Sofia #85 - Editorial - The Good Life?

This Conference issue of Sofia on the theme of The Good Life? is tightly packed with the talks by all three speakers, Tim Jackson, Jonathon Porritt and Stephanie Dowrick.

Structural, unjust, massive poverty is the shame of our current geoeconomy. As well as the Conference talks, this issue contains an article by William Gumede (reprinted from the Guardian with the author’s kind permission) warning that climate change cannot be tackled if existing injustices in global politics are overlooked. In their own language all three of our  speakers agree with this vital point. Jackson points out that our consumerist society’s ‘framing and disbursement of rewards is iniquitous’. Porritt says the good life ‘has to be for the whole of humankind. It is not possible, morally or pragmatically, to talk about creating a sustainable future for a segment of humankind.’ Dowrick reminds us: ‘Poverty is crushing.’

Tim Jackson’s talk on consumerism stresses that in order to counter it and seek alternatives, we must first understand it. To do this, his subtitle introduces the rather difficult term ‘theodicy’, which he explains as ‘the attempt to “make sense of” our lives, faced with persistent injustice, the prosperity of ill-doers…’ Consumerism, he says, is a secular attempt of this kind, which is ultimately doomed to fail. Of course, traditional theodicies such as Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, whose aim was ‘to justify the ways of God to men’ were not very successful either with the ‘problem of evil’. Famously, Blake, who illustrated Paradise Lost, said Milton ‘was a true Poet, and of the Devil's party without knowing it’. Why shouldn’t human beings eat the apple and grow up, instead of forever submitting to a tyrannical father?

Fascinatingly, Jackson analyses the role of consumerism and then points out how it is ‘not entirely pathological but clearly flawed.’ He looks at ‘the ability of sheer stuff to take on symbolic meaning … an extremely influential “osmosis” between the physical and the cultural world’. Later in the discussion he mentioned the Guatemalan Indians and I was reminded of the close connection between eating, loving and becoming in many American Indian cultures, as well as in a sacramental christian theology. In the Popol Vuh, the Mayan creation story, the gods create human beings from maize, which makes sense because maize was their staple diet. I think that, far from being pathological, a reverent attitude to the Earth must include the greatest respect for and enjoyment of what it offers us to eat and drink, as that is part of the way in which we are connected in one ecosystem. What is wrong with consumerism is its excess, especially when it threatens the Earth itself. As Porritt says, we need a sense of ‘enoughness’. Obesity, even in childhood, is a major problem in Britain (even more so in the USA) and so is alcoholism. But pace those big Quaker temperance capitalists like Fry and Cadbury, who said ‘Let them drink cocoa’ and made their money in chocolate, I think wine is a wonderful osmosis between nature and culture, a gift for which we should be very grateful. The problem is excess: alcoholism and obesity are illnesses, symbolic of what is wrong with consumerism as a whole.

In his talk Porritt mentioned his book Capitalism as if the World Mattered and said the time we have to deal with the environmental threat to the Earth is much too short to set up an alternative system to capitalism, ‘so we have to get it done through market-based capitalist systems.’ He described some of the work of Schumacher and  Berry and said we need a new spiritual vision of reverence for the Earth and a living sense of our interdependence.  His vision was inspiring and heartfelt. However, I wondered if getting huge multi-national corporations – who have so much power – to share that vision might not be as difficult and take as long as creating an alternative system to capitalism (or even a more responsible and more strictly and democratically controlled capitalism), or if indeed, the two tasks might not amount to the same thing.

The main focus of Stephanie Dowrick’s talk was that we would be happier if we took a friendlier, more positive attitude. That is undoubtedly true. When she spoke of our attitude to queuing, I remembered, to my shame (and my grown-up children periodically remind me!) how when I was queuing for the lido on a boiling hot day with tetchy kids, and another woman in the queue jostled and spoke rudely to me, I slapped her in the face. Of course, if I had heeded wise spiritual words to improve my attitude I would have avoided that disgraceful behaviour, but if the preacher of the wise words had brought us all a large bottle of water, that would have helped more. Obviously, it is right to continue exhorting ourselves to be more positive and friendlier.

But when I heard Dowrick say we are ‘restricted … rather less by external circumstances than many of us might think,’ I thought: ‘Hold on a minute!’ I thought of the women I knew in London in the 1970s devouring the books that came out from Virago, and the Women’s Press, and Spare Rib magazine. If one of them had had a husband who beat her up and terrorised the children and a cleric had come along and told her to put up with it and take a more positive attitude, they would have hooted with derision. I imagined the Tolpuddle martyrs transported to Australia and being met by an interfaith minister, who patted them on the head saying: ‘You silly boys! You should have put up with your lot and not tried to fight it with a trade union. Never mind, if you think positively here, you can settle down and become good Australians and your great-grandchildren may get on Neighbours and become celebs.’ At the end of her talk Dowrick mentioned visiting Gandhi’s ashram. Gandhi was an activist.

I thought of that great cloud of witnesses who have tried to fight oppression and injustice, for themselves or in solidarity. Continuing with British labour history, I thought of the Match Girls’ Strike against the hideous and dangerous conditions at the Bryant and May factory in 1888. I thought of the London Dockers’ Strike in 1889. The East End Jews supported the dockers (many of whom were Irish catholics) and when the fascist Moseley tried to march through the East End, the dockers remembered and came out and supported the Jews in the Battle of Cable Street on 4th October 1936. Written on the walls of Cable Street, and they shouted: ‘¡No pasarán!’ in solidarity with Spain. When today I whiz above Cable Street on the Docklands Light Railway, I repeat : ‘¡No pasarán!’ and rejoice that the blackshirts were stopped from passing, spitting racist hatred, through the East End of London that day. I thought of the twenty-year-old British poet John Cornford, Darwin’s grandson,  one of many who went out to fight the fascists in Spain and was killed near Madrid on 29th December 1936. I remembered his love poem Heart of the Heartless World (see page 19). I thought of another twenty-year-old poet, Leonel Rugama, who was studying to be a priest in Managua in 1969 (his poem about the Apollo moonshot was called The Earth is a Satellite of the Moon) and left the seminary to join the Sandinista guerrillas because he saw ‘no alternative but the struggle’. He was killed by the dictator’s National Guard. (The dictator Somoza was supported by the USA; one US president notoriously said: ‘Somoza’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.’). When you live under a dictator who has peasants flung from helicopters into active volcanoes and prisoners kept in cages with wild beasts for his after-dinner entertainment, it is not surprising that many Nicaraguans, many of them christians, concluded there was ‘no alternative but the struggle’ and in their turn determined: ‘¡No pasarán!’

I thought of many activists who are striving to fight for a better world now, such the group who, just before the war started, travelled in a red London bus to Baghdad to tell the Iraqi people: ‘Yes, Saddam’s a tyrant who should be got rid of, but we don’t want our government to bomb you.’ Or the member of the Christian Peacemaker Team who came to my workshop at the Conference. Today I read in the paper that the police are dealing with the climate change protesters at Heathrow Airport using anti-terrorism laws.

I remembered that historically one of the functions of clergy has been to support the powerful (however oppressive) by their ‘spiritual’ (usually meaning ‘supernatural’) authority, and keep the lower orders ‘in their place’. ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate. God made them high or lowly, he ordered their estate.’ (Of course some clergy have always refused to play this role.) Quietism and a philosophical idealism that fails to respect the dignity of the body and of matter can be very destructive. Porritt castigates Cardinal Martino for preaching a hubristic disrespect for the Earth and its creatures (‘man rules all’). That is one form of religion we can do without. Preaching acceptance of oppressive material conditions, rather than struggling against them, is another.

The central christian doctrine of incarnation (which can be understood in a non-supernatural way as God’s kenosis – self-emptying into humanity) requires the greatest reverence for the body and the matter from which it is made. In the Old Testament Wisdom literature wisdom is a feminine divine ‘emanation’; Paul speaks of Christ as ‘the wisdom of God’: theou sophia (1Cor. 1:24). In Christ, sophia is sophia ensarkike, embodied wisdom, just as logos her masculine counterpart is logos ensarkikos, incarnate word (as in the prologue to John’s gospel). The resulting sacramental theology (which includes both water and wine) sees human beings as ‘one body because we all share the same bread’ (1Cor. 10:16). We should share it more fairly. Theologians like Teilhard and environmentalists have made us more aware that human beings and the Earth and her other creatures are one  interdependent life system, because feeding, eating, loving and becoming, we all share the same matter. Now the Earth is indeed ‘groaning’ (Rom. 8:19) and we human beings are her ears to hear those groans and respond.

Click printer button for printer-friendly version of this article
Registered charity number 1113177
© All Sea of Faith material is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence