Dissenting Radical

The Common Good: A 'Christian-Left' perspective on radical theology, progressive politics, authentic culture and sustainable living.

Month: September, 2016

Notes from the Field

My ‘undisclosed location’ is unmistakably middle eastern. As a student of Arabic, I spent a lot of my time during my late teens and early twenties in the middle east. They were formative days. After my stint in Iraq though, I decided that I’d had enough of hot, sandy, dysfunctional places, and except for a few days in Cairo when I first joined this organisation, I haven’t been back there since.

Today, I had to leave our secure compound and go into town for sundry logistical matters (changing money, buying new sandals, getting hold of a cheap mobile to replace my one that died etc). There I was confronted with the old familiar smell of the middle east: a thousand years of encrusted sweat, cats’ piss and kebab fat, mingled with the scents of cheap cigarettes, gaudy male perfumes, and two-stroke petrol fumes.

It’s a heady, exotic mix. It takes me back to long nights prowling the streets of Zamalek in search of a kushari stand that would not give me dysentery, and happy carefreee days near Midan Tahrir – yes, that Midan Tahrir, the one that in 2011 was momentarily world famous as the centre stage of nascent democracy, but which I remember for its faded old colonial cafes and the constant chorus of taxi horns.

I like it. It excites in me the memory of that young orientalist, who dreamed of Lawrence and Doughty. It reminds me of ‘going mufti’, wearing a fez and jelabiyya indoors without the slightest feeling of self-doubt. One did not worry about ‘cultural appropriation’ then, only about cutting the right sort of dash while boldly escorting my bride-to-be (although neither of us knew that then) around Coptic Cairo.

But one or two things have changed from the middle east as I remember it. For a start, the man in the dirty shirt who takes your order in the kebab shop now punches it into an app on his smartphone, which alerts the kitchen. Back in my day, they would totter off behind swing doors, sometimes not to reappear for hours

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The Christian roots of Secular-Humanism

Back when I was in the process of becoming a Christian as an undergraduate, I had a number of doubts about how to square it with a basically secular-humanist ethical system which I considered to be largely derived from enlightenment principles. I thought there was something other-worldly, and to be honest something a bit self-indulgent and even uncivic, about christianity.

Later, as I studied more, I came to understand that secular-humanism is really a vestigial remnant of the much richer ideal of christian-humanism.

This christian-humanism, derived from the medieval fusion of classical and christian thought, is perhaps the greatest animating force of Western civilisation – the common thread of civilisational inheritance that holds the West together and apart from other cultures.

Sometimes I have wondered if it would be possible to have all the social and ethical principles of christian humanism without all the silly ‘magic sky fairy’ stuff. But I came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t.

Without the idea of incarnation and resurrection at their core, christian-humanism doesn’t make any sense. We are left only with a humanism that has no answer to the reality of evil and no hope. It’s only through the resources of a christian worldview that the evil we see in reality can be conquered through the resurrection, and through the knowledge it brings that the world, for all its faults, has been, is being, and will be redeemed. It’s only the resurrection that gives us any indication that ‘the arc of history bends towards justice’.

In the process of coming to this conclusion, I learnt that the ultimate ‘point’ of christianity isn’t to escape the world, but to transform the world for good – not about ‘going to heaven when we die’, but about bringing the ways of heaven’s healing and restoration to a hurting, aching world. That’s what God’s love is actually doing. Occasionally I see light. It shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

You might think all this is very odd.