Heroes and Villains

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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For those of us who have grown up formed by its certainties, the fracturing of the postwar moral consensus is unnerving.

This lecture will offer some cold comfort, by examining the weaknesses and inadequacies of the Second World War and of the mythology of anti-Nazism as a basis for our value systems. It will argue that for those weaknesses and inadequacies to be addressed, we will need to draw on deeper resources, which in the western world must mean principally the Christian moral frameworks that are still buried deep in our culture’s foundations. It remains to be seen whether this will be done well or badly.

The inadequacy of the Second World War as a basis for our ethics is not a matter merely of the moral messiness of the struggle itself (the Bengal famine, Dresden, Hiroshima); nor of the problematic lessons the war has taught us (the phobia of ‘appeasement’ almost annihilated the planet during the Cuban missile crisis). More fundamentally, the very fact of replacing a positive moral exemplar with a negative one has left us with a social consensus that knows what is evil but has no agreement on what is good, and indeed with a severely impoverished notion of the good. One result is a worsening shortage of those pragmatic moral lubricants, repentance and forgiveness. Another is an almost comical tendency, especially in Britain, to read complex problems, from the COVID pandemic to the climate emergency, through the lens of the Second World War – as if all true evils have villains at their heart. A third is a persistent inability to find a cultural place for religion, especially for religions that do not feel the need to emulate postwar European Christianity’s tamed social role.

The lecture will argue that these inadequacies are amongst the reasons why our postwar value system is failing, and why we ought to be glad of the fact. It will also argue that, while Christianity cannot be the only set of moral resources drawn on to address these problems, it can and should play a distinctive and decisive part in doing so. And it will draw on examples from around the world that suggest this is already beginning to happen.