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Regaining Compassion for Humanity and Nature by L. Charles Birch

Charles Birch is a biologist specializing in genetics, and resides in Australia. He is joint winner of the 1990 International Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.. His teaching career includes Oxford, Columbia and the Universities of Chicago and Minnesota, as well as visiting professor of genetics at the University of California at Berkeley and professor of biology at the University of Sydney. Professor Birch has blazed new paths into the relationships between science and faith. Published originally by New South Wales University Press, New South Wales University press, 1993. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Chapter 4: Order and Change

The art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order. Life refuses to be embalmed alive. The more prolonged the halt in some unrelieved system of order, the greater the crash of the dead society.
A. N. Whitehead (1978, p. 339)

The crisis of our age is undoubtedly due primarily to the fact that requirements of a technical civilization have outrun the limited order which national communities have achieved, while the resources of our civilization have not been adequate for the creation of political instruments of order wide enough to meet these requirements.
Reinhold Niebuhr (1944, p. 153)

The global system will change during the next forty years, because it will be physically forced to change. But if humanity waits until it is physically compelled to change, its options will be few indeed. None of them will be attractive. If it changes before it has to change, while it can still choose to change, it will not avoid suffering and crises, but it can be drawn through them by a realistic hope for a better world.
Herman B. Daly & John B. Cobb. (1989, p. 21)

Sometimes change to established order forces itself upon society and that society then struggles to find a new sort of order. That happened in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s. East European expert Timothy Garton Ash paid a visit to Prague in the mid-80s to a lonesome student of philosophy, an oppositionist reduced by the Husak regime to making his living by stoking the furnace boiler in the basement of the Ministry of Culture. The room in the basement in which Garton Ash was received contained, among the usual bric-a-brac consigned to such premises, a discarded piano. After a two-hour discussion about the future the student of philosophy proceeded to play the piano. He was not really a good player, but his playing had an electric quality, a sort of defiant ferocity. Garton Ash reported that the music seemed to leap out of the basement skylight, like an escaping genie, forced its way up through the pouring rain, up and up high above the sodden city, above the smoke from the boiler’s chimney. It seemed to form a salute V for victory before it faded away (Garton Ash 1990).

The student had premonitions of impending change in a situation that was so bad he couldn’t believe it could continue for ever. About the same time in 1984 Vaclav Havel attributed to the Czechoslovakian opposition group, the Chartists, the ‘knowledge’ of ‘how suddenly a society that seemed atomized, apathetic, and broken can be transformed into an articulate, united civil society. How private opinion can become public opinion. How a nation can stand on its feet again.’ They too had a premonition of what was to happen. There could have scarcely have been a better description of the changes that were to take place in that country in the final weeks of 1989.

Sooner or later it seems that oppressed peoples strike out for freedom. This happened during the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, which for seven decades had been a tightly regimented society. There is a Russian story about a sultan who decided to punish one of his wives for some misdeed and ordered her sealed up, with her son, in a barrel. The sultan set them afloat at sea to perish. After several days the son said to the mother, ‘I can’t bear being so cramped, I want to stretch out’. ‘You can’t,’ she responded, you’ll push out the bottom, and we’ll drown’. Some days later, the son protested again, ‘I long for room’. ‘For God’s sake don’t do it’, the mother said ‘we’ll drown’. The son then said, ‘So be it, I must stretch out, just this once’. He got his moment of freedom, and perished. The story has been applied to the condition of the Russian people. They were, sooner or later, bound to strike out of their oppressive order for freedom, no matter what came after.

The two hardest tasks of all for humanity seem to be the international political and economic one of managing the world and that of reforming religion. In this chapter I have therefore chosen these two areas in which to explore the relation of order to change.

The Economic Order and Change

In the quotation at the head of this chapter, Daly and Cobb write of the impending change to the present global order necessitated by the deteriorating environment resulting from the dominant economic and political order. They point to the necessity to change before it literally has to come. In both this case and in Eastern Europe, change is coming as a consequence of the realistic hope of a minority for a better world.

Assuming the will of the minority in any particular situation is right and that of the majority wrong, it may still be the duty of the minority to act with the majority, while retaining the freedom to persuade the majority of its point of view. The reason for this is that the principle of order has a greater value than the immediate realization of the will of the minority. In this situation the minority has the opportunity to be a leaven.

Much of this chapter is about the necessity for change in the economic order and in the political order to the extent to which the political order takes its cues from traditional thinking in economics. Many political decisions are made on the advice of economists. Illustrating the influence of economists, Lord Keynes wrote: ‘The ideas of economics and political philosophy, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else’ (quoted by Ehrlich, Ehrlich & Holdren 1977, p. 843). The director of the United Nations Environmental Program reported in 1991 that ‘the global economy continued to be one of the major driving forces behind environmental degradation’. Whether it is the sprawl of deserts or the loss of tropical forests as the world’s poor cut trees for firewood and clear land for agriculture, or the ineluctable warming of the planet as vehicles and factories deposit millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, ‘economic pressures lie behind them all’ (Tolba 1991, p. 10).

In recent years ecologists have turned their attention to the economy as one of the major influences determining the fate of the earth. The growth of the economy has meant the exponential increase of inputs of raw materials from the environment and outputs of waste into the environment. The charge against economists is that they have ignored the effects of this on the environment. Instead they have encouraged the maximization of both use of raw materials and production of pollutants. The world requires that both should be kept to a minimum, sufficient to meet human needs.

Daly and Cobb (1989) have examined the charge and find economics guilty. They point out that the key assumption behind traditional economic theory is its understanding of the nature of the human person. Its proposition is that individuals act so as to optimize their own interests. Economists typically identify the pursuit of private gain as rational and imply that other sorts of behavior are not rational. These other sorts of behavior include regard for others and actions directed to the public good.

Economists have taught that checks on self-interest are both unnecessary and harmful. It is through self-interested behavior that all benefit the most. The self-interest includes the assumption that the wants of human beings are insatiable. The luxuries of this generation should become the necessities of the next. The satisfied ‘economic man’ is the one who procures an unlimited supply of commodities.

What happens to other people is of no importance in this concept of the human. Indeed, economic theory ignores everything to which a monetary value cannot be assigned. So the gifts of nature are of no importance, nor is the morale of the community of which the individual is a part. The operation of self-interest is accomplished through the market. This is the doctrine of consumer sovereignty. Emerson already said ‘things are in the saddle and ride mankind’ Walter Bagehot, in his Economic Studies, wrote of David Ricardo, one of the founding fathers of economics: ‘He thought he was considering actual human nature in its actual circumstances, when he was considering a fictitious nature in fictitious circumstances’ (quoted in Daly & Cobb 1989, p. 36).

This understanding of human nature is profoundly erroneous and is diametrically opposed to the understanding of human nature proposed in Chapters 1 and 2. There the emphasis is on concern for others as an ethical ideal that is fulfilling for the individual. Furthermore, I argued in Chapter 3 the necessity to develop strategies to reduce demand rather than strategies to increase consumption.

Concern for others should still leave room for legitimate self-interest as a motivating force in life. A critical issue in rethinking economics is the relation between self-interest and social justice. As a former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple said: ‘The art of government in fact is the art of so ordering life that self-interest prompts what justice demands’. John Maynard Keynes in 1926 put the issue this way: ‘The political problem of mankind is to combine three things: economic efficiency, social justice, and individual liberty’. In quoting this statement Roger Shinn adds that today we might add a fourth, ecological viability (Shinn 1991, p. 722).

In the context of economic development, Paul Ekins (1986) suggests five components of human well-being: being, doing, having, relating and surviving (p. 149):

Being is concerned with the physical and mental state of the person.

Doing has to do with activities in all spheres of leisure and employment.

Having has to do with the person’s access to materials to satisfy basic needs such as food, housing, clothing, clean air and water.

Relating is about the relationships the person has with others in the community. These are the ‘internal relations’ discussed in Chapters 1 and 6.

Surviving is concerned with freedom from threats to security from other individuals, groups or the state.

The component relating is the primary concern of this chapter. It is also the primary concern of Daly and Cobb (1989), who seek to replace the radically individualistic picture of the economic human with an image of the human as a ‘person-in-community’.

The basic idea of ‘person-in-community’ is that human beings are constituted by their relationships. Our dependence upon others is not simply for goods and services. Our sense of well-being and fulfillment has spiritual components such as our innermost relationships with others, with nature and with God. In the real world the self-contained individual does not exist. Our relationships define our identities as persons. We are members one of another.

Much so-called development in the Third World has resulted in villages being replaced by agribusiness and factories, with villagers driven to slums in cities such as Calcutta and Sao Paulo. The overall economic effect maybe an increase in production, but at the enormous cost of breaking up the community and relationships dependent upon that community. The application of traditional economic theory weakens existing patterns of social relationships. But these never did enter the assessment of the effects of economic development in the first place. They are not part of the economic equation.

The development of the economy since the Industrial Revolution has, without question, resulted in the provision of more goods and services. The standard of living of many people has risen rapidly. But we are now finding that the standard of living is not a sufficient index of progress. What matters is the quality of life of the inhabitants of the Earth. There is much evidence that the quality of life of many people has fallen in recent decades and is still falling as a result of the economy.

We need a new index of the state of health of the people and the health of the environment. The standard index of Gross National Product (GNP) is a very poor indicator of well-being. It does not take account of the depletion of resources or the pollution of the environment. Indeed, money spent on cleaning up pollution adds to the GNP. This is why the state of Alaska’s gross product rose dramatically in the year of the Exxon Valdez oil spill! Some analysts actually suggest that rising GNP in industrial countries now means mainly rising costs of pollution, environmental degradation and human suffering (Robertson 1978a). Nor does GNP register the value of work in the informal economy such as household labor (Eckersley 1992). We need better tools for measuring development and human wellbeing. Aware of this need, Lawrence Summers, chief economist of the World Bank, remarked: ‘I would suggest that too often we, as development economists, operate in a kind of statistical Stone Age’ (Anon 1991, p. 18).

Daly and Cobb (1989, pp. 401 et seq) have devised an index of sustainable economic welfare (ISEW) as a measure of the well-being of humans and the environment. This index has twenty-three components that include equality in the distribution of income, services such as highways, household labor, expenditure on health and education, cost of commuting, cost of pollution, loss of farm lands, depletion of non-renewable resources and long-term environmental damage.

In the USA the GNP which is used as a measure of economic well-being increased steadily since the Second World War On the other hand the ISEW increased very slowly until about 1975 when it began to decline and has done so ever since. Despite the increase in GNP the individual welfare of the citizens has fallen by 12 per cent over these years (Brown 1991, p. 10).

Traditional economics has been tied to the idea that the creation of wealth by industry and commerce is necessary before it can be spent on services that enhance human well-being. I asked a thoughtful Dutch economist if we could have increased services for human well-being without increased production of goods from factories and the like. She wisely replied that a society can have what it chooses in this respect. It is not necessary to build and sell more motor cars in order to be able to afford more schools and teachers. It is not necessary to make and sell more cigarettes and sweets in order to be able to afford more doctors and dentists. There is no law of nature that compels us to make more and more things, including many that are harmful and useless, before we can attend to the needs of people.

The Principle of ‘Person in Community’

Daly and Cobb (1989) urge that when economics rethinks its theory of the human person it needs to replace its emphasis on the self-seeking individual, which results in destruction of the community with one that sees the ‘person in community’, where other-regarding actions are paramount. They quote Victor Furkiss who describes our situation in graphic terms as follows:

Present-day society is locked into four positive feedback loops which need to be broken: economic growth which feeds on itself, population growth which feeds on itself, technological change which feeds on itself, and a pattern of income inequality which seems to be self-sustaining and which tends to spur growth in the other three areas. Ecological humanity must create an economy in which economic and population growth is halted, technology is controlled, and gross inequalities of income are done away with. (p. 21)

Daly and Cobb add a fifth positive feedback, the arms race which also feeds on itself. Economics for the common good calls for the breaking of these feedback loops.

The statement of the Australian Roman Catholic Bishops on wealth in Australia asserts the principle that a healthy society is not made up of a collection of selfish individuals, each struggling solely for his or her own interests. It is rather a sharing community (Bishops Draft Statement 1992). Their Statement makes a strong contrast with the speech of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland when she told them there was no such thing as ‘society’, only individuals, families and government. She stated in unambiguous terms the doctrine that wealth is created by maximizing the freedom of individuals to exploit economic opportunities.

Th preserve the ‘person in community’ Daly and Cobb (1989, p. 165) favor development that takes the small group, such as the village, rather than the individual or the nation as the unit of development. So does Paul Ekins in his book The Living Economy (1986). He points out that whenever a city or enterprise grows beyond a critical size, the people involved become, at best, ‘efficient objects’ at the expense of losing their possibilities as ‘creative subjects’.

The efficiency of a city or enterprise should not be measured simply in terms of its economic productivity, but also, and more importantly, in terms of its ability to contribute to the satisfaction of basic human needs of those affected by the city or enterprise. Ekins adds that implementation of this principle may lead to the conclusion that it may be better to strive for the coexistence of several styles of development in different regions of one country, instead of insisting on one national style which may have proved efficient for one region but at the expense of other regions. National styles of development are generally conceived for the purpose of advancing national unity. But unity does not mean uniformity (Ekins 1986, p. 51).

Daly and Cobb (1989) give examples in Sri Lanka where the village asks of itself what are its basic needs and how can they be better met. The villagers themselves make the decision and so determine their own fate. This usually results in an increase in their productive capacities. It may involve a peasant willing to have a bore put down on his farm provided the water can be pumped to surrounding properties. The initial cost may be covered from a bank loan. Wooden ploughs may be replaced in the whole village by metal ones. Not only is production increased but community is strengthened (Daly & Cobb 1989, p. 165).

The state of Kerala in India provides a model of development for the benefit of the poor under democratic and decentralized rule. Peasants and laborers are exceptionally well organized. Their grassroots organizations have enabled the poor to direct their own development by working together as communities. Kerala’s villages have access to basic health care, education and transportation unknown elsewhere in India. A comprehensive program of land-reform, begun in 1969, gave 1.5 million tenants and laborers rights to the land they tilled and to their homes and gardens. Kerala’s adult literacy rate is about twice that of the national average and its people live eleven years longer than the Indian average. The infant death rate is one-third of the Indian average.

The ingredients of Kerala’s success have much to do with a strong sense of community which has consolidated village communities. Local control over common resources helps to break the cycle of economic and ecological degradation. Credit helps the poor to get access to livestock and tools. Community-based healthcare protects people from debilitating diseases. Family planning gives women control over their fertility, such that the birthrate is one-third lower than the Indian average (Durning 1989). According to Durning the ingredients of Kerala’s success are common to all effective efforts to dismantle the poverty trap any-where in the world.

The promotion of community within an industry or trade not only enhances a sense of worth among the individuals involved but also promotes productivity. Styles of management in factories that give workers greater autonomy, decision-making powers and a sense of belonging have been shown to increase productivity in case after case. Many experiments with worker participation in North America and Europe have been initiated in response to the demands of labor unions for more control over the introduction of new technology.

Japanese companies are well known for giving workers a major voice in the organization of tasks and the solution of problems of production. Many companies in the US have introduced groups in which employees discuss ways to improve production. Hewlett-Packard, a giant US office equipment and computer firm, had five hundred such groups meeting regularly by mid-1981 (Newland 1982). While the objective of these firms is to increase production, they do so by enhancing community and creativity of employees on the job.

In 1972 the construction industry in St. Louis, beset by many damaging problems, formed an organization called PRIDE. Before PRIDE came on the scene, construction projects were completed behind schedule and above original estimates of cost. A major reason for these problems was that work would stop whenever a jurisdictional dispute arose. Since PRIDE came into existence these disputes are handled without stopping work and work rules are updated as technology changes. As a consequence projects are completed on time and without overruns of cost (Daly & Cobb 1989, p. 183).

The dominant patterns of economic development throughout the world have been quite the reverse of the development of the person in community. They have systematically destroyed existing traditional communities, especially in rural areas. Urban industrial development has been bought at the expense of rural communities.

Daly and Cobb (1989, p. 210) and Eckersley (1992) consider that the theme of individualism versus community emerges nowhere more clearly than in the issue of free trade. The essence of free trade is that governments Should not interfere with the price mechanism, which is the so- called ‘invisible hand’ which is said to ensure that the self-seeking behavior of firms and individuals will give rise to the most efficient allocation of resources.

The dogma that claims that markets and money can do everything better than governments and the law is known as ‘economic rationalism’. Michael Pusey argues that the central policy departments of the Australian Federal government of the 1980s and 1990s have been dominated by economists who think like this. Further, he says, it doesn’t work (Pusey 1991).

Eckersley (1992) lists some ten criticisms of the way the free market operates. This is a complex issue which we need not pursue here except for the criticism that free trade operates against community. Daly and Cobb (1989), as well as Eckersley, argue against free trade as it exists in the world today between national economies, because at present free trade destroys existing national and sub-national communities in the name of a mythical world community. Yet often the people in that community are not benefited. The big players in free trade have effectively freed themselves from most community obligations, nationally, sub-nationally and internationally, including obligations to the environment. Preston (1991), who values the economic efficiency of the market, nevertheless acknowledges that left to itself the market leads to great inequalities of wealth and is unable to cope with environmental degradation such as is caused by industrial pollution.

Despite their quite trenchant criticisms of the free market, Daly and Cobb (1989) and Preston (1991) are not against the market as such, provided its decision-making is decentralized and that it operates enterprises on a human scale. Daly and Cobb say there is plenty of room to complain about monopoly profits, but that is a complaint against monopoly, not against profits per se: ‘If one dislikes bureaucratic decision making then one must accept the market and the profit motive, if not as a positive good then as the lesser of two evils . . . We have no hesitation in opting for the market as the basic institution of resource allocation’ (p. 48). But as they operate at present, both the free market and the state fail miserably in maintaining community on a human scale and with a human face. There is good reason to argue for ‘person-in-community’ on a more local scale, where also the concept of self-reliance is practiced as far as possible.

The Principle of Self-Reliance

In addition to the principle of ‘person-in-community’, a second value an alternative economics seeks to promote is self-reliance. Self-reliance does not necessarily mean self-sufficiency, though it might in some situations. Rather it means the revitalizing of capabilities and resources through individual effort. It means that what can be produced at the local level should be produced at that level. The same principle holds at the regional and national levels. There will probably always be goods and services that cannot be produced locally, regionally or nationally. Self-reliance then turns into a process of interdependence among equal partners, as contrasted with blind competition (Ekins 1986 pp. 52, 97 et seq.).

The idea of a nationally self-sufficient economy is in principle quite logical. It would involve setting limits to the amount of product a nation needs and then striving to reduce the amount of work required to produce that product. As Ehrlich, Ehrlich and Holdren (1977, p. 846) point out, such an approach is against the conventional wisdom of economic theory. Yet it makes much more sense in a world of finite resources.

The concept of self-reliance is the antithesis of much of the thinking behind the growth economy. The national and international division of labor are part of the backbone of traditional economics. This economy has resulted in overspecialization, fragmentation and debilitating dependencies of some countries on others.

The Ecological Dilemma Posed by Traditional Economics

The dilemma created by traditional economics in its sup-port of the growth -- driven economy in the ecological system of the world that does not grow is discussed in Chapter 3. The dilemma leads traditional economists to ignore the limits to growth and the environmental devastation that unlimited growth causes. Somehow a new ecological -- economic paradigm must be constructed that unites nature’s housekeeping (ecology) and society’s housekeeping (economics) with the priority of keeping nature’s house in order (Ehrlich 1989). Probably the most significant contribution of the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development published as Our Common Future (WCED 1987), is the proposition that improvements in material well-being need not come at the expense of the degradation of the environment. Economics and ecology can, and must, work together.

Australian economist and ecological thinker H. C. Coombs (1990) has said: ‘There is nothing divinely ordained about the economic system: it is the product of human ingenuity, effort and capacity to organize and, therefore, can be properly questioned, criticized and, if a better alternative exist, rejected’ (p. 143). Coombs has himself been instrumental in seeking ways of matching ecological and economic realities, as have the other thinkers in economics referred to in this chapter.

Some Necessary Changes in Direction to the Economic Order

On the basis of this discussion we can now list some of the changes of direction needed in the economic order of rich countries as follows:

• from growth in material goods to growth in human well-being.

• from increasing dependence on large organizations to increasing self-reliance.

• from increasing specialization to increasing self-sufficiency.

• from polarization of the roles of the sexes to a new balance between them.

• from increasing urbanization to a more dispersed pattern of habitation.

• from increasing centralization to more decentralization of power.

• from increasing dependence on technologies that pollute the environment, waste resources and dominate the people who work with them, to increasing emphasis on technologies appropriate to the environment and the needs of people.

• from increasing production of things to increasing production of services for human well-being.

All these items are part and parcel of appropriate development in poor countries as well, with the addition that they still need to produce more things for food, housing, clothing and the other physical necessities of life. Further, these things should be produced to fulfill local needs rather than to provide yet more things to the rich world. One of the tragedies of the present economic order between nations is that the flow of goods is greater from the poor to the rich countries than the other way around.

In a renewed economic order James Robertson sees the international trading and financial systems operated by the multinational companies, international banks and international governmental agencies as still important, but as playing a relatively smaller part than they do today. Managing the superstructure will become relatively less important than activity to meet one’s own needs close to Where they arise. These international organizations may ask of themselves: ‘what can we do to help people to become more self-reliant in their economic activity and less dependent upon us and the services we provide?’ (Robertson 1978b)

How Brave a New World?

The advancement of the human lot has never come on the wings of inevitability. It has always depended upon human choice, that is to say on individual decisions and on public policy. The modern industrial world and the would-be industrial world have made their choices in terms of a human future dependent upon increased economic growth in material goods, despite the warning of ecologists. They have made another choice in that one in every two scientists and technologists is employed in perfecting the instruments of war. This tragic choice brands scientists and technologists as among the most destructive people on earth today. That is one reason for the public disenchantment of science, ‘lest’, in the words of Winston Churchill ‘the stone age return on the gleaming wings of science’.

But there is no scientific or technological imperative that determines things must remain that way. Despite appearances, we are not in the grip of a technological determinism that closes our options for ever. A new way is possible. But that will depend upon a new sort of science and technology and a new sort of human commitment. Such a venture is full of risks. A critical question is how brave can we be as we begin to design a new sort of world order and how brave can we be in casting off our religious and other prejudices that belong to another age in order to remold them in the service of a new world?

Various attitudes to the unknown are captured in the century-old story of the maiden and the tiger. Three men were given the option of opening one of two doors. Behind one there was a hungry tiger. Behind the other was a maiden.

The first man who tried, refused to take the chance. He lived safely and died chaste.

The second man hired a risk-assessment consultant. He collected all the available data on maidens and tigers. He brought in sophisticated technology to listen for growling and to detect the faintest whiff of perfume. He completed checklists. He developed a utility function and assessed his risk-averseness. Finally, sensing that in a few more years he would be in no condition to enjoy the maiden’s company anyway, he opened the optimum door. And was eaten by a ‘low-probability’ tiger.

The third man took a course in tiger-taming. He opened a door at random and was eaten by the maiden.

To interpret the story: we respond to the unknown by trying to retreat from it, by trying to comprehend it or by trying to control it.

To retreat from the future is the Arcadian approach. It is directed backwards to a mythical golden age, to a state of innocence in a pastoral world where peace of mind is not threatened, intellectual aspiration is not called for and virtue is not at risk. Arcadia is a world without strife, without ambition and without material accomplishments. This approach is evident in longings for a return to a simpler risk-free life that never was. But a world without science and technology is not a possible choice for us. Five billion or more people cannot survive without some form of science and technology. We can choose between technologies, but apart from that there is no option open to us.

To attempt to comprehend the future these days means a risk/benefit analysis. Measure the probabilities and trade-offs, calculate the social risk/benefit ratio and then the common good will be defined. But it isn’t. A risk/benefit analysis was made of a project to remove crossing lights in front of a home for elderly people. The analysis resulted in the crossing lights being removed. What value are old people in a retirement home to the economy?

The choice of methods of risk-assessment are themselves biased by underlying cultural assumptions or those of the analyst. The assessment and management of risk to workers in industry in the US is estimated to cost about $300 billion a year. That is about 10 per cent of the GNP. The underlying question is how to determine how much to Spend? How safe is safe enough? And we have to remember that we can always be eaten by a low-probability tiger.

To attempt to control the future is the approach of the tiger-tamer. It could be said to be represented by utopian visions that began to be taken seriously from the seventeenth century onwards. One of the writers at the time whose name was Foigny, like Francis Bacon, placed his imaginary utopia on an island in the southern seas which he called Terra Australe. Its inhabitants he called Australians! In utopia, humans create the world anew and improve it through their own exertions. They begin as tenants or lodgers in the world and end up as landlords. And as the environment improves from their labors, so, it is alleged, will the inhabitants. Human beings in utopia look forward, never backward and seldom upward.

The utopian approach is the dominant tradition of professional engineers, scientists and technologists. It serves well up to a point. But as some engineers have been the first to point out, it has met its match and more in the complex unmanageable world it is called upon to address. There is, despite its benefits, one long-recognized weakness in utopian speculation -- the inadequacies of human beings and therefore the unlikelihood that they can live up to their ambitions in utopia. Utopias that have managed to get to the experimental stage have collapsed. It is for this reason that utopian thinking led some of its modern promoters, such as Arthur Koestler and Carl Sagan, to propose ways of ‘improving’ human beings by biological manipulation such as surgical removal of certain centers in the brain or by genetic engineering to remove ‘bad’ genes.

The utopian vision leads to a paradox. We find ourselves with a technical ability to be creators of a material paradise without parallel in all history. We also find ourselves, equally without parallel in history, with a technical capacity to destroy that paradise. Caught in the middle we face a spiritual perplexity without parallel in all history. Utopian man who trained himself to become a tiger-tamer finds himself confronted with a carnivorous lady. Why?

The maiden the young man thought was behind the door is quite different from what he anticipated. The unknown is not a wrinkle to be ironed out of the social fabric. We not only face the inadequacy of human nature but, in addition, as knowledge grows so does the unknown and our ability to control it.

There is a law that says, as knowledge increases arithmetically ignorance increases geometrically. As our knowledge of nuclear power, for example, increased and we built more and more nuclear power plants, we discovered how little we really knew about the new world of technology we ushered ourselves into, with risks previously unknown and unanticipated.

There is an alternative to these three approaches to the future. It accepts the inevitability of incomplete knowledge. It accepts the challenge of the surprising world around us. It accepts the imperfections of human beings. The fundamental question is not how to calculate, control or even reduce risk, important as they are in many situations. It is how to increase our risk-taking abilities. How can we attain the intellectual and moral maturity to live fully and safely in a complex world? How brave is our world to be?

Every creative step forward in civilization has involved an increase in risk-taking. Whitehead (1926) believed the major advances of civilization are processes that all but wreck the societies in which they occur: ‘It is the business of the future to be dangerous’ (p. 259). Advances in civilization were never throwbacks to some garden of Eden with a restoration of primitive innocence. They have always brought a maturer fulfillment of life, but with a cost. The price paid for Neolithic culture was enormous, so too was the cost of the Agricultural Revolution and urbanization, and later the Industrial Revolution with its dark satanic mills. Every new liberation in technology, politics, education and sex produces as well new forms of enslavement. The new brings creative possibilities that did not exist before and with them new possibilities of evil and suffering.

The prosperous middle classes in Britain who ruled the nineteenth century placed an excessive value upon a placid existence. They refused to face the necessities for social reform imposed by the new industrial system and later they refused to face the necessity for intellectual reform imposed by the new knowledge. In the immediate future there will be less security than in the immediate past, and less stability. We live in exciting times. There is, of course, a degree of instability which is so great as to be incompatible with civilization. Yet, on the whole, great ages of the past have been unstable ones.

The question for us is whether we have the capacity for change to enable us to live fully in a risky future? The ecologically sustainable and just society of the future will be a changed society full of risks. But the risks taken won’t be the sort of foolhardy ones of the present that could, if continued, lead to our extinction. The fate of the dinosaurs was their inability to adjust to a changed environment. That could be our fate also.

If we were able to put ourselves back at the edge of history, say at the brink of the Industrial Revolution, how would we with hindsight have steered its course? Would we have feared the risks involved in forging ahead? How could we have accepted the challenge and taken the increased risks while at the same time refusing to accept the enormous cost that history claimed? Perhaps we would have decided to skip some of it, as was suggested in a cartoon depicting a group of tribesmen who were consulting the future together: the caption read, ‘So by a vote of 8 to 2 we have decided to skip the Industrial Revolution and go right into the electronic age’. It is a nice utopian idea but not a possible one. Each age with its promises and risks becomes a preparation for the one that follows. There are probably few short-cuts in civilization, just as there are few in growing up.

Religion and Change

Although our age is often described as a secular one, nevertheless religion remains a potent force for good and for evil. Many, if not most, of the armed conflicts in the world today pit one religion against another, be it Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland or sects of Islam in the Middle East. This is the unhappy side of religion.

Yet there is another side to religion which is the positive effort of religion to transform itself in a changing world. If that were not so, religion would become a fossil in the modern world, appropriate only as a museum piece. Some religions doubtless come into that category. Christians, on the whole, have little sense of history and are unaware of the sources of the tradition from which they come. Many committed Christians sincerely and unabashedly propound their faith as if the past three centuries had not occurred.

What then are some of the ways in which a changing religion has helped to mould both the present and our attitude to the future? In the 1960s a number of theologians proclaimed that God is dead. They presumed that with the death of God there would follow the death of the church, at least as it was then known. Religion would have no future. Man come of age would get on without it. For many people news of this radical thinking in Christian theology broke with an article in the London Observer of 17 March 1963, headed Our Image of God Must Go. The article drew widespread attention for its author was a bishop, John A. T. Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich in London. The article was a forerunner to his book Honest to God which became a bestseller. More dramatically Time magazine of 8 April 1966 took up the topic in its characteristic way. Against a black cover background was printed in blood red the question, ‘Is God dead?’ The topic was now good ‘copy’. But it was more than this. It demonstrated to the ordinary reader the extent to which profound dissatisfaction with the traditional image of God in the Christian world was being voiced.

This was not an exercise in academic theology, but a case of theologians addressing themselves to the worldly fact that religious beliefs had not kept pace with the radical transformation of society by science and the rest of modern culture. Bishop Robinson had brought to his argument the thinking of two theologians in particular, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German pastor executed by the Nazis, and Paul Tillich, an elder statesman of theology who had earlier escaped the Nazi tyranny.

To a group of other theologians, these three did not go far enough. For them, not only had the traditional image of God died in the secular world, there was no clear alternative image to replace the one that had died. Thomas J. J. Altizer and William Hamilton were amongst the most vocal and radical of this group. There were others with a different emphasis, such as Harvey Cox and Paul van Buren.

In a sense there was nothing new about this. The phrase ‘God is dead’ came from Friedrich Nietzsche some eighty years earlier in The Joyful Wisdom. It is generally thought that, for Nietzsche, God had been slain by the prevailing spirit-deadening ethos of the nineteenth century. Its spiritual aspirations were embodied in the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and J. S. Mill. This doctrine rendered meaningless the traditional God of justice, compassion and salvation, replacing it with an ethics fit only for a society of unimaginative shopkeepers.

Robinson, Bonhoeffer and Tillich spoke to many in my generation. We were profoundly influenced by them. They had a word for our time that broke through the established order of religion and brought to it a new vitality. But how long did this new thinking have an influence? I do not really know. There is the famous remark made by Tillich, in his Germanic English, to fellow theologian Langdon Gilkey towards the end of Tillich’s life, ‘Vy, Langdon, am I so soon on ze dust heap of history?’ (Ved Mehta 1965, p. 59). Much the same could be said about an equally famous theologian of that period, Reinhold Niebuhr, who brought new critical thinking in politics and social justice to the Christian church. His contribution stands in strong contrast to the politics of fundamentalism that later produced the ‘moral majority’ so influential in the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency of the US.

Today religious fundamentalism dominates the religious scene in the US and to a lesser extent elsewhere, leaving the main-line churches with depleted membership and waning influence. This is a very tight form of order which had its origin earlier in the century. The name fundamentalism derives from a series of books on The Fundamentals: A testimony to the truth, launched in 1909. The World’s Christian Fundamentals Association founded ten years later prepared the way for attacks on many ‘liberal’ or ‘modernist’ preachers. A climax came with the prosecution in 1925 of a schoolteacher, John Scopes, in Dayton, Tennessee, for teaching that humans had evolved from non-human animals. In the ‘monkey trial’ William Jennings Bryan, a former Secretary of State and presidential candidate, secured the condemnation of the teacher by arguing that American society would be in danger if the literal authority of Genesis were to be overthrown.

Although Scopes was convicted, the cause that Bryan championed was popularly discredited in the nationwide press coverage the case received. However, the upheaval of the ‘20s has received renewed public concern in recent years because of the revival of fundamentalism in the US and the sponsorship of creationism in schools as opposed to the teaching of evolution.

Central to the fundamentalist position is belief in the inerrancy and centrality of the Bible and in a pietistic morality. In both these emphases fundamentalism, despite its much reading of the Bible, betrays a profound ignorance of the Bible, including the way in which it was written and came into existence. Biblical scholars claim that the Bible does not support the views fundamentalists so zealously proclaim in its name (Barr 1975, 1984; Spong 1991). They rebuff intellectual relativity and uncertainty by claiming unquestionable and unchanging truth. This also means a rejection of those who do not give unquestioned submission to the prevailing teachings (Ruether 1992).

Two obvious questions to ask of fundamentalism are: what is its appeal to the millions of its followers? and secondly, to what extent does it provide a real answer to human needs? Both questions are difficult to answer. One appeal is its simplicity and apparent certainty. Fundamentalism seems to be a way of coping with the loss of identity, meaning and security in a society which is changing rapidly socially, politically, technologically, economically and in its religious values. In a rapidly changing and chaotic society, fundamentalism provides identity, certainty and some social security. People seem to want simple answers to life’s complex questions. Secondly, it provides a fellowship that is deeply appealing, especially to lonely people, even though this is sometimes a fanatical sort of fellowship. As to the long-term consequences, it is well known that many fundamentalists fall by the wayside in what is referred to as ‘back-sliding’. It is not at all clear that fundamentalism provides an answer to the need for personal well-being of large numbers of people over a long period of time. It can be quite damaging, unless it happens to be a stepping-stone to a more mature faith. That it can also be. It was so for Bishop Spong (1991) and for myself also.

In my schooldays I craved for meaning, for something to make sense of life. I thought I had found it in a fundamentalist faith. I accepted a very simple set of affirmations about God, the world and myself. As my understanding of the world, and particularly science, grew, I found I was unable to reconcile my faith with facts. It was through a liberal Christian movement, the Student Christian Movement, that I discovered an alternative faith. The effect was to re-establish a fundamental trust with respect to the meaningfulness of life as I indicated in more detail in Chapter 1.

The term fundamentalism now has a much broader connotation than its origin in the Christian churches. Fundamentalism in a variety of forms exists in Judaism and Islam, in militant forms of Hinduism and Sikhism in India and in Confucian renewal in Japan, Taiwan and Korea (Marty & Appleby 1991). Wherever there is some book, document, principle or institution to which absolute authority is ascribed, the term is used by analogy with its original use.

A contrast is sometimes drawn between religion and science by saying that science thrives on change whereas religion clings to the past. A clash of doctrines in science is not a disaster but an opportunity. Newtonian science was succeeded by Einstein’s relativity which, in its turn, was succeeded by quantum physics. Neither one successively overthrew the other, but modified it substantially. The biological doctrine of evolution has also evolved since Darwin’s day, being first transformed by classical genetics and later by molecular biology, with plenty of controversy still associated with the contemporary understanding of how evolution occurs.

‘Religion’, says Whitehead (1926), ‘will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science. Its principles maybe eternal, but the expression of those principles requires continual development’ (p. 234). Whitehead preceded this statement with the proposition that in the evolution of real knowledge a contradiction is not the signal of defeat but the first step in progress towards a victory. This is one good reason for toleration of a variety of opinions. He makes his point by referring to the parable of the tares (the weeds that look like wheat in a field of wheat) with its moral, ‘Let both grow together until the harvest’. Why, he asks, have Christians not acted up to this precept from their highest authority?

A living vital religion cannot remain static as the world around it changes dramatically day by day. To be vital, religion, like science, has to grow. Christian doctrines may be good signposts, but they are bad hitching posts.

Over time religion does exhibit a gradual change and development, though it is much less changeable than science. Recent examples of this have already been given. Some things which were once regarded as vital have, after struggle and distress, been modified and otherwise interpreted. We witness this in the clash of religion with Galileo and with Darwinism. Now the main-line churches have accepted an understanding to each of these former conflicts.

The broad development of Protestantism since the Reformation illustrates adaptation of an existing order of understanding to changing needs of the world. The name Protestant derives from the written ‘protest’ made against the acts of the Diet of Speyer in 1529 by the princes supporting Luther (1483 -- 1546). The Reformation itself was born with diversity. The German Reformation under Luther differed substantially from the Swiss Reformation under Zwingli (1484-1531) in Zurich and Calvin (1509-1564) in Geneva. The Reformation in France came from Calvinists who took the name Huguenots. In England the Anglican Church was the product of the Reformation. John Knox brought the Reformation, in the form of Calvinism, to Scotland to establish the Scottish Church.

The immediate wave which followed the Reformation was a period of orthodoxy known as classical orthodoxy or Protestant scholasticism (Tillich 1968, p. 276). Elements of this orthodoxy were retained in subsequent changes such as in the next big movement, known as pietism, which emphasized the subjective aspect of individual salvation as contrasted with intellectual acceptance of doctrines. This happened first in Germany with men like Spener and Zizendorf in the seventeenth century. Then it happened in British Methodism with the Wesley brothers. Anglicans who had pietistic views existed before this, such as the Puritans who were first given this name in the sixteenth century.

The pietists of the seventeenth century became deeply concerned with social ethics, founding the first orphanages in Europe and starting the first missionary enterprises. John Wesley looked to America to extend his missionary activity. He said his field was the world. Pietism had a deep concern for morals. Life in Europe was brutal and unrefined. The orthodox theologians did not do much about it. The pietists stressed the idea of individual sanctification and rejected love of ‘worldly’ things. Anything that could be labeled ‘worldly’ was, and still is today, anathema in pietistic circles. In general they resembled the Puritans in their strict moral attitude. But the pietists failed to recognize that the structures of society are unchristian. They failed to appreciate the need to replace existing social structures with more just and liberating ones. The subjectivity of the pietists became the doctrine of the ‘inner light’ of the Quakers, which was an ecstatic movement in the time of George Fox in the seventeenth century.

The Enlightenment criticized both orthodoxy and pietism. Yet the church was not only greatly influenced by the Enlightenment, but contributed to it through Faustus Socinus and the Socinian movement. They declared that nothing can be a revelation of God in the Bible that is against reason and common sense. They brought a strong element of rationalism into theology which contrasted strongly with pietism.

English deism is another movement which used philosophy to solve theological problems. Deists attacked traditional orthodoxy as Socinus had done. This critical line of development was continued in theology in other contexts by Strauss, Schleiermacher and Johannes Weiss (Tillich 1968). Their thinking led to modern demythologizers of the Bible such as Bultmann. The deists did not look to theology for evidence of God but to nature. Nature was the great alternative background to the confusion in theology of preceding centuries. Hence their so-called natural theology which culminated in William Paley’s Natural Theology. This book remained an alternative to logic in the entrance examination for Cambridge University until 1920.

The emphasis of deism was on evidence for the existence of God from design in nature. Furthermore, Paley’s utilitarian ethics portrayed all living beings as having been designed for human benefit. Paley was the theologian of deism as Locke was its philosopher.

Deism received its death warrant from two events. The first was the Lisbon earthquake in the middle of the eighteenth century which killed 60,000 people. This was, in the world of that day, a catastrophe of monumental proportions. After all, God was supposed to have created the world for the purpose of serving human beings. It shook philosophers such as Goethe and Voltaire. A second blow to deism came in the middle of the nineteenth century with Darwin’s alternative explanation of the design of nature with its emphasis on chance and struggle rather than on beneficent design.

The middle of the eighteenth century saw the first serious historical criticism of the synoptic gospels. People were shocked, as they were in our time, with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Later in the nineteenth century, historical criticism gave a whole new perspective to the Hebrew scriptures and how they came to be. This analysis, particularly of the first five books of the Bible, continues today with the emphasis on the so-called four-document theory which replaced the belief that one writer such as Moses was the author of these books. The four documents, each with different authorship, are referred to as J (Y) for Yahwist, E for Elohist, D for Deuteronomic and P for Priestly.

In the religious movements within Christendom this century we find strands of many of the changes that took place through the centuries, while other strands have been ignored. The ethics of fundamentalism, for example, are based on pietism. The ‘social gospel’, transmitted to American theology by Walter Rausenbusch earlier in this century, drew much from Enlightenment theology but little, if anything, from pietism. It was quite a powerful movement up to the years before the Second World War when Reinhold Niebuhr attacked it vigorously.

Neo-orthodoxy in the 1930s and 1940s was a return to many elements of classical orthodoxy and a rejection of the natural theology of deism. It had a strong prophetic element based on the Bible. We live in the aftermath of the collapse of much of neo-orthodoxy. Process theology, or what Charles Hartshorne prefers to call neo-classical theology, has links with the theology of the early church fathers who were influenced by Greek thought, Socinus in the sixteenth century and the philosopher A. N. Whitehead of this century, who took science more seriously than his contemporary philosophers and theologians.

The point I want to make in this brief and incomplete survey is that history shows that religion takes change seriously and modifies its concepts as knowledge grows, though it could learn a lot more of this from ever-changing science. It is a misinterpretation of history to suppose that religion is transmitted unchanged from one generation to the next. It too develops, or else it dies, though the death pangs may be somewhat drawn out.

A New Shared Order of the Meaning of Life

We live in a tower of Babel in which the disciplines, located on different floors, have little communication with one another. Economics, ecology, science, politics, religion and the arts live their separate existences unaware of the importance of some overall meaning and understanding. Yet somehow the disciplines have to come together in a shared vision of the meaning of life.

The common response to problems is to say, leave it to the experts. But that creates more problems because experts are more often wrong than right. They have tunnel vision when what we need is a wide-angled view of the world.

To do something about that is to ask for the greatest change of all to the order of present society. It is to ask that economists learn ecology and that ecologists learn economics; that science meets religion and both learn from each other; that our innermost human problems are seen, not simply as some personal aberration, but as intimately linked with the sort of society we create for ourselves. It is significant that when Daly and Cobb wrote about needed changes to the economic order, they concluded with criticism of the disciplinary organization of knowledge and its domination of educational institutions, particularly the university (Daly & Cobb 1989, p. 357-60).

The basic reason for organizing knowledge in separate disciplines is the idea that things are related to each other only externally. I have already discussed the effects of regarding the human person in traditional economics as an isolated ego instead of a ‘person in community’. The person is regarded as a substance rather than as having internal relations with other persons.

Classical physics carved the universe up into bits of substances called particles, each one independent of its neighbors. The new physics no longer has a substance view of the universe. A substance is something that exists in its own right independent of any other things. But there are no such things. Our society is dominated by a substance view of the world from protons to people. So our society was consistent when it looked at all knowledge that way. Knowledge too, it supposed, could be divided into separate bits like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. But knowledge is not like that. To treat knowledge as if it were a substance is to miss out profoundly on the meaning of knowledge. (Birch 1990, Ch. 6).

The book of Genesis contains a revealing mythology of the human treatment of knowledge. In the garden of Eden everything in the garden was lovely until the occupants partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Right from the beginning they got into trouble. Eating of the fruit gave them a knowledge of the difference between good and evil. It is presumed that if they had not eaten there would be no evil. But now that they had eaten, the knowledge they had and everything else was contaminated by evil. Well, you might say, as some do, let’s go back to a state of innocence. Let’s ban any further investigation into nuclear energy or genetic engineering. The possible fruits of that knowledge are awesome and even terrible to contemplate. Chernobyl is one consequence. And there will be others. But there is no possibility of going back to an Arcadian state of innocence.

An angel with a flaming sword bars the way! There is no turning back. So we are told in Genesis 3:24. The world we live in is full of ambiguity. That is how it is. The knowledge that is needed to put a world in tatters together again is itself in tatters. Yet there is hope.

Realizing the ambiguity of human choices, we nevertheless can work to transcend the sorry state at every turn of the road. It is a task for every generation to be wary of false understanding and to seek to widen the picture we have of the world. We shall not find a blueprint for the world of the distant future. We may find some sort of blueprint for today. But it has to be subject to careful scrutiny tomorrow and again tomorrow after that. The wise virgins keep their lamps trimmed.

A major problem of world order is world management. Yet the approach to solving that problem is to bring in experts in economics, in technology and so on to seek solutions to each problem as it arises separately. The problems to do with management of the world order are all interconnected and indeed have a common source. The postmodern worldview affirms that knowledge is one and indivisible. When knowledge is divided into separate disciplines whose experts hardly talk to one another, we no longer find the vision that real understanding brings. The modern university can be compared to an encyclopaedia. The encyclopaedia contains many facts. It may contain nothing else. Its only unity is to be found in its alphabetical arrangement. The university is much the same. It has departments running from arts to zoology, but neither the students nor the professors know what is the relation of one department of truth to another.

Daly and Cobb (1989) make some practical suggestions as to how a university can begin to overcome the problem of the fragmentation of knowledge and understanding. In addition, each one of us can be part of a new consciousness of shared meaning.

One of the most exciting things happening in the lives of some people today is their own search for meaning beyond the horizons of meaning they were bequeathed by an older generation. They see the old order collapsing around them. The religion they acquired is dry bones. It failed to provide the necessary understanding and courage in the midst of the ambiguity of life. Then life was jolted into a new and larger circle. They experienced a heightened consciousness. The bones of an old understanding put on flesh. These people become committed to changing the world, or at least that part of it where they live. One of the most successful radio programs ever broadcast in Australia which has continued for many years is called The search for meaning. Its famous interviewer Caroline Jones speaks with subtle intimacy to someone each week about meaning in their life. The response has shown how deep is the need people feel to make sense of their lives. Something of these programs is captured in a published selection (Jones 1989, 1990).

I have seen conversion to a wider meaning come to young people who were trying to save a tree in a forest threatened by timber merchants. To others it comes in finding there are values that come into life to sustain it in the most tragic circumstances. There are emotional conversions. There are intellectual conversions. It means our direction is changed. It does not mean we have all the answers. it could mean we are better fitted to live in the real world beyond the utopian garden where an angel blocks the way to our return to innocence.


This chapter deals with the relation of order and change in two areas of life, the economic order and the religious order. I selected these two areas because they illustrate the need to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order. If I were to have selected an area where change successfully builds on order, I would have chosen science. It has been far more successful than either politics or religion in holding order and change together. However, the urgent necessity of today is that the sort of principles science has worked with so successfully in relating established order to changed knowledge may be applied in these other areas.

The changes needed in the economic order are profound. The ‘object’ called economic man needs to be replaced with the ‘subject’ called ‘person in community’. The understanding of human nature in traditional economics is profoundly erroneous. It is diametrically opposed to the view of human nature developed in this book, where humans are understood to be constituted by their relations.

It is the business of the future to be dangerous and to take risks. But the sort of risks to be faced are not the foolhardy ones that are destroying the biosphere right now. A mature approach accepts the inevitability of incomplete knowledge and the imperfections of human beings. How can we, within these restrictions, attain the intellectual and moral maturity to live fully and safely in the complex world of economics and politics?

Religion is a potent force both for good and for evil in society. If it is to work for good, it is necessary that religion face change in much the same spirit as does science. Its principles may be eternal but the working out of these principles has to be done in the context of the world of science and change.

Christians tend to have little sense of history and many of them behave as though the truths of their religion have been handed down unchanged from generation to generation on a platter. A review of the history of Protestantism in particular shows how the Christian religion has undergone profound changes in the last 300 years and will continue to do so. It just needs to speed up the process a bit, else it shall become fossilized and be fit only as a museum piece.

We live in a collapsing tower of Babel at a time when we need an integrating view of all knowledge and understanding. There is, nevertheless, the possibility that each one of us may discover a new shared order of the meaning of life. It is the task of each generation to be wary of false understanding and to seek to widen the picture we have of the world. The wise virgins keep their lamps trimmed, that they be ready to usher in the approaching new order.

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