Is there hope?
A brief reflection on the writings of John Gray
Easter 4, 17th April 2005, All Saints'
Acts 2: 42-47; 1 Peter 2: 19-25; John 10: 1-10
A sermon by the Archbishop of Cape Town on Trade Justice
All sorts of funny things arrive on my computer screen, as I am sure they do on yours if you have one. Most of them are better not gone into! However, because I am signed up to receive interesting bits and pieces from around the Anglican Communion, I do quite regularly get sent copies of sermons preached by distinguished people in all sorts of different parts of the world; and this week I received a copy of a sermon preached recently by the Archbishop of Cape Town as part of an inter-faith service to mark the Global Week of Action on Trade - which was being marked all around St Peter's yesterday.
He began his sermon like this:
Some years ago, a journalist asked me what sort of world I wanted to see. the answer came to me instantly: I wanted a world with a human face. In a world with a human face, every individual would be able to smile together in complete freedom, in unity, in peace, in prosperity. It would be a world where every human being can fulfil their potential as God created them to be.
Archbishop Ndungane goes on to rehearse the terrible statistics of a world that in some places is unbelievably wealthy, and where the wealth continues to grow at great pace, and in many other places where the struggle to survive is just desperate, and is getting worse. They are statistics that are often quoted. And they are shocking. Let me quote another little bit, because he says what I might have wanted to say, only far better.
Of this we can be sure: poverty is evil. In all its ramifications and consequences, poverty mars the image of God within humanity: it mars the image of God in the poor as it deprives them of opportunities for abundant life, and it mars the image of God within those of us who have more than enough but who, through greed, complacency or even ignorance, fail to do the justice, to embrace the loving kindness that our God asks of us.
"Poverty" the Archbishop of Cape Town says, "is the new global apartheid." That is pretty strong stuff coming from where it does.
"Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions"
But this week too, I bought a book. Not an unusual occurrence, as my wife will tell you. But this one is being read straight away instead of adding to the pile of thirty or forty by my bed! It is a book by the professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, a man by the name of John Gray. That sounds pretty frightening and had I not last year been persuaded by a member of St Peter's congregation to buy an earlier book of his called 'Straw Dogs' (that has nothing to do with the film of that name) I would not have looked at this book twice. Straw Dogs was an arresting if rather pessimistic analysis of 'the meaning of life'. His new book continues to explore this theme in a more focused way, and is entitled 'Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions'. It is a cogent but aggressive attack on modern secular philosophies that claim to have replaced religion, and Christianity particularly. John Gray is himself, if not an outright atheist at least a pretty committed agnostic, if that is not a contradiction in terms, and is certainly no friend of religion. His introduction begins:
The twentieth century was an age of faith, and it looks as if the twenty first will be as well. For much of the century that has just ended, the world was governed by militant political religions, each promising paradise on earth. Communism promised universal freedom and prosperity; it succeeded only in adding another chapter to the history of human misery. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the cult of the free market promised all that communism had failed to deliver. The neo-liberal era lasted little more than a decade...
and a few lines later he writes:
Both communism and neo-liberalism were messianic movements using the language of reason and science, but actually driven by faith. Seemingly deadly rivals, the two faiths differed chiefly on a point of doctrinal detail - whether the final perfection of mankind was to be achieved in universal socialism or global democratic capitalism.
Well all that is fascinating stuff, and to follow that line of thought in a faith world that is today dominated by new church movements and the retreat into fundamentalism and moral puritanism is a real challenge. What it implies, together with the political faiths that John Gray identifies and, it has to be said, what Archbishop Ndungane implies in the opening of his sermon - and he would be horrified to be lumped into this grouping - is that together we can build the perfect society in which all people are wreathed in smiles and living in pure comfort. Of course our language differs. We use words like blessing and grace and salvation to indicate how our divine supporter singles out those who will form the the nucleus of this new world whereas communism used genocide and capitalism, more benignly, uses the drip-drip method of enforced poverty and the corrupt and oppressive regimes that follow in its wake. And of course the archbishop is actually wrong in his description of poverty as the new apartheid. Poverty is the weapon of the new apartheid, a weapon which in the end opens up the context for random military adventures by the powerful, as and when it suits them in a vain attempt to secure their own continuing path to salvation.
As Professor Gray writes:
Secular societies are ruled by repressed religion. Screened off from conscious awareness, the religious impulse has mutated, returning as the fantasy of salvation through politics, or - now that faith in politics is decidedly shaky - through a cult of science and technology. The grandiose political projects of the twentieth century may have ended in tragedy or farce, but most cling to the hope that science can succeed where politics has failed: humanity can build a better world than any that has existed in the past. They believe this not from real conviction but from fear of the void that looms if the hope of a better future is given up. Belief in progress is the Prozac of the thinking classes.
John Gray and Faith Communities
For someone who is anti-religion, John Gray is remarkably generous to the faith communities. He acknowledges that since the days of Pascal at least, religious faith has thrived on doubt, whilst in the dominant secular humanism there is no trace of doubt in its dogmas. In one of his essays he claims, rather too generously I fear, that "one cannot engage in dialogue with religious thinkers in Britain today without quickly discovering that they are, on the whole, more intelligent, better educated and strikingly more free-thinking than unbelievers (as evangelical atheists still incongruously describe themselves)".
The main saving grace of traditional Christian Faith for him is the doctrine of original sin - that humanity is flawed and cannot save itself - and its main weakness is where it has placed humanity at the heart of everything and divorced the life of humanity from that of the rest of the world, in the belief that 'man is made in the image of God', and therefore wrests all power to itself. That struggle, I would suggest, lies at the heart of the religious quest - and if the emphasis on the salvation of humankind has buried the sense of the holiness of all creation - God saw what he had made, and it was good - the gap between the two, between flawed humanity and being made in the image of God is a gap which is filled by the most distinctively Christian of the gifts of the Spirit as identified by St Paul, and that is hope. John Gray does not, so far as I can see, deal with the question of hope - which is something very different from optimism. He ends his earlier book, Straw Dogs with this challenge:
Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one, Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?
A theology of hope?
As a Christian who believes that the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus leaves us with the tools to see, but to see a fresh vision, a vision that is infused with the hope that all is not random and that there is fulfilment that is promised but beyond our grasp, I agree; and I believe that is what the Gospel reading this morning points us towards. The Risen Christ, the Good Shepherd, leads us out of the safety of the sheepfold where all is known and ordered and secure (and controlled) to a radical life of faith that is unprotected from 'the world', but immersed in it, called and challenged to see, interpret and proclaim its possibilities and to speak out against its injustices and cruelties. But to change it? That is for God. And that, I fear, is probably where John Gray and I disagree.
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