Slow food is about seasonal ingredients, patiently nurtured, carefully prepared, lovingly cooked.
The ingredients of ‘slow mission’ are people and the Christian gospel; and also, seasons, brokenness, diversity, giftedness and time — things we need to keep reminding ourselves of.
Slow mission is about trying to make the world better by applying the whole gospel of Christ to the whole of life. It’s about using what gifts we have for the common good. It moves at the pace of nature. It respects seasons. It is happy with small steps but has a grand vision. It knows of only one Lord and one Church. Making disciples of ourselves is as important as making disciples of others. Diversity is embraced. Playfulness is recommended.
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‘Slow mission’ is about huge ambition–all things united under Christ–and tiny steps.
I contrast it with much talk and planning about ‘goals’ and ‘strategies’ which happens in the parts of church I inhabit, and which have an appearance of spirituality, but make me sometimes feel like I am in the Christian meat-processing industry.
Here’s a summary of slow mission values, as currently figured out by me:
Devoted. Centred on Christ as Saviour and Lord. Do we say to Christ, ‘Everything I do, I do it for you.’ Do we hear Christ saying the same thing back to us?
Belonging. We sign up, take part, dive in, identify, work with others, live with the compromises. Not for us a proud independence.
Respecting vocation. Where do ‘your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger’ meet?1. Vocation is where God’s strokes of genius happen. That’s where we should focus our energies.
To do with goodness. Goodness in the world is like a tolling bell that can’t be silenced and that itself silences all arguments.
Observing seasons. ‘There’s a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.’2.The world will be OK even if we check out for a while. (Note: our families, however, won’t be.)
Into everything. We are multi-ethnic and interdependent. We like the handcrafted. We are interested in all humanity and in all that humanity is interested in. Wherever there’s truth, beauty, creativity, compassion, integrity, service, we want to be there too, investing and inventing. We don’t take to being shut out. Faith and everything mix.
Quite keen on common sense. We like to follow the evidence and stick to the facts. We like to critique opinions and prejudices. We don’t, however, argue with maths. Against our human nature, we try to listen to those we disagree with us. We’re not afraid of truth regardless of who brings it. We want to be learners rather than debaters.
Happy to write an unfinished symphony. Nothing gets completed this side of death and eternity. What we do gets undone. That’s OK. Completeness is coming in God’s sweet time. ‘Now we only see a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.’3.
Comfortable with the broken and the provisional. Happy are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for right, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the laughed-at. This also implies a discomfort with the pat, the glib, the primped, the simplistic, the triumphalistic and the schlocky.
Refusing to be miserable. The Universe continues because of God’s zest for life, despite everything, and his insouciance that it will all probably work out somehow. In sorrows, wounds and in the inexplicable, we join God in his childlike faith.
The New Atheist movement, headed by its ‘four horseman’ of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennet and Sam Harris, so influential in the early 2000s, has, I read, ‘fractured and lost its spirit’. 1
The author of that quote, Sebastian Milbank, a critic and editor and (I think) Blue Labour sympathizer, notes that part of the reason is that the political left has shifted. Back in the day of Peak New Atheist, the left (in Milbank’s telling) were happy to stand on science and observable facts and what worked rather than the religion-inspired dogmas of the right-wing. So New Atheism with its talk of reason and evidence, was a natural fit (regardless of the politics of the Four Horsemen themselves): a powerful alchemy: the trendy centre-left fused with a newly articulated atheism.
But as well as New Atheism splintering internally, the political left has headed towards (again in Milbank’s telling) ‘an ideology of “care”; ‘the lived experiences of victims’; ‘indigenous ways of knowing.’ Cruelly, it might be said to have headed for the touchy-feely and the subjectively felt instead of the proven, and may indeed have come to view science and rationality as a power-grab rather than a bipartisan quest for common truth and common good. This is bad news for New Atheists, who don’t have anything else to offer, don’t do touchy-feely at all, and who have been left becalmed by the fickle winds of the zeitgeist.
Then look at what the ever-thoughtful Peter Dray writes.2 He works for the Christian student movement UCCF and is a keen observer of changing trends in student life. He quotes the ‘Russian born satirist, author and political commentator Konstantin Kisin’:
The reason new atheism has lost is mojo is that it has no answers to the lack of meaning and purpose that our post-Christian societies are suffering from. What will fill that void? Religious people have their answer. Do the rest of us?
Dray goes on:
It’s this kind of existential questioning that characterises many students today. If there is no God and no purpose, and the universe is wholly indifferent to our lives, then what’s the point? How can we make sense of our apparently innate sense of justice? Where can we turn when we feel overwhelmed by life’s anxieties? Are we really happy to reduce love to an unfortunate side-effect of our evolutionary psychology?
He argues the key challenge (for those seeking to present the Christian gospel to students) is now ‘demonstrating the uniqueness of Jesus in a world of therapies.’ And he says, We should surely celebrate that today’s students are asking deep existential and personal questions that only Jesus can truly answer. To those with eyes to see, Jesus is clearly about to offer a weightier, more substantial hope – one which addresses us not just at an emotional level but which calls us to repentance and faith, and to life with the living God.
All fascinating stuff. A challenge for me personally, because the realm of science, logic, evidence and the common good is home ground for me. I would be quite happy to dialogue there with New Atheists. Jesus, I would argue with them, is the piece of rogue data you can’t ignore. If he rose from the dead, that upsets everything, even the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which is everything.
But what is revealed by the new zeitgeist, if accurately observed in today’s students (which of course must only be patchily true), is surely the shortage, and the centrality, of love, and the golden shackles that bind together love and meaning in the human frame. These things are beyond reason and science and therefore beyond New Atheism and its parallel, Christian apologetic.
Jesus is the way and the truth and the life and God is love. All else falls before the grandeur of this.
Mental health demonstrates a wide bifurcation between Western and other worldviews.
The ancient Greeks, lending their day-to-day language to the writers of the New Testament, had simple terms that undergirded simple ideas. There were such things as ‘unclean spirits.’ People could be bothered by these unclean spirits and could thus be ‘demonized’.
When Jesus came along, he was able to wear this worldview effortlessly. He spoke on occasion to evil spirits within a person; they spoke to him, usually calling out curses; he cast them out; the patient recovered. It’s worth remembering that Jesus also ‘rebuked’ fevers and indeed ‘rebuked’ the wind and the waves. But as regards ‘unclean spirits’ he didn’t feel a need to update the ancient worldview; he operated successfully within it.
Western medicine has, I think, turfed out this worldview entirely, even though plenty of people still hear voices, voices that tell them to do evil things, and even though some people would self-diagnose as ‘demonized.’
Once I was on a conference call with a sick and very damaged person (he had been tortured). The leader of the call asked if anyone was in the room with him. The answer? No-one, he said, except the demon who watched him all the time and never left him.
Essentially, I think (and this is not my subject) quite a few Western-trained mental health workers would think the person self-diagnosing as ‘demonized’ was actually deluded and deceived and essentially, misdiagnosed. (I don’t want to downplay, though, the tenderness and skill with which some people within Western diagnostic traditions will nevertheless work with such a patient.)
There are plenty of fine reasons for this Western stance. Unfortunately (and I am very hestitant here because it really isn’t my subject), Western mental health is still in my view rather primitive. I wonder if it isn’t, in fact, roughly where Western physical medicine was about 300 years ago–dogmatic, authoritative, ineffective, its practice centred around humours, bleeding, and leeches.
How often are the mentally ill cured? I do not know. To what extent is mental illness itself a metaphor– in the sense that we sort-of know what physical illness is and (by way of metaphor), describe other things wrong with humans as ‘mental illness’? Are we medicalising something that isn’t an illness? For example the widely-cited Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) has a new entry called ‘Prolonged Grief Disorder’. This in effect medicalizes people who suffer bereavement for longer than might be considered normal. I don’t know enough to critique this properly, but at least on the face of it it seems odd to give a medical label to someone who’s taking a long time to move on. If you can’t pull your socks up in a decent amount of time, DSM-V seems to say, there must be something medically wrong with you and you need a psychiatrist. I am not entirely sure that I am happy with this, nor that it is right to use phrases like ‘mental health epidemic’ when more and more stuff like this is unearthed. ‘Mental health terminology epidemic’ might be equally fair. The wave of sadness and depression that is passing through the country, is, of course, not doubted, just (arguably) not properly diagnosed and even if the diagnosis is right, isn’t being ‘cured’. Or isn’t being cured all that much. People are still suffering and sad, which is the real scandal. People are still plagued with voices and terrors.
This circles back to the bifurcated worldview. It would be fine to disparage and move on from the ancient worldview if the modern worldview wasn’t, in itself, so frequently ineffective and disappointing.
I was enjoying spending time in Matthew’s gospel the other morning, the first chapter about the lineage of Christ. But keep reading. It’s subtle and clever, I think, even subversive.
Most people quote lineages to show the nobility of their birth. (Actually our pedigree Labrador did the same). Matthew does some of that, of course, but the subversive bit is that he only mentions four women – – five if you include the Virgin Mary – – and none of the four are what you’d call conventional, good Jewish girls. They span the range of scandal and tragedy, all females in a man-centred, sexually-objectifying world. Tamar, a sex worker, was impregnated by her father-in-law. Rahab, another sex-worker was a foreigner and an enemy. Ruth was a returning refugee. Bathsheba was seduced by King David when she was married to another man, and, stripping naked on her roof in sight of the palace, may have not been totally blameless in her conduct.
So the four women who were none of them conventional good Jewish girls (Ruth perhaps excepted) were highlighted by Matthew as blood relatives of the Messiah, part of his noble pedigree. Was Matthew gently reminding his Jewish readers that nobody’s excluded from having a part in Christ? That nobody’s history or reputation excludes them?
A second thing about Matthew’s genealogy was that surely he was making theological points rather than strictly historic ones. It reads to me like a stylized re-telling. Matthew was dealing in ‘who we are’ (truly) rather than ‘who we are’ (precisely). (There’s a lot of this in the Bible as everywhere. News reports, for example, are always stylized; they simplify to amplify.) In Matthew’s telling, then, there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David; fourteen generations from David to Babylon; fourteen generations from Babylon to Christ. Put this way it becomes a vignette of salvation history.
Fourteen generations from Abraham: the pioneers become a power. That is not just Israel’s story. It is the Muslim empire’s story, America’s story, the British Empire’s story, and on a wider canvas, the story of every world-dominating thing.
Then, over fourteen generations, the empire, corpulent and corrupt, is swept away, to Babylon. And it seems like the end; the bones scattered at the mouth of the grave.
But then fourteen generations from Babylon to Christ. Babylon to Christ! Matthew’s genealogy says, don’t be bogged down in the noise: learn to see the signal. History’s going somewhere, but it takes its time and has its seasons.
Postscript: A kind critic pointed out that it was not fair to call Tamar a sex worker. My friendly critic is completely right. Sorry for the careless writing. I find it impossible to entangle the rights and wrongs in Tamar’s actions, given her very limited choices and the distance of her culture from mine. But I suppose the general point still stands: Matthew seemed to alight on some unlikely women to name explicitly in his genealogy, and it’s a decent assumption that he was reminding us all of Jesus’ love and inclusion for those of who might doubt our insider credentials.
If you are a church group wanting to start some social ministry in your community, three principles stand out, I think:
Set well-recognized, high standards. Aim to be widely respected.
Don’t charge people for your services but trust that the money will come in somehow.
Go to where the Kingdom of God will have the most impact; start at the bottom of the barrel.
These are derived from Jesus’ instructions to his itinerant-healing-and-preaching disciples in Matthew 10:
Find the home of a local, well-respected worthy and lodge there. (This gives social accreditation of decent standards)
‘Freely you have have received, freely give’ but ‘workers deserve their wages’. The disciples’ stance was to serve for free, but to trust that they would be recompensed; God’s work, done God’s way, won’t lack God’s supply.
‘Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’. There are two ways to read this verse: assume that all the house of Israel are lost sheep; or perhaps the more straightforward one: the house of Israel has some sheep happily grazing, but others who are lost. Go to the lost.
This made me think of two charities that I know about or have recently learnt about. Romsey Mill in Cambridge works with families and youth, and has various specialities, such as groups for young fathers, or for young people with ASD. St Luke’s Advice Service in Brighton offers help to people with debt or disability, often navigating government bureaucracy on behalf of their clients. (I didn’t contact either charity before writing this, which is off my own bat.)
is widely respected in the community (St Luke’s has commendations from each of the area’s three Members of Parliament)
Offers services for free or for a notional contribution. The real funds come from fundraising; leveraging available Government funds; and calling on a volunteer workforce and local goodwill. Local churches and maybe other groups like businesses or charitable groups see each charity as a legitimate outlet for community service. The goodwill of churches was behind their founding and helps to sustain them without compromising their specific focus or standards. So their money mostly doesn’t come from their clients and their work is not for profit. There are no strings attached.
Is set up for the people who most need help.
What a vision: the churches of our country patching the holes in our social support networks, in that way finding a ready audience, and living out and demonstrating the Kingdom of God in the sight of all.
Gavin Francis’ book Recovery — GP’s take on the neglected art of convalescence –:
has a brilliant example of what good, or harm, our minds can do as part of our well-being; worth quoting. Francis talks about two middle-aged men who ‘a few weeks apart both suffered a cardiac arrest and collapsed, ostensibly dead, but who were successfully resuscitated with electric shocks. Both were then fitted with portable electronic defibrillators …[that were] about the shape and size of a matchbox’. If either man collapsed again, ‘the portable defibrillator would sense the change and shock the heart back into a healthy rhythm.’
‘For one of the men, the intimate experience of the proximity of death, the fragility of life and his new reliance on the implanted defibrillator was utterly traumatic. He began to suffer panic attacks and fiddled ceaselessly with the swelling beneath his collarbone. He couldn’t find a way to stop fretting that it might fail. At the time of his cardiac arrest he had been working as an administrator but he found himself unable to go on working. He was afraid to be alone, and his nights became a torment of insomnia.
‘For the other man, the almost identical experience of collapse and then resurrection became an epiphany of gratitude. His new life was a gift, he said, for by rights he should now be dead, and all the tedious, niggling irritations that once troubled him seemed to dissolve. It was enough to be able to breathe this air, walk on this earth, see his grandchildren. He had always lived modestly, but now began to emjoy sumptuous meals, fine wine, and booked holidays to places he would never before have considered visiting.
‘He had died, but then he lived again, and that new life into which he was born seemed one of richness, tenderness and gratitude.’
More about the teaching of Walter Wink, as mentioned last week, in his book The powers that be, which was a later summary of earlier work.
Wink teaches that every institution possesses an ‘outer, physical manifestation’ and ‘an inner spirituality, corporate culture or collective personality’ (p24) and combined they correspond to what the New Testament called ‘powers’, which were a tangible part of life back in New Testament times. Materialism has slanted our impression of them, but perhaps they have not gone away.
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12).
For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him (Colossians 1:12).
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers … will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39).
Are these ‘powers’ good or bad? It is customary in my part of the church to think of them (or at least the spiritual components) as ‘bad’, spiritual remnants perhaps of an original fall that led to the fall of some spirits into evil; the same worldview as can be found in the Bible and which John Milton used in Paradise Lost. And it is true that Jesus is never recorded as coming across an evil being that he wished to redeem. He apparently wished to expel all of them from his good creation.
In Wink’s view, however, the powers are:
He argues that:
These three statements must be held together, for each by itself is not only untrue but downright mischievous. We cannot affirm governments or universities or businesses as good unless we recognize at the same time that they are fallen. We cannot face their oppressiveness unless we remember that they are also a part of God’s good creation. And reflection on their creation and fall will seem to legitimate these Powers and blast any hope for change unless we assert, at the same time, that these Powers can and must be redeemed. But focus on their redemption will lead to utopian disillusionment unless we recognize that their transformation takes place within the limits of the fall.
Wink, op. cit., p 32
Whether or not the Powers can be redeemed (or merely expelled), the material, earthly institutions certainly are created, fallen, and can be redeemed. At the moment this is within the limits prescribed by our current fallen world; in the future it will be fully so, as part of New Creation.
This is eye-opening stuff:
Institutions have a spiritual character as well as a material form.
Institutions are good, fallen, and capable of a degree of redemption.
They will be fully redeemed at the so-called eschaton, the full arrival of the New Creation.
How can the Powers be opposed? How can institutions be redeemed, or at least cleaned up a bit, capturing more of their divine vocation?
I have to skip over a large and brilliant part of his analysis here but the central understanding is that violent overthrow won’t do it. All violent overthrow does is replace one system of spirit-fueled domination with another. A revolution is rightly named: it’s just the turning of the same wheel. What do ‘work’ (and again I am oversimplifying) are the things Jesus taught so directly. Turn the other cheek. Hand over all your clothes if someone takes your cloak. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hurt you. Feed and water your enemies. You want to lead? Be a servant. You want to line up with God’s rule? Be a child. Jesus himself entered Jerusalem on a donkey, not a charger. He won the day by going to his death like a lamb to the slaughter.
The aim is not conquest, but relationship: humanizing the oppressor, so that oppressors are themselves liberated from being oppressed by their own oppressive behaviour: ‘today, salvation has come to this house.’ These same acts also restore dignity and agency to the victim.
That’s how we ‘win’. And the winning may not be seen in this life, or certainly only partly seen, but it is putting a foothold in eternity, it is filling up our storerooms in heaven, it is investing in the future.
In his striking and unusual book, the late theologian Walter Wink writes this:
This book is unashamedly about things spiritual. It assumes that spiritual reality is at the heart of everything, from photons to supernovas, from a Little League baseball team to Boeing Aircraft. It sees spirit– the capacity to be aware of and responsive to God –at the core of every institution, every city, every nation, every corporation, every place of worship … [It] celebrates a divine reality that pervades every part of our existence.
Walter Wink, The powers that be, 1998, Galilee Doubleday, p 13
Wink points out that ‘Latin American liberation theology made one of the first efforts to reinterpret the “principalities and powers” — which occur naturally in New Testament writing — ‘not as disembodied spirits inhabiting the air, but as institutions, structures and systems … Powers such as a lumberyard or a city government possess an outer, physical manifestation (buildings, personnel, trucks, fax machines) and an inner spirituality, corporate culture or collective personality. The Powers are simultaneously an outer, visible structure and an innner, spiritual reality’ (p24).
This is striking and unusual stuff. As Wink goes on to point out, when it comes to ‘Powers and principalities’, ‘fundamentalists treat the Powers as actual beings in the air … and secularists deny that this spiritual dimension even exists’ (p26).
The elegance of this outlook is that it roots the New Testament worldview into everyday structures of injustice and unrighteousness (or indeed structures of justice and righteouness). So by doing battle against, say, injustice, you are actually resisting spiritual powers, for which the gospel offers weapons and tools.
For example, Ephesians 6 says:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Ephesians 6:10-12 NIVUK
This scripture makes a lot of sense in contexts where spiritual forces are rife and obvious, where local industry manufactures charms and amulets, and where you can buy services like spells, curses, protection from the evil eye and love potions. I have worked with many missionaries who have spent time in those contexts and found New Testament-type solutions beneficial and fruitful.
It’s a lot harder though, in secular and materialist contexts, to know quite what to do with all these scriptures.
Wink offers a further insight. These powers, he claims, become fallen and demonic when they pursue ‘a vocation other than the one for which God created’ them (p29). So, calling an institution to be just and and upright and to fulfill the purpose God intends for it, is not just a matter of (for example) campaigning but is also a spiritual conflict requiring the kind of spiritual weaponry that the gospel offers. This is because the institution involved has a spiritual face as well as a material one.
This makes a lot of sense.
Ir explains why in the book of Revelation, letters are written to ‘the angel’ of each of the seven Asia Minor churches — not to the pastor, or the leadership team, or the congregation, but to the spiritual reality, the culture, that they together contribute to and embody.
It explains why in the same book, earthly realities are described withthe imaginative imagery of dragons, beasts and whores, a spiritual view of human institutions.
It helps make sense of the Beatitudes, which sees human attitudes and behaviours as having potency as spiritual weapons: Are you spiritually bankrupt? You’re blessed: yours is the reign of heaven (Matthew 5:3, my paraphrase).
Here’s his summary:
Evil is not just personal but structural and spiritual. It is not simply the result of human actions, but the consequences of huge systems over which no individual has full control. Only by confronting the spirituality of an institution and its physical manifestation can the total structure be transformed.
Just finished an illuminating book called ‘Recovery’ by practicising GP Dr Gavin Francis. I am drawn back again to the idea of healing (I was in hospital when I wrote this) and really enjoyed how this book taught me things I’d previously groped towards. Some snippets:
We fall ill in ways that our profoundly influenced by our past experiences and expectations, and the same can be said of our paths to recovery. (p8)
Green and growing
He talks of the difference Florence Nightingale made in the Crimea, how hospitals should have ‘the proper use of fresh air, light, warmth, cleanliness, quiet, and the proper selection and administration of diet’. (p 13, quoting Nightingale’s own 1859 Notes on Nursing). Windows should look out something green and growing. After her arrival in 1854, the rate of soldiers dying from their wounds fell from 1 in 2 or 1 in 3, to 1 in 50
But in changing times and with new drugs something has been lost:
It’s not possible for me now, as a GP, to admit a frail, elderly patient somewhere for nursing care and convalescence alone – the hospital gates don’t open unless there’s a medical diagnosis, and a plan in place that prioritises getting the patient out again as soon as possible (p15).
You might not find ‘convalescence’ or ‘recovery’ as a heading in the medical textbooks but you will find ‘post-viral fatigue’… Long-term symptoms from viral infections will be different for everyone, but can include varying amounts of breathlessness, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, mood changes, insomnia, weight-loss, exhaustion, muscle weakness, joint stiffness and flashbacks.
All these are to be considered normal – not evidence that recovery has stalled or is going (p20) into reverse.
He suggests ‘pacing’ as the route forward – not the boom and bust cycle of activity and exhaustion, but steady efforts, frequent rests, small meals, not doing much for an hour after a meal, getting fresh air, sitting down a lot, avoiding exerting. With boom and bust, your world narrows; with careful pacing, it slowly widens.
Work aids recovery
He talks about the world of sick-notes, and that doctors are better coaches than judges. ‘Many of the patients I sign off from the obligation to find a job could undoubtedly work in some capacity, at something, if support were available to help them do it… Work aids recovery in all sorts of ways… If I could sign my patients up to a supportive back-to-work scheme, rather than simply signing them off sick, I would‘ (p27)
A misfortune whose cost should be shared
He notes Aneurin Bevin’s championing of the idea that illness is ‘neither an indulgence for which people have to pay nor an offence for which they should be penalised but a misfortune the cost of which should be shared by the community’ (p 29. Bevan was borrowing his ideas from T H Marshall, a sociologist.)
Are we going anywhere? Are we nearly there yet? The fun thing about blogging is that you can attempt subjects in which you are completely and entirely out of your depth.
This has all happened because I was listening to a set of lectures on St Augustine’s City of God, as I have written elsewhere.
The question is easy enough to pose: are we (as a species, or even as an entire created order) going anywhere?
First let’s congratulate ourselves. No other beasts or plants are asking this question. Even our brother apes appear not to worry much about the tides of history; they are happy knowing where the next banana might come from.
One possibility is that history isn’t going anywhere: it’s just random, pointless noise.
A second, more popular I think, is that it is in some sense cyclic: the rivers pour into the sea, but the sea is never full; what comes around, goes around; no-one can ever say, ‘this is new’; that kind of thing.
A third, beloved of Christians, Muslims, rationalists, communists and many cosmologists among others is that history has a direction, it’s going somewhere. Some science fiction too: ‘Space,’ said James T Kirk, ‘The final frontier’: the universe is a giant unploughed prairie, just awaiting the covered waggons, and that is our story and destiny. The idea of ‘Progress’ and ‘Progressive policies’ still resonate, and when we see the decline of poverty and the advance of medicine worldwide, we can sort-of believe it.
It’s possible to argue that this idea of history having a direction, a start and an end, originated somewhere in the Judeo-Christian scheme.
Augustine saw history this way. For him, history had a direction and the big clue was the incarnation of Christ, when the beyond-time God hitched himself to the time-bounded creation. There was a time before this happened; there is a time afterward; there is a direction for the future.
It must be very bad form among proper historians, I imagine, to believe this. But I think it is Christian orthodoxy. History is about conception, resurrection, consummation, all around Christ, all about the timeless God involving himself with his creation and eventually filling it out with love and making it whole.
Surely this idea can be criticised all over the place. But it does give a point to each of our individual lives. The point: everything we are and do now that anticipates, outlines, foreshadows or even hastens that consummation has point and value. Everything that doesn’t, doesn’t. Not only does history have meaning and direction, our each individual moments have too–and they revolve around love.
I read a short article by Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the NHS federation, in the current Wired magazine (July-August 2023). This is an unashamed abridgement of that fine article.
Taylor points out that the human species is better at developing technology than thinking through its consequences. He sees these issue for the NHS:
A revolution in diagnostics. This really good thing– catching disease early– depends a lot on how willing we are continuously to monitor our health. This is not so simple. Already there are harmless incursions in my life. Under my bed is a device that downloads my pacemaker data and sends it to my hospital in London. One time when I was developing symptoms, they asked for a download, then called me in, then re-timed the pacemaker and fixed the problem: really nice. On the other hand, when I was in hospital recently, nurses were taking observations several times a day. My observations are problematic and sometimes set alarms off. At least twice they sent a more senior nurse to redo the observations as they didn’t believe what a junior nurse had recorded. These constant readings do no good whatsoever to how I feel about myself. They are stressful and discouraging. Heaven forbid that I should have a thing on my wrist that did this to me all the time.
The fact that diagnostics are usually probablistic, not black-and-white. In any case, diagnostics don’t help as much you’d like. If you might develop cancer, or might not, but will develop side effects to treatment, whaddya do?
Inequality. Matthew Taylor points out that technology empowers people, but usually it is only some people, and inequality increases given that other people, already disadvantaged, don’t benefit. (This actually is a slightly curious argument when things are on average getting better, but let it pass.)
Finally he talks about care. He makes some fascinating observations: ‘Medicine is technocratic and scientific; care is human and relational‘. Medical expertise is sort-of expected by us patients; care is what makes the difference to how we feel about our treatment. That is very true in my experience.
Medicine is technocratic and scientific; care is human and relational
He points out this issue is especially important in end-of-life care. End of life treatment is usually the most expensive medical phase in a person’s life, but still ‘a lot of people don’t get the end of life care they want. They might receive expensive care, when they would rather have cheaper care that’s more humane, at home, with loved ones.‘ This is fascinating. Having watched friends die both in government hospitals and in our local (charitably run) hospice, I know which of the two I would choose. Give me the lovely hospice every time.
Perhaps a contribution that people of Christian faith can offer in their last days is choosing not to have every possible intervention to keep us hanging on, but to decide our time’s up, go home, or to a hospice, to face the end of life in peace? It is oddly the opposite of euthanasia, realizing our time has come and accepting it. Interesting.