First of all we were going to revert to pretty pictures this week, then suddenly Britain had a new Prime Minister and we were going to write about her, and then she unleashed Boris from his kennel and we were going to write on that. And then finally, we had the appalling assault on the Promenade des Anglais just an hour away from us in Nice and it raises issues that need discussing. So forgive us if we are slightly more sombre and heavyweight than usual and talk about them.
All terrorist attacks are, by definition, horrible, but there was something particularly diabolic – and we use the word in every sense – about Thursday night’s attack. Nice is not the sort of place that you associate with terrorism: at least in the imagination, it is a happy city dedicated to culture, art and pleasure, surrounded by dazzling blue sky and sea and conveniently tucked away at the very corner of the hexagon that is France.
Indeed the Promenade des Anglais (along which we seem to drive on average every six weeks) takes its name from the British who in the 19th century flocked to Nice to escape London’s cold, rain and smog. To launch such an attack just after the fireworks for the great national festival of 14th July, deliberately targeting families and children, is particularly evil.
The priority at the moment is of course compassion and practical and prayer support to those who are suffering as a result of this outrage. Reflection may seem out of place. Nevertheless because such attacks generate intense reactions, some of it very unhelpful, the issues raised need considering. With this third attack in France – and the related one in Brussels airport – it is now clear that we in the West are engaged in a war. Yet to use that little word war is problematic because it raises images of guns and soldiers and bloodshed and armies. In fact the real war is subtler and deeper: it is that of belief systems.
On the one side we have what we might call secular or liberal post-Christian Western values. Such a position – two centuries old in France – says that all that human beings really need is some sort of democracy, some sort of capitalist prosperity and some sort of freedom to do what they want. Although its origins are firmly rooted within Christianity it is a view that has long since been uprooted from that soil. It is a position typified by the three-word summary of French values: Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. This secular, liberal viewpoint is attractive for several reasons but most of all because, at least superficially, it works.
There are however two problems with the creed of the modern West. The first is that it is not fully satisfying: deep down we all know that we are meant to be more than simply consumers. A more profound problem is that it completely lacks any solid intellectual or logical basis. Why democracy? Why capitalism? Why freedom? And – in the case of France – why liberty, equality and fraternity? These are questions that are rarely asked because without any underlying biblical Christianity to give a basis there can be no answers. The West’s worldview may work, but it lacks any underlying foundation.
On the other side we have what we might term Islamic fundamentalists or jihadism. (Here it is worth pointing out, not least for the benefit of those inclined to follow Donald Trump in putting labels on people, that many who would call themselves Muslims are in fact functionally followers of Western secular liberalism.) The Islamicist position is strong specifically in those areas where Western secularism is weak. So, it offers a spiritual view of the world that goes beyond consumerism and it has a firm underpinning: a stern, inflexible vision of a society governed by a God who rules and judges. These two aspects are sufficiently strong to outweigh the fact – more significant to us than them – that jihadist position doesn’t seem capable of producing a society that anybody wants to live in.
Seen in these terms it should be obvious that jihadism is not going to be countered by Western states adopting ever greater security measures, generating more prosperity, building more shopping malls or even offering more education. For all its works, Western liberalism is too insubstantial and shallow to pose any challenge.
It seems to us – and it’s not a novel thought – that the only way to defend those cherished Western values of liberty, equality and fraternity is to go back to the soil of Christianity from which they sprung. Although many in the West prefer to despise the Christian faith, our society needs to have the humility to admit that the very values that it upholds are in fact the practical outworking of that faith it derides. Indeed even within secular France there are those who have seen ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ as being fundamentally Christian values, not far removed from St Paul’s ‘faith, hope and love’. They certainly would not arise from of any other worldview or faith.
Ultimately, these appalling attacks raise fundamental questions to all of us about how we live our lives and on what basis we live them. In this respect France, having begun the West’s doomed experiment of trying to create a civilized society without relying on God, may be leading the way out of this particular wasteland. So for instance, evangelical Christianity in France is now growing so rapidly that reliable figures claim a new church is being planted every ten days. If modern Western culture can be reconnected to the soil that gave it its values then we may see something powerful and attractive enough to effectively challenge the sort of beliefs that have given rise to these recent attacks. But only if …