Democracy or capitalism in Europe?

Fintan O’Toole argues that recent events have marked a choice between democracy or continuing to attempt to shore up’rapacious finance capitalism’.

What happened was that two of the big shaping forces of western Europe, forces that have been working broadly in tandem for 300 years, clearly fell apart. One force is capitalism; the other democracy. From the Enlightenment onwards, it has been an accepted truth that democracy and capitalism were at the very least compatible with each other. The things that were needed in order for capitalism to develop – the breaking of aristocratic power, the free movement of labour, an open market in ideas, functioning parliaments, independent legal systems, states that could command popular consent and thus underpin stability, taxation to fund mass education and infrastructure – were also conditions for political democracy. They may not have been sufficient conditions, but they were necessary ones.

…. What became so dramatically clear last week was that this compatibility has ended. The leading form of capitalism – the finance capitalism that has expanded so monstrously over the last 30 years – is no longer compatible with democracy in Europe.

And by democracy in this context I mean just the limited, basic form: universal suffrage and sovereign governments. This is a pretty big deal.

Consider the three things that happened in Greece and Ireland last week. Firstly, it was made explicit that the most reckless, irresponsible and ultimately impermissible thing a government could do was to seek the consent of its own people to decisions that would shape their lives. And, indeed, even if it had gone ahead, the Greek referendum would have been largely meaningless. As one Greek MP put it, the question would have been: do you want to take your own life or to be killed? Secondly, there was open and shameless intervention by European leaders (Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy) in the internal affairs of another state. Sarkozy hailed the “courageous and responsible” stance of the main Greek opposition party – in effect a call for the replacement of the elected Greek government.

The third part of this moment of clarity was what happened in Ireland: the payment of a billion dollars to unsecured Anglo Irish Bank bondholders. Apart from its obvious obscenity, the most striking aspect of this was that, for the first time, we had a government performing an action it openly declared to be wrong. Michael Noonan wasn’t handing over these vast sums of cash from a bankrupt nation to vulture capitalist gamblers because he thought it was a good idea. He was doing it because there was a gun to his head. The threat came from the European Central Bank and it was as crude as it was brutal: give the spivs your taxpayers’ money or we’ll bring down your banking system.

Again, as in Greece, even the basic forms of democracy were incompatible with this process. There could not be a Greek referendum because there is no acceptable question that can be answered by a democratic vote. And there could not be a debate in the Irish parliament about the extortion of a billion dollars because there is nothing to be debated. Referendums and parliamentary votes are rituals of public consent. But the question of consent is now not just irrelevant. It is reckless, outrageous, downright scandalous.

…. Europe, and the rest of the western world, is thus at a parting of the ways. We can have the form of rapacious finance capitalism that has become the dominant force in our economies and societies.

Or we can have democracy. But we can’t have both.

And David McWilliams, hardly a left leaning journalist like our Fintan, says some pretty similiar things here …

What is happening in Europe? Greek prime minister Georgios Papandreou was hauled over the coals for suggesting that the Greek people might want to be consulted on their own future. Let’s consider this. Why should a referendum threaten anyone? Indeed, why should democracy threaten anyone? Or maybe the other way to ask this question is: who is threatened by democracy?

Maybe those who are trying to foist something on the population that the population does not want are threatened by democracy.


The Ides of March

I’m more waffley than Hargaden, so here is a 5 sentence review of The Ides of March with a PS.

At one point Paul Giamatti’s character tells Ryan Gosling’s character to get out of politics while he can, before he gets jaded and cynical. And without spoiling a very smart, fast-moving and twisty plot (with great performances by all the leads, esp Philip Seymour Hoffman), the overall message is that politics, even with a Democratic dream George Clooney Presidential candidate, is an irredeemably jaded and cynical business.

Hardly news that. Everyone’s dirty by the end of this movie. I wanted to take a shower when I got home.

PS ‘The Ides of March is a protest feminist film – discuss’

Urban Theology 4 Urban Visions Urban Nightmares

David Smith’s fascinating discussion of the idea of the city continues into the 20thCentury.Chapter 4 is on Urban Visions, Urban Nightmares.

David Smith

This is a wide-ranging overview and I am not going to do him justice in a short space ..

The development of the city in the USA

Post WW1 there was a ‘cultural crisis’ as sociologists, planners and architects sought fresh models for urban environments in which people could flourish.

One strand was inspired by the work of Ebenezer Howard and his utopian vision of the garden city published in Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1902). This was the city with limits, relating to the natural environment in a sustainable way.  In England, Welwyn Garden City was a result of this vision, and cities surrounded by green belts – Milton Keynes is another.

Another vision, this time post-war, was that of Le Corbusier and his modernist vision of concrete, glass and steel to replace the cramped and overcrowded slums and tight city streets. These were to be cities of space, efficiency, and progress. Brasilia is one of the few actually built – with its own problems of anonymity and soullessness.

New York

And it is Le Corbusier whose vision has shaped the great American cities – think New York and Chicago. The vast interstate highway systems, cutting through old existing neighbourhoods. The future is always better, the old making way for the new. This was a vision deeply enmeshed with American optimism and sense of progress. Now the boundary of city and country is blurred, with huge commuting distances to suburban ‘edge cities’. A vision of development utterly dependent on the automobile. The city is now ‘everywhere and in everything.’

It is also a vision deeply connected to residents as consumers, built around the hypermarket or mall. (And I think that if you are a European, unless you have been to an American mega-mall you can’t really conceive of the scale being talked of here).

Smith suggests fresh expression’s of Durkheim’s ‘anomie’ and the need once again to ask what is the meaning of this new city form? So the development of places like the ‘Mall of America’, opened in 1992 and proudly boasting is five times larger than Red Square, twenty times the size of St Peter’s in Rome ….’

– the loss of community

– the loss of centre

– gendered space – male space of functionality, of efficiency, not child or woman friendly. Studies show the particular stress on women in the city.

– consumer as king – is the purpose of the city really ultimately about profit. Where do the poor and the weak and vulnerable fit into this vision of the city?

The Cities of the Global South

Modernization and its associated urbanisation associated with European imperialism, has marginalised native and indigenous peoples of the south. This was city building to serve European economies. Cities to establish control and serve particular economic and social objectives. Havana, Mexico City, Cuzco, Arequipa, Lagos, Nairobi, Kampala are named by Smith.

These former colonial cities have now expanded to become megacities, sucking in millions and dominating the entire life of a nation. Think Mexico City – three times the size of any other Mexican city.

These mega-cities are homes to the urban poor. In Latin America, 20% of the entire population live in poverty without adequate food or shelter.

And so the clash of visions of the city. Modern cities of glass and steel and concrete do exist – but right beside the favellas – the ‘other cities’ made up of corrugated tin, mud bricks, recycled paper, scrap wood, squalor, pollution, excrement and decay ..

Take Nigeria’s Abjua: built in Le Corbusier’s international style; built for the rich and the government elites, yet the official city is surrounded by slums.

And you could go to many other examples here – think Rio de Janero, Johannesburg, Mumbai, Buenos Aires and Shanghai. Or Mexico City’s Santa Fe district – a high profile ‘success’ of modern life, but increasingly a ‘glass cage’ symptomatic of what Smith calls ‘the most radical social and economic polarization in the whole of human history’. Wealth, glamour and opulence living right beside ‘un-policable’ hidden cities of the urban poor.

Where to from here?

There is too much to cover here, so briefly Smith mentions two future visions being articulated for the city:

An Apocalyptic Vision:

– such as James Kunstler. Future catastrophes, sparked by the end of cheap energy and ecological crisis, bring the development of the city to a juddering halt and a return to earlier, more sustainable models of city life.

Jane Jacobs, a serious American urbanist and her book Dark Age Ahead. Perhaps the end of the cities, the collapse of the Western modernist vision of endless growth and development.

An optimistic post-modernist vision

Leonie Sandercock has a more optimistic vision which embraces ‘concerns for social and environmental justice, for human community, for cultural diversity and for the spirit.’ Here is protest against crushing modernism that kills communities and an alternative feminist vision for cities that can nourish the soul and spirit.

Signs of Hope?

And following Sandercock’s hopes that the city can be reformed and re-envisaged, Smith looks for signs of hope for the urban world in the remainder of the 21st century:

1. A movement in the USA called New Urbanism. Reacting against soulless modernism, and seeking to restore communities and towns within larger metropolitan areas, making space for the pedestrian and developing compact local identities rather than fragmented ones. He mentions Catholic thinker on architecture, Philip Bess who says

New Urbanism is about “the best practices of city making from the past toward the end of making better cities for the future.”

2. Movements in the Global South seeking to reclaim neglected cultural and spiritual values to the task of city-building in the face of the destruction being wrought when market forces are given free reign with little or no regard to social consequences.

He gives the encouraging (and to me totally unknown) examples of Curitiba in Brazil and Bogata in Colombia. Take Bogata, a megacity with 7 million people and with a history of violent civil conflict:

– a vision of urban harmony built on equity

– reclamation of public space through the provision of public pavements, parks and plazas

– provision of a high class public transport system offering affordable fares and managed by a non-profit company

– building schools, libraries and nurseries in the poorest part of the city

– micro-credit schemes to reform urban land use using public-private partnerships

The results?

– air quality has dramatically improved

– road deaths down over 50%

– murder rate and general crime rates reduced

– measureable economic and social benefits (he does not give facts and figures here)

This is a political vision that takes political courage to enact. It shows that values and ethics are fundamental to building better cities

3. The third sign of hope is, Smith well knows, a bit of a surprise – Islam.

Written before the ‘Arab Spring’, Smith’s words here are prescient. He talks about the powder-keg situation of millions living in extreme poverty as Muslim elites failed to live up to the political ethics of Islam itself. For example, 6 million people live in extreme poverty in Cairo and such rampant inequality is replicated across the Muslim world.

The radical Islamist response of Bin Laden et al represented one reaction. But the Arab Spring demonstrates powerful movements for democracy and liberation from those old corrupt elites. And a powerful desire for justice. These movements did not ‘spring’ from nowhere – for decades it has been a local on the ground Islam which has been educating, supporting the poor, offering medical aid, and gathering support from across the community.

Smith’s point here is that the success of a ‘ground-up’ religious movement has offered hope of the possibility of urban transformation. And he quotes urban theorists Lubeck and Britts,

“For, like it or not, Islamism will constitute a powerful social force shaping Muslim-majority cities in the twenty-first century”

Smith’s conclusion. The rich and prosperous city dwellers of the world need to realise thatwe cannot go on as we are.”

There are fundamental ethical challenges which confront humanity (remember I said this is a book about the human story not just cities). And that ethical challenge involves accepting that it is environmentally and economically unattainable for the mass of the world’s poor to be brought up to the living standards of today’s well-off minority. Future sustainability will mean a more equal sharing of the world’s resources and an accompanying more modest conception of what the good life involves.

But this is heresy to the modern Western dream of endless progress and ever-growing consumption.

“Unfortunately, both Western political rhetoric and the ideology of consumerism suppress this truth, employing forms of double-speak in which economic growth is presented as the solution to the ills of the world, when in fact, in the form it currently takes, it is the source of those ills.

 Strong stuff. Comments, as ever, welcome.

what is theological education for? (1) Criticisms

David Castillo Dominici,

I thought it worth keeping going with some thinking about theological education after Alister McGrath’s proxy contributions to this blog 😉

Well I think about it all the time – preparing, teaching, reviewing and discussing with students how courses are going is happening continually raises questions.

And they point to the special demands of teaching the Bible – whether in church or in a theological college. For such teaching must be holistic if it is to be worth much …

And by holistic I mean it needs meaningfully to engage the affective, behavioural and cognitive elements of learning. And that is some challenge – one that reaches far beyond most other forms of teaching.

I plan a couple more posts on this engaging with some reading ..

But first some quotes of criticisms of the way much theological education is actually done. These are drawn from a very useful article by Perry Shaw, ‘Towards a Multidimensional Approach to Theological Education’ in International Congregational Journal 6.1, (2006), 53-63.

“the only similiarity between Jesus’ way of training and the seminary’s is that each takes three years” (Joe Bayly)

“our schools train academics not Christian leaders”

“the centrality of the mind and cognitive learning in our theological institutions is rooted in a faulty Enlightenment-based epistemology where knowledge is seen as some sort of object that needs to be acquired.” …  And this myth  “ falsely portrays how we know and has profoundly deformed the way we educate.”

Knowing God entails “a type of knowledge that speaks less of acquiring a masters degree in divinity as it does of being mastered by Divinity.”

“Most of our institutions of theological education are appallingly anachronistic. We decry secular rationalism while affirming through the hidden curriculum the basic tenets of rationalism in our almost exclusive focus on the cognitive domain.”

 Comments, as ever, welcome.

Alister McGrath on Theological Education (2)

This is a follow up post on the European Evangelical Accrediting Association (EEAA) annual conference that I was at last week near London.

Alister McGrath was the guest speaker looking at the challenges, vision and changing context of theological education. Here is a snapshot of some things that stood out for me from the second lecture we got to.

And again I should say that these are just my impressions and notes – not verbatim quotes!

Staying rooted historically; staying engaged culturally. Challenges and concerns.

Prof McGrath sketched the task of theology – to remain faithful to orthodoxy while engaging with an ever-changing culture and the new questions it raises. And as usual a story gets this point across best.

He told the story of C S Lewis being asked to speak to RAF crews in 1941 and having to ‘translate’ his understanding of Christianity into the language of his audience. Lewis judged his first attempts a failure but he kept being asked back.

Reflecting later, he said such translation can only be learnt by doing. In Lewis’ words, the “‘power to translate is the test of having really understood one’s own meaning.”

This is the theologian’s task – to translate God’s truth in understandable ways in his/her own context. Such translation is rooted in the past, and speaks into present. If we can’t do this, have we really understood God’s truth in the first place?

And from here McGrath appealed for evangelicals to be rooted in the past so as to speak with depth and meaning into the present. His concern is of evangelical shallowness and historical illiteracy and its rejection of the past. What C S Lewis called our ‘chronological snobbery’.

And he referred to the paleo-orthodoxy of Tom Oden, and the Deep Church movement in the UK (the name inspired by Lewis again) as examples of evangelicals in search of  historical rootedness for the present.  [Lots of other examples could have been mentioned like the late Robert E Webber and his Ancient-Future faith].

McGrath reminded us, that however cutting edge we think we are, our thinking will soon be out of date. Even a classic like John Stott’s Basic Christianity is becoming dated in its modern framework.

Knowing the past helps open our eyes. So read older books! Learn from other voices and see with other eyes. Read the theological giants of the past.

Seeing differently is  a great model for theological education. So get students to engage with these thinkers. Reflect and learn from them.  View these people as a resource. How did they do? How are we doing? Immerse students in the rich tradition.

If theological education fails to excite and thrill, then we have failed.  The task is to first catch that vision for ourselves and pass it on.  Theological education really matters. It is a privilege and a responsibility to have people ‘passing through’ your colleges. Excite them, connect them to the Great Tradition, help them translate God’s truth into their context, and help them see what difference they can make.

While he didn’t draw this out, humility is not far from the surface here. If our thinking will soon be out of date. If we can only have a partial and incomplete perspective. If we need to learn from others in the great story of the church … all of this should make us humble learners.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Alister McGrath on theological education (1)

Last week I was over with a colleague at the European Evangelical Accrediting Association (EEAA) annual conference near London. It had over 80 representatives from (I think) over 50 theological colleges all over Europe. Fascinating hearing what is going on in different contexts and encouraging to build relationships.

Alister McGrath was the guest speaker. He gave 3 lectures over Thursday / Friday looking at the challenges, vision and changing context of theological education. We could only get to the two on Friday. The lectures will eventually be published (probably here), but here is a snapshot of some things that stood out for me from the first lecture (I’ll do a second post for the second lecture).

These are my notes and personal impressions – NOT verbatim quotes!

As Christianity becomes more marginalised culturally, a significant challenge for theological educators is how to equip and help students think apologetically. The New Atheism, for example, provides such a challenge and needs a thought out response – not just from college professors and academics but from church leaders who can  provide a moral, theological, and rational argument and vision for Christianity.

If  the church chooses simply not to engage in such apologetics, then the Christian faith will be seen as for those with no mind or vision for life.  McGrath is deeply concerned about evangelicalism’s anti-intellectualism in this respect.

So theological training has to be more than just giving students information with a few skills added. It has to be about character, thinking, engaging – to shape people and help them to think biblically and theologically about all of life …

At the heart of good theological training is personal transformation. And this takes time.  It is about developing wisdom. And such wisdom develops in relationships. Students need mentors and coaches not just teachers to impart information.

In later Q&A he had a few comments here on parallels with medical training. How there is increasing awareness and dissatisfaction with the highly functional form of medical training that equips a scientifically to treat disease, but may leave him/her useless in dealing with real people. Solid research is now pointing to the connections of spirituality and health. And therefore how medicine needs to be holistic as the treatment of the whole person, not just a heart valve (for example). And this has obvious implications for medical training.

Theology not just a way of thinking but a fundamental vision for reality – a wonderful vision. The task of the teacher is to communicate this big bible story in a way that excites, energises and thrills. To help students see the big picture of life and where they fit in with the wider purposes of God.

This is theology as inspiration not just education.

I was encouraged by this. We don’t have it all sorted by a long shot, but this ‘fits’ with the heart and vision of theological training at IBI. It is applied theology – applied personally, and to the Irish context. It seeks to be holistic, not just information transfer. It builds in reflective practice and tries to connect ‘head’, ‘hands’ and ‘heart’.  It has a compulsory track for mentoring and apprenticeship within actual ministry practice. We have specific modules on engaging with thinking and trends in Irish culture.

And I think there is an increasing tension at play here. Prof McGrath talked of the need for time and development of wisdom. For some this will lead to the traditional full-time residential 3-4 years away in college. But pressures in the wider culture are making this more and more difficult. Students want control over their own learning. Many university courses are becoming fully modularised. You take bits and pieces when you can. Many cannot afford to take several years out from work. Training sits alongside work and ministry.  There are also significant advantages of studying while in ministry, without being removed from a ‘real life’ context.

The challenge is to have mentoring, coaching aspect built into whatever model is used – and for the student to keep and develop such relationships after training when they become even more important.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Urban Theology (3) the growth of the city

David Smith

Chapter 3 of David Smith’s book, Seeking a City With Foundations: Theology for an Urban World is called ‘The Birth and Growth of the City’.

He covers a huge amount of ground in this chapter which traces the development of the city up to the end of the 19th century. I’m sketching here with some observations along the way.

The underlying question is what is the meaning of the city?

The meaning of the city in the ancient world: The birth of urban living goes back to Uruk in Mesopotamia, 4th millennium BC – and other great cities like Ninevah, Khorsbad, Nimrud, Babylon and so on.

Smith sketches the meaning of these cities. The city was the centre of political and religious culture. Its walls were not only physical but spiritual – giving form and purpose and meaning. These were cities of empire. And from these cities armies would go out to extend their power and control and religious view of the world. Such empire building was to bring light and order out of the surrounding darkness.

Empire building assumes a superior civilisation and the right to subjugate and control others to sustain itself. And therefore violence lay at the core of such empire building – just have a wander around the British Museum to get a close up look at the warrior culture of the ancient Assyrians – violence is sanctified and justified and glorified. And such imagery (and writings) tell the story from the rulers’ point of view. Empire and propaganda go hand in hand. The great city will tell a story about itself and it is precisely here, at the level of worldview, that Assyrian and Babylonian and later Roman versions of reality came into direct conflict with the biblical world.

And all of this is applied supremely to Rome. The sacred heart of Empire. The eternal city. The centre of civilisation and of city building across the known world. The centre of military power and glorification of that power.

Athens provides an interesting alternative in that here the philosophers like Plato and Aristotle ask about the meaning and purpose of the city. What constitutes a good city, a good life? And the answer being something like a virtuous community. And Smith laments here,

Tragically at a time in history when we are most in need of the kind of ethical language employed by the Greeks, we appear to have lost the ability to ask questions concerning the meaning of our cities.  p.58.

I’m skipping chunks here to arrive at the Reformation which, Smith argues, grew out of an increasingly urban context, with a particularly urban theology. Geneva as the new ‘holy commonwealth’ – relating faith to all of life – economic, political and personal. And this model is taken elsewhere – Zwingli (Zurich), John Knox (Edinburgh and Glasgow). Here was an entirely different theology of the city.

And from here to the Industrial Revolution which transformed cities. Increasingly detached from their religious base, with an unfettered capitalism becoming the source of values; Cities were places to make money.

Smith has a story of Dostoevsky visiting London during the World Fair at Crystal Palace  He called London ‘Baal’, a city in thrall to materialism in the grip and concluded that ‘the unholy spirit of modernity that brooded malevolently over London’.

This raises again the meaning of the city. Has the ultimate purpose of the city become sheer profit whatever the cost?

My comments: Just think what ‘the city’ means when applied to London – shorthand for the financial services sector, money, bonuses, profit, and ‘turbo capitalism’. Just look at the recent history of Dublin. There has been little or no concern for the ‘good’ of its citizens – horrible unfinished homogenous housing estates, out of control speculation leading to a spectacular crash.

All  graphically illustrated by this monument to greed, hubris, arrogance and out-of-control capitalism – the unfinished huge HQ of Anglo Irish Bank. Now abolished, this one bank has pretty well single-handedly bankrupted an entire nation. Quite an achievement.

Great sociologists like Durkheim were torn between alternative readings of the city. He saw them as places of progress and development and ideas, yet simultaneously connected to the rise of anomie; anxiety, a headlong rush into an unknown future. An increasing ‘hardness’ in business and relationships in a community full of strangers.

And by the end of the 19th century the rise of the city is well summarised by Munch’s The Scream – a picture of anxiety and fear. While often seen simply as a work of existential angst, Munch himself explicitly tied it to a scream from nature on the encroaching power of the city.

And in the 20th century the newly industrialised nations, in Smith’s words, would ‘bomb each other’s cities to smithereens.’ And in the next chapter he considers the story of the city in the 20th century – a story full of ‘Urban Visions, Urban Nightmares’.

A personal comment here: this book is turning out not just to be about urban theology but a story of mankind – past, present and future. This is big important stuff. Smith is engaging with sociologists, geographers, philosophers, planners and futurists – as well as theologians. We should be grateful for his work and learn from his analysis – regardless if we agree in every detail with his conclusions or not.