First of all I’d like to thank Sam Norton very much for sending me a copy of his book Let us be Human. It has been provoking me to much thought, which I’m sure he’ll be glad to know. Not all those thoughts are necessarily ones of which he would approve!
The first thing that strikes me, I think by design, is that this is intended as a prophetic book: a word to today’s church summoning it to change, so that how it lives its life and teaches God’s word is truly a gospel – good news – for a world in one hell of a predicament. Sam begins by drawing some significant inspiration from Jeremiah, although I’m sure he hopes for better reviews than the prophet. In what I say I shall necessarily be selective, since in many respects, to grasp the whole of Sam’s argument, you need to read the whole of his book. I hope, if I have accidentally misrepresented his thinking, he will pop up in the comments to correct my misunderstanding.
At first I thought the book took something from the template of a traditional evangelistic sermon. Its first half is entitled “When we were still far off”, and its second “You met us in your Son” – borrowing the language of David Frost’s ASB (and now Common Worship) post-communion prayer based on the parable of the Prodigal Son. And indeed it seems to start off with Sam trying to persuade us how much and in which ways the world is in dire straits and in need of salvation so that we might be receptive to his answers. It’s not quite that simple, since the proclamation of judgement persists into the second half of the book in more complex ways, and the question of what salvation looks like wanders in and out of the argument. However, the proclamation of wrath, while also analysing today’s church and society does seem to be preparing the reader to receive the gospel according to Sam.
In this post I shall try to deal with part one, in a subsequent post with the eucharistic chapters which begin part two, and then probably a third part dealing with Sam’s vision for renewing the earth and the human – and eucharistic – community. Although this is a thin book in terms of page numbers, there’s a lot in it in terms of ideas and passion.
Here, then, I shall do my best to summarise Sam’s initial overview of the human predicament. Predicament is his deliberately chosen way of expressing it. It is not a problem to be solved by human ingenuity, but a predicament from which we need rescuing.
That predicament is well illustrated in his view by (the somewhat controverted concept of) Peak Oil (chapter 1), particularly as a very good example of understanding our life as lived with finite resources in the face of exponential population growth (chapter 2). This latter is considered mainly as an economic and migratory crisis, not as potential for future military conflict. The various strategies of an ostrich, a Mr Micawber or even a (wonderful image of Douglas Adams) a Someone Else’s Problem field, which are among the most commonly adopted are labelled bluntly by Sam as anti-Christian. I did find myself wondering whether there was room for a broader range of issues here. Peak Oil (however much it is an area where Sam is something of an expert) doesn’t seem to me to be so unassailable as to be anything other than a useful illustration of finite resources. There may be other economic questions which might cumulatively support his thesis better. The more wide-ranging the illustrations the stronger (but also more nuanced) the case might become.
He then takes his analysis further using both Alasdair MacIntyre and an author I’ve not come across – Antonio Damasio – to argue (in his own coinage) that we have become an “asophic society” (Chapter 3) lacking in practical and ethical wisdom. He likes the Aristotelian term phronesis to describe this capacity for wise practical judgement (p44). Following Damasio he argues that emotions are an essential component of the processes “by which we evaluate information and make decisions.” (p43) He further suggests that whilst science needs to use what he calls (in another neologism) an “apathistic stance” – putting desire aside so as to investigate the world as it is – as a tool, it has in actuality made the split between emotion and reason an end in itself. “True wisdom depends upon a reintegration of our emotional lives and our rational intellect” (p45) “Science has nothing to say about wisdom.” (p47) You will see that he does not shy away from controversial statements, and like many a prophet before him believes that you can’t nuance wrath or judgement!
This theme – and especially the sundering of rational and emotional decision making – will return again later. Unfortunately so does the vocabulary of asophic, anti-phronetic, and apathistic society, and in this reader’s opinion, at least, the neologisms irritate. Broadly I am in sympathy with it, although I think that some of the criticisms he makes of science are really of technology, and he is in danger of perpetuating a divide between intellectual and emotional knowing when he dismisses science quite so roundly. I found myself wondering whether a more positive appraisal of the patristic treatment of apatheia as a spiritual virtue might have allowed a more rounded appreciation of science’s “apathistic” methodology. The indivisible unity of truth – which seems an essential affirmation about the relation of God and the world – points to the integration of scientific enquiry and human emotion within in a more relational epistemology.
In the following chapter Sam tries quite hard (and bravely) to maintain and reinterpret the unfashionable concept of “wrath” for today, exploring and contrasting pagan and Christian ideas of sacrifice, and arguing passionately for reframing a hierarchy of values with the concept of idolatry – “Idolatry occurs when we make something more important than it really is.” (p49) He is intriguing where he uses Rene Girard and his disciple James Alison to develop a powerful argument about scapegoating as a real human and modern problem. In my view he rather undermines the power of that argument by following the idiosyncrasies of Margaret Barker’s reconstruction of Temple ritual and theology, the evidence for which seems to me to lie mainly in her imagination.
Modern society, and much of the modern church, is (he claims) fundamentally idolatrous in its values, and destructively dehumanising in its behaviour towards both other people and the created order. As such it lies under the wrath of God, since to continue in such idolatry and dehumanisation carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Only the alternative vision of humanity, given, experienced and enabled through Jesus of Nazareth provides the way out of this predicament.
He makes the claim that “This is what Scripture sees as the pagan understanding of sacrifice: there is an angry god who has been offended and needs to be appeased” (p52) The wrath he is talking about is much more a “natural” consequence of living ethically and practically out of sync with reality (going against the natural order (p57), and it includes the way we treat one another as scapegoats and sacrifices, rather than as human brothers and sisters.
This analysis begs some mighty big questions about the treatment of sacrifice in scripture and Christian tradition, and perhaps gives a Girardian understanding of atonement the same dominance that evangelicals tend to award to penal substitution (which presumably also comes under Sam’s strictures of “pagan” understandings). It sits oddly with his attempts to preserve the concept of wrath as impersonal and natural consequence, whereas, however much one might disagree with it, penal substitution in many evangelical versions, or at least its Anselmian satisfaction precursor, is relational and personal in both the exercise of judgement and salvation from it.
Sam’s analysis in this opening part of his book is always provocative and challenging, and makes this reader think very hard not only about contemporary cultural and economic landscape, but about his own complicity in it. Much of the writing does show some of its origins in talks, and there are plenty of places where one feels it’s half of a discussion missing its Q & A session. It’s quite possible that some of my pushing back is simply trying to supply my own Q & A session for his talks, or it may just be a way of resisting some of his challenges! Nonetheless (and this will emerge again in my next post, I think) I am more positive about the modern world and the gains of the so-called Enlightenment than he is, more sceptical of grand narratives and apocalyptic visions, and perhaps more resistant to the prophetic vocation.