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Author Archives: Tim Howles

Staying with the trouble

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Associate Research Fellow Tim Howles reflects on what we’ve learnt from our podcast series.

As part of the Foundation’s commitment to engage with debates on religion in public life, we’ve recently launched a new podcast called Staying with the Trouble. The first series has just wrapped up, so we thought it would be a good opportunity to take stock.

First of all, I know what you’re thinking… “of the making of many audio recordings there is no end, and much listening wearies the body!” But with Staying with the Trouble we’ve attempted to do something a little different. The series combines personal storytelling with intellectual analysis. Each episode consists of an interview with an academic or practitioner who has in some way lived through and faced the challenge of the experience they’re addressing. Together we explore key moments in their journey “into the trouble”: early influences on their thought, moments of revelation, and times when they were forced to shift their thinking. Where do they find the encouragement to continue with their work? What tempts them to despair? Where are the signs of hope, the breakthroughs which might lead to new solutions? In this way, we hope to provide a new format for thinking about contemporary debates on topics ranging from populism to race, from sexuality to the environment, and from disability to addiction.

Speaking as co-host of the series, it’s been a pleasure to engage with such a diverse set of guests. Although we set a general theme for each episode, the conversation was allowed to proceed in its own direction and according to its own momentum. There have been only minor edits to the final recording we have published, so each conversation retains that atmosphere of informality, with occasional interruptions and questions of clarification from the hosts. The aim throughout has been to invite you, the listener, to be “in the room” on a conversation taking place. We hope you like the format.

Even in this first series there has been a wide range of topics and approaches. Some guests began with their academic work, describing how it has led them to address a contemporary “trouble”. Tobias Cremer, for example, drew on his study of how European nationalist populist parties are seeking to employ Christian symbols and language as cultural identity markers. For me, this conversation prompted a number of challenging questions regarding how believers and Church authorities might react to such co-option attempts. Jarel Robinson-Brown described his research into narratives of colour from early church history, allowing us to relate the experience of racially marginalised people from many centuries ago to our contemporary situation. From his personal perspective he also addresses issues relating to LGBTQI+ discrimination in the church and wider society. And Anna Rowlands drew on her work in Catholic Social Thought and Practice to offer some startling new analyses of the troubles associated with forced migration and asylum-seeking.

Other guests began with their lived experience, then deepening its analyses via reference to their academic work. Hannah Malcolm, for example, explained the trouble of climate grief and how she processes her thinking about ecological collapse as an ecotheologian and activist. Azariah France-Williams explored the trouble of institutional racism from the vantage-point of being an ordained parish priest in the Church of England. And in an episode that I confess moved me greatly, Irene Tuffrey-Wijne, a Professor of Intellectual Disability and Palliative Care, reflected on her personal involvement in breaking the news of Jean Vanier’s history of abuse to members of the L’Arche community in London. Irene made some valuable connections between our experience of lockdown and the restricted experience that disabled people have all the time, drawing out implications for our community ethics and praxis.

We are in the process of preparing the second series, so do please share any feedback with us; we promise to take this into account. If you wish to get a taster of what the series is about, you may like to listen to this short trailer. All of the podcasts are available here, or you can subscribe via anchor.fm, Apple, Spotify, Google or wherever you get your podcasts. And finally, a huge thank you to Rosie Dawson, another of the Foundation’s Associate Research Fellows, who has been organiser and producer for the series.

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Review of ‘The Enchantments of Mammon’ by Eugene McCarraher

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Associate Research Fellow Tim Howles reviews Eugene McCarraher’s monumental intellectual history ‘The Enchantments of Mammon’ and suggests that religious narratives could provide a much-needed antidote to the enchantments of capitalism.

At the end of 1917, during a conference at Munich University, the German sociologist Max Weber made his famous announcement: “the fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization, and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world”. Weber went on to provide a historical account of the process of disenchantment as he saw it. As a result of the European Reformation, he argued, the route to Christian salvation no longer lay in the sacraments and the material presence of the divine, but in assent by faith. Acts that sought to bring about the reality of God on earth came to be seen as both inessential and irrational; human action thus became secularised. And this led in turn to the desacralised and disenchanted world of modernity.

Yet, Weber’s account has been questioned from many directions. After all, belief in the supernatural remains strong in contemporary society, as shown by the enduring popular interest in forms of magic, superstition and witchcraft. Moreover, does the idea of a general transition away from “enchantment” even make sense?

Recently, several historical works have supported a more complex picture. In his book Enchanted Europe: Superstition, Reason and Religion, 1250-1750 (2011), Euan Cameron argues for the existence of complex, multiple layers of enchantment within early modern European society. In various books, including Providence in Early Modern England (2001), Alexandra Walsham shows how the notion of enchantment was perpetuated and re-interpreted in an ongoing, discursive process of linguistic and cultural exchange during this period. And in his recent book The Decline of Magic: Britain in the Enlightenment (2020), Michael Hunter shows the extent to which changing understandings of enchantment took place slowly and at a local level, rather than being driven by dialogues and debates among theologians or intellectuals. It does indeed seem that we have cause to question Weber’s account.

Eugene McCarraher’s recent publication, The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity (2020), offers a mixed perspective on this debate. A broad and sweeping intellectual history, this huge book seems at times to drift into poetry, polemic and even spirituality. The essential thesis is that capitalism is best understood as a sort of replica enchantment: money functions as a substitute sacrality for a world that was never really disenchanted in the first place. Its power is mediated through myth, ritual and dogma, just as for religion. And yet the subject that emerges from its worship, homo economicus, is entirely non-graced, a shabby, degraded and inelegant echo of real human experience, driven by instrumental self-interest and controlled by the love of money.

To demonstrate this, McCarraher embarks on a deep survey of the various tracts, studies, theories and literature that have constituted the “symbolic universe” of capitalism since the Renaissance.

He begins with the English Puritans who developed a form of “communalist capitalism” (p. 115): they attempted to make money so that they might abound in acts of kindness and generosity to all. But having unleashed the genie, McCarraher shows how the benevolent order envisaged by the Puritans found itself redeployed in the service of monstrous techniques for the relentless accumulation of wealth. He takes us through the era of American (in-) corporation that took place between 1870 and 1920, and the machine idolatry rampant in 1920s Fordism, all the way to the other-worldly business utopias of the post-war western societies. The capitalist subject is no more able to envisage an alternative mode of existence than a religious believer is able to conceive of the world being outside the sovereignty of God: to cite the quip of Frederick Jameson, “nowadays it seems easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism” (Future City, p. 76). We end up in a world where the cult of the ruthless entrepreneur is finally sanctified in the guise of the unashamed plutocrat currently occupying the White House presidential office.

The solution that McCarraher offers involves the revival of a new “Romantic” left, the promotion of a new sacramental imagination where a culture of personal exchange and sacrality of local place might be valued above the disembedding mechanisms of modernity. He revisits the British Romantic tradition of the 19th century, recalling John Ruskin’s principle of “amazement”, which teaches that the gifts of nature should be admired and nurtured, rather than ravished and depleted. The book encourages a tone of “repentance and renewal” (p. 6) born out of recognition of our finite human nature and the planetary boundaries within which we all must operate.

It is here that productive dialogue can take place with religious traditions of various types. For religion provides resources that can energise the process of “repentance and renewal” that McCarraher requests. Religion has stories to tell about fallen human nature and the idol-making tendencies of the heart. But it also invites human beings to participate in a new economy of grace, where enchantment once again prevails as the devices and desires of the human heart are orientated to their proper end. McCarraher’s book provides a framework in which religious narratives of these sorts can and must be prepared to engage.

More blogs on religion and public life…

A touch of love or a touch that kills? by Sarah Hills

Brandishing the Bible: division amongst evangelicals in Trump’s America by Rosie Dawson

Lockdown, liminality and local leadership by Matthew Barber

Cummings and the Church: An opportunity to grasp? by Chris Baker

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Where is our Vaccine? A Plea for a Renewed Public Understanding of Science

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Associate Research Fellow Tim Howles reflects on our desire for a coronavirus vaccine, and draws on the work of Isabelle Stengers to suggest what this might highlight about the wider public understanding of science.

“Where is our vaccine…?”

That is the exasperated cry many of us find ourselves uttering right now. After all, the future seems a lot less clear today than it once did. We don’t know how long this societal lockdown will last, nor what kind of exit strategy will be possible to bring it to a close. In these circumstances, a vaccine presents itself as a quick and easy solution.

But the discourse around vaccination is interesting. We seem to be struggling to plot a route between patience and expectation; between realism and hope. We know that the research and development process is slow, requiring lengthy clinical trials and strict regulatory approvals. We appreciate that a vaccine against Covid-19 is unlikely to be ready for worldwide use until the beginning of next year at the earliest. And yet, do we not hope for something sooner? Surely the scientists will find a way. This duality was neatly summed-up in a recent BBC interview with Professor Chris Whitty, the UK chief medical adviser, held on 23rd March. Asked about the strategy for combatting coronavirus, Professor Whitty replied with admirable temperance: “long term, clearly a vaccine is one way out of this and we all hope that it will happen as quickly as possible”. But then, as if sensing the disappointment of the journalist, he shifted into an entirely different register: “don’t worry”, he added, “science will come up with solutions”.

Of the many reconfigurations that the coronavirus pandemic is bringing about at breakneck speed, one that has perhaps gone under-the-radar relates to the public understanding of science. The crisis is revealing the extent of our investment in science and technology. Not just to provide us with the material things we enjoy, but to frame a vision of the future that can sustain our very existence. At a time like this, if science cannot “save us”, then what can? And so, we wait with a sort of messianic expectation for a vaccine that, we trust, will come soon.

But of course, as the Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers has pointed out, this sort of quasi-religious discourse is to confuse the role and function of science, and its mediation to the public sphere. In fact, though we speak easily of “the public understanding of science”, it seems to me that at least three elements of this phrase seem to have become rather unclear in recent years: the word “public”, the word “understanding” and the word “science”! The current crisis might just present an opportunity for some sort of reconfiguration between these, a reconfiguration that is long overdue.

Stengers’ work provides a fascinating narrative of the category errors that can ensue when scientific “facts” encounter political “values”. Of course, we live in a time in which scientific research has become increasingly complex and specialised. And yet, science has to “land” somehow in the public sphere, which is the arena of competing political, social and economic interests. Both parties, she argues—the scientists and the general public—must work hard to mediate this gap.

When public resistance to scientific outputs materialises, as was evident a few years back in the case of genetically modified organisms, we sense the frustration of the scientists. If only the public was free to “follow the facts”, as we do, they say. These “facts” are shouting loud and clear to us; why can’t others hear as we do? Mention is made of the “deficit model” of communication, which attributes public opposition to a lack of exposure or inability to understand the evidence. So, let’s have more data, they say. And yet, as has been amply illustrated in the field of climate science, the mere presentation and accumulation of scientific data does not necessarily induce the sort of transformation in human attitudes and behaviour that is required. Something else is needed. Meanwhile, we citizens grow impatient. Where are the outputs we were promised? Why is the data so complex and abstract? Why is science not reacting with more agility to the problems and challenges we are facing? And so, we turn to the next best thing: Google. We find online a wealth of alternative “facts” that seem to provide ready-made answers to the questions we are asking. Non-accredited sources of information, rumour and, most damagingly, conspiracy theories abound, as we accuse the scientists of working to an agenda that is not in our interest. Thus, as Stengers points out, the knowledge economy is progressively degraded and the “epistemological dislocation” between scientists and the general public grows wider.

Stengers’ solution is for a generous and creative tolerance of the different “epistemologies” that characterise the two domains. Scientists must understand that laboratory conditions, however vital they are to the construction of scientific rationality, can sometimes land in the public sphere tangentially to the “matters of concern” that are currently occupying our attention. And we citizens, the funders and consumers of scientific research, must be trusting, but also aware of the need to be patient, appreciating that scientists owe it to themselves to remain deaf to our noisy or anxious demands for an immediate solution, lest they compromise the processes that are so crucial to their own craft.

A renewed public understanding of science, along the lines that Stengers suggests, is crucial at a time like this. We do indeed need science to come to our aid. But we must not envisage ourselves as merely passive recipients of a salvation that will be dispensed to us from above. We too can play our role in fomenting the public conditions in which a vaccine can be developed, tested and received. In doing so, we can contribute to the new society that will be needed for all us in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Image from flickr: by Gresham College (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

More blogs on religion and public life…

Existential risk and the sabbath of the land by Greg Smith

The Plague Doctors: Imagining the pandemics of the future by Karen Lord

Liberty and response-ability in the time of coronavirus by Tina Hearn

My organism knows so much more than I do by Jeff Leonardi

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