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Author Archives: Tim Middleton

Deep Time: Visions of the Earth’s Future

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In the heart of the London docklands, just the other side of the Thames from the O2 Arena, is a squat stone lighthouse at the end of Trinity Bouy Wharf. The light from this lighthouse no longer shines, but the building is now home to a series of innovative artistic projects. In one room, a computer is playing 234 Tibetan singing bowls in a piece composed by Jem Finer. The catch: we’re currently barely more than 2% of the way through the music. Longplayer—as the piece is known—began at at midnight on the 31st of December 1999 and is set to last for the next 1000 years. You can even listen live online. The music is not set to repeat, but it will require extraordinary human effort to ensure that it sounds continuously for the full duration of the composition. The purpose, according to Finer, is to open up a vista on those ‘unfathomable expanses of geological and cosmological time, in which a human lifetime is reduced to no more than a blip’.

But Longplayer is not just an isolated esoteric obsession. The idea of so-called ‘deep time’ is in vogue. In the streets of Utrecht, an endless poem is being carved into the cobblestones at the rate of one letter per week. Whilst in Oslo, a new book is added to the Future Library every year—except they will only be read once trees have been grown to supply the paper to print them on. The simple fact that human life and human civilisation are found in the context of much longer timescales is provoking several new creative endeavours.

Photo Credit: Dave Souza. This image is reproduced under the Creative Commons 4.0 licence which seeks to ensure that work receives appropriate attribution.

The picture above shows one of Hutton’s unconformities. It was here, at Siccar Point on the Berwickshire coast of eastern Scotland, that James Hutton is said to have made his ‘discovery’ of deep time. Assuming that geological processes of sedimentation, mountain building, and erosion have always occurred at a similar rate, Hutton realised that vast stretches of time were needed to produce the rock formations he saw in front of him. The vertical slabs of greywacke must have been deposited, tilted, and eroded, before the red Devonian sandstones could be layered horizontally on top. The whole process must have taken tens of millions of years. As Hutton commented, famously, he discerned in these rocks ‘no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’.

In recent years, academics, cultural commentators, environmentalists, and politicians have all begun  invoking the concept of deep time as a way of thinking about not only the geological past but also the planetary future. Many popular books on deep time have been published with subtitles like: ‘How Thinking like a Geologist Can Help Save the World’, ‘How Future Thinking Can Help Earth Now’ or ‘How to Think Long-term in a Short-term World’. And these authors generally agree: human beings are having an increasing influence on the long-term future of planet Earth. 

At this juncture in human history—as global society seeks to address catastrophic climate change and devastating species extinction—there is much that is beneficial about a deep time perspective. It reckons with the scale of the current ecological crisis, acknowledging the millions of years for which human impacts may last. It expands our temporal horizons, offering an antidote to the presentism and short-termism that have driven capitalist consumption. It questions our own sense of importance, prompting greater humility in the face of the sublime scale of geological time. And it encourages thinking on intergenerational justice, fostering new forms of politics and policymaking that could be more sustainable.

But there are also some possible dangers associated with promoting a long-term view. By zooming out so far, are we negelecting and covering up injustices that exist in the present? Are we at risk of giving up what we deem to be important and resigning ourselves to a kind of geological fatalism?

For those who work in theology and religion, the interdisciplinary discussions that are currently taking place about deep time provide a fresh conundrum. On the one hand, people of faith are used to dealing with visions of the future, potential apocalypse, and discussion of the end times. But, on the other hand, we are often so focussed on human concerns that we neglect to mention the ultimate fate of planet Earth. And there are some theologies that just envision a heavenly escape, leaving the planet and its long-term prognosis behind. Does it matter—theologically speaking—if Jem Finer’s Tibetan singing bowls are still playing in 2999 or not?


There’s much thinking to be done in this area. And I was delighted to be involved in co-organising an event on some of these themes at the end of last year. Off the back of this symposium, and in collaboration with the William Temple Foundation, we’ve recorded a series of six short podcast interviews with some of the leading experts in interdisciplinary deep time thinking. I was asking contributors: What does it mean to talk about deep planetary time? How are our lives, as individual human beings, caught up in processes that operate on geological timescales? And what will happen to the Earth in the very distant future? Along the way, we touched on themes of ‘cathedral thinking’, climate fiction, monastic communities, and religious apocalypse.

The podcast is called ‘Deep Time: Visions of the Earth’s Future’. Do look out for the first episode next week.

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Review of ‘The Ministry for the Future’ by Kim Stanley Robinson

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Tim Middleton reflects on Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel and the inherent dangers of a global eco-religion.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future, published by Orbit, 2020.
ISBN: 978-0-316-30013-1

I have recently finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 novel The Ministry for the Future. Set in the  2020s, 2030s, and 2040s, the story loosely follows the activities of a new UN agency tasked with representing the interests of planetary citizens. Catastrophes abound, including shocking heatwaves, financial upheavals, and several acts of ecoterrorism. Slowly, however, over the course of the novel, Robinson imagines a world in which levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide turn a corner, begin to fall, and the threat of ecological breakdown is averted.

In some ways, The Ministry for the Future offers a comparatively hopeful vision. It certainly differs from those examples of cli-fi (climate fiction) that dwell on apocalypse and doom. And yet, I still found Robinson’s book deeply unsettling. I think part of my unease can be put down to the literary form. In suitably postmodern style, fragments of non-fiction and meditation are interspersed with perspectives from a wide range of characters. The resulting sense of disjunction is presumably deliberate.

However, on reflection, what I found most disturbing of all was how Robinson imagined that the planetary community might bring the ecosphere back from the brink. The sheer scale and audacity of some of the societal and geological projects involved are frankly mind-boggling. Glaciers all round Antarctica are drilled to remove the meltwater from their bases, disrupting their accelerated movement, and slowing the rate of Antarctic ice sheet collapse. The whole of the Arctic ocean is dyed yellow to prevent the dark seawater from absorbing so much heat. Many oil executives are assassinated. And terrorist attacks all but halt international air travel.

These activities are not in themselves surprising. But there are intense ethical conversations to be had about the legitimacy of such actions. How would we ever come to global agreement on such controversial subjects? Who finally decides that the Arctic ocean ought to be yellow?

Inasmuch as the Ministry for the Future bears some responsibility for coordinating these different responses, an actor is identified. But the idea that one single body—the ministry—could ever enjoy universal support of this kind feels unimaginable. Robinson is very aware of this concern. And in his imagined scenario, unilateral action by states, corporations, and even lone individuals is included too. It is not, in the end, the ministry that brings about change, but an eclectic assortment of actors—from bankers to drone pilots.

So, what role—if any—might religion have in all of this?

Throughout the novel, one of the key figures at the Ministry for the Future, muses about the possibility of a global religion that could unite people behind a single vision of ecological flourishing. What this character recognises in religion is the immense potential to bring people together around a common moral cause. Such a global eco-religion never materialises. But the character in question does reflect, somewhat whimsically, at the end of the book about how he still thinks such a religion would be a good idea.

What does happen instead is a global ‘Gaia moment’, where everyone on the planet is invited into a single moment of meditation and contemplation in gratitude for some of the progress that has been made. It is hard to imagine hard-nosed pragmatists taking part in such an apparently hippy festival, but Robinson implies that the initiative nonetheless gained traction. He narrates this event from the perspective of an Hawaiian islander who must stay up until 3am to be part of this global moment. The islander is not too sure that the experience amounts to much, and yet he does feel a sense of cosmic connection the following day whilst out surfing. The reader is left wondering whether a global moment of union was ever really achieved.

The message is subtle, but, I think, vitally important. Robinson, in effect, communicates his suspicions about any religious visions that claim to have global relevance and global reach. We know only too well about the many colonial atrocities that have been committed in the name of apparently universal worldviews. No religion is really going to be able to unite and motivate all people in all places.

In The Ministry for the Future, Robinson makes common cause with the work of Bruno Latour. In his book on Facing Gaia Latour sounds a warning against false totalities. Any claim to have a complete vision of how the future ought to be—even if that vision is propounded by a trustworthy UN agency in the name of ecological protection—should be treated with suspicion. And the same goes for any eco-religion. A monistic perspective on global flourishing is a form of idolatry because it puts ourselves in the driving seat with a supposedly god’s-eye view. Such universal visions are really rather terrifying.

In other words, I think we should indeed be feeling highly ambivalent about the idea of a Ministry for the Future. On the one hand, such an institution could coordinate exactly the sorts of actions that are so urgently needed. But, on the other hand, any Ministry for the Future risks becoming totalising and controlling.

What we need instead are many ministries for the future. The future must be built piece by piece from the bottom up. Each of us could, in our own way, contribute a different ‘ministry for the future’.

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Review of ‘Time to Act’ edited by Jeremy Williams

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Tim Middleton reviews this book from Christian Climate Action—a combination of thoughts, resources and laments on Extinction Rebellion and climate activism from a religious perspective.

Time to Act was published early in 2020. Its urgent writing sought to draw attention to an impending global catastrophe, encouraging a mixture of solidarity, soul-searching and activism. Yet none of the authors predicted quite how soon our world would be turned upside down as a result of our broken relationships with the natural world.

The volume has a similar feel to both Extinction Rebellion’s This Is Not a Drill and the recent edited collection Words for a Dying World. Personal stories of protest sit alongside academic reflections and practical tips on how to get involved. Poetry, photography, liturgy and illustrations add to the intimacy of the collection.

Several themes recur across the many contributions. The religiously inspired resistance of both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King clearly provide motivation for the actions of contemporary Christians faced with climate catastrophe. According to Bonhoeffer, the role of the church, when faced with injustice, is ‘not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself’ (pp. 8-9). Similarly, Jesus’s upending of temple tables is regularly cited as an endorsement of XR’s methods of non-violent civil disobedience (e.g. p. 27).

Reading this book now, through the lens of a global pandemic will undoubtedly alter how it is received. But our new, COVID context also sharpens the pleas and demands that are found within its pages. Particularly prescient in this regard is a quotation from an interview with Anthony Reddie:

‘There are powerful people who can countenance people dying […] if that’s what it takes for everyone else to continue—if only for a period—with some sense of normality.’ (p. 74)

Reddie was talking about the deep injustice of climate change; those who are most responsible are least likely to face the consequences. But the same disturbing logic has been heard on a regular basis in relation to the pandemic: ‘others’ are deemed expendable for the sake of ‘our’ normality. And yet, in both cases, even those who utterly disregard the moral case for caution will find that the reality of our planetary interconnections will disrupt their lives soon enough.

Hannah Malcolm’s hospital metaphor is similarly haunting given our current situation. She asks us to imagine the scene:

‘It is a familiar hospital: it is stretched beyond capacity, with trolleys up and down the corridors, sleep-deprived nurses, and high risk of infection.’ (p. 177)

An alarmingly farsighted vision. But Malcolm’s point is that, when faced with our own grief about ecological devastation, we must find room for compassion as well as despair. A hospital symbolises a place where life is lost, but also a place where life is sometimes recovered and born. Our planet is still worth defending, however dire the situation seems to be. As Martin Luther is (probably incorrectly) rumoured to have said: even if I knew that the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant a tree today. And much the same could be said about retaining hope during the pandemic, as we now see pictures of hospitals that are literally overwhelmed.

In another chapter, Stefan Skrimshire sounds a similar note of realism when he asks, is it not already too late? It is common in activist circles, he says, to talk about unbreachable deadlines—we only have until 2030, for example, to limit global warming to 1.5°C. But this culture of deadline-ism ignores two important realities. On the one hand, it is already ‘too late’ to prevent the homes of many Pacific Islanders from being inundated by rising seas. And yet, on the other hand, it is never too late to oppose injustice. As Skrimshire writes of activists, ‘the striving itself embodies the world in which they believe’ (p. 98).

This tension between hope and despair is one of many that pervades the book. Simmering just below the surface are further contrasts between action and contemplation, responsibility and privilege, and success and failure. As such, Time to Act is passionate, eclectic and at times a little rough around the edges. One, specific discomfort is the regular appeal to a ‘Christlike’ model of sacrifice. We are told, for example, that ‘as Christians, we are called to sacrifice, to offer ourselves for others’ (p. 214). And yet Reddie is abundantly clear that the rhetoric of sacrifice is invariably employed by the powerful to continue the subjugation of the powerless (p. 75). Telling others to take up their cross, ignores the ‘monstrous shadow’ of racial and other injustices (p. 73). But such awkwardly sharp edges are an accurate reflection of the difficulties of gathering a diverse group of people together to contribute to a common cause. They are also indicative of the way in which XR itself has been trying to evolve.

Nevertheless, the raw emotions and the persistent provocations in this volume offer a fitting exhortation—especially in these COVID times—to continue the fight for a better world. It is indeed time to act.

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Nobody is perfect: in the West, we are all climate hypocrites now

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As climate breakdown starts to bite, it can be easy to slip into a culture of blame and denial. But, as Tim Middleton argues, a theological perspective can help us to see that, in the West, we are all climate hypocrites now.

This week, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the climate crisis has been high on the agenda. From ‘prophets of doom’ to wreckers of the planet, name-calling and finger-pointing has also been rife.

‘Who are you to tell me what to do?’

‘Why should I listen when you don’t practise what you preach?’

‘Do you know how much of a hypocrite you sound?’

The sense of injustice is palpable. And people have a point: if you make no effort whatsoever to live up to the values you profess, then why should anyone take you seriously? It seems ridiculous to campaign passionately for a low carbon lifestyle if you regularly fly around the world. There is a cognitive dissonance that simply does not appear to have registered. From celebrities who hop across the pond to lend their support to environmental rallies, to climate scientists who travel all over the world to lecture people on our impending doom, people are right to be suspicious.

And yet, I find myself deeply frustrated by this line of argument—and for two main reasons.

First, quite simply, we are running out of time. In 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that we have just 12 years left to limit planetary warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. It is now 2020, and nothing has changed. Such moments of extreme urgency are incredibly dangerous politically. Rogues and opportunists can easily manipulate a crisis for their own ends—as Naomi Klein describes in her famous book The Shock Doctrine. Nevertheless, the IPCC report could not be clearer: we need major societal shifts as soon as possible. In such a context, it seems to me, any action that helps to spread awareness about, or mitigate the impacts of, climate breakdown must be a good thing. The hypocrisy of one individual is neither here nor there when the planet is burning.

But the timing is only one of the issues at play. The nub of the matter, I suggest, is to do with how we understand human nature itself. Greta Thunberg must sail across the Atlantic to give a talk because, otherwise, she would be lampooned for hypocrisy by those who do not want her message to be heard. The thinking is clear: Greta should not be allowed to preach about a low carbon lifestyle unless she practises a low carbon lifestyle. The implicit demand, therefore, is that Greta ought to be perfect before she deserves to be heard.

Theologically speaking, human perfection is notoriously hard to find. Indeed, it is interesting to note how vigorously Christian theologians defend Christ’s sinless nature. He too, it seems, must be perfect before he deserves to be heard. Nevertheless, Christian theologians are equally adamant that no human being is without sin. To put the same point in a more contemporary idiom: Christian theology recognises that there is a brokenness at the heart of human nature. Despite the best of intentions, we never quite live up to our ideals. Nobody is perfect.

Climatologically speaking, human perfection is impossible. The only way to guarantee a carbon footprint of zero would be not to exist at all. Every time we exhale, a little more carbon dioxide is added to the atmosphere.

But is this a reason to give up altogether? Christian theology says no. Despite the unavoidability of human brokenness, life can still be full of joy. Our calling, in fact, is to endeavour to live life as sin-free, and as carbon-free, as we can. Nobody ever will; but that is no reason not to try. Indeed, it may be the case that our salvation depends upon it.

Christ is also emphatically clear about how we should talk about this. Those who are without sin can throw the first stone. In other words, never. Similarly, those who are carbon neutral can be the first to point out another’s climate hypocrisy. Again, nobody is in a position to be pointing fingers or naming names because nobody is perfect.

This is particularly true when it comes to the poor and disadvantaged. In a society where it is many times cheaper to fly than to take a train, it is a position of privilege to be able to choose the more environmentally friendly option. Market mechanisms are also such that if more people opt for the train over the plane, it will become less and less affordable for those on low incomes. In the same vein, those with loved ones on different continents simply have no choice but to fly if they want to see their family. This is why the recent trend for ‘flight shaming’ has proved so controversial. Even though psychology seems to suggest that shame can be a powerful motivator for change, it is not theologically productive or pastorally sensitive to go about throwing stones.

What is vitally important, therefore, is that we all spend less time judging others and more time examining our own lives. In the Western world we all partake in societies that are absolutely predicated on the burning of fossil fuels. It is virtually impossible to escape this without societal transformation. We are all climate hypocrites now. Yet this does not mean that those who speak up can be dismissed for their hypocrisy. We do not, in general, require clergy or theologians to be sin-free before they start talking about theology. In the same way, someone who has just taken an international flight may yet have a crucial message for us about the state of the planet.

Our climate catastrophe is so urgent that we all need to listen now. But we must do so humbly and graciously—because nobody is perfect.

Images from Climate Visuals: by dsleeter_2000 (CC BY-NC 2.0) and New York City Department of Transportation (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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Aftermath and resistance – how the next decade will be won or lost (Part I) by Chris Baker

Artificial Intelligece in the Image of God? by Ryan Haecker

Review of ‘The Church of Us vs. Them’ by David E. Fitch by Greg Smith

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What matters?

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Communications Officer, Dr Tim Middleton, reflects on the New Materialisms and the work of the William Temple Foundation. What is it that really matters?

Since joining the William Temple Foundation last July, I have been struck by the diversity of its various projects and research: from social enterprise in the north-east to upheavals in our self-understanding as a result of climate change. But at the same time, what has been immediately apparent is the firm commitment to an engaged, hands-dirty sort of approach to public life. Whether it be tangible foodstuffs at a volunteer-led food pantry, physical care for those with dementia, school uniform swaps at a church breakfast, the sheer wastefulness of contemporary fashion, or the very fabric of medieval churches—the material clearly matters.

This idea—that matter matters—is also central to a new branch of philosophies called the New Materialisms. Like all philosophical ideas, they might sound somewhat esoteric but at the heart of their proposal is a simple plea to attend to stuff as we find it. Whether it be our food, our clothes, our bodies or our buildings, we should be alert to the ways in which these things shape who we are, what we think, and what we care about.

A concern for the material has always had a central place in Christian theology. Christianity is an incarnational religion. To put it simply, God in a body. Jesus’ human presence vindicates our fleshly existence. As his ministry began, he announced his mission as, ‘good news to the poor… freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind.’ Jesus took on bodily form and cared for the physical needs of those around him. Think of the feeding of the multitude, his many healings, the feasting, and the provision of more wine at a party. The not-so-subtle implication is that we should be doing the same.

Similarly, Paul’s letter to Timothy exhorts him to affirm materiality: creation is good, food is to be received gratefully, and intimate human relationships are not to be shunned.

In the case of William Temple himself, the establishment of the welfare state was, for him, the epitome of the Gospel’s concern for the material well-being of our neighbours.

But none of this means that the spiritual is left behind. In fact, the problem, says Temple, has been the tendency to separate the material and the spiritual. He writes:

“We so commonly contrast ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’ that we easily suppose matter and spirit to be mutually exclusive opposites. For Christians this is certainly not true; indeed, Christianity is the most materialist of all the great religions.”[1]

Temple is clear: Christianity does not promote materiality at the expense of spirituality. Rather, it reminds us to dissolve such false divisions. He continues:

“The spiritual is not to be found by turning our backs upon the material and leaving it to go its own way. But the spiritual is above all to be found by facing the material in fellowship with God and using it to become the expression of the divine character as that reproduces itself in our own souls through the faith in us which it has itself evoked.”[2]

Christian religion has nothing to do with escaping into a spiritual realm.

But there is also a second danger. There can be a temptation to think that matter is simply fixed, inert, passive or static. It is seen as reliable, dependable and realistic. Yet the insight of the New Materialisms is precisely the opposite.

I have recently finished reading Jane Bennett’s book Vibrant Matter, and for Bennett matter is not nearly so straightforward. Instead of ‘objects’, she prefers to refer to ‘things’. And ‘things’ have ‘thing-power’, a kind or iridescent remainder, a striving that exceeds our usual mechanistic understanding of matter. This might seem far-fetched, but she gives examples, including electric power grids, oozing waste heaps and fatty acids. There are distinct advantages, she says, to viewing such heaps of matter as not just passive stuff for us to manipulate but potentially important agents in their own right. Power grids black out; waste heaps release toxins; and fatty acids influence brain processes—matter is not as inert as we might initially assume. In short, matter has its own vibrancy that cannot be contained within our own human schemes and calculations.

Bennett does not share Temple’s Christian faith; in fact, she regularly asserts that her own philosophy is explicitly incompatible with belief in God. Yet she cannot help ending the book with her own ‘Nicene Creed’. The final sentence reads:

“I believe that encounters with lively matter can chasten my fantasies of human mastery, highlight the common materiality of all that is, expose a wider distribution of agency, and reshape the self and its interests.”[3]

So, matter matters. Not because it is the opposite of the spiritual. Or because it is inert and static. But because of the ‘common materiality of all that is.’ Hence, ‘facing the material in fellowship with God,’ becomes a deeply political, as well as spiritual, agenda because we are all in it together. And as Christ’s example shows us, justice and healing are brought about through and in the material. Rich and poor, human and nonhuman, organic and inorganic—we are certainly not all the same, but we do all matter. Foods, clothes, bodies and buildings—that is what matters.

[1] Temple, Citizen and Churchman, p.41

[2] Temple, The Preacher’s Theme Today, p.44

[3] Bennett, Vibrant Matter, p.122

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Can we have Prosperity and Justice without Repentance and Transformation?

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Communications Officer, Dr Tim Middleton, welcomes the new IPPR report on Economic Justice, but wonders if it goes far enough.

The front page of a right-wing tabloid is not usually the place to recommend large-scale tax increases. Not even if you are the Archbishop of Canterbury. But the publication last week of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) report on Prosperity and Justice: A Plan for the New Economy was the occasion for just that. Archbishop Justin Welby was one of the 22 commissioners responsible for the report and was at the forefront of efforts to promote it on various media channels last week.

“[Our current economy] is not a just economy because it’s not just for everyone,” said Welby in an interview with the BBC. “Tax should be a fundamental part of being a citizen and that those who have the most should pay the most,” he continued. Welby’s strong stance has drawn both praise and criticism.

But beyond the headlines lies a fascinating report. Commissioned in the wake of the UK’s vote to leave the EU, the report aims at nothing short of “a new economic settlement” for post-Brexit Britain. (p.4) Just as William Temple was influential in the establishment of the welfare state in the wake of World War Two, perhaps Welby and the other IPPR commissioners have sensed that the country is again at a potentially decisive turning point.

First, the IPPR recognise the scale of the problem. They highlight that, “it is impossible to escape a palpable feeling that the economy is not working for most people.” (p.1) For example, the top 10% of households in the UK are 900 times better off than the bottom 10%. Meanwhile, 40% of food bank users are in work.

Second, their proposed solutions are bold and wide-ranging: from limiting tax-free personal giving to £125,000, to cracking down on tax avoidance amongst multinational companies, to creating a Citizens Wealth Fund that would grant all 25-year-olds a minimum inheritance of £10,000. Not so long ago, such a radical overhaul of the economic system would have been virtually unthinkable.

There is also a philosophy that underlies the report. “The central argument… is that a fairer economy is a stronger economy,” the authors suggest. “We do not have to choose between prosperity and justice: the two can, and must, go hand-in-hand.” (p.1) In fact, justice can be “hard-wired” into the economy. (p.30) Furthermore, prosperity should be about, “the quality and security of work as well as income; time with family and community as well as money; and the common good as well as individual wellbeing”. (p.2) These are all sentiments with which Temple would agree. For Temple, the important things in life are:

“… knowledge, or appreciation of beauty, or friendship, or family affection or loyalties, and courage, and love and joy and peace… The whole economic sphere is concerned with means to those ends; and it must be judged, not primarily by its efficiency within itself… but primarily in the light of the question whether it is fostering the attainment of the real ends by the greatest number of people.” (The Church Looks Forward, p.117)

So how is it that any of this is theological?  The report does not mention theology, faith, or religion anywhere in its 300 pages. Even Temple himself once wrote that, “there is nothing in the Gospel to say what is to be held as to the economic system”. (York Quarterly, p.477)

Welby’s own answer was that: “as a Christian I start with learning from Jesus Christ that people matter equally, are equally loved by God, and that justice in society matters deeply—a theme that runs throughout the Bible.” The IPPR report does acknowledge in a footnote that its own emphasis on “the common good” bears striking resemblance to Catholic social teaching and its holistic approach to development. (p.258)

So, I think Welby is right to emphasise the theological principles of equality and justice as foundations for this new economy. As the report states, “the economy should give expression to our values, not be the place that we leave them behind.” (p.32) And if the IPPR’s recommendations were taken to heart, then great improvements could be made. But I wonder if there are other theological concepts that should prompt us to go further? Where, for example, is any sense of repentance, any sense of the need to apologise for the hurt caused to those who have been failed by our economic system? Where is the commitment to a radical transformation in the way we do things?

In the end, the IPPR report is still wedded to some of the fundamental tenets of the status quo. It still wants to “strengthen business and markets” (p.4); it thinks that the measure of GDP needs to be “updated, not discarded” (p.31); and one of its fundamental arguments is that “a fairer economy will also generate greater prosperity,” in both the narrower and wider senses of the term (p.26). The report may well be right, that sticking with capitalism is the only way to go. Furthermore, it does acknowledge critics of the growth agenda, especially those with environmental reservations. However, it never sufficiently addresses the elephant in the room: is infinite economic growth possible on a finite planet? One line is given to Paul Ekins’ book from the 1990s, which suggests that, “it is possible to generate higher income while reducing material flows and environmental impacts.” (p.31) But one wonders whether this is sufficient evidence?

Welby and the IPPR make some important strides forward. But two decades on from Ekins’ book, the jury is still out as to whether green growth and sustainable development are really possible. My theological suggestion is simply that we should be prepared for even greater economic change if that is what is needed to see true justice and true prosperity.

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