The headlines were grabbed by the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’s attack on United States foreign policy. But the deeper point, widely missed, was his attack on Western modernity in general.
“There is something about Western modernity which really does eat away at the soul,” he said in an interview with the Muslim magazine, Emel, late last year. And his argument was simple: our brand of modernity turns people into things defined by their function. All too often, we are what we do.
This sort of thing used to be said by Marxists back when they were a more potent cultural force. In the world of efficiency savings, productivity and league tables, human beings are treated more and more as tools in some vast machine-like system. We easily cede our humanity to the impersonal workings of the day-to-day routine.
Which is why, for the archbishop, as for many religious leaders, the key battleground is time. He wants us to resist the frantic fascism of the diary. He calls on us to fight back with a battery of practices: art, prayer, holidays. Not art to make us more sophisticated; not prayer to lobby God; not holidays to get us ready for yet more work — for all this makes us overly functional, as if we must always have some further purpose. Rather, we must learn from our children and from children’s play: something that is joyous and without deeper purpose.
Last year I received just such an epiphany from my kids, who decided that the most important thing to do on a sunny day was to produce a world cup contest of potato chips.
I had persuaded myself to take a break so I could return to work with great vigour. For Alice and Isabella the debate heated up and took on a world of importance. The crucial question: which is the best brand? As I have strong opinions on this subject, I entered the fray.
Graphs and lists were drawn up. New candidates considered, winners and losers endlessly renegotiated. It was the happiest day of the year, yet we achieved nothing beyond enjoying one another’s company.
It’s for the same reason that the archbishop commends the Muslim practice of praying five times a day.
“What is prayer for?” isn’t an easy question because there are vast acres of time where it doesn’t seem to be for anything. But it is time spent with God. It offers the mental and spiritual space that is so hard to come by within the fraught culture of Western modernity.
Religion resists the oppressive efficiency of time management because there is nothing to measure.
Atheists think that the fatal weakness of the God idea is that it lacks empirical verifiability. But a world where everything is measurable and testable is a world where competition can find its way into every nook and cranny of life, allowing no escape from market forces.
Marx said capitalism turns everything into a commodity — and people into objects. Christians would agree, but also see Marx’s uncompromising materialism as being part of the problem. It has been conscripted into the service of capital and forms the bars of our cage.
This is why Marxism failed and why the only people offering a genuinely countercultural critique of Western modernity are to be found in churches, mosques and synagogues. — Â