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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, 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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Representing the End of the World

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Tim Howles, Associate Research Fellow at the William Temple Foundation, explores ecological collapse, Extinction Rebellion and the impending apocalypse, finding both despair and hope at the end of the world.

On Friday 25th October, at the conclusion of their protests in London, Extinction Rebellion will be hosting what they are calling a post-apocalyptic rebellion after-party. You are invited to gather at 7.30pm on the South Bank: the secret location will be announced then! And have a think about your choice of fancy-dress. As the invitation says: “we’ll be visioning the post-apocalyptic future, societal collapse and the blasted Earth (that the Rebellion is striving to avoid)”.

It seems that human beings have always had a desire to represent to themselves “the end of the world”. But these imaginings have recently had a new lease of life as consciousness of the scale of the global environmental crisis has finally begun to sink in. Paintings, videogames, sculpture and music pieces, science-fiction writing and Hollywood blockbusters on this theme have proliferated. I guess it is not surprising. If the idea of imminent planetary destruction does not serve as a prompt for depictions of the apocalypse, then I do not know what would.

But what can we learn from representations of “the end of the world” in contemporary culture? In particular, how is the moment of “the end” actually depicted? And what does this tell us about the future that we are envisaging for ourselves right now?

I wish to address these questions with reference to two recent films, which offer contrasting depictions of “the end”.

The first is Béla Tarrr’s The Turin Horse (2011). Let me warn you; this is by no means an easy watch! The protagonists are an invalid old man, his adult daughter and the family’s draught horse. They live in a miniscule, decrepit farm in the middle of a windswept steppe. We are never told exactly what has happened to bring about the decaying world that these destitute peasants are forced to inhabit. But it is clear that their existence is constituted by a slow withering-away. This is represented by the dry, sterile wind that howls continuously across the landscape, by the endless piling-up of dust and dead leaves, by the light that goes out for want of fuel, and most of all by the deterioration of human contact between father and daughter, who little-by-little cease to talk or even look at each other, preferring to contemplate, silent and static, the parched world that surrounds them. The apocalypse that is represented here is one of atrophy and disintegration. As the Director himself has commented, “in my film, the end of the world is very silent, very weak; [it] comes about as I see it coming about in real life – slowly and quietly”.

For a contrasting depiction, we might turn to Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011). Rather than a slow withering-away, this film depicts “the end of the world” as a moment of singular cataclysm—represented by collision with the planet Melancholia, whose orbit unexpectedly emerges from the depths of the cosmos to cross that of the Earth’s. The torturous intensity of the film emerges, I think, as the inevitability of this collision becomes apparent. The household steadily lapses into inertia and lethargy. One person chooses to commit suicide when he realises the reality of what is to come. And the rest of the family can think of nothing more than to build a small wooden frame of dry boughs, in which they sit, holding hands, waiting for the end.

I agree with Peter Szendy in finding the climax of the film to be unbearably bleak and frightening. Of course, we have seen cinematic depictions of apocalypse before, whether in the form of a crisis that threatens an end (Armageddon, 1998), human beings waiting for an end (4:44 Last Day on Earth, 2011), humans continuing in diminished form after an end (The Road, 2009), or of a world that continues by itself after the end of humans (Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, 2007). But here in Melancholia is a cinematic representation of a real “end”. For the moment of impact is followed by fire, and then by darkness or, rather, a black screen; real time disappears, to the point that it is impossible even to imagine the verbal tense in which any form of ongoing plot or narration could be pursued. As Viveiros de Castro puts it, “the end of the world is the end of the film, and the end of the film is the end of the world” (p.36).

As we know, it is unlikely that a cosmic or even ecological catastrophe could come so abruptly and at such short notice to put an end to human existence. But von Trier’s cinematic representation highlights something important: prompted by the global environmental crisis, human beings are (reluctantly) being compelled to imagine what might constitute a total, singular and final “end”.

In the midst of this bleak cultural moment I believe that theology has a contribution to make. For, as many of the great political theologians of recent times have argued (Voegelin, Löwith, Taubes, Agamben and, more recently, Catherine Keller), religion can serve as a counter-acting force to this sense of apocalyptic resignation. Of course, the Christian religion has its own presentation of “an end” that will surely come. But this is always checked by the idea that “the end is at the end”. At the heart of the Christian religion, then, we find a future that is still to come. It is not here now. And so, where this is understood, the present can once again become a site of meaningful and responsible activity, where our intention-to-act does not become overwhelmed by a sense of “an end” that is brutally or inescapably closing in on our heads, and that we can do nothing to stop.

Perhaps representations of the apocalypse are necessary at a time like this. But public theology, at its best, can provide a useful corrective to the sense of resignation and despair that sometimes accompany these representations. Our sense of “the end” need not be a disabling or depoliticising force. Instead, we can find in the present reason to hope that an alternative future is possible.

More blogs on religion and public life…

Review of ‘#newpower’ by Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans by John Reader

Spaces of Hope in an Age of Division by Matthew Barber

What sort of society do we wish to become? – Borges’ forking pathways by Tina Hearn

Review of ‘Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook Catastrophe’ by Roger McNamee by Maria Power

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Whose “bloody GDP” is it anyway?

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Associate Research Fellow Tim Howles says we should be thinking again about the current politico-economic settlement.

In the June 2016 Brexit referendum, one of the mistakes made by the “Britain Stronger In Europe” campaign was to assume that the status quo option would be favoured if the outcome was seen to place the economic security of voters in jeopardy. A volley of statistics was launched explaining how Brexit would be catastrophic for jobs, personal and family assets, and the national economy. It is now understood that such coolly-reasoned macroeconomic logic lacked resonance with the lived experiences and consciousness of many voters. This was encapsulated in a public meeting held in Newcastle just prior to the referendum, when a warning from one panellist of how a Brexit vote might lead to slower GDP prompted an audience member to react with the following comment:

“That’s your bloody GDP, mate, not mine”! (Evans & Menon, pp.62-63)

This gentleman could not have been more succinct had he tried! His comment brilliantly articulated a disjuncture that I think still lies at the heart of our society, one that centres on two very different understandings of the functioning of our economy.

We might refer to this as the difference between “markets” and “market-places”. The former describes the operation of global capital. Facilitated by electronic trading platforms, flows of money criss-cross the planet in the blink of an eye. The “market”, then, is a virtual space; although it requires a technological infrastructure, it can function without the need for tangible human contact. By contrast, the idea of the “market-place” brings to mind a concrete, physical space. It is an arena in which human beings can come together, literally rubbing shoulders as they barter, negotiate and arrange their affairs reciprocally. If the virtual space of the “market” privileges aggregate economic growth over all other metrics of human flourishing (“it’s the GDP, stupid”!), the procedures of a “market-place” are able to take into account wider ethical considerations, including but not restricted to custom, duty, inheritance, tradition, need and even sacrality. In a functioning “market-place” some things will even be treated as being beyond the utilitarian calculus of exchange that is the essence of the “market”, whether these are to do with human life, the natural world or shared goods.

We are constantly told that the forces of the “market” have triumphed in our day and age; hence the quip of Frederick Jameson: “nowadays it seems easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism” (Jameson, p.76).

And yet, that sardonic comment from the meeting in Newcastle, and indeed the Brexit vote itself, remind us that when “market-places” give way to “markets” something precious is lost. In addition to matching supply with demand, our economic transactions must somehow signify and encompass the human, all-too-human values of dignity, recognition and honour, even if only partially. As John Milbank has recently argued, “human beings above all seek respect; but in our culture you primarily achieve respect if you make a load of money and if you’re very famous and if you make a kind of spectacle of yourself”. The triumph of the “market” has even skewed the meaning of the crucial human value of respect. Can we envisage a political-economic settlement in which the order of things can somehow be restored? Milbank points to the need for communities of subsidiarity, participatory democracy and a wider sense of social citizenship. It may be that Christian norms, or a form of Catholic social teaching, might be an element of some such settlement.

What chance is there for a recuperation of the “market-place” understood in these terms? Let us hope that political configurations might arise that can somehow represent this in our time. But all may not be lost. In one of his recent works, French philosopher Bruno Latour suggests that the contemporary environmental situation might present itself as a hinge in this respect. Even if we don’t yet realise it, here is a crisis so severe that humans will be required to adopt entirely different habits of exchange if we are to secure for ourselves a sustainable future existence on the planet. We will be compelled to think again about “growth”, that mantra of all “market” economies. We will have to shift from the abstraction of globalizing approaches to a re-instituted understanding of “the local”—not in the sense of nationalist isolationisms and ethnocentrisms of course, but a concern for local places, identity, and cultures, all of which will be grounded in the physical space of real human contact. For Latour, the contemporary environmental crisis therefore represents an opportunity to re-calibrate our whole system of exchange by coming “back down to Earth”, from the de-personalized abstraction of the “market” to the concrete humanity of the “market-place”.

“GDP” has not been for all of us—that much is now clear. But perhaps we still have a chance to measure wealth according to a different metric. And perhaps, this time, this will be a form of wealth that can reach into all corners of society for the benefit of human beings everywhere.

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Come the Resurrection…? by Rosie Dawson

Chinese Christian Schools in the 21st Century by Oscar Siu

Tell the truth and act as if the truth is real by Matt Stemp

Brexit, the Church, and English Identity by Greg Smith

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Defining the Borders of our Island at the Time of Brexit

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Tim Howles, Associate Research Fellow here at the William Temple Foundation, considers post-Brexit political community through the notions of islands, borders and spaces.

I’ve recently been reading this wonderful essay on how human societies throughout history have thought about the concept of “islands”. The theme seems pertinent for our situation. After all, one of the archetypal figures for “England” and “Englishness” is that of “the island”, a kind of self-enclosed space, unique and sufficient unto itself. The figure occurs in poetry, in music and in the visual arts. And recently it has been recurring in the political discourse surrounding Brexit.

For some, of course, the idea of “island existence” is an inspiring and aspirational one. Perhaps we might echo W. H. Auden’s celebration of a country formed in the image of “the English cell”:

Permit our town here to continue small.

What city’s vast emotional cartel

Could our few acres satisfy

Or rival in intensity

The field of five or six, the English cell?

(The Watchers, 1932, lines later excised by Auden)

For others, the idea smacks of a “little Englishness” that is naïve, regressive and dangerously close to expressions of nationalism (whether more or less benign).

But either way, our understanding of “island existence” warrants examination, for it draws attention to the important question of borders. What should be the porosity of the borders that join this “island” to Europe and, by extension, to the rest of the world? Of course, Brexit is causing this question to be re-opened. Not least in relation to the backstop arrangement for the island of Ireland. And while intergovernmental negotiations continue, it behoves us to think about the implications of this question at the level of ideas too. After all, as the EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier said in a speech in Dundalk earlier this year, the Irish border is one that “has been removed not only on maps, but also in minds” and, whatever the outcome of Brexit, “it should not and must not lead to the return of a hard border, neither on maps nor in minds”.

To think about this, we might turn to an unlikely source. For the question of borders was examined at a theoretical level by the twentieth century German political theorist, Carl Schmitt. Schmitt was cautious about the progresseive elimination of borders he perceived as occurring in the post-war, globalized, international order. Why? Because, for him, it presaged the arrival of universal values that would be imposed upon societies “from above”, diluting the geographically and historically-rooted matrix of human social existence that had pertained before. Thus, for him, at the heart of a borderless Europe was the idea of a “monistic metaphysics” (Political Theology, 1922, p.19) that would end up impoverishing the realm of concrete human life itself, with its potential for organic creativity, inventiveness and self-expression.

To counter this vision of a generalized global society, Schmitt re-introduced the idea of the border. For him, politics was the act of defining oneself as a collective against some other collective, such that the “we” determines its identity in large part by staking out a border against the “not us”.

Schmitt’s thought at this point skates perilously close to the reactionary. Indeed, some have cited his work as providing the ideological blueprint for populist authoritarians such as Trump, Duterte and Orban. And so it is true that, in the words of Bruno Latour, the recommended “dosage” of his thought to be consumed should be watched “as carefully as we would do with a powerful poison” (An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, 2013, p.113).

But perhaps there is something that can be pilfered. For Schmitt’s core idea is a spatial one. In order to fully represent ourselves, he claims, we need to occupy a space. And this can only be done by staking a claim, that is, by representing oneself as something and not as something else. It was precisely this act of representation that Schmitt thought was under threat in the era of globalization, whose only demand upon us was to submit to generalized norms that have already been decided for us. His interest in borders was therefore intended to energize us to become more (not less) representative societies, understanding truly which values matter to us in the particular time and space we inhabit, and then being open to composition and growth “from the bottom up”, rather than “from the top down”.

Translated into our current situation, this would be a vision of “island existence” that would be open to new forms of inclusionary representation in the future. Whether this is the vision that will actually be delivered by Brexit… I will leave up to you to decide. But, since this is our journey, I think it is incumbent upon us all to think now about the “political” processes (in Schmitt’s terms) that will determine the borders we establish and, by extension, the terms on which we seek to engage with Europe and the world.

What is the role of religion in supporting this vision? It seems to me that religion can model and enact the very movement described above. After all, what is religion if it is not the staking of a claim, the gathering of a people around a shared value that they hold dear and that defines them as a collective. And then, at its best, religious communities are those which open out these borders, inviting an engagement with the outside world on terms that have clearly been defined. For Schmitt, this would be the foundation for genuine “political” debate itself. He approved religion as an ingredient in safeguarding this future. Perhaps here, then, is a constructive role for religion in the public space at the time of Brexit.

We here at the William Temple Foundation would love to hear from you: do join us on social media to explore your stories about the role of religion in forging a representative political future for this little “island” whose borders we now must conceive afresh!

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Modestly does it
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With malice toward none; with charity for all
Rosie Dawson

When the shocking numbs us, what do we do?
Tina Hearn

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The Genius of Stephen Hawking and the Politics of Scientific Discovery

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Associate Research Fellow Tim Howles considers the genius of Stephen Hawking and his insights into the politics of scientific discovery.

Earlier this year we learned with sadness of the passing-away of Cambridge theoretical physicist and cosmologist Professor Stephen Hawking.

Of the many tributes that have been offered, a great number described him as a “genius”. Of that there can surely be no doubt. And yet, I wonder if this term and its appropriation within contemporary society is worth exploring.

The perception of Hawking as a “genius” has been framed by sympathetic awareness of the facts surrounding his life, namely, that his work was carried out in spite of the degenerative muscular condition that gradually caused him to become paralysed over the decades, in the end rendering him almost incapable of using his body to communicate the ideas being formulated in his head. Hawking thus came to represent the idea of “a mind without a body”. To use a more philosophical register, we might say that Hawking was emblematic of the idea of the disincarnated Cartesian “self”—singular, individual and apparently fully rational. As Amanda Gefter wrote in The Atlantic: “there’s just something about a guy who speaks in a computer voice that automatically makes him sound like a genius”.

Hawking’s “genius”, perceived in these terms, corresponds rather closely to the understanding of science held in the media and in the popular imagination, namely, that scientific discovery takes place in moments of epistemological rupture, driven forward by the brilliance of individuals who contemplate nature in splendid isolation. Hawking can now be added to this pantheon. It seems appropriate to note that he died on the very day of the 139th anniversary of the birth of Albert Einstein and that, last week, following his cremation, his ashes were interred in the nave of Westminster Abbey, alongside the grave of Sir Isaac Newton and close to that of Charles Darwin.

The conceptualisation of Hawking as a “genius” in these terms was examined in a 2012 book by French social anthropologist Hélène Mialet. Her study showed the extent to which Hawking’s academic work and research, his output, was in fact enmeshed in an assemblage of machines, technological devices and human support networks, to such an extent that his “genius” might more appropriately be described as “HAWKING incorporated”. For Mialet, contrary to the popular imagination, Hawking’s “genius” was actually a dispersed and multiple phenomenon. And, as she goes on to argue, this is what constitutes the rationality of all scientific endeavour, properly understood.

We live in a moment where science is expected to do so much for us. And yet, at the same time, misunderstandings abound regarding the mode of rationality in which it actually operates. As Bruno Latour puts it, we labour under the myth of “the transcendent origin of facts” (We Have Never Been Modern, p.22). And so, when the immanent, collective and messy reality of scientific activity is revealed to us, even for a moment, confusion ensues.

This was demonstrated by an incident that occurred a few years ago that, we are told, caused Professor Hawking some distress when he read about it in the news. This was the ‘Climategate’ scandal of 2009. When the Email server of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia was hacked, thousands of communications between laboratory scientists working at the unit were published, laying bare the disputes and controversial interactions that took place between them regarding their interpretation of the data pertaining to climate change. As is now well-known, this caused some climate denial lobbyists to claim that the scientific modelling of global climate change that was produced by the CRU was an act of manipulation. The point, however, is that it was precisely in and through these collective networks—the controversy, the disputation, the passing-around of ideas and wrangling over what they signified—that the authority of its science resides. What we should be looking for is not so much an individual “genius” able to declare the meaning of things from above, but something more like a construction site comprising different voices and contributions, out of which something permanent emerges, that is, real science.

This is why our understanding of science can be fertilised by our understanding of how other modes of collective human behaviour function, whether political, social or religious. This is not to reduce science to something else. Rather, it is to offer insight into the processes through which science has to pass in order to be what it is. With this, the territories of “science” and “religion” might be re-ordered somewhat, for the benefit of all.

Hawking himself objected to the word “genius,” it seems. When asked by a college student in 1993 how it felt to be labelled “the smartest person in the world”, he reportedly began typing rapidly. “It is rubbish, just media hype”, he reportedly said. “They just want a hero, and I fill the role model of a disabled genius […] I am disabled, but I am no genius.” Perhaps it is in statements like these that his insight into the world is most apparent.

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No Place like Home: Rethinking the Politics of Utopia

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Tim Howles considers how the environmental crisis might revive our conceptualisation of utopia and our political agency.

Like many of us, I will very soon be voting in council elections. The party-political literature that has begun to drop through my letter-box tells me that my vote can bring about change. One candidate invites me “to make Brexit Britain what it can and must be.” Another suggests that together we can create “a society with enough space for everyone to flourish.” And a third, deploying what I can only call quasi-biblical language, invites me to raise my eyes to the “sunny uplands that await us” (if only I will vote for him, of course).

Can we believe these promises? What possibility is there for meaningful change in our society?

A number of contemporary thinkers in the continental tradition, including Isabelle Stengers, Peter Sloterdijk and Bruno Latour, have shown that utopian themes continue to structure the discourse of modernity. But, crucially, this vision of utopia is not one that is able to stir up or energize meaningful political or social action in the present moment. Why? Because although in one sense this utopia is framed as a task or objective that must be realised by our own co-operative efforts, in another sense it is understood as a destination that has been already fixed and determined, such that our role in bringing it about is negated.

This putative teleology of utopia can be traced everywhere we look in modern society. Thanks to the natural sciences, the “laws of nature” that underwrite the world of matter have been or are being decoded: thus, we can look forward to a utopia of progressively greater human technological and industrial mastery over the material world. Likewise, the “laws of social existence”, the framework within which humans function collectively, have been or are being described by the work of social scientists: here, too, we can look forward to a deterministic understanding of who we are and why we act the way we do in society. And, above all, we who inhabit the West live with the powerful sense that we are operating under the aegis of the “law of market forces”, the ineluctable and inexorable reality of the global economy, which frames the individual choices we make about consumption and value, whether we are conscious of its power over us or not.

Everywhere we look, we are being catapulted forward into a brighter future. But this is along tram-lines that already appear to have been laid. With his customary coquettish glance, Bruno Latour makes the point by suggesting we would do well to understand the etymology of the word “utopia” itself: the destination to which our history is so confidently channeling us is a place of “no-place”, since it literally offers us nowhere to go.

Is it any wonder, then, that our political engagement is characterised by apathy and disenfranchisement? Is it any wonder that, in the absence of any possibility of genuine political agency, we are seeing the rise of nationalist or populist movements, where our own sense of disenfranchisement can be transferred onto one who promises to wield agency on our behalf? (This is precisely the argument of Jan-Werner Müller in his excellent recent survey of “populisms”).

The religious imagery underlying these contemporary utopian discourses is readily apparent. Within modernity, the flow of human history is envisaged as moving in one sure and certain direction, as if towards an eschatological consummation that is fixed and certain (even if we cannot know the time of the end itself). This is why John Milbank and others have characterised modernity as a mode of “secular apocalyptic” that is premised on the anticipation of a “transcendentally-donated” end-state (as explained in this excellent audio discussion held last year at the LSE, which is well worth a listen).

This is a worrying diagnosis. But thankfully, the same continental thinkers I mentioned above have something else to say. As paradoxical as it might seem, they all point to the contemporary environmental crisis as something that might serve to recalibrate our conceptualisation of utopia and re-energize the sense of human agency in the present moment that it has served to freeze.

What’s the idea here? Their observation is as follows. At the time of the Anthropocene, how can modern people continue to believe in a future that is fixed and secure? Nature itself is rising up and threatening our own survival. Like Pi with his tiger in the lifeboat, this is a dangerous and unpredictable situation. But it is also one that compels us to act in new ways. We must negotiate anew to secure our future existence on the planet. Original forms of political and social action are required—and not just between humans, but between humans and all sorts of nonhuman agents and agencies. The utopia of modernity has been revealed as an artifice. But a new understanding of utopia is perhaps possible, one that will be based on a genuine expression of the plural world we inhabit. This, surely, is a vision of utopia worth working towards.

It is here, perhaps, that theology itself might be able to contribute something. Of course, it is true that Christian theology posits a fixed and final end, an eschatological consummation of all things that will be brought about by the transcendent agency of God. The flow of history is certainly contained or framed in some way by that sure and certain end. What can be more reductive of human political and social action in the present moment than that, we might say? But surely the important point here is that, within Christian theology, the end comes … at the end. And, as many theologians have pointed out, to know that the end is at the end is simultaneously to unleash an extraordinary energy in the present moment. This is what German political theorist Carl Schmitt called “katechontic theology”, with reference to “the one who restrains” (katechon) in 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7, that strange and mysterious promise of an end delayed and retarded, precisely so that the present moment could be held open for something good to emerge. This was the idea that Schmitt thought was the real contribution Christianity could offer to the political and social organisation of the contemporary world.

And so perhaps it will be the contemporary environmental crisis, with its complication of the future we thought was ours to bring about on Earth, that will (paradoxically) supply the context in which a different kind of future might be conceived. Although the path ahead looks uncertain, perhaps that is precisely the blessing the crisis brings to us. For in disrupting the myth of progress that modernity has narrated to us for many years, human beings may finally be in a position to build a future, a utopia, that is finally worthy of the name.

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Back to The(ological) Future: Questions for a Digital Age

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Associate Research Fellow Tim Howles draws together the themes and questions from a recent theology workshop hosted by the William Temple Foundation.

On Monday 19 February a seminar took place in Oxford entitled Theological Futures: Digital and Ecological. It brought together a number of theorists and practitioners with interests in these themes. The seminar was organised by the Foundation’s Associate Research Fellow John Reader.

The first thing to say is that the mere existence of such a gathering was a sight to behold. Participants had come from far and wide: their commitment to attend, with the expense of time and effort that entailed, is a testimony to the passion and concern that is invested in these themes. The seminar was expertly curated by Ian Ball (from Pathways Inspirational Development) in such a way that (A) participants were given space to represent to each other where and how we might already have some expertise on the themes under discussion; (B) participants were brought into dialogue with each other, with the aim of formulating a number of research questions that could be developed at future meetings, and in academic and popular-level publications. These shared conversations were given additional impetus by presentations on the work of continental philosophers Bruno Latour (given by Tim Howles) and Bernard Stiegler (given by John Reader), both of whom offer innovative approaches to the themes under discussion.

Some of the questions that arose from the seminar included the following:

This is just a flavour of some of the research questions that were raised. Participants will try to answer these questions, singularly and collectively, by means of a number of different channels and media, including a forthcoming Temple Tract.

The seminar was supported financially by the William Temple Foundation and by Pathways Inspirational Development, with thanks for their generosity.

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Connecting Ecologies: Agency, Faith and the Environment

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Our new Associate Research Fellow Tim Howles considers the Christian response to environmental change, and an exciting forthcoming conference.

Pinned up on the notice-board of a church I once attended was a laminated sheet of A4 paper. Its dog-eared edges indicated that it had been there for many months, perhaps even years. The graphic design skills were rudimentary, reflecting a certain amateurism of approach: clip-art images of trees and animals were everywhere, and the whole thing was set on a lurid green background. Its title read: 10 Things Christians can do to Help the Environment. Following that was an itemised list of action points, all of them very sensible and useful. Presumably at a later date, however, some well-meaning person had noticed that something was missing. For stuck on the bottom of the notice was a post-it note containing the following Bible verse:

Say to those with fearful hearts: “be strong, fear not! For see, your God will come and save you”. (Isaiah 35:4)

That notice, with its brief addendum, has remained in my mind ever since. The list of action points on its own seemed a little banal and platitudinous in the context of a church notice-board. And yet the Bible verse, with its strong deferral to providence and its anticipation of the irruptive agency of a transcendent being, seemed to jar with the call-to-action being made in the notice itself. Somehow, these two calls were not well integrated.

So what is the relationship between human agency and the Christian faith when it comes to the environment? It’s a question among the many issues addressed in the recent William Temple Foundation Annual Lecture by Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley, who spoke passionately about the need to put the living world at the heart of what we do.

With that question in mind also, I’m very glad to be involved with a series events based at Campion Hall in Oxford next month. We will be bringing together specialists from different academic and professional backgrounds with the aim of stimulating dialogue and reflection about an integrated response to environmental change. The inspiration behind this interdisciplinary approach is the vision promoted by the recent papal encyclical Laudato Si, where Pope Francis emphasises that ecological challenges can only be addressed through an appreciation of the interrelatedness of different spheres of life, whether economic and societal systems, scientific developments, or spiritual expression.

The main symposium section of Connecting Ecologies will consist of a group of invited specialists, of which the Foundation’s own Dr John Reader is one: do keep your eye out for updates from us in light of the sessions we attend. Our focus will not so much be an analysis of ecological stress, but rather an attempt to map out positive responses to it, including consideration of the conceptual, political, social, scientific and theological resources that would be required to bring it about.

But there will be a number of public events as well. One of them in particular aims to model the integrated approach we are taking throughout the week: on Thursday 7th December there will be an event in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, featuring newly-commissioned musical compositions, readings from Laudato Si, and poetry recitals from G. M. Hopkins and others. It promises to be an opportunity for us all to hear different voices on this theme, religious and secular, with the idea of stimulating reflection, all in the wonderful setting of the cathedral itself: quite an integration! If you are in the area, you would be most welcome to attend (the event is free, but please register for a ticket as described below).

We will be posting reflections on Connecting Ecologies here in the weeks ahead.

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