There is a fundamental question underlying responses to the current migration and refugee challenge in Europe. In the question behind the title of Primo Levi's arresting book, it is simply: what is a man? What is a human being?

If the answer is that a human being is valued according to their economic contribution, potential or liability, then that will have a profound influence in shaping our response, both emotionally and intellectually.

If, on the other hand, a human being has inherent value – not simply because she exists or is valued by those who say she has value, but because she is made in the image of God and infinitely loved – then the response will be consistent with that. A Christian response must begin with a biblical understanding of what makes a human person – everything else has to flow from that.

It sounds a bit academic to ask a question of (what I call) theological anthropology in the face of such immediate need, but it is important that we do. It is important that our political leaders are clear about their answer to this question and why they think what they do think.

Taking this seriously will help us to distinguish between a response dominated by cost benefit analyses and one shaped by a humanitarian assumption that chooses to make a choice of principle and then pays the price (socially, financially, economically, and so on). Yes, the economic and social questions need to be raised and faced; but, do they follow a committed response to immediate need or precede it?

When listening, viewing or reading coverage of the current challenge and political responses to it, I think this is the question to ask in order to understand what motivates the response.

(I wrote this while listening to a lively debate at the EKD (German) Kirchenkonferenz on what statement to make about these matters. The statement will be published next week and I will publish it on this blog as soon as I get the final published version.)

 

Both before and since the welfare row that blew up recently – and with a minor excursus into who allows whom to contribute to the public discourse – I have been bothered by a missing question in most reportage. That question is: what is it all for? Put differently, what is the end to which welfare, taxation, work, profit, etc. is the means? This isn't a question of the function of any particular business, but the purpose of that business as a 'player' and shaper of wider society that is not neutral. I'll come back to this in a minute.

I was chatting to a (self-defined non-religious) business man recently about a massive problem that runs through our culture. With reference to Paul Kearns' The Value Motive and Kenneth Hopper & William Hopper's The Puritan Gift (which, in fact Paul put me on to), he considered that most business exists to make a profit – all well and good, pretty obvious, and totally valid. A business that does not make a profit won't exist at all. But, what is that profit for? Or, more precisely, for whom is that profit to be made – whom is it to serve? The business itself and those who own it or work for it, or wider society as a whole?

(Incidentally, these were broadly the questions behind speeches at the opening of new offices for the Pfarramt für Industrie und Wirtschaft in Basel last Thursday evening. And, even more incidentally, it is the question Aristotle puts at the heat of his ethics: telos, or the goal/end desired.)

At the beginning of his book A Public Faith, Miroslav Volf makes an observation that is pertinent here, describing Max Weber's view on the modern 'market':

If you play the game, you've got to play it by preset rules, which in the case of the market means that you must maximise profit; these rules, and not moral considerations, determine how the game is played. (p.14)

But, this simply points to the modern lie that has been conveniently assumed to be incontrovertibly obvious: the market dictates how we must follow it. This is nonsense. People drive markets by the choices they make. If profit is the ultimate goal – as opposed to a penultimate goal, a means to a greater end – then it is so because we have decided it should be so. There is nothing inevitable about this. Human agency, human responsibility and human choices dictate how markets are shaped, to what ends they are directed, and what values underlie them.

So, to go back to the original question, we must ask what is the point of it all. Christians (but not exclusively, of course) will argue that profit should be made, not as an end in itself, but in order to serve the common good of people and the planet. That is, economics should serve anthropology and not vice versa. We work to live, not live to work (although an argument can be made that human beings do live to work – which raises questions about those who refuse to work and how a moral society treats those who are unable to work).

And this is where some of us have a problem. Why is it a moral matter that poor people should be squeezed until they bleed – incentivised by being made poorer or more pressurised – whilst the same moral imperative ceases to apply to those who have the resources to play the system, get others to pay for their failures and get away with self-preservation as a sanction-free 'good'? Bankers and politicians got us into the catastrophic financial crisis of the last six years, but they seem not to be paying: the tax payers – including the poorer and squeezed ones – are paying for mistakes made by the rich. And the bonuses keep being paid. If the poor fail, they are disgraced and humiliated; if the powerful fail, they must be incentivised whilst others pay for their failure. Big-time tax evaders are not ritually humiliated in the press.

Is this justice?

Well, the point is not to relativise justice, but to ask what the point of profit is. If business put economics into an anthropological framework, asking whom this whole project is supposed to be for, it would find itself framing its language and choices differently. 'Corporate social responsibility' should not be a useful add-on, making people feel better about themselves (again, as an end in itself), but should be an integral purpose that shapes decisions about people.

In other words, profit should make society better and enable all people to flourish in a society for which we all take responsibility. A Christian theological anthropology can say nothing less.

And, ultimately, markets do not dictate anything. The people who create and shape markets do. And they do so according to assumptions they hold about human and economic purpose. People are responsible, not abstracted or personified dynamics behind which people can hide.

So, being pro-business, pro-work, pro-profit and pro-value, I simply ask where welfare and profit and taxation fit in to which anthropological ends we have decided to choose?

 

Yesterday saw the return to planet earth of the Canadian commander of the International Space Station, Chris Hadfield. During his time orbiting our little planet he has sent some extraordinary photographs of space, the ISS itself and the planet. I came across him on twitter and was hooked.

Looking down from a great height grants a new perspective to the viewer. Tied up in the detail of living in a big and complex city, it is easy to lose sight of the 'big picture' and the meaning of it all. I was only 10 when Apollo 8 took the first human beings out of earth's orbit and sped them around the moon and back. They became the first human beings ever to see the earth in its entirety from space – and their photographs became the most beautiful and iconic images ever seen. Looking back at the earth changed for ever the way we saw our life on and exploitation of the earth.

Chris Hadfield did something similar in that he gave access to the mystery of meaning by capturing views from a great height in such a way as to put the preoccupations of daily living into a larger context. He posted hundreds of mesmerising images on twitter and then did a David Bowie cover video before returning back to Kazakhstan in the Soyuz capsule. If he ever gives up being an astronaut, he clearly has a fantastic career ahead of him in media and communication.

There's nothing original in all of this. It just brings to my mind the words of the Psalmist who, looking at the starry sky at night, asked: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, who are we that you are mindful of us, human beings that you care for us?” (Psalm 8) Confronted by the mystery of the enormity and beauty of the cosmos, why do we think we even matter?

Well, there is a time and place for such contemplation and the writing of such poetry. But, look down again and we are caught up in the mystery of human fallibility and the limitless capacity of human beings to do appalling things to one another and to the planet. It is sometimes hard to hold onto the beauty in the face of the horror. Events in Syria easily blend into 'big stuff' that we cannot comprehend and so push to the back of our consciousness; feeling helpless, we filter it out – even reports of a rebel eating the heart of a government soldier.

Yet, here is the rub. That heart belonged to a person who is a brother, a son, a husband, a neighbour. The death and post-mortem abuse of this person changes for ever the lives of individuals and communities. Even in the context of the enormous cosmos, we still think that what happens to a unique person matters. Why?

This has been brought home to us in England most acutely by the stories of intentional, cruel, exploitative grooming of young girls by gangs of men. The trials in Oxford that concluded yesterday beg huge questions about a society that claims to be civilised whilst allowing such behaviour to continue for so long. And every individual girl or boy involved matters infinitely. It is hard – though vital – to hold onto the beauty and meaning of the universe and human life whilst staring human cruelty and exploitation in the eyes.

The best commentary I have read thus far is by the BBC's excellent Mark Easton. He puts his finger on the sensitive question of whether we just find it too hard to address some questions when 'community cohesion' or 'race' are involved. He is dead right. And just as racism is an evil to be exposed and rooted out, so is a refusal to name things for what they are. The element the media and politicians (in particular) need to pay attention to in these matters is language and category: the fact that someone is a Muslim does not mean that Islam is what drives him to abuse young girls or boys; the fact that someone is nominally (or tribally) Christian does not mean that it is Christianity that makes them behave atrociously. As I noted in an earlier post, ethnicity and religion should not be confused: they are not synonymous.

What lies under all this is an uncomfortable anthropological reality: the human propensity to commodify anything we can lay our hands on. We turn people into objects for exploitation, sale or entertainment (look at the tabloid media, for example); we turn the earth into a Swiss cheese, forgetting that the one thing not being made any more is land and what lies underneath it. Child sexual exploitation powerfully dehumanises both victims and perpetrators; the victims need to be defended and liberated, the perpetrators need to be held accountable and be reminded that moral accountability – integral to human being – demands justice. People are not commodities.

The great Bruce Cockburn puzzles over this stuff – the contrast and tension between the beauty of the cosmos and human being on the one hand and the inhumane bestiality of some human behaviour – when he writes:

Amid the rumours and the expectations and all the stories dreamt and lived

Amid the clangour and the dislocation and things to fear and to forgive

Don't forget about delight…

 

Several people picked up on something I said on BBC Radio 2 last Friday in a Pause for Thought piece on the Chris Evans Breakfast Show. Picking up on reports last week that scientists had found why some blokes go bald, I remarked that “mine’s been falling out for years”. I then went on to say:

According to the scientists, the problem is not a lack of hair, but that the new hair growing out of heads like mine is (and I quote) “so small it appears invisible to the naked eye”. Right! Which basically means it’s invisible – or, as some of us would say, “not there at all”. It’s all to do with stem cells, apparently.

You know what? I don’t care. I remember someone once pointing out that hair growth is linked to virility – he said that if you blokes want to use your hormones for growing hair, that’s up to you… (He was completely bald.)

I concluded:

…we are made as human beings to grow and age and die. And it’s the fear of this process that lies at the root of some people’s attempts to roll back the clock or avoid the inevitable.

So, what do I, a Christian, think about science and scientists (of whom I have several in my family)?

Firstly, a Christian anthropology begins with God creating humanity in his own image and committing to us what is known as the ‘cultural mandate’ – to go forth and multiply and cultivate the earth (give shape to it, etc.). We are made to explore, investigate and seek to understand the world as well as live and thrive in it.

Second, scientists fulfil a serious element of the human vocation, helping the rest of us exploit (in a neutral sense) the world, investigate how and why it works in the way it does. Scientists have to find a way to enable the rest of us to understand, learn about and live with the ‘cosmos’ we are part of.

Third, matter matters. In Jesus, God opts into the material world and does not exempt himself from it (just in case we had missed the implications of the ‘creation narratives’ which keep depicting God as thinking what he had made was brilliant). The material world matters and we are made to respect it (although we usually live disrespectfully in it).

Fourth, however, is the tough bit for some people. Science deals in mechanics and explanations of causes and effects – it does not and cannot deal in meanings. The fundamental tenet of ethics is that ‘you can’t get an ought from an is’. That is to say, the mere fact that something ‘is’ does not imply or allow some ethical imperative to be derived from it. Which is to say, phenomena are distinct from inherent meanings.

This is why science and philosophy/religion belong together. Science can answer the questions about how things happen and what the causes and effects are; but these explanations (however provisional or otherwise) cannot imply value or meaning of themselves. We attribute meanings to phenomena according to other sets of criteria which we assume (or for which we argue) on other grounds that simply what ‘is’. The ‘why’ questions need different approaches and a different language.

So, a Christian anthropology welcomes the scientific task, encourages scientists to do their inexhaustible work, supports them in it and learns from it. If science deals in real material stuff, then there is nothing to fear. And those Christians who reject the bits of the scientific enterprise they find inconvenient to their ‘faith’ have perhaps missed the point several Christian apologists have emphasised: that if Christianity is true, it is true because it is true; it is not true because it is Christianity. In other words, lose your fear, love the truth and get out more.

Helmut Thielicke, the great (and dead) German theologian and preacher once wrote something about the world needing Christians who were passionately interested in the world: the arts, culture, science, and so on. What the world doesn’t need, he said (although I can’t locate the complete quote), is “stupid Christian Philistines”.

As God made clear in Jesus: get stuck in. And that’s what I think about science and scientists. And art and artists. And so on.