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Angela Tilby: Biggar shows hatred of West is misplaced

17 February 2023

University of Oxford

Canon Nigel Biggar

Canon Nigel Biggar

IN THE first episode of The Triumph of the West, a 13-part BBC documentary series broadcast in 1985, the presenter, the Oxford academic John Roberts, was shown walking by the sea while pondering the reasons for Western dominance. Why, he asked, had no Arab dhow or Chinese junk ever docked at Southampton? He gave no definite answers, which was perhaps wise.

Today, of course, the very title of the series would probably be condemned as cultural imperialism. This brings me to Nigel Biggar’s delayed book, Colonialism: A moral reckoning, published this month by Williams Collins.

The original publisher, Bloomsbury, had greeted the book with enthusiasm at the end of 2020; but, in 2021, it pulled out, after stating, The Times reported last month, that “conditions are not currently favourable to publication.” Biggar’s modest claim that empire was not all bad had become unacceptable. Today, it seems, “the West” must learn to hate itself or be damned.

The saga shows a worrying tendency among even respected publishers to cower before a form of totalitarian thinking which blocks free debate and the exchange of ideas. “Conditions are not currently favourable. . .” What nonsense! Sadly, there are echoes of this shutting-down in some Christian liberation theologies, in which the gospel is often reduced to progressive social justice, and “building the Kingdom” echoes Marxist ideology.

The Triumph of the West never did justice to the part played by Protestantism in Western thinking. The Reformation brought into the Western world a strong sense of personal sin. Transparency to an accessible God, the need for frequent examination of conscience, the possibility of being both guilty and forgiven — all this was built into the Western soul.

Instead of simply falling in with consensus thinking, the Western mind was encouraged to embrace self-doubt, and with it the capacity for the paradigm change which helps to create a dynamic society. It can be said that Protestantism helped the rise of both science and the development of democracy.

The publication of Biggar’s book suggests that we have not entirely lost our faith in our cultural heritage. Repentance, metanoia, means change of mind. Surely, the success of the West owes something to our capacity to examine our past sins, personal and corporate, and to discern what has been good and what has been evil. Condemnation is not the last word. It is when faith disappears from public discourse that we simply lurch between seeing the past as either unnuanced triumph or shameful disaster.

There is much to repent of — the list of imperial crimes is long — but that is surely the point. Change is possible. Today, the totalitarians come at us from the Left and the Right, but, creeping through the cracks of public discourse, there is still good news.

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