Mrs. T and the Evolution of Religious Tradition

In an earlier post, Heather argued that it was a touch difficult to reconcile the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount with the notion of Christianity as an ideology of the free market. In the comments, I noted that the Parable of the Talents was a better place to look for that, but the better answer is, of course, that a faith need not be defined by its source materials. Religions change. Religions both shape and reflect the different societies into which they spread. They are a natural phenomenon and, as such, they evolve, not infrequently to the point when they have taken forms in which the connection to what their founders may or may not have said in the distant past is, to say the least, stretched. And that’s something that is often all for the good.

In this connection, British blogger Archbishop Cranmer’s decision to post a 1977 lecture by Mrs. Thatcher is timely. You don’t have to agree with it all to find it fascinating, not only for what Mrs. Thatcher is saying, but on how she draws on a religious tradition that has quite evidently come a long way from the Middle East of two millennia ago. Here’s a key extract:

There is much that the state should do, and do much better than it is doing. But there are also proper limits which have long since been passed in this country.

To understand the reason and how these limits can be adduced, we must come back to the nature of man. This is a matter where our understanding and our case, based on religion and commonsense, is so much sounder than that of the socialist doctrine. Yet the socialist travesty has succeeded in gaining wide acceptance by default, even among our own people. I refer to the question of self-interest as against the common good. The socialists have been able to persuade themselves and many others that a free economy based on profit embodies and encourages self-interest, which they see as selfish and bad, whereas they claim socialism is based on and nurtures altruism and selflessness.

This is baseless nonsense in theory and in practice; let me explain why. Let us start from the idea of self. There is not and cannot possibly be any hard and fast antithesis between self-interest and care for others, for man is a social creature, born into family, clan, community, nation, brought up in mutual dependence. The founders of our religion made this a cornerstone of morality. The admonition: love they neighbour as thyself, and do as you would be done by, expresses this. You will note that it does not denigrate self, or elevate love of others above it. On the contrary, it sees concern for self and responsibility for self as something to be expected, and asks only that this be extended to others. This embodies the great truth that self-regard is the root of regard for one’s fellows. The child learns to understand others through its own feelings. At first its immediate family, in course of time the circle grows.

Our fellow-feeling develops from self-regard. Because we want warmth, shelter, food, security, respect, and other goods for ourselves, we can understand that others want them too. If we had no desire for these things, would we be likely to understand and further others’ desire for them?

You may object that saintly people can well have no personal desires, either material or prestigious; but we do not legislate for saints.

Read the whole thing. Really.

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9 Responses to Mrs. T and the Evolution of Religious Tradition

  1. John says:

    For a second, I thought you were posting about Mr. T. That would have made my day.

    Oh yeah, Thatcher makes a good point. Often opponents of capitalism make the mistake of comparing how people really are in a capitalist system to how angels would behave in a socialist/communist system. Human nature is human nature. If people are selfish in a capitalist world, they are going to be selfish when they work for the state. The only difference is whether or not they are holding a gun.

  2. Snippet says:

    This is a bit of an apples and oranges deal.

    It is all too true that faith, as applied in the real world, is not, ” defined by its source materials,” and in fact (irony of ironies) evolves.

    This fact does not let the source materials off the hook. In fact, it emphasises the irrelevance of the source materials, the inviolability of which we are (on this side of the pond, anyway) constantly exhorted to respect.

    Mrs. T is defending religion as an adaptive social adhesive. All well and good.

    Ms. McDonald is pointing out the simple fact that the source material, does not even support the political/economic agenda of contemporary believers.

    If Christianity has evolved to the point where it is capitalism-friendly, more power to it, but it is still relevant (and interesting) to point out the gap between the teachings of Christ and what his contemporary followers advocate.

  3. Clark says:

    While people are people I do think we have to be careful and not neglect the role of society on how people act. Especially as groups. There’s a reason why people behave differently in the history of the US than in say Nigeria.

    I think some conservatives go too far in thinking human nature unchangeable. While a lot is set due to genetics a significant amount also appears pliable. Now I’m pretty skeptical of liberal “technocrats” who think they can control that pliable amount. But my skepticism isn’t because of some fixed human nature but simply because of our ignorance and the law of unintended consequences.

  4. John says:

    No arguments from me. Institutions and culture do matter. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise.

  5. Snippet says:

    The gap is between the teachings of Christ (….be like the lillies of the field..they do not toil…) and so much of what contemporary Christians value, particularly the “spirit of capitalism.”

    Jesus never directly advocated free market economics, or democracy for that matter.

  6. David says:

    The prejudice throughout the New Testament is toward liberty. Economic system is obviously not a direct subject of the Bible. But the Israelites did flee a ‘command economy’ in Egypt. *For* liberty. The economy of the time of Jesus was probably more a tradition economy with elements of a free market economy. Today we have a free market economy with lesser elements of tradition and command. But liberty is the key. In a free environment the Gospel can be spread more effectively. In a tyranny where the right to gather, to have freedom of speech, to travel, are curtailed; where information is controlled in general, etc., it is more difficult to make the Word of God known. And two things: let’s not write off the Parable of the Talents. To draw an analogy from free market principles is telling. And the other: there is no communism taught in the Book of Acts. I.e. private property is still in evidence. What is demonstrated is what every church has engaged in from the beginning. Group gathering of food and clothing and wealth in general for the more needy. Charity.

  7. John says:

    I’m not sure free-marketeers can claim Jesus as one of their own. It is clear that the Jews resented Roman domination, but they wanted sovereignty, not individual freedom. They just wanted to follow their own leaders instead of someone else’s. Jesus talked a lot about generosity, humility, and charity, but never mentioned property rights. He was against usury, and never denounced slavery. I think it is telling that the only time in the Bible that he lost his temper was when he saw a market in a temple. He went wild, overturning tables and denouncing the shopkeepers.

  8. Snippet says:

    I don’t know whether or not the Gospel can be spread more effectively in a free society. A minister I know thinks we (whom I would submit, are free) have entered the “post-Christian era.” If you meet an American, or a European, Canadian, etc… on the street, you no longer have the luxury of assuming he or she is a Christian, as you once could.

    One can of course spread the Gospel in a free society. One can also challenge it.

    All religions speak of freedom, but it is freedom from sin, damnation, ignorance, hellfire, etc.. Not the freedom of an individual to live his life as he sees fit.

    Also, I don’t think the Hebrews left Egypt because of the command and control economy, the low standard of living, and the business-crushing taxes. I think it was the slavery that finally convinced them it was time for a move, but their descendants were only to happy to enslave others for thousands of years after, having, apparently, not gotten the memo that slavery was bad even if you weren’t one.

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