A Funny Thing Happened to me on the Way to the Forum

The European Social Forum met in London in October 2004 to discuss: "Another world is possible". Peter Lumsden has a radical suggestion to make.

The Forum was the European Social Forum, convened to promote the idea that 'another world is possible'. It was a successor to the World Social Forum meeting in Porto Alegre in Brazil in 2001, which in turn was convened in opposition to the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos the previous year. The disturbance I experienced was a dream that this other world had become a reality and in this world the Christian symbol of the cross or crucifix which now I seem to see around every other woman's neck - had become as abhorrent as the swastika is today. Proposing such an idea to the Forum as an essential part of the world to come would be seen by the participants to be absurd and so, after this road-to-Damascus type incident, I retraced my steps. Had they given my idea a second thought, they would have said no big deal; doubtless Stalin thought the same. Hearing that I believed that a cross-less Christianity might have a role to play in bringing another world into being, they would have said that such an idea was an oxymoron.

There was, during the Forum, another debate proceeding in the Anglican church. The Forum was raising issues that affect most people on the planet, while in the other debate a tiny minority was discussing an irrelevance. Yet it received vast coverage in the press, while I saw nothing in it about the Forum's proceedings. How is it that that in which so few participate is of concern to so many? Most of us never darken a church's door and yet it seems religious issues are of intense interest. We like to think that in the capitalistic society in which we live, only money or economics could interest us so much, that this is the 'base', or basic to our lives. Maybe Marx and Weber are both right, there is a base and a superstructure to human society. Marx thought the base was economics and religion the superstructure, Weber the opposite. We turned out in our millions against the Iraq war to no avail; my thesis is that we need to hit the religious buttons to see action.

Were the Forum capable of pointing the finger at the Christian religion of the cross and saying, 'You're the cause of most of our problems, that would really be momentous. It would demonstrate that there had been that marriage of religious and political radicalism I have long hoped for. Full-spectrum dominance, to coin a phrase. But the Forum has no idea that their slogan 'another world is possible' owes its origin to biblical thinking, that such thinking is the root of Western culture. Were they able to grasp this root, they could cut off the flow of legitimacy to capitalism and divert it to vivify their own vision. The very idea of religious radicalism - in Western terms, a new Reformation - has no place on the Social Forum's agenda.

Unfortunately, our opponents, Christian fundamentalism and neo-conservative politics, have consummated their union. This was illustrated superbly by Jonathan Raban's article on 'Pastor Bush' (Guardian 7/10/04), in which he showed that this union is so strong because it speaks to the heart of Western culture, the Bible. Laying no claim to biblical inspiration, the European Social Forum has tacitly conceded the possession of the central icon of our society to the enemy, and thus enabled it to occupy our heartland. Compare this with the United Nations, which has written across its headquarters in New York the great swords into ploughshares quotation from the prophet Micah, thus acknowledging its biblical inspiration.

I have been associated with the Sea of Faith since its first conference, but it was clear from the start that I came with a very different agenda. I saw it as an opportunity to deepen the shallow emancipatory politics of the 1960s. Others were - as I described them in a letter to Noam Chomsky a bunch of clergy fed up with saying one thing and believing another (yes, he did reply, shortly but warmly!) SoF and I were like two strangers travelling to different destinations colliding in the dark, though I must admit Cupitt's neo-liberalism did come as something of a shock. Clearly there was no necessary connection between political and religious radicalism, but this only mirrored the reformers of the sixteenth century, Calvin and Luther, who were fiercely reactionary in their politics. My efforts to radicalise SoF's politics bore little fruit.

I have had no better luck convincing my political friends of the necessity of religious radicalism. These, in the main, were members of the peace movement, Christian and secular, here and in the USA. It was a step too far for them. They were already marginalized for their political beliefs by their faith communities, and only tolerated by their avowals of religious orthodoxy. I'm afraid I teased them by saying that their religious observance on Sundays supported the status quo, which they sought to overthrow during the week. The anarchists, always glad to have a go at the Christians, gave some hospitality to this idea, but of course religion to them, like the traditional left, is irreformable and to be destroyed.

In the recent US election a book entitled Whatever Happened to Kansas showed how the people of Kansas in supporting Bush, voted against their economic interests (wages, employment, health care) in favour of their cultural values (against gay marriage, abortion, flag burning). One reviewer showed his cloven hoof by using the Marxist term 'false consciousness' in this connection, implying these people were deluded. I think they simply acted as Weber said they could, faith overrode wealth. Marx may have been a non-realist in his theology but his ethics were certainly realist! Were the Christian left to take note of Marx's idea of base and superstructure, they could see the error of their ways. They are trying to build a humanist superstructure on a theistic base. It can't be done. Either God or humanity is the measure of all things. I don't see how any compromise is possible.

What my dream showed me was how profound the change in our culture I have envisaged would have to be. Such a change - if it occurs at all - is decades away. I doubt if I will see any sign of it in my lifetime.

It could be objected that I need to be more positive in my outlook. It is not enough, it could be said, simply to oppose 'Crossanity' - as Bernard Shaw called it. There needs to be a symbol to replace the cross, one for a humanised Christianity, one for a faith based on the historical Jesus. What could stand for peace on earth in fulfilment of human needs? There is an evangelical group which uses the fish as their sign of faith, certainly an improvement. But this is just spin, they are impeccably orthodox! For a long time I have felt that the cup or chalice could be the symbol for a New Reformation. Representing, as it does, both satisfaction and enjoyment, it would be the ideal icon. It was used by the Utraquists, a Hussite sect in Bohemia in the fifteenth century. They advocated communion for the laity of both kinds, bread and wine (Latin utraque: both) - now seven hundred years later, orthodox Catholic practice! and were, like Jesus, revolting peasants. But at other times I feel we should imitate the modesty of the Quakers, avoid symbols and show our beliefs by our way of life.

Peter Lumsden

Peter Lumsden was a long-standing member of Sea of Faith Network, attending every national conference, until his death in 2007.