Saturday, October 29, 2011

Reformation reprise (Sunday Reflections for October 30, 2011)

In honor of Reformation Day, I am reprinting this column from a year ago. It followed an earlier discussion of last fall’s ELCA churchwide lay-offs and many organizational difficulties. Here I respond to those asking what the church ought to do to get past its problems.
The question is a fair one. However, to use a medical analogy, the patient isn’t going to accept the treatment if she doesn’t believe she’s really sick. I think the church has been, and still is, in this situation. The various “fixes” that have been tried over the past few decades have almost always fallen into the category of “If it doesn’t work, do more of it.” In other words, most still believe the church is fundamentally okay but it just needs to do what it does better. The result—to use the quote from my earlier post—has been lots of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
So I’ll cut to the chase and state my conclusion: religion as we have known it is dead—or dying and soon to be dead. Now I am well aware of the signs of life that still remain. Most of those are in parts of the world just now entering the modern industrial world. Where modernism has taken hold, however, religion’s trajectory has been steadily downward for decades or even centuries.
Religion has not disappeared but it is now simply a personal option, a life-style choice. Some people still “enjoy” religion but it’s the way others enjoy music, art, reading, gardening, sports, and so on. In the past, religion was part of the fabric of society. Today religion is just one among many cultural components, all jostling for people’s attention. This cultural “comedown” is why fundamentalist religions are in such a panic. Remembering religion’s glorious past, they are desperately trying to reclaim its power.
The problem for moderate religions, including mainline Christianity, is that we get it. We know what’s happened but we don’t know what to do about it. We know that religion of the past is just that: past, over, done. Yet we also have this gut feeling that there is something of value that needs to be kept alive, even if we can’t quite put our finger on it. That, I think, is what churches like the ELCA are trying to reach for but we’ve been going about it very poorly. We’re like the trapeze artist who just can’t let go of the rope because we’re not convinced another one will be there to grab on to.
A new Lutheran magazine came out at the same time as the ELCA’s latest turmoil and it included Bishop Hanson’s monthly back-page column. When I first read it I admit I thought it was another mish-mash of theological jargon, saying little. Re-reading, however, I decided it actually spills Christianity’s theological beans (though I doubt that’s what Bishop Hanson intended).
Over the years, I’ve come to the realization that Christianity contains the seeds of its own destruction—intentionally so. Historically I think there has always been a minority that understood this but who were oppressed if they started talking about it too loudly. It is a tension that has existed in Christianity from the start, planted by Jesus himself. Perhaps the best symbol of it is the story of his overturning the moneychangers’ tables in the temple. This one we know as the founder of the world’s greatest religion was actually prophesying the end of religion.
Hanson’s essay is titled “Our gospel must be Jesus.” Briefly he describes the many competing, false “gospels” in the world, both secular and religious, with their strenuous requirements for success and salvation. Hanson then uses a series of quotations from Paul (someone else who got it) to describe Jesus’ gospel—of freedom.
This gospel, in Paul’s view, is the healing of all separation and alienation. It exposes the pointlessness of a life of hoop-jumping and rule-keeping. It gives the assurance of every person’s inherent importance and worth. Hanson summarizes this saying: “The good news we proclaim and believe is that Jesus would rather die than be in the sin-accounting business.” Exactly—and to me this is another way of saying, “Jesus would rather die than be in the religion business.”
Which is why Hanson fumbles at the end of his essay. He wants this to lead to a stirring call for revival in the church, but he can’t pull it off. And for a simple reason: it doesn’t lead there and he knows it. Instead we get this:
When we proclaim this gospel with clarity, courage and conviction, the Spirit will be at work, bringing us to faith, freeing us and calling us so mission will flow from it into the various contexts of our lives and throughout the world.
Did you feel the air just seep out of the balloon? Why not say this instead?
When we truly hear and believe this good news of affirmation and freedom, we will go out and live our lives with passion and joy, using our talents and opportunities to the fullest, with love and compassion.
Whether you use Hanson’s statement or mine, it’s hard to see how either necessarily leads to joining a congregation, attending worship services, and serving on the property committee.
Hanson quotes Paul from Galatians in what may be the most revolutionary statement in all religion: “For freedom Christ has set us free.” The irony of our time is that the modern secular world gets this, but the church still doesn’t. It wants to take back the most important thing the gospel offers. Realizing its implications, the church keeps sputtering “Yes but…!” in a desperate attempt at self-preservation. It’s not working. More and more people do get it. Our freedom also means freedom from religion.
So, should the church just shut its doors and hang out the “For Sale” sign? That certainly is happening, but I’m not sure it’s the only option. True to its heritage, however, for it to go on the church must die to be reborn. It must give up what it was for it to become something new and genuinely life-giving. The question is whether the patient will ever accept that prescription.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Living here, now (Sunday Reflections for October 23, 2011)

Emily Rapp is a creative writing professor in Santa Fe, NM. She uses all her talents in a brief, heart-wrenching, yet profoundly wise essay that appeared in last Sunday’s New York Times. Rapp is a relatively new mother but as she writes, at least this time, her experience will be far from what our culture sees as the parenting norm. She describes that norm this way:
All parents want their children to prosper, to matter. We enroll our children in music class or take them to Mommy and Me swim class because we hope they will manifest some fabulous talent that will set them — and therefore us, the proud parents — apart. Traditional parenting naturally presumes a future where the child outlives the parent and ideally becomes successful, perhaps even achieves something spectacular. Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” is only the latest handbook for parents hoping to guide their children along this path. It’s animated by the idea that good, careful investments in your children will pay off in the form of happy endings, rich futures. But I have abandoned the future. . . .
Abandoned, in the case of her 18-month old son Ronan, because there won’t be a future. Ronan, despite multiple prenatal tests, was born with Tay-Sachs, a fatal genetic disorder for which there is no cure. While still relatively healthy, he is unlikely to see his third birthday. Emily Rapp, it would seem, is living a parent’s worst nightmare.
And yet, while difficult and incredibly sad, Rapp is enduring and fully living this experience by throwing out all her previous expectations. She is redefining parenting, and in doing so exposing how distorted many of our attitudes have become—not only about parenting but life in general. She has realized the pointlessness of focusing her life where all the advice has told her she should focus it: on the future.
Parenting advice is, by its nature, future-directed. I know. I read all the parenting magazines. During my pregnancy, I devoured every parenting guide I could find. My husband and I thought about a lot of questions they raised: will breast-feeding enhance his brain function? Will music class improve his cognitive skills? Will the right preschool help him get into the right college? I made lists. I planned and plotted and hoped. Future, future, future. We never thought about how we might parent a child for whom there is no future. . . .
Our parenting plans, our lists, the advice I read before Ronan’s birth make little sense now.  No matter what we do for Ronan — choose organic or non-organic food; cloth diapers or disposable; attachment parenting or sleep training — he will die. All the decisions that once mattered so much, don’t.
Rather than a tiger parent, with her eyes focused down the road, thinking about what’s over the horizon, her attention is on the only thing that matters: this day, this moment. She has instead joined the ranks of an elite group, the dragon parents.
We are . . . fierce and loyal and loving as hell. Our experiences have taught us how to parent for the here and now, for the sake of parenting, for the humanity implicit in the act itself, though this runs counter to traditional wisdom and advice. . . . The certainties that most parents face are irrelevant to us, and frankly, kind of silly. . . . And there’s this: parents who, particularly in this country, are expected to be superhuman, to raise children who outpace all their peers, don’t want to see what we see. The long truth about their children, about themselves: that none of it is forever.
I would walk through a tunnel of fire . . . if it would make a difference. But it won’t. I can roar all I want about the unfairness of this ridiculous disease, but the facts remain. What I can do is protect my son from as much pain as possible, and then finally do the hardest thing of all, a thing most parents will thankfully never have to do: I will love him to the end of his life, and then I will let him go. . . . This is a love story, and like all great love stories, it is a story of loss. Parenting, I’ve come to understand, is about loving my child today. Now. In fact, for any parent, anywhere, that’s all there is.
It is a teaching found in all the world’s great religions. The Buddha said one of the most difficult life skills is to simply be present, to actually live in the here and now. Jesus says much the same in the Sermon on the Mount: "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today.” Or as the Psalmist says, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice in it.”
Of course, there is nothing wrong in planning, in anticipating and preparing for the future. Yet it is easy for the future to become an obsession, especially as it feeds the illusion that we can control our lives. For this is the truth the Buddha and Jesus were trying to teach, and the reality exposed by a story like that of Emily Rapp: life is ultimately contingent and beyond our control, including and especially the fact that our lives will sooner or later come to an end.
So as we plot and plan and scheme, as we make our lists and agendas, as we dash from one essential activity or event to another, it may be helpful to think of other lives, like that of Emily Rapp. The future is important, and dreaming about it and planning for it can be valuable and even fun. Yet as it says in Ecclesiastes, none of us can count our days. And the most valuable of them all is the only one we know for sure that we will have: today.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What were they thinking? (Sunday Reflections for October 16, 2011)

This week I watched a TV program that left me puzzled and more than a little annoyed. Thursday night WTTW Channel 11 broadcast the first episode of a series called Catholicism. It is the creation of, and hosted by, a Father Robert Barron. Barron heads up the Chicago-based Catholic evangelism organization called “Word on Fire.”
And that’s what Catholicism is: an evangelism tool. Ok, but what is it doing on public television? As I looked around WTTW’s website and local newspaper reviews, there seemed be no effort to explain this or even any real surprise at it. Well, color me surprised.
The show is well made with lots of HD quality video shot on-location around the world. Father Barron is certainly an engaging narrator. He doesn’t come across preachy but just enthusiastic.
In the reviews and summaries I read, the program is described as being like a religious version of Kenneth Clark’s groundbreaking BBC documentary Civilization. Father Barron is likened to being Ken Burns (the famous US TV documentary maker) with a Roman collar. To which I say: No and No.
There is one huge problem with this program which belies either of the above comparisons: it doesn’t even pretend to be objective. Instead of scholarship, we get Father Barron giving his personal views on the church. This is all slickly shot against lovely and fascinating backdrops but we are never told why we should believe him. Other authorities are never interviewed and rarely quoted because, for this piece, Father Barron is the authority. This is contemporary propaganda at its most beguiling: believe what I am saying because I am articulate, attractive, and a nice guy. I wouldn’t lie to you, would I?
The first episode is about the life of Jesus. The presentation by Barron is made as if the past two centuries of biblical scholarship never happened. He recounts numerous sayings and incidents of Jesus without even a hint that some of them may not be historical. Most scholars today, for example, doubt Jesus himself ever claimed to be divine, though the early church came to that conclusion later. For Barron, however, this is a key part of Jesus’ teaching and self-identity.
Barron carefully weaves together an appealing picture of Jesus that fits perfectly with traditional church teaching. He does it well and is certainly free to do that. But this is 2011, not 1511. We know so much more now, and Barron surely knows how much more we know now. His choice to simply ignore the mountain of critical scholarship about Jesus and the early church can only be described as deliberate deception.
Why deception? Because of the format of his presentation. It is intended to look like a modern documentary. The audience is supposed to believe that what he says is researched fact, as one finds in a Ken Burns production. But it’s not. Instead, it is one man’s view as filtered through the teaching of his church.
Earlier this year a group of us watched a 1990s PBS program called From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians. It was an episode of PBS’ premier documentary program Frontline, and featured high quality on-location video and interviews with numerous scholars in the field of biblical and early church history. The contrast between this programs and Catholicism couldn’t be greater. While the Frontline series used multiple, recognized authorities presenting the current findings of research scholarship, Catholicism gives us one voice of uncertain qualifications giving his personal opinion.
From Jesus to Christ was groundbreaking for PBS at the time, yet totally appropriate. It easily met and even exceeded their standards for objective broadcasting in the public interest. I don’t understand at all what Catholicism was doing on Channel 11 Thursday night.
Actually, I probably do. The explanation is, of course, money. The program’s production was privately funded. The broadcast is being supported by Loyola University Hospital and a long list of individuals, presumably mostly local Catholics. As a result, this probably isn’t costing WTTW anything and might even be making them a little money. (Another sign of their money status was the program that followed. Rather than pickup—and pay for—the PBS’ feed of Live from Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis, they repeated an old program about the abdicated King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.)
It isn’t my place to tell WTTW what they can and can’t broadcast. Yet to keep their integrity as a public television outlet they should at least acknowledge upfront what they are doing. Catholicism is not a documentary about the Catholic Church (which I would actually probably enjoy watching). Instead, it’s a piece of propaganda.
It really fits into that strange category, common on many cable channels filling broadcast time, called an “infomercial.” Rather than on Channel 11, Catholicism belongs on Mother Angelica’s EWTN network. And guess what? It turns out that is where most of it is going to be shown. The whole series is 10 parts but only the first 4 will be  on WTTW. EWTN is picking up the remainder starting in November.
What I a most disappointed at, however, is the church attitude reflected in a program like Catholicism. Once again it is assumed that ordinary people can’t handle the truth. Instead, they have to be given a highly polished, whitewashed picture of Christianity.
As an evangelism effort, however, I can’t see how this will be anything but preaching to the choir. Contemporary people, and especially young people, know when they’re being sold a bill of goods. This is a day when everything about everybody gets revealed. A soft-focus, romanticized portrayal of the church just isn’t going to cut it. People outside the church are going to smell it from a mile away and be reinforced in their suspicion that religion just tries to pull the wool over their eyes. And in the case of Catholicism, they would be right.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Alien evangelism? (Sunday Reflections for October 9, 2011)

If “Does God exist?” is the most argued about speculative question, then a close second would probably be “Does other intelligent life exist?” Recently a conference devoted part of its time to an overlap of those questions: What would be the religious implications of discovering intelligent aliens?
The “100-Year Starship Symposium,” held in Orlando last week, was sponsored by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Such a “starship” is not currently being developed but DARPA (which specializes in studying somewhat far-out ideas) and NASA have jointly begun a project to explore the possibilities. In addition to the technical how-to questions, the project also wants to look at cultural implications of such an endeavor. Thus, one panel of conference speakers discussed the philosophical and religious considerations of visiting other planets.
The summary I read focused mostly on a presentation by German philosophy professor Christian Weidemann. His talk was titled "Did Jesus die for Klingons too?" and examined the implications for Christianity if intelligent life was found elsewhere. Weidemann identified the main problem for Christianity if such a discovery were made, which is its exclusive claims for Jesus: through Christ, and Christ alone, God saved the whole universe.
It’s hard to tell from what I read just how seriously Weidemann took all this (he is identified as a Protestant Christian). His title certainly implies he was being at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Basically he looks at the problems that would be presented to orthodox Christian beliefs by such an event. His discussion of them has a kind of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” quality to it. Maybe aliens aren’t sinners. Maybe God’s incarnation occurred simultaneously in multiple forms in all the Universe’s existing civilizations. And so on.
I can only imagine how any NASA scientists or astrophysicists present must have reacted to such a conversation. They probably felt like they had fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole. Weidermann is correct that followers of conventional Christianity would be challenged to explain how other intelligent life fits into their view of reality. Yet conventional Christianity has been challenged by multiple scientific discoveries long before this.
To say God saved the world in Christ meant one thing in the context of ancient or medieval Europe. To say it now in the 21st century, and in the context of the pictures of the Hubble space telescope, seems almost laughable. We literally live in a different world than did the original formulators of Christian doctrine. Perhaps asking “Did Jesus die for Klingons?” was Weidermann’s way of showing the absurdity of our situation.
Of course, part of the absurdity is how hypothetical all this is. Is there other intelligent life in the universe? Given the immensity of the universe, it certainly seems possible and perhaps even likely. The difficulty, however, is the immensity of the distances between the stars, let alone other galaxies. It could be a long, long time before we are able to travel just to parts of our own galaxy.
Fifteen years ago the movie Contact explored a number of these questions. Based on a story by the late astronomer Carl Sagan, it hypothesizes alien life reaching out to us. We are “discovered” when earth’s first TV signal (assumed ironically to be the 1936 broadcast of Adolf Hitler opening the Berlin Olympics) reaches them in the Vega system 26 light years away.
As science fiction often assumes, the aliens are far more advanced than we are, but in this case they are also friendly. Their “outreach” is basically to communicate a method for humans to contact them, which is done by the lead character, a scientist played by Jody Foster. The implications of all this are debated by her (an agnostic) and a clergy friend, played by Matthew McConaughey (who is incredibly miscast but this is before he achieved “hunk” status—I don’t think he ever takes off his shirt). The story ends with Foster being forced to ask others to simply believe that she really did contact the aliens, thus raising the issue of faith and doubt even in scientific endeavors.
In addition to allowing us to speculate about the future, science fiction also helps us think about life right now with its “what if” perspective. One of the most interesting part of the movie is the brief conversation Foster has with an alien (who chooses to appear to her in the form of her late father—oh my). He tells her that they have basically solved the social and technical problems that bedevil human civilization. The life question has thus become for them, so now what do we do?
In brief, alien life is about learning and discovering—hence, their reaching out to “contact” human beings. Their explorations are how they deal with two fundamental challenges of intelligent existence: boredom and loneliness. It does raise an interesting question: What is our life apart from solving our problems?
Medieval theology hangs on because it preserves a much simpler world: God is in heaven and all’s right with the world. As much as we might want to, however, we no longer live in that world. The vastness of the universe which we now recognize, both in time and space, is something no ancient religion imagined or could comprehend.
The hypothetical question of alien intelligence raises the very real question of religion’s continued relevance. Any religion that hasn’t already figure out we are in a new world now won’t be helped by the discovery of alien life. Any religion that is contributing to meeting contemporary life’s challenges, rather than being part of the problem, has already come to that realization, welcomed it, and is moving on.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Youth to world: we can do better (Sunday Reflections for October 2, 2011)

Young people are upset and angry with their government:
“We elect the people’s representatives so they can solve our problems, but that is not actually happening. Corruption is ruling our country.”
“The political system has abandoned its citizens.”
“We don’t think they are doing anything for us.”
“We’re the first generation to say that voting is worthless.”
While easily understandable in our own political context, none of these quotes come from Americans. Rather they are the words of young adults in Spain, Israel and India, quoted in a New York Times story, “As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge around Globe.” Young people throughout the developed world are saying what is obvious, but which has been largely ignored until now: that the global financial crisis is the result of a political crisis. For hundreds of millions of citizens, democracy is failing.
The financial crisis is bouncing around the world like a soccer ball: from Iceland to Ireland to the US to Greece to Spain to the US to Japan to Greece to the US to Italy to Greece to . . . . Most of the world’s industrial economies are awash in debt. Normally this isn’t a problem—until it is. Debt is all about confidence. I loan you money on the belief you will pay be back eventually. But we are running out of confidence and now debt is a hot potato. Nobody wants it and it just gets tossed around.
People are losing confidence in more than just international finance. People are losing confidence in their governments’ ability to govern. That’s what the protests that have occurred this year around the world are about, both in Western democracies and in authoritarian countries. The Arab Spring uprisings were certainly due to declining economic opportunities. Yet it took young people, raised in the “open source,” freewheeling culture of the internet and popular music, to boil over in frustration and topple their autocratic elder leaders.
Earlier this year, Great Britain was caught off guard by the sudden irruption of riots and looting in cities across the country. Leaders dismissed the mayhem as simple hooliganism yet everyone knew it was more than that. The recent cutback of government social services was taken by many poor and unemployed young people as yet another brush-off by their country’s political and economic leadership. The frustration and rage was random but not without cause. As British author Owen Jones said, “The young people who took part in the riots didn’t feel they had a future to risk.”
In his 1863 Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln famously defined democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” More and more people seem to doubt the reality of all three of these phrases.
Democracy is never perfect. There are always suspicions and accusations that some group has acquired undue political power and influence. Yet never have such claims been made from people around the globe, and all pointing in one direction. In short: the process has been bought by the rich and powerful; the game is rigged.
The current “Great Recession” is different not just for its length or depth. Its most glaring anomaly is its inequality. Statistical reports around the world all show that the economic elites have come through this economic collapse virtually unscathed. The disparity of wealth and income in the United States is the greatest it’s been since the 1920s. It is no surprise then that the one sector of retail sales at or above pre-recession levels is luxury goods. (The ultimate symbol of luxury, Rolls-Royce, is on track for a new sales record this year, so far up 64% from 2010.)
In all of this the most incredible story has been that of banking and financial services. Recklessness, greed, incompetence, and fraud by the companies of this sector are recognized as the primary cause of the 2008 financial implosion. Yet they were infamously “bailed out” at the height of the crisis and there have been only a handful of prosecutions of company leaders. Salaries and bonuses are as outsized as ever. Government officials have defended this as protecting a critical part of the economy. Lloyd Blankfein, the head of Wall Street behemoth Goldman Sachs, infamously said his business was doing “God’s work.”
The past couple weeks a small and somewhat disorganized protest has begun to “occupy” Wall Street. Relatively insignificant thus far, it may signal a new phase of disillusionment with the power elites of this country, especially by young people. What is more evident is their rapidly growing dismissal of the political process. A brief rise of enthusiasm for the Obama candidacy has quickly deflated. The gridlock and farcical shutdown battles in Washington have renewed their view that the democratic process has become a joke. They see the shrill ideological battles as sideshows to distract people from the growing economic inequalities that have become the norm.
If, as expected, young people stay away in droves from the 2012 ballot box, this should only be taken as a grave warning. If their frustration with a failing economy and lack of opportunity is not expressed by voting, it will be vented elsewhere. History has shown again and again that gross economic imbalances always lead to social instability. No society is secure or can prosper when few of its members believe they benefit from it or that their contribution to it is fairly rewarded.
So I will send a fire on Judah, and it shall devour the strongholds of Jerusalem. Thus says the LORD… because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way. (Amos 2)

Monday, October 03, 2011

A jobless future? (Sunday Reflections for September 25, 2011)

The latest “inside the White House” book is David Susskind’s Confidence Men. It focuses mostly on the making of economic policy by the Obama administration as it struggled to respond to the “Great Recession.” One excerpt that has gotten attention reports President Obama’s belief that rising productivity is the primary cause of the current high unemployment. This stunned some of his advisors.
The prevailing view has been that unemployment rose as the result of a drop in economic demand. A view like Obama’s, however, could lead to the conclusion that growing unemployment is the result of improving efficiency. In other words, more people out-of-work is the unfortunate consequence of a highly productive economy.
There is no question that something is different about this recession. Not only is the basic unemployment rate staying high longer than usual, more people are staying unemployed for long periods and more people than usual are “under employed”—i.e. working part-time rather than full-time or working significantly below their previous pay or skill levels.
On the surface Obama’s belief doesn’t seem to fit with what happened. Unemployment jumped dramatically following the 2008 financial crisis. Obviously this wasn’t the result of a sudden increase in productivity. Yet as a longer-term phenomenon, Obama’s notion has some merit and may partially explain why unemployment is remaining so high.
Before this downturn, a growing number of economists and others have been expressing apprehension about the future of industrial society. Most everyone has cheered the constant stream of technological advancements which have sent efficiency and worker productivity soaring. Nearly every successful business tells stories of how, what it took 100 workers to do a generation ago, it now takes only 25, 10 or 5.
A well-known example is the picture of a typical assembly line before World War II, showing a place bustling with human activity. A similar picture today shows a place bustling with computerized machinery, operated or even just watched over by a handful of people. Computerization has had an even bigger impact in offices of all kinds. Digitizing and manipulating data and information are what computers are all about.
In the case of the assembly line, the obvious question is what happened to the 75 to 95 people who used to work there? Until now it’s just been assumed they found work somewhere else (or their children or grandchildren did). Yet even before this recession there had been a growing awareness that many of the new jobs available were not as good as those they replaced. Statistics now show a majority of households with stagnant or even declining inflation-adjusted income for the past two decades.
The growing concern, then, is that this is becoming the “new normal.” A recent blog post I came across discussed a book written almost twenty years ago, darkly titled The Jobless Future. The book analyzes this now familiar story of automation and job elimination. Its conclusion is that many of the well-paid professional, technical, and production jobs that raised living standards in the 1950s and 60s, and which have been lost, will not be coming back in anything like the numbers needed to maintain those living standards.
The authors do not, however, see this as necessarily leading to economic disaster. Rather, they say we are nearing the time when we need to radically re-think many of our assumptions about life and economic well-being. We are at a point where our society and economy can meet everyone’s basic needs, and even provide a “good” life, but we don’t need everyone working at traditional full-time jobs to do it. As the authors are quoted, “The aim of this work is to suggest political and social solutions that take us in a direction in which it is clear that jobs are no longer the solution, that we must find another way to ensure a just standard of living for all.” The blogger then goes on to say of the writers,
They are as interested in the "satisfying" part of the question as the "standard of living" part. They want to know what sources of meaning, worth, and value are possible for a whole civilization in which work and career are no longer the primary focus? It is an existential question as much as it is an economic one.
And, I would say, it is a spiritual question.
For a long time, people have been aware of the inadequacy of defining our lives by our jobs or occupations, even though we all do it. It is the standard question when meeting someone for the first time: “And what do you do for a living?” Implicit in the question is the assumption that we will then make judgments about a person’s worth and importance based on the answer: conclusions about income, wealth, education, intelligence, character, lifestyle, power and influence, etc.
We are also aware of the crisis many people experience at retirement. A moment people look forward to can nonetheless send them into confusion and depression, as they lose what had been their primary source of identity: their job. This experience, of course, is made even worse when a job is lost through unemployment, compounded by the resulting financial insecurity.
The immediate question is how to support people during this time of economic upheaval and transition. Sadly there has been far too much blaming the victim, with the unemployed being dismissed as lazy, stupid, dumb, or just “unlucky.” If high un- and under-employment is now inevitable, then this needs to be recognized and social policies adjusted for it. Otherwise we face the prospect of increasing social unrest that is the inevitable consequence of having 20 percent or more or our people having little or nothing to do.
In the longer-term, we are faced with the even more challenging question of what do we want human life to be? We are being faced again with the ancient questions of what makes us happy as individuals, and what makes for a good society. Thus far much of our increasing “free-time” has been filled with fairly passive and escapist entertainment. That’s not working so well now and it certainly isn’t going to be adequate in the future.
The question can make us anxious yet it can also be incredibly liberating: Who and what do you really want to be? In the future, with new freedom we probably can’t even imagine yet, our life will literally depend on how we answer that question.