Politics, Recommended books & reviews

‘Saving Liberalism from Itself’ – by Ian Geary

A review of Saving Liberalism from Itself: The Spirit of Political Participation by Timothy Stacey, 2022


Understanding the contemporary variant of liberalism which dominates the West at this time is an important subject for the Church in order to understand its mission and witness.  

Liberalism places human freedom at the centre of economics, politics and culture. It can do so in a way that defies challenge and ironically works to the detriment of other values we hold dear.

A significant debate for Christians is how we best engage or participate in politics in a liberal democracy. It is important to remember that taking an interest in a civic life does not mean endorsing every secular approach going.

Troubled

In this book, Timothy Stacey addresses both the troubled health of liberalism and the crisis in political engagement. This book aims to revive broad participation in public life and address the problem of how liberalism alienates the concerns of ordinary people.

Stacey draws on his personal activism in Canada and discusses how liberalism might ‘save itself’ and renew meaningful political activism. The spine of his argument refers to the need for ‘myths, rituals, magic and traditions’ that give meaning to the activist.

Stacey asserts that though myths and traditions are treated with scepticism by liberal modernity, they are actually of crucial importance to humans:

all paths of human life are shrouded in myths: stories of great events and characters that serve to illuminate the alternative worlds we envisage and work towards.”

Myths help guide institutions and societies in healthy directions and help them avoid the lure of populism.

Magical feelings

Rituals are the enacting of myths in an institutional setting. They can invoke ‘magical feeling’:  

“a feeling that an extraordinary power resides within an object, person, way of being, or political process such that it is especially meaningful and, as such especially able to transform reality in ways that would otherwise seem impossible.”

Stacey dissects how liberalism does not ‘satisfy the soul’. This is due to its false view of humanity and the rationalism which rejects the spiritual and the transcendent. This in turn often renders liberal politics procedural, rigid and leads to dissatisfaction and disengagement.

Just as Charles Taylor stated that modernity is ‘disenchanted’, Stacey concludes:

We are suffering from a failure of the imagination.”

Noble aims

This insight recognises that secular liberalism is rendered ineffectual in the face of the populist impulses that have characterised Western democracies in recent decades.

Stacey recognises that despite liberalism’s noble aims it has created serious problems; polarization, a sense of emptiness and an erosion of trust in institutions and their supportive traditions, to name a few.

He harmonises the core themes of myth, ritual and ‘magic’ within the context of tradition and how they only make sense and have meaning within what he calls an “overarching narrative.”

Common good

Participation in politics is critical issue. And the strength of this book is how it highlights how liberalism inhibits healthy political life. It is a helpful resource to those seeking the common good.

Understanding the architecture of liberalism, its strengths, weaknesses and where the cracks are appearing, is fundamental for Christian thinking and mission.

In all ages, the Church needs to work out its identity and vocation as an alternative political community, serving in the political world with a distinctness and energy. This book makes a good conversation partner for this missional task.

1 thought on “‘Saving Liberalism from Itself’ – by Ian Geary”

  1. I like the sound of this book from the review and not least the comment: “In all ages, the Church needs to work out its identity and vocation as an alternative political community”. How we do that without abandoning the core strengths of liberal democracy, is a key issue. The risk of the alternative political community is that it becomes excluding and focussed only on its own interest.

    Liked by 1 person

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