Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool

It is good to hear church leaders making public statements about why their faith matters. Recent ones have been On Rock or Sand? and Who is My Neighbour? Now here’s another, the Bishop of Liverpool’s Voting For a New Moral Vision. Bishop Paul Bayes suggests asking three questions:

Will your candidate be putting the common good, and especially the interests of the poor and the marginal, at the heart of your policies?
Will your candidate work with churches, faith communities and all people of good will to shape a society where all can flourish and where the stronger will readily and gladly help the weaker?
Will you be striving to fashion a healthcare and welfare system that treats each needy individual with respect and honour as a priceless, significant person (made as we would say in the image of God)?

Christian opinion is divided between the various political parties. Here I describe how my God-centred worldview persuades me to support a particular agenda, best expressed by the Green Party. Some members of other parties support it too.

Divine harmony and a good humanity

Behind all the political debates of modern western society lies a tension between conflicting views of the place of humanity in the world. The one I prefer is monotheist. By this I mean that the divine forces responsible for the universe and humanity are harmonious, not in conflict with each other. When we ask about the place of humanity in the world, the central questions are:

How did the universe come to exist?
What is humanity’s relationship to it?
What, if anything, is the purpose of our lives?

If we and the universe are created by harmonious divine beings in the absence of divine conflict, most traditions reason that human nature must result from benign intentions. We have been created for good purposes, to achieve fulfilment within a good environment. Our bodies and our environment are good gifts. The proper responses are gratitude and creative use. This means there is a proper place for creativity, but within limits set by the purposes for which we and the world have been created. We are often dissatisfied, but it is a mistake to think we can escape the limits or create new and artificial alternatives. Our technologies are at their best when they help us enhance our relationship with nature, not when they set us above nature.

Secular nihilism and its utopias

This contrasts with the secular worldview of those who think divine beings are irrelevant or non-existent. On this account there is nobody to tell us to go so far and no further, no distinction between what we can do and what we ought to do, unless we invent one for ourselves. As the philosopher Simon Critchley puts it, for the successors of Nietzsche who accept the death of God,

Nihilism is the breakdown of the order of meaning, where all that was posited as a transcendent source of value… becomes null and void, where there are no cognitive skyhooks upon which to hang a meaning for life.[1]

When God and life after death are excluded from a society’s understanding of human life, then questions about the meaning and value of life become rootless. There is no longer a standpoint outside human experience to pass judgement on it. Everything that happens is contingent and meaningless, just the result of things doing what they do. Since our lives seem completely pointless, we become dissatisfied. Our dissatisfaction makes us want the world to be different. We dream up utopias and work towards them.

The twentieth century witnesses to a pretty devastating succession of disasters caused by people like Hitler, Stalin and Mao who worked hard to produce their utopias. Those utopias have now been replaced by the search for never-ending economic growth. Public discourse, as expressed by our most popular newspapers and television programmes, presupposes that when our economic problems have been solved everybody will get richer and richer without limit. Production and consumption will increase and increase. In election after election the dominant arguments have been about which party will achieve this most effectively. The idea that it is the wrong thing to do gets left to smaller parties.

This growth utopia, more blatantly impossible than either Nazism or Communism, shares with them an idolatry of science. Critics call it ‘scientism’. The belief is that as science progresses it will find solutions to all our ‘problems’ – that is, find ways to create and maintain the utopias we have dreamed up. In order to do so, it alienates humans from the world we live in. It presents us as rational minds, calculating how to achieve our aims by manipulating nature, treating the non-human environment as spare resources to be used in whatever way we decide. It thereby teaches us to think of ourselves as radically alien to the world around us, and even alien to our own bodies. Telling us that it is up to us to rearrange our environment in whatever way suits us best, it makes us persistent tinkerers, manipulators, trying one thing after another and never satisfied. We inevitably end up manipulating each other as well.

Dark forces of polytheism

The result is that we turn full circle. Monotheism was first articulated in reaction against polytheism. Polytheistic theories could explain the unpleasant features of life by blaming gods who were hostile, stupid or uncaring. Secularism reinvents them. Of course it does not give the name ‘gods’ to the new hostile forces it imagines, but it gives them the same kind of role. ‘The economic situation’ stops governments doing what they say they would otherwise have done. ‘Market forces’ are not forces at all, only large-scale summaries of the effects of people’s actions; but calling them forces gives the impression that they have power to constrain us. If the next generation of mobile phones needs a rare metal which limits how many can be made, we will blame the meanness of nature rather than ask whether we are doing the right kinds of things.

The choice

What is at stake, therefore, is a contrast between two radically different accounts of the universe, humanity’s place in it and the purpose and value of human life.

In the account dominating current political debate, humanity has accidentally turned up in an alien world, with no guidelines or purpose. We are the brains of the universe, deciding how to use all the stuff around us, answerable to nobody, left to our own devices, alone.

In the account based on God, humanity has been designed for well-being and fulfilment in the environment we have been given. (I have published a longer defence of this here .) Our lives are full of meaning, value and purpose. We are loved. We matter. We live under an imperative, which we are free to respect or reject. The imperative is to care for each other and the world around us. This way we can help each other to achieve the fulfilment for which we have been designed.

This is why I think the Bishop is right.


Note

1. Simon Critchley, and William R Schroeder, A Companion to Continental Philosophy, Oxford: Blackwell, 1999 edition, p. 11. Much of the discussion in this section is based on pp. 10-13.