New Year dreams of a better world

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The beginning of the year is traditionally a time to look beyond the messiness of the past year, to imagine a larger and more generous life, and to make good resolutions. It is also a time for reflecting on the character of public life and to ask whether we find there any large vision of a better world. And, indeed, to ask whether we should look for one.

Chris Johnston cartoonCertainly, the business of political life is generally limited to managerial goals, such as cutting the deficit, lowering taxes, cutting welfare and educational budgets, and strengthening the security apparatus. Its rhetoric is small, often mean, appealing to fear and anxiety and promising maintenance of past entitlements rather than a sketch of a better world. The language is abstract, managerial and the metaphors stale and domestic.

If we compare political life of a century ago with that of today, we shall recognise the same narrowness, self-interest and meanness in its everyday conduct. But political issues were set, often fraudulently to be sure, in a larger rhetoric of national vision for which rich images and words came naturally. The contrast between then and now provokes question why this appeal to a larger vision has been lost, and indeed whether it matters.

The loss is partly due to the erosion of the culture which supported high vision and its rhetoric. These drew on the Jewish and Christian prophetic tradition whose words and images were handed on through widespread church allegiance and rudimentary religious education. Belief in an after-life was conventional, and the biblical imagery and rhetoric of hope in a transformed world readily available.

Such images of the future as the proud being put down from their thrones and the poor raised, the city of God descending like a bride adorned for her husband, a green and fertile land, the desert flowering and the lion lying down with the lamb were familiar and flowed easily into the political imagination.

In a culturally diverse society where religious faith has less purchase, and the biblical images of the future are not part of the popular imagination, that tradition is no longer shared. Hope is now generally imagined in technological and material terms or in personal and interpersonal relationships. The language and imagery of politics are correspondingly managerial, technological and domestic.

The loss of a larger shared hope and of the rhetoric to inspire it is a mixed blessing. In the last century secularised versions of a larger vision caused untold suffering. The Marxist vision of a material paradise to be built by eradicating what existed before brought massive suffering in the prison camps of Siberia, and the paddy fields of China and Cambodia. The earlier Taiping civil war in China, rooted in a sick man's reading prophetic texts from Isaiah, cost 20 or 30 million lives. Hitler's vision of a racially homogenous master race sparked war and destruction through Europe. Such movements understandably led many people to turn their backs on large visions and to focus on the pragmatic.

 

"Large visions of a better society provide a goal against which policies and their results can be measured. They make us ask at each point what matters, and whether the policies and aspirations that governments propose will lead to it."

 

These versions of a large hope, however, were distortions of the religious tradition. They treated the vision of a transformed world as something that could be achieved by effort, struggle and conflict, rather than as an unattainable horizon bounding the pragmatic business, both cooperative and conflictual, of public life. In the religious tradition the realisation of the vision was always a gift to be longed for, not a project to be fully realised.

Understood in that way, large visions of a better society are important in public life. They provide a goal against which policies and their results can be measured. They make us ask at each point what matters in society, and whether the policies and aspirations that governments propose will lead to it. Will cutting the budget and the steps taken to do so contribute to a more just and sustainable society? What effects will stopping the boats have on those who implement the policy and on its direct victims, and will it be conducive to a more harmonious and open society? Will the creation of jobs respect the humanity of the workers who are employed?

A rhetoric that does justice to large hopes, too, invites people to test the human qualities of the political process against the affective charge of the rhetoric. Noble words can shame mean words and deeds.

All in all, there is something to be said for political parties and representatives of government to dream largely in the New Year and to resolve to share their dreams.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

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It's hard to see how Australia as a nation can have a larger vision or a larger hope if the eschatological vision inspired by the Christian faith is muted, relativized or sidelined in the public forum, a phenomenon that has trended markedly in recent years.
John | 15 January 2018


In describing the decline of Judeo-Christian Western civilisation so poetically, Fr Andrew, you recall what was once a better world. However, I reckon that any hope that such a world can be resurrected is a dream.
john frawley | 15 January 2018


Andrew Your article seems to indicate that the earlier times were better than now. Yet they led to World Wars and the execution of people because they were seeking a more just existence than the one they were experiencing. The religious faiths of the day sided with the powerful to inhibit what now seems to be just desires. The number of dead and the suppression of women are part of that past. Don't you think at least now there is a chance of eqaulity?
Laurie Sheehan | 15 January 2018


"Noble words can shame mean words and deeds." It is in the life of the imagination and a belief in the extraordinary that we are taken out of ourselves and enter our dreams. This is a remarkably mature way to live. So much of our daily life is taken up with the difficulties we encounter, both personally and politically. Thanks for your dream, Andy. I'd also say to John in his comment about Christian faith being "sidelined" in the public forum: it's up to each believer to show how faith is central to us all.
Pam | 15 January 2018


Andrew I fully endorse your reflection and pray that our Church leaders and prophets will find a renewed voice in the same vein. It would be an added advantage for them to listen to the views and voices of those classed as outsiders and respond with more understanding and compassion than much out dated dogma
Ray Cleary | 16 January 2018


Indeed it is, Pam. The Christian faith originates and finds expression in community, and the fullness of life it offers is for the good of all.
John | 17 January 2018


Pam and John. Community is, as you both intimate, the fullness of Christian life and typifies the community of the early Christians which Vatican II was allegedly seeking to re-enliven. I reckon community is the greatest loss the Church has suffered since then.
john frawley | 19 January 2018


It seems, John, that Christian institutions have done such a good job throughout history at imparting an eschatological vision on secular society, that secular society has now taken over much of that role (which involves striving for God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven) - and now secular society has taken over that role. If churches actually practiced and promoted the main moral/social values emphasised in the scriptures rather than obsessing with minor ambiguous issues like same sex marriage, maybe they'd deserve and command much more respect in the public forum.
AURELIUS | 20 January 2018


Aurelius, are you suggesting it was the Church that placed the same-sex marriage issue at the centre of Australian public life and values? And why refer to this issue as "ambiguous"?
John | 23 January 2018


An interesting reflection Andrew in looking towards an ideal world. Sadly history, and I was a teacher of history for many years, paints a far more mundane image of the past. Sadly regardless of the religiosity of past civilizations, conflict , division and hated have been part of the human experience. Jesus himself experienced that first hand. I have seen religious observance diminish rapidly during my 60+ years on this planet. However I doubt religious adherence has ever been strong in Australia, given our forebears social origin when European settlement commenced .
Gavin | 26 January 2018


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