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Putting the Cart Before the Horses: Can Christianity Learn from Economics?

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The leaders of Britain, politicians, intellectuals and churches, invariably focus on what’s gone wrong with life, whether it’s the economy, the NHS, education, inequality or foodbanks. Yet that’s to start with the carts of life. There are some useful lessons we might draw from economics, offering a message on Lent and sin. Without the horse, the cart is pretty useless, so let’s rather begin with the horse.  And, by that, I mean I’m grateful that I’m neither dead nor am I dirt poor. And that’s astonishing progress, because only 100 years ago my uncle John Robert Atherton (after whom I was probably named), was born and died in 1900, one of the 20% who tragically died in childhood of incurable infectious diseases. The remainder often suffered from great undernourishment, and from lack of education. In contrast, I’m 76, highly educated, have a modest pension, and therefore the freedom to be and to do. And these great and historic achievements have beneficially affected more and more people increasingly across the whole world in terms of incomes, life expectancy and education.

Of course, these are not as yet a universal achievement. A very significant but diminishing minority do not share in the benefits obtained by the Industrial and then the Mortality Revolutions. A billion still live in absolute poverty, and, in rich economies like Britain and the USA, a significant minority still suffer from relative deprivation. These deeply disturbing situations reflect what is called the paradox of development; the great achievements in wellbeing in the last 200 years have also been accompanied by deeply negative forces, including grave inequalities (throughout history, and including today, these paradoxes of development, or ‘horsemen of the apocalypse’, traditionally included famines, epidemic, climate changes, migrations and state failures).

So this analysis is therefore about putting the horse back where it belongs: before the cart. Don’t begin, as our leaders in academia, politics and churches do, with the downsides of life, with the paradoxes of development. No. Begin with the ongoing historic achievements in income, health and education in only the last 200 years. Then, and only then, also address the paradoxes of development.

What on earth has Lent and sin got to do with this? Well, for most of its history Christianity has regularly put the cart before the horse, and especially in the season of Lent, and especially with its focus on sin. And that’s again putting things the wrong way round. Let’s think a bit more about this.

So much of the church’s historic views on sin are pathological, and are now also profoundly inaccurate and unhelpful.  Let me give you a few examples:

In medieval churches, the walls were often covered with paintings regularly featuring vivid pictures of hell as the punishment for sin if the parishioners didn’t confess to a priest.  The fear this inevitably injected was also a powerful way of controlling the population.

If a newborn baby died before it was baptised, it was, until relatively recently, buried in unconsecrated ground outside the consecrated church yard – because its original sin, addressed only through baptism, therefore ostracised it beyond the pale.

When I was a young Rector of Hulme Church in inner city Manchester in the late 1960s, I was frequently asked to ‘church’ a young mother who had just given birth to a child.  Now, this old ‘churching’ service wasn’t a ‘thanksgiving for childbirth’ as it later became.  It was a (grandmothers won’t let the daughter out till she’d been churched), going back to the Christian doctrine that original sin was transmitted to new generations through the sexual act, through the woman’s birth of a child.

Why on earth did Christianity and the churches have such views often well into the twentieth century? My ongoing research in economics and religious studies indicates that for all human history, until the 19th century, the vast majority of people lived lives, as the great 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes put it, which were ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short’. They died at best by middle age, they lived in poverty and squalor, and they often suffered violent deaths.  Reflecting and deepening such experiences, no wonder such views of sin, of the self-inflicted darkness of life, so pervaded Christian thinking and preaching. But now life is quite different. For most people life is long, peaceful and relatively prosperous, with increasing healthcare and educational opportunities for a growing majority.

So I now begin with the lovely and accurate Anglican collect or prayer for Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent: ‘Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made…’  That’s where I begin, with the fundamental goodness of the created order. Then, and only then, do I address what’s also gone wrong in terms of sin and finitude (don’t confuse them, and do recognise both as severe, distinct and different constraints on our social development – including as the paradoxes of development). And that’s certainly not to therefore acknowledge my ‘wretchedness’, as the collect for Ash Wednesday goes on to declare! Whatever I now feel and understand as my sin and finitude, I would thankfully, not normally refer to it as wretchedness.

How then, to define sin today, post-1800?  Well, I go to the New Testament’s interpretation of it as ‘missing the mark’. In other words, we aim for, in Paul’s words, ‘what is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable’ (Philippians 4.8).  And then, and only then, do we recognise and face up to where we get it wrong personally and collectively (the latter including what we call structural sin in terms of defective or bad institutions, markets or nations). Now this is called ‘putting the horse before the cart in Christianity, church life and history’. It’s about Christian beliefs, urgently updated in the life of the most historic changes in human life, continuing to give greater depth and greater meaning to our ordinary human experiences.

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

Challenging Religious Studies. The Wealth, Wellbeing and Inequalities of Nations is out now: click here for more.

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Challenging Religious Studies: Part 1

In the first of a three part series to celebrate the publication of his landmark new book ‘Challenging Religious Studies: The Wealth, Wellbeing and Inequalities of Nations’ John Atherton introduces the key themes of his latest work.
The following is an edited extract from the book’s introduction. It is published on 31 October by SCM Press.

The Argument Emerges

This book is about what matters most to most people, most of the time, whether as individuals, families, communities or societies. It is therefore deliberately and primarily about what the American sociologist Robert Bellah has called ‘the world of (the) daily life’ of people which they face with ‘a practical or pragmatic interest’.

That is how it is so often for most people, and it always has been since the dawn of the human about 200,000 years ago. For other commentators like the archaeologist and historian Morris, surveying human life from 15,000 years ago, it is about society’s ‘abilities to get things done in the world’ including in terms of the adequate provision of the basics for human life on earth, as food, clothing and shelter, and increasingly, too, in later periods, in terms of life expectancy, health and education. You can’t have a good life if you die before the age of five, and now we don’t. In other words, this story is simply about the ‘world of daily life’, but it is also significantly about, for the economist Angus Deaton, ‘how people have managed to make their lives better’, so often in terms of ‘what makes life worth living’. And, at the heart of these changes in human development lie the Industrial and then Mortality Revolutions from the eighteenth century, transforming human life in ways never achieved and never really dreamt of in the previous 200,000 years of human history. And all this so often allows and enables that concern to be developed into the pursuit of a good life, a life that turns out well, the basis of a flourishing life and community. It is, as John’s Gospel reminds us, the importance of not just having a life, but having it more abundantly. It is very difficult to have the second without the first, as liberation theologians have rightly reminded us.

But this story is also about how these amazing developments in human living have been intimately accompanied by what historians and economists call ‘the paradox of development’ or the often negative and destructive or damaging consequences of social change.  For example, the astonishing improvements in economic growth, so important for nurturing, sustaining and progressing human wellbeing, have also been accompanied by breath-taking increases in inequalities, particularly between nations, but also within them. Such inequalities are symptomatic of that paradox of development, but clearly, as the story will recount, they stretch more widely to include, for example, increasingly destructive environmental damage, but also the historic other ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’ namely hunger, epidemics, migrations and state failures.

Of course, what matters to people, communities and nations cannot be adequately summarized by their improving wealth and wellbeing, because the world of daily life, however central and essential for human survival and betterment, has always been, at least for 100,000 years, also accompanied by the field of religion, so often of such importance for sustaining and enriching human life. Sociologists talk therefore of humans inhabiting ‘multiple realities’, which inevitably and invariably constitute ‘overlapping realities’. So there is now, and always has been deep into human evolution, an acceptance that there is more to human living than the daily struggle for human existence in terms of achieving the necessary basics for human living, of food, clothing and shelter, and now of income, health and education.

So this story is about at least both, about the economics and biodemography of life and about the religious dimensions of life and how they have, and need to, come together in ways that recognize and engage constructively these most profound changes the human has ever experienced in the profoundly material, though never exclusively so, dimensions of life as income, health and subjective wellbeing.

Of course, religions in general, and, in my case, Christianity in particular, have at best, persistently refused to take these matters and these changes seriously. They have rarely prioritized them, as the world of daily life does, and has to, and they have rather and regularly focused on the negative consequences of the paradox of development and almost never on the processes of social development that contribute to the furtherance of human wellbeing. They have pursued the soft option of prophecy for the hard struggle for construction and reconstruction… That is the gulf that this story seeks to address.

What’s the argument of the book?

Its arguments are stated in only two parts.

The first part explores the growing and telling evidence for the wealth, wellbeing and inequalities of nations through the three perspectives of income, health and subjective wellbeing in Chapter 2. Chapter 3 then develops a model from the interaction between secular and Christian (and other religions) understandings of the nature and significance of the religious contributions to engage initially the third perspective of subjective wellbeing. This then recognizes the likely feasibility of the model’s transferability and adaptability to engaging the second (health) and then the first (income) perspectives. Together, they could constitute a model for Christian engagements with economics (and other disciplines concerned, say, with wellbeing studies, for example psychology). This represents the cumulative result of much research in various fields of religious studies. And it constitutes an ongoing field of activity, not least in terms of further testing and elaboration of the proposed model. It represents, probably, the heart of this thesis.

Yet the second part of the argument’s importance lies in the significance of locating this work in a historical context stretching back to the end of the last Ice Age, say around 13,000BCE, and forward to 2000CE. This illustrates how social development has gradually increased over that long period, in both the West and East, but how, highlighted by that context of continuing and evolving change, the developments in the last 200 years, from about 1800CE, represent the most remarkable changes in the whole of human history. This therefore illustrates and confirms the importance of the choice of the two following representative case studies engaging that decisive period from 1700CE to 2000CE, and drawn from the USA and UK, two nations at the forefront of such dramatic change. They illustrate what, how, and why Christianity has contributed to increasing human wellbeing.

I want to end this introduction with a picture from St Mary Magdalene church in Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire (to the left of the text). It’s from the Markham chantry chapel dating from the early sixteenth century. It’s a remarkable survival given the targeted destruction of such chapels commemorating the dead particularly by Edward VI. It depicts a dancing skeleton flourishing a carnation and pointing to the grave, and next to it, a well-dressed young man with his hand on his purse. The pictures convey the warning that death awaits even the most well-to-do and wealth cannot buy him off! Both death and wealth were as much part of the late Middle Ages in Europe and much of the Middle East, as they are now. But with the most profound of differences which these two figures of death and prosperity signify.

Now death comes to most in old age, not as little children, and prosperity is no longer the prerogative of the elite few, but is increasingly the privileged possession of most people on earth. That’s called a better world of daily life for most people on earth.  And that’s a first, maybe the greatest first, in human history. And you can see why it is from that chantry chapel 500 years ago.

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

The book launch will take place at ‘Reclaiming the Public Space: William Temple 70th Anniversary Conference’ on Monday 10 November in Manchester.

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New Fellows Bring New Expertise & Experiences

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We are very pleased to announce the appointment of two new Associate Research Fellows – Dr Eve Poole and Tina Hearn. Eve and Tina join the Foundation’s four existing Fellows, adding a great deal of new knowledge and experiences to our team of expert academics and practitioners.

Eve Poole’s combined experience of studying theology and then business management, led to a faculty role teaching leadership and ethics at Ashridge Business School. She is Chair of Faith in Business at Ridley Hall and was a founding member of the Foundation for Workplace Spirituality. Eve has written extensively on the Church, capitalism and leadership. Eve said, ‘I am a huge fan of the William Temple Foundation, so it is a great delight and honour to be appointed Associate Research Fellow.’

Tina Hearn is a Social Policy Lecturer at the University of Birmingham where she teaches social theory, social policy and policy analysis, with particular interest in the roles of faith in politics and policy making. She has a strong commitment to widening participation and works with young people in schools and colleges across the West Midlands. With a background in social work, Tina has also been involved in community politics, focusing on equalities, racialisation and policy making. Tina said, ‘I am absolutely delighted to be able to work alongside the William Temple Foundation, and I hope that I am able to make a positive and creative contribution to the work of the organisation.’

William Temple Foundation Associate Research Fellows are established, or up and coming, experts working in the Foundation’s key areas. Fellows share in the Foundation’s aims and objectives and help to drive and shape our work and focus.

Tina and Eve will be officially appointed as Associate Research Fellows in October 2014, and will serve initially for a three year term.

 Read more about our Associate Research Fellows >>

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