Upholding the freedom to address our fate in the face of the annulment of language

Francis David using the power of words to address our fate 
Click on the following link to hear the podcast of this post and/or download an mp3 (see bottom left of the page): Upholding the freedom to address our fate in the face of the annulment of language - 11 March 2012

There are many things I could have chosen to speak about today connected with the difficult and occasionally very distressing time my wife Susanna had last week before she was admitted to hospital where she is now comfortable and in good hands. Something connected with pain and its place and role in human existence, as well as how we deal with it both physically and psychologically was high on my list of possible subjects but it has proved too difficult to compress what I feel I need to say in the time I had to write this address. I will simply have to work more on that text before it sees the light of day.

But for three reasons another subject also emerged and shone. Firstly, and most immediately because so much of the talk within the hospital setting (when you are away from the most immediate medical matters) is about how bottom-line numbers rule nearly every aspect of life. The way the health service seems now to be structured, and even understood, is through the medium of economics.

Secondly, there was the fact that the news this week was full of the economic restructuring of the Greek economy. A centralised top down move that has torn to flinders all normal democratic processes.

The third reason relates directly to who we are as a religious community. As I'm sure all of you know, since our tradition's birth in Poland, and in Hungary and Romania during the Radical Reformation of the sixteenth century, we have stood foursquare against all forms of absolutist dogmatisms. (That's what's depicted in the picture of Francis David found at the top of this post) As I sat with Susanna over those four days in A&E as she drifted in and out of morphine induced sleep I had a long time to reflect on a very dangerous form of absolutist dogmatism present to us today. It is about this danger that I wish to remind us.

We may begin by observing that when you are in hospital - or any social entity - it is clear that it is made-up of people commingling together who have real feelings and needs which are only able appropriately to be attended to through the medium of language - i.e. by talking to each other, finding out what's showing up to people as being of concern. This is true even when technical diagnostic apparatus is in use because in the first place a patient has to tell a doctor or nurse about this or that pain which, in the second place, gives a clue about what piece of kit should be used and for what purpose. The results gained thanks to the technology then need to be communicated verbally to patient and doctor alike and a decision needs conversationally to be arrived at about how to proceed. This process is only possible through the medium of language.

So, for all the technical knowledge and apparatus being used, a hospital can be said to function primarily in the medium of language. All of a hospital's activities (and the meanings that we associate with these activities, whether good or bad) emerge and shine forth from out of the primordial medium of language.

On the other hand, the modern economy (I stress modern because I don't think what I say below always was the case) has become understood to have emerged, not from the creative medium of language, but from the medium of numbers. Of course language is used by economists but the tacit belief has developed that beneath the confused and subjective froth of human language there lies an objective, secure and solid numerical foundation.

So, we may say that the economy operates with numbers whilst a hospital operates with words. In places like hospitals (and a church like this) we proceed, as the art and media critic Boris Groys notes, "with arguments, programmes and petitions [and also] with commands, prohibitions, resolutions and decrees" (Boris Groys, "The Communist Postscript" p. xv).

But, as Groys goes on to observe:

"So long as humans live under conditions of the capitalist economy they remain fundamentally mute because their fate does not speak to them. If a human is not addressed by his or her fate, then he or she is incapable of answering it. Economic processes are anonymous, and not expressed in words. For this reason one cannot enter into discussion with economic processes; one cannot change their mind, convince them, persuade them, use words to win them over to one's side. All that can be done is to adapt one's own behaviour to what is occurring. Economic failure brooks no argument, just as economic success requires no additional discursive justification. In capitalism, the ultimate confirmation or refutation of human action is not linguistic but economic: it is expressed not with words but with numbers. The force of language as such is thereby annulled" (ibid. p. xvi).

Here I can return to my earlier point about this church standing in the tradition of the radical reformation and its challenge to all forms of absolutist dogmatisms. Groys' words, alongside what I was seeing in the hospital and the economic news, reminded me forcibly that we have entered a dangerous time in our history when we are experiencing a concerted effort increasingly to structure our whole society in economic terms - in terms of numbers and bottom-lines with which we are not allowed to talk let alone argue against. We face a system that is clearly no longer interested in our human fate but only in its own relentless, impersonal unfolding. Even the people who developed the complex mathematical algorithms that lie behind our modern financial system don't fully understand it and certainly have no real control over it's ultimate behaviour. Our politicians are clearly even more powerless and they look at us (like rabbits proverbially blinded by headlights) and say, there is no choice - just look at the numbers. Following an acronym from Maggie Thatcher's days TINA they say - There Is No Alternative. And we are told that all they, and we, can do is to adapt our own behaviour to what is occurring. It goes without saying that despite the rhetoric that "we are all in this together" the actual adaptions (by which we mean for the most part the cutbacks) which are being made are those which suit precisely the same few people who have always benefited from the drawing of bottom lines and the counting of numbers. The king was in his counting house counting out his money and he, and his like, are still counting out their money. The rest of us are simply told to be quiet and put up with the pain because that's just the way the universe is.

But isn't this uncomfortably close to the situation we rebelled against in the Reformation? Then we simply did not believe that God had ordained the universe in the way the elite told is it was - a way which kept the few wealthy and free and the majority poor and bound and we refused to accept a way of being that denied us the right to question the so-called ordained order or freely to explore alternative ways of being. We discovered in our protest that the Word - the Gospel, the Good News - told us something else, told us something powerful about human freedom, justice, mercy, kindness and of a self-giving love that had the power to break down all artificial human barriers that kept us from being brothers and sisters one to another and co-workers with God.

It is important to see clearly that the very thing which constituted us - made us who we are - was a way of being that could only be shared and developed conversationally. The Good News had first heard by us and then told to others who, in turn had to listen and reflect it and only then, as it was understood by them, could they then tell it to others. The authority of the Gospel was only found in the telling, the persuasive power of the words expressed and the manner in which it was delivered. It was ever thus - remember Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus simply "taught with real authority — quite unlike their teachers of religious law" (Matthew 7:29). It was just him and his teaching. Anyway the point is that once listened to the Good News could only be spread by being talked about, reflected upon, told again and again to those who followed and then modified, reshaped and creatively reimagined by community after community.

It seems indubitably true that for us in the beginning was the Word, a Word which was always-already being incarnated in human actions and behaviours. Of course, we know that at many times sizeable groups within the Christian tradition as a whole have succumbed to the temptation to turn this free, creative, conversational Word into an absolutist dogma but the Word itself has never allowed those attempts ever fully to succeed. We are living proof of this and, as I have explored on a couple of previous occasions, in our own liberal Christian tradition we still say that in the beginning was the Word because, we know that, if only we can hear it, there will always remain the right word to speak, the one properly required for this sentence or this situation. But, and this is a vital point to realise, this same Word has also revealed to us that it "is the word properly required *only* for this sentence, not for the next or the next. In it's place it is the right word, the only right word; but it is not the Word of the Lord, nor of any of the Philosophical Fathers (James C. Edwards, The Plain Sense of Things, p. 234)."

The Word for us is, then, the strange primordial truth that we are always already within language - it is the medium of our lives and through it we try to achieve the most abundant life for all as we persuade each other to embody the Word, by incarnating it in all our actions and turning it into love. As the writer of 1 John unfolds the process: "Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action" (3:18).

This kind of open, creative, conversational, embodied understanding of the Word which can persuade us into incarnating love is what keeps open for us the possibility of remaining free from all dogmas and, where oppression begins again, gives us the power to protest.

It seems to me that our commitment to this free, creative, divine and incarnated Word insists that whether or not we are pro- or anti- certain kinds of general austerity measures we must all stand up against the dogmatic economic absolutism that says we have no choice but to make our decisions under absolutist rule of the God of capitalism - numbers.

We most certainly do not for we are sons and daughters not of the number but of the Word. Please remember this and do not forget to speak out for human freedom.