13 June 2007
Where are we Going? The Centrality of God to any Adequate Answer
By: M. Jean-Loup Dherse— 2006-2007
M. Jean-Loup Dherse was Former Vice-President (Energy and Industry) at the World Bank and former CEO of Eurotunnel Seminar on Wednesday 13 June 2007
In the invitation that those present this evening have received, my paper was introduced as follows:
The daunting challenges facing humanity today cannot be met simply by putting in place better science and more effective structures. They are of another order, and beyond the capacity of the United Nations, the World Bank, big business and State entities. The speaker, who has experience at senior levels in international business and banking, will explain why he believes God must be at the heart of effective responses to these challenges.
I recognise that the task outlined in that paragraph is daunting and I am afraid I may disappoint you, since we are not going to list all those ‘challenges’. Many writers and thinkers have already attempted to do so, and every one of you would probably have in mind a potential list of them – or at least I hope so. The main aim of my paper will be to remind you that those very challenges are man-made, and to suggest ways to understand what is our basis for hope. In this, we should keep in mind that we are both the authors and the victims of what is wrong with the world.
In my paper I shall tackle two major challenges. The first is Soviet communism. While, however, Marxism remains a challenge, its attractiveness has now been diminished to minimal levels. A second, more modern, challenge is secularism. But what is secularism? Christians know that the Universe has been, or is being, created by God, by a personal God who has done it, or is doing it, for Man. God has intended to put Man in charge of the Universe, provided Man accepts God as his own Master or King. Secularism steps in when Man decides to evict God from this position. This happens because, for various reasons, God has not created Man as we create computers: he is leaving some liberty or freedom to Man.
1 – Communism and the implosion of the Soviet Union
It may be that most of us are beginning to forget the unusual and unforeseen events of 1989 and 1991 on the European continent, when the Soviet Union imploded. Soviet communism in the 1970s was growing stronger, able to enslave a diminishing proportion of its own people but more and more cost-efficient in annihilating its opponents. (Something similar is perhaps happening today within China.) However, in spite of this increasing technical efficiency, with the passing of years the regime was getting weaker.
I will help you understand how officials were viewing their own situation at that time by sharing with you some of my own experiences. In 1991, few months before the demise of the Soviet Union, I was in Moscow feeding 30,000 books into an exhibition organised by a Christian leader, Katerina Ginieva. She was in charge of the Library of Foreign Books – a Leninist institution of the 1917 Revolution. On that occasion, she was courageously organising an exhibition structured around three evenings: one on cartoons, one on books for the young, and a third on Christian books in French. She was a disciple of Fr. Alexander Men, who was murdered shortly afterwards by unknown killers, probably associated with the secret police and also with some elements in the Orthodox Church.
I took with me two advisers. One was from the really free camp, a former cultural adviser to the French Embassy. He was a Christian and was married to a Ukrainian girl who was also a disciple of Fr. Men. He knew personally many Christian leaders imprisoned in the Gulag. The other adviser was a Russian lady who had emigrated to France fifteen years before, and who was close both to the KGB and to Gorbachev.
The lady introduced me, at my request, to a senior official in the KGB who was momentarily in disgrace. This man was later to be appointed, out of his disgrace, chief economic adviser to Gorbachev in the final months of the Soviet Union. Given his future position, I have no doubt that he must have been involved in the flux of billions of dollars leaving the Soviet Union during its final weeks in 1991.
In 1990 the Soviet Union was starting to crumble but still very much alive. On the occasion in question we were spending a nice evening in the House of Soviet Writers, a building owned before 1917 by a famous family who then fell victim to the Soviet Revolution. I told this man: ‘I am new here and do not know much. Explain to me what Perestroika is. It has been described to me as a diminution of power. I do not understand how you can go about losing power with a view to keeping it. Either you communists want to keep a monopoly of power or you do not’.
He replied: ‘Of course we do! Perestroika is the scheme of last resort which we devised in the KGB ten years ago for implementation when and if we thought we might be about to lose the support of the intelligentsia’. He was quite outspoken and clearly feeling very sure of himself. He then continued: ‘We made a list of the changes that we [the Communist Party] were going to allow in order to keep the monopoly of power with us. We were, and are, still counting on two factors in order to keep this monopoly.’ ‘Which?’, I asked. He answered: ‘There are two elements to be used in order to keep power: one is the Orthodox Church, and the other one is the force of nationalisms’.
He spoke first about the Orthodox Church: ‘When you Christians try to smuggle into the Soviet Union Bibles printed in Russian for free distribution, we, the KGB, confiscate most of them and resell them at a hefty price to the very people to whom you intended to give them. With the profit, we finance our own hidden activities in the Orthodox Church’. This came to me as a shock, but I did not then reply. He went on: ‘Look at all the monasteries that are being rehabilitated or even rebuilt. Russian people are very fond of Christianity, and we have decided to reverse our position and to help the Orthodox Church which we control rather well’. I leave to him responsibility for what he said: I have no idea if this is really thought in regard of the Orthodox Church, but I am quite sure that this is what he told me.
He went on to speak of nationalisms. He said: ‘Look at Yugoslavia [which, to an external observer, seemed very quiet at that time]. We are helping Serbia strengthen its army so that it will be ready to move in once nationalistic forces are unleashed against one another in that mosaic of peoples. Out of that confusion, we are going to find ways to keep power in communist hands’. I did not understand but kept quietly asking: ‘How are you going to ensure the survival of the Soviet Union ?’. He replied: ‘We are putting in charge, in the top position, a dedicated communist – one of us –, with the purpose of seducing Western banks so that they continue lending us money. They will do just this, and we count on the same man to keep the intelligentsia under control. We hope to succeed with Gorbachev.’ He then stopped. I still remember vividly what he said, which some time later seemed highly prescient – except, of course, that the communists lost control of the Soviet Union which imploded.
Some of the miscalculations that led to the implosion of the Soviet Union also emerged in the Soviet attempts to keep Poland under control. One of the means they sought to use there in order to maintain such control was interference in the appointment of bishops. In his most interesting biography of Karol Wojtyla [see Bibliography at the end], the American historian and academic, George Weigel, wrote that at the beginning of the 1980s the Archiepiscopal See of Cracow had been vacant for years. The Secretary of the Central Committee of the Polish Communist Party then visited the Primate of the Polish Church, Cardinal Wyszynski, with a message to say that they wanted Wojtyla as Archbishop in Cracow. They believed him to be modern, and thought they could manoeuvre him. The Cardinal readily agreed to this appointment. This surely proved a serious mistake on the part of the Polish Communist Party. When in 1991 the files of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party were partly opened, records showed that six months after Karol Wojtyla’s appointment, the Soviet Central Committee in Moscow discussed the matter and someone expressed a widespread concern that this was already posing a major threat.
Karol Wojtyla eventually managed to break down Soviet control over Poland and, indeed, to bring about the demise of the entire Soviet Union. The reasons behind what would once have appeared as a highly improbable outcome are several. Firstly, a role was played by the fear that the Russians have of the Poles. Looking from outside, it is easy to dismiss the concerns of the Soviets about Poland as overstated, but, in their eyes, Poland played a crucial role in the Warsaw Pact. Geographically, Poland is strategically located between Russia and Germany, and the endurance of the Poles was well known to the Russians, too. The final failure of communism was also related to the fact that many Poles, especially farmers, were fundamentally resistant to it.
But it was only Karol Wojtyla’s personal action that made so many people in Poland take a stand against forces of the human decay at work under the regime in power. Consider, for example, the occasion when the Polish communist government was forced by the people to accept that a Catholic church be constructed in Nowa Huta, a new model-city built next to Cracow.
Finally, however, we should not forget the action of the Holy Spirit, i.e., of God himself, through Karol Wojtyla, through others, and also by direct means. Still, for the Holy Spirit to operate, one has to be willing to give him the opportunity to do so. In this, the cooperation of God and Man is crucial.
2 – The dangers of secularisation
This leads us to the issue of secularisation. Our society being heavily secularised, we are used to thinking that scientific progress and social reform are the only factors driving progress in the world. I believe scientific progress and structural reform to be good, but I am sure also that they are not in themselves enough. They cannot provide all the progress that is needed. Following them we might conclude that the world has its own laws, and that the king of the world is Man. If Man puts himself in God’s place without accepting that he is God’s servant or child, ‘secularisation’ is taking place. The underlying strength of secularism lies in the belief that science and knowledge are independent from belief in God which in turn becomes entirely optional. Science, seemingly developing independently of God, is considered a serious reason not to believe in Him.
In order the better to grasp the problems that tend to emerge when we approach issues related to human development solely from the point of view of science and social engineering, let us imagine a discussion between a quartet of people about the French Social Security System – the French National Health Service – an example of a social institution suffering from a high financial deficit and in need of radical reform.
The first member of this imaginary group is an accountant. He is very sensitive to loss-making and to cash requirements, and therefore to the need of balancing financial losses with fresh resources annually, or monthly. When asked which remedies he wants to apply, he says that fresh cash must be injected permanently, and that it must come either from having the sick pay more, from cuts in medical staffing (doctors, nurses, etc.), or from the taxpayer. The ‘hole’ must be filled and cash provided permanently. In principle, this first man is right, but will he solve the problem just by injecting more money? Obviously, he will not.
The second member of our quartet is a lawyer. He sees the world as a large set of regulations and structures, capable of reform by structural changes, i.e., new legislation. He believes that, provided one is courageous enough and perhaps a bit lucky, one can reach paradise on this planet by means of structural reform. Both the accountant and he believe that they can devise together improvement from scientific progress (the accountant’s contribution) and structural reform (the lawyer’s contribution). Both types of actions are indeed needed in any country – including France.
But then the third member of the quartet appears on the scene: a famous modern French philosopher called André Comte -Sponville. He is a former Marxist and shows the scars of this in his thinking, scars that still ache even though he has abandoned active Marxism years ago. His thinking is interesting but, as we shall see, it is still somehow incomplete. Nevertheless, he is courageous and calls our two friends ‘barbarians’, because he rightly believes that solutions must take into account factors other than science and structures – must, in fact, consider the behaviour of individuals.
André breaks into the conversation and says: ‘You two are right but the French National Security System will keep being deficit-prone until the behaviour of the main actors operating in it improves’. He explains: ‘Beyond scientific progress and beyond structural reform, there is need of better behaviour’. But the problem is to define that ‘better behaviour’? Even if finding a straightforward definition is challenging, we might nonetheless agree at least that ‘good behaviour’ is what promotes mutual trust between people.
André is obviously right. Everyone understands that mutual trust is particularly valuable. In an opposite way, bad behaviour produces mistrust between people. Mistrust calls for expensive corrective devices. Think for a moment of the resources that would become available in a national budget if mistrust were unknown and if there were no need of police, army, and judicial system.
The fourth member of the quartet has meanwhile kept his peace. Like the other three, he believes ‘holes’ must be filled, structures reformed and behaviour become impeccable. These, however, are not enough for him, and he believes a fourth ingredient must be mustered before any decision is taken.
This fourth person is working for the World Bank, and was once asked to greet newcomers in that institution. He told them then what he communicated later to his three imaginary interlocutors:
You must choose what your purpose is when you study a loan request. You have many options available:
- You can work for position in the Bank, for your career, for your family, in a word for you and yours. This is fine.
- You can work for your division chiefs (the persons heading sections treating of Agriculture in India, Energy in black Africa, and so on) who have their own programmes and budgets. This is also fine.
- You might also work for your vice-president – someone whom you may see as elevated and very distant from the position you currently occupy.
- You could, indeed, work for the Bank itself: your employer. It is not perfect – nobody is – but it is still a valuable tool. If it were abolished, the unanimous agreement of 170 countries would be required to reintroduce something like it into the international system.
- You can also work for colleagues in the governments of the countries with which you are dealing. You meet with them year after year until the Personnel Department gives you another assignment. They are for you like long-term customers, and the quality of your relationship with them is important: when you negotiate you want something from them, but at the same time you must take into account that that you will probably have to meet them again in the near future.
- You can work for the statistics of the country in question – caring especially about ‘revenue per capita’, which everyone wants to increase. But those figures are seldom realistic: they fail to include the hidden or unofficial sectors, like the work done by women in educating their children or in growing vegetables for their family. Keep in mind also that official figures are often massaged to indicate progress when, in reality, there has been none.
- You can work for the people of the countries with which you operate – a task, in fact, included in the statutes of the Bank.
- You can, finally, work for the poor of those countries. Indeed, the Bank’s role is to help countries improve their economic efficiency, and the presence of poor people is a crucial indicator of the presence of inefficiencies.
He finished addressing the new World Bank employees by telling them:
You have to make a choice among these potential purposes of your work. You may chose several of them, but you will always – consciously or unconsciously – prefer some of them over others. And your choice will have significant implications on your work: your recommendations to solve a problem that you have to face will not just depend upon the information included in the file that you receive, but also upon the motivations according to which you work.
It was I who addressed new employees in that fashion. Shortly afterwards I received two groups of visitors in my office. The first included members of the ‘older generation’ of employees (people I style ‘the dinosaurs’), who complained about my speech. They declared my words to have been too harsh, suggesting that I did not know enough about them and the World Bank in general, and remarking on their own strong commitment to professionalism. The second group included Bank officials mainly employed in fieldwork. They thanked me for my presentation, and told me how they were struggling to be ignored by the Personnel Department so that they might stay on longer – at least six years – in the places where they were working, conscious that this was the only way to bring their projects to fulfilment and to be really useful to the poor.
In other words, the fourth speaker of our quartet said that whatever we do must show scientific and organisational competence, as well as helping to build mutual trust, but he added that none of this should be at the expense of those who are affected by our decisions. While we sweep the floor outside our own front doors, we should not transfer the dust to the space outside our neighbours’ front doors. Before we act, we should try to reason out the consequences of our actions on those affected by them.
Missing out on any of these four requirements makes us wrongdoers by the planet, which loses part of its value expressed in economic, ecological, or human terms. Contrariwise, actions that reconcile the four elements leave the planet in better shape.
I have told this tale only to suggest that other considerations must be taken into account in decision-making and action beyond purely ‘barbarian’ ones, and that solidarity – in its genuine form – should have a place when we are considering any course of action in the social realm. Wholly forgetting science and structures and concentrating only on quality behaviour and protecting the poor saves us from becoming ‘barbarians’ but rather leaves us in the realm of the ‘angelic’. We can, however, act as ‘barbarians’ and ‘angels’ at the same time, if we put a barrier between the outside world (‘science’ and ‘structures’) and the inner world (‘behaviour’ and ‘protecting the helpless’).
3 – Karol Wojtyla and the need for hope
The story I have just told may seem to take us far away from my prior remarks about Karol Wojtyla and the Soviets. On closer examination, however, this is not the case. When he was a parish priest and then a bishop in Cracow, Karol Wojtyla was strong and clever enough to get people to hope again – to hope in themselves, in God, in each other. We have seen that the Soviet Communist Party noticed quickly that his ‘modern’ look was far from favourable to it. It was most probably they who ordered the attempted assassination of the Pope. Indeed, Cardinal Dziwisz reports in his recent book that the Turkish assassin, Agca, said of himself to John Paul II: ‘I am a professional killer and I know I did a proper job on you. So why you are still alive?’. Agca’s question opens the door on a new set of considerations about how God intervenes in the history of humankind. John Paul II believed that the Virgin Mary deflected the bullets, and the X-ray investigations are suggestive that this view has a foundation.
A few months before his death, John Paul II published a small book, Memory and Identity, which may be considered his spiritual and philosophical testament. In the book – which I quote translating from the French edition – John Paul II writes:
As far as the Soviet regime is concerned, its economic doctrine has contributed to its downfall. But to consider only economic factors would be a naïve oversimplification. On the other hand, it would be ridiculous to believe that the Pope could cause the ruin of Communism with his bare hands. I think the explanation is in the Gospel. When the first disciples returned from their mission to their Master, they said: ‘Lord, even the evil spirits submitted to your name’ (Luke 10, 17). Jesus answers them: ‘Do not rejoice because the evil spirits are submitted to you, but rejoice rather that your names are written in heaven’ (Luke 10, 20).
Elsewhere, he adds: ‘Please tell yourselves: we are useless servants, we have only done our duty’ (cf. Luke 17,10). That awareness of being a ‘useless servant’ never stops growing in me, and I consider it a wholly proper attitude.
Let us consider again the plans for the killing of the Pope. John Paul II thinks that it was one of the final convulsions of the ideologies of power unleashed in the twentieth century. Oppression resulted both from Fascism and Communism. In the 1960s and 1970s it was practised likewise in Italy by the Red Brigades who killed many innocent people.
Reviewing all this a few years afterwards, I note that such violence has somewhat subsided. Today, however, what we call ‘networks of terror’, which threaten millions of innocent people, are spreading in the world. We have seen impressive examples of this in the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York, in the explosions set off in the Madrid railway network and in the recent Beslan killings in Ossetia. Where will all this take us?
The downfall of Nazism, and then of the Soviet Union, came as a result of their failures. These downfalls have shown the absurdity of the large-scale violence theorised and practised by those systems. Will men take into account the dramatic lessons that come from history? Or, contrariwise, will they again be tempted by the passions that have grown in their souls?
The believer knows that the presence of evil is always met by the presence of grace. St. Paul wrote: ‘The free gift of God and the fall have not the same yardstick’.
I would like to conclude with two other quotations from Memory and Identity:
Every human suffering holds a promise of salvation, a promise of joy. This is true of every suffering caused by evil. This is also true of the enormous social and political evil that divides the world today. All this evil exists also in the world for waking up in us love, which is a free gift from us through generous and disinterested service.
Love is the source of hope in the future of the world.
- George Weigel, The Cube and the Cathedral, Europe, America and Politics without God (New York, 2005)
- George Weigel, Witness to Hope: the Biography of Pope John Paul II (New York, 1999)
- This book is a personal history of John Paul II which does not include his last years. I consider it the best book on the life of John Paul II.
- Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II), Memory and Identity (London, 2005)
- Jean Staune, Notre existence a-t-elle un sens? [Does our Being have a Meaning?] (Paris, 2007)
This recent book in French, very well-argued, describes key scientific developments in modern physics and biology that lead us towards ‘de-secularisation’. It shows, I would suggest, our world to be contiguous to another type of reality, which makes the basis of popular materialism, to put it mildly, obsolete. This work assists understanding of the links between the inner and outer worlds, and signals that ‘scientism’ today is scientifically moribund.
Dr. Davide Sola: It is daunting to try to match M. Dherse’s wealth of knowledge and experience. I shall try simply to tackle the subject-matter from one angle and to expand on some points where my own, relatively limited, experience may have some relevance.
The title of this evening’s paper asks us to enquire whether God is really at the centre of our decision-making on an everyday basis. M. Dherse has drawn to our attention, through his personal experience of life and that of John Paul II, the importance of asking ourselves this question. What strikes me whenever the words ‘secularism’ or ‘secularisation’ are mentioned is that both in macroeconomics and in politics we have in many respects lost sight of where God is. Many are simply not interested because they rely only on science, on management, and possibly on a general and vague humane sentiment that they ought to avoid doing harm to others.
Taking a cue from my own professional field of interest – the management of transformations in business activities –, it is striking how important the personality of John Paul II was in the process by which Poles ultimately changed their way of dealing with the Soviet regime. Certainly, a major cause of the implosion of the Soviet Union was the failure of its own economic structure, but what explains the specific timing of the implosion (and those of many similar implosions in history) was the presence both of a ‘compelling story’ – the proclamation of a new message teaching how things might be done differently, which, in the case of John Paul II, was about bringing God back into one’s life – and of a messenger or ‘role model’ – a person embodying the required values and changes and courageous enough to show others the way even at the risk of his own life. John Paul II, who incarnated this figure of messenger and role model for the Poles, had to face not just one, but several, failed murder attempts on account of his ministry.
When it comes to implementing structural change in the everyday practice of a people what is crucial is the presence of shared values. The Poles had in common a significant set of shared values, but they had had imposed upon them from the Soviet Union another set of values or proposed patterns of behaviour which they clearly did not share or accept. A question that I should like to put to you – and to propose an element for the general discussion to follow – is: Are such ‘shared values’, the re-discovery of which is crucial to bringing God back into our daily life, the trigger of change? Only by bringing these values back into our routine decision-making practice can we show that God is present also in the ‘outer -side’ of our life, and not just in its hidden ‘inner-side’. These values act as a ‘filter’ giving our faculties the capacity to take the right decisions. Being conscious of the ‘filters’ by which we are operating – as M. Dherse pointed out by means of the address he gave to newcomers at the World Bank – is crucial to achieving happiness both in both the material and in spiritual aspects of our lives.
Jean-Loup Dherse: I did not actually mention the word ‘value’ in my paper, not because I do not believe values exist and matter in one’s life, but because I think the meaning of the word ambiguous. I hold that in every decision we take we should consider the consequences for other people. Each of us is only one among the six billion individuals who make up the world’s population, and we should consider how the consequences of our actions or omissions might affect others and, indeed, the whole gamut of our planet’s economic, ecologic and human resources.
Dr. Davide Sola: I agree that we must consider the consequences of our choices – but what is the measure by which we are to ascertain if the consequences are good or not? Some decisions may be acceptable according to a specific set of values but completely unacceptable in terms of others. The Soviets were most probably aware of the consequences of their actions, but were still making certain decisions because their set of values was different, for example, from those of the Poles which John Paul II brought up to the surface.
Dr. Andrew Hegarty: I would suggest that we now open the discussion to the floor, and that M. Dherse might pick up on Dr. Sola’s last remarks in the context of other points that may be raised later.
Dr. Robin Harris: I have no doubt that the fall of Soviet communism was the result of the work of the Holy Spirit, and none that Pope John Paul II played a crucial role in it. I do not want to minimise this in any way, but I should like to add some ‘realistic’ considerations. The Soviet Union imploded – and did not explode – also because significant pressure was put on it externally. Although sometimes it was more technically competent than other systems, Soviet Communism never worked. The whole thing was contrary to nature, and if people had been free they would have got rid of it in its early years.
Despite its weaknesses, however, in Poland and in other parts of the Warsaw Pact, communism was not thrown off during the rebellions that took place in 1956, 1968 and afterwards. What had changed by the end of the 1980s was the military balance: a huge military build-up had been set in place by the West, which put enormous pressure on the Soviet system. That forced the Soviets to enact reforms – Glasnost actually may have had more of an impact than Perestroika, as it revealed the true nature and faults of the system – and finally made it unthinkable for Gorbachev to send troops in to suppress the resistance that developed in Poland and elsewhere during 1989.
While, therefore, I certainly do believe God played a fundamental role in these processes, it also seems to me that those who were ‘as innocent as doves’ were less important agents of bringing down the Soviet Union than those who were ‘as wise as serpents’.
Jean-Loup Dherse: I am personally very glad that communism has disappeared. I remember that its disappearance was completely unexpected, and we can give no single explanation for what happened. These events raise questions about how Man and God can co-operate, a co-operation whose modalities and contents are mysterious.
What you have just mentioned has been acknowledged by the Pope himself in Memory and Identity, where he writes of the resurrection of the Polish nation after World War I and the tragic events that led to its partition between Germany and Russia under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement of 1939. While covering these events, the Pope – who lived under both Nazi and Communist, rule – wonders: What does God do to place limits on the extension of evil in the world? His answer is interesting not just from a spiritual perspective but also from a philosophical one. He highlights both the ways in which a merciful God intervenes historically, and the role of human responsibility in taking care of Creation.
Russell Wilcox: What I find very interesting is that in some parts at least of Communist Eastern Europe, despite the official atheist doctrines of the Party, belief in God and in some sense the centrality of God in the population’s lives remained – it was perhaps even strengthened by persecutions –, whereas in many ‘free-market societies’ it seems that the centrality of God has been gradually disappearing. I wonder, therefore, if communist regimes, even when explicitly sponsoring atheism, may have in practice threatened God’s role in a society’s life less than some of the free-market arrangements in which we live.
Dr. Davide Sola: I am of a wholly contrary opinion. Considering myself a free-market economist who has turned into a management expert, I believe that the free market is actually the system which makes it easiest to put God at the centre of our actions. I define as ‘free market’ a system which follows two important principles: freedom and responsibility for the consequences of one’s decisions. The distortions of the idea of the free market that we see at present are the result of an excessive focus on freedom to the neglect of a willingness that it should imply to accept the consequences of one’s decisions. Many ecological and financial crises arise from disregard of this second, crucial component of the ‘free market’ idea. Failure to consider the consequences of one’s own actions also leads us not to think about their impact on our own spiritual life. I do not, therefore, regard the mechanisms of free market economies, but rather the way we put them in practice as the real cause of the climate hostile to God you have described.
Russell Wilcox: But, if the mechanisms of free markets are intrinsically better than others, how can you explain the fact that in many Western market societies – excluding perhaps the special case of America – belief in God has plummeted, in particular if compared to some formerly communist societies?
Dr. Davide Sola: The presence of negative role models has, in my opinion, been a central factor. Behaviour in society is driven by examples, and unfortunately many of those that are followed in our societies are not positive ones.
Russell Wilcox: Are our societies, then, worse off than formerly communist ones, such as the Polish, which seem to have shown greater attachment to God and religion?
Dr. Davide Sola: We simply do not know. This may be an interesting intellectual challenge, but it is not possible to answer the question in practice because the two social, political and historical contexts we are comparing differ too much.
Dr. Maria Nuila: I find it very interesting that, when it comes to discussing the dangers of neglecting God in human society, communism is always at the top of the list. The communists might perhaps have sustained their political and economic system longer had they not removed God from people’s lives – in which case our take on the system as a whole might have been somewhat different. In my opinion there have been (and are) other systems such as the free market economy which, without doing so explicitly, deny God in a subtle way. I think these systems may actually be more dangerous in that God disappears subtly from lives without people fully realising what is going on.
I also agree with Russell that religious belief sometimes prospered under communist rule. It may well be the case that in some former communist countries more people used to go to church in the past than do so now. They wanted to assert that God existed and wished to place Him at the centre of their lives, whereas in free-market societies people often do not feel they need God any more.
Dr. Davide Sola: The focus of tonight’s discussion is on comparing capitalism and communism. However, I should like to remark here that communism cannot incorporate one core aspect of God’s teaching: respect for the freedom of men. The problem does not lie merely in its economic doctrine, but in its underlying ideology: in Communist systems men take the place of God by creating planned economies and by commanding the system. In such conditions, there is actually no room for considering the role that God may play in society. To change a communist system so as to render its economic and ideological background other than completely atheistic actually implies abandonment of communism. In the free market, on the other hand, the principles of freedom and responsibility create – at least in theory – conditions for incorporating God into decision-making. Still, I agree that practical implementations of this model are far from perfect.
Bart Dunlea: What strikes me when talking about the centrality of God in society is that, where the Truth is spoken, there is God. In the words of Jesus Christ, ‘Where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I in their midst’. We have had a very fine example before us in John Paul II, who said what he did and did what he said. It would seem, however, that a conflict often arises when we try to shape the end result of our actions: this creates compromise and a situation where there is a loss of harmony of word and deed, and Truth is the casualty.
How can we deal with these compromises, so that Truth does not become a casualty and harmony of word and deed can be restored in our world?
Jean-Loup Dherse: I believe Truth exists and that it is not the result of a majority vote – it exists, whatever people may think. Still, many would not think this way, and that raises important issues about the ultimate motivations that lie behind our decision-making.
Bart Dunlea: That is why I think that it important to use the word ‘harmony’.
Jean-Loup Dherse: Yes, I think that what you imply by using the word ‘harmony’ is very important. Many, however, think that Truth is something superficial. This happens, for instance, in the scientific community, where scientists who do not believe in any Truth often consider themselves omnipotent and put themselves in the place of God.
Sir Michael Palliser: One of the reasons for the implosion of the Soviet regime was its overstretch and its inability to enact Communist economic doctrine with the resources it had available and because of the manner in which Communists governed the country.
We should not forget about communism nor cease to be thankful that it is finished, but we should also look at today’s problems which are rather different. What worries me in the current climate is not the presence of secularism itself: as a principle guiding the government of a country, ‘secularism’ is not necessarily always negative. What is truly negative is that today’s secularism is evolving into a disavowal of religion. This is happening in Britain, in Western Europe, and also in America – which has developed not only rather strange examples of Christianity, but also some extreme instances of anti -Christianity. Many Europeans think religion is not something of which to be proud, given a long history of wars it might seem to have brought us. These are very dangerous ideas, and I am not sure I know how to deal with them. I do think that in the West we need to address these phenomena more closely and intelligently than we are doing at present.
Jean-Loup Dherse: I strongly agree with Sir Michael’s remarks. Today religion is often presented as an ‘additional risk to mankind’, something bad and to be avoided. Some people dream of a society in which everyone would be agnostic or atheist. Still, the atheistic communist project ultimately failed. Nor do I believe anybody would want to be part of a wholly technocratic world in which human planning took the place of God. This is why George Weigel mentions in this book, The Cube and the Cathedral, the cry of that South African Jew who begged Christians to speak up in defence of the place God should have in our societies.
Dominic Burbidge: In your paper you have suggested that scientific progress and social reform are often seen as the path to Paradise, adding that, although these are good, they are not enough. In Western politics, it seems to me, there is often a strange marriage of moral consciousness and a certain inability to act at the right time, a laziness in regard of social development and progress. This is perhaps particularly true of those with a right-wing mentality, focusing as they tend to do on low taxation and minimal government intervention. Why should third-world development be led by pro-choice movements promoting abortion and family planning? Why is ‘social equality’ particularly promoted largely by folk arguing for the breakdown of marriage? Why should scientific development be led by those with little or no respect for life?
Dr. Davide Sola: Your question is a very complex one and we have no time fully to tackle all its implications. Let us concentrate, then, on the word ‘equality’. The concept of ‘equality’ can be interpreted in many ways: low taxation may in some ways promote greater equality, but in others augment inequalities. It all depends on the definition of ‘equality’ with which you are working. One might add that, if two people are different, one is not going to make them equal simply by applying the same measure.
Dr. Andrew Hegarty: Could you also comment on the paradox I understood Dominic to be highlighting – if one is acting idealistically in public affairs today one might find oneself in rather curious company?
Dr. Davide Sola: The Americans would answer saying: ‘Walk the talk’. Often politicians today talk but then do not follow up on what they have declared. In economic policy, for example, politicians who declare an intention to create more equality end up subsidising inefficient industries, and ultimately generate more inequality in order to defend the short-term position of a few employees. Similarly, giving money to Africa is not in itself sufficient if it is not invested in projects that work, but simply injected into the bank accounts of those at the top of corrupt regimes.
Russell Wilcox: However, what you mention as short term problems for the system as a whole are rather important in the context of one person’s life – to use the expression of John Maynard Keynes, ‘in the long term, we are all dead’.
Dr. Andrew Hegarty: M. Dherse, we must offer you a final word…
Jean-Loup Dherse: My final word would be: evil exists in the world, and we must deal with it and minimise it. Our decisions will never be perfect, but we can improve them if we assess the consequences that they might have on others. The impact of our decisions on those who are helpless is a good indicator of the quality of our decision-making – not in itself a perfect one, but, given the complexities and ambiguities of the world in which we are living, still something to be taken into consideration in our social behaviour.