John Reader, Common Good, Community, or prophetic responses?

5 12 2013

“As a general rule, third world cinema has this aim: through trance or crisis, to constitute an assemblage which brings real parties together, in order to make them produce collective utterances as the prefiguration of the people who are missing” (Deleuze: “Cinema 2”, Continuum International, 2012, P215)

My proposal is that all talk about “the common good” and much current use of the term “community”, presupposes some collective entity which already exists, and can be clearly identified (see Greg Smith’s blog on @T4CG on the Common Good and John Reader’s blog on @JRayL on Community: What Community?). The danger of this, is that all contemporary manifestations of alternative political activity are unfavourably compared with these ideals and abstract metaphysical concepts, thereby diverting attention and energy from those occasions and events when, as Deleuze suggests, there are collective utterances which prefigure the people who are missing. Is not prophecy there to point us towards that which does not yet exist, and indeed to glimpse through trance or crisis the emerging and occasional assemblages which prefigure the people who are to come? So how might “what is to come” relate to our current crises?

The effect of the global financial crisis has been to limit access to the “goods” of global capitalism to fewer people, specifically reducing that access for middle and low earners, and most notably, for younger people. Before the crisis began Ulrich Beck suggested that each individual now has to take greater responsibility for shaping their own life/biography as the institutions that had formerly played that role were no longer operating in that capacity (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim: “Individualization”, Sage 2002, P23). So is this a realistic form of reflexivity or re-assembling? What resources are still available when people face financial and social difficulties?

A question for those of faith is that of what resources religions offer to individuals in this process of self-construction. Does faith become a potential source for creating one’s own biography? Assuming this is the case, it raises questions about the authority of faith traditions and leaders. This can be seen in the greater flexibility and range of choices and resources that individuals now draw upon.

Since 2008 the situation has developed further in that austerity measures in the UK and other EU countries are severely damaging the prospects for welfare institutions. Whether one is talking about the Health Service, State Education, Housing, or Social Services, cutbacks in government spending in these areas are proving detrimental to the effectiveness of these institutions. They no longer have the requisite capacity to do the job! This is also true of most, if not all, religious institutions.

One impact of this is the decreasing level of public trust and confidence in these institutions. This was already being eroded by other factors such as the suspicion of professionals, but it is now going further because of frequently reported examples of bad practice. It is also the case that individuals can learn and access ideas for themselves through the Internet, so are less dependent upon the professionals – or, at least, they might think they are.

The immediate role of faith groups in this context has been the practical one of trying to pick up some of the slack, and to fill some of the gaps being left by reductions in welfare provision. The problem is, that this depends largely upon the institutional dimension of faith traditions, which themselves have been under pressure, and are in danger of being under-resourced. Additionally, as people reduce their voluntary giving to charitable causes, faith-based enterprises are finding themselves under financial pressure. The role of faith as a resource for identity construction is being subordinated – so far perhaps – to that of being a provider of practical resources, e.g. food banks, credit unions, and other local community projects. This is similar to the 1980s when churches became providers of or partners in employment schemes. Is this sustainable or appropriate for the current context?

Other things have changed significantly since the 1980s, which raise questions about the viability of such an approach, those being: greater social inequalities as evidenced by the debate over parts of the banking sector, and their responsibility for the initial financial crisis; a greater pluralism in terms of faith availability and awareness; increased loss of authority of institutional religion and its leadership; decreased resources, both financial and in terms of people on the ground, of many local faith groups; accelerated “individualism” as theorized by Beck, as more people construct their own biographies; the threat of extremism as people become disenfranchised from the mainstream and search for identity and support from right-wing groups; an accelerated decline of confidence in the main political parties and the political process; greater pessimism as people are aware of environmental dangers which are not being addressed.

So, where do we go from here and what role can or might faith play in what is to develop? I suggest to be able to work alongside those most directly affected by austerity measures, and to be one of the assemblages that can bring real people together. In particular, this will enable those who are “missing”, or who do not yet have a voice, not just to be heard, but to begin to shape their own responses. Prophecy emerges where the gaps and interstices allow people to operate outside the institutions which they no longer trust. Rather than imposing some predetermined concept, it requires a willingness to start further back in the process, and to allow “what is to come” the space to develop in new and unexpected ways. In that sense neither the theological imperialism of Radical Orthodoxy, and its links with Red Tory/Blue Labour, nor the communitarianism of Hauerwas and his followers, can provide an appropriate vehicle for this more open approach. What we are now calling a relational Christian realism building on, but going beyond the tradition of Temple, and characterized by dialogue with other traditions and disciplines, is closer to the mark.


Revd Dr John Reader,

William Temple Foundation.