Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Three core principles of Radical Hope to bring to the policy table

12 Apr 2024

This extended blog is an extract from a speech given by Professor Chris Baker at events in Durham and Newcastle in March 2024 to mark the launch of the Foundation’s Radical Hope series of public events. The events, attended by leaders of faith institutions, charities and public sector bodies across the North East, were curated by Dr Val Barron, one of our Research Fellows who is pioneering strategic and partnership-based approaches to deal with severe structural problems of poverty and lack of flourishing in the region.

This blog also builds on one written on the same theme by our Chair of Trustees Professor Simon Lee last year in respect to Higher Education. It also expands, in its later references to ‘assemblages’ and ‘pop-up spaces of hope and radical solidarity’, on the many ideas and practices developed in his PhD thesis by Dr Matthew Barber-Rowell entitled, Curating Spaces of Hope: Towards a Liminal, Rhizomatic and Productive Paradigm of Faith Based Organisations (FBOs), who is himself a pioneer of understanding how faith-based organisations are engaged in creating and curating such spaces using assemblage theory. Dr Barber-Rowell will be sharing his latest thinking and practice at our next Radical Hope in a Time of Election event at Liverpool Hope University on the 26th April from his forthcoming book with SCM Press, Curating Spaces of Hope: a political theology of leadership for uncertain times. 

Radical Hope

In this election year of 2024, we at the Foundation are asking the question: If what we need to rediscover for society is a sense of radical hope, then what might that look like? And how might we feed this hope into the policy areas that are already shaping the forthcoming election debates?

In short, how do we define and locate a sense of radical hope in what feels for many an era of deep anxiety and uncertainty about the future? 

For me Radical Hope embraces three dimensions

  1. Radical rootedness – rooted in ontologies

The word radical is derived from its Latin etymology of radix, meaning roots. For me, hope is anchored in deep roots that are attached to existential values and beliefs which are clearly both religious and philosophical. They invite us to excavate into the very depths of what we think is the basis of our shared human experience and the essence of life itself. 

In this sense hope is ontologically rooted. This ontological connection to political thought can allow a long-term perspective and therefore more resilient viewpoint to emerge as an antidote to short-term and reactive thinking. The German philosopher and social theorist Jurgen Habermas, who is fearful for the secular legacy of the liberal democratic nation state, uses a rare word ‘autochthonous’ (or self-originating and preceding subsequent cultures) to describe what he defines as the ‘pre-political’ power of religious and philosophical ideas and wisdom. This ability to be self-originating provides a proper ethical and intellectual balance to the ravages of a deracinated capitalism, and its attempts to co-opt important ideas for narrow political gain or exploitation.

  1. From radical ontologies to radical but pragmatic alternatives

Which leads me to the second dimension of the word radical which is associated with ideas of ‘alternative’ or ‘counter hegemonic’. It refers to the ability, based on our deep-rooted beliefs and values, to call out the toxic assumptions and practices of despotic and authoritarian governments and articulate a more just and humane vision of a shared social life. However, a common critique of what are often religiously-based calls for alternatives is that they are simply that – i.e. ‘calls’ that merely tend towards the grandiose and rhetorical. What is also required therefore are a series of well-thought through and credible broad policy ideas that are capable of not only articulating a new ontological basis for change and transformation, but also providing a road map for the implementation of that transformation.

As we know, William Temple, in his book Christianity and Social Order, published in 1942, not only articulated an alternative vision for the future of British Society that broke profoundly with the Victorian and Edwardian traditions of laissez-faire economics. He also provided, through his use of middle axioms, broad policy ideas that would help ensure this vision was enacted as actual legislation. These included the right to access lifelong education and decent housing, through to the importance of belonging to what he called ‘intermediate groupings’ that lie beyond the power of the State and the Market. So radical hope for me is a forward-facing political and policy agenda that reaches out across difference and generates a sense of joyful expectation that things can and will be different. However, the truly radical nature of that hope is only fully realised when it comes with ‘data-backed solutions’ so that real structural change has a realistic chance of being implemented, rather than just simply protested.

  1. Radical Solidarities

I want to go back to Temple’s ideas of intermediate groupings and contextualise them a bit. A term that I am currently working with – and which I hope is not too obscure – is the idea of creating – or perhaps better curating – assemblages of radical solidarity

‘Assemblages’ is a bit of post-structuralist theory which I think captures the current zeitgeist well. It implies that things are constantly in flux, constantly changing – nothing is stable, nothing is fixed. Any event – political, cultural, spiritual, natural -is made up of whatever is bringing to bear on that event at that time – things assemble, disassemble and then reassemble according to the way that various actors come together and influence one another. 

Another term that is used in this regard – for understanding that everything is in flux and in the process of becoming – is derived from the work of French political philosopher Gilles Deleuze who talked about things being de-territorialised (i.e. being evicted from the assemblage or losing power and influence) but then also being re-territorialised – or gaining traction and influence in a new assemblage.

Now if we apply this thinking or imagery to two issues (or assemblages) that I think lie at the heart of the debate we are having today – namely the welfare state and church/faith institutions – where does that take us? The current model of the comprehensive and universal welfare that Willam Temple and William Beveridge – both lifelong friends and ‘Balliol men’ – imagined and bequeathed, was already being de-territorialised within 20 years of its origins – especially in health care. The rigid, bureaucratic ‘one-size-fits-all’ Fordist mass production framework for the NHS was already struggling to cope with social changes and advances in medicine, as well as the growing complexity of modern disease. 

Of course, since the late 70s the notion of well-invested and comprehensive public services free at the point of delivery through a national insurance scheme has been further de-territorialised politically and ideologically through a belief in de-regulation and the unfettered operation of the free market. 

However, since the financial crash of 2008 and the pandemic, belief in the market as a tool of delivering welfare has itself perhaps been somewhat de-territorialised, allowing for a renewed appreciation of some of the principles behind a comprehensive and universal welfare safety net.

But the big question is ‘How best to deliver a much fairer and more just system for human flourishing?’

And then let’s look at the role of faith and belief in our society. A simplistic narrative – although also clearly observable – is that institutional Christianity is the process of rapidly de-territorialised from British public life. Is the Church of England, or the Methodist church or the URC or the Catholic church – like the Welfare state – too centralised, too bureaucratic, too one-size-fits-all to meet the social, cultural and technological innovations of our age?

But I firmly belief that faith (rather than religion perhaps) is also being re-territorialised for a depressed and anxious world in new and exciting ways: through the more confident participation of other faiths in British public life; through the spiritually aligned and values-driven living of the non-religious; and the evolution of Christian witness and mission in our society, which is strongest I believe, when the church dares to engage in confident and non-hubristic ways in public leadership and partnership based on a manifesto of radical hope. 

Is it possible perhaps to imagine the place and impact of Christian faith being re-territorialised by the current trajectories in social change and the deep desire for political, spiritual and social renewal?

So, to return to the language of radical solidarity. 

I didn’t come across this concept at a theological gathering or mission rally, but at a recent conference for urban sociologists and urban historians in Antwerp. They were interested in the trajectory of decline (what we might call the de-territorialisation) of welfare in European societies and the way that notions of human solidarity predicated on classic modern sociology have proved fragile in the current context. For example; Durkheim’s ideas of collective conscience that help you feel as though you are morally integrated into a community of norms and values, De Tocqueville on civil society, Ulrich Beck’s idea of reflexive individuals, Robert Putman’s ideas of social capital, Marx and the unity of the working class in the shared struggle against the bourgeoisie, living with strangers in the public space as theorised by the Chicago school. 

As sociologists they are interested in any signs of social solidarity reforming itself in the light of the existential challenges facing humankind. What they are observing is a desire for reconnection and a sense of ‘doing something about something’, but in ways that don’t fit institutional models or grand theories, but are more like pop-up spaces of hope and radical solidarity. There are however a series of common features which they observe. 

  • First, these pop-up spaces of radical solidarity are being curated by faith groups and are centred on relational care of migrants and those facing food poverty and mental health projects – in general servicing groups who are insufficiently supported by established welfare organisations.
  • These spaces are entrepreneurial and innovative – reclaiming perhaps the language of the market for pro-social and pro-justice aims.
  • These spaces are adept at introducing new social actors into the welfare mix but also are good at establishing new points of contact with established welfare systems and other charitable initiatives.

According to these sociologists, these faith-inspired pop-up spaces or assemblages steer the welfare and human flourishing debate towards the following outcomes.

  • They offer what they call ‘proximity and presence’ with vulnerable groups as a critique of the ‘distanced approach’ of many professional welfare services. 
  • They offer ‘debordered’ or ‘networked forms’ of solidarity.
  • They possess the power to articulate moral intuitions with regard to marginalised urban groups and can contest technical and instrumental language.

The sociologists do however point out the issue of upscaling these practices of innovation. For example, there can be a lack of follow-up of clients or effective monitoring of the quality of the support offered by these assemblages, and indeed a lack of investment in these services by secular providers. At the moment there are limitations being placed on the growth of these of faith-based social enterprises that need to be addressed

So to conclude, the type of radical political hope our broken politics and economic requires is expressed in three ways. Digging deep by being radically rooted in deep ontologies of life and being; offering radically pragmatic policy solutions by curating local and national conversations about the sort of society we want to build (and the toolkits we need to develop them); developing spaces or assemblages of radical solidarity and working to out scale them in partnership with others. 

Being radically rooted, offering radical alternatives, practicing radical solidarity.

Three critical questions emerge for me from this analysis. 

  • How is faith being re-territorialised in the face of these injustices and shifts?
  • How does institutional religion connect to these yearnings for justice and belonging?
  • How do we upscale the innovation and entrepreneurialism that comes from faith-based social action?
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