Thursday October 16, 2008
It is hard not to agree with Rowan Williams, when he says that greed is one of the root causes of the present financial crisis. His second-in-command, the more flamboyant John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, with his gift for dramatic imagery has put it rather differently
Just as the Hebrew slaves from Egypt built the Golden Calf as the ultimate act of idolatry in the desert, so millions of British people are prostrating themselves before an altar of materialism.
Such religious voices raised against our materialistic age are not without force. I have just finished Tim Kasser’s instructive book, The High Price of Materialism, which explores the harms sown by our materialist cultures, backed up with fairly persuasive research, and it is clear from this that we have a problem of some magnitude on our hands. When it seems like a fact of nature that there should be such a thing as a “housing ladder” that one aspires to climb, for example, or when the advertisers hector us from every billboard and insinuate their way into our homes to persuade us to buy things we didn’t even know we wanted until a moment before, when our economic system is built upon the ideology of continual growth (and there is no sign of any change in this as a baseline assumption) in a world of finite resources, and when all these things lead – as Kasser shows – to personal unhappiness, the fracturing of relationships and the putting in danger of our continued existence here in the world, it is clear that we are up the creek.
What I am less clear about is whether what we need, in response to this, is a recourse to specifically religious values. To be sure, to give one example, it seems that some of the principles of Islamic Banking, with its sharing of profit and loss and its bar on lending on interest, seem to be humane and just and, as far as I can see (because I understand the weird, abstract world of money even less than I understand the weird abstract world of particle physics), more or less workable. But they are commendable not insofar as they are “religious”, but insofar as they are humane and just and workable. And here, I think, religion often gets in the way of our ability to build a more equitable world, not because religion is the root of all evil, as some would have us believe (there are plenty of horrors in the world that cannot be put down to “religion”), but because the good ideas in religion – and I would say to the sceptics that there must be some in all religions, if only because of the profound unlikelihood of any group of people being so deeply misguided that they are capable only of having consistently bad ideas all the time – are frequently claimed by those of the religion in question to be specifically theirs. This is, in the end, a rather mean-spirited approach to good ideas, but it is also a damaging one. In the early days when I was more Buddhist than Buddhish, I came across a great many ideas that seemed to be rather good and useful, but I was continually frustrated by the insistence that they mattered not because they were good and useful, but because they were Buddhist and, not only this, that one could not really make use of them unless one signed up to a whole raft of other ideas that seemed, to me at least, to be somewhat less good and somewhat less useful. One risks, then, turning people who don’t want the whole package off the good ideas, and inculcating bad ideas in those who do want the whole package. Neither is desirable. Religions, seething with ideas both good and bad, are often presented to us in this way as packages that we are asked to sign up to. But this does not seem the right approach. Because the good ideas in religion, in the end, are the ones that can set free from their religious parentage, and that can make their own way in the world, that can stand not on claims to revelatory authority, but on their own merits.
And so I would agree with both archbishops that we would do well to take stock of the situation we are in; but I very much doubt that the best response is a good dose of religion, for religious institutions are often bound up in the problem itself. Tending towards the monolithic, it is hard to disentangle the good ideas from the bad. Take the Church of England, from where these voices raised against consumerism and greed issue: here is an institution that owns property and shares valued at almost five billion pounds in 2006, and that bankrolled the construction of Europe’s largest shopping mall, the Metro Centre in Gateshead (the centre was sold in 1995, although the Church of England still has a substantial stake). It is hard not to ask the following question: if one builds an altar in the desert (and here I intend no slur on the fine city of Gateshead) and sticks a golden calf upon it, can one justly complain when the hordes come and prostrate themselves before it?
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