Scattering the Proud – Chapter I

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The Chasm

‘Too many people are falling into the chasm between the word and the deed.’

This observation, placed by Dennis Potter in the mouths of two quite different characters in two different dramas, summed up the experience of many millions in the twentieth century.

The first occurrence was in the film Gorky Park, in which a Moscow policeman in the Brezhnev era suspected a political dimension to the murder of three people. The chasm of which he spoke was the yawning void between the socialist Eden that communist ideology had promised the Russian people, and the terror it delivered. Perhaps thirty million people fell into this murderous abyss in that century, with the lives of several times that number tragically affected. This gulf was so obvious by the late 1980s that the empire built on the hollow promises of Marxism-Leninism came crashing down, with consequences that are still unfolding. The ideology of the free market which took their place in Russia has so far failed to close the chasm between the visionary future and daily reality – due to corruption and organised crime as well as bad planning. The chasm in Russia is now of a different order – but millions are still falling into it, with consequences we cannot yet foresee.

The second of Potter’s characters was a member of the anti-Nazi minority in Germany in the mid 1930s. The murderous realities of the Third Reich were by then obvious to liberal and Christian opponents of the system, as they came under increasing pressure from the Gestapo. The glorious thousand-year reich – Hitler’s promise – brought twelve years of horror to most of Europe, including genocide to most of Europe’s Jews, and left Germany with a burden of shame that still appals its children.

Ideology

In both cases optimistic ideologies had proven not simply ineffective but murderous on a colossal scale, and so it is important that we understand this term. A political ideology is one that claims to interpret the past correctly, and also the right to determine the future. For Marx, the past was to be interpreted as a battlefield of warring classes, and the future was to be the triumphant global victory of the workers and peasants — represented by the communist party. For Hitler, the past was a conflict of races in which Germany — treacherously betrayed by internal enemies in the war of 1914-18 — represented the heroic ‘Aryan’ race. Under his leadership Germany would create a glorious Aryan empire which would dominate Europe and the western world.

These two ideological chasms, which overshadowed the last century, strongly suggest that we humans are at our most dangerous when we believe we understand everything, and can determine everything. Thoughtful people now seriously question whether any ideology is trustworthy, but ideologies still abound. Ethnic nationalism still transfixes eastern Europe and the Middle East, and the ideology of the market dominates the world’s economic systems. Yet here are more chasms for millions. Nationalism promises ‘national security’ but causes ethnic conflict which uproots and victimises whole communities, and brings atrocities such as Srebrenica and Omagh. The free market does not ‘raise all boats’ as its most enthusiastic proponents claim. It condemns third world countries to decades of debt redemption, and therefore inadequate health provision, among many other evils. It is also changing the world’s climate, with possibly catastrophic consequences for millions.

The Origin of Ideology

Basic to all ideologies is the assumption that if we can develop a science of human history, all religious belief becomes redundant. The age of ideology began with the movement of ideas known as the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. Fundamental to it was the belief that science would ultimately explain everything, and that the technologies and wisdoms based upon it would create a perfect society. The notion of original sin, which argues that we humans have a radical frailty, was dismissed as merely a stratagem to enable clergies to retain control of society. The modern era that the enlightenment began was founded upon the notion that we humans need only idealise the future to create it. We are only now beginning radically to question this assumption — but it remains the bedrock of public debate.

So there remains a deeply rooted void between the religious view of life — in which we humans as flawed creatures look first to God for spiritual healing — and the secular world in which most of us live, based as it is upon the notion that a purely rational approach can solve all problems. Western intellectuals are still mostly emphatic rationalists, scathing in their contempt for a religious view of life. This rationalist view dominates the media, whose only core principle is to maintain the market that supports the media. So modern life is separated intellectually from the spiritual roots of the West’s basic ideals, such as equality. And the persistent inequalities that defy our rationalism, right in the heart of our greatest cities, are plain for all to see. This tragic and incomprehensible chasm between intentions and realities sends millions into drug dependency, the root of much violent crime. Meanwhile another abyss has yawned — the ease with which the power that accumulates in all institutions can corrupt those who seek it.. Idly we wonder which of today’s ‘icons’ will be exposed in a decade’s time for today’s invisible misdeeds.

And yet another chasm exists between the TV fantasy world of advertising and the environmental decay that rampant consumerism necessarily causes. Simplistic models of ‘economic success’ are continuing to alter climate. The ideology of the free market is adapting with glacial slowness to the realisation that we cannot treat the thin layer of habitability that circles the globe as though it is indestructible.

Another void yawns in the integrity of politics. So tempting is it to adapt political manifestoes to market research that leadership tends to become followership. Too seldom do leaders raise difficult issues involving difficult choices (e.g. between rampant consumer technology and a healthy environment). We seem condemned to change direction only via disaster and crisis – even though these are now easily predictable.

Chasms in the Church

Our churches too are not always models of integrity. My own church manifests a chasm – between the wisdom locked up in church documents, and the lives that many of us live. Wracked by scandal in the decades after 1984 Catholic leaders have been slow to face the historic cause – alignment with political and social elites, and clerical elitism also. Denying within its own structure the equality of dignity it preaches, it struggles to find a shape fit for mission.

Christian fundamentalism also fails by implying that a sense of personal guilt – mainly about sexual sin – will drive us back to our Christian roots. It rejects every science that questions its literalist interpretation of the bible. So it uses the media to propagate a childish and contemptible caricature of Christianity which merely justifies the reciprocal contempt of sceptical intellectuals.
So there is a vast chasm also in our western culture between our Christian roots and our secular and rationalist world view. The default mindset of our culture excludes a religious dimension, and those who still practise a religious faith have difficulty living it in a world that finds religious belief archaic and even ridiculous.

Inevitably this division is reflected within the mainstream Christian churches also. There is no broad consensus over the fundamental meaning of the Christ event, or over its implications for Christian life or modern society. At one extreme are the fundamentalists, at the other a tendency to read the bible as fiction, with no clear message for the modern world. Within the Catholic church, this tension between ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ is particularly marked. The latter tend to value intellectual and spiritual freedom, and to see the church as an evolving institution, while the former tend to regard the church as an essentially unchangeable entity in which theological uniformity and clerical monopoly must reign supreme.

Individualism – Triumph and Tragedy

The past two centuries might justly be described as the Age of the Individual. Classical liberalism set out to liberate the individual from constraining social, political and religious subordination so that talents could be developed freely, with benefit to all. In many ways this faith has been justified. The brilliance of scientists from Newton to Einstein has revolutionised our understanding of the universe, while the practical genius of people such as Edison and Ford, and latterly Gates and Jobs, has revolutionised the material context of our lives. Youth culture focuses upon gifted individuals also, their talents harnessed by modern reproductive sound technology and broadcast to a global audience. Still today brilliant minds in the field of microelectronics and computer software are changing the way in which our economies work, making themselves rich beyond the dreams of the ancient world.

Yet tragedy lies just below the surface. The brilliant success of a minority of gifted individuals often paradoxically destroys them by isolating them in a media goldfish bowl, and by providing them with opportunities for self-indulgence that undermine their relationships and their physical health. The climb to fame and fortune provides the discipline everyone needs – but once the peak is scaled what is there left to do with life? Too often this question is answered with excesses that the media are just as ready to exploit.

And what of those – the vast majority – who get nowhere near the summit they have set out to climb, and who therefore fail in their own estimation? The existence of a global culture means that human ambition scales itself upward also, guaranteeing that ‘failure’ will be equally spectacular and more frequent.
Another consequence of rampant individualism is that family and community suffer. Individualism often becomes mere egotism and narcissism – the desire above all to be recognised – so that community’s need for lives of quiet service is increasingly unfulfilled. Paradoxically, this then threatens us as individuals, because a society of narcissistic individuals is one in which self-concern is the only concern that can exist.

Individualism thus causes often another chasm, in our personal relationships. Here too promises are made, and then casually broken, with catastrophic consequences, particularly for children. The loss of a sense of eternal values and relationships has eroded our capacity to make secure lifetime commitments to one another. Partnerships become provisional, unable to withstand serious challenge or temptation.

Another void exists between what we consider to be our rights, and what we are prepared to contribute to the community that must deliver these rights. As community perishes, we are burdened as individuals with the consequences of our own selfishness – the random violence that is increasingly the recreation of an alienated youth culture. There comes a point, and we have reached it in the hearts of our greatest cities, where talk of rights becomes an irrational demand addressed to a void. Individualism threatens the individual just as dangerously as the collectivism of the past.

The Global Chasm between rich and poor

While the first world spends billions on weight reduction, millions of children die in the third world for lack of basic food and medicine. Our media cannot protect us from these realities either, but the problem persists. At the turn of the century an estimated 200 million children around the globe were commercially exploited in tying tiny knots in carpets, making bricks, or fulfilling the sexual fantasies of middle aged entrepreneurs from the wealthier economies.

Meanwhile our leaders focus on other priorities, telling us that their political careers rest upon our approval of this ideological selfishness. Our dreams are therefore filled with the horror of the avoidable sufferings of children, while we generally over-consume. This chasm – between the ‘New World Order’ promised after the fall of communism, and the situation three decades later – is perhaps the most glaring of all.

The Crisis Summarised

In brief we humans are now mostly deprived of faith and burdened by cynicism. Three hundred years ago we were told that Christianity was pernicious nonsense, and we began to invest heavily in an exclusive secularism. The churches helped in this process by attempting, in vain, to retain clerical control of thought – sometimes even to the extent of opposing perfectly Christian ideals espoused by secularists, such as social equality. Secularism – a view of life which excludes religious belief – has brought unquestionable prosperity to many and changed the world forever.

However, secularism cannot explain or cure the spiritual desolation in which our civilisation now finds itself, with the evidence of human moral inertia plain for all to see. Sold the notion that there is no such thing as sin, we are now at a loss to explain, and to deal with, the phenomena that term once described. Our sceptical intelligentsia, once certain that God was dead, now tell us that certainty is unattainable. Reason taught us to abandon religious faith, and then deprived us of faith even in reason.

Thus, moral and cultural chasms still abound, well into the twenty-first century. However, in an important sense, as Dennis Potter noticed, there is only one chasm – between the word and the deed, the intention and its realisation – in the secular and religious domains and within every one of us. This global chasm, caused simply by human self-absorption, dominates the transition from the second to the third millennium. It deepens into a gathering crisis, out of which a different world must emerge if we are to survive. This cannot happen unless we are somehow released as individuals from the prison we make for ourselves.

This is the mistaken search for self-approval in the approval of others.