Monday, May 18, 2009

The Times They Are A-Changing

I'm sitting in my office during my lunch hour thinking. For a while I have been trying to make sense of all that has been happening in the last year or two. Not only has my own life been turned upside down by moving back to work in England after thirty-one wonderful years in the USA, but the world in which we live is experiencing ructions that compare with some of the things I have been going through.

All this has been brewing for a long time, but most of us either didn't notice -- or didn't want to notice -- what was going on. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the Soviet bloc fairly rapidly disintegrated. After that I spent several years going in and out of Russia when that giant of a nation was on its knees, and wondering what it would look like if something similar happened in the West.

Of course, the rats were gnawing at the innards of western culture and life, but under the cover of the prosperity of the last couple of decades it was easy to ignore them, or to pretend that they weren't really there. As the millennium turned things seemed to get more frantic. The new century properly began when planes controlled by fanatics flew into New York skyscrapers, sought to obliterate the Pentagon, and could have done worse. For a moment people stopped, even came to church for a few weeks, but seemed to want to reassess what they had believed reality to be. But then, as the trauma diminished it was back to business as usual -- and shop 'til you drop.

But the gnawing didn't stop, so that the results were finally exposed when the crafty misuse of complex financial instruments began blowing up in our faces in the middle of 2007. I moved to England soon afterward, and as I shaved every morning that Fall I listened to the financial gurus of the City of London talking confidently on the BBC of the minimal impact these American misdemeanors would have in Britain. I remembered thinking then that this all seemed like so much whistling in the dark, then I tried to bury the thought feeling guilty that I had even had it.

Just as we watched helplessly on September 11, 2001, as the Twin Towers collapsed in on themselves, so during the last twelve months we have watched helplessly as the banking system tottered and almost fell, coming within an ace of bringing down the whole economic world as we have known it. Through the grim, bleak winter that has just passed we listened to day after day of gloomy news and agonizing statistics which rubbed salt into already raw wounds. We aren't out of the woods yet, by any means, but things do appear to be more stable since billions and billions have been thrown at the problem.

As Spring progresses there are suggestions that perhaps, maybe, sometime in the future, we will see some of the slender green shoots of recovery. Meanwhile, the statistics continue to be miserable as hundreds of thousands are thrown out of work, but here and there we see intimations that perhaps not all is lost.

However, all of this is happening against a backdrop of ecological gloom and doom. Constantly, we are being told that the way in which we are living is destroying the planet, melting the ice caps, dissolving the coral reefs, and obliterating any future that our children and children's children might enjoy. This diet of planetary despair leads many of us to shrug, mutter "What's the use?" and keep on living as we are living because, however much we care, there are no viable alternatives being presented to us.

It is into this that the latest peculiarly British crisis has been dropped -- Members of Parliament messing with their expenses. I suspect that the House of Commons is a pretty fair reflection of the cross-section of people they represent, a good number of whom would not be averse to a little bit of nest-feathering of their own if given half a chance. But this for many has been the final straw, and it would be surprising if significant parliamentary reforms were not ultimately in store here. The last time politicians were so loathed, in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, it eventually led to the Great Reform Act of 1832, something desperately needed and long overdue.

There is little doubt to me that these gloomy facts are evidence that we have reached the end of a particular chapter in western, possibly even human, history, and that a new chapter might well be in the process of beginning. The trouble is we don't yet know whether it will be better or worse than the one now closing.

I was thinking these thoughts when I read a little piece by Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent of The Times of London. In it she quotes a letter received by The Times in the last few days. It read, 'There is growing evidence that society is starting to embark on a process of desecularisation. The role of religion in renewing civil society, human well-being and the growing identity politics are all significant reasons why it is back on the political agenda....Since religion is going to play a more central role in global politics in the future, we'd better try harder to understand it.'

I don't know whether the author is right, but there is certainly plenty of evidence to suggest that course which our culture and society has been following for so long has run out of steam, and that we are disgusted with ourselves for allowing it to go on for so long. Just perhaps, now is the time when a tired and jaded secular world will look again to the treasures of its religious and spiritual past that until now it has so happily trampled underfoot.

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