Ideas and imagination, history and judgment

You know your problem? You live in a culture which does not take ideas seriously. It does not believe that anyone lives or dies or kills themselves for an idea. But people do. A vision inspires them. Their imagination drives them. Whether the revolution they are looking for is going to bring about the Post-Carbon future or a universal Caliphate, it is this vision and their imagination that moves them. They hold out against the dominant but dismal idea that what we want is determined by what our bodies need, or by what our gender or class or ethnicity demands. Islamicists and all other Utopians are driven by their imagination. They assume that ideas and freedom are more important than our stomachs. You Westerners believe that we are propelled only by our material interests, and that every idea is cloak for the truth of the base appetites beneath. We live in a very pessimistic society, a lot of Gnostic and Manichean stuff undiagnosed out there. We live in a culture that does not believe in culture. Which is why it despises Christians. A notice on the door of St Mary Aldermanbury advertises a talk entitled ‘Why are Christians Strange?’ How deeply we Christians have internalised other people’s perplexities and resentments. But is it really good for them that we should do so? ‘Why don’t Christians fall into line?’, ‘Why don’t they think like the rest of us, ‘Why don’t we make them behave like the rest of us.’ Put that monastic home-spun on again, you Christians, and practise your hymns, for your time will soon be here.
Niall Ferguson talked to audience of merchant bankers in St Paul’s Cathedral last night, one of the many launches of his biog of Siegmund Warburg. The title he gave himself was ‘Men, Morality and Money.’ Ferguson’s line was that when a boy, Warburg’s Mama made him pray every night, and before doing so, examine himself to find the errors and omissions of the day. Warburg thus remained a very moral man, the very model of ‘relationships banking’ rather than ‘transactions banking’. Go and do likewise, was Ferguson’s understated message to the assembled bankers. One reason that we have a financial crisis he said is that financiers don’t read history, even financial history, so never imagine (again, imagination) that their actions have consequences which may rebound on them, and that from time to time in human affairs things get rough. Warburg was a responsible banker because he, almost alone, escaped the political consequences of the economic collapse of Weimar to epitomise the old-fashioned banking of the City of London pre-the big bang. Today’s bankers are too young to remember even the 27% inflation and power-cuts of the Nineteen-Seventies. Something to look forward to.
Though Ferguson is a performer, the echo created by the architecture of that vast building meant that his voice cancelled itself out, making him scarcely audible. That building does not allow you to understate and remain subtle. You cannot offer morality ironically there. You have to give judgment, intoning slowly. Ferguson and the bankers and I were all under the judgment seat of Christ, sitting in the great cross which is the transept. Ferguson, or any one of us, can simply ask ‘Have we all done something very foolish? Have we done something that endangers our economy and our society? Have we made it more likely that the next generation will have less opportunity to live in an open economy and society than we have had? What resources does the Gospel give us to weigh these questions?’
You make no cultural contribution by talking about culture or history or morality. You have to begin with judgment. You can talk about the judgment of our successors on us, and indeed our own likely judgment when in twenty years’ time we look back on our present selves. And you can talk about the judgment of God. If you want to make a contribution, begin with the Christian faith and stay with it. Only by saying what the gospel is are we able to secure our hold on any of the cultural by-products – the political liberty that enables the free market – enjoyed by the majority who wish to remain Christianity’s cultural free-riders. You like freedom, freedom to trade? Be a Christian. Be a Jew. Someone asked Ferguson about Islamic finance, and after saying something affirming, he said that Islam was the greatest single threat to freedom and civilisation. If the assembled financiers were tired of freedom and civilisation they should simply carry on as they are and events will do the rest…