Hendrik Kraemer and the challenge of Islam

NOTE: This was written before the outrageous events in Manchester.


“I do not quite believe in Islam becoming a back number…Islam is a fighting creed, and the mullah still stands in the pulpit with the Koran in one hand and a drawn sword in the other.”Greenmantle So wrote  John Buchan in his thriller“ Greenmantle” published in 1916. He, at least, would not have been surprised at the fact that 2016 was the year in which terrorist attacks in the name of Islam became normal. Just as when in Northern Ireland during the “troubles” we grew accustomed to what was called “an acceptable level of violence” so, during 2016, atrocities carried out in the name of Islam became part of the background “music” to our lives. This marks a terrible defeat. The world has become less civilised and much more dangerous. But because we are no longer shocked by apocalyptic headlines provoked by the events in question, we can now explore some of the deeper issues and grope our way towards a way of approaching the difficult issues involved.

This is not going to be easy. Islam is no “back number”. It is a living presence in the lives of millions. While many,  (perhaps most)  Muslims regard the actions of the Jihadists with horror, we need to be clear that militant Islam presents us, and them, with as difficult a series of cultural and political problems as any we have yet faced. Militant Islam strikes us at the sensitive point where our tolerance and our charitable motives, meet our need to preserve our culture and way of life. The challenge from Islam is likely to be especially demanding for those who believe that religious differences are not really important. This predisposition against the importance of theological doctrines has been exacerbated in the case of Islam by sheer ignorance. Monotheism with its supposed intolerance was of little interest to the post war generation. Instead the “baby boomers” preferred to explore, if not to practise Buddhism and Hinduism, precisely because these did not have the “authoritarian”, “intolerant” and “dogmatic” elements in Christianity which seemed alien to a generation which was ambivalent about the very idea of truth, and hence doubtful about monotheism in any form. . So although globalism has brought us into forcible contact with the Muslim world, it has not brought together, as the heirs of the enlightenment expected.


The history of conflict between the West and the Islamic East is long and unedifying. Muslims seem to be unable to understand how offensive we in the west find their treatment of women and gays. On the other side of the cultural divide, western liberals and conservatives seem to compete with one another in misunderstanding and offending Muslims.  Amazingly I once heard the reflexively liberal former British Home Secretary Jack Straw, Jackstraw twoberating the veil on the grounds that not seeing a woman’s face hopelessly impeded his understanding of what she was saying. The only trouble was that Jack was talking on the radio! But silliness about the veil and other insensitivity towards Muslims is certainly not limited to liberals. For example, during the Eucharistic Congress held at Tunis in 1930 under reactionary French auspices, many of those who took part arrayed themselves in “costumes recalling the crusades”! The offence given was grave and lasting and may have hastened expulsion of the French from North Africa!

The high jinks in Tunis did not, of course, even then represent the best of Catholic thinking about Islam. For example the meta-historian Christopher Dawson, included a sympathetic treatment of Islamic mysticism in his volume of Studies published in 1933. And Dawson was not alone. In this respect, a more important figure was the French Islamacist Louis Massignon ( 1883-1962),  one of whose books Dawson refers to.  Massignon’s work, went on to influence the Second Vatican Council’s decree on non-Christian Religions through his friendship with Cardinal Montini who became Pope Paul VI. With the hindsight of fifty years, this decree is a remarkable document in so far as it devotes only two short paragraphs to Islam. The explanation for this apparent lack of interest may well have been that in the early sixties the world’s attention was focussed on secular Arab nationalism. Even so the Council’s treatment is notably emollient and, indeed, hardly moves beyond well-meaning cliche. Its gist is merely that Muslims and Christians share many beliefs and that while “over centuries many quarrels and dissensions have arisen between Christians and Muslims. The sacred Council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding; for the benefit of all men, let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values”.

It is, of course, unfair to criticize the church for not predicting our current difficulties with Islam. Very few people saw them coming.  In Tunis in 1930 the church got it wrong because it thought too little (if at all! ) about Muslim susceptibilities.  But in 1965 the fathers of the Second Vatican Council made the opposite mistake- of not thinking sufficiently clearly about the differences between Christianity and Islam.

It could perhaps be that the shallowness of the Council’s discussion of Islam was what prompted Joseph Ratzinger ( Pope Benedict XVI )benedict giving speech to tackle the problem of Islam in what has became known as the Regensburg address  that he delivered in 2006. His discourse, in a formal academic setting, was an attempt to argue that reason should not be so defined as to exclude the claims of morality and faith. In order to help locate and define the true Christian position on such matters, Dr Ratzinger contrasted the Christian teaching about faith and reason with the Islamic view. Unlike Christianity, Dr. Ratzinger argued, Islam showed no respect for reason. In Islam, he explained, “God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will we would even have to practise idolatry.” Dr. Ratzinger then proceeded to contrast what might be called this hyper-fideistic monotheism with Christianity in which God- as in St John’s Gospel- is seen as the very embodiment of the rational “logos” or word- the very source of reason. While Dr. Ratzinger takes us beyond the superficialities of the Council, he still, I think, leaves us with an unsatisfying analysis of the problems posed by Islam. The difficulty is that a diagnosis of irrationality merely tells us that we have problem, but fails to explain what this problem might be. Moreover Dr. Ratzinger’s analysis fails to explain why we have the sort of political problem that we do with many Muslims who have become increasingly radical. We need to ask how the recent atrocities committed by militant Muslims are grounded in the ideas of Islam itself? The answer is not to be found either in our expressions of good will, or in the biographical details of Muhammad’s life, or in the course of Islamic history, interesting as these are Obviously, tracing the intellectual and psychological pathway between any sane Islamic theology and such events as 9/11will not be easy. We need, it seems, another guide to take us further into the maze of Islamic thought so that we can uncover the intellectual origins of Islamic terrorism.


Since then we need to dig deeper than did either the fathers of the second Vatican Council or indeed Dr. Ratzinger; we should perhaps also turn to Christian authorities who tackle Islam from a different angle. In this respect the protestant neo-orthodox theologians whose work originated in the publication of Karl Barth’s ( 1886-1968 ) commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (1918, and heavily revised in 1922 ) might well serve as a valuable addition to the approaches we have glanced at.  Barth’s ( pronounced Bart )  rhetorically violent and intellectually volcanic work, transformed protestant theology for a generation.karl_barth English country clergymen were studying neo- orthodoxy in the early fifties, and I can well remember the many thick black volumes of Barth’s “Church Dogmatics” on the shelves of an American biblical theologian in the early seventies. Barth made a clear distinction between religion and Christianity. For him the former was man’s movement towards God  The latter  was God’s movement towards man. While the neo-orthodox theologians differed among themselves about the role of natural theology, they all stressed man’s need for revelation.


Naturally this had profound implications for their understanding of other religions and for the efforts of Christian missionaries. This was central to the thought of Barth’s Dutch disciple Hendrik Kraemer, who analysed Islam at length in a prescient discussion, which is the subject of what follows. Kraemer ( 1888-1965 ) was born in Amsterdam. He lost his parents at the age of twelve, and spent the rest of his childhood in an orphanagekraemer-1. He was awarded a doctorate for work under an Islamic scholar ( as distinguished from a scholar of Islam). He was employed by the Dutch Bible Society in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) from1922, until 1936, with a gap of two years between 1928 and 1930. In 1937 he became Professor of the History and Phenomenology of Religion at the University of Leiden. He was clearly then no amateur and was well placed to reach an in depth knowledge of Islam, which was, of course, the chief religion in the area in which he worked. Kraemer clearly studied Islam from a Calvinist perspective, and it was this Reformed tradition was the guiding which underlay his major book “The Christian Message in a Non-Christian world” written as part of the build-up to the World Missionary Conference held in 1938. It is a remarkable, learned ( despite the infuriating absence of references), wise, and passionate book, which has been unjustly ignored, perhaps because of the war which broke out only about a year after its publication.

It is also possible that both the somewhat unfamiliar tradition within which Kraemer worked and the missionary context of his book contributed to its neglect. It is certainly true that it is this missionary context which explains the tone of what Kraemer had to say. He was writing for fellow missionaries and he therefore assumed a close knowledge of Christian theology among his readers. Since he was writing for people who were rather like himself he was able to write in a highly compact way. This dense language needs to be carefully unpacked in order to make what he wanted to convey clear to a more secular readership.

At the core of what Kraemer had to say was his concept of what he called “biblical realism.” We will give further precision to this as we go on. The first thing to note is that Kraemer’s biblical realism has nothing to do with the “realism” of the neo-Thomist philosophers. Indeed Kraemer, like the greats of the Reformation, polemicizes against Thomism. For him this was a human construct at odds with the revealed character of Christianity. For both Kraemer and the other neo orthodox thinkers, the realism that he spoke of was a realism about human nature rather than an epistemological realism. They believed that the Christian revelation was the clue to understanding what sort of beings men and women really were. For them there was a rich factual content in Christianity, which while expressed in symbolic language derived from the meaningful narrative of Christianity, was indispensable for the proper elucidation of the human condition. “God’s revelation in Christ, according to biblical realism is therefore not only the revelation of God, but also of man. Man is revealed as a being who in his deepest instincts and desires wants to be a God.” For Kraemer then, biblical realism (a term he later stopped using but never repudiated), was both an anthropological lens through which he examined the phenomenon of Islam, and a criterion for judging what he discovered there.

Kraemer’s most crucial objection to Islam was its anthropology or view of man. Indeed at one point Kraemer goes so far as to suggest that Islam really had no anthropology. But this is rather negated by what he says elsewhere. Kraemer’s point of departure in his treatment of this issue is the way in which Edward Gibbon, here as always, reflecting the zeitgeist of the eighteenth century, praised Islam for the simplicity of its doctrines and for the way in which it avoided the dogmatic elements in Christianity. Kraemer quotes Gibbon as saying “a philosophic theist might subscribe to the popular creed of the Mahometans”. Kraemer considered this to be not a strength but a profound weakness.  For him a philosophic theism was an inaccurate and weak theism. “Again and again,” he writes “one gets the impression that Islam is a religion of “natural man” notwithstanding its strong religious elements.”   According to Kraemer, Islam “satisfies itself with fragmentary and superficial opinions about sin and salvation- these central problems in prophetic religion- speaking in an exceedingly facile and unconvincing way about the tabula rasa of the human mind at birth and about God’s grace”.

Kraemer thought this shallow anthropology was derived from what he described as “the strangely eventless relation between God and Man that characterises Islam”. “In Islam it is a set of immutable divine words that take the place of God’s moveable acts and his speaking and doing through the living man Jesus Christ.” In order to understand Kraemer correctly here, we need to distinguish between different kinds of events. In Islam we have accounts of what God said to Muhammad. We have accounts of Muhammad’s doings, and we learn much about the history of the political community that he founded. But we have no doctrine of redemption and, above all, we have nothing similar to the Christian doctrine of the Fall. We can imagine no Islamic equivalent of Milton’s “Paradise Lost”. At the heart of Christianity, we find the notion that some events are pivotal in defining the nature of man and pointing the way to his destiny. The two most vital are the fall of man in the Garden of Eden,the-fall-of-adam-and-eve and the redemption of man by Jesus on the cross. These constitute the meta-narrative of Christianity. Christianity is then a religion of turning points for man. And these turning points are events which, taken together, constitute the drama of salvation. According to Kraemer the Christian revelation is a narrative about “the wonderful things that God has done”. In saying that Islam is “eventless”, Kraemer is not then saying there was no such thing as Islamic history, rather he was affirming the point that in Islam the fundamental status of man remains unchanged. In Islam man is still as he came from the creator’s hands; whereas according to Christian theology man’s nature is seriously flawed.

More particularly, then when Kraemer said that Islam was “strangely eventless” he was, if we may extend his thought a little, referring to how the story of what happened in the Garden of Eden had been recast in Islam. In the Islamic view, Adam’s error was not a turning point. It was merely a slip-up. It did not define man, and it did nothing to qualify his personal or political ambitions, nor did it place any restraints on his enthusiasm. Rather, in Islam Adam’s choice is seen as a necessary stage in human development. Adam is not thought of as the source of all our woes, but as a prophet who presides over the first circle of heaven. Man has not been cursed, and the problems men and women have are attributed not to human nature, but to the inherent difficulties of life here on earth. The meta-narrative of Islam is therefore simple. God creates, God speaks; man obeys – or does not. Islamic writers consequently celebrate the simplicity and optimism of their faith, and contrast it with the complexity of Christianity and the dark view of human nature that they find there.

For neo- orthodox theologians like Kraemer this was not an attractive simplicity, but a simplistic and misleading view of men and women. For Kraemer the point was not, of course, that there had been an actual Garden of Eden. The stories concerned had, under divine guidance, revealed the truth about the human condition. And it was the implications of this truth which constituted what Kraemer called “biblical realism”. For Kraemer as for the other exponents of neo-orthodoxy, the capacities of human nature were matched by its flaws and, above all, by its tendencies towards self-aggrandisement, which perverted all purely human endeavour, even religion. For the neo-orthodox writers the doctrine of original sin as found in St Paul was Christianity distinctive contribution to human self-understanding. For Paul the “old Adam” was the problem: “the second Adam” Christ, was the answer. All mankind shared in the corruption of the first Adam, just as all Christians shared in the body of Christ. At the centre of Kraemer’s position then was the idea that the Christian doctrine of the fall acted as a source of perpetual self-criticism which prevented the kind of excesses, which he detected in Islam.


Kreamer was especially concerned with the way in which Islam’s optimistic, and (to him) superficial view of human nature interacted with its fervent theism. At the heart of Kraemer’s thinking was the concept of “superheating” which he borrowed from mechanical engineering. This was Kraemer’s distinctive contribution to the understanding of Islam, and it therefore deserves to be looked at in some detail, not just for its own sake, but also because it raises fascinating questions about just how far such analogies should be pushed.heat engines While preparing this piece I was lucky enough to come across a copy of a text book published in 1935 describing the relevant technology of heat engines. In a steam engine coal, or another source of heat, is ignited and used to heat water to produce steam which, when introduced into a cylinder, pushes a piston, the power from which, in turn, works the engine. “Superheating” refers to the way which steam can be reheated beyond boiling point to increase the power of an engine. There were three phases to the heating process. In the first water was heated to boiling point. In the second, all the water was changed from liquid to vapour ( i.e. steam.) In the third, the now waterless steam was heated even further to reach its final temperature. The term “superheating” refers to this last part of the process. “Super-heating” significantly increases the volume of the steam, it also reduces the danger of the steam reverting to water, and thus damaging the engine, as any water droplets which come in contact with the superheated steam are themselves turned to steam.

Theologians have often used analogies to help them both think about and explain the truths that they wish to convey. For example, in the late middle ages, the scholastics used mediaeval monetary theory to help explain their doctrine of justification. There is nothing new then about the sort of analogical reasoning that Kraemer was employing. But how far should this be taken? What did Kraemer know about “superheating” and how literally did he want us to accept his analogy? For example, did he want us to conclude that the ability of super-heated steam to convert water droplets into steam was similar to the way in which superheated Islam radicalised those whose Islamic faith was not so fervent? This question could probably only be answered definitively by very detailed biographical information about Kraemer which we do not have. Perhaps such a conclusion would be going too far, although it may have been part of his intention. It is more probable, however that Kraemer’s intention was limited to suggesting that there was a looser, but nevertheless real analogy, between the impact of Islam on the mind of the believer and the effect that superheated steam had on the operation of an engine or turbine. But, whatever the exact truth, Kraemer clearly did not believe that moderation was a typically Islamic virtue.

We should remember that what he detected in Islam was a self-sustaining process that would go on as long as heat was being supplied to the engine. At the core of his thought then was the view that when theism was decoupled from biblical realism about human nature there was a danger ( realised in Islam ) that the unmediated sense of the divine could become unhinging. Something of what he was getting at is perhaps hinted at Psalm 139. Here the psalmist contemplates the omniscience of God, and reflects that there is nowhere that he could escape from the divine presence even if he flew to the utmost ends of the earth. “Such knowledge,” the psalmist says, “is too wonderful for me”. Did he mean that while the numinous is a crucial part in any religion, it can nevertheless be overwhelming? If the sense of divine otherness becomes too “other” ( as it cannot do in Christianity because of the incarnation ) then it becomes a barrier between humanity and God, and at its worst  can begin to erode the ethical standards usually thought to be implicit in monotheism. Kraemer writes that: “The hyperbolic over-intensification [ i.e. the superheating] of the purely religious element in the relation of God and man destroys the intrinsic unity of the religious and the ethical.”

The sort of problems with which Kraemer was concerned were discussed in Le Monde recently, in an article entitled “The hard task of the Iman in France” the author of which ( Cecile Chambraud ) interviewed several French Muslim leaders. Her report goes some way towards justifying the sort of thing that Kraemer had said 70 years earlier. For example, she quotes one moderate Imam as saying of his congregation: “They come, they pray, they leave, [ but] they never discuss, because they cannot do so. When they see a convert, they go up to him, and tell him not to speak to me, because I am the chief of the innovators.” “The idea is that it isn’t worth listening to men because God himself has spoken in the Koran.”

This is exactly the sort of “hyberbolic” reasoning in Islam which Kraemer identified as the fruit of “superheating.” The structure which underlies it is the notion, that God’s demands, as found in the Koran, replace and invalidate all other forms of reasoning and sources of information. While in Christianity the logos in the person of Christ performs teaches within the context of an already existing culture. For Christians Christ is he who illuminates the world; not its dictator. Christians have always taken the view that that Christ’s individual remarks in the light of his personality taken as a whole, whereas in Islam it was always in a very radical way the dicta themselves that were the heart of the matter. The American cultural historian Daniel Boorstin points out that the Islamic respect for the precise words of the Koran- in Arabic, and only in Arabic- is so “superheated” that it delayed the introduction of printing into Muslim culture for several hundred years, and that it was only Napoleon who introduced printing in Egypt! For the Christian the scriptures reveal God’s activity. For the Muslim the Koran is God’s final act.

For Kraemer this tendency in Islam to overheat was all the more troubling because of the way in which Islam always stressed its political aspects. In Islam there is no space for the secular. Kraemer tellingly points out that the only real schisms in Islam, as that between Sunni and Shia have been about who should lead Islam. On the other hand Christianity can be imagined without politics. “My Kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus explicitly recognises the existence of the secular. Such an idea, though, is quite alien to Islam. Kraemer asserts that “a separation of spiritual and secular is inconceivable in Islam.” Islam is a religion which makes absolutely clear-cut and explicit demands on all aspects of life. Consequently the history of Islam is the history of the Islamic political community. According to Kraemer: “Islam is a theological system and at the same time complete civilization…There is no religion in the world that has fostered in its adherents all over the world such a unity of theological attitude, cultural solidarity and theocratic-political sentiment as Islam has.”

Kraemer would not have been surprised by the rise of a politically radicalised Islam. Indeed the “superheating” he speaks of is clearly close to the “radicalisation” that more recent commentators have found in Islam. For him, though, “superheating” was not in essence a political- although it was this too-  but also a religious phenomenon. It was then not a “bolt on” to Islam. “Superheating” Kraemer believed had deep roots in Islamic theology and culture. He believed that while “superheating” was derived from Islamic theological conceptions it was socially grounded in the Muslim experience of worship. According to Kraemer the mosque ( literally, I gather, “the place of prostration”) was the pressure cooker in which this “superheating” took place. “Islam” he wrote “is theocentric but in a super heated state. Allah in Islam becomes white hot Majesty, white-hot Omnipotence, white-hot Uniqueness. His personality evaporates and vanishes in the burning heat of his aspects. These depersonalised aspects, although of course not devoid of personal connotation connected with Allah, are the real objects of religious devotion.”  ( John Buchan then was all too right when he found in Islam the Mullah preaching with the Koran in one hand and the sword in the other.)  Allah may then be described as merciful, but through the very intensity with which the devout Muslim worshipper becomes aware of his being. “Man is entirely absorbed in the greatness and majesty of God and vanishes away.”

Were Islam only concerned with personal morality, and spiritual growth like Buddhism, this would not matter. But, as we have already indicated, Islam has a clear political agenda. It lacks Christianity’s sense that political failings are unavoidable because they grounded in the human condition. Muslims are certain to be more shocked than Christians are by signs of injustice, and the inevitable ineptitude of rulers. When faced with politically difficult circumstances, the Christian is warned to look both backwards to the fall, and inwards to his own inadequacies, before casting the first stone. While Christians are tempted to excuse what needs to be corrected, Muslims are inclined to condemn too quickly. Given the intensity of their unmediated apprehension of the divine, their ethical and political judgements are almost bound to be too harsh. For them the gap between political aspiration and political reality can only be explained by the perversity and moral turpitude of those who govern. A whiskey drinking Emir cannot be excused by reference to his fallen nature, because his nature has not fallen.  And if such judgements are made of a fellow Muslim, how much more rigorously will the devout Muslim judge the idolatrous and decadent west? Any serious Muslim is thus led to an almost Manichean division between good and evil. For the Muslim there are only good and bad actors in human history which explains why Islam divides the world so sharply between the House of Islam and the House of War.

It is this that led Kraemer to make his hesitant, but unsettling comparison with the political movements which had arisen in Europe at the time he was writing:- “A very pertinent way to define Islam would be to call it a mediaeval and radically religious form of that national-socialism which we know at present [ i. e. 1937-8] in Europe in its pseudo-religious form.” 2014-07-26-MuftiandHitler To discover a leading expert in the field describing Islam as frankly Islamo-fascist more than seventy years before 9/11 is striking. Some will it see as a remarkable justification of the neo-conservative position.

While Kraemer’s theoretical analysis of Islam is as pessimistic, or as hostile as that of the neo-conservatives, I do not think that he would have had much time for their political programme. The neo-conservatives favour immediate political and military solutions to the threats posed by Islam Kraemer emphasised the need a less hurried and more carefully thought out approach. While he shared the neo-conservative view that Islam was unlikely to be able to reform itself he also stressed that patience was the precondition for any approach to Muslims. Perhaps because he was a missionary concerned primarily with individuals, he counselled caution in the approach to Islam as a whole. A large part of the difficulty, he thought, was that Islam was consciously organised to be resistant to Christian claims. The only workable way forward was through individual contact. He recommended “the ministry to secular needs [in Islamic countries] in a spirit of disinterested service and everywhere the roads that still lie open, although in view of the present situation [this] will demand much ingenuity and tact.”

While our situation in 2017 is very different and more urgent than that which faced Kraemer in respect of Islam we could, I suspect, do much worse than to adopt Kraemer’s phrase “ingenuity and tact” as the guiding principle for our own engagements with Islam. He would have agreed with the neo- conservatives and liberal interventionists that the situation was grave. However the uncomfortable truth may well be that the rise of a militant “superheated” Islam presents us with a host of problems to which there are no obvious and immediate solutions. And recognising this may well be a pre-condition for working our way towards a more prudent approach to the problems posed by Islam.

It now seems obvious that the arrival of large numbers of Muslims in the West, represents a policy error as grave as that of appeasement in the 1930s. Our liberal decision makers have got it badly wrong. But correcting their mistake may well be all but impossible. We cannot just “send them home”. Many of our Muslim neighbours have no other home to go to. Their home is here and, as good Muslims, they are bound to want to change the society in which they are now permanently a part. We have little option but to make space for them. But much of what they suggest is outrageous, and they are going to have to accept that they are not going to get what they want. We need to be firm with them about this. However our condemnation of the excesses of Islam in its superheated state should not prevent us from listening to what more moderate Muslim voices have to say. It is not, after all, as if our own liberal societies are without terrible blemishes.

The practical choice we face then is between British multiculturalism and French style secularism. My guess, and it is no more than a guess, is that the British model is the least bad choice. It is fairly clear that banning the hijab and similar such measures merely allows electors and politicians and electors to think that they have done something useful, when, at the very best, they have merely addressed a symptom and, probably, no doubt, worsened, the situation by inflaming Muslim opinion, thus making Kreamer’s “superheating” all the more likely.

Our difficulties are increased by the extent to which that our secular elites whether in Washington, Paris, London or Dublin, are ill equipped to deal with the problems posed by a militant “superheated” Islam. The root of the trouble is that the understanding of Islam current among such elites has emerged from the way in which the Enlightenment sought to defuse the political implications of the divisions that emerged at the Reformation by separating church and state. The original notion which informed the American constitution was that the government would form no state church on the English or Swedish model. However in The United States, at least, the idea has now been taken to mean that the state should not take cognisance of any religious considerations. For those of us who have not been inculcated with the view that the American Constitution,US Constitution is the last word in political wisdom, this looks like a commitment to political irrationality. At the core of the matter is the failure to grasp the fact that the divisions between Christians in the sixteenth century were far narrower than those which today separate the now largely secular west from Islam. The elites, in the liberal knowledge sector, also suffer from the grave disadvantage of believing that the Muslim populations they have allowed to grow up in the West will become secularised. Moreover, they see “radicalisation” as being an exclusively political phenomenon which can be addressed by facile initiatives. On the one hand the secular elitists imagine that they can tame Islam by tolerance and, on the other, they wish to ban the symbols of Islam which they find offensive. Not having any real feel for the place that religion plays in people’s lives, these elites oscillate between appeasement and repression. Neither are likely to be effective in reducing Islamic “superheating”. They also fail to see that many of their own liberal projects, for example gay marriage and all the rest of it, are likely to make Islamic radicalization, and political extremism even more likely. It is no surprise to learn that in France “de-radicalisation” has become a racket, and that in England the civil service is still scrambling round for ideas about what to do.


In the absence of a “magic bullet” the best we can do is to avoid any more mistakes. Freedom of speech and worship must be protected, not only because this is the correct way to proceed, but because abrogating these rights in respect of Muslims would have wider implications for our society. Nevertheless we are under no moral or political obligation to offer to Islam the privileges which we sometimes extend to Christianity.

At the centre of our approach to Islam should be the thought that our actions in whatever field, be it education or foreign policy, should do nothing to make “superheating” more likely, as there are certain to be potentially radical Muslims among us for the foreseeable future. We need to ask ourselves whether we should allow more Muslims to arrive amongst us when there are millions of tolerant Hindus, peaceful Buddhists, and persecuted Christians who are equally keen to settle in the West. In any event we should give our Muslim communities time to become accustomed to our ways. It is one thing to ensure, however, that the Muslims who already live amongst us are properly and fairly treated, but quite another to ask whether it is sensible to allow our current Muslim population to be reinforced by further influxes of those whose culture is untouched by western values and hence more susceptible to “superheating” than is the culture of those who have been amongst us for some time.

The unwelcome but unavoidable political reality is that we will just have to accept that our freedom of action, both at home and abroad, will from henceforth be limited by the fact that we have a potentially restive Muslim population in our midst, which has its own ideas about how our society should be organised and about what foreign policy we should pursue in the Middle East. This suggests that in the medium term we may well have to rethink our approach to Israel. Is that latter day crusader kingdom really viable? If not we need a plan B, as otherwise we may be faced with the nightmare scenario of its Jewish population being expelled. Moreover the Neo-Conservative project of reconstructing the middle-east along the lines of liberal secular democracy will have to be abandoned- if only for domestic reasons. While there is little now that can be done about the consequences of the invasion of Iraq we should obviously do everything we can to find sources of energy to  reduce our dependence on the oil that we import from the Middle East.

The case is difficult. We need all the insight we can get as we ponder the difficulties caused by the militant Islam presence amongst us. Some- but by no means all- of these difficulties we have brought upon ourselves.John-Buchan John Buchan was, of course right. Islam is no “back number”. It is a current issue, just as it was in 1916 when he wrote “Greenmantle”. Militant Islam is the central political fact of our time. Dressing up conference attendees in crusader uniforms is not going to help! The fathers of the second Vatican Council were right to think that charity has its part to play in our response to it. But good feelings alone are not enough. We need to make a far greater effort to understand Islam. We should not forget that for many, especially in Africa, Islam is their route into the modern world.

While Islam contributes to our culture and inspires millions to live good lives we need also to recognise that there are cogent reasons why Muslims make such difficult neighbours and, dare I say it, poor citizens. Gibbon was wrong. We need to understand that Islam is not just the Middle Eastern branch of a generic monotheism, a deism with minarets. Islam is a distinct religion which articulates a particular view of the human condition which colours everything that it teaches about political order. The ideas that Kraemer has drawn attention to do indeed have consequences. In Islam, Ratzinger said, the holy, the numinous, could swallow up the good. This was also in effect Hendrik Kraemer’s view. He emphasised not only that Islamic monotheism has the capacity to overheat, but also that the this extra-moral monotheism of Islam was especially worrying because it was linked both to an optimistic view of human nature (grounded, he said, in a metaphysically “eventless” human past ) and an almost Utopian view of what was possible politically. When these elements became fused together in the “superheated” atmosphere of the mosque, they had the potential, he said, to become to become an armed doctrine which threatened to destroy much that is good in our world. We have been warned.


I want to make it clear that my main focus here has been on Kraemer’s thought about Islam, rather than about Islam itself, although obviously it is difficult to keep the two completely separate. I have much enjoyed getting to know something of Islam. I very much hope that I have given no offence in anything that I have written. This has certainly not been my intention. As always on this site replies are greatly welcome, and we will be delighted to publish them!

I have relied exclusively on Kraemer’s book “The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World” ( London,1938 ) His treatment of “biblical realism” is to be found in his third chapter. His discussion of Islam is in three places, p. 215ff, p.268ff, and p. 353ff. The crucial comparison between Islam and the political religions of the 1930s is on p. 253. It comes as part of Kraemer’s the extent to which Islam is self-immunised against Christian missionary activity.

Excellent is the short section “The Island of Islam” in Daniel J. Boorstin’s “The Discoverers, A history of man’s search to know his world and himself.” ( New York, 1985 ) p.539-547. Boorstin’s treatment is especially interesting because he provides considerable historical support for the conclusions which Kraemer had reached from his theological perspective. It should be noted in fairness though that Boorstin is by no means uncritical of Christianity- see p. 100ff. The point though is that even in his view Christians and Muslims made different mistakes.

Perhaps the best place to start the study of religion as human phenomena is Ninian Smart’s “The Religious Experience of Mankind” ( N.Y. 1969 and London 1979 )  which contains a long and sympathetic discussion of Islam. This is a wonderful book which I strongly recommend. smart's book In common with the other authorities I have glanced at Smart attributes little importance to the idea of Jihad, or Holy War in Islam. Consequently I have used the term sparingly. During my background reading, such as it has been, I was greatly impressed by Ziauddin Sardar and Zaafar Abbas Malik’s “Introducing Islam” ( London and New York, 1994 ). It contains an interesting bibliography of works written mostly by Muslim scholars about their religion. At a late stage in the preparation of this I came across Khurshid Ahmad ” Islam, Its meaning and Message ( The Islamic Foundation, London 1999 ) I wish that I had had access to it earlier. Indeed I thought of recasting the whole piece in the light of it. However lassitude intervened, let me emphasise though that the various contributions it contains ( it is a composite volume including articles by several hands ) very much bear out the Kraemer’s account of Islam, although obviously the perspective is different. It is clearly essential reading for anyone interested in Islam. It contains a useful annotated bibliography. Good resources are also available on the web. Muslim spokesmen make impressive use of Youtube.

I have also used John Schwarz, “ A Handbook of the Christian Faith” ( London, 2005 ) This is a splendid, although rather elementary source written from a protestant perspective. It contains an interesting account of Islam p.223-232.

John Buchan’s excellent thriller “Greenmantle” was published in 1916. It reflects real German intrigues in the Ottoman Empire. For Buchan see Andrew Lownie, “John Buchan, The Presbyterian Cavalier” ( London, 1995 ) For “Greenmantle” see p. 139 ff.

The almost unbelievable snippet about the crusader uniforms comes from  G. H Jansen, “Militant Islam” ( London, 1979) p. 56.Congres_eucharistique_carthage Jansen writes bitterly that “Christian missionary activity in Tunisia was mainly directed, not at the Muslims, but at the large Jewish community”.

The Vatican Councils Decree on Non- Christian religions, of more correctly, Nostra Aetate, is available in the edition of Vatican II documents edited by Austin Flannery, ( Dublin, 1975) p.738 ff.

The biographical information about Louis Massignon and Kraemer comes mostly from Hugh Goddard “A History of Christian-Muslim Relations” p.154

The Regensburg address is available on line, I printed my copy off the Vatican web site. When it was given it generated a furious dispute because Dr Ratzinger quoted a remark critical of Islam from a Byzantine Emperor. This dispute wasted acres of newsprint and missed the real objection to what Dr Ratzinger had to say. In focussing on the irrationalism of Islam. Dr Ratzinger missed the point that there is more than one tradition in Islam. It need to be noticed that there are strongly rationalistic elements in Islam, but these do not seem to be important at a popular level, where “superheating” and radicalisation tends to take place. For a more nuanced view of this see Smart, Op Cit, p. 483 and 488.

Neo-orthodoxy was more important in The United States and in Europe, than it was in Britain and Ireland. The obvious place to start is William Hordern’s “A Layman’s Guide to Protestant Theology” ( New York, 1955 .) This little book should be much known than it is. For his treatment of Karl Barth see p 127-138. For a very short treatment of Barth see Smart, Op Cit, p.640-641.  A  more critical approach to Barth is provided by Mathew Rose, “Karl Barth’s Failure” in the magazine “First Things,” June 2014, and available online.  Rose stresses the extent to which for Barth the narrative was to replace philosophy and natural theology. This idea was obviously important to Kraemer as he interpreted Islam.

As explained above the classic text in the history of Neo-orthodoxy is Karl Barth’s “The Epistle to the Romans” translated by Sir Edwyn Hoskins ( London, 1935.) But this is heavy duty material which I have not even begun to master.  One authority writes: “no account of the influence of existential thought on Protestant theology would be complete without mention of Barth’ early thought.” John E Smith “Existential Philosophy” in “A Handbook of Christian Theology” ( London, 1960 ) p. 129. Neo-orthodoxy cannot, of course, be understood without reference to its roots in the Reformation about which Alistair E. McGrath’s extensive writings are indispensable, for example: “Reformation Thought, An Introduction” ( London, 1993 ). For the Reformed teaching about original sin see Smart, Op Cit, p.539.


Brunner left, with Barth

My reference to the Anglican country clergyman studying neo-orthodox theologians was not plucked out of the air. Many years ago I brought a copy of Emil Brunner’s 1947 Gifford lectures in Shaftesbury Dorset, in it I found two notices dated September 1951 and March 1952 circulated by The Blandford Clerical Society inviting its members to a meeting to discuss Brunner’s work, “Bring lunches,” it adds drawing ominous attention to the fact that wartime rationing was still then in place! For Brunner ( 1889- 1966 )- who in effect played second fiddle to Barth in the Neo-orthodox movement, see Hordern, p. 138ff.

There is, I gather, an elaborate academic literature about what might be called the “eventful” or even “event filled” character of Christianity, but I have not explored it. For me however, the point was best made, by a little book on a rather different subject namely, Michael Ramsey’s “The Resurrection of Christ, a study of the event and its meaning for the Christian Faith” ( London, 1945, revised edition, London, 1961 )- the first chapters of which are directly relevant to the kind of distinction between Christianity and Islam which Kraemer was drawing. Ramsey writes, in a way which Kraemer would certainly have applauded: “the theology of the Apostles sprang…not from their own theorizing, but from certain historical events which led them to beliefs far removed from their own preconceived notions.” P.35.  F. F. Bruce details the Islamic tendency to rewrite Christian history in the light of its own theology in “Jesus and Christian Origins, outside the New Testament” ( London, 1984 ) p 178 ff.

Kraemer was right in seeing Gibbon’s treatment of Islam as being very typical of the eighteenth century.  Despite his irony he had genuine respect for Islam writing: “It is not the propagation but the permanence of his [ Muhammad’s ] religion that deserves our wonder” Edward Gibbon “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” ( London, 1788 ) Vol 5, p.273-274.gibbon_edward_the_history_of_the_decline_and_fall_of_the_roman_empire_d5351344g  The passage in the text which Kraemer quotes from Gibbon comes from p 204. However Kraemer misquotes Gibbon. I have corrected his slip.

I have supplemented my knowledge of “super-heating” from the internet, but essentially my treatment relies on S. H. Moorfield and H.H.Winstanley’s “Heat Engines” ( 2nd ed London, 1935 ). See p. 73 ff, i.e. the chapter entitled the “Formation and Properties of Steam”. Both Moorfield and Winstanley taught at Wigan Technical College. Their book seems have been a quite widely used engineering text book. The copy to which I had access had belonged to a student at Southal Technical College in South London.

The full reference to the piece in Le Monde is as follows: “Le dur metier d’iman en France” 29, 10, 2016. In the text I have translated “metier” to mean “task.” But, of course, the word “job” “profession” or even “metier” is a more literal translation. For another example of this kind of “superheated” reasoning see Boorstin, p540.

My point about radicalisation having become a racket in France is derived from an article which appeared recently the newsmagazine in “L’ Express” “Le seul centre de deradicalisation en France ne deradicalese plus personne.” 09/02/’17. For England, see Ben Riley- Smith, “Preach in English at mosques, imans to be told” “Sunday Telegraph”12/2/ ‘17

In the main body of my text I have criticised Kraemer for not including any footnotes in what he wrote. I still think he was wrong not to do so, but as I complete my own list of references I see, as the phrase goes, where he was coming from. The difficulty is that in any piece such as this, let alone a volume of the size he produced ( 445 pages!) about a subject as huge as Islam, there is really no end to the bibliographical hares which are put up. One can spend all day beagling after them. But there are three further references which I really must include.

The first is to Rudlf Otto’s famous work “The Holy” ( 1917 ) of which I gather there has been a more recent translation than mine. Otto invented the word “numinous” and his book will certainly have been known to both Barth and Kraemer. It is essential reading.

I would also place Eric Voegelin’s book “The New Science of Politics” ( Chicago, 1952 ) in the category of essential reading. Voegelin is not easy going, but curiously his discussion of Richard Hooker’s treatment of the English Puritans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries interestingly parallels Kraemer’s analysis of Islam. Indeed, Voegelin suggests, that in the absence of a more scientific term the writings of the Puritan extremists be called “Koranic” ( p 139 ). It would be interesting to know if Kraemer was familiar with the Voegelin’s pre-war work which saw Nazism as a politicised form of religion. I am not familiar with this early work of Voegelin’s though. Voegelin’s “Order and History, Vol. 4. The Eucumenic Age” ( Baton Rouge and London, 1974) p.142 contains another discussion of Islam. For Voegelin, in the first instance, see Dante Germino “Eric Voegelin” in ” Contemporary Political Philosophers,” Edited by Anthony de Crespigny and Kenneth Minogue, ( London, 1976 ) p.100 ff.

The final book which I wish to recommend is quite different from either Otto’s or Voegelin’s. It is T.L. Pennell’s, 150px-TLPennell_Sadhu“Among the Wild Tribes of the Afghan Frontier, A record of sixteen years close intercourse with the natives of the Indian marches” ( London, 1913 ). This is an extraordinary and fascinating account which I am confident that Kraemer must been familiar with. Pennel, a qualified doctor and medical missionary, had a deep understanding of Afghan culture and languages. He has interesting things to say about the whole process of radicalisation and the way in which it can lead to political violence ( p.124.) Above all he had no illusions about the value of short term approaches to those faithful to the great religions of the East. A wiser and longer strategy was needed, he believed.





You don’t say…

” This is an election, and any politician knows that the laws of economics are suspended for the duration of the campaign”

John Rentoul writing in “The Independent” [ U.K.]  about the Conservative proposal to cap energy prices in Britain.

France, between cholera and a plague

I gather that the people near Chatres chartes twoare saying that in this presidential election they are being asked to choose between cholera and a plague! How right they are! Consider, on the one hand, a fundamentalist liberal who will find it difficult to govern because he will lack support in the National Assembly; but who will ( unquestionably !) do the bidding of those in Brussels who have so shamelessly supported him.

And on the other side, Marion Le Pen. She has done a good deal to decontaminate her party from her father’s legacy. But she has not moved far enough. There is undeniably a certain darkness about her. She is also utterly ignorant of economics. Her doubts about the European project as currently constituted may well be justified, but her protectionist instincts are not. She is right too in thinking that the Islamic presence in France is a challenge, but it clearly calls for a much more considered approach than the one she offers.

The trouble, of course, is that the character said to be representing the combination of traditional values and market based economics which this web site defends, was quite unelectable. He and his Welsh wife turned out to be a pair of rascals with their hands in the till, and their children little better. Consequently he was knocked out in the first round of the election and has since vanished…perhaps to reappear in court later!

Donald Trump’s election shows that in politics anything is now possible. But Mrs May’s destruction of UKIP  in the British local elections that there are limits to the appeal of extremism if a more sensible conservative alternative is available. And it has been the absence of such a alternative which has led to the election of Mr. Macron in France. The fact that Mr. Trump was ( just ) elected in The United States does not mean that French conservatives – however they style themselves- can in future avoid the need of finding an honourable candidate who can do justice to their cause. As patriots they have a deep responsibility to ensure that the French people are never again presented with a choice between cholera and a plague!

U K Polling Report

For those interested in the details of the forthcoming British election there can be no better source of information than that provided by Anthony Wells at YouGov- which we have added to our British links. The YouGov site carries details of all recent polls not just those conducted by YouGov, as well as excellent onward links to a variety of British political sites. Strongly recommended!

Freedom and community: a Conservative perspective




Living as we do in the age of the Internet and 24/7 radio and television, our lives and perspectives are now dominated as never before by the daily news cycle and the insistent pressures of the immediate present. The resulting shortening of our time horizons, combined with digital information overload, tends to blot out the past, and by doing so, reduces our ability to learn its lessons and benefit from the wisdom of those who have gone before us. One particularly damaging consequence of this is that our western societies have lost sight of the necessary moral, philosophical, and cultural foundations of political and civil liberty. Too few amongst our ‘educated’ classes have read and absorbed the great classics of the old western liberal and conservative tradition – a pardonable oversight perhaps, given the overproduction of modern academic books and publications, and the consequent lack of time available to university and college students to read anything else in the course of their studies. But however it has come about, this cultural blind spot has both paved the way for and been reinforced by ‘political correctness’. Instead of allowing what C.S. Lewis called “the clean air of the centuries” to blow through their minds via the reading of ancient texts, all too many people have become imprisoned in a kind of intellectual provincialism of the present, unable to question or challenge modern ideas and assumptions, because they cannot compare them with those of previous ages and cultures. As a small contribution to countering this phenomenon, I am therefore resurrecting, for 21st century readers, a slightly amended article I wrote in October 1995 about the relationship between freedom and community, and what we can learn about both these important subjects, and their interconnectedness, from the writings of the great classical liberal and conservative thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries. As I think many readers may agree, its subject matter is arguably more relevant today than it was at the time it was originally written.

Tory MP, John Redwood’s RedwoodMPrecent suggestion that young single mothers should be encouraged to seek financial support from their families or consider having their babies adopted before becoming eligible for State aid, has predictably aroused a storm of controversy, but his concern for the moral and social fabric of society is symptomatic of an increasingly significant trend in British politics. The traditional post-war preoccupation with economic issues, while still very much alive, is increasingly making room for a growing political debate about moral and social values, as journalists, academics and politicians respond to public anxieties about rising crime, family fragmentation and the general coarsening of art, entertainment and city life in Britain.

A similar trend is also visible in other industrialized countries, notably the United States, and suggests that most of our technologically advanced western societies are in the throes of a very serious cultural crisis, the response to which will determine whether or not we succeed in preserving our liberties and a civilized social order in the coming century.

Although this cultural crisis has a number of different though interrelated causes, two stand out with particular clarity: the weakening and destruction of communal values outside the State; and equally important, the subversion and erosion of the virtues, values and traditions upon which freedom depends. Both these causes feed each other and have their roots in ideological changes that have been gathering force in Britain and elsewhere since the second half of the 19th century, producing a mental and moral climate which would hor

rify the great proponents and architects of Western liberty were they alive today to observe it.

This reference to the thinkers of the past who have been instrumental in advancing the cause of freedom – men, for instance, like Adam Smith (1723-1790), Tocqueville (1805-1859) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)J.SMill – introduces the central theme of this article: that most of our troubles stem from the fact that we have retrogressed in our understanding of human nature and society, because over a long period, our intellectual leaders and opinion-formers have ignored or forgotten some of the most important truths propounded by these famous exponents of the Conservative and classical liberal traditions.

The first neglected insight we must strive to recover is that since society is not identical with the State, the preservation or restoration of the ideal of community should not be seen as a recipe for increasing the powers and functions of government – the great historic error of the Left. By the same token, looking at the reverse side of that coin, the supporters of capitalism and the market economy should free themselves from the illusion that the pursuit of rational self-interest provides a sufficient motive for human action and an adequate ethic for a free society.

To acknowledge that we have duties and responsibilities towards our neighbour beyond simply looking after our families, doing our jobs, and respecting other people’s rights and property, is not a threat to personal freedom but simply a recognition that helping others in the right way adds to the sum of human dignity, happiness and achievement, by giving individuals opportunities they might not otherwise have to develop their talents, widen their horizons, and live life to the full. To celebrate what Adam Smith called “benevolence” is therefore not to condemn or belittle enlightened self-interest, but to recognize, as he did, that a good and healthy society cannot live by the commercial ethic alone. Conservative philosophers like Edmund Burke (1729-1797) have additionally reminded us that not only are we members of society rather than an island unto ourselves, but society itself is an organic compact between past, present and future generations which we ought to honour and cherish. Just as we benefit by inheriting the wisdom, achievements and advances of our ancestors, so we ought to be good stewards of this accumulated moral, social and intellectual capital, adding to it in our lifetime for the benefit of posterity as well as for ourselves.

Ayn Rand’s view

For all these reasons, it is unfortunate that one prominent American libertarian thinker, Ayn Rand (1905-1982),AynRand 2

whose philosophical novels have exerted a huge influence on American and British libertarians, should have made the serious mistake of identifying altruism with collectivism. Whilst her eloquent celebration of personal independence and creativity in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged provides a much-needed corrective to the collectivist notion that the individual exists only for the sake of the community, her depiction of altruism as the morality of self-sacrifice, and therefore incompatible with the idea that individuals are ends in themselves, is simply false. As the Christian concept that we should ‘love our neighbour as ourselves’ makes clear, there is no conflict between the recognition that we have a duty to help the innocent victims of misfortune and, at the same time, have a legitimate right to the fruits of our labour which justly limits the claims others can make upon us. In both cases, respect for the individual is the value that should govern our outlook. By promulgating an oversimplified and unbalanced philosophy of freedom, Ayn Rand’s writings ironically reinforce the erroneous socialist assumption that charity and capitalism don’t mix, and therefore only the State can ensure the relief of poverty, disease and ignorance. Her influence has also helped to persuade many libertarians of the equally mistaken proposition that all taxation is theft, a view based on the questionable idea that private property rights are absolute whereas in reality there is a trade-off between these rights and other moral obligations and considerations.

Mazzini and John Stuart Mill’s more balanced conception of liberty

The writings of 19th century classical liberals like John Stuart Mill, by contrast, express a more generous and balanced conception of liberty, and reveal a more profound understanding of human life and society which is extremely relevant to any potential resolution of our current cultural crisis. It is, for instance, particularly interesting that the great 19th century prophet of Italian liberalism and nationalism, Joseph Mazzini (1805-1872), combines in his great book, The Duties of Man, a stern critique of selfish individualism, support for workers’ co-operatives, and eloquent advocacy of the Brotherhood of Man, with fierce opposition to socialism. His perceptive condemnation of the destructive totalitarian tendencies of collectivism provides the clearest possible demonstration of the falsity and shallowness of those ideologies on both the Left and the Right that see an inherent conflict between individualism and community. The example of Mazzini shows, on the contrary, that a desire to combat greed, snobbery, exploitation and materialism in no way implies any belief in the inherent desirability of enlarging the sphere of the State.

This truth is vividly conveyed in John Stuart Mill’s illuminating Principles of Political Economy, which was first published in 1848 and remained the bible of English economics for most of the Victorian period. In this wide-ranging and very readable book, as well as in some of his other works, Mill examines the whole question of what is the legitimate province of government and what ought to be left to individual and private initiative, and develops a coherent philosophical position which is both critical of the extreme laissez-faire position that the role of the State should be limited to the protection of persons and property against force and fraud, and at the same time constructs a formidable case against extending the powers and functions of government in ways which threaten freedom and undermine personal responsibility and human dignity.

Just as he defends the role of trade unions but insists that membership of them should be voluntary and their activities non-coercive, so Mill displays the same balanced approach in his attempts to determine the proper conditions and limits of State action. Having argued that State intervention is morally justified if it provides opportunities for personal growth and social advancement which would not otherwise come into being, he subjects this argument to four extremely important qualifications which are as relevant today as they were when he first enunciated them.

His first rule is that the State should never organize or undertake any activity that can be provided or organized more effectively by private groups or individuals. Secondly, even if the State can provide a particular service more efficiently than the private sector, it may still be preferable that it should refrain from doing so if the provision of that service or the discharge of that function by non-governmental bodies offers individuals the possibility of training their characters and stretching their abilities in a manner which enables them to handle greater responsibilities. Thirdly, he argued, public provision for those in need should be so organized and directed as to encourage its recipients to become self-reliant and independent rather than a permanent drain on the taxpayer. Finally, Mill insisted, even if the case for government intervention is an overwhelming one, the State should never be allowed to monopolize the provision of that particular service. Every effort should instead be made to allow the maximum possible room for private initiative and experimentation, not only in order to stimulate all those personal qualities and attributes essential to human enterprise and progress, but also in order to prevent a dangerous accumulation of power in the hands of government officials. As Mill put it most eloquently in his famous essay On Liberty (1859), no country can remain free otherwise than in name if government controls all the roads, railways, banks, large companies, universities, and other significant social institutions – even if it still remains a democracy.

Mill’s analysis vindicated by the history of the 20th century

The history of the 20th century, including the global experience of socialism and the growth of State welfare in the western democracies, has fully confirmed the truth and wisdom of Mill’s analysis. As Dr David Green has shown in his book, Reinventing Civil Society, first published by the Institute of Economic Affairs in 1992, the growth of publicly funded and government controlled health care, education, and social insurance in Britain, has produced a degree of monopoly and levels of taxation which have largely (though not entirely) crowded out private provision, self-help and philanthropy in these vitally important areas, halting in the process the hopeful advances in these fields which so strikingly characterized Victorian England. We are thus confronted by the irony that the socialist attempt to strengthen communal values by increasing the power of the State, has undermined civil society, encouraged the formation of a perpetual underclass dependent on State handouts, and helped to produce a materialistic culture in which people have more incentives to acquire personal computers and go on foreign holidays than to play an active part in the education of their children or the care of their ailing relatives.

The destructive impact of collectivism, however, is not, as I indicated earlier, the only reason for the sad condition of our present day culture and society. The rejection of traditional values and the abandonment of high standards of personal behaviour have played an equally significant part in corroding our social fabric. And here again we can learn valuable lessons by rediscovering the ideals that not only inspired and motivated eminent classical liberal philosophers and statesmen like John Stuart Mill and Joseph Mazzini, but also inspired and influenced the attitudes and conduct of millions of ordinary men and women during the Victorian era.

In that regard, two excellent books by American historian and sociologist, Gertrude HimmelfarbHemmelfarbOn Looking into the Abyss (1994) and The De-Moralization of Society (1995) – contain a great deal of relevant and useful material on this subject, documenting, on the one hand, the virtues and achievements of the Victorians, and on the other, contrasting them with the values which currently prevail in our coarse and morally dysfunctional society. Interested readers should therefore consult them for a more exhaustive discussion than is possible in this article. What I would emphasize here is that many of our present difficulties arise from the fact that contemporary western culture has largely abandoned the ideal of duty and service because it rejects the notion that there is an objective and eternal Moral Law, or standard of Right and Wrong, by which we ought to live and set our goals. This means that a culture that once valued liberty and independence as necessary conditions for the pursuit of goodness, beauty and truth, has been replaced by a culture that increasingly denies or derides these concepts, and regards freedom simply as a license for sensual gratification and the promotion of self at the expense of other people and higher ends. The result of this development is not only the barbarization of society and the transformation of market economies into stressful jungles in which all too often the greedy and ruthless get to the top, but also the eventual discrediting and destruction of the ideal of liberty itself. After all, why should anyone value freedom and strive to preserve it, if it fulfils no objectively useful or transcendent purpose?

Finally and perhaps worst of all, the erosive impact of growing selfishness and immorality on families and communities reinforces collectivism by encouraging people to look instead to the State as the primary instrument of social cohesion and stability, despite the moral frailty of politicians and officials and the obvious dangers of concentrating too much power in their hands.

The lesson from history we therefore most need to recall is that moral relativism and cultural anarchy paves the way for tyranny. That was true of ancient Rome, pre-revolutionary Russia, and the Weimar Republic. It will be true of us too if we do not heed this lesson in time.

Philip Vander Elst (copyright, 2017)

FLASH- the British election

The sympathies of The Edmund Burke Institute about the British general election  are not difficult to fathom! But we are an educational charity with tax exempt status and for these reasons we cannot become too closely involved in an election in another country. However we are not absolutely prevented from commenting, and we may do so especially if Irish affairs become prominent in the campaign.

Brexit Central and A.C.Grayling

_90076860_brexitWe have just added both the  Brexit Central web site and A.C.Grayling’s site to our links. The former because it is a well informed “Leave” site.  The latter because it seems only fair to give our guests the opportunity to see what a highly intelligent but extreme “Remainer” has to say- especially as we have criticized some of Professor Grayling’s  remarks here.

See our British links for Brexit Central and our Philosophy links for  A. C. Grayling’s site.AC-Grayling-Screenshot-800x430

Easter is for everybody!


For the Christian the death of an unbelieving friend can hardly fail to be troubling. What are we to make of the language that the Church has  always used about the necessity of belief as a precondition for salvation?

Here goes from the Athanasian creed   for anyone who has forgotten it:

“Whosoever will be saved; before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic faith. Which faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly…This is the Catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.”

Sparrow Simpson's book

My longer quotation is from p.410

The creed quoted in not is everyday use, but this is strong and worrying stuff. How are we to understand it? I think that the clue is to be found in the beliefs of the early church about  the Resurrection.  According to W.J. Sparrow Simpson ( 1959-1952 ), in his time a leading Anglican authority on the subject, there are two strands of teaching on the subject in the New Testament., one “lays  all the stress on the solidity and tangibility  of the Lord’s Risen Body…the other lays all the stress on the…ethereality and unearthliness of the spiritual body, and may be said to concentrate itself on the phrase “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.””

At the very core of Christianity is the belief in human freedom. If men and women are not free to make moral and intellectual choices then the whole  project collapses. Belief cannot be coerced; which is of course why the Inquisition got it so hopelessly wrong. But coercion comes in many forms.  Why, it is sometimes  asked, did not Christ show himself publicly in the Temple after his resurrection ? Surely this would have established the truth of his claims beyond all doubt?

Well yes, but then- if one thinks it through- Christianity would then have become some species of totalitarianism. Christians would have become not the children of God but his slaves. It was exactly the temptation to create such a system that Christ- we are told- rejected at the very start of his ministry.

And the early Christians seemed to have sensed that their belief in the Resurrection was not just a factual statement but, as Sparrow Simpson put it elsewhere (p. 445), “a venture in faith”. In a  neglected passage in The Acts of the Apostles  St.Peter briefly summarizes Christ’s ministry …“we can bear witness to all that he did in the Jewish country-side,” and   then continues “He was put to death…but God raised him to life on the third day, and allowed him to appear, NOT TO THE WHOLE PEOPLE, [ emphasis supplied]  but to witnesses whom God had chosen in advance- to us, who ate a drank with him after he rose from the dead.”( Acts:X, 39-41 NEB)

In one sentence we seem to see here both the strands that Sparrow Simpson referred to. There is on the one hand emphasis on the physical-the aspect of the gospel accurately reflected, in the creeds of the church. But this does not seem to be the whole story. There seems to be something else going on here too.Christianity not founded Perhaps the anonymous eighteenth century deist who lampooned Christianity as “not” being “founded on argument” was on to something despite his subversive intentions.

It seems that there is in Christianity another more puzzling and ambivalent reality beyond the reach of the apologetic writers who flocked to refute the deist in question. We need to ask why St Peter draw attention to the fact that not everyone was given immediate access to the reality of the Resurrection? The point seems to be that in some complicated way that the evidence for faith is to some extent only granted to those who already believe. After all the apostles themselves failed to recognise the risen Christ on several occasions, and yet still knew themselves able to confirm that what they experienced was no illusion.

In the same way then that in the Christian faith, justice is modified by mercy, so the Christian demand for faith must be balanced by the nature of the evidence in question. The cumulative case for the Resurrection may be strong, and I for one think that it is, but it is not coercive. We are all on a pilgrimage. But we have not all reached the exit for Damascus. For some of us, even the very best of us, faith can come slowly; perhaps so slowly that it cannot come to fruition even in the course of  a single life.reincanation_3639 Here the great Eastern religions turn to reincarnation for comfort. But this intellectual manoeuvre finds no support in the Christian scheme. Perhaps though we could say, without doing too much damage to the creeds, that the subtle nature of the evidence for the Resurrection -on which, of course the truth of Christianity depends-allows us to suggest  that those who cannot believe in this life, will nevertheless be granted further opportunities to believe in the good news of Easter in ways that  we (and they)  cannot now imagine.

Note: “Christianity not founded on Argument,” which was published in1742, is usually attributed to Henry Dodwell junior. But while this is likely it is not certain. The pamphlet gave rise to a huge controversial literature- see below.

HAPPY EASTER!christiansfaithr00randolf

Professor Grayling on the Brexit Referendum

A.C. Grayling is an important figure in British intellectual life. He is a highly rated philosopher and has become a media figure who comments on all kinds of issues, mostly through progressive outlets. When the late Christopher Hitchens died it was AC-Grayling-Screenshot-800x430seriously suggested that Professor Grayling should now be accounted the new fourth horseman of militant atheism in the English speaking world, alongside Richard Dawkins and the rest.

Among the debates into which he has entered  has been that about Brexit. Like Richard Dawkins, Grayling is a strong advocate of Britain’s membership of the European Union. He has addressed this issue on several occasions recently on his own web site. His thinking on the subject can usefully be broken down into two halves, which are linked together by his underlying conviction that despite the result of the referendum that Britain should nevertheless remain a member of the E.U.

Grayling essentially claims that in the referendum campaign the Leave campaigners behaved dishonestly, that those who voted for Leave were only just over a third of the electorate, and that anyway the majority for Leave was too small to justify so radical and damaging a change in Britain’s constitutional arrangements. These views are clearly controversial, but he is certainly not alone in holding them, and any discussion of them would have to be very extended. They might be worth tackling in some future contribution about the whole Brexit debate.

At this juncture I want to focus attention on what seems to be Professor Grayling’s distinctive and “specific” contribution to the debate, if only because if shows just how far some Remain intellectuals are prepared to go to justify their last-ditch opposition to Brexit . The gist of Professor Grayling’s reasoning is that the referendum held in June 2015 was really only a glorified opinion poll; that did not provide the government with any mandate to trigger Brexit by invoking article fifty of the Lisbon Treaty. On the face of it there are many obvious objections to this view. For example if the referendum was really only advisory why did David Cameroncameron resigns resign when he lost it? And why did he hire

Jim Messina ( President Obama’s big data expert ) if it was really open to him to ignore the result if the wrong side won? Above all if the referendum was really  just a consultation which provided no mandate why did rich men on both sides spend huge sums trying to influence the result? Would they really have wasted their money on a consultative exercise of the kind envisaged by Professor Grayling?

These considerations though do not seem to have occurred to Professor Grayling who has developed his own rather different chain of reasoning. Perhaps we had better explore it. Professor Grayling  has summarised his case in this way: “Recall,” he says, “that the referendum was specifically intended to be advisory and consultative only. Briefing paper  07212 issued to members of both Houses of Parliament on June 3rd 2015 in advance of the debate on the Referendum Bill says in section 5 that the referendum is non-binding, advisory, consultative; and section 6 points out that if there were to be any suggestion otherwise, there would need to be a supermajority requirement. In the House of Commons in the debate on the E.U. referendum Bill the Minister for Europe, Mr. David Lidington, told the House that “the legislation is about holding a vote; it makes no provision for what follows. The referendum is advisory.” ( Hansard for 16 June 2015 )

Professor Grayling then goes on to employ some very choice language in which the word “thieves” appears to describe the way in which “the Brexit cabal have treated the outcome as binding and mandating, in defiance of the explicit nature of the Referendum Act itself.”

There are then two parts to Professor Grayling’s argument, the first derived from the briefing paper prepared by the House of Commons Library, and the second from the statement made by Mr David Lidington, who was, of course, the minister responsible for introducing the legislation which authorised the referendum.

The passage in the briefing paper which Professor Grayling refers to (p.25) reads as follows:

“It [ the Bill ] does not contain any requirement for the UK Government to implement the results of the referendum, nor to set a time limit by which a vote to leave the E.U. would be implemented. Instead, this is a type of referendum known as a pre-legislative or consultative, which enables the electorate to voice an opinion WHICH INFLUENCES THE GOVERNMENT IN ITS POLICY DECISIONS.” [ The words in capital letters- which I have supplied- appear in the original but not in Professor Grayling’s version.]

Since Professor Grayling quotation was strangely truncated it is no surprise that he did not find it necessary to ask- as I think we must- how  a government could properly be said to have been influenced by the result of a referendum if it did not abide by it ? Professor Grayling would surely have been outraged had the Remain triumphed in the referendum, and if then the prime minister had announced that he was leaving the E.U!

Next we come the remarks made by Mr.David Lidingtondavid-lidingtonMP when he introduced the legislation in question.  Professor Grayling quotes Mr. Lidington as saying that: “the legislation is about holding a vote; it makes no provision for what follows. The referendum is advisory.” So far as it goes this is an accurate quotation. But, once again,  Professor Grayling has not read far enough.  The words which immediately follow the end of his quotation from Mr. Lidington are as follows: “…as was the case for both the 1975 referendum on Europe and the Scottish independence vote last year.” Is Professor Grayling really asserting that the UK government could have overturned  the result of September 2014 referendum  in Scotland? I so, I can only observe that in so doing he would have embarked on a voyage across the dark ocean from which there can be no return.

Even this does not exhaust the difficulties of Professor Grayling’s interpretation of Mr. Lidington’s remarks. Towards the end of his contribution to the debate Mr. Lidington noted- in words that seem to have eluded Professor Grayling’s observation-that “the referendum is taking place as a result of clear manifesto commitment to negotiate the terms of the U.K.’s relationship with the European Union and to put them to the people in a referendum.”

In other words  Mr. Lidington was stressing that the government was morally bound by the pledge contained in the manifesto on which it had been elected to power, only a month earlier. And what was this commitment? The Conservative manifesto for the May 2015 could not have been clearer (p.72) . It was as follows: “Only the Conservatives can and will deliver an in-out referendum.” “We will legislate in the first session of the new Parliament [ i.e. the one in which Mr. Lidington was speaking ] for an in-out referendum to be held on Britain’s membership of the E.U. before the end of 2017. We will negotiate a new settlement for Britain in the E.U. And then we will ask the British people whether they want to stay in on that basis, or leave. We will honour the result of the referendum, whatever the outcome.”

This pledge, I am afraid, make a terrible hash of Professor Grayling’s suggestion that the referendum provided no mandate for Brexit. No one reading the Conservative manifesto would have thought this. I was not privy to the drafting which must have preceded the publication of the manifesto, but it is at least possible that the slightly unwieldy term “in-out referendum” was designed precisely to exclude the sort of reasoning that our philosopher has engaged in.

Professor Grayling owes his readers an apology- otherwise he might start giving his profession, a bad name.


Despite my efforts this post is complicated enough so I’m relegating three points to this appendix.

1] For those who want to get a feel for the referendum campaign the best book I’ve seen so far is Tim Shipman’s “All Out War, the full story of how Brexit sank Britain’s political class” ( London, 2016 )All out war During the campaign Shipman was the political editor of The Sunday Times which supported Remain. Perhaps his greatest coup is to publish the text of the speech which David Cameron would have given had Remain won the referendum ( p. 619-622)  Also writing from the Remain perspective is Ian Dunn’s “ Brexit, what the hell happens now?” ( London, 2016). For one,  ( but by no means the only)  Leave “take” on the Referendum, see Arron Banks, “The Bad Boys of Brexit, Tales of Mischief, Mayhem, and Guerrilla warfare in the E.U. Referendum Campaign” ( London, 2016). One of the most notable facts about the Leave campaign, insufficiently emphasised by Professor Grayling were the deep divisions within it. It was no tightly knit cabal.

NOTE: I have just seen an apparently well researched article on The Observer web site ( which was published on7/5/ 17 ) by Carol Cadwalladr entitled “The great British robbery: how our democracy was hijacked” in which she says, among other things, that two leave campaigns were in fact more closely linked than I realised when I wrote the above paragraph. Her article is an important contribution to our understanding of the referendum campaign. But whether the circumstances were really as scandalous as she implies is, of course, another matter. Nor should we forget the nine million pounds of tax payers money that the government spend on Remain propaganda before the purdah period began. 

2] In the course of his discussion of the House of Common’s Library paper about the referendum, Professor Grayling refers to the section (p. 26-27) which deals with the super majority thresholds that are sometimes required in referenda about constitutional matters. The paper points out that “discussion of the need  for some form of threshold usually arises in the context of ensuing the legitimacy and acceptance of the outcome of a referendum.” But since the paper does not suggest that such “super-majority” or turn out thresholds are necessary conditions for a valid constitutional referendum, I fail to see the relevance of the passage in question to Professor Grayling’s argument, more especially since no such requirement was included in the 1975 referendum which copperbottomed Britain’s membership of the E.U. in the first place. In this business sauce for the goose really must surely be sauce for the gander! Nor, it should be remembered, did the absence of such thresholds prevent the setting up of the Welsh Assembly, the proposal for which only passed by a very small majority.  It might, I suppose have been better had some such threshold been built into the legislation, but this would have undermined the democratic credentials of the whole exercise. Professor Grayling’s suggestion that the result of the referendum should be put aside because it lacked such thresholds therefore lacks credibility. Indeed I am prompted to ask if he would really have been arguing in this way if Remain had won?

3] While in this instance I disagree with Professor Grayling I do not think that his discussion of thresholds is altogether misplaced.  What would have happened had the majority either way been very small? As Professor Grayling points out this was a possibility which was raised during the campaign by Nigel Farage- who was expecting a narrow win for Remain.Nigel_Farage_MEP


Just how credible would the result ( in either direction ) have been had there only been ( say ) eight hundred votes  in it after several recounts? It seems to me that this is an issue which should be addressed by British legislators the next time that they vote to hold a referendum. Similarly there should probably be an amendment to the Irish Constitution which addresses this hitherto neglected issue. ( There is also the related issue which showed up in our second divorce referendum of extreme weather conditions suppressing turnout in one part of the country…)

Richard Miller