Wednesday, 24 February 2010

The stool with no legs - A society in crisis

‘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.


Joc Sanders said...

Well said, Stephen! You should submit this for a column, perhaps in the IT, and if no one else will take it Newslink.

Stephen Neill said...

Thanks Joc - I'll fire it on to Newslink :)

Stella said...

Hello Stephen
I've only just recently found your blog in my meanderings in "Blogland".
This is an excellent post.
You may be interested to read another similar post in another blog that I follow:

The post I am talking about is Sunday 21st February:

Our Creation Story, which is a report of a meeting held in Cheltenham last week, where the speaker was Father Tom Cullinan.

I'll certainly be revisiting your blog.
Best wishes

Stephen Neill said...

Stella - Thanks so much :) That other blog you linked to is superb, especially that post on last Sunday

Póló said...

The market is a tool to be operated within politically determined social and moral options.

It is quite efficient in this function.

The problem is when people allow the market to make their moral and social choices for them. In other words, when they abdicate their responsibilities.

If you throw the market out entirely you are into administrative decision-making and this is a quagmire.

The social-market is worth supporting.

But it needs the oversight of a non-corrupt political process which reflects the priorities of the citizenry.

Toast Apparition said...

The word 'stewardship' is hugely important. The fundamental breakdowns you describe have one thing in common - lack of leadership. But it's not the authoritarian and totalitarian type of leadership we need now - it's stewardship - stepping up to lead, but also mindful of the need to nurture for future generations.
A very thoughtful post - hadn't heard of the 7 deadly social sins before - and how resonant are they right now!

Stephen Neill said...

Póló - I think we are agreed re market - like you I am only questioning its inherent wisdom/integrity

TA - Yes I like your point re stewardship and nurture - it is a great protection against the short termism that has done so much damage on so many levels