The secular always pitches itself, as Charles Taylor reminds us, as a subtraction story; a narrative about what life looks like when all of the detritus of religious myth and legend is stripped away.
Once the transcendent is banished to its rightful place in the museum of ideas (or the prison house of failed and dangerous lunacies) we are left with the nakedly secular bedrock of reality. This unshifting lithos is the only foundation upon which anything truly new in this modern age can be built.
So I’m not sure if it was the grief of electoral defeat, or the visceral loathing he has for the ALP’s new Federal Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, that saw Labor intellectual heavyweight Kim Carr – when asked whether he would continue in the public square – mingle his secular vision for political life with a deeply religious vision as well.
Was it the musing of a tired and disappointed man, or was it “the reveal” that lies at the heart of secularism, that it can’t simply strike out on its own, but that it must constantly borrow – indeed plagiarise – from primary sources more weighty than itself?
Speaking to The Australian newspaper after the soul-crushing realisation that the calendar that had looked so full just a few weeks ago would now have much more spare time in it, Carr was honest in his appraisal:
This is a strange sensation. We never expected this. A lot of people have been through a clinically depressed response to Labor’s catastrophic election result. I had a very different week planned for last week than the one that eventuated.
Yet lest I get accused of Schadenfreude myself, it’s not Carr’s disappointment that intrigues me. It’s what he said next:
The mission in politics is about building a New Jerusalem; it really does mean something to me. It is a chance to serve something bigger than myself. We live in a secular age, and for someone with my secular disposition this has been an opportunity to argue a case and develop my intellectual capabilities. I’ve found it really rewarding.
Carr’s right. We live in a secular age. But still, there’s that nagging sense that the secular is haunted by a bigger, grander myth than the secular is actually able to bear, and certainly more than the secular is ever able to offer. Secularism is constantly committing the capital crime of borrowing without acknowledging.
Now Carr may have been utilising the term “secular” almost in apposition to the idea of “sacred”; two complementary rather than competing ideas. Hence just as there were sacred priests who lived in the cloisters, there were secular priests whose lives were in the parish outside the walls of the monastery. Equal and opposite, but both achieving the same goal.
Yet that’s not the sense Carr is giving. Note Carr’s terms: “the mission” and “building a new Jerusalem”. Now at that point Carr may simply be echoing Ben Chifley, our first post-war Prime Minister, who outlined this grand mission for politics in a 1949 speech:
We have a great objective – the light on the hill – which we aim to reach by working the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that, the Labor movement would not be worth fighting for.
“The light on the hill” – Catholic Chifley’s reference to the Sermon on the Mount – dovetails neatly with the strong religious narrative that drove so many of the early Labor luminaries.
A better world – politics and church goals intermingled so to speak. Whatever Chifley fully meant by it, it’s clear that he saw no brook between his political ambition and his religious framework.
The two held each other in tension. And the reason they did so, especially for a Catholic politician, is because of that transcendent ideal, that the light on the hill is a reflected light. The hill or the city is not the source of its own light. Religion is, therefore, the safety valve of a political age. Religion stays the hand of political overreach.
But in a secular age? An age in which – if you’d believed the many progressive narratives that have attached themselves to politics in the past decade in the West – we are the source of the light we shine? In such an age politics has no religious hand to stay it.
The almost hubristic attitude of many on the Left in the lead up to what was an apparent shoo-in is the counter to the angst and despair from that same cohort at the result. Which makes sense of the three minutes of self-reflection (two and half minutes actually) that the progressive side of politics gave to the result, before it’s on with the next round.
When politics IS religion, because politics is all we have left in the secular state, then what happened two weekends ago in Australia was not an electoral loss, but the dashing of deep hope that secularism cannot account for. And that anguished loss of hope was exactly the language that Twitter portrayed.
When politics IS religion to back away from a raft of policies because the voting public did not like them, or was suspicious of them, is not pragmatism, but heresy. To back down is to give up on the vision of a New Jerusalem.
Yet how can the secular truly allow for a new city when its whole tilt has been a new self? True, the secular, in its many guises pitches for bigness and a grand vision for all, but surely, as personified by the likes of Kim Carr, secularism is living on the borrowed capital of true transcendence.
Where is the common and unifying vision of secularism that will lead us to build a new Jerusalem? Where is the humility and self-reflection in defeat? It is not there.
A New Jerusalem implies a gathered community, unified, satisfied, serving others, and vocally expressing a common vision of the good life. Secularism can offer no such vision. It wishes to offer a capital “N” New Jerusalem, but has neither tools nor the insight at its disposal to see that all it can offer is a lower case “new” Jerusalem with all its inherent dangers.
A New Jerusalem without an eschaton from outside of us – a transcendence breaking in to radically upgrade the old Jerusalem – can never truly be new, at least not in the sense that we need it to be.
Any vision of a New Jerusalem that lacks the transcendent will always descend, unbraked and unchecked, into more and more extreme versions of the old Jerusalem; full of vice and inequality, where power rules over truth, and where idols are first entertained, then tolerated, and finally worshipped. And we know what God does with old Jerusalems.
For Carr, the brake and check on his vision this time around was an electoral rout. And perhaps all the better for that. When the mission of politics is to build a New Jerusalem then there is no lengths that cannot be gone to in order for this to occur. And secularism’s hard over-reach was one reason, as we’re now hearing, why people baulked.
With no actual eschaton to break into human-made plans and ushering in a New Jerusalem, those same humans seem hell-bent on creating one themselves, and the cost can be tremendous as history has shown.
At the same time it should caution every conservative who saw the hand of God in this electoral victory as convincing proof that somehow if Jesus were to visit Australia today he would confuse the NLP coalition-controlled Canberra as the New Jerusalem.
I’m going to assume that when Scott Morrison said on election night that he believed in miracles, that he was speaking of them in the same way I speak in awe of the miraculous night Arsenal snatched victory from Liverpool in 1989 to win the English First Division title. If not, then the same crushing disappointment that progressive ALP supporters are feeling now may well be felt by their conservative LNP opponents in a few short years.