Tim Farron’s religious folly

I was born and brought up in a country where I knew that, on account of my family’s faith, I was barred by law from marrying the sovereign. Not much more than a theoretical hardship, since until recently the law would anyway prevent me as a man from marrying the heirs to the country’s throne because they happen to be male as well. In any case, by the measure of social progress fawningly used at the time of the marriage of Catherine Middleton and William Windsor, I’m still two generations too close to a coal miner.

Nor has any Catholic ever been Prime Minister of the UK. Up to and including Blair’s flirtation with Rome, there was an assumption that, while not strictly illegal, it might be practically difficult or impossible for a Catholic to fulfill the role, given the office’s involvement in church matters.

On the other hand, I grew up knowing that one of America’s greatest presidents was a Catholic, like me. And whether I was first told at primary school or at home, I knew from an early age that John F. Kennedy had given a great and important speech that had persuaded non-Catholic Americans, including Presbyterian and Jewish Americans, that they could safely vote for him without fearing that he was answerable to Rome; or that his decisions in the Oval Office would be made with Catholic doctrine in mind.

In this context, Tim Farron’s stated reasons for resignation are a massive step backwards. There should be no religious disqualification to political office, and Farron’s is self-imposed. If the illiberalism of his church is more important to him than the liberal instinct he claims always to have had, he should have taken some time for private reflection, and in the public sphere worn his religion much more lightly.

I have some sympathy with what seems likeliest to be his position; that whether or not something is a “sin” is a religious rather than a political question, and that he therefore won’t discuss that as a politician. But in how he has, in fact, chosen to answer and not answer the question (as well as in his earliest votes cast on gay rights issues) he has allowed that private religion into his public role.

But it was by using this as justification for his resignation where he did harm. He has explicitly supported the idea that being religious is incompatible with leading a political party with any claim to liberalism. He has projected his own fundamental illiberalism (or at least, his difficulties reconciling his religious and public life) onto others in public life who have personal faith.

We live in a country which has not yet managed fully to reintegrate the Christian sect that I was born into, where the ruling party courts sectarian trouble by seeking the support of the DUP, and where intolerance of Islam is on the march. This is the context in which Tim Farron seems to have confirmed the worst fears of secularists; he has raised the religious bar an inch or two, at least for those who don’t fit the establishment as cosily as do the “sons of the manse” and the “vicars’ daughters.”

In which Fat Martin comes for lunch, and a theological debate ensues

Fat Martin Luther came for lunch here in Rio the other day. I served vermicelli, as I always do for him. “Why do you always feed me this rubbish?” he asked, after pushing it around his plate for a while. “Oh sorry, Fat Martin,” I said, “I forget you’re not so keen on a Diet of Worms.”

He gave me a long stare. “Nearly five hundred years, and that’s still funny?” he asked irritably. “And why must you always call me Fat Martin?”

“Well to be honest, Fat Martin,” I replied, “it’s because I’m amused by the contrast between your obsession with sin and the overt evidence of extensive indulgence in at least one of the seven deadly ones.”

“Popish superstitious nonsense,” he countered. “We are saved not by our works but by our faith.”

“That sounds suspiciously antinomian to me,” I admitted, “but actually that’s kinda what I wanted to talk to you about. This whole sola fide and justification business.”

“What of it?”

“Well, I’ve been thinking a bit about the Euthyphro dilemma—”

“—The what?” he interrupted.

“Oh, don’t pretend you don’t know, Fat Martin. You did the scholiast stuff before you got all vernacular and protesty. Euthyphro, where Plato points out the definitional problem of an all-good omnipotent deity. Either good is defined by Him—that whatever He wills is necessarily good—in which case we can know nothing of Him, for His acts can be entirely arbitrary; or He simply always acts according to what is good, in which case there would seem to be something ontologically prior to Him—goodness—and His actions would appear to be bound.”

“Greek rubbish, fit only for the Schools.”

“Well you have to admit he has a point. And what I’ve been thinking is that your ideas about justification and freedom of the will seem to be somewhat inconsistent on this point: that as far as the workings of justification are concerned you sit on one horn of the dilemma, but as far as its distribution is concerned you sit on the other.”

“How so?” Fat Martin was interested now. He may not have time for the Greeks, but he loves a good wrangle.

“Well, the whole concept of being saved by faith alone kinda requires that we know that God will act in a certain way. That is, He has promised, through His Son (who is also Him—always confuses me, that bit), that He will save those who believe in Him and His promise. You bang on about this quite a bit, you know, and often emphasise the nature of the promise. He has promised something, so we can have certainty that He will do it. This only really works if we accept the secondary horn of Euthyphro: because otherwise God could entirely renege upon His promise, and that would be fine because He is God and if He reneges on His promise then this is necessarily good. For sola fide to work, and for us to be able to know it will, God must be bound by what is good, and what is good must be accessible to human reason.”


“Well, there’s a problem, then, when we get onto the distribution of this. Because not everyone believes, not everyone will be saved. Fair enough, but you also insist—actually, quite correctly—in the absence of freedom of the will. You got into quite a spat about this. The saving belief in God is not taken by the individual as a freely-willed act, but is granted, by the grace of God. But then we come into a problem, because of the apparently arbitrary distribution of this. It seems resolutely unfair, doubleplus ungood, that people are not saved by their merits, or by their works, but by the whim of the deity. All people are necessarily equally deserving of hellfire, yet God selects some but not others to be given the saving grace of belief in Him. Doesn’t this require the exactly opposite view of the dilemma? We can only reconcile God’s goodness with this arbitrary allocation of grace if we accept that whatever He does is necessarily good, and that we should not attempt to reason about his acts using the human understanding of goodness. So which is it? If I cannot rely on God not acting arbitrarily then I can have no grounds to believe His promise; but if He cannot act as He pleases, how can we understand the random allocation of grace?”

Fat Martin was silent. He’s well known for his temper, and I worried he might be building up to a paddy. But eventually, slowly, he spoke. “I never thought of that,” he admitted. “You kinda got me there. I suppose I’d better take it all back. The whole shebang.”

“It’s a bit late for that now, you know,” I said as I passed him the bread.

He chewed it thoughtfully. And then suddenly gagged, coughed, and, red-faced, spat out two Brazilian coins which were buried in the dough. “What is this?” he shouted, perhaps relieved of an excuse to rant. “Are you trying to choke me?”

“They’re a gift for you,” I answered.

“Do you usually give gifts like this?” he inquired furiously.

“I’m sorry, Martin. I thought you were a fan of the Real Presents.”

Fat Martin stared at me again. “Fuck you,” he said, eventually. He does have a potty mouth on him, does Fat Martin.

Fat Martin is not amused

Fat Martin is not amused.

On satire

I hate you, Jorge, and if I could, I would lead you downstairs, across the ground, naked, with fowl’s feathers stuck in your asshole and your face painted like a juggler and a buffoon, so the whole monastery would laugh at you and be afraid no longer. I would like to smear honey all over you and then roll you in feathers, and take you on a leash to fairs, to say to all: He was announcing the truth to you and telling you that the truth has the taste of death, and you believed, not in his words, but in his grimness. And now I say to you that, in the infinite whirl of possible things, God allows you also to imagine a world where the presumed interpreter of the truth is nothing but a clumsy raven, who repeats words learned long ago.

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

Pope Francis’s comments on the Charlie Hebdo shootings, attempting to place limits on freedom of speech and endorsing the use of violence against those who say things that upset the religious, have already got themselves a post here, but I want to say something wider about the role of satire in religious affairs.

The Charlie Hebdo situation has frequently been likened to the Satanic Verses controversy, and I think that comparison stands, and not least now in the regrettable siding of Western religious figures with those who feel that the slaughtered and the maimed somehow had it coming to them. The Satanic Verses, as did the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, set out to undermine the Islamic conventions around the representation of Muhammed; but they are hardly the first—Dante’s Divine Comedy places Muhammad in Hell, his guts hanging out, a schismatic and a false prophet. Illustrators over the centuries have not ceased to relish this scene for visual depiction—yet there are no protests, no burnings, no gunnings down in Tuscan publishing houses.

What was extraordinary about the Satanic Verses affair was how much Christian and Jewish leaders leapt into line, not with the supporters of free speech, not with the opponents of bigotry and intolerance, but with the other camp. The then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, declared that Britain’s blasphemy laws should be extended to Islam, and that Rushdie should be prosecuted, and other Christian and Jewish leaders took a similar line (see Christopher Hitchen’s God Is Not Great for a detailed list of those non-Muslim and secular figures who enthusiastically endorsed religious censorship). A spokesman for Pope John Paul II, whilst admitting that the fatwa was excessive, denounced the book as “blasphemous,” and the official Vatican newspaper stated that “the very attachment to our own faith induces us to deplore that which is irreverent and blasphemous in the book’s contents.” That is, the heads of churches which necessarily consider Muhammad to be a false prophet and consider this a matter of fact demanded the prosecution of an author for representing Muhammad as a false prophet in a work of fiction, and then only in a dream of a madman. Why? Why did Runcie want blasphemy laws extended to “protect” all religions when to him the other religions must be blasphemous, because they deny the tenets of his? Why did the Vatican consider deplorable this minor supposed attack upon that belief which the church had spent many centuries and shed a huge amount of blood attempting to surpress? And why, now, has an otherwise intelligent and reasonable (as far as medieval theocratic monarchs go) Pope similarly fallen in with the “they brought it on themselves, you know” brigade? The answer is related to the absence of fury over the Divine Comedy: it lies in the fact that these works seek to make us laugh; and that, in our post-Enlightenment world, with a viable secular agenda for power, this laughter threatens not just who holds power, but the very concept of religious authority as a right to power.

The Catholic Church didn’t always have such a downer on mockery. The second/third century church father Tertullian, a heresiologist and one of the first theologists to grope his way towards the sacred nonsense that is the Trinity, is feted for the scathing wit with which he demolishes his opponents, and the fourth century Hilary of Poitiers—orthodox enough to earn himself a sainthood—was bitingly savage in his Against Constantius. The current Pope’s namesake, though far gentler, was himself an adept user of mockery.

Early Islam was equally happy to cohabit with satire. The savage, obscene wit of the pre-Islamic poetic style hijaʾ (lampooning) was actually utilised by Muhammad’s companions, most notably by the poet Ḥassān ibn Thābit, in vicious attacks upon the unbelieving Quraysh; attacks which one Hadith reports as having been expressly endorsed by the Prophet himself. What is notable about this is that this endorsement took place in Mecca, prior to the flight to Medina and the subsequent return in military power. Tertullian wrote prior to the Constantinian conversion, and Hilary was writing in exile against the Arianizing Emperor Constantius. Francis of Assisi, though far later, was himself an outsider figure, attempting to turn the Church away from its increasingly terrestrial trajectory.

What’s the common thread here? That humour punctuates power. That humour is a strong weapon with which to debase and expose the absurdities of presumed authority, and that—when in opposition—both Christianity and Islam were more than happy to endorse it. And then, once the tables had turned, they moved against it: the Rule of Benedict prohibits levity, and though laughter appears in the Qurʾan it is usually reporting the foolish mockery of unbelievers and contrasting it with the laughter that believers will then direct back at them when sat in their thrones on high; it is also, given Muhammad’s endorsement of hijaʾ, careful to endorse poetry when in the service of God—as for other poets: “only the deviators follow them.” No lampooning except for the Prophet’s Companions, it would seem.

Until the Enlightenment, when directed at power, satire was directed at the holder of power, not the institution, not the grounds for power. Hilary’s invective attacked the emperor for his Arian tendencies, but did not question the basis of imperial power . Dante and his illustrators may have drawn the undrawable, and named him a schismatic, but they did so in fervent support of an apostolically-justified papacy. However, it appears that, now, when it comes to the crunch, the religious close ranks to vilify the non-believer, even if it means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people whose beliefs they explicitly reject. I would argue that this is because, since the Enlightenment, secularism (not even necessarily atheism) has become a viable narrative for “Earthly” power.

Now that the right of the religious to wield power simply for being religious is no longer a social given, mockery need no longer be targeted at the specific holders of power, but actually at the very institutional grounding of power. The satire of The Satanic Verses contrasts the absolutist claims of monotheism with the inherently interpretative requirements of textually-based dogma. The cartoons in Charlie Hebdo were not because the cartoonists disagreed with the specific claims to prophethood of Muhammad, but was mockery of the very idea that temporal authority is granted by religious adherence. The stakes have changed, the allegiances shifted, and, now, the enemy of any religion is secularism, not because it denies specific tenets of their faith—because the other faiths with whom they now stand side-by-side do so too—but because it denies the very right to legislate on the actions of other people simply by virtue of being a faith. The Muslims and the Catholics and the Church of England may disagree on who should be on the top of the pile, but they are in total agreement as to why they should be there. They require us to believe, not in their words, but in their grimness; they justify their terrestrial authority from the fervency of their own belief: and satire, denying anyone status through grimness, is a common enemy to them all.

Bring out the fowl’s feathers!