Wednesday, 4 February 2009

A Spiritual Response

It's all doom and gloom. The headlines tell it all. "British economy in recession". "No growth expected for 12 months". "Recession to get worse". "Deep in the mire of recession". So opinion shakers and movers from politicians to stockmarket traders take fright, share prices plunge, pensions plunge, spending dips, our charity giving may come under pressure, recession gets worse. But does the way recession is defined mean that we talk ourselves into something because of unrealistic expectations?

Recession, as decreed by the authorities, is defined as negative growth in a country's national income (gross domestic product) for two consecutive quarters of the year, six months in all. In other words, a country produces less in these months than it did in the months before. No matter that an economy may have been growing by say 3%; if it registers a fall in growth of 0.1% it is in recession. Doom and gloom all around.

But what right have we to expect economic growth to just keep on going up? There is a lot of talk about sustainability. Sustainable growth, sustainable output, sustainable development - these are the buzz terms. If we are to take sustainability seriously then in a world of finite resources we surely need to live within the limits of our resources, not to expect that economic growth will rise all the time. That's just greedy.

Time to revisit John Taylor's classic work Enough is Enough, and to look at recession from a wider perspective. In this book Taylor develops the theology of enough. The dream of the Biblical Hebrew people, he points out, is summed up in the word shalom, "something much broader than peace, the harmony of a caring community, informed at every point by its awareness of God".

"At every point" is a key phrase. It speaks of a "wholeness that is complete because every aspect of life is included", says Taylor. Economically and socially, the dream of shalom finds expression in the theology of enough, he adds: "There are many reference in the Old Testament to covetousness and greed ... ordinary covetousness is simply a persistent longing for something that isn't yours."

In the New Testament, a word that is commonly translated as covetousness, pleonexia, means excess or wanting more and more, says Bishop Taylor. Mark's gospel speaks of greed as an evil which makes a person unclean. In Colossians, Paul urges that greed be "put to death". He warns in Ephesians that no greedy person "has any inheritance in the Kingdom of Christ and of God".

Other writers and theologians have taken up the theology of enough. For example, Michael Schut, the author of Simpler Living, Compassionate Life, says it "allows us to move away from worshipping the gods of consumption and material need. In living out a theology of enough we will no longer expend our physical resources in consumption and our emotional resources in worrying over status."

The theology of enough has implications for jobs. Employment in industries that make goods that go well beyond "enough" may fall. But encouragement from government could stimulate more jobs in industries that make socially useful products - green technologies, for example. It is surely time to embrace a way of life which elevates socially useful products rather than one based on the expectation of more and more across-the-board economic growth.

In such a world we would take it in our stride when the economy grows by 1% this quarter and falls by 1% in the next. Politicians and the public would stop giving ourselves such a hard time about it. We would see sustainability as meaning a steady but changing economy.

The stockmarket might learn to accept that as normal, instead of having a nervous breakdown. It might even stop reacting in a way that makes things worse. We all stand to gain from a change in the way that we view recession. And accepting that enough is enough might, into the bargain, allow us to reduce our carbon emissions.

• John Madeley is an economic journalist and former lay member of the General Synod of the Church of England

1 comment:

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