Materially wealthy, spiritually poor


Universe Column for October 22nd 2006


by David Alton

In 1839 Thomas Carlyle coined the phrase ‘the Condition of England Question’ to describe the social and political conditions – and the associated working-class deprivation and social and political agitation – of the English population experiencing the early decades of the Industrial Revolution.

The preceding eighteenth century had been a time of huge social change and, in England, a time of religious decay. There are a number of comparisons which can be made with our own era – although the accelerated pace of technological and social change means that adjustments made over half a century are occurring now at little less than the speed of light.

At the turn of the nineteenth century there was widespread disenchantment with the decaying established church, there was a newly mobile working class, detached from its traditional rooted-ness in the traditions of  rural communities, the break down of social order and lack of family cohesion. People were also feeling the effects of the Napoleonic Wars, the exploitation by factory and mill owners, and the misery of urban squalor.

It was into this quagmire that the Holy Spirit stepped. He touched men like John and Charles Wesley. The church authorities became so alarmed by their new enthusiasm for their faith that church door were barred against them. It was in the fields and at make shift venues that the re-evangelisation of England began.

In the years that followed, there was significant religious revival right across the denominational spectrum. The impact of the Tractarians and the Oxford Movement would in due course produce Cardinals Manning and Newman as well as great social and spiritual engagement by “High” church Anglicans in highly deprived neighbourhoods.

As the religious renewal deepened,  social reformers such as William Wilberforce spearheaded many of the social and political causes in  which newly energised Christians had begun to interest themselves.

Next year will be the bi-centenary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain. That was the first great achievement of the newly radicalised Christians, led by Wilberforce. They campaigned under the slogan “Am I not a man and a brother.”

Subsequently, it would be other Christians, like Lord Shaftesbury, who would introduce key domestic social reforms – ragged schools for the poor, the Factory acts, the establishment of asylums for disabled people, and many others.

Unwittingly, perhaps, they were putting into practice a maxim of St. Francis of Assisi who said of evangelisation: “Use words, but only when you have run out of deeds.”  They did both.

As with the great European religious movements of earlier centuries – for example, the monastic movement of St. Benedict, the teaching movement of St. Dominic, the call to simplicity and holiness of St. Francis and St. Clare, or the Protestant Reformation of Luther and Calvin, or the Counter-Reformation of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the zeal of St. Philip Neri – religious impulses led men and women to renew their faith and their societies.

Religious revival led to personal renewal and this in turn led to political and social reform and on to the reconstruction of society as a whole. Religious Revival…Renewal….Reform…Reconstruction.  This lesson needs contemporary application.

If, as in 1839, Thomas Carlyle were here to ask his famous question about “the condition of England” – and by extension we were to apply the same criteria to the rest of Europe – what would a survey of post-Christian Europe reveal?

Some pretty depressing statistics about personal unhappiness, loneliness, drug dependency, suicide, family breakdown, and materialism.

If we were to measure the health of European society less by economic indicators – such as the value of the Euro against the dollar or the pound; or the value of the Dow Jones Index, and more by a human happiness index we would come to some pretty startling conclusions.

In a book by the psychologist, Oliver James  Britain on the Couch, the author asks “Why are we unhappier than we were in the 1950s despite being richer?”   Clinical depression, he suggests, is ten times higher among people born after 1945 than among those born before 1914.  Women under the age of 35 are the most vulnerable.  The paradox is that we are told that we have never been more materially affluent and yet, says James, modern life seems less and less able to meet our expectations.  We feel like losers, “even if we are winners” because materialism itself is not enough to satisfy human needs.

The material indicators would all suggest that Britain is in good condition. The reality is rather different.