The Greatest Story Ever Told

Professor Alec Ryrie FBA
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10:00 - 11:00
University Church
High St
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Entrance via High St

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This lecture will trace the moral transition of British and certain other western cultures from the Victorian period to the 1960s: of how it was that the most potent moral figure in those cultures ceased to be Jesus Christ and came to be Adolf Hitler.

The moral authority of Jesus and of Christian ethics was broadly accepted as normative even by agnostics or atheists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a moral authority that explains the insistent self-understanding of western societies in that era as ‘Christian’, for all their apparent secularisation.

The lecture will consider how that value system fared during the era of the World Wars.

In brief, it weathered the First World War and even the opening of the Second better than we might imagine; but the eventual moral impact of the Second World War and the accompanying global reordering left traditional Christian ethics looking wholly inadequate to the scale of the challenge, and indeed badly compromised by association with what now appeared as intolerable evils. Christian and non-Christian alike had their confidence in Christian values badly shaken.

The lecture will end by considering how, in this context, the centuries-old concept of ‘human rights’ came into its own, quite suddenly appearing to be the self-evident, intuitive and secular truth on which a new age must be built. The experience and memory of the Second World War was fundamental to that widely-shared intuition. By the 1960s, despite the famous cinematic white elephant, the ‘greatest story’ in western culture was no longer the story of Jesus, but of the struggle against Nazism.