Without a vision, the people perish. Let your young men see visions and your old men dream dreams. Those words sound particularly hollow at the moment, and yet they resonate with what is lacking and remind us of what inspired the original followers of Jesus and also the hopes of those who greeted his arrival. Where are the visions now, and what do we have to guide us through what may well be a dark period?
One of the measures of human wellbeing according to recent scholars (Layard amongst others), is that we possess a sense of purpose, that we have some goal towards which we strive and which encourages us to persist when things get difficult. The abbot of Worth Abbey in the UK, Fr Christopher Jamison, a former advisor to the Future of Banking Commission, delivered a lecture in which he argues that whether one is talking about some members of the banking profession itself, or of the rioters or protestors, what is missing is a sense of purpose, a vocation to work for the service of others. When all that we do is purely self-seeking, then indeed our vision is hollow.
For some time now, possibly since the demise of state communism in Eastern Europe and the apparent victory of Western globalized democracy in its neoliberal form, there has been this vacuum in our political life. A non-believing friend asked me where to find the contemporary equivalent of Blake’s New Jerusalem. I note also the French advocate of Science Studies and anthropologist, Bruno Latour, uses the same imagery in his discussion of how his ideas of the relationship between the human and the non-human might have an impact upon ecotheology (2009). He suggests that the fact that the hymn still survives in certain political circles means that religion has to be taken seriously. But where is our “New Jerusalem” and what exactly does it look like?
I think that one of the problems that now haunts us is that all our visions are negative ones, in the sense that we are more concerned to avoid impending catastrophes, be they environmental, social or economic, than we are to think about building something new. To motivate oneself under those conditions is not going to be easy. Even when it comes to the Eurozone, we are told that there is really no shared vision for Europe, no new agreed identity towards which we might work. Survival of the economic infrastructure seems to be the prime directive at the moment and nobody has the courage to look beyond that. But “without a vision”, how do we know we are moving in an appropriate direction?
Badiou, in his survey of the 20th Century (The Century, Polity Press, 2007, Chapter 8), proposes the notion of anabasis – being far out into the unknown, but being unable to find a way back or a way home –as the best image for where we are now. All the grand schemes and desires for the future that were meant to be translated into practical politics have turned to dust as a result of human stupidity and other failings, and all we are left with is this uncertainty about where to go from here. If our only motivation for continuing is either to survive, or to line our own pockets, then we truly have no vision worth striving for. But are we talking about a religious “dream” or a political one? There are colleagues who – perhaps having lost their nerve – argue solely for the religious version, and would eschew all suggestions of an explicitly political dimension to their “New Jerusalem”. Equally, there are those who would want to exclude any faith dimension from their dreams on the grounds of the human failings of so many religious organisations and structures.
Surely what we need now is a human vision, one which takes into account the best and most inspiring of whatever different traditions can bring to the picture. Badiou advocates fidelity to fidelity itself, a commitment that is still prepared to sacrifice for what it believes in, but appears to take less notice of what is being striven for. But we need to exercise some discrimination in the visions that we would follow. Not just any old vision, but one that has some hope for human flourishing and that of the planet at its heart. Otherwise we run the risk of fulfilling the poet’s fear about the worst of human enthusiasm “ the best lack all conviction, whilst the worst are full of passionate intensity” (W.B. Yeats “The Second Coming”, 1921). No way back then, but a way forward that dreams of a future worthy of our shared endeavours, one which brings together the human and the non-human in a new and thriving relationship.