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What does it mean to exist in complex relationships with machines? What insights can be offered to our understandings of these relationships by the theologically significant theme of ‘love’? What critical assessments can be made of our multiple uses of technologies in shaping our futures, by reflecting on our pasts?

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Disquiet over the prevalence of social and economic individualism has a long history. In a world of mobile Capital and increasingly mobile people, communities of common tradition and locality appear to be under threat from the advent of a fragmented market society. Are these complaints against individualism justified? And crucially, how should Christians respond to them? Digging down into the substance of these questions, this project will consider the theological, liturgical and scriptural resources Christians have for understanding the notion of individualism in relation to issues of education, public life and the formation of democratic citizenship.

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Monday
Sep282015

Irish Journeys: Individualism through the Eyes of Students and Chaplains 

Research Questions and Setting: Many of the key concerns of the project were brought home by a visit in December 2014 Republic of Ireland. I sat on the plane with a series of key questions in mind; all of them intended to unearth different aspects of the reality of individualism in lives both of students and pastoral workers. For students many of the questions centred on the various kinds of temporal and geographical transience experienced by young adults as they adapt to a new environment of study and faith. In particular I was intrigued to discover (in the midst of significant personal change) what the core reference points were for students? What was being clung to and what was being rejected? These concerns were coded in the following question:

1) How do you understanding the meaning of the word 'Church'?

2) As a student, how do you decide which church to attend? E.g. Chaplains, friends, faith-tradition, personal beliefs?

3) What reasons might you have for leaving a Church or congregation?

4) Has coming to university changed your understanding of your faith? If so, in what way(s)?

5) What do you think the purpose of chaplaincy services are?

As a point of comparison, I also wanted to consider how Chaplains understood their own sense of identity as they work closely with students. Do perceptions of the role of chaplaincy match (in the experience of students and pastoral workers)? And did the personal and theological perceptions of students match the perceptions of the Chaplains? And what might possible differences tell us about how students view their ecclesial and faith-identity? These questions were explored through informal discussions with both students and Chaplains in three different settings. Firstly the Interfaith Centre at Dublin City University. This small but evidently busy Chaplaincy in the heart of Dublin serves a mix of students, many of them international (from both East and South Asia) from diverse faith-backgrounds.

The Centre describes itself as offering 'a place of welcome and hospitality for all members of the University community'. The second site if research was the Chaplaincy at the University of Maynooth (25 km from Dublin). The University community comprises over 9,000 students and 800 staff from more than 20 countries. Services provided include a quiet room for prayer and reflection, Daily Mass and Mindfulness Meditation. The third site of research was a worship-meeting run by the Christian Union of Trinity College Dublin. The CU describes itself an open place 'for people from all degrees of faith or no faith at all. Our aim is to be accessible to all providing a place for Christians to meet, praise and grow spiritually. CU also provides an ideal opportunity for those contemplating the big questions of faith to come and explore'. The theological orientation of the worship-group was Bible-based and Evangelical.

Interfaith Centre (Dublin City University): Time at the Interfaith Centre, revealed that the primary needs of students while broke into three:

* Existential/doctrinal Issues ('Am I in the right Church? Does teaching match with the Bible or my earlier religious experiences')

* Issues of Roots (Can Christian community offer me a centre of belonging?)

* Issues of Inclusion (Can I be part of an established Church community as a student?)

Reflections from Students: While some students were conscious of their identity within particular Christian confessions, most of their concerns were framed in a pluralistic way. The Church for these students is defined generously (as global and local, communal and individual). For some students the process of finding 'the right Church' to be part meant reading the Bible and seeing whether the Church teaching fit with their understanding (hermeneutical normalcy). Some stressed the importance of experience (‘you experience the Holy Spirit and he leads you to become part of a Church'). Such students operated implicitly through the idea of a theory of vocation ('I need to be where God wants me to be)'. For both the first and second type of student Prayer is central to both ideas of Church and belonging. In Prayer, both notions of Church and Scripture become clear. For a third cluster of students (the most numerous) issues of doctrine and Church were secondary to issues. What mattered most to these students was the sense that Church provided belonging? Many of these students agreed with the statement that 'the Church should be a home away from home'. Some students said they derived emotional wellbeing from the familiarities of liturgy and ritual (this was particularly evident for Indian Catholic students in the group). In a common sacramental practice, these students found ways of forming new communities which resembled their original contexts.

What the Students were not worried about: Students were not that worried about a category called 'individualism'. Indeed, they were more concerned about issues of personal validation and belonging. Some were worried that they were not fully-included in the congregations they attended and that few of the Church's they attended knew how to include students. Some experienced elderly congregations with fixed patterns of meeting and worship. Many students not only wanted more flexible forms of worship, but were also worried that traditional congregations meant they got 'lost in the crowd'. Some students said

Significant Points from DCU

The Church

Although some students noted things like, buildings etc., the consensus was that ‘Church’ was a global collection of people, with local functions. Whilst in Ireland the demographic of Church-goers was old, many students noted how they attend Church to connect with the global crowd and their home communities (for those who came from abroad or to Dublin from other parts of Ireland). It was referred to as a family, and home away from home. Students talked about a sense of ‘belonging’ – being led rather than being obliged, they preferred smaller-group settings. We might call these students committed 'personalists'. For them, Church involves close bonds of friendship and their voice being responded to. In accord with this 'personalist orientation', students were generally accepting of the idea that it is 'alright' to not go to Church for long periods and simply pray 'wherever you are'. While some students expressed anxiety and guilt about 'being away from Church’, they generally saw the Church as bigger than organisations or buildings.

Reflections from Chaplains: Chaplains were acutely aware of the challenges posed by the 'personalist' orientation of students. One Chaplain expressed the view that students had become very 'individualistic' both in the way they believe and worship. He suggested that, 'we've all become Protestants, even if you are Catholic'. This perceived transformation had a number of manifestations:

Interest in Other Religions: One Chaplain confided in me that the leaflets students took away most explored Buddhism. The Chaplain believed that Buddhism was a religion of the 'self' which suited the individualistic orientation of contemporary culture.

The Internet: Chaplains were concerned that the Internet challenged their role as gate-keepers of religious experience. They suggested that students were increasingly turning to online forums to find answers to religious questions. For Chaplains, this raises the problem 'authority' and 'guidance'. Chaplains increasingly feel they have to de-bunk online claims and challenge students to think critically about what they encounter. During our discussions, Chaplains explored with me what nourishes them as pastoral workers. While the Bible was significant for Chaplains, one said he found nourishment in the idea of the Universal Church (as communicated through the Fathers). The Chaplains were optimistic about their role despite the challenges.

Chaplaincy at the University of Maynooth: Group-work with Maynooth students revealed a rich cluster of personal and theological experiences. Here were some of the key issues which were brought into focus:

* The Church as idea and reality

* The role of the Church and Scripture

* Belonging and Identity

Significant Points from MU

The Church

MU: More of a focus on the buildings and structure of worship – whether the familiarity of Church buildings had an impact on a sense of belonging – some felt the ‘structures’ of worship needed to be conducted correctly, others were open to other forms of worship

What factors are involved in picking a Church?

The consensus among all groups were a feeling of rightness or belonging – some did note they picked a Church that their families/home communities recommended.

Reflections from the Students: Maynooth students were highly articulate regarding the questions offered. They drew on a wealth of experience and personal criteria to both answer and expand upon the questions offered. What was most significant about the student's approach to both Church and identity was its deeply post-denominational nature. While Catholicism played a key role in the lives of many of the participants, a majority of students did not rigidly subscribe to Church labels. Some students felt that modes of worship (liturgy, modes of prayer) did not matter as much as correct teaching. Some suggested that Christians could worship anywhere and at diverse Churches. While the students possessed a strongly 'personalist' approach was clear on the centrality of being part of an ecclesial community. In terms of discerning which Church to be part of, Maynooth students were keen to focus on both the sense of being 'in the right place' but also whether the practices of the Church matched with the Bible. These young adults showed themselves to mobile Christians, able to up-root from a Church community if they sensed the community has lost spiritual direction. Networks and personal connection mattered more to these students than habitual affiliation to Church traditions. In relation to the role of Chaplaincy, Maynooth students were equally personalist. They saw the Chaplain as a guide, an adviser and a consoler. They were seen as a supplementary form of support, to augment their own faithful reflection.

What the Students were not worried about: Maynooth students echoed many of the attitudes found at DCU. They emphasised the importance of prayer, personal discernment and fluid affiliation. Again, individualism did not resonate as a category of concern.

Reflections from Chaplains: The Chaplains' attitudes were surprisingly similar to the students. The Chaplains adopted an open and inclusive conception to religious identity. While many Chaplains were clear about their religious identities, they saw faith as an open journey, which continues through life. They wished to apply this generosity to the students they meet on a daily basis. One participant noted that while she did not wish to see people breaking off and doing their own thing 'faith starts with a personal relationship with Jesus'.

The Christian Union of Trinity College Dublin: The following issues immerged from time spent in a Trinity CU. worship meeting:

* An institutional messages which opposed forms of individualistic Christianity

* A worship structure which could be interpreted as having an 'individualistic bias'

* Some plurality on how students define Church.

What is the role of Chaplaincy?

DCU: Were quite strong that chaplains were to provide guidance on spiritual matters that pertained to university life, which differed from a counsellor who deals with non-spiritual matters, or a local priest who deals with matters perhaps of spirituality, but outside university life. Chaplains noted similar points, and also noted their role as mediating tensions between faith groups and individuals on campus, e.g. Christian opposition to homosexuality.

MU: students were more general in their views, noting that chaplains are more like counsellors. The chaplains worried about their denominational affiliations or how they are perceived, and how they are to be a ‘presence’ on campus. They also noted their lobbying efforts to provide resources for faith on campus, e.g. ritual washing facilities.

TCD: Christian union students didn’t seem to have much connection to the chaplaincy – we didn’t find anyone who had used chaplaincy services, but we didn’t get to speak to all guests. This echoed the reflections of the chaplains at MU and DCU who noted a disconnect between the Christian unions and chaplaincy services.

 

Reflections from the Students: Many of the students I spoke to at the gathering were discerning in their understanding of both Church and personal identity. Many students saw their Christian identity as one of match-up with the Bible. Many students told me that finding 'the right Church' was a matter of prayer and Scriptural reading, although there were hints of an alternative model of discernment about 'a Church feeling right'. One participant said she went to different Churches to 'try them out'. She knew she'd found the right Church by 'feeling at home'.

Sermon (Gilly Carson): The Sermon began with showing a cover image from Time Magazine with the title 'Me, Me, Me Generation'. The pastor suggested that a key problem with modern society was its individualistic and selfish focus. A particular concern for the pastor was the notion that contemporary society was overly concerned with the accumulation of consumer goods. This, he suggested left people spiritually empty, anxious and caught in a rat-race. He suggested that Christianity offered an alternative to this status quo. The text under discussion was Philippians 2. The pastor described it as a 'love letter'. He suggested that Paul was describing what was important to a group of people who he cared about. This led the pastor to consider what Paul was saying about how Christians should live now. Key points:

* Love and community is more important than 'stuff'

* Christians should focus on God and not on success.

* You don't need the world's standards in order to be valid and valuable.

Carson ended his sermon by telling the story of a Christian woman from North Korea who suffers for her faith. The pastor used this story to illustrate the proper attitudes of dedicated Christians. Christians should not focus on material things and worldly success but upon love, friendship and spreading the Word .

Interpretation: The Sermon was significant because it revealed what the leadership or theological communicators of Evangelical Christianity worry about. This official narrative identifies individualism as a threat to Christian life and ethics. In this context, students are at the centre of individualism’s material and cultural influence. They need to be taught a countercultural message which challenges 'the me,me, me' orientation.

The Church: All groups raised the issue of the difference between individual worship and community worship, some noting that you cannot bring to the community what you do not have individually, and thus in a sense, the individual aspect of worship may be primary.

The Hymns: During the course of worship, there were a number of songs which explored the theme of God's love. The style of these hymns echoed romantic pop songs in secular culture. Their orientation was individualistic and personalist ('God loves me'). This raises an interesting issue of conflict between an official narrative and theological messages being embraced and transmitted through the congregation.

How this Observations Relate to Previous Research: In key respects these observations confirm elements of previous research in a similar area. The recent publication Christianity and the University Experience (2013) illustrate several elements which overlap with the experience of Dublin students:

* Christianity as Relationship: The research of Matthew Guest, Kristin Aune et al overlapped visibly with the experience of Dublin students. As they suggest: '[the students] view Christian identity as something primarily shaped by and expressed in social relationships, rather than in assent to doctrine or belief', p. 31 This observation was reflected in the first two settings, DCU and Maynooth. Students stressed belonging, familiarity and personal connection over doctrinal formulas. While correct teaching was an element in the consideration of many students, spiritual support was more vital. The claim that 'the Church could be anywhere' spoke to a group of people who were mobile, post-denominational and theologically fluid.

Christianity and Subjectivity: Christianity and the University Experience (2013) also brought into focus some of the issues which concerned Chaplains, especially the issue of individualism. Research suggests that subjectivity (and the notion of a personal relationship with God) is vital for Christian students across the theological spectrum. As Matthew Guest, Kristin Aune et al note: 'The elevation of subjective experience in which a vital relationship with God is worked out may reflect the presence of students influenced by the charismatic tradition, or by the broader emphasis upon the subjective found across religious developments in contemporary Britain' (p. 45).

* Pluralism: It is notable that even within a predominantly Catholic context, interaction with Christian students in Dublin (of Protestant and Catholic affiliations) revealed a great deal of diversity in terms of religious emphasis- ranging from a notion of Christianity springing from the Holy Spirit to a focus on the act of going to Church and 'experiencing mass'. It is clear that students are faced with multiple definitions of Christianity and have to find a way of navigating these differences. Some choose a Biblical focus while others are more habitual, preferring familiar forms of worship and community. There were a few students that were more experiential, placing less emphasis upon the Bible or institution. Interestingly theological categories or doctrinal disputes played very little part in the way these students understood their Christian identity. As Matthew Guest, Kristin Aune et al observe: ''The present-day pattern is one of reconfiguration at the popular level and while the process is not undefined by established tradition it is also characterised by an unprecedented blurring of boundaries, informed by a common cultural experience of cultural and religious experience. Christianity' is a category which is being rethought and reconfigured in ways which challenge conventional definitions we might consider normative.' (p. 33).

Tuesday
Jun232015

The Santorum Paradox: Christianity, Climate Change and the Ghost of John Rawls

In a recent interview U.S. Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum has exhorted the Catholic Church “leave the science to the scientists” ahead of the publication of a Papal Encyclical on the environment. Santorum suggested that while he has great respect for Pope Francis, the Church should focus on “what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality.” Going further the Republican Senator suggested that “when we get involved with controversial political and scientific theories, then I think the church is probably not as forceful and credible”. This interview is fascinating, not least because it reveals the many tensions and contradictions generated by the affirmation of Christian commitments in liberal democratic societies. Perhaps the chief tension which Santorum highlights is a subliminal willingness to buy into the constituent parts of John’s Rawls vision of a liberal social order- where religious identities are marginal in the conduct of public life. Indeed as Rawls puts it in The Law of Peoples, ‘a liberal society with a constitutional regime, does not, as a liberal society, have a comprehensive conception of the good. Only the citizens and associations within the civic society in the domestic case have such conceptions.’[1] On the surface it seems utterly absurd to compare Santorum to Rawls, in particular because of the former’s very public opposition towards the politics of liberal secularism in both the domains of education and social policy. Indeed, last year in an interview with the American Family Association, Sanctorum claimed that, “The idea that, if you take religion out of the public square, you take the Bible out of the classroom, that that’s neutral. Well no, that’s not neutral….It’s a different worldview.” Yet, if one looks more closely, one sees that Santorum’s public statements concerning climate change bring him closer to the professed neutrality of liberal secularism than he would doubtless find palatable.

The first sign of such subliminal opt-in can be found in Santorum’s suggestion that climate change should be left to climate scientists. This suggests that there exist two realms of thought; one scientific and one theological, which are entirely distinct. In the first camp one could place the concerns of instrumental rationality; technology, material abundance and production. These activities and those trained in improving them are using Santorum’s telling word “creditable” (for presumably their claims can be accepted by the widest possible constituency). So far so Rawlsian. Here we see a second sign of opt-in- a Sanctorumian equivalent of “public reason”. The evidence for such convergence becomes stronger when we examine Sanctorum’s second camp of the theological. Here Santorum places the category of “morality”; which includes helping the poor and having a “healthier society”. Yet these principles do not do as much genuine theology as their speaker thinks. To put it rather bluntly, these “likes” of Santorum’s amount to little more than generic platitudes. Morality as Sanctorum presents it in the interview never strays into specific theological claims about human beings or the world- despite being placed under a theological canopy. Understood through the lens of Rawlsian neutrality, a cynic might say that Santorum’s evocation of ethics neither offends the technicians of instrumental reason nor any elastic political constituency. To put it in slightly more philosophical terms, these commitments do not require specific world-views to be publically operable; they merely have to be widely sharable. Since few are going to quarrel in principle with a healthy society or help for the poor, it seems Sanctorum is playing a surprisingly secularist game.  Given such a starting-point it is perhaps not surprising that the Church becomes ‘controversial’ for Sanctorum when it steps beyond these comfortable reasonable bounds. In making our private and individual choices somehow public and problematic, debates around climate change transgress a thin Rawlsian of politics. To transgress onto the grounds of instrumental reason to make judgements about public reason that are community specific and partisan, is to defy the comfortable privatisation of religion implicit in many forms of secular/procedural liberalism. Only if one swallowed such neutralist logic would one worry about the Church’s credibility. A view of the world which saw no distinction between the world as lived and the world being theologised about, would have no qualm with ecclesiastical pronouncements about climate change. If that means the Church does not carry people with them (like a politician at election time) so be it. Regardless of credibility and that other slippery word ‘influence’, the Church still needs to say what it knows and ways which are truthful to its own convictions.

In this vein, accusations concerning the Church being too ‘political’ are premised on a fundamental misunderstanding. Christians shouldn’t subconsciously treat their way of speaking as the preserve of the non-technical, non-specialist private sphere (interwoven with issues of abortion, family and sexuality). In contrast, Christians need to become more public in order to keep their claims intelligible. If the world is a ‘creation’ and encoded with certain values then the Church has a duty to speak faithfully to that fact, not in the pretence of doing ecology or some other scientific discipline, but in the service of its own commitments. Of course this always comes with the risk that the Church will be misunderstood or mocked by those with the guiding assumption that it should not have a public voice at all (‘leave it to the professionals’). Of course the Church might get the ‘facts wrong’ in some instances (so do scientists) but that does not automatically exclude the Church from public debate. Theology is not some specialism of the Church which should be kept well away from science and politics, but the lens which unearths the deep meaning of all known ‘facts’ (or more proactively put, gives a large shape to the fruits of our reason). If the Church has a sense of the telos of the world (discerned the face of the one who is the ‘image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation’) then it must declare it, lest it leaves false conceptions unchallenged. Thus, in their reticence to make the environment a theological issue, Santorum and the Christian Right inhabit a deeply uncomfortable paradox. While publically rally against the evils of secularism, their assumptions still owe much to a secular world-view; that bits of the world can function perfectly well without theology (especially climate science!). One does need to be as theologically triumphalist as John Milbank to be profoundly troubled by this suggestion.

At this juncture, it is tempting to make a series of Hauerwas-like pot-shots at the civil religion of America and the way in which procedural liberalism polices the Christian Right of the GOP. Yet, this is not an issue only for Republicans, nor is it a peculiarly American problem. It is something all Christians in liberal-democratic societies face at one time or another; indeed the possibility of marginalisation is the shadow-side of some its more compelling fruits- like tolerance and free inquiry. How to break this pattern of being pushed to the side-lines? As Jeffrey Stout so brilliantly shows us in his Democracy and Tradition, liberal cultures are constructed through patterns of thought, sentiments and webs of tradition (not theorised into existence). The way to make liberal habits more amenable or porous towards Christian convictions is by introducing new habits and practices into the cultural mind-set. The more Christians intervene in public debate (and indeed the more they talk about what others are talking about) the less religion is placed behind a political and discursive wall. Such conditions of osmosis can only aid Christians in their thinking and acting, for instead of ‘leaving it to the professionals’, the Churches may begin to learn to use a Christ-shaped description of reality which carries every aspect of life in its immediate orbit. Instead of putting on different masks, sometimes Christian, sometimes civic, engagement with climate change may encourage believers to be themselves. To an extent this habit-breaking strategy is already being adopted and his is showing results. What Elaine Graham has called ‘the post-secular’ signifies a new visibility for religious communities and convictions in a political environment which still professes typical Rawlsian manners. This tension has led to a new fusion of political action and faith which defies and challenges the stale private/public distinction of both some liberal secularists and religious Neo-Conservatives like Santorum. As Graham has summarised this shift:

While many features of the trajectory of religious decline, typical of Western modernity are still apparent, there are compelling and vibrant signs of religious activism, not least in public life and politics; local, national and global.  For example, in Western democracies like the UK, faith-based organisations are experiencing a heightened public prominence as partners with government in the delivery of welfare and other public services services….Religion continues to be a potent force in many aspects of global civil society and is increasingly cited by governments as a source of social capital and social mobilisation.[2]       

In this new situation the pope’s environmental encyclical is not merely “acceptable” or understandable; it is what this climate of religious visibility needs and demands. Instead of the stale old debates about religious credibility in a secular space, the Pope has attempted to enact with vigour that beautiful phrase from Von Balthasar, that ‘only love is credible’. By applying its imperative of love to new situations, the Church is endeavouring to heal distinctions between civic and personal identities for Christians, in ways unimagined in previous decades. The Pope’s willingness to put his head above the parapet on the issue of climate change is the mark, not of Christianity’s co-option into scientific or secular debates, but rather the reverse. By tackling climate change, the Church demonstrates that it still believes in its universal vocation; to express the love of God for an injured and burdened creation.                 

 


[1] John Rawls, The Law of Peoples: With, The Idea of Public Reason Revisited, (Harvard: Harvard University Press,

p. 34

[2] Elaine Graham, Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Public Theology in a Post-Secular Age, (SCM Press, 2013), p. xiv

Friday
Oct032014

Do Hipsters Make Good Disciples? 

In his essay Sympathy & Domination: Adam Smith, Happiness and the Virtues of Augustinianism, Eric Gregory makes a fascinating observation about the role of desire in Christian life. Reflecting on the young and restless Augustine, Gregory writes, 'The nice thing about desire, even consumer desire it appears, is that we never rest prematurely.  I wonder if Augustine might hold that all desire, in a sense, saves us.'[i]  The man, who flirted with the followers of Mani, loved Epicurus and declared he was a Sceptic (before accepting Christ), was a spiritual consumer. Every bit as philosophically convulsed as the New Age seekers who populate their weekends with Shamanic workshops and Tantric Yoga, Augustine had tasted the religious diversity before becoming a beacon of orthodoxy. What might this observation mean for the way in which political theologians read consumer cultures they encounter daily? Instead of treating contemporary consumerism as a wholly negative phenomenon, Augustine suggests we look at the issue differently. The behaviour of the shopper or spiritual tourist is the way it is because of the deep structure of the human condition. The longing for fulfilment is at root an existential need: a secularized version of the call at the heart of Augustine's Confessions: ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.’

Take that much reviled cultural category of the ‘hipster’ in Anglo-American society. In what sense are the savvy kids with vintage clothes (drinking their Starbucks coffee) theological subjects? And to what degree does their post-modern irony and eclectic tastes in music and culture, point us towards theological realities? These questions seem rather tongue-in-cheek until one realizes the pivotal role that cultural and material restlessness has in the Christian story. The Hipster in his dissatisfaction with mass trends and his obsession with buying the quirky, the fringe and the idiosyncratic represents an old cultural instinct. Like the intrepid Israelite who gives up  'the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic' of Egypt for the open space and possibilities of the wilderness (Numbers 11:5) , the Hipster fashions himself as socially aloof, looking with distain on those who has stayed put in Pharaoh’s House (with MTV, Twilight DVDs and mass-produced pop). Admittedly these latter-day wanders of the coffee-shop experience none of the radical scarcities of their religious ancestors. Their quarrel is not with hunger but rather with aesthetics. Yet their longing for something more than shrunken conformities of mass-culture has something of the prophetic and anti-idolatrous about it. When offered the false gods of conventional culture, these wryly and skinny-jeaned Cynics look on with a smile at the grey 'clone' crowds. In their disdain for mainstream attitudes towards social success, the Hipsters echo not merely an Augustinian restlessness, but the desire for a countercultural community, which like all bohemia, thrives on its sense of separation from the 'busy world'. 

Just as the young Augustine retreated from a successful career as an imperial publicist to live a life of cultural tranquillity with a group of his close reading-buddies, the Hipsters want to live in towns of like-minds (even if like-mindedness means refusing to think alike). Seeking out hubs of 'cool' (the second-hand book-shops, the little art galleries) these ironists crave Messianic communities which meet their hopes and aspirations. Their assemblies (like those gatherings of the early Christians) are dispersed, yet they are draw together by a common pattern of life.  Leisure (the source of meaning for the Hipster) supplies an anti-politics which attempts to dissent disrupt the ceaseless treadmill of production and commercialisation.In this mound, moments of exuberance, carnival and creativity become sites of another society- one in which freedom and pleasure has the upper-hand over the exploitative logic of Capital (the nine to five jobs at Costa or the call-centre). As Bret McCracken notes:

Their very existence is meant to parody bourgeois consumerism, to slap in the face all the mall shoppers, and country club wives who try so hard to adopt a certain part and adopt all the prerequisite accessories and accoutrements to advance in the social hierarchy. Hipsters view any kind of prescribed hierarchy as absurd, and they relish in their ability to unnerve the rich folk and distress the soccer moms by being so flagrantly unconventional.[ii]            

By rejecting visions of the mass-produced and corporate, the Hipster can frequently be found embracing ethical causes through their wallets: local shops, vegetarianism and fair-trade. In this way the Hipsters are a perfect example of Luke Bretherton’s claim that: ‘even within capitalism and consumerism, there are means available for mediating concern and care for others and extending bonds of friendship and pursuing justice.’[iii]   If there is something prophetic, even messianic about the Hipsters, is also something explicitly theological. Indeed, these Aficionados of cool are not beyond turns to the spiritual, even the downright religious to solidly their sense of counterculture. The arrival of Nu-Folk on the play-lists of the Hipsters (especially Mumford and Sons) defies a norm of a baize atheism. Marcus Mumford can sing passionately in front of thousands of jaded and otherwise Scripturally-illiterate teenagers of the depths of faith hope and charity and it doesn’t cause the crowd unease. There is a need which such religious imagery is clearly meeting.  So whatever the moral failures of consumerism and affluent counterculture, the Hipster scene possesses an artistic sensibility which is hospitable Christian life and praise. Far from opposing Christian visions and practices, we can see that secular consumerism has the capacity to gesture towards the transcendent.

And yet, much like the restless Cynic philosophers of Augustine’s era, the the Hipster is proficient at irony, deconstruction and scorn, but less effective at forming a communal life which lasts. With their generally non-committal attitude and disillusionment the Hipster has a tendency of excluding himself from affirmative relationships rather than taking the risk of rejection. Equally when faced with opposition, instead of reacting with courage or defiance, the Hipster tends to indulge in a self-righteous quietism, which rejects the hard slog of sacrifice or principle. This inability to open up to the possibilities of love or criticism is brilliantly parodied by Liam Lynch's 2002 track "My United States of Whatever". This state of isolation is amplified by the fact that Hipsters tend to be found in mobile and gentrified areas where local identities are subsumed by rapidly moving populations. People don’t settle so they never have the time to get to know one another. Yet the greatest flaw in Hipster culture is found in its professed turn to counterculture. While Hipsters attempt to distance themselves from the idols of corporate culture, they themselves are frequently trapped in their own form of false worship: the cult of the cool.  In its perpetual urge to be ahead of the curb, to be counter-cultural, to be different, Hipster culture merely re-inscribes the competitive and hierarchical behaviours of late Capitalism.

Trend and fashions replace classas a marker of status (now being measured by earnestness and authenticity). Indeed as Bourdieu observed back in the 1980s, the Hipster is a representative of a new phase of political economy where 'cultural capital' rather than money becomes a key indictator of social participation. So although Hipster life is capable of mimicking and mirroring the transformation of the Gospel, its restlessness lacks the teleology necessary to move from creative protest to holiness. The Hipster’s particular malady is our culture’s general condition. We are so convulsed by desire that we no-longer know what we really want and what we really value. We are so beguiled by the new that we find it nearly impossible to attend to an old Christian discipline: staying put and being still. Instead of rushing head-long into the distractions of the cool, we need to cultivate of rootedness and ordinariness. Uniqueness and individuality cannot be gained merely by vintage clothes or music, but is something worked out quietly and concertedly with others. We develop and deepen the sense of ourselves not by competing for cultural prestige, but by taking part in those unremarkable practices of caring and loving. As Pope Francis puts it in The Joy of the Gospel: ‘people who wholeheartedly enter into the life of a community need…. [not] lose their individualism or hide their identity; instead, they receive new impulses to personal growth’ by being in community.[iv] If the cultural homelessness of the Hipster can be translated into the attitude of a pilgrim, then the city terrains of these new bohemians can become potent spaces for an altogether different culture to take shape.   

 


[i]Eric Gregory, ‘Sympathy & Domination: Adam Smith, Happiness and the Virtues of Augustinianism’, in Adam Smith as Theologian, ed. Paul Oslington, (Abington: Routledge, 2011), p. 42  

[ii] McCracken, Hipster Christianity: When Cool and Church Collide, (Grand Rapids: Barker Press, 2010), p. 65    

[iii]Luke Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics, (Willey-Blackwell: Oxford, 2010), p. 183

[iv]Francis, Evangeli Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), (London:  Catholic Truth Society, 2013), p. 113

Monday
Jul212014

The Unquiet Frontier and the Politics of the Holy Spirit 

In The Unquiet Frontier: Tracking the Boundaries of Philosophy and Public Theology, Elaine Graham draws our attention to the paradoxes of a post-secular age in which religious identity is at once, both visible and fading, influential yet marginal. In the twenty-first century West, Christian religion is a publically influential, yet distrusted actor. It is both the progenitor of culture wars (a spanner in the smooth workings of liberal democracy) and part of a busy public vanguard of organisations, groups and parties who seek a return to some ideal vision of the civic  and the local. Western Christians live in an uncomfortable space where they are simultaneously despised and needed. They are hardly being thrown to the lions yet they are no longer invited to ‘wear the imperial purple’ either. Neither martyrdom nor glorification fit the present situation, which might explain why many Western Christians feel at a loss both politically and existentially. Their traditional languages of public identity have dried up- and like Britain after colonialism- believers are left without an empire,  yet to find a role. In sketching this new and ambiguous context, Graham makes us vividly aware of possible temptations which might beset the Church.

 

Public Engagement as Trap

             In the first place, Christians, in the face of hostile secularists might feel impelled to demonstrate that they are needed after all. Individuals or congregations of this type throw themselves into the frenzy of political activism, civic participation and public advocacy. They gleefully assent to the ‘new localism’ lauded by political elites, start food-banks and run benefit-advice services. Through these acts of state-sanctioned charity a church’s ebbing confidence can be revived and secularists rebutted. Yet the danger of such public action is that it all too easily domesticates the Church’s mission. In this position, Christian institutions (as well as their moral, theological, even aesthetic resources) become servants of a rapidly devolving neo-liberal state, for which the ‘third sector’ is the means of regenerating society. Following Adam Dinham, Graham rightly observes, that ‘faith-based bodies risk being fatally co-opted into functionalist or instrumentalized relations if the only values or motivations they can articulate are immanent and pragmatic.’ Putting this point a bit more sharply, we might say that Christians get themselves into the rather morally dubious position of clothing the poor and attending to the widow- not because these acts makes the Gospel concrete, but because they fear being made irrelevant. This  hardly seems a sound ground for Christian witness. This does not mean Churches cease to be public actors, but as Graham puts it: ‘Actions may speak louder than words, but the nature of the post-secular condition suggests that whilst the practices of faithful citizenship constitute a kind of first-order public theology, they may still need justification.’  We need to do Christ-shaped things because of Christ-shaped reasons and should be suspicious of public discourses which attempt to make Christianity a vehicle for other ends than those of Jesus.

 

The Danger of Isolation

 The ambiguity of post-secularity might also push Christians into another undesirable snare: despair disguised as joy concerning their new status as a small minority in a sea of paganism. In this posture the Church becomes a creature of countercultural certainty. Every bad news headline about the decline of institutional Christianity merely confirms such a radical ecclesia in its rightness. According to this view, cultural Christianity must die for genuine faithfulness to be re-born. Constantine must be slain if the Lamb is to rule. There is much which is superficially attractive about this position, as Stanley Hauerwas's influence among political theologians and radical congregants attests. Retreating to a new version of the catacombs allows the Church to indulge in righteous anger and private piety without the pain and risk of actually seeking God out in the market-place and the agora (Acts 17:16-34).

According to this model the world can get on with the mucky business of being the world (democrats can squabble about procedural justice till the cows come home) while Christians can prepare to die if liberal democrats turn mad or bad. Whatever the Church does, it must not get dragged into the seductive game of aping the people or ideologies in power. Like Joseph in the house of the Egyptian steward, Christians must never forget their true adoptive status as sons and daughters of the living God. In early centuries we might have called this position straightforwardly isolationist, yet in recent decades this sharp judgement has been side-lined by an attractive series of philosophical moves frequently called ‘post-liberal’. In an effort to topple lazy concepts of moral universalism and dialogical optimism, post-liberals like Hauerwas call on us to recognize that Christianity possesses a unique and exclusive theological grammar which is not mutually intelligible to those unformed by its rules. As Hauerwas sketches his task:

I have emphasised the importance of a recovery of the integrity of the church as an alternative political community. That I have done so, however, does not commit me to a sectarian ecclesiology, unless it is assumed that the secular state has the right to determine what will and will not count as political. Unless the church and Christians are trained first to understand their community’s language, they will lack resources to notice times when the language of the state is not their own. To be sure there may be continuities among those languages but those continuities cannot be recognised unless Christians first know that their community’s language is determined by what Walter Bruggermann has called “the singular holiness of God.”[1]              

 By giving priority to such internal language learning, one initiates significant consequences for the relationship between the Church and culture. At the level of conviction the realms of secularity and church are hermetically sealed: divided by different grammars. Thus, the starting-point of interchange is necessarily one of misgiving, if not outright distrust. And as Graham points out, any attempt to communicate with the secular world (or other religious traditions) is seen as a form of capitulation to the expectations of secular/liberal reason. At all costs then, Hayerwas exhorts us to be linguistically pure and not cavort with pagans, secularists, or worst still, nominal cultural Christians. Hauerwas (and to some extent Lindbeck) give those who are inclined to ecclesial separatism adequate reason to let the world go to hell in a handcart while the Church remains unsullied. Such an attitude may well deal adequately with those Scriptural voices which speak of the Church as a cradled, particular treasure of God, but such exclusive ecclesiology does less well in the face of Scripture’s radical inclusivity. What do the modern-day catacombs have to say in the face of Christ of whom we are told ‘every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth’? What does such a Church say to the God who shall gather the nations to himself on Zion? For all its many defects, the old Constantinian settlement never despaired of public engagement. Indeed, whatever the manifold sins of Anglican establishment such comprised visibility must be preferable to smug invisibility. If post-secularism invites some Christians to succumb to the comfort of anonymity, then we should regard this as more corrosive than the notion of Enlightenment secularity it replaces. Thus, it seems to me that the Church in post-secularity must avoid the lure of feeling needed and the lure of being forgotten. How then does the Church avoid these twin fates?

 

Recovering a Pneumatological Sensibility

 For her part, Graham suggests that an urgent task of the contemporary Western Christian is to rediscover a theological rationale for doing things- responding neither with fear or favour to liberal/secular institutions.  This requires a digging down into Christian language and tradition, in such a way as to promote a certain kind of religious literacy. As Graham observes:

 [Such rationale] depends on... people of faith themselves being confident and articulate in the precepts of their own traditions – but often I think ordinary members of faith-communities lack religious literacy about their own roots as well as those of others. In other work I’ve done, I call for public theology to reinvent itself as a new kind of ‘Christian apologetics’ – to rescue this term from its modernist appropriation as argument over propositional doctrine with a view to convert, but as a properly public discourse that calls Christians back to an early Biblical mandate, as expressed in the first letter of Peter: ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.’ (1 Peter 3:15, NSV).    

            In this context, public theological reflection is concerned with the promulgation of Christian distinctiveness; a task which extends beyond the post-secular quagmires of instrumentalism and isolationism. Christianity is public but it cannot be reduced to ‘the public interest’. Christianity is particular, but it cannot be reduced to a tribe, among others. What particular theological resources might assist Graham in imagining and actualising such a balanced public theological discourse? One word: Pneumatology. The doctrine of the Spirit teaches Christians what to do when we encounter ‘the world’. In particular, the moving of God’s breath among His People, takes Christian communities beyond mere pragmatic and instrumentalist visions of religion and towards something richer.  While the State may serve the divine purpose, the divine will per se is never fully accomblished by public authority (even one which has aligned itself with the Church). States can offer fixes, comprises and partial kinds of stability, but only God can save. The Church’s efforts should be principally directed towards inducting citizens into that unpredictable and Spirit-led life described so vividly in John:

   “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:5-8)

 To live according to the Spirit is to resist the kind of cosy predictability and procedural regularity that state co-option implies. The Spirit-born are always going to be overflowing with restlessness, moving ever onward as a good pilgrim should. Likewise the Church is impelled by the story it tells to combat any attempt to place it in a safe and comfortable role. The logic of pneumatology reminds us that at most, the State is one instrument of God’s vision. And yet, such a ‘vision’ cannot be reduced to tax-supported advice-services, soap-kitchens or food banks any more than the experience of music can be reduced to notations on a page.Christianity is not merely a set of outward routine philanthropic actions, but the absorption of a life into the dynamic Kingdom of God, where our everyday judgements are shaken to the core. To act in the light of this reality means to always invite the unexpected, to judge tentatively, to plan provisionally and always reflect under guidance.  In harmony with such a radical invitation, the Spirit wants us to be more than helpful citizens; it wants us to be transformed so we become strangers to the world. Something of this new identity is glanced in the cluster of stories preserved in Acts, where we read of the apostles being able to teleport from one place to another. Echoing the miraculous appearances of the risen Christ (Luke 24:36) the disciples defy conventional barriers of space and time in order to deliver the Gospel. Such odd episodes in their way point towards the kind of people we need to be. We need to become the kinds of persons who inexplicably appear in the ‘midst’; capable of shacking up comfortable readings of reality. Yet if the doctrine of the Spirit impels us to be fluid and journeying people, it also encourages us to always look outward towards others. While post-liberals like Hauerwas attempt to make us suspicious of our ability to truly comprehend or contact the outsider, Scripture’s language of the Spirit tutors us in an altogether different attitude. 

Interpreted from a pneumatological perspective, the unfolding history of the Church and Israel is as much about dialogue with the foreigner and interloper as it is a narrative of election and exclusive status. The Spirit is constantly confounding our expectations about who is going to play a role in God’s story. In the Hebrew Scriptures our cast of unexpected players is decidedly rich.  We have the story of the Gentile prophet Balaam, who despite his desire to curse Israel, finds himself becoming Yahweh’s spokesman[2]. Similarly, we have the Persian King Cyrus, who, despite the wrongs done to the Jews at the hand of the Persian Empire, becomes God’s instrument for restoring Jewish nationhood.[3] The importance of these cosmopolitan moments is in their paradigmatic nature- since they reveal something fundamental about the nature and action of the Spirit. Despite the division of the human race along tribal, ideological and political lines, God sees these distinctions for the phantoms they really are. Such a blurring of conventional boundaries continues in the New Testament with the Magi who come from afar to pay homage to a Jewish king (Matthew 2:1-2) and Jesus’ declaration (from the most culturally Jewish of the Gospels no less) that: "many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 8:11-13). This countercultural logic finds its culmination at Pentecost when past interlopers in the Biblical narrative are not merely included, but their identities undergo a kind of radical translation (‘all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them’[4]). While there might be good philosophical reasons to doubt that the grammar of Christian experience can ever be made intelligible to those outside the Church, the dissent of the Spirit suggests otherwise. Instead of solidifying barriers the Spirit is running rough-shod over them so that those not within the community or those on the very edges can participate in the work of God (even if they are not fully aware of the progress of the story). As the Gospel of Mark recounts:

Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us“(9:38-40)

 The message of this conversation is startling; insider status does not limit the effectiveness of the story that God is trying to tell, and that far from being hermetically sealed, the Church should be generous with the story’s diffusion and enactment. Thus, if the Church is being faithful to what it has heard and experienced, it will not seek to draw artificial lines between itself and those outside it. It will instead see non-Christians, minimal Christians and self-conscience anti-believers as potential terrains for the Spirit’s ongoing work. Of course there are obvious dangers in such diffusion; namely that Christian life is torn from its theological moorings or otherwise cheapened by a relativistic or instrumentalist mentality. This is the explicit warning behind the story of Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-24). Yet, like the non-Christians casting out demons in the name of Jesus, even such uses may have the effect of magnifying the Gospel message. The truth is the truth regardless of who uses or discovers it. According to this view, the Church becomes a vehicle for generosity, not because it has bought into post-modern ideas of diversity, but rather because its own experience and theological language demands it. So when Graham suggests that: ‘the time has come to think about a ‘public theology’ that engages with pluralism not by assuming a lowest common denominator but by starting from its own traditions and starting-points’ in part what is required here is a recovery of a pneumatological sensibility which collapses damaging exclusivism within Christian responses to the post-secular.

What the work of the Spirit teaches us above all else is that we should never give up on the task of a dialogue, because there might be a beautiful and mysterious moment when fractured languages can speak with one voice and new visions of community are created. This is the promise of the Spirit; that the wounds and divisions we feel cannot be breached will find healing and reconciliation in Christ. Of course this is not our work, but belongs to God. Our role is simply to be witnesses, vessels and channels for such bridging through practical as well as reflective means. In a period when religion is both being celebrated and reviled, Christians must not be afraid of being public and radical, participatory, yet unflinching. Believers need to discover a language of self-identity which will permit them to be visible and engaged in the world without becoming crystallised into limited public roles. Part of this resistance involves careful negotiation with, and in some cases, rejection of, certain features of the post-secular. If as Graham thinks, the post-secular involves to some extent a relentless tug between religion’s valorisation and demonization, the Church should accept neither position. In place of these stifling polarities, the Church needs to concern itself with being faithful: ordering itself by the gift that it has been given. This does mean a withering of Christian activity ‘in the world’ but rather a thoughtful reframing of what such engagement really means so that hope and not anxiety animates the postures of the latter-day disciples of Jesus.

 


[1] ‘Why the “Sectarian Temptation” is a Misrepresentation: A Response to James Gustafson’ in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. by John Berkman & Michael Cartwright (Duke: Duke University Press, 2001), pp. 102-3

[2] Numbers 22:41-23: 12 41

[3] Isaiah 45: 1-7 

[4] Acts 2: 1-4