by Jonathan Clatworthy
from Modern Believing Vol 56:1 - January 2015
The Future of Society
The theme of this issue is chosen in view of the forthcoming UK general election. One way to approach such things is to invite theological representations from each of the main political parties. Today, however, this will not do. There is growing disillusionment with the political parties, the political system and the political agenda. It is as though what governments are trying to do have turned out to be the wrong things to do anyway.
So far there is little sign of consensus about what to do instead. This makes it a good time to go back to first principles and reflect on our basic assumptions. What kinds of future does modern society hope for and why? What, if anything, is the purpose of human life? These are questions rarely addressed except by theologians, since without a wider frame of reference that transcends our current engagements we do not know where to start.
One type of answer was provided by the ancient polytheisms. The ancient Greek and Roman gods offered a range of personalities, thus sanctioning a range of permissible lifestyles. In the process they took for granted the conflicts between them; things were as they were and always would be unless the gods intervened. There was good reason why this approach to life died out.
Disillusionment and Christian engagement
Instead we have inherited two very different perspectives, a monotheist one and an atheist one. We muddle them up. There is a trend, especially by conservative theologians, to blame ‘Enlightenment values’ for central features of modern culture which in fact have Christian origins. This is true of both reason and progress, the two most celebrated Enlightenment values. Enlightenment reason reacted against the over-emphasis on divine revelation that characterised the Reformation debates; but earlier scholastics had carefully analysed the potential and limits of human reason as a gift from God designed for specific purposes. Without a basis of this type, reason is no more self-authenticating than our dreams are. Add in evolution, and our minds are merely adaptations of chimpanzee minds, mechanisms not for truth but for bodily survival, as reductionist philosophers argue. It was Christianity (together with Judaism and Islam) that convinced Enlightenment thinkers that our minds have been designed to understand deep truths.
The same is true of progress. The very idea of it presupposes that there is a desirable direction of travel given to humanity as a whole. By whom? By, of course, the Jewish/Christian/Islamic Creator; who else could? This Creator made us for a purpose and calls us towards it. Without this, there is no reason to expect any particular direction of change, let alone change for the better; all that remains is people doing whatever they think will improve their own lives. So argues John Gray, who rejects both progress and Christianity. Again an influential contribution by Christianity is best acknowledged by its opponents.
Why do Christians so underrate Christianity’s positive influence? Perhaps the main reason is the privatisation of religion after the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: to establish peace, it had to be separated from matters of government. Before then, and in other parts of the world, beliefs about the divine had been integrated into public discourse about the physical world and in this way had enabled societies to reflect on who made them, for what purpose, and how therefore they should live. Our current political discourse, by carefully avoiding references to the divine, is left with a default atheism where nobody made us and there are no given purposes. If we were consistent about this and stopped borrowing Christian purposes, it would be clear that the future of society, together with all our values, is a blank page. We could write on it anything we wanted. Or nothing. Those who follow the logic of this soon realise the importance of that small word ‘we’. Who makes the decisions? On what basis? Will the future just bring more power struggles between vested interests? Is history to be just a constant struggle for supremacy?
So we asked theologians to focus on the big issues facing society and reflect on future possibilities. Economics, welfare, the environment, health and war must surely be among them. When theologians apply their insights to these things, their understandings of Christian scriptures, doctrine, worship and ethics rarely correlate neatly with the policies of political parties.
John Gladwin introduces the issues, describing how the UK’s churches have a long history of engagement with the political process in support of many different positions. The shock of the Second World War and the prospect of fascism and communism led to the search for a better alternative. Following the lead of William Temple’s Christianity and the Social Order, the Welfare State was the result. Today a pressing issue is the public’s disengagement from democratic processes; why has public dissatisfaction led to disengagement rather than political opposition through the available channels? What will be the future role of voluntary organisations?
‘It’s the economy, stupid’, originally a slogan for Bill Clinton’s election campaign, has become a commonplace of political discourse: of course election prospects are mainly determined by economic competence. Growth brings jobs and jobs bring money. We are so used to government discourse being dominated by this that it seems strange to question its centrality. However the connection is unravelling. Scepticism continues to grow, not just because of the recent financial crash: throughout history, indeed, there has been tension between lovers of wealth and power and lovers of a more equal society where everybody’s needs are met.
Malcolm Brown, the Church of England’s Director of Mission and Public Affairs, reviews the ideas behind the setting up of the British Welfare State, including the Church’s contribution, as the experience of depression and war led to the question of what kind of state is worth fighting for. Brown argues that there is too much dependence on over-simple dualisms of the individual over against the state or the corporation; we need richer, more nuanced accounts of a healthy society, where welfare is reconnected to the prime purposes of government. The churches have a great deal to offer, not only in their social teaching but in their presence in local communities.
Peter Sedgwick, Principal of St Michael’s College, Cardiff, focuses on tax avoidance as a major concern for our day. Power has shifted from governments to corporations. Globalisation means companies can easily withdraw when offered more favourable terms elsewhere. Many companies are parts of multinationals, so one part can charge another part, thus transferring pricing to wherever the costs are lowest. Associated with this is the decline of civic virtue, as explored by Michael Sandel, and the decline in political involvement described by Charles Mathewes. A global response is needed. Sedgwick appeals for a new culture, a new Augustinianism which does not allow collusion with norms which are simply about profit.
That theologians concern themselves with these issues should not be surprising. In the passages of Deuteronomy that we read at Harvest festivals there is more than enough food for everyone. As though in response to the recent ‘workers and shirkers’ rhetoric, it rubs in that the wealth comes from God so nobody can rightly claim that what they have is the result of their own efforts. The pre-exilic prophets agree: Amos, Isaiah and Micah are often quoted on the point. Also significant is the growing interest in the socio-economic conditions of first century Galilee and their relation to the teaching of Jesus. In the continuing debate on what he meant by the Kingdom of God, the pendulum is now swinging against an imminent divine intervention and towards a reapplication of those Hebrew scriptures for communities of Galileans impoverished by Roman taxation policies.
This biblical tradition, knowing nothing of modern economic theory, described wealth as a gift from God. The proper response is gratitude and celebration. Because it is gift, nobody should hog it; everyone should have their share. This philosophy of wealth still comes naturally to country-dwellers who see abundance appearing every year regardless of whether humans engage with it.
When it gets replaced by the view that the world is too mean to meet our needs, the onus is placed on humans; it will be our labour and our economic expertise that produces the wealth. The implication for distribution changes: why should any wealth at all be granted to those without paid employment? Are they not parasites on the rest of us?
Hence the importance of economic growth. Yet its role has been changing. Immediately after the Second World War returning soldiers needed money and jobs. The need was to get people producing what others needed. The measure of success became the size of the economy – that is, the amount of money changing hands. Gradually this measure turned into an end in itself. The economy got reified – or deified. As such it becomes a totem of unity: humanity-as-a-whole, or at least the-nation-as-a-whole, is pitted against the meanness of nature. We are all in it together. Non-human nature, if God’s gift at all, is anything but generous. We must struggle to produce more and consume more for the sake of the economy.
Even before the financial crash of 2008 this philosophy of wealth was losing popularity. The competing economic claims of the political parties just made people despise politicians. The crash made it clear that all was not well. ‘Lessons’ needed to be learned, ‘errors’ corrected. Yet in most ways we are back where we were before, except that the rich are even richer and the poor even poorer. For the increasing numbers for whom the food bank is an essential supplement, even to a full-time job, an increase in the nation’s total wealth is no comfort at all. What matters is not total quantity but distribution.
Concern for the environment struggles for attention in the face of all this. In the past prophets of an imminent End found themselves unpopular with scientists, governments and business leaders alike. In the case of the current environmental degradation – climate change, extinctions, pollution, desertification – the scientific community is on the side of the doomsters. A recent report states that 97% of climate science papers think human actions are accentuating global warming. Yet the small minority who disagree provide space for uncertainty and reason for governments to delay action. There remains a substantial gap between what governments consider politically realistic and what scientists consider essential. To say that we must produce less, consume less, build less, kill less, eat less, drink less, throw away less, expel less, is an exact reversal of dominant government policies of living memory.
Martin Palmer, the Secretary General of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, describes environmentalism as a missionary movement. It uses the theological concepts of sin, guilt, fall and heresy. However the environmental movement in general is uncomfortable with religion in general because it has less use for redemption, forgiveness, celebration and love. In the other direction there is much suspicion of environmentalists by the faith traditions, who have had their attention drawn to issues which they themselves would otherwise have overlooked. One thing the faith traditions can teach environmentalists is that statistics are not enough. The vast amount of data presented at the 2009 Copenhagen summit failed to inspire. Change comes about through inspiring narratives.
Peter Scott, Samuel Ferguson Professor at Manchester University, explores why the environment proves difficult to discuss in public discourse. Urban environments, engineered to conform to our expectations, give us a distinct experience in the practicalities of living. ‘We do not inhabit a town or city—instead, we occupy it.’ Nature impinges less. This makes us anthropocentric. We need to develop a sense of being guests as well as hosts in the world. Government reports speak of the environment providing us with ‘services’; what sort of society interprets nature as a service-provider? Scott recommends that we should think of human society as being part of a greater society. Because of the questions our present situation raises, the future of such a greater society must be religious.
Again our contributors see theology as having an essential role in facing public concerns. In the past most societies have been acutely aware of their dependence on the natural environment as, in some sense, a divine gift. Biblical scholars have often drawn attention to the texts emphasising the natural order as given by God and therefore to be valued. This was the theme of Modern Church’s 2013 annual conference ‘The Earth is the Lord’s’, chaired by Margaret Barker whose works explore it in depth.
However western society has also inherited, originally from the ancient Stoics, a more anthropocentric account: nature is there for human use. ‘Pigs, according to Chrysippus, should be reckoned locomotive meals, with souls instead of salt to keep them fresh.’ With modern technology the potential of this anthropocentrism increased exponentially. Still, as long as the environment had been created by a god who knew what was good for us, there were limits to how we should adapt it. It was when the physical universe was redescribed as the product of unconscious forces that the brakes came right off. We – who do at least have minds – should be able to improve on this accident which is our natural environment. Maybe we are over-influenced by advertisements but our culture often enthuses about increasingly artificial lifestyles and ever more complex technologies, as though getting further and further away from nature was a virtue in itself. If the gods do not care, or do not exist, why not? As with economics we have secularised, and then redirected, a notion of progress which once made sense as a response to God’s benign wisdom.
No policies or hopes for society are benign unless they foster good health. Our bodies have evolved, for the most part, to work well with a hunter-gatherer lifestyle; subsequent changes have potential health effects, some of which we know about. There is debate about how much our concept of good health is a social construct and how much is built into the way we have evolved. We can recognise extremes. When I was born in the late 1940s my mother had all her teeth taken out: the dominant view was that false teeth were a great improvement on natural teeth, as bottled milk was on breast milk. Fortunately the medical profession has subsequently retreated from these fantasies of omniscience. Dental implants and artificial hips attempt to mimic the real thing, not to do better. Female genital mutilation offends us because it damages an otherwise healthy body.
In other ways, though, the tension between good health and freedom of choice remains. It has become standard procedure for doctors to ask patients whether they smoke, drink alcohol or have signs of diabetes; so much illness is caused, or at least accentuated, by an excess of tobacco, alcohol or sugar, but the idea of banning them offends our sense of personal choice.
Claire Foster-Gilbert, Founder-Director of the Westminster Abbey Institute, analyses the ethical implications of trends in the British National Health Service. It is constantly embracing new conditions and treatments. Meanwhile patients increasingly expect their autonomy to be respected. Most of the health budget is spent on the elderly, who are increasing in number. So are chronic conditions related to obesity. Using the traditional classification of ethical systems as based on rights, duties or goals, Foster-Gilbert argues that goal-based and right-based approaches have dominated health care and the role of duty needs to be revived. Our sense of self should be based not on selfish interest but on consideration of others. This can be fostered within a natural law ethics which values and attends to God’s creation as presented to us.
In all these issues there is a common theme. Is progress really possible? There have been many changes in history, but they can be interpreted in different ways. Perhaps all that happens is that some benefit at the expense of others. Perhaps the illusion of progress comes from the fact that history is written by the winners. Perhaps there are better and worse societies but no long-term trends. Perhaps the very idea of progress is a myth invented by the ruling classes, a trick to manipulate us into doing what suits them.
We try to make our theories fit our experiences. In practice we are happier in some situations than others. We recognise progress and regress, better and worse times, in our own lives. Extrapolating, we can hope for better times for our villages, our cities, our nations, the world. Are these hopes realistic? History is ambiguous. We can point to a Wilberforce, a Gandhi, who seems to have made the world a better place, but we can also point to people who seem to have made it worse again. If all hopes for a better future are not to be misguided we need more than optimistic interpretations of history; we also need a convincing theory of who we are and what we are capable of. This, surely, is where atheist and monotheist interpretations of humanity diverge most tellingly. For a while godless progress seemed assured by evolution, but now it is better understood that evolution contains nothing of morality or progress; forms of life just change with their environments. If we are nothing but the product of a purposeless evolution we have no reason to suppose humanity capable of anything we have not already done. If, on the other hand, we are in some way or other the creation of an intending mind, we should be capable of whatever that mind intends, even if we are yet to attempt it.