Faith and Modernity
Saturday 12th May 2018 @ 9:44 am
Last week I sat in a committee room in the Palace of Westminster. I actually sat in the chair where people get questioned! Thankfully, I was not under government investigation, but rather celebrating a book edited by Lord Alderdice and Dr Mohammad Shomali, which contains papers to a conference I was honoured to be at in Oxford a couple of years ago. The book, “Faith and Modernity – A Muslim–Christian Conversation” will be on Amazon shortly. Here are the few remarks I made last week:
Faith and Modernity
I don’t wish to appear morose as I begin – but as a university chaplain in Trinity college, living and working amongst young adults it is difficult to escape the depths of difficulty for many people in this highly technology driven generation. From certain perspectives life is more difficult:
In my paper to the conference at Oxford, I mentioned that the Student Counselling Service in Trinity College, showed that 11% of the student population had availed of the service that year. The statistics have not depleted since.
It is not just this time of the year (you can tell by the beautiful weather we are in exam time) that stress around universities seems to be maximized. Life can be very difficult for this generation.
It is one of the deepest and saddest truths of my work, that no matter what training, education, or technologizing I have received in my life as an ordained minister of the Christian gospel, there is nothing that has prepared me … nor I would argue, should there be or could there be, anything that can adequately prepare you to stand at the side of a grave or at the front of a crematorium where parents are saying a final goodbye to a child. That has been the sad scenario too often for me, and even over recent months, it has twice been the case.
One cannot of course blame technology alone for the rise in anxiety, depression and violence in our western world, but it also should not go unnoticed that in universities at the moment we are seeing the first generation completely raised behind screens. It is not a new thing for them, it has always been the only thing.
Writing about these trials and anxieties Yuval Harari – the bright young thing of the Thought Leading world – essentially tells us, however, to calm down. Writing in his latest book ‘Homo Deus,’ he contends that while Modernity shows notable failures to the idea of constant progress it is also true that …
“… when faced with such failures we no longer shrug our shoulders and say, ‘Well, that’s the way things work in our imperfect world’ or ‘God’s will be done’. Rather, when famine, plague or war break out of our control, we feel that somebody must have screwed up, we set up a commission of inquiry, and promise ourselves that next time we’ll do better. And it actually works. Such calamities indeed happen less and less often. For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined. In the early twenty–first century, the average human is far more likely to die from bingeing at McDonald’s than from drought, Ebola or an al–Qaeda attack …
… Like firefighters in a world without fire, so humankind in the twenty–first century needs to ask itself an unprecedented question: what are we going to do with ourselves? In a healthy, prosperous and harmonious world, what will demand our attention and ingenuity? This question becomes doubly urgent given the immense new powers that biotechnology and information technology are providing us with. What will we do with all that power?”
My paper to our conversation in Oxford invited a dialogue with young people on spirituality that recognizes we all live under a dominant script … a colonizing if you will … a script that Harari contends demonstrates humanity stretching for wealth health and immortality – a script fully dominated by the progress of finance tied perichoetically (intimately) to science and technology.
This world, I suggest, invites young people and all of us to live with our eyes and hearts and minds open, living toward an authentic sense of reality and existence that invites young people to a faith of presence in the today of today, not the today of a millennia ago.
What is interesting is that even since the time of our conversations in Oxford, things in the world have progressed in a way that my small mind would not have forseen. I remember vividly sitting in an Oxford pub with Lord Alderdice and saying there was no way the UK would vote to leave the EU – and he gently cocked his head and said ‘well, I wouldn’t be so sure.’ I shuddered a little.
I also vividly remember running a residential event in Dublin that brings together British, Irish, Israeli and Palestinian students for human engagement and dialogue. The date was early November 2016. I went to sleep on the 8th November safe in the knowledge that another Clinton would soon be in the Whitehouse. I woke up, checked the news, walked out my room, much more dazed and confused than I probably had a right to be given it wasn’t my country where the election took place (my country as you know is so much better at doing elections and government!) and found one of our guests to that event, who’ll not give a name but who is a senior person in Lambeth palace well used to the international matters of faith and peace of which we are participating. She looked at my face and in a gesture that I will always be thankful for, simply held out her arms and said, “Come here.” A human embrace in that moment of my genuine anxiety was exactly what was needed.
There is, as yet, no app to hug me.
What we did not know when we gathered in Oxford, was the incalculable part that technology would play in these happenings. Particularly in the realm of constant communication and targeted marketing in the face of privacy. Most of what has happened technology wise is in the realm of ‘still–to–come–to–light’ and is hidden and subversive. We probably will never know the full extent that communications technology played in these monumental events.
My paper in the book given to us today, finally, points toward the possibility of remembering that in the face of everything I have mentioned – and much more besides – humans are better together.
One of Trinity College’s Nobel Prize winners, Ernest Walton, gives us a beautiful glimpse of a pre–constant–horizontal–communication–world. In his private papers is included a most insightful letter to Winifred (or Freda) Wilson, a fellow ‘Methody’ student who was later to become his future wife, and who at that time was teaching in Waterford. The letter was sent to her some days after the momentous experiment that would give him a place in history – the splitting of the atom. You would think, a rather incredible moment for him and for history. He writes, tenderly,
‘Last Thursday was a red letter day for me. Not only did I get a letter from you but Cockcroft and I made what is in all probability a very important discovery in the lab. Rutherford suggested that we keep it a dead secret between the four of us until we publish an account of it in next Saturday’s ‘Nature’. We know that people in the States are working along similar lines and Rutherford would like to see any credit going to the Cavendish. He is not fond of American physicists in general on account of their tendency to do a great deal of boasting about very little.’43
With all the positive advances – and all the associated genuine concerns – no technology in the world, yet, has replaced truly human interaction – interaction that holds genuine possibility of authentic relationship. Holds the genuine possibility of containing love care compassion and forgiveness. Attributes of being truly human, and therefore perhaps, most truly divine.
My hope is that these are the things upon which the undiscovered country of the future is cultivated. It was certainly a meaningful delight to witness this in the small ways during our conversations in Oxford. May there be many more such conversations.
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