Dissenting Radical

The Common Good: A 'Christian-Left' perspective on radical theology, progressive politics, authentic culture and sustainable living.

Month: January, 2014

The chief end of man?

Q. What is the chief end of man?

A. The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

(Westminster Shorter Catechism).

It is easy to see giving glory to God as a sort of homage or tribute paid by an inferior to a superior. Viewed this way, glorifying God could be perceived as fawning, obsequious and sycophantic. Giving  glory in this way would be an act of fear and obedience enforced by terrible power – a notion that degrades humanity and makes God out to be a vain and tyrannical egomaniac.

I used to share in these misgivings. This idea of a God who wanted to be glorified seemed very far from the idea of a loving and all-embracing God. Thankfully, I no longer see it that way. From reading Marcus Borg on ‘panentheism’ and John Shelby Spong on the notion of a ‘post-theistic’ God, I have come to reject the anthropomorphic idea of God as a king, ruler, father, judge.  These ideas of God as a paternal authority-figure are human inventions, and a pretty shoddy ones, too; they are exactly the sort of ideas you’d expect from a bunch of gregarious primates run by alpha males in big hats.

It might seem as if I am over-intellectualising here, as if I am reducing God to a metaphor for nature or an abstraction of consciousness, or some other undefinable ‘deepity’ – and that I have moved far away from the ‘God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob’. The theistic God described in the Bible is not only a king and judge, he also ‘walks’ and ‘talks’; he sits on a throne; he is forever turning his face this way and that; he has a penchant for appearing and disappearing at inopportune moments. All this, however, says more about scripture than it does about God. The Bible is a human record of the attempt by early societies – limited by the frail instruments of language and metaphor – to describe their collective experiences of the divine. These are merely descriptions and literary portrayals of God, not God. Yet even the scriptures speak of God in abstract as well as in anthropomorphic terms. God is ‘Spirit’ and ‘Truth’. God is ‘Love’.

Moreover, I can only speak from experience, and can only relate that experience through the restricted medium of written English. When I experience God in worship and in waiting, in thought and meditation, in song and in psalm, I do not encounter a ‘Big invisible king-man Sky-daddy who wants us to grovel before him’. Rather, I become attuned to a seething, beautiful, boundless, ineffable, loving, divine principle in existence.

If we move beyond all this bowing and scraping before the throne of imaginary ‘god-kings’, and towards a a post-theistic (dare I say it, ‘post-autocratic’) view of God, then glorifying God makes sense. In fact, it becomes a highly attractive and compelling ‘chief end’ (i.e. aim) of life.

If God is the source of our highest ideals, our strongest loves, and our deepest human values, then to ‘glorify God’ is to live well – to be the best we can be, to grow in character, love and virtue.

If God is the creative nature of the universe, present in every star and particle, then to glorify God is to love learning, to gain in understanding, to appreciate one’s one-ness with the whole.

If God is the animating spirit of life itself, present in every living thing, then to glorify God is to love life, and live lovingly, remembering that we are all just part of a human family and global eco-system.

(One of these days, I’ll get a spot on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.)

Free trade, fair trade and protectionism

One of the great political battles of the 19th century was between ‘free trade’ and ‘protectionism’. Free trade won. It won so handsomely that it split the Tory party. ‘Protectionism’ has been a dirty word ever since, and ‘free trade’ has become an unchallenged pillar of economic orthodoxy.

The argument in the 19th century was centred on the Corn Laws: free trade meant free trade in (wheat) corn, which meant lower bread prices and lower profits for the landowners; protectionism mean protection for corn, which meant higher bread prices and higher profits for landowners. Free trade was a popular measure, because it benefited the poor against the ‘landed interests’.

What was then a pragmatic response on behalf of ordinary people has now become, however, a grossly distorted and inflexible dogma that serves mainly the rich.

Free trade, in the form aggressively pursued since the 1970s, has locked states into a global system that denies the state regulatory control over the conduct of economic affairs within its jurisdiction.This has cleared the way for multinational and transnational companies, who owe no allegiance to anyone but their shareholders, to dictate the terms of trade for their own benefit, and to hold countries to ransom: ‘raise taxes’, they say, ‘and we will pull out’; ‘enforce labour standards, and we will take our business elsewhere – and still sell the product back to you’.

The time has come to revisit the arguments surrounding ‘free trade’ and ‘protectionism’, and to reassess them against both empirical evidence and ethical reasoning. As Michael Sandel’s works have reminded us, there are – or ought to be – ‘moral limits’ to markets, and it is part of the function of the democratic state to express and defend those limits against the amorality of capital.

Until we cast aside dogmatic adherence to ‘free trade’, we will never get to the root of what is causing economic distress. The only way to end the ‘race to the bottom’ in wages and labour standards is to enable the democratic state to regulate commerce within its jurisdiction, and thereby to enable the people to impose certain limits on capital which are necessary for the common good and for the protection of workers, consumers and the environment.

This doesn’t mean we go back to ‘Protectionism’, however. Protectionism was largely concerned with the self-interest of rich, in-country owners of productive capital, who sought to further enrich themselves at the expense of others. The old nineteenth century critiques against those forms of Protectionism are still valid today.

Indeed,  various current trade agreements (most of which are negotiated under great lobbying pressure from corporate and financial interests, and approved with a minimum of democratic oversight) combine the worst of free trade with the worst of protectionism; only now, instead of protecting the interests of Tory landowners, they protect the interests of the corporate and financial powers. It is free trade for us, when jobs our outsourced to places with weak labour rights, and we are told to take wage cuts to ‘remain competitive in a global economy’, but it is protectionism for them, when they are given exclusive rights over intellectual property.

The answer, as many of us vaguely and dimly perceive, is not ‘free trade’ or ‘protectionism’, but ‘fair trade’.  Unfortunately, few of us have much idea of what, exactly, this means, or how it could be achieved.

Perhaps we should consider a system whereby trade restrictions are linked to the maintenance of fair wages, humane labour standards, and environmental protections. Regional trade treaties could specify that meeting these standards would be a condition for participation in a ‘free trade on fair terms’ bloc. This would be very similar to Jacques Delors’ idea of a ‘social Europe’ in which the protection of labour, social and environmental would be combined with a Common External Tariff (CET). However, rather than being a closed bloc, other nations which reached those standards would be exempted from the CET.

Another potential solution is to apply this not to countries, but to products. ‘Fair trade’ products would be exempt from duties, while exploitative products would be subject to import tariffs designed to make them uncompetitive.

Of course, such forms of fair trade would raise prices, since exploitative labour would not be able to undercut humane labour in the production of, say, bananas or clothing. This means higher living costs. This brings the domestic distribution of wealth into sharper relief.

Neo-liberalism works by cutting: the cuts in wages that are needed to remain competitive must be matched by cutting prices. The end producer, the woman toiling in the banana field, pays the ultimate cost, while the capitalist takes the benefit. It is the perfect system of oligarchy.

A fair trade system works differently. It raises rather than depresses. Higher costs on the shelves must be matched by higher wages; and these higher wages can be demanded, because exporting jobs to reimport the products is no longer an option. The ultimate beneficiary is the woman participating in the banana co-operative, while the capitalist takes the hit, in terms of having to settle for moderate rather than extortionate profits. It is a democratic system.

Moreover, enforcing fair trade standards also means more scope for domestic agriculture, a greater incentive to eat local produce when in season, and more scope for making, making-do, and mending. To place restrictions on trade is to slow down life a little, and to enable us to go from being consumers to creators. That’s got to be a good thing.

New Testament Anti-Clericalism


It’s Baltic around here.

I have several friends and acquaintances who have come from the Baltic states to Scotland to live, work and study. They seem to be largely in favour of independence. Funny, that.

But I’m sure – given the news that David Cameron has been trying to get Putin to oppose Scottish independence – that the USSR-OK campaign will remind them of the many ‘unanswered questions’:

(1) “Without Ruble, what do Separate Latvians for currency?”

(2) “Without mighty war machine of Glorious All-Russian Empire, how do Separate Lithuanians defend from bears?”

(3) “How travel people of Separate Estonia to other countries?”

(4) “How these countries govern themselves, without Great Wise Tsar in Kremlin to keep in order?”

(5) “Where do they get potato, if not Mother Russia give subsidy?” (Grow own potato from clever working hard? Ha! Is not possible for them!)

(6) “Why not Autonomous Oblast? Is best of both worlds!”


I’ve been challenged by this article on weekly communion from ‘Internet Monk’, and I think we need to embrace an active theology of communion and restore its place in what might, for want of a better word, be called progressive christian liturgy.

This might start with four strands:

(1) Communion is an act of defiance and solidarity. In the symbol of blood, we remember sacrifice and struggle, and are brought face-to-face with the fact that the way of non-violent resistance against domination and injustice to which we have committed ourselves often leads to torture and death. It is a call to remember those who now languish unjustly in jail, the captives who are still to be set free. In communion, we express our belief in liberty.

(2) Communion is a foretaste of the future. By our open table, we unite around our common human condition and proclaim our passion for the loving restoration and graceful reconciliation of all things. In sharing our bread and wine equally and to all, we enact a better order, when all will share alike in the common bounty, and when ‘he gathers much will not have too much, and he who gathers little will not have too little’. In communion, we express our belief in equality.

(3) Communion is also a reflection of, and commitment to, community. Passing the cup and loaf is a sacrament of sharing and of compassion. For this, the communalism of the early church (Acts 2: 42-47),  or maybe even the parable of the loaves and fishes, where everyone gave what they had to produce an abundance, is the model. In communion, we express our belief in fraternity.

(4) Communion is a physical process. In consuming real wine and real bread, we acknowledge that we are all part of an ecosystem, and that the basic needs of our lives are met from the earth which is put into our care.

All this is powerful stuff, and I think it ought to be given more emphasis in congregational life. Ideally, it need not only be a symbolic, ritualised, act. In the context of a progressive house church, for example, communion could take place in the form of an actual shared meal – like the Jewish sabbath meal – in which liturgy, hospitality, family, feasting and devotion are combined.

It can also be a moving, beautiful experience. I miss it.