‘I want my old life back’
That phrase describes the way so many people feel today in the light of the perfect storm which has resulted in the crash of the global economy, the failure of politics and the implosion of institutional religion. What are often termed the three legs of the stool that is Society have all collapsed. It is sobering to note that another leg, one that was never acknowledged but taken for granted, the environment, is also in a very unstable condition and its further deterioration could signal an irreversible apocalypse.
Our immediate impulse is to work out how we can get the stool upright again, how we can get our old life back. Militant secularism would have us dispose of the religious leg as superfluous at best, and it seems that sorting out the environment has been postponed until we recover the economy.
And so we find ourselves hoping that somehow the other two legs once bandaged will provide sufficient support and stability for Society. This hope is not even a myth for a myth usually contains a truth. This hope is based on a lie!
The reality is of course that we cannot get our old life back! Everything has changed except perhaps our expectations. We are oblivious to the questions that are looming large and those questions surely must be:
What can we learn from what has happened? How has it changed our world? How should we change? If our response is simply ‘I want my old life back’ then we are doomed not simply to disappointment but to disaster.
In a world where the benign and invisible hand of the Market has been exposed as a lie, where once noble politics has lost its integrity, where religion protects the powerful at the expense of the weak and where global warming is threatening our very existence the old rules just won’t work anymore. The old life is gone for ever and we have to find a new way to live on this planet.
In Ireland we are witnessing a very vivid demonstration of this new reality. Our economic and political efforts in the wake of the global crisis have amounted to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic and the results are to be seen in the ongoing turbulence and futile if not infantile in-fighting in political and economic spheres.
The crisis in the Roman Catholic Church is a particularly graphic example of what happens when an institution turns its focus inwards and prioritises its own preservation above its mission to the weak and vulnerable.
Though in different circumstances my own Church of Ireland which is no less an institution has demonstrated a not unrelated malaise in its investment policies – historically relying for a significant proportion of its income on alcohol and tobacco shares. The tobacco shares have been divested in recent years after protests on the floor of General Synod but we still invest heavily in alcohol related shares. I am not averse to a drink myself but I do wonder at the ethics of profiting from a substance that is the scourge of so many lives and which is a contributory and aggravating factor in domestic violence. Is the financial health of my church really worth sacrificing our principles? I am as guilty as any having voted to pass our central church accounts and investment policy year on year, but I wonder what integrity we can have while holding these investments?
The elements involved in the collapse of our society have much in common. They have all involved replacing value systems with expediency and selfish short-termism. They have turned inwards on themselves and denied the essentially relatedness of all elements of life. They have denied the law of cause and effect and made a virtue of deception.
As Jim Wallis points out in his recent book, ‘Rediscovering Values’, these failings are not new – What is new is the extent and globalisation of them. Wallis points out that almost a century ago Mahatma Gandhi drew up a list of ‘Seven Deadly Social Sins’ which he used to instruct his disciples. They are remarkably topical and prophetic:
1 Politics without Principle
2 Wealth Without Work
3 Pleasure Without Conscience
4 Knowledge without Character
5 Commerce without Morality
6 Science without Humanity
7 Worship without Sacrifice
To this list Ghandi’s grandson Arun added an eighth sin:
8 Rights without Responsibility
If we still want our old life back then the cost of that is outlined above.
If not then we have to rehabilitate politics, economics, religion and our environmental stewardship. By denying the mutual dependence of these elements of our society we alienated ourselves from each other and our world. The task we face is how to reintegrate these vital elements and create a sustainable and healthy society for all of Creation.