Today’s guest writer is Dr Chris Baker. He is Director of Research at the William Temple Foundation, an independent faith-based research institution working to advance the vision of William Temple (Archbishop of Canterbury 1942-44) in an ongoing search for a just and inclusive society. Tweet @DrChrisRBaker
In a recent, much debated New Statesman editorial Russell Brand explores the roots of political apathy in the light of austerity, poverty, human rights abuses and environmental degradation. For Brand, apathy emerges from an empty materialism and consumerism which is ubiquitously peddled by global capitalism, ‘Like a glistening pink pony trotting through your mind shitting glitter’.
He also asks why the Left has lost the power to embody and articulate a meaningful and radical alternative. Brand’s solution, surprisingly, is, ‘primarily spiritual and secondarily political’. By spiritual he means, ‘the acknowledgement that our connection to one another and the planet must be prioritised’. He continues, ‘we need a unifying and inclusive spiritual ideology: atheism and materialism atomise us and anchor us to one frequency of consciousness and inhibit necessary co-operation’.
So far so obvious, one might say, except it is the visceral nature of his anger and indignation that saves this from becoming (in his own irrepressible prose) the ramblings of a, ‘tree-hugging, Hindu-tattooed, veggie meditator’. This, and the links he draws between pagan, Christian and other religious ideas with the notion of political revolution and the rise of a new spiritual socialism.
Jonathan Freedland’s article Politicians learn this – people cannot live by bread alone (The Guardian, 9 November) is a thought-provoking analysis of the furore surrounding Brand’s editorial. Freedland praises Brand for three things. First, Brand, ‘gives the lie to the tired notion,’ that people, especially the young, are not interested in political ideas. Second, Brand, in conjunction with other ‘outsiders’ such as Grayson Perry, is plugging the gap, ‘once filled by men of God,’ by meeting, ‘the yearning so many feel for understanding and meaning’. Finally, Brand prophetically reminds us that past civilisations fell, despite their wealth, because, ‘they had forgotten that we are one interconnected people’.
So what do I mean by suggesting that Brand articulates the 21st century zeitgeist? I sum up this zeitgeist with reference to two ideas: the post-political and the postsecular.
It is post-political because Brand defines with unerring accuracy the hopelessness and lack of connection most people feel with the Cameron-Clegg-Miliband triumvirate. People are either post-political in the sense that they have given up on traditional representative politics (i.e. by not voting), or they see the only hope of political change outside the current system.
Postsecular has many meanings, but broadly refers to re-emergence of spiritual and religious ideas in the public space. The 21st century is a confused place, at least in the West. We feel uncomfortable with the hubristic assumptions of 20th century modernism, and its narrow emphasis on materialism, empiricism and bureaucratic control. We yearn to be reconnected to spiritual values and pre-political wisdom – to be engaged with symbolism and aesthetics that really nourish the soul. These things are associated with religion, and yet the top-down, hierarchical structures of institutional religion feel strange and alienating. People are seeking new spaces in which they can access these things (including ‘secular’ churches).
Brand illustrates this confused and fluid space perfectly; angry, articulate, self-directed in his learning, eclectic and not a little narcissistic, yearning for re-enchantment, and somehow suggesting that the resources for change don’t lie outside the system but are contained within the system itself. After all is not global capitalism predicated on the idea of deep interconnectedness and desire?
But I think Brand and Freedland are articulating more than a zeitgeist. This is a wakeup call for the church (and religion generally) to exercise confident (but not hubristic) political leadership especially at the local level. This leadership emerges from the identity of the church as a sacramental, and yet also deeply connected, spiritual and communal institution. This is about connecting with others who also want a return to a more ethically and spiritually informed public square. But it also about taking the lead in articulating the agendas that affect the lives of all, providing alternative and workable solutions.
This is something like the political leadership exercised by William Temple, after whom the Foundation of which I am Director, is named. Temple’s book Christianity and the Social Order perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the post-war era, and a progressive politics based on religious and humanist aspirations for a just and equitable social and economic polity. In fact, in a funny sort of way, Temple might well have agreed with Russell Brand that real political reform emerges from spiritual values (and religious wisdom) on what it is to be human and inter-connected. I suspect, however, Temple would have used rather different language to articulate these ideas!