Imagination Beyond Horror

An Introduction to the Catholic Commons

Jeffrey Metcalfe

“The horror is that for the first time we live in a world in which we can no longer imagine a better one.”1

Theodor Adorno

Can an idea change the world?  If not, we in the Church should give up now; there is no point in continuing.  For over two-thousand years we thought we knew the answer to this question.  It led us to welcome the stranger, to feed the hungry, to redistribute our wealth, and to fight against the principalities and powers of the darkness of the age.  Granted, we were never entirely faithful to the Idea.  From the beginning, some of us tried to use it to enslave the stranger, to engorge ourselves, to consolidate our wealth, and to become the principalities and powers.  Yet the Idea would not stay our possession, it would always return to confront us, to invite us back, and at times, it would bring the Emperor himself to his knees.

Do we still believe this is the case today?  Do we actually think an Idea can change the world?  I am no longer convinced that we do.  Having encountered individuals from a number of different Canadian dioceses and parishes, theological schools and seminaries, it is all too common to find those who cling to the shadow of significance the structures of the Church once had.  We have all been there: parish strategic planning, synods of reform, personal gift discernment sessions.  None of these things is intrinsically wrong. The problem is that the majority of the time what they attempt to do is reform the brokenness of the Church through the imposition of new structures, when what is lacking is our content.  The young have left our assemblies not because they have grown impious, not because the Idea has become irrelevant, but because they have seen that we no longer hold to the Idea ourselves.

This is not endemic to the Church, but based within the fractured site of our culture.  As Slavoj Zizek has pointed out, “it is easy to make fun of Fukuyama’s notion of the ‘End of History,’ but most people today are Fukuyamean, accepting liberal-democratic capitalism as the finally found formula of the best possible society.”2  A fleeting glance at our social institutions reveals this as truth. Many socialist politicians and academics no longer believe that socialism can change the world, and so they limit their activities to reforming the current structures.  Indeed, Adorno was right to posit that the true horror of the world was that we can no longer imagine a better one.  The imagination of our culture is held captive by the logic of liberal-democratic capitalism.

Sadly, the Church is not removed from this horror.  We too are captivated by the flows of Capital in our society, and our imaginations are also imprisoned by it.  We can attempt to plug the hemorrhaging of our communities through Fresh Expressions of our structures, by bringing our current systems into the new media, but unless we can retrieve our own belief in the Idea, nothing will change.

Nor should it.  If the Church is no longer capable of sustaining the imagination of a better world, if it truly has come to the horrifying conclusion that liberal-democratic capitalism is the end of history, then why would we want it to survive?  Our society is one of increasing alienation and disparity.  Since the 1970s “the richest 1% has seen its share of total income double, the richest 0.1% has seen its share almost triple, and the richest 0.01% has seen its share more than quintuple.”3  All the while, wages of the lower classes have continued to stagnate, causing the gap between the rich and poor in Canada to widen to the extent that “this generation of rich Canadians is staking claim to a larger share of economic growth than any generation that has preceded it in recorded history.”4  Unless the Church has the capacity to imagine another political, economic and social way of being, in light of the Idea that formed it, Canadian society would be much better off without it.

This is the starting place of the Catholic Commons, for we are no longer satisfied with the status quo of our society, and our current Church discourses which aid in its perpetuation.  For we still believe that an Idea can change the world, and we believe that this Idea is the Kingdom of God.  For too long we have allowed the discussions of our Church to wander off into polemics of disinterest and uselessness.  Where various parties have fought for control on how they will answer questions that nobody outside the Church is asking.  Now is the time to change the subject.

The Catholic Commons is one attempt at doing this.  We represent a diversity of regions and contexts within the Anglican Church of Canada, but our mission is the same: to seek the Kingdom of God by reclaiming the social, political, and economic work of the Church.  For it is our vision that the Church will be an agent of social transformation within Canadian society, and we intend to support this work by cultivating a community of study, teaching, advocacy, and prayer.

It is called catholic, for we believe that the Kingdom of God is an embodied Idea which is universally address to all, and it is a commons, for we need a space for shared discourse that moves beyond the conflicts of Church parties, and works outside the liberal-democratic capitalist imagination.  It is here that we will explore the Idea, how it has worked in the past, how it effects us today, and where it will bring us into the future.  All the while maintaining that the Kingdom of God is not something we own, but a reality in which we can participate.  At times it will confront us, but it will always invite us back.  As C.S. Lewis might have claimed, “It isn’t safe, but it is good.”

Let us together take the risk of that insecurity, for the sake of seeking the Good.  We might find in the process that the Idea of the Kingdom of God still holds the power to change the world.

Jeffrey Metcalfe recently completed his seminary studies at Trinity College, Toronto, and is the incumbent of the Parish of the Magdalen Islands in the Diocese of Quebec.

_____

1 Theodor Adorno,  “Towards a New Manifesto?” New Left Review no. 65 (2010): 32-61.

2 Slavoj Zizek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (London: Verso, 2009), 88.

3 Armine Yalnizyan, “The Rise of Canada’s Richest 1%,” (2010), from Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives: http://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/National%20Office/2010/12/Richest%201%20Percent.pdf (accessed December 17, 2010), 4.

4 Ibid., 4.

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2 thoughts on “Imagination Beyond Horror

  1. By any chance does your economic modeling of society allow some form of “Capitalistic” endeavor within a “Christian context”? Can you cite for me an example of a successful model present or past that mirrors your understandings.

    • That is an interesting question that deserves its own article at some point in the future, but I will attempt to answer your concerns here in brief. I have not attempted to present a model or systematic alternative to our current social-political order in my editorial. Such a task is certainly important and in a time when economic structures are forcing an increasing number of people into poverty, even more necessary. What I have tried to do here is a step prior to that task. I am merely asking the question: how is it that we have come as a people to experience our social, political, and economic situation as a fixed reality (the social imaginary of liberal-democratic capitalism) and does that way of seeing the world affirm or deny the Church’s proclamation of the Kingdom of God? Much more will need to be said than this, but this has to be our starting place. As I have suggested in my editorial, I do not believe that capitalism as such is consistent with that proclamation. “How than shall we live?” is a question that remains to be explored; an exploration that is one of the central concerns and future ambitions of the Catholic Commons.

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