Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Liberalism, religion, Milton at 400

Today’s the Day! John Milton’s 400th Birthday. In Horton Church I accidentally trod on Milton’s mother’s grave, back in October. Tut, tut. As well as his family’s home, this county boasts Milton’s Cottage at Chalfont St Giles, where he wrote Paradise Lost, whilst sheltering from the London plague. There is a timeless quality about Milton’s writing, and relevance. Awhile back the Church produced a report called In Tune with Heaven, duly excoriated by Paul Johnson, especially the title, which he denounced as typical trendy Church of England, a mindless genuflection to the ad-speak of the 1960’s. People who knew much about music would instantly recognise this title (from Parry’s anthem) as a quote from John Milton’s Sonnet At a Solemn Musick — a mindless genuflection, perhaps, but to the sixteen sixties, not the nineteen sixties. Some people, but not Paul Johnson, could tell the difference between a Sixties advertising jingle and John Milton. But it’s an interesting mistake.

Milton is hardly a likeable figure, but the power of his mature epic writing stands him head and shoulders above the crowd. There’s something maddening about the precocious effeminate boy who conceives the bold design of being a writer, often treading the narrow line between brilliant and insufferable. Milton certainly suffers from some modern critics whose religious and biblical illiteracy doth not help them understand what they are reading. So why read Milton today, apart from poetick grist to the lit crit mill?

It is fundamentally wrong to think Milton a “Puritan,” in blanket terms. As an adult he was very much an Independent, emphatically not a Presbyterian (thus his quip about new presbyter being old priest writ large.) His own personal theology, De Doctrina Christiana, unpublished in his lifetime, was pretty much libertarian, with touches of Arianism, and eccentric flourishes like having a personal theology in the first place. Now all our theologies are profoundly personal, like it or not.

Milton detested bishops, or what he called prelaty, with its controlling tendencies, prisons and enforcement schemes. He detested all tyrannies, civil and religious. He radically rejected any notion that faith for grown ups can be based on authority and coercion as opposed to conviction freely arrived at. Like his views on divorce, these are not comfortable positions, even today, but they are his considered view. It is interesting how we now live in a Monarchy with an established Church, but whose processes have transformed from within over 350 years to a point strikingly similar to much that Milton enivisaged. As we all have to learm when we leave student politics behind, Railing against the system is cheap and easy, but process is infinitely more important than structure to quality of life and human outcome.

As much as Milton would have abominated the Diocese of Oxford along with bishops and all their works, he might have endorsed two aspects of our present operations:
  1. The abolition of tithes, an almost obsessional bugbear of JM. He believed it wrong to run the Church off anything except voluntary contributions. From 1843 to 1920 his wishes came true, and tithes were abolished. I couldn’t say everyone is that much more keen on their replacement, Parish Share, than Milton was on tithes!
  2. His famous tract on the Tenure of Kings and Magistrates warmly endorses servant ministry — the legitimacy of authority for Milton rests not on anointing, custom or revelation, but on its conformity to Christ’s servant example.
At a time the word “Liberal” has for some become simply the habitual term of abuse; the catch-all sneer-at label, it’s worth reading Milton’s Areopagitica again. In it Milton lays down one of the basic foundational building blocks of an open society. Neither Pope nor State have any privileged role, says Milton, in censoring, defining or defending public truth. The most dyed in the wool political and religious Conservatives use and take for granted this liberty of thought and speech, along with the rest of us.

Thanks to Graham Peacock for a Poster which, in itself, serves as an instant summary of English History 1649-1660. John Milton neither panicked, nor freaked out. A resurrected Milton would doubtless be online, blogging away at the tyrannies and self-deception of our powers that be. He believed that monarchies and theologies of infallibility in the Church bred a sick, servile society. He would fall about laughing at people craven enough, as he would see it, to imagine final religious authority could be found in any human source, least of all popery, Protestant or Catholic.

Challenging stuff — So, he might well be asking us,“However much you hate the word, are you not all Liberals now?”
What’s the difference between liberalism as an essential precondition of an open society, and the liberalism people use as a term of abuse?


Ann said...

A link on Milton annotated here.

Kirstine said...

I would say that the difference is that liberalism, as it is currently derided by certain factions of the Christian church, is not the rejection of human sources of authority (e.g. the Pope), but the rejection of the (literally interpreted) Bible as the source of authority.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Ann, many thanks for the fabulous Dartmouth link (http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/contents/index.shtml) It makes me wonder what i would ahve spent all the money on instead if I'd had free access to such a resource years ago!

Thanks, Kirstine. Milton, is pre enlightenment/modern. He did not interpret the Bible exclusively, or even mainly, literally — great chunks of it to him are allegorical, figurative or symbolic, to use the ancient medieval tools for scriptural interpretation in which he was educated at St Paul's School and Cambridge. He sees God as the final authority, the King, and any lesser spokesperson for the Lord as unsuitable to be ceded authority that should belong to God alone. Thus he is very scathing about the pope but also Protestant preachers who use the Bible in a tyrannical way... he's a fascinating and complex figure, and I;ve got to fly, because I'm doing a lecture about him in an hour's time!

Sam Norton said...

At last night's Deanery Finance sub-committee I recommended re-exploring 'tithing' as a way forward past parish share... He's certainly got a point about voluntary contributions though.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

In all honesty I have to say Milton didn't like the whle idea of paying people for ministry — in one of his tracts he draws pointed attention to St Paul's tentmaking ministry. He was, of course, reacting to the excesses of Laudian oppression.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

There was always a difference between liberty for worship and liberalism. For example,the congregations (mainly Presbyterian) that became Unitarian fought for liberty of worship, and it was only later that they became specifically liberal - usually more via Arminianism than Arianism.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

I wonder if the difference goes a bit like this. Liberality about faith comes from believing God is so important, that all lesser beings have a lot of play space, and you can trust him to sort out the wheat from the tares, and don't therefore have to be paranoid about enforing doctrine, such that our methods begin to compromise our ideals. All that I buy as a noble ideal.

Cheap liberalism, however, simply doesn't care what goes on in the playspace. Everything's as good as everything else. It's what Milton would call "licence" rather than liberty. In the end it sucks the life, particularity and meaning out of everything?

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

No, I don't think liberalism is cheap, even if you do come to a view about, say, the near equality of some religions. That's just another put-down. It's actually quite difficult, sometimes lonely. People like James Martineau (who examined religious subjectivity further than most) didn't go in for cheap liberalism, and there are no guarantees about any doctrines either. Doctrines exist, I suggest, as constructions that may or may not prove to be useful as part of the spiritual quest and the direction for self and community with other selves and the community. They are means to reflection. As for God, I claim nothing about what comes there in one direction or the other.

nlnh said...

Paul Johnson said that?

Someone needs to give him a good spanking!

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Er, yes. When I meet a traditionalist who pontificates about language and the liturgy but doesn't himself know the difference between 60's adspeak and Milton, I pretty much know how much weight to accord to his opinions about language and tradition.

nlnh said...


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