Monday, 29 April 2013


When societies are in trouble, our religious tradition, starting with the prophets of ancient Israel, insists that you need to look for underlying spiritual problems as well as the more obvious social, economic or political ones. There is no question that the UK is at present in some serious difficulties which manifest themselves in a large government deficit, cuts to public services, rising inequality, and localised social breakdown, not to mention a sense that we’re no happier now than we were decades ago. These are symptoms; the problem, our tradition tells us, cannot be cured without acknowledging and dealing with the underlying malaise, any more than chickenpox can be cured by painting over the spots.

Different religions put the matter in their own individual ways, but they generally agree that all human beings are radically equal. Christianity expresses this by saying that we are all children of God; the divine gene, the divine spark, is in every one of us. No exceptions. This is the starting point, and we’ve got off on the wrong foot if it doesn’t inform political decision making, even about such apparently unspiritual things as income. That’s not to say that everyone’s income should be at all times the same, but it certainly is to say that material inequalities should be limited; the Old Testament suggests mechanisms for doing this, including the ban on lending money for interest. Runaway relative wealth and deepening relative poverty are both unacceptable to the religious tradition. Here, now, we have both, and for several decades now they have been on the increase despite efforts to mitigate the impact of poverty. There are plenty of practical arguments for tackling inequality, but they are not the only ones, or even the most significant ones. This is a spiritual issue as well as a practical one.

Steadily rising inequality is evidence that we have forgotten this key spiritual truth: we are all equally ‘children of God’. Notice that this isn’t a matter of what we deserve; we don’t deserve to be equal: we just are. The spiritual tradition is not saying that hard work, creativity, courage, commitment, and all the other worthy characteristics that people can display shouldn’t be encouraged by being rewarded materially as well as by being held in honour. But it knows that when any human attribute is rewarded materially, those who are so rewarded find it hard not to accumulate increasingly more and more wealth not because they need or even want it but just because they can. It becomes an obsession, a sickness, that drives out more spiritually-valuable characteristics and satisfactions, and this would be a significant  problem even if life wasn’t often if not always a zero-sum game in which one person’s benefit is another person’s loss.

Religion identifies the love of money as the root of all evil, as St Paul puts it, and certainly a great deal of evil, if not quite all, creeps in by the back door when we are focused exclusively on the financial bottom line. We have become accustomed over the last few decades to think that the only criterion that matters is indeed the bottom line. If something can’t be measured, and measured in cash terms, it seems no longer to really matter. Certainly the current cash cost is regarded as the clinching consideration in almost any decision making process. Yet the real resources at our disposal are not pounds and euros and dollars: they are the creativity, energy and commitment of people, and the bounty of the earth. If we save the cash and squander the people (not to mention the environment) we have got out values hopelessly wrong; we are suffering from the worst kind of money illusion.

Nor is the output that matters the cash profit that we can make from our investments; what really matters is whether or not human wellbeing has genuinely been enhanced. That is why an excessive focus on ‘entrepreneurialism’ is evidence of a skewed value system that has forgotten the spiritual side of life. When someone who might be a teacher, say, or a police officer, can’t find work in their chosen profession and must instead go ‘entrepreneurial’ and paint nails or arrange hospitality for the dangerously wealthy, we have to ask whether, from the spiritual viewpoint, the world is really a better place for their embracing of entrepreneurialism, however successful they may become. It’s not just a question of whether or not someone has ‘a job’, meaning by that ‘remunerative employment’, or whether or not they are occupied doing something they want to be doing; it’s rather a question of whether what someone is doing makes the best use of their time and their talents in contributing to human flourishing. Our society seems to accept that the priority for the use of resources ought to be the promotion of the pleasure and security of the wealthy and the comfortably off; the tradition challenges us rather to ask first what expenditure is needed to enable the less wealthy to escape the real poverty trap and begin live well. When we as a society feel it is right to pay vastly more to ‘entrepreneurs’ than to those for whom making a profit is no part of their job, and to give ‘entrepreneurs’ working conditions that are vastly superior to those put up with by mere ‘public servants’, we are announcing with perfect clarity that we have lost our spiritual compass. We no longer know what is truly valuable.

Our religious tradition insists that redemption is available to everyone. It’s sometimes hard to believe this, but the spiritual importance of making every possible effort to assist those whose lives have taken a wrong turning to get back on track is clear. If some people have to be locked away for the protection of others or as punishment for egregious crimes, we must do this we a genuinely heavy heart; to ‘throw way the key’ with anything remotely like glee is evidence of a primitive ‘eye for an eye’ approach that the Jesus tradition explicitly supersedes. The tradition also understands that when people have gone off the rails, they can really be saved only by getting them to understand they are lovable and loved. It knows that ever-more-severe punishment will not do the job, and asks us to commit ourselves to showing the lost how they really can be saved; it won’t be easy and it certainly won’t be cheap.

The parables of Jesus of Nazareth rarely suggest the kind of other-worldliness that religion can sometimes fall prey to. The girls who don’t bring enough oil to the feast never get back in after going to get more; the man who having been let off a debt by his boss doesn’t do the same for his peers is punished; the Good Samaritan parable challenges us to see that anyone who shows commitment to us is entitled to be embraced by us; the story of the ‘prodigal’ son and his po-faced elder brother warns us of the spiritual danger of being proud of being dull and unadventurous. There’s nothing unworldly about saying that people ought to take their roles seriously, pass on the experience of being well-treated, accept the fellowship of those who demonstrate that they genuinely want to be part of our society, and both avoid spiritual pride and accept that there are valuable lessons to be learned by being a bit edgy, particularly in youth. We might ask to what extent we as a society acknowledge that taking these ideas seriously and trying to live by them will make us spiritually better, happier people.

Among the reasons for the strong tradition of clerical celibacy in the western church is that there has been an awareness that simultaneously having children and having wealth and power often puts people in a spiritual dilemma. You want the best for your children, to give them the best possible start in life, to give them the hope of an even better (material) standard of living than you had, to pass on to them the good things you have enjoyed. If you have wealth and power, you can do these things relatively easily, often to the detriment of the children of others who do not have your wealth and power. This isn’t fair, and to their credit even some who feel bound to give their children these advantages feel uncomfortable about it, and some of the children themselves come to understand that the silver spoon they were given can leave a sour taste in the mouth. It is easy and cheap to talk of social mobility when what you mean is the possibility of some of the children of the poor and powerless being admitted to the ranks of the rich and powerful; it’s a lot harder and more costly to do so when you understand that real social mobility also means that some of the children of the rich and powerful are going to join the ranks of the poor and powerless. And of course it’s a good deal easier to face that truth if disparities in wealth and power are not wide and growing.

Some interpretations of our spiritual tradition suggest that implementing spiritually-aware policies in the tough world we live in inevitably leads to a martyrdom that ought to be embraced. Such interpretations offer us a straight choice: we can aim for worldly success and pursue that goal ruthlessly, ignoring all constraints except those forced on us by other people’s power; or we can aim for spiritual success, and in pursuing that goal abandon any hope of worldly satisfactions. But most of us are neither as spiritually bankrupt nor as other-worldly as these interpretations imply. In any case, the tradition knows that if we adopt the kind of approach it recommends, the chances are that in the long run we will have a decent share of the good things of worldly life added unto us. Not always though: it knows that this is an uncertain world where sometimes the only satisfaction that comes from doing the right thing is the knowledge that that is indeed what we have done; it isn’t only ruthlessly bottom-line-focused business people who take risks. And history shows that the tradition is right about this: many a successful business and culture has been successful despite – or perhaps ‘because of’ – having genuinely struggled with the puzzle of how to reconcile the demands of spiritual awareness with the constraints of economic reality.

It’s not the job of religious commentators to take sides politically, at any rate not unless politicians stray well beyond the limits of what is acceptable; politics is a rough old business and, while it needs to be informed by values, it can rarely implement ideals without compromise. Compromise is not the business of religious commentators, though they ought to have compassion for those whose role it to make compromises, even as they offer them constructive criticism from the spiritual perspective. Mainstream British political parties all have among their leaders people who take seriously the deliverances of the religious tradition and the spiritual awareness that religion at its best seeks to promote. They can be appealed to from the direction of spirituality and religion, and be invited to explain when necessary exactly why they cannot make policies that fully implement spiritual values.

But this isn’t all about politicians and their policies. The religious tradition from Jesus of Nazareth is particularly clear that ‘Law’ cannot deliver all that is needed to enable people to flourish in society; they have to have within themselves the kind of approach to life that is based on love – that is to say, on recognising, valuing and nurturing the unique potential of every person. Perhaps if more of us took this seriously, we’d have less trouble in developing and implementing the right policies. What’s more, the tradition knows that people acquire this loving approach mostly in early childhood, from the care and the example they receive from their elders. This makes the proper care of young children the absolute priority for human society – not education for the world of work, let alone other things that are often better placed to demand priority. Get child upbringing wrong, says Jesus, and you deserve to be chucked into the sea with a millstone round your neck; he says nothing as trenchant as that about other human failings.

It isn’t all about politicians in another sense too. The religious and spiritual tradition understands that we tend to be much more alert to the shortcomings of other people than we are to our own; we see the speck of dust the other fellow’s eye but miss the plank in our own, to borrow Jesus’s comically graphic saying. It’s a relief and a pleasure to be able to blame, say, Margaret Thatcher for making us all believe that only money really matters, or Gordon Brown for needlessly getting us deeply into debt. The extent to which these accusations are true is a matter for political debate. The question that spirituality demands we face is about the extent to which, at the time, we as individuals contributed to and embraced – or just didn’t attempt to combat in any meaningful way – ideas that could so easily be taken too far, and turned out to have more serious downsides than we wanted to think about.

But the tradition does nevertheless have something to say about government. Its first demand, clearly articulated from the time of King David onwards, is that rulers should not use their power satisfy their private desires – a fairly obvious requirement of good government. Rulers are seen as having been appointed by God to provide a social framework in which all the people over whom they rule may live well. The tradition cannot be precise about exactly what mechanisms should be employed to do this: situations and understandings change over time in ways that make particular mechanisms more or less appropriate. But the aim is clear, and in our day there is a consensus that it is best achieved though the mechanisms of democracy. And in a democracy, the tradition lays on all of us responsibilities that most members of earlier generations escaped, for we too are now rulers, and the requirement for rulers not to use their power to satisfy their private desires is one we all need to consider when we take part in the political process. The tradition does not smile on those who decide how to vote principally on the basis of how they personally would benefit if this or that party took power. Sadly the largely value-free appeals of competing political parties suggest that they at least assume that voters – we – take heed mostly of exactly those self-centred considerations that motivated less savoury non-democratic rulers.

Jesus of Nazareth memorably said that ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’. For him, religion is there for our benefit, to help us to be ‘blessed’. So this is not about getting everyone to go to church or to say their prayers or to believe, or try to believe, in the literal truth of ancient myths. Nor is it – especially for followers of Jesus – about getting people to obey the rules of morality in a mechanical way. It is about doing in whatever way we can what all these tools were intended to enable us all to do, as individuals and as a society: to learn how to live well. Helping us approach closer and closer to that state of blessedness is, or should be, the principal goal alike of politicians and prophets.

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