elite – mass – market

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Ford’s Model T began the mass availability era in cars, which are now in the market era.

Medical services, education, churches, and a variety of other institutions are experiencing a kind of existential crisis in the UK, and despite their obvious differences, there’s a common underlying cause for all of them.

Before the inevitable objection: yes of course the picture isn’t exactly the same everywhere: some places demonstrate the crisis much more distinctly than others, churches are an easy example, some have dwindled to next to nothing, others burst at the seams.

Across the board, proposed remedies abound, most of them involve resource, usually money, some of them seem to work, others demonstrably don’t – the same is true across the sectors.

What appears to be missing in some areas, perhaps most obviously the church, though, is a recognition that all of these institutions are dealing with the same set of problems. This set of problems arise from the fundamental paradigm shift from elite, through mass, to market. An easy way to demonstrate that shift is with education, even recently, education was very much something by and for the elite. That’s not to say that ‘ordinary’ people didn’t participate in education at all, of course they did. Ordinary people often learned to read and write, and some reaped the rewards of higher education to an extent, but fundamentally it was about the elite, they were the best educated, they had access to the best schools and the best universities. They had the capital (in all its various sorts).

With the era of industrialisation however, came a new need for mass education, and a new means of delivering it too – most notably it began to be made widely available free of charge. Slowly this filtered all the way through the education system, eventually becoming fulfilled only, I would say, in the second half of the 20th century. People like me, and others roughly categorised as Generation X, certainly experienced mass education, as did some of the Baby Boomers. But arguably, and this is a moot point I suppose, elite education was still phasing out for most of the 1960s, obviously it remains in pockets, as some private schools and ‘top tier’ universities demonstrate.

Mass education was very much seen as education for the common good, in part it was ideologically driven, just as the NHS was set up according to a common good ideology, and just as Bibles (long before) had begun to be made widely available in languages which could be read by the ordinary person, and eventually distributed free of charge. There was then a very rapid transition from mass education to marketised education, which is very much where we are now. Since the late 1980s in the UK, education has become branded and competitive, some providers appearing to lose a sense of the common good as they fight for market share and league table placement. In some places this is much more pronounced than others, you may have experienced it yourself.

In the same way other institutions have also transitioned from elite, to mass, to market. The mass era had everything to do with industrialisation, and much of what we did or do reflects that, even down to buildings that look like factories (as opposed to ‘elite’ era buildings which bore a resemblance to palaces or mansions). But while the transition into mass from elite took a long time to happen, and then worked its way though over a reasonably considerable period, the movement to market has happened with astonishing rapidity, leaving many confused and unable to keep up.

hillsongs

Successful megachurch ‘brands’ such as Hillsongs exemplify one form of the marketisation of church.

This movement too has been shaped by technology, in this case the birth and growth of the internet: all of a sudden choice is massively enhanced, and availability is entirely different. Our high street shops are dealing with the same issue, while they operate ‘as’ market, they are ill equipped to compete in a truly ‘marketised’ era, they struggle to compete with online competitors. Hence we see an increasing amount of ghost high streets, and empty shop fronts.

The other big factor of course has been a move towards a greater embrace, from Thatcher onwards, of neo-liberalism, and its prioritisation of the market. Education, healthcare, spirituality, all these things have become understood primarily as consumables, just as is the very act of shopping itself.

As institutions struggle to realise, accept and adapt to this, the existential crisis they experience (notwithstanding the individual differences) will certainly continue.

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peace as disruption?

balanced rockI gave a paper at the Society for the Study of Theology conference #SST2017 this week, the underlying argument of which concerned the idea of peace, and how we conceive of it.

The view I tried to get across, in the space of a couple of thousand largely inadequate words was a relatively simple one: the popular idea of peace (lack of disruption) is distinctly different to ‘peace-as-peace’ which is not characterised by a lack of disruption, but rather by an acceptance of it.

A key characteristic of peace-as-peace is that it can’t be grasped. Peace as lack of disruption can be, it can be planned for, strategised, grabbed hold of. But peace-as-peace can’t, it come as a gift, an event to be experienced.

Peace as lack of disruption encourages the building of concrete certainties, in many cases using literal concrete. It requires the development of borders, of demarcations, of peace walls. In religions it requires the demarcation lines of denominational boundaries and written doctrines.

But peace-as-peace doesn’t need these same safeguards, it has no requirement for dividing lines, or clear statements of purpose or intent. This sort of peace is like the manna that fell from the sky for the children of Israel, it’s not for storing up or warehousing, its for experiencing in the moment.

Alfred North Whitehead warned of the danger of aiming for peace, and ending up with it’s ‘bastard substitute’: anaesthesia. The effect of anaesthetic is to give the sense of no disruption, no pain. But while this may seem like an ideal goal, may appear to be what we want, it is in fact not the blessing it seems.

Peace-as-peace doesn’t try to get rid of the pain, or the disruption, but accepts it and then welcomes the gift of peace in that space. John Cobb said peace is the ‘direct apprehension of one’s relatedness with that factor in the universe which is divine’, leaving us with a sense that of the various nick-names which have been given to that divine nature: God, Great Spirit, Great Fact, ground of being, etc. ‘disruption’ may well describe the divine as adequately as any of them.

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big other is watching you

exploreIt’s been a long time since I kept a regular blog, but after watching social media turn increasingly anti social, and at the same time becoming increasingly aware of its limitations in terms of communicating anything more than a very basic message, I’ve turned back to the blog.

Astute observers will notice of course that this is a new blog, my old site is retired, or at least too tired. Too old and too out of date, and no longer the direction I want to take things. So this is the start of something new.

I’m moderately embarrassed at what I feel is the vanity of having the site named after me – but my long term plan is to post some of my more academic writing here, and for that reason if no other it suits me better to have a site name which refers directly to me. So there it is, that which I have previously disliked elsewhere has come close to home.

Currently my reading and writing is following a number of inter-related themes, they include: ‘the absurd’ arising from writers such as Camus and Kierkegaard; a pursuit of contemporary process theology and theopoetics through the writings of a number of interesting people, particularly Catherine Keller but a number of others too (Cobb, Whitehead, Pittenger etc.; and a continuation of my old obsession with panentheism.

Those who know me will recall that I’ve long been interested in ‘new monasticism’ of one sort or another, and something of that remains, although following in Bonhoeffer’s footsteps I’m now more invested in ‘new theology’, specifically religionless Christianity, than I am in what went before. I’ve certainly developed a more thoroughly pluralist approach, and if anything an even greater concern with the problematic idea of the ‘other’.

Meditation and apophaticism continue to loom large for me too, and I may yet continue to write about what I call Zen Christianity. For now though my main reading/writing focus has to related more directly to my PhD research, which is on post-secular spiritual capital. It’s highly likely that pieces of work specifically to do with that will appear here from time to time (in fact, all the subject above find a home in there somewhere).

I hope that this will become a place where meaningful interaction can take place, I hope too, as time goes on, to produce material which is readily ‘shareable’, but in the meantime, this is just to let you know that the site exists.

Did you like this post? Please leave your thoughts in the comments, and don’t forget to share it on your social media platforms – let’s take the power back.