Thursday, April 05, 2018

Beyond liberalism

Waaay behind the curve, we went to see The Greatest Showman. It is fantastic.

It is a film about roots/rootlessness and family. The trailers beforehand were also for films about rootedness and family. This is perhaps not surprising, as trailers are pitched at the audience: if you like this, you will probably also like these...More surprising, all the advertisements before the trailers were also about roots and family. One was for a bank. This is the zeitgeist of our times.

The Greatest Showman is so loosely based on PT Barnum it is best treated as fiction, and is, of course, a story for our own times. Barnum seeks to transcend his roots, as a self-made man. To this end, he will use other people, holding out the same promise. He is charming, but his philosophy is ugly. It is the philosophy of our times, liberalism*. But today that philosophy is under unbearable strain. Hence roots and family, among other things—including protectionism, and violence—as we look for an alternative philosophy.

As the story unfolds, liberalism proves to be an inadequate answer to the prejudices it (certainly) faces. Another solution is offered and explored: virtue. To be fair, two of the characters who most represent virtue are seduced by money—by the liberal dream of self-made autonomy—though not necessarily irreversibly so. This is a genuine struggle between world-views. But in the end, virtue has her new day: a loved but unlovely man (for whom love was not enough) finds redemption through the love of the unloved and perceived-as unlovely.

This, however, is only possible when the ‘freaks’ move beyond the social contract (heartily embraced, in stirring song) that enables them to be self-made individuals, to see themselves as family. Family not in the social-contract sense of class snobbery, nor in the vice that holds together the ethnic/territorial gangs of New York, but family defined by virtue.

This family is composed of people who have no roots, having been disinherited. The roots they need, then, also tap-into virtue, far older than the values of their society—which turns out to be more fake than the circus. Virtue goes far deeper than acceptance within a community. It transforms trauma into hope.

There is so much here for the Church to draw on, as we rediscover virtue, and hold it out.

*Alan Roxburgh quotes Patrick Deneens definition of liberalism:
‘It conceived humans as rights-bearing individuals who could fashion for themselves their own version of the good life…Political legitimacy was grounded on a shared belief in an originating ‘social contract’,
‘The basis of this liberalism is the autonomy of a self-making individual operating within a social contract with others.’
(Roxburgh, Journal of Missional Practice, Winter 2018)

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