Big Society vision needs to adopt Christian story

12 January 2011

The Government’s agenda presents an opportunity to convey the gospel message about true happiness, argues Glynn Harrison.

AT THE Conservative Party confer­ence last autumn, the delegates’ faces said it all. David Cameron’s attempt to extol the Big Society just did not light their fire. And, despite its con­tinuing visibility in policy presenta­tion, the Big Society is still an idea in search of a big response.

It is not hugely surprising that the Government is having difficulty getting traction on this. At the policy level, there is widespread cynicism that this is just another cover for cuts. And, at the individual level, there lurks a still more cynical question: why should I, and what’s it in for me?

In a postmodern, deeply distrust­ful culture, it is hard for politicians to moralise. As was once said, they “don’t do God”. But if so, what do they do? When they tell us we need to get involved in the Big Society, what is the framework of values that should motivate us? This is the philosophical and moral vacuum that sits at the heart of Big Society policy.

ONE solution might be the new “happiness” agenda. They could tell us that looking to the needs of others is the right thing to do because it makes us happy. The argument goes like this: there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that helping other people, adopting goals larger than the satisfaction of self, promotes well-being and contentment.

Studies that compare levels of subjective well-being across different countries consistently identify as key determinants the proportion of the population which belongs to com­munity organisations, marriage and family stability, and having a sense of meaning and purpose.

Psychologists have come up with some interesting perspectives in this area, too. The pursuit of “what’s good for me”, they argue, can never bring contentment, because, as others ac­quire the goods and prestige we covet, we become chained to a tread­mill of status-seeking that gener­ates more of the anxiety that it is attempting to relieve.

What we must aim for, they insist, are “superordinate” goals — some­thing larger than self, capable of motivating us to pursue what is good for others as well as what is good for ourselves.

Enter, in a supporting role, the En­lightenment thinker Jeremy Ben­tham, who is making some­thing of a comeback. The best society, he taught, is one in which its citizens are happiest. The right policy at govern­ment level, therefore, is the one that generates the most happiness for its citizens. At the individual level, the psychologists say, the right policy is to get involved in im­plementing it.

On the face of it, this is a win-win scenario, and I am surprised that the Big Society and happiness agendas have not yet been stitched together and rolled out in this way.

There is a problem, however. The danger is that putting happiness at the core of the human project simply intensifies our focus on our own happiness. It’s just human nature.

Also, over the past quarter of a century, the self-esteem movement may well have made that self-inflection worse. A whole generation has been raised on the idea that the secret of happiness lies in “feeling good about myself”. From celebrity culture to relationship “churning”, its fallout is everywhere.

Filtered through the cognitive biases of “Generation Me”, the danger is that Bentham’s bold vision of what is good for everybody simply be­comes another reason for the pursuit of what is good for me.

That is why I believe it will fail. We need a larger narrative, a vision that is powerful enough to transform our selfish instincts and ignite our ima­gination for a cause that is not our own. But what might that be?

Jesus urged his followers to look beyond themselves to the needs of others, for his sake. It is the divine plan, in which we each play our unique part, which provides a super­ordinate goal capable of infusing our small ambitions with structure and purpose.

At the cross, rather than airbrush­ing away human sin and selfishness in favour of a discourse of needs and entitlements, the Christian faith names and confronts them. Then, with the offer of forgiveness, it promises transformation, drawing its hearers into the big project of the Kingdom of God. This is the good news of the Christian gospel: when we lose our lives for his sake, we dis­cover who we are, and where we belong.

SO HERE we have a big story, capable of providing the motivating dynamic for a big or good society. Govern­ments cannot sell such a vision. But they can and must recreate space in the public square for those that can.

The concept of the common good took root in society on the back of the infectious passion and energy of generations of Christian reformers and social activists. Their presence in the public square created a hinterland of compelling discourse around the benefits of public as well as private virtue.

Christians (and people of faith generally) do not have a monopoly on moral stature or good works. But they do have a coherent narrative that confronts human selfishness and provides the vision and motivation to transform it.

I believe we must seize the opportunity to engage with the Big Society. The Church needs to make a big response in both deeds and words: deeds, because they demon­strate what the fruits of authentic Christian faith really are; words, because the Christian faith is rooted in ideas, narrative, and proclamation.

As the Big Society debate con­tinues to unfold, we need a new cadre of Christian apologists, equipped to explain the compelling message that, in losing ourselves in Christ, we not only find our­selves, but see the face of God. This is our one true happiness. It might just be the best oppor­tunity for the gospel in half a century.

Dr Glynn Harrison is Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at the Uni­versity of Bristol, and a mem­ber of General Synod.

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