The crisis affecting the economy is a crisis of our civilisation. The values that we hold dear are the very same that got us to this point. The meltdown in the economy is a harsh metaphor of the meltdown of some of our value systems. A house is on fire; we see flames coming through the windows on the second floor and we think that that is where the fire is raging. In fact it is raging elsewhere.
For decades poets and artists have been crying in the wilderness about the wasteland, the debacle, the apocalypse. But apparent economic triumph has deafened us to these warnings. Now it is necessary to look at this crisis as a symptom of things gone wrong in our culture.
We live in an age of supreme individualism that has become a new religion whose first, if not only, commandment is that thou shalt not thwart me in what I want to do, be it bad, good or indifferent. It is natural for all men to want to be successful but in the new religion success justifies greed, and greed justifies indifference to fellow human beings.
While mouthing the word globalisation even in our dreams, we never remotely thought that appalling decisions made in America could cause a domino effect that has shaken our civilisation and made it necessary to give birth to new imperatives. And the most important is that we are more connected than we suspected. A visible and invisible mesh links economies and cultures around the globe to the great military and economic centres. The only hope lies in a fundamental re-examination of the values that we have lived by in the past 30 years. It wouldn’t do just to improve the banking system – we need to redesign the whole edifice.
There have been great cries in the land and great anger. But there is also a stunning sense of the weakness of the individual when confronted by an international crisis. It is the stunning silence that followed the devastating tsunami in Indonesia, when man yet again realised his powerlessness when confronted by the power of nature. We have drifted to this dark unacceptable place together. We took the success of our economy as proof of the rightness of its underlying philosophy. We are now at a crossroad. Our future depends not on whether we get through this, but on how deeply and truthfully we examine its causes. And the omens are not all that good because it seems that the solution to the problem still lies in the hands of those who created it. Judge and jury cannot mix.
We all know the biblical story of Joseph who was sold by his brethren into Egypt. It has even made a successful musical. But the point is that when the lean years did come to Egypt, there was no hysteria, no confusion, no deadening of the spirit. Why? Because someone had had a vision before the event and had prepared the country for it. What we need now more than ever is a vision of renewal.
The international crisis has made one thing very clear. Those whose decisions led to the economic collapse have revealed to us how profoundly lacking in vision they were and still are. This is not surprising. There is a great dearth everywhere of people with vision. Those we have are capable of making decisions in the economic sphere, but how these decisions relate to the wider world has never been part of their mental make-up. This is one of the great flaws of our world – a lack of leaders with a truly ethical vision.
To whom should we turn for guidance in our modern world? Teachers have had their scope limited by the prevailing fashions of education. Artists have become more appreciated for scandal than for important revelations about our lives. Writers are entertainers, provocateurs or – if truly serious – more or less ignored. The Church speaks with a broken voice. Politicians are more guided by polls than by vision. Anybody who claims to have something to say is immediately suspect. We sneer at those who would guide us and only follow our own limited and often bankrupt agendas.
Scientific rationality has proved inadequate in the face of the unpredictability of our times. The story of the biblical Joseph teaches us that the Pharaoh of the time would not have saved Egypt from its seven lean years with the best economic advisers to hand. It took a visionary to do so; one that many of the columnists of our times would have derided right away.
If we need a new vision for our times, what might it be? A vision that arises from necessity, and would of its nature be temporary, or one that guides us towards a new future? I favour the latter. It is too late to react only from necessity. We must bring back into society a deeper sense of the purpose of living. The unhappiness in so many lives ought to tell us that success alone is not enough. Material success has brought us to a strange spiritual and moral bankruptcy.
If we look at alcoholism rates, suicide rates and the growing call to ditch the family on which society has rested for millennia, we must conclude that this banishment of the roses from the garden has not been a success. The more our society appears successful, the more its heart has failed.
Everywhere parents are puzzled as to what to do with their children. Everywhere the children are puzzled as to what to do with themselves. The question everywhere is, after you achieve success then what? If it is true that however rich, few ever think they have enough, it would be a very sterile life if that were the only achievement.
We need a new social consciousness. The poor and the hungry need to be the focus of our economic and social responsibility. The principle of the common good needs to be re-learnt and for that to happen we need leaders who deliberately choose to be guided by principle rather than interest.
The legend of the Holy Grail is of course just a legend. But then mankind has been guided by legends and done well out of it for centuries. It is when he threw out his legends that he found himself in trouble. We need to find the grail that was lost, to find the values that were so crucial to the birth of our civilisation but were lost in the intoxication of its triumphs.
We can enter a new future only by reconnecting what is best in us, and adapting it to our times. Education is intended to free man not teach him ideas by rote. We need to restore the pre-eminence of character over image and wisdom over cleverness.
All great cultures renew themselves by accepting the challenges of their times, and, re-forge their vision and courage in the secret laboratory of the spirit, wrestling with their demons, and perfecting their character. We must transform ourselves or perish.