Forgive us our Debts
The project examines personal, corporate, and public debt in the UK within a moral framework. (Upcoming)
Paul Bickley reflects on the year that’s been, and looks ahead to 2019, offering thoughts on how sources of hope and meaning can help us in the face of uncertain times.
At the close of the year, and the beginning of a new one, I’m reminded of a short essay by George Orwell: Notes on the Way. Reviewing Malcolm Muggeridge’s “brilliant and depressing book”, The Thirties, he observed that for many years every thinking man was a rebel: “Gibbon, Voltaire, Rousseau, Shelley, Byron, Dickens, Stendhal, Samuel Butler, Ibsen, Zola, Flaubert, Shaw, Joyce — in one way or another they are all of them destroyers, wreckers, saboteurs”.
These thinkers were sawing at the branch of Christianity, or at least what Orwell argued had come to pass for Christianity – “a semi–conscious device for keeping the rich rich and the poor poor… Ten thousand a year for me, two pounds a week for you, but we are all the children of God… And through the whole fabric of capitalist society there ran a similar lie, which it was absolutely necessary to rip out”. In the words of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, it was a time to tear down, not to build up.
Was it necessary to rip out the culture’s soul? Well, Orwell was in a better position to know than we are. Nonetheless, he mourned the consequences of this process in the 1930s and 1940s. When the branch finally gave way, “Our culture had fallen not into a bed of roses, but a cesspool full of barbed wire…in the space of ten years we had slid back into the Stone Age. Human types supposedly extinct for centuries, the dancing dervish, the robber chieftain, the Grand Inquisitor, have suddenly reappeared, not as inmates of lunatic asylums, but as the masters of the world”.
It’s hard not to see the resonances with what we have seen happening in the West in the last few years. In the 70 years since the end of the Second World War common experiences, common stories, and common enemies held nations and international alliances together. The common experience was of the shared struggle of wartime and its aftermath (remember, rationing lasted until 1954). The common story was one of increasing prosperity, generation by generation. The common enemy was communist authoritarianism.
None of these hold any more. The common experience only took a generation to begin to evaporate, and has now more or less completely disappeared. The story of economic progress has faltered, not least after the 2008 crash. With an automated future on the horizon, many people in Europe and America now contemplate a future in which future generations will be less prosperous. (Why else did coal country in the US overwhelmingly voted Republican in the last Presidential election, and Labour heartlands vote Brexit?) Indeed, the principle of never–ending growth is now rightly questioned because of ecological sustainability. And who is our enemy now? Well that’s complicated. Either Islamist terror, or else it is the neo–liberal elite – neither of which gather conveniently inside any geographical border, and must be contended with abroad and at home. How many people in today’s Britain perceive a near neighbour as not just a stranger, but a potential enemy?
Brexit is our local expression of this age of discontent – a determination to rip out and tear down – and we should not be surprised that it feels like destruction, wrecking, sabotage. As we stagger out of 2018 and into 2019, our democracy already giving every indication of being a failing prospectus. The chaotic nature of parliamentary and internal party business over recent weeks will be sufficient evidence to many that our political institutions are now operating beyond their limits.
The question is, as we saw away at the branch, who can say into what we will land? In spite of the chatter, there are really only three possible outcomes to this particular process: a no–deal departure (quite likely), May’s deal or a version thereof (parliamentary arithmetic makes this quite unlikely), or a second referendum (a possibility). Readers will have a view as to which is the resolution for the process begun in June 2016’s referendum, but we should recognise that whatever the outcome, the underlying disruption will remain: a lack of a shared story, no shared national experience, and no easily identifiable shared enemy against which we can define ourselves.
In our recent report, People, Place and Purpose, we talk about the importance of spiritual capital – by which we mean the sources of hope and meaning which help neighbourhoods become resilient. It is clear that in 2019 we will face a deficit in our national spiritual capital. Orwell said that “man does not live by bread alone… hatred is not enough… a world worth living in cannot be founded on ‘realism’ and machine–guns”. As politicians try to deal with the urgent, we need not to lose sight of the important – restoring our spiritual capital.
Isn’t the time for tearing down over? Isn’t it time for building up? Churches are among the moral communities that a) don’t have to be fighting out the politics of Brexit and b) can therefore focus on telling a better story. It is possible to be rooted in the past and work hard for a better future without plunging into the utopian dreams of hard–line Brexiteers or Remainers. Our communities transcend national borders, but are also local and particular. And our enemy is not so much out there in one people group or another – rather, it is the temptation for each of us to serve only ourselves.
2019 promises to have a politically traumatic start, and the watchword is uncertainty. In one sense, religion in general – and Christianity in particular – could hardly seem more irrelevant to the most pressing political questions of the day. That could not be further from the truth.
See other recent events and articles
Michael Gove, MP and Environment Secretary, on environmental justice, stewardship and the moral purpose of government at Theos’ annual lecture 2018.
10 book recommendations for Christmas, by the Theos team. 18/12/2018Articles
Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.