On this, the fifth year of Laudato Si’, our Justice Officer, John McGeady, draws on Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann’s book, The Prophetic Imagination, to reflect upon Irish climate policy and ideology, and the alternative vision offered by Pope Francis.
In this second instalment of the series, we explore ideology from Brueggemann’s perspective of royal consciousness and the danger of allowing our technological power to become a false idol.
Brueggemann uses the regime of King Solomon as a model for understanding our present society. Solomon’s royal regime is contrasted with the alternative community of Moses that escapes from Egypt and trusts in the God of Freedom: accepting the risk inherent in freedom, and hoping in the possibility of the future. Solomon’s regime, on the other hand, is oriented towards the security of the present: ‘He had traded a vision of freedom for the reality of security.’ (Brueggemann, 2018, p. 33) Brueggemann asserts that Solomon’s regime was imbued with a royal consciousness and secured by, ‘economics of affluence, politics of oppression and religion of immanence’. (Brueggemann, 2018, p. 30) These elements are quite clearly present in our own culture; the economics of hyper-consumerism, the oppression and degradation of ecological order, and the hegemonic ideology which confines our thinking. Brueggemann speaks primarily to the Church, which he sees as having lost its faith and capacity to act morally due to its near complete enculturation to the ‘ethos of consumerism’. (Brueggemann, 2018, p. 1) An idea that echoes American writer Flannery O’Connor’s words: ‘If you live today, you breathe in nihilism. In or out of the Church, it’s the gas you breathe.’ (Wood, 2005, p. 179) As alluded to in O’Connor’s words, the problem that Brueggemann speaks to within the Church is one that readily translates to our secular politics. As Francis notes: ‘The idea of promoting a different cultural paradigm and employing technology as a mere instrument is nowadays inconceivable.’ (Laudato Si’, p. 108) The hegemonic ideology that precludes other ways of imagining our society can be understood as a royal consciousness, both in terms of its numbness to reality and inability to imagine an alternative future.
The royal consciousness that emerges from this technocratic paradigm imbues our culture with ‘a management mentality that believes there are no mysteries to honor, only problems to be solved.’ (Brueggemann, 2018, p. 37) This has reduced our politics to questions of management: ‘the language of “governance” has become ascendant and […] “public life is reduced to problem solving and programme implementation.”’ (Hargaden, 2018, p. 16) Herein lies a profound failure to recognise the difference between problem and dilemma: a problem can be solved, whereas a dilemma can only be resolved; a choice must be made about mutually exclusive outcomes, and an ending must be embraced. Technocratic thinking leads us to believe that that there are no dilemmas requiring sacrifice, only problems awaiting solution.
The Irish Government’s policy response falls into the trap of seeking solutions that avoid real change. The policy decisions were framed in terms of energy security, however real energysecurity is only possible by eliminating our dependence on carbon and changing our mode of living. The concept of security articulated in Government policy instead represents a vision of the future no different to the present. In this we detect how hegemonic ideology or royal consciousness ‘has so enthralled the present that a promised future, delayed but certain, is unthinkable.’ (Brueggemann, 2018, p. 37) The fact that the security they seek actually relies on the very thing that is doing us harm, further speaks to a numbness to truth and an irrational desperation that the future might be escaped: ‘The royal consciousness leads people to numbness. Especially numbness about death. […] All these denials about endings are necessary in the royal community because it is too costly to face and embrace them.’ (Brueggemann, 2018, pp. 41,42) Such denial comes from a belief that any alternative that relinquishes the consumption to which we have grown accustomed necessarily renders life the lesser: ‘there can be no future that either calls the present into question or promises a way out of it. Thus the fulsome claim of the present arrangement is premised on hopelessness.’ (Brueggemann, 2018, p. 60)
To understand the insidious nature of the technocratic and neoliberal ideology as a faith-nullifying and hope-sapping cultural attitude, it is useful to consider it in terms of idolatry. Martin Luther’s definition states: ‘God means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe in Him from the heart; as I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol.’ (Hargaden, 2018, p. 29) Idolatry then can be understood as placing our faith, trust and hope in man-made power when we instead ought rightly to place it in God: ‘[Early Christians] broadened the meaning [of idolatry] to include allowing the desire for anything whatsoever to rise to the desire for or honor of God we should nurture. […] The prodigal son (Luke 15:11-23) thought that he could replace his father by means of his inheritance and self-reliance.’ (Dale, 2017, pp. 146-147)
As human technical ability has exploded since the industrial revolution, a recurring concern is that we have fallen into the trap of believing in our own power, the age old error of hubris. Benedict XVI has pointed to this danger: ‘Entranced by an exclusive reliance on technology, reason without faith is doomed to flounder in an illusion of its own omnipotence.’ (Caritas in Veritate, p. 74) The mistaken faith in an omnipotent technology constitutes an idolatrous attitude towards economics and technology. This attitude is now so ingrained that any attempts to challenge it are resisted: ‘[economics is treated] as not just an article of faith, it was to be a faith in itself. Critical questions around the ‘foundations of belief’ were to be shunned.’ (Cronin, 2017, p. 95) To suggest that technology does not have the solution is viewed with scorn: ‘Opposing this idolatry […] seem unhelpful to a society awaiting salvation in the form of a technocratic solution to climate change.’ (Kennedy, 2017)
In contrast, the faith tradition warns that idolatry is a mistake precisely because it involves trusting in that which inevitably betrays: ‘Once we really confront our idols or seek to depend on them for what we really need from God, those false gods prove that they are lousy gods. Idols are gods that ultimately fail us.’ (Dale, 2017, p. 148) Describing the present ideology’s tendency toward idolatry, Hargaden puts it bluntly: ‘when we consider how the competitive market logic stretches to become the ordering rationale for all of life, we can see how the neoliberal subjectivity falls into idolatry.[…] In Christian terms they are waiting for the intervention of a false god bound to fail them.’ (Hargaden, 2018, pp. 27-29) Francis warns of the temptation to place our faith in the power of technology, even as it betrays us: ‘Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic, and those who are surrounded with technology “know full well that it moves forward in the final analysis neither for profit nor for the well-being of the human race”, that “in the most radical sense of the term power is its motive – a lordship over all”. […] Our capacity to make decisions, a more genuine freedom and the space for each one’s alternative creativity are diminished.’ (Laudato Si’, p. 108) Not only does this idol fail us, it eventually subjugates us, so that we are rendered powerless by our hold on power.
To escape such idolatrous modes of thought instilled by the royal consciousness, and to overcome such policy paralysis requires a belief in the potential of the future, and an acknowledgement that the present must come to an end. This requires hope, not false optimism: ‘it is the task of the alternative prophetic community to present alternative consciousness that can energize the community to fresh forms of faithfulness and vitality.’ (Brueggemann, 2018, p. 59)
Part 3, concluding the series, we look to Pope Francis’ liberating encyclical Laudato Si’ as an expression of prophetic imagination that points to a way out of our present carbon-consumer culture. This will be published on Friday 29th May 2020.
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Cronin, M. (2017). Beyond the Slogans: Future Prospects, Present Dilemmas. In G. O’Hanlon (Ed.), A Dialogue of Hope: Critical Thinking for Critical Times (pp. 95-107). Dublin: Messenger Publications.
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Hargaden, K. (2018). Theological Ethics in a Neoliberal Age: Confronting the Christian Problem with Wealth. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books.
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Kennedy, C. B. (2017, August 28). Agrarian Insights on Ecological Conversion’. Church Life Journal: A Journal of the McGrath Institute for Church Life. Retrieved April 27, 2020, from https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/agrarian-insights-on-ecological-conversion-living-laudato-si/
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Wood, R. C. (2005). Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South. Cambridge: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company.
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