers’ money, through NICE.

No mortal, contingent creature could possibly value all human lives equally. God, we are told, views each human life as infinitely precious. But nothing infinite can fit into economic reasoning about scarcity. The idea that humans might be infinitely valuable is a glimpse of another world.

In this limited sense, you can say that the post-Christian, Western humanist vision of society substitutes the welfare state for God, so that the state, or “society”, becomes the entity that is meant to value all lives equally in ways in which — we acknowledge — we as individuals don’t and can’t.

But the welfare state — like Christianity — turns out to exist only so far as people have faith in it. And, when you stop believing both in God and in society, there is no way to resolve these disputes but by brute political force.

 

THE London Review of Books had a really illuminating essay on Pope Francis by Colm Tóibín, whose position as a gay Irishman is an effective inoculation against hagiography. (His essay some years ago on the sexual-abuse crisis was wonderfully subtle.)

One luminous and lethal paragraph deserves proper quotation: “The fact that Bergoglio had spent so little time in Rome before he became pope had its advantages. He didn’t climb the Vatican ladder while picking up lurid information about the private lives of cardinals. He didn’t become part of a whispering circle or feed on innuendo. But his distance from all this also meant that he seemed to believe, at the beginning of his papacy, that there could actually be robust and sincere debate among cardinals and bishops about the private sexual lives of others, including divorced people and homosexuals.”

This is irony worthy of Gibbon.

 

THERE has, of course, been a great deal of coverage of the religious character of Trumpism. Most has concentrated on Evangelicals; but one story about the Catholic Right is worth noting. The traditionalist blogger Fr John Zuhlsdorf is leaving the diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, “by mutual agreement” after he was discovered to have been live-streaming exorcisms to banish the election result.

 

THE magazine The Atlantic had a feature on The Epoch Times, a newspaper run by Falun Gong, a Daoist cult that has been viciously persecuted in China, where it originated. The journalists are expected to sell the paper on the streets, and one gave his testimony: “Every day . . . he woke up at 3:30 a.m. to deliver a 60-pound haul of The Epoch Times around Manhattan. One day, he had an out-of-body experience, seeming to float 40 miles above the pavement. ‘I saw good meet with good,’ he said, ‘and evil meet evil. I also saw that our newspaper was a shining golden light.’”

Oh, I said to our editor: that sounds just like The Guardian. No, he said, surely he’s talking about the Church Times.

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