Having missed most of the Jubilee celebrations in the UK, two scripts have (for me, at least) gone to the heart of the matter.
The first is David Hare’s Guardian comment on the Queen “floating above the stink” of the rest of our disillusioned public life. He concludes:
The Queen is perceived today to be where we might all wish to be – floating some way above the stink. And for that reason the young woman who was phoned on safari in Kenya in 1952 and told to come home immediately is 60 years later overwhelmingly popular. We are grateful that there is one British citizen who is not at the mercy of market forces and shameless profiteering, nor of a government which lacks the philosophy, the intellectual equipment or the will to control them. What was in happier times the Queen’s greatest weakness – that she does not in the circumstances of her life resemble her subjects – has paradoxically, at this point in our history, come to be her greatest strength. Republicans who have recently been cowed into silence – “not a good year for us,” admitted their spokesperson – should take heart. The vestigial idealism which has recently settled on the Queen’s shoulders is a parallel instinct to that which demands television programmes not about rubbish and a publicly funded health service, where the fit pay cheerfully to help the sick. God knows, that public idealism has few enough other places to go.
The second is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon at St Paul’s Cathedral today – which I did not hear, but have just read. He asks for the recovery of a renewed vision of ‘dedicated’ public service – akin to what I posted earlier on the discussions in Brussels last night. He concludes:
This year has already seen a variety of Jubilee creations and projects. But its most lasting memorial would be the rebirth of an energetic, generous spirit of dedication to the common good and the public service, the rebirth of a recognition that we live less than human lives if we think just of our own individual good.
I came to Brussels to contribute to a round-table discussion last night with the President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, and four other guests from Sweden, Greece/France, Germany and Ireland. The theme was Bringing Hope and Solidarity into European Integration.
On arrival in Brussels I was very helpfully briefed on latest developments in the Euro crisis, European competitiveness, demographic movements, migration, energy, employment, and so on. After all, these are the issues that form the context in which any concepts of hope and solidarity have to be worked out.
Herman van Rompuy was embarrassingly excellent. I cannot imagine a senior British politician beginning such a discourse on social solidarity with an exposition of Martin Buber‘s ‘Ich und Du’ (I and Thou). The basic thesis is that people – individually and collectively – exist meaningfully only in relation to others and ‘the other’. Identity is shaped by relationship, and relationship (or encounter) lies at the root of any notion of solidarity. Although Buber speaks initially of ‘persons’, we can extrapolate from this to societies that must be ‘open to the world’. Such openness is integral to and inherent in what it means to be human beings together.
Van Rompuy then explored what this might mean for the European Union, belonging to which does not transcend or replace membership of other (smaller) groupings. It is easy to forget just how enormously important an achievement the European project has been – enabling European countries to build more than just a peaceful co-existence after 1500 years of wars, bloodshed, broken peace treaties, and so on. He concluded that “Europe will be what Europeans make it to be”.
Now, this was designed to start a debate – which it did. We explored whether (especially in the case of the Greeks) solidarity is the desire of the weak at the expense of the strong. Different perceptions of Europe’s future potential were articulated, but especially in the light of the Christian churches’ failures to engage in a meaningful or transformative way with some of Europe’s most pressing issues. I don’t have time to go into depth, but hope a text might be forthcoming at some point.
For my part, I tried simply to suggest that for ‘solidarity’ to mean anything, commitment had to emerge from some sort of shared vision… and a shared vision must emerge from some shared values. These shared values need in turn to arise from some articulated (and not merely assumed) narrative that provides a metaphorical lens through which the ‘project’ can be understood and appreciated. In other words, there needs to be some controlling ‘myth’ which gives meaning to what we are doing together. I went on later to question whether such an articulation was currently forthcoming in the United Kingdom in particular.
Contrast Europe with Kazakhstan, for example. One of the most striking things about any conversation with young Kazakhs is the energy and commitment they show to building their new country. They are only 20 years old and still trying to work out what their ‘backstory’ is. But, they are building something, shaping a future, proudly taking responsibility for their ‘project’. In Europe, however, we find tired cynicism – an attempt to recover a romanticised past or preserve some imagined glory, a sceptical apathy about anything and anyone who tries to identify or articulate a future. (See Nick Cohen’s Guardian destruction of Tony Blair – a journalist responsible for nothing other than expressing his opinion taking apart someone who, for all his failings, is engaged where it matters, trying to bring change.)
Europe has fought its wars and shed it’s blood. Europe’s future lies in a common vision, not in the fragmentation that gave us the last 1500 years of adventure.
Van Rompuy’s line is that we are ‘better together’ than ‘fighting together’. He rightly identifies individualism as a problem (which is where, at the level of national myth or narrative, Europe differs from the USA) if the focus of values is essentially identified in the individual and there is no sense of ‘society’ conceived of as anything more than the sum of individuals.
I made two points which preoccupy me from time to time and which I think need addressing: (a) how can the churches (among others) use their prophetic vocation to offer a renewed or new vision of how Europe can identify hope and solidarity in its common life? and (b) how can the European institutions (and the churches) find a new narrative – and a language for expressing it – that captures both the intellectual commitment of (what I rudely and rather simplistically called) Europe’s Radio 4 and the popular imagination of Europe’s Radio 2 audiences.
Both the EU and European Christian ecumenism emerged from world wars and a determination not to go back to fighting. This fear and resolve forged the narrative that has driven both movements for over sixty years. But, this narrative no longer motivates people for whom the second world war is as remote as the French Revolution. Yes, our young people need to learn history, but they will also need to identify or create a new narrative (controlling myth) that commands positive commitment for the future and is not just driven by fear derived from a past of which they had no part.
Of course, I might be barking up the wrong tree. And we don’t have the luxury of simply thinking this through while everything stops for us. The answers to these demanding questions must be found while we work our way through the immediate crises in which we find ourselves.
Perhaps it would help if we in the UK recognised – despite the shallow disavowals of our politicians – that the Euro crisis is not happening somewhere else and is the result of ‘lazy Greeks versus efficient Germans’, but was largely caused by US and British banking recklessness and failures. ‘Solidarity’ means taking responsibility for one’s neighbour – especially where the neighbour’s circumstances were partly caused by our misbehaviour and hubris.
Having got back from Kazakhstan last Friday and spent Saturday and Sunday with family, I am now (supposed to be) on holiday and am in Brussels. I’ll explain in the next post. However, lack of wifi in Kazakhstan mean that I couldn’t do the usual business of blogging as I went along. So, here’s the last of this batch.
The Congress ended with an ‘Appeal’ which will not be widely read in the West. It still assumes that people do what their faith leaders tell them to do – which is a misguided assumption. Nevertheless, the engagement with each other can produce conversations of value and forge relationships that can be of benefit more widely. The event also provides an excellent opportunity to speak face to face with government leaders about matters of international concern – and this is an opportunity I took in relation to Kazakhstan’s unnecessary and restrictive new Religious Law. I am now following this up with a letter which will set out concerns in detail.
Anyway, back to the Congress itself. I was unable to give a speech at a Panel Session on ‘youth’ as the organisers had arranged for me to be in three places at the same time. I cannot trilocate. So, one of my English colleagues stepped in and pretended to be me. I gather he did an excellent job at condensing our ideas into a coherent and stimulating contribution to proceedings. But, here is the bulk (minus the usual greeting stuff) of what I would have said – just for the record and to give an idea of how direct we can be in introducing ideas that aren’t earth-shattering in the UK, but might be challenging elsewhere. (The complaining I heard about new media and how young people need to be taken away from computers and educated to accept the authority of their elders helped me realise how hopelessly out of touch some religious leaders can be – wishing the world could be now as it used to be…)
… Young people are not ‘the future’, they are ‘the present’ – the ‘now’. I will come back to this later. However, before doing so, we need to recognise that the themes before us in this Congress run along the fault lines of our global societies in the early decades of the twenty first century.
Sustainable development poses a massive challenge to a world in which some people prosper at the expense of those who have little – assumptions about inevitable universal economic growth have been called into question by the financial crashes since 2008. But sustainable development assumes sustainable societies that are sustained by values that are themselves sustainable in the longer term.
When people from diverse cultures live alongside each other we refer to multiculturalism. Allowing cultures to thrive is a rich gift, but in Europe serious questions are being asked about whether a blind acceptance of multiculturalism as a virtue has hindered integration of communities in a common society.
In many parts of the world traditional understandings of the role of women are being questioned. The trafficking and abuse of women by men is a serious and appallingly common feature of our world. An uncomfortable fact of life is that while men talk and fight, women get on with keeping families together, raising children, making society work, making local economies work and shaping communities.
But all of this comes together when we take a look at the future of our young people. The world in which I grew up is not the same world my own children have grown into. And this means that my children – now aged 30, 28 and 24 – look at the world through a different lens. For example:
- The nuclear threat of my childhood has been replaced by a profound concern for the environment, the creation, the tiny planet we all inhabit. Concern for the future of the planet, for sustainable development and for justice is a powerful and non-negotiable starting point for millions of young people.
- This owes something to the development of ubiquitous media, and especially in the last few years, of social media. The world is now connected in ways that were unimaginable even ten years ago. You can go into an African or South American jungle and find people without roads and transport, but everyone seems to have a mobile phone and an email address. Go into a cafe in an obscure town in a developing country and young people are sitting at computer screens updating their Facebook status. Electronic media – in their mere infancy when I was already working as a professional linguist – have by now revolutionised the world, creating new and surprising ways for people to relate, converse and plan together.
However, even though there is a massive uptake of older people using new technologies and the Internet, these older generations (that is, my generation) tend to see such technologies as a means of communicating or working, but not, as millions of young people do, part of their natural DNA. Social media are integral ways of communicating and relating for millions of young people – something most of us, even if we are adept at electronic media, cannot comprehend. Our children obtain their worldview-shaping perceptions and information about the world from these new ways of communicating. The days when our young people only knew a limited number of people in, or just beyond, their immediate geographical habitat have now gone. Children have ‘friends’ across the globe in communities completely alien to their own. (And it is significant that whereas some governments used to try to shut down inconvenient voices during elections or times of social unrest by closing newspapers or broadcasters, now they aim to shut down Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets.)
These two phenomena are clearly connected. The world our children are growing into is considerably smaller than the one most of us grew up in. News is instant, information is infinitely accessible (although ‘information’ is not to be confused with ‘knowledge’ and ‘knowledge’ should not be mistaken for ‘wisdom’), and what happens in a small forest in the Amazon becomes a motivating challenge for people living in London or Bradford. To ignore the revolutionary power of social media is simply to bury our heads in the sand of wilful ignorance. Trying to pretend that the world continues to be what it has always been will not change the fact that these developments have changed the way in which our young people organise, buy in to politics and protest, view authority and power, and suspect institutions.
This provides a radical challenge to religious leaders – and to politicians who need better to understand the place and role of religion as a motivator of people and a shaper of cultural identity. In the western world morality has frequently become disconnected from questions of ‘truth’ and is shaped by mere pragmatism – a worrying development for many reasons. But, complaining about it will not change anything. It is the responsibility of my generation to learn to look though the eyes of our young people and understand why they see what they see in the way they see it.
Crucial to this is the place of schools and education. One of the challenges faced by children of some of our religious communities in Britain is that of ‘compartmentalisation’. This is where children are taught by their religious institutions or communities to see the world in one way, whilst then being taught a different approach in school. For example, a scientific account of evolution is worked with in the classroom, but a non-scientific ‘belief’ held in the mosque or church. Such compartmentalism cannot be sustained by people who grow up to realise that there is only one reality, that something is true because it is true and not because we would like to believe it is true.
Perhaps this is why some observers predict a collapse in religious commitment by many young people where their experience of the world is rejected by religious authorities that occupy a different reality. (And, just for the record, I see no contradiction between accounts of why the world is the way it is and how the world came to be the way it is; we must just be careful not to confuse ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions.)
The hearts and minds of our young people will no longer be won by appeals to authority or loyalty, but by capturing the imagination of people who take the world seriously. Too often fundamentalists thrive because they know how to appeal to these base commitments in young people who want to shape the world differently. They see our failures, our conflicts and fragmentations, and are not impressed.
So, in conclusion, I want – as a Christian leader, committed to the truth of God in Jesus Christ – to encourage us to take young people seriously… on their own terms, knowing that our refusal or inability to hear their voice or look though their eyes or hear through their ears will not change what they say, what they see or how they hear. Religion that is confident will embrace the challenges that our young people bring – not simply conceding every inch of ground, but taking seriously the critique of what is and the potential for what might become.
The Hebrew prophet spoke of young men dreaming dreams. That is a dangerous thing to encourage. But, if the prophet sees here through God’s eyes, then religious leaders might need to wake up to both the reality and the potential.