Reverend Fraser and the Cult of Giles…

I feel sure that Giles Fraser, the Church of England priest and Guardian columnist, is a nice man: a loving husband, a devoted father and a loyal friend. But with such authority it is not enough to be nice, and in his work he is obtuse, sentimental and smug. His writing spreads like treacle throughout British culture; sweet but sick-making.

Fraser, as a progressive, almost seems like a parody of the Church of England’s efforts to accommodate the Christian faith with modern culture. Promoting gay marriage, he wrote that…

What I find in the Bible is a gradually expanding consciousness that God is love and not an instrument of oppression. And there is always more of that inclusive love to discover.

So that’s it? Goodbye millennia of moral teachings? So long centuries of philosophical argumentation? Some Christians who support gay marriage, like Daniel Helminiak, analyse Biblical and theological teachings in depth. For Fraser, love is all you need, and was enough to justify abandoning his Church Times column as a protest against the Archbishop of Canterbury’s “moral opposition to homosexuality”.

I mention this because it illustrates Fraser’s habit of plastering quasi-theological, cod-philosophical rationalisations on his moral and aesthetic instincts. Floating in a kind of spiritual self-righteousness he rarely analyses their complexities and contradictions, or attempts to find his place in a coherent tradition. He denies, for example, that Jesus sacrificed himself – not with reference to scripture or theological arguments but as it is “a disgusting idea”. I am no Christian and, thus, in no place to condemn heresy but the unmerited assurance of Fraser’s judgements is stunning.

This is more obvious when he writes on politics. Community is a good thing, for example, he believes, so he wrote in a recent column that is wrong to expect people to abandon or dilute their culture. I sympathise. Our conceptions of meaning and identity are wrapped up in our cultural characteristics and we lose something when they are deconstructed. But wait. Fraser is an advocate of mass immigration. If we have large ethnic minorities in Britain how can we maintain a united, cohesive and efficient society if people speak different languages and hold different values? Fraser does not mention this. It is too complicated.

Fraser sounds oddly conservative in this article. “The very nature of community is that there is a boundary between those who are in it and those who are not,” he says. ” To speak of community without any sense of a difference between being in it and out of it evacuates the term of any possible meaning.” This sounds like a Straussian argument for border control. It is not, of course. Fraser wants some kind of cultural patchwork. Yet it feels unpleasantly as if everyone can have their traditional cultures except the ancestrally English when he visits what sounds like a charming village fete and thinks “how white”.

At the end of his article Fraser salutes Muslims for their “resistance to the hegemony of integration”. Given that some Muslims resist integration by forming sharia courts where domestic abuse is sanctioned; secretly circumcising little girls and running away to Syria to join ISIS you would think he would at least qualify his admiration. Nope.

Fraser is pitifully naive about jihadism. Responding to a Radio 3 broadcast of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, in which nuns choose to die before renouncing their faith, Fraser asked what what have happened if it had been a story of Islamic martyrdom. There would have been outrage, he said, for “isn’t this religious extremism”? Well, no, not in the sense that people use the term. What people fear about jihadism is not people dying for the faith but people killing other people for their faith. Was Fraser asleep for the last two decades?

Sometimes he acknowledges acts of terrorism but he can’t believe they have anything to do with religion. Reacting to this week’s atrocity in Berlin, where a Muslim drove a lorry into a crowded Christmas market, Fraser wrote that terrorism cannot be inspired by faith because religious people “trust in God’s greatness” to heal the world and act on his behalf. This is one view of faith. It is not one most people share. I do not think Muhammad would have liked indiscriminate terrorism but is Fraser not aware that he was a brutal conqueror and statesman who very much thought he was doing God’s will in politics and war?

Despite all this hazy, subjective, impressionistic writing, Fraser thinks that he has a monopoly on reason. Of conservative Anglicans, he says that, “rather than laugh at them or argue with them, the best thing is probably ignore them”. Why should the same treatment not be accorded to him?

Humility, I believe, is an essential virtue, in religious and secular thought. You should be very careful before thinking you know better than people around you, and, especially, people who came before you. I am not, as I have said, religious but if I was I would be very, very careful I was not acting as if I knew better than God. Arrogance tempts even the nicest people.

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About bsixsmith

I am a writer of stories and poems - published by Every Day Fiction, The London Journal of Fiction, 365 Tomorrows and Det Poetiske Bureau - and a columnist for Quillette, Areo and Bombs & Dollars.
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8 Responses to Reverend Fraser and the Cult of Giles…

  1. Whyaxye says:

    You’re right about the cod philosophy and the massively simplified theology. I find this very strange because although I know quite a few well-meaning but less than scintillatingly intelligent clergy in the C of E, Fraser used to be a philosophy don at Oxford, specialising in Nietzsche. It might be that he now holds back on the intellect, believing that his public respect good-natured blokeishness more than intellectual lustre. It would be interesting to know whether he thinks that God is an objective reality, as opposed to the type of po-mo cipher for human goodness favoured by Don Cupitt.

    Over the past couple of years he has written quite candidly and movingly about suffering from depression. He has always struck me (even when I met him briefly a couple of years ago) as a rather vulnerable and bruised individual.

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    • bsixsmith says:

      Yes, quite possibly. His writings on depression are quite touching.
      I think his argumentative defects occur because works backwards into scholarship from his emotions. Philosophical and theological references are means of rationalising his intuitions.

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  2. Simon says:

    I’m reminded of this essay by David Chapman – a famous scholar in artificial intelligence research, Martin Heidegger’s philosophy and Tantric Buddhism – where he points out that much of what we think of as “Christian morality” today in the industrialized world is really no older than Victorian Britain, when the attempt to ground modern progressive humanism in Christianity emerged. https://vividness.live/2015/09/28/how-asian-buddhism-imported-western-ethics/

    “By the Victorian era, Christianity’s beliefs had become obviously false. Since Protestantism had said beliefs were the only important thing, this was a problem.

    So liberal Christians reinvented their religion: the new important thing was Christ’s humanistic moral teachings. Jesus was just a man, not supernatural, but he was the supreme moral teacher, and founder of Western Civilization. Likewise, they declared, ethics is the essence of all religions, and since all religions share a moral core, they are all basically right.

    A problem with de-divinized Christian morality is that it no longer has a transcendent justification: an ultimate answer to “why” questions. Also, if Christianity is only one religion among many, then its morals may not be quite right. In fact, it’s obviously wrong on some points.

    Nevertheless, Victorian liberals believed that there must be a correct system of ethics, which must come with some alternative unassailable foundation, and we must be able to find it. This is an example of the pattern of thinking I call “wistful certainty.” It’s wistful because there’s no reason to believe it. It is certain only because the alternative is too awful to contemplate.

    Rationally-inclined liberal Victorians developed secular moral philosophy, trying to find new, rational foundations for more-or-less the same morals. (Current secular morality, both left and right, derives primarily from Christian morality.)”

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    • bsixsmith says:

      Thanks! I admire Mr Chapman’s “Meaningness” and hadn’t read this before. I’ll give it thought, though I disagree that Christianity is obviously false.

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      • Simon says:

        In hindsight it’s pretty strange how in the West Buddhism – the historical faith of Kshatriya, Mongol Khans and Samurai – has successfully presented itself as a “religion of peace” which David Chapman points out several times. As a matter of fact Yamagata Aritomo, the ideological grandfather of the modern Japanese far right, happened to be a Vajrayana Buddhist like Chapman himself.

        In proper context, it looks just as absurd as the attempts to do so with Islam or what Giles Fraser is trying to do with Christianity here.

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      • bsixsmith says:

        Buddhism is one case in which I am sympathetic to people who speak of “cultural appropriation” because it has been so infantilised by European observers.

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      • Simon says:

        It’s odd that conservatives make so much fun of left-wing arguments about cultural appropriation because the strongest of them are at their core very similar to nationalistic or religious complaints about lack of respect for tradition re-phrased in a progressive idiom. Well, except in cases when that is the central joke.

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