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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