Philosophy of this site

God, the world and us

I admit that’s a lot, but it’s time to redress the balance and pay more attention to the big picture. Otherwise we just get better and better at making the same mistakes.

The world and us

We are in a mess. The most critical feature is destruction of the environment: climate change, pollution, erosion of land, extinction of species. We know we are destroying the essential foundations of human life, but we carry on doing it.

Then there is the polarisation of wealth. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. We may congratulate ourselves on the abolition of slavery but lives are increasingly trapped by poverty in unpleasant conditions from which only a small minority can escape. In democratic countries it is theoretically possible to elect new governments with radically different policies, but the system seems to have been tamed. At the time of writing there is no sign of a popular movement seeking violent revolution, but if current trends continue it can only be a matter of time.

Compared with these it seems almost boring to note that, a century after the War to End All Wars, we still haven’t found it possible to live together in peace.

The most common response is that it is somebody else’s responsibility; the facts and figures are too technical for most of us. We are used to a highly specialised society with different people looking after different elements. To solve poverty we need to produce more and consume more; to protect the environment we need to produce less and consume less. Nobody accepts responsibility for the big picture, so we are riddled with conflicting goals. If United Nations didn’t exist, nobody today would want to create it.

A second response is that our current methods of problem-solving are adequate. Economic growth and new technologies will sort things out. If the gas is running out we’ll do fracking. When the gas from fracking runs out some other technology will turn up. The poverty of the poor is to be addressed not by making sure they have enough but by growing the economy.

These are not solutions. They merely postpone the day of reckoning. Climate change, the exhaustion of oil and gas supplies and the poverty of the poor are caused not by modern society’s failures, but by its successes. We achieved what we wanted, and are yet to face the fact that we wanted the wrong things.

What’s the alternative? If the current cults of endless economic growth and technological innovation are the wrong things to do, what should we do instead? A convincing alternative will need a goal, a vision of a better society that stands up to criticism. Only when there is a shared vision can there be a shared debate about how to get there.

To add to the difficulty, the intellectual mood hinders any such vision. Far from offering tools to examine the assumptions we have inherited, it denies that any such examination would be meaningful. Instead it tells us that every vision is relative: yours is only yours, that’s all. Hence the attractiveness of capitalism: in a world where there are no shared visions everybody decides for themselves how much to invest in what, and the market adjusts prices to maximise overall satisfaction.

In practice of course capitalism allows the rich and powerful to get their way at the expense of the poor and powerless. The idea of negotiating against each other in pursuit of different visions would only work if everybody had the same amount of power and money.

Even if it could work in practice, it presupposes – and thereby reinforces – the belief that there is no hope of consensus, that there cannot be a shared vision of the kind of society we ought to aim for. The picture it paints is of a world where we are necessarily in conflict with each other. If this is true we will never bring wars to an end, never make sure everybody has enough, never live in harmony with our environment. It is a grim, pessimistic theory.

Because we no longer look for a shared vision we carry on with the ideas we have inherited, not knowing what to do when they no longer work. The best possible future gets conceived in terms of greater shopping power, living longer, an endless succession of new improved iPads. We are like hikers whose map has been blown away by the wind: we carry on in the same direction as before because we do not know what else to do.

There is a logic to the supreme authority of relativist individualism. If there is no mind greater than the human mind, no being of which we can say ‘I think I know the answer but that being knows better than I do’, then the individual human mind really is the supreme authority. This is highly significant: to say that there is no authority greater than the individual human mind is to say that whenever two people disagree there is no right answer.

So if there is a better vision – if there could be real progress towards a different and better society – who decides what it is? How can there be a truth which remains true even when people do not believe it? It is a question of authority: what kind of authority is greater than the human mind?

God and the world

On this authority question, modern western society has gone through three stages. In the first stage it shared with other human societies (all of them, as far as we know) the belief that humans had been created by one or more gods, who gave our lives a purpose. This purpose, as they understood it, established the potential and limits of human life, what we should strive for and what we should avoid. The purposes varied immensely, but they had in common the belief that a successful, desirable life is one lived in accordance with the purposes for which we have been made.

The second stage arose in western Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and since then has spread throughout the world. What changed was that the visions of human society got disconnected from all beliefs about God. The authorities on God had been claiming to know too much. They had quarrelled and fought wars against each other. There was no longer any consensus about what God wanted. Theology could no longer be the ‘queen of the sciences’, giving each institution a place in the overall scheme of things. Instead government, science, philosophy, law and ethics needed to detach themselves from religious authority.

Thus liberated, the intellectual classes rejected traditional ideas about God’s purposes. Instead they set about solving humanity’s problems, as they saw them, by using new knowledge. The good society was about marching forward into an uncharted future: nature bad, new artifice good. On the one hand they rejected religious authority and traditional Christian understandings of how society should function. On the other hand they continued to believe that there is a right answer to how society should be governed, and that there are authorities who know the answer. Different authorities – the enlightened elite instead of the Church – but there was still a class of people who knew what was best for the rest of us. They often found it possible to present their views as the views of society as a whole, and sometimes still do.

The result was a succession of programmes of social engineering: economic growth, mass education, racial progress (killing off races considered inferior), eugenics, technological innovation, communism and fascism. In each case the elite thought they knew how to improve society and set about imposing it on everyone else in the name of progress.

The list of programmes is sobering enough, but over time the elitism itself became unacceptable. In an age when all adults have the vote, why should social objectives be determined by a few? Why shouldn’t each of us decide for ourselves what our life is for? The logic of dispensing with God was bound to make its presence felt eventually. If there is no mind greater than the human mind, there is no mind more authoritative than yours. Some people are cleverer than you, better mathematicians, better scientists; but nobody has a mind with authority to tell you what your life is for. Decide for yourself.

So we have reached the third stage. It seems hopelessly outdated to talk about what life is for, what society is for, what the world is for. There is no longer any point in public debate about these things because there is no right answer except each individual’s choice. Democracy ceases to be a shared public debate about what kind of society we should have, because there is no ‘should’. Since the only answers are individual preferences, the only point of elections is to count them. Power passes to those who control the mass media, persuading us to want what they want us to want.

It is an inevitable result of separating beliefs about the divine from the big questions. In other cultures, characterised by the first of the three stages, beliefs about gods were integral parts of an overall understanding of reality. Scientific questions about how the universe works were integrated with religious questions about who made us and moral questions about how we should live. They fitted together.

It is precisely because modern secular culture has separated them out that we have no shared sense of direction, and even the belief that we could have one is breaking down. Institutions set up in an earlier era, when there was one, are now losing their role. Without a sense that our lives have a purpose given to us, there is no way to resolve the disagreement between those who think we should increase production and consumption and those who think we should reduce it. United Nations is increasingly powerless to resist the superpowers. Without a shared sense of what human fulfilment should be like, educational institutions end up training people to do what the ruling classes want them to do. Without a shared sense of how our bodies have been designed to function well, we spend ever-increasing amounts on health services to offset the ever-increasing amounts we spend on unhealthy lifestyle choices.

Although the second stage still retains influence, the weaknesses of the third stage are becoming more and more obvious. To treat democracy as a mere counting of individual preferences is to invite selfishness, while most people prefer a society where we take account of other people’s needs. Every nation depends on the majority obeying the laws, so they must think the laws are good enough. We cannot do without a shared public discourse about what a better society would be like.

That ‘better’ still needs authority. To take an example, currently there is debate about the relative merits of economic growth and economic equality. Most western governments currently think growth is the more important of the two. If this is the right answer, by what authority does it become so? Because it is preferred by the individuals with the greatest power? Because society has so decided? But who determines society’s norms? Is it right because we elected a government that so believes? Is the purpose of society whatever the government decrees it to be? Or is there a higher truth on the matter, a truth that remains true whatever any humans think? In that case we are back with metaphysics, once again presupposing an authority greater than human minds.

We all think like this some of the time, without noticing the metaphysical implications. Some people make it abundantly clear: anti-fracking protestors, Greenpeace activists and animal rights campaigners often risk injury, imprisonment or even death. When a Greenpeace ship deliberately blocks a whaling operation, the activists cannot be in any doubt in their minds that the whaling is wrong. ‘My hormones make me feel it is wrong’ is not strong enough. Nor is ‘the value system I have chosen for myself considers it wrong’. Nobody puts themselves in that much danger on such a weak basis. They consider it absolutely wrong, wrong over and above what any particular person may think.

Nothing could express more strongly the conviction that there are objective truths, passing moral judgement on the policies of even the highest human authorities. Most of these people do not think through the philosophical implications of their beliefs. It just comes naturally. There is a higher moral authority than the human mind.

I believe they are right to think like this, and I hope to help fill the theoretical hole.

God and us

Many people think religion has nothing to offer on the big questions. People often get the impression that the moral concerns of the churches are all about sex, and that becoming a religious person is all about assenting to dogmas. When people prefer to describe themselves as ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’, it is often because they want to distance themselves from the kind of religion that tells them what to do and what to think, rather than helping them understand who they are and what is the point of life.

It is unfortunate that religion has gained this reputation, but hardly surprising. Not only has secular society made a point of keeping religion at arm’s length, but most of our religious institutions have long since learned to keep away from the big questions and concentrate on distinctively religious issues like prayer and life after death. The churches are at their most outward-looking when addressing sexual ethics, usually for negative reasons.

For 500 years the main division in western Christianity has been between catholics and protestants. Recently there has been division between ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’. In this context to be a conservative is to be more inclined to defend the inherited teachings of one’s tradition. This provides a strength of commitment from which to critique society. However the commitments are characteristically to dogmatic claims, to be accepted on trust by buying into the entire tradition; offering rational arguments would be a ‘liberal’ thing to do.

Liberals on the other hand are characterised by an openness to argument and new ideas, so are better able to engage in open debate about the nature of society. However religious liberalism often attracts people who are reacting against a conservative religion with too many obligations, and want to avoid strong commitments. In addition those content with the political status quo may prefer religious liberalism because it can more easily adapt to social norms.

My interests therefore combine two themes which are usually kept separate. My main aim is to explore how society can function better, and find better solutions to its problems, by rediscovering the importance of the spiritual dimension to reality and our lives. My second aim is to share in Christian debate about how churches can rediscover their proper role as symbols and agents of this spiritual dimension.

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5 Responses to Philosophy of this site

  1. Robin Wilson says:

    I spent my working life “trying to make society function better, and find solutions to its problems”. I did this mainly in local government as an analyst and as a manager. When I have tried to build links between my spiritual life and my work life I have run into many problems. On the one hand the church always seemed to find my activities in local councils to be part of the problem and not part of any acceptable solution. On the other hand politicians generally “don’t do God” and are often scornful of those who do. In retirement I ponder my failure to bridge that gap.

    • Thanks Robin. Sad, isn’t it?

      • Robin Wilson says:

        It’s not so much sad as perplexing. (I have book on my shelves called “A guide for the perplexed” by Maimonides!) It’s a problem I have scratched away at for fifty years. I could write a book about it. Perhaps I will, though who would read it?

  2. Dear Jonathan. As a parish priest working in urban Leeds (30% male unemployment in parts – the worst in Europe I am told AND with too many suicides but not surprising given the first statistic) and my third UPA parish in the four I’ve served across 23 years, I find reading your thoughts immensely refreshing! The obsession of the C of E (at least) with its own numerical growth is depressing. I stood for the GS on a ‘here to serve’ ticket and also pro-LGBT line but (surprise, surprise!) didn’t get elected. I hope Liberal voices can be heard and understood AND that we can all get away from seeing ‘liberal’ as a dirty word. I associate it with God, i.e., undeserved grace that goes the extra mile or ten.

    • Nicola Phelan says:

      Dear Johnathan and Andrew
      Just want to say keep up the good work and thanks for representing the liberal perspective. My experience as a lay Anglican is that there are fewer churches to be found where it is possible to express and explore a Liberal understanding of faith. Christians of all persuasions work together on practical projects for the common good but theological differences divide and it can be difficult to articulate a different understanding when it is assumed we all believe the same way and it is the only way. My feeling is nothing will change unless we have Liberal and Conservative leadership in each Diocese and in head offices to facilitate dialogue and Living the differences together. In the meantime I luckily know some Liberal clergy locally and keep sane within the Progressive Christianity network.

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