Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Challenging Religious Studies: Part 3

31 Oct 2014

This third and final edited extract from ‘Challenging Religious Studies: The Wealth, Wellbeing and Inequalities of Nations’ consists of the concluding note or ‘Afterword’ to the book. It summarises the whole necessary approach to disciplines and experiences working together to promote the greater wellbeing of all. 

Read part one and part two. Order the book from SCM Press

On Living in More Than One Place at Once

Journeying through the continuing story of the Industrial and Mortality Revolutions generates two contrasting emotions, two sides of the one coin. Their achievements are extraordinary mostly in themselves but also when contrasted with life before 1800. To increase the average income eightfold for the world’s inhabitants in only 172 years (1820–1992) gave people the resources to be and to do, freed from the ever present threats of absolute poverty.

For that is also what happened when we take into account that even in only 27 years (1981–2008) 700 million people were released from poverty. The results of the Mortality Revolution were maybe of even greater historic significance for human wellbeing. In America, life expectancy increased from a meagre 47 in 1900, with 20 per cent dying before the age of one, to 77 in 2008.

My little uncle, John Robert Atherton, was one of those who died before his first birthday in 1900. I am now 75. Wellbeing cannot but profit from the near doubling of life year chances to be and to do, to pursue one’s own self-chosen purposes. I am left with a great sense of eucharistic awe when faced by such achievements.  But then there always comes the deep awareness of the paradox of such development, always also present throughout long history, say from the end of the last Ice Age around 13,000 years ago, but starkly evident in the post 1800 changes, and summarized in the massive inequalities between and within nations. It really is astonishing to see that the world’s wealthiest nation is now 256 times richer than the poorest, that in terms of people’s height (such a key indicator of nourishment and health adequacies), the Impressive growth in Europeans’ height from 166 cm to 178 cm in only 140 years (1850–1980) contrasts so starkly with the 151 cm in height of Indians, and that it could take an astounding 200 years for Indian men to catch up with where we Englishmen are now. That fills me with great sadness and a sense of shame.

That response to the paradox of development is only compounded by possibly the greatest threat of all resulting from such economic and population growth, one of the four great horsemen of the apocalypse, climate change, so deeply associated with the other horsemen of famine, disease, migration and state failure. In the last 650,000 years, carbon dioxide never reached 300 parts per million (ppm) molecules of air until 1958. By 2010 it was 393 ppm, and, if left unchecked, it will reach 550 ppm by 2050, higher than for 24 million years, The effects could be irreversible and catastrophic.

Describing, measuring and analysing such changes in human wellbeing is now a profoundly interdisciplinary exercise. For the economist Easterlin, the world’s greatest problems are not the problems of any one discipline alone, with their often very protective walls, whether say economics or psychology. Rather, the solutions to today’s problems ‘recognize multidisciplinary training and research’ using a variety of relevant and related disciplines. Given the impressive performance of religion in promoting greater subjective wellbeing, religion too becomes a partner in such cross-disciplinary studies. But such a religious studies must increasingly move beyond any thought of living ‘entirely within a religious grammar’. For the tasks of theology and sociology, psychology and economics ‘are united in at least as much as they address the human condition in exploratory and interpretative terms’. All these disciplines, and certainly including religious studies, must therefore ‘be concerned in their distinctive ways with life and with how things are, with the world of daily life’ and that’s about them all ‘living in more than one place at once’ about being able to see things from another perspective as well as from one’s own. Interestingly, that profoundly accurate understanding of the human and its better workings comes from a well-researched study of the ecumenical movement, of the historic struggle to bring together very different and frequently warring (literally say through the devastating seventeenth-century Wars of Religion) Christian denominations into the shared space of the World Council of Churches.

That journey was the recognition that it was no longer sufficient to be and to have through pursuing one’s own self-chosen purposes. The task was now also to be profoundly relational, to also ‘belong to another outside of ourselves’. It’s what Adam Smith regarded as central to any adequate Theory of Moral Sentiments, to put one’s self into the other’s shoes, to see any problem also from the other’s perspective as well as from one’s own, to always include in one’s judgements, whether personal or corporate, the views of the impartial spectator. And putting the different perspectives together was about ‘higgling’, Smith’s glorious concept (a bit like ‘happifying’ in the American case study) to describe the actual messiness involved in negotiating prices, in trying to hold together the very different interests involved, in contrast to the efforts of aloof, tidy economic theory.

‘Living in more than one place at once’ must therefore inform agendas for an emerging religious studies for the twenty-first century, including with relevance for other disciplines. Necessary developments in religious studies illustrate this shared agenda in a number of ways. For example, it involves understanding and appreciating the contributions of different religions in their own terms. It requires accepting the reality and value of a religious pluralism. Interestingly, the Christian laity, with their ordinary theology and church are often much better at this than their clerical leaders. Putnam’s survey of contemporary religiosity in America revealed 88 per cent of Christian laity saying heaven was not reserved for their particular faith alone, therefore accepting the legitimacy claims of other beliefs and even of the non-religious.

In contrast, 60 per cent of Protestant clergy were very clear that heaven was attainable through faith in Jesus Christ alone, and therefore through no other way. ‘Living in more than one place at once’ is about living in one religious tradition or discipline and being prepared also to live in another religious tradition or discipline. Yet it is not about being lost or absorbed by the other. For Fingarette, we should be a ‘sensitive and seasoned traveller, at ease in many places, but one must have a home’.  Religious studies is about exploring religion from a variety of perspectives and disciplines, secular as well as religious. Yet it necessarily and indeed essentially also involves the irreplaceable perspectives drawn from living within a particular religious or secular tradition. William James, so foundational for any adequate evidence-based religious studies, knew this and felt it. He realized the importance of the profound religious experiences seen from the inside and so strongly evidenced in the conversion accounts from the American great awakenings, even though he had not himself, as he sorrowfully admitted, experienced one. For him, ‘[m]y personal position is simple. I have no living sense of communion with God. I envy those who have, for I know that the addition of such a sense would help me greatly’.

That way of working and seeing things from different vantage points, for Clements, drawing from his reflections on the ecumenical movement, expresses this as a kind of ‘double vision’, as ‘seeing the social world from there as well as here’. It’s about inhabiting and then bringing together the differences of scientific and traditional history, of a monovision with the brain combining the close detailed work of the reading eye with the longer view of the distance eye. It’s about examining aggregates and long-term trends, and yet seeing these essential facts on the particular faces of people at particular times and places.

Of course, ‘living in more than one place at once’ deeply informs much of religious studies’ historic and contemporary engagement with economics. Many theologians today have never seriously entered into the other world of economics, preferring the pontifical statements issued from the safety of their own restricted view of Christianity. Yet it can be done. It must be done, because it has been done. Over 100 years ago, Ely illustrated how the development of a more historically and empirically sensitive economics could be achieved, including through learning from developments in historical and evidence-based religious history, practices, ethics and beliefs. In today’s world, the engagement of economics in wellbeing studies illustrates the potential for the reformulating of economic traditions. There are early signs of similar developments in a religious studies also engaged in wellbeing studies.

That shared interest in and commitment to understanding better and then promoting greater human wellbeing therefore provides a real opportunity for constructive engagements between these two traditions of Christianity and economics for their mutual benefit. The work on a Christian model for doing this as described in this book illustrates the feasibility of that task. And why? Because it’s about being in more than one place at once.  Such living in more than one place at once particularly informs the foundations of Christian beliefs, those energizing forces of spiritual capital behind so much of the effectiveness of its transmission processes, seen, for example, in the British case study’s successfully interacting an age of incarnation with an age of the state. In the great prologue to John’s Gospel, at the heart of the incarnation story, is the proclamation that ‘the Word became flesh … and lived among us’. For this living among us, this living in more than one place at once, literally means ‘pitched his tent’ among us in the way God dwelt among the Israelites ‘in the tent of the tabernacle in the wilderness’, as sharing in or living in ‘the conditions of skin-thin tented life and human vulnerability’.

And such Christ-like godly living in more than one place at once therefore means, for Christians, that they too, through faith, share in that energizing double residency. This is described most beautifully in the Collect for the First Sunday of Christmas where we pray ‘grant that, as he came to share in our humanity, so we may share the life of his divinity’. It is about Christian beliefs and stories giving greater depth and meaning to the ordinary, necessary and hopefully increasing collaboration between disciplines, traditions and practical partners for the pursuit of greater human wellbeing.

John Atherton is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation

Join John for his book launch, which will take place during the William Temple 70th Anniversary Conference on Monday 10th November in Manchester. Book now!

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