I seem to spend most of every day on Zoom. It is brilliant to see and hear people and we get a surprising amount of work done, too.

But, having also recorded a brief video for each day of Holy Week and Easter (to go on our diocesan website), my mind keeps going back to the theme of exile. Remember, thing about exiles is that they keep alive the songs of ‘home’ while working out how to live in the ‘now’ whilst also hoping for a return one day. The trouble is they have no idea whether they – or future – generations will actually ever return.

But, that isn’t the end of it. The exiles romanticise ‘home’ and assume that when they do return, it will be as it was before they left. Which is, of course, nonsense. By the time they do go home, they will find that those who hadn’t been exiled have carried on with their lives. They have moved on. And when the expats come back they simply complicate everything by bringing with them assumptions rooted in memory or romantic imagination.

What we learn from a reading of, for example, Isaiah in the Old Testament is that ‘return’ does not end the pain or the struggle. It doesn’t resolve all the challenges. It simply creates a new set of problems or challenges. How now will they live together – the leavers and the remainers? What sort of common society will they now build together when they hold differing visions of what that society should look like? You get the point.

So, it is interesting to listen to some of the language around today in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. It feels like a sort of exile when you are in lockdown and the whole world seems to have stopped. And we have little idea what this world will look like when we eventually move on. The economy will be considerably smaller, several million people might be jobless, and money will be in short supply. Businesses will have expired and national debt will once again be enormous. We are going to need a new, fresh and bold vision of what a new society might look like. Not that it will simply happen; we will have to build our new society together and that will involve both cooperation and conflict.

No one knows what might happen in the next few weeks and months. We are seeing a massive explosion of altruism in the UK, but it is accompanied by a huge injustice whereby the poorest pay the price of disaster while the wealthier hold onto their cushions. The source of potential division in the future lies in this sort of inequity and injustice.

So, in the midst of the immediate challenges we all face, we need to be thinking and arguing for a big vision of a just and equitable society which has been recalibrated following the destruction of the old one. The end of one way of life is simply the start of another, and we need to be bold, confident, creative and diligent in establishing strong foundations of relationships, values and mutual commitments for the sake of the common good.

There is work to be done and it cannot wait until the virus has been squashed.

I was tempted to call this post 'Let's do the Como-tion', but I resisted. Just. I bet you are glad.

I came on from Finland early Sunday morning and flew to Milan where I joined the Germans coming in from Berlin and we were driven to Villa La Collina in Cadenabbia, overlooking Lake Como. Having not slept a wink last night, I found the lectures and discussions today quite hard going. Even chatting at dinner was a strain.

This villa is the conference centre (Accademia) of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. Konrad Adenauer was the remarkable first Chancellor of Germany after the Second World War, taking up office in 1949. His Stiftung (foundation) does some really excellent work on the relation between society, religion, culture and politics (among other research and other themes). This one is titled: Der öffentliche Raum in Europa und seine religiös kulturelle Prägung.

The first day (having arrived at 2pm, we started on the work at 3.30pm) tackled the theme: Religion und Säkularität in der Moderne. The first paper was by Professor Marcia Pally of New York University and she presented a paper (in English) on Covenant: Rebalancing the fractures and freedoms of Modernity. Basically, it was about the essential relatedness of human beings (although quoting Moltmann on 'relatedness' without reference to 'creation' is a bit weird) and the essential nature of relationality to human flourishing (my term).

The second paper was by Professor Dr Rolf Schieder (Humboldt-Universität, Berlin) and titled: Spiritualität und Glaube – und die Kirchen? Empirische Befunde in Europa. This was really a interesting survey of research into 'religion' (commitment and expression) and 'spirituality' in Europe – referencing the differences between neighbouring European countries in some surprising ways ('religious' getting a higher rating than 'spiritual' in Germany, but the opposite being the case in France). The ensuing discussion led to some difference of opinion about how optimistic we should be about the future of the church in Germany, given the cultural as well as 'spiritual' contribution it might make.

A long, sleepless and intense day ended with a superb paper given by the Speaker of the German Parliament (Bundestagspräsident), Professor Dr Norbert Lammert, on Kunst, Politik und Öffentlichkeit (Art, polotics and public space). He basically posed a fundamental question: how do you measure the soul of a society? He went on to consider truth, democracy, culture and the need for a [written] Constitution (which, of course, we do not have in the United Kingdom). He stated that culture is not an ornament of society, but is fundamental to society… and that although art has a claim on the State, the State has no claim on art or culture. The discussion was fascinating and detailed, but I was struggling to keep my concentration because of extreme tiredness… and will need to re-read the paper more slowly. (The paper will be published along with others in due course.)

Enough for now.

 

The start of a new year always feels like we’ve got to the top of a dodgy ladder and fallen off, only to have to start climbing again. No guarantees and no foreknowledge of what exactly is to come.

OK, we can assume that 2011 is going to bring huge challenges to many people and life is going to be tough for individuals, families, businesses, institutions and charities:

  • as unemployment shoots up, so there will be huge pressure on marriages (undermining family stability and affecting large numbers of children)
  • history teaches us that this will put additional pressure on the NHS – particularly mental health services (which are already under-resourced and often hidden)
  • radical public service cuts will have a direct effect on local economies which depend more on public services (particularly in the north of England)
  • private businesses will consequently suffer in the wake of the above
  • crime will increase, but the police will have fewer resources to address either the real situation or public perceptions of it.

And that’s just the miserable stuff for starters. You can add in predictions of continuing public unrest, direct protests against the effects of the cuts, and a growing public instinct for ‘doing something’ about it (an expression of human dignity and responsibility?).

So, no cheer then? Well, that depends. It is unclear whether faith communities and charities will be able to plug the gaps left by local or central government funding withdrawals. Asking people to give more to charity, though always desirable, is no answer to the problem of cuts to essential funding of local agencies who meet needy people where they are. Among others, churches may be deemed the appropriate agencies for rising to new challenges; but, so far, no research has been done into either capacity or competence.

In other words, we are walking blind into uncharted territory. I have sympathy with David Cameron’s vision for the Big Society, but I have serious doubts about it being deliverable in the short term – I can see it being undermined in both practice and theory by an over-ambitious and overly-radical programme of immediate (rather than programmed/staggered) cuts.

So, given the potentially overwhelming challenges that colour our view of the prospects for 2011 – internationally as well as nationally and locally – where might we turn for an overarching theme that might shape our approach to whatever lies ahead?

I think the Guardian put it well this morning in its editorial comment:

The cynicism which pervades public life at the dawn of 2011 is … a creed that ascribes the basest motives to everybody, and dismisses the very possibility of moral improvement. … mistrust is paralysing politics. It is evident in marketopian reforms which treat public servants as knaves to be slapped into line by the self-interested whack of the invisible hand. It is evident, too, in fear and loathing between the governing and governed, and – we admit – in newspapers being too gleeful about catching yet another snout in the trough. The great injustices of the day have at times been buried in a blizzard of dodgy receipts for duck islands and patio doors. The dismal worldview reaches its apogee in the rightwing blogosphere, where pundits parade as anarchists but subtly entrench hopelessness by decreeing every call for public virtue to be a cover for private vice. None of this is to deny the praiseworthiness of doubt and sceptical inquiry, preconditions for both good government and clear thought. But it is to hope, however vainly, for a collective resolution to extend a smidgeon more trust in considering what makes people tick.

Trust is essential and central to any constructive or positive approach to what lies ahead of us – which we have the responsibility to shape and not just to decry as if we are helpless victims. Trust assumes that we will take seriously the Common Good.

This means – taking the context of the Guardian’s piece seriously – that the media have a massive responsibility not only to question and critique, but also to see themselves as ‘players and participants’ of our society and drop the pretence of being disinterested, objective observers of everybody else. The media shape public perceptions of reality and motivation – and that makes them responsible agents in shaping society and the trust or cynicism that infect public life.

In All’s Well That Ends Well Shakespeare put is like this:

Love all, trust a few. Do wrong to none.
We don’t have a right to happiness, despite the assumptions behind the American Declaration of Independence. But, we do have a responsibility to take seriously the well-being of all in our society – especially those least able to secure their own. Trust will either encourage us – or its lack will further destroy us.

I spent a week in November reading (on and off, obviously) Sebastian Faulks’ excellent A Week in December. Faulks manages to take snapshots of characters and events that characterise something of the nineties and noughties in Britain.

A book to capture today's Britian

The tensions and comprehension gaps between a disillusioned young Muslim man – looking for some certainties and a place to belong – and his parents who have tried hard to assimilate and be accepted into British society is beautifully expressed. Even better is the lack of easy resolution: both end the book still not understanding the other and yet the need for human belonging has to find expression for both.

Many of the women in the book – wives of politicians, footballers and rich businessmen, for example – are depicted as casting around for love, identity and ‘place’. A literary critic shows up the superficial and personal nature of arts criticism: personal agendas and rivalries, jealousies and snobberies, all get exposed. There is a light shone on so many aspects of shallow culture that every page made me wince with both recognistion and embarrassment. Is this what we have really become?

The period covered is, however, epitomised by the character of John Veals, the high-finance money manipulator whose addictive lust is not for money itself (ironically, given his accumulation of the stuff) – and certainly not for his rather regretful wife and neglected children – but for the miserable pursuit of power and ‘winning’. Relationships mean nothing; the world is simply a playground for his exploitation; people are pawns in his trading games; rules are for breaking; laughter is for the sorts of people he despises. The final line of the book sends a chill through the soul as the sheer empty, vacuous, selfish and value-free monster of greed exposes what happens when you gain the whole world but lose your soul.

I guess Faulks could be accused of caricaturing the worst of contemporary Britain without depicting or exploring the best elements of a complicated multicultural society. But, you can’t do everything in a single book – and in this book he paints a picture which only the wilfully blind will fail to recognise. This picture begs many questions of what sort of society we really want Britain to develop in the next few years of the so-called ‘Big Society’… and that will form the subject of my next post.