Triumph and Disaster

Triumph and Disaster
An address given to the Manchester College Oxford Chapel Society
by Professor John Toye on Sunday 16 March 2008

In my professional life, I am an economist and the Parable of the Talents has always been a favourite with economists. I have even had economist friends who have had it be read at their funeral services. I think that that is not just because it can be read as a Biblical justification for profit-making, but also because it makes a link between actual profit and spiritual profit, based on the use of one’s personal talents creatively and productively.

Of course, some people think that economists do not use their talents productively. This was demonstrated to me one foggy morning last month, when I was in the meadow next to the Social Science building in Manor Road, talking to an economist colleague. A big blue helium balloon dipped down below the cloud, and one of the balloonists shouted down: “Where are we?” My colleague replied: “You are in a balloon!” Then the balloonist say to his mate, “Just our luck to ask an economist!” His mate then asked him: “How do you know he is an economist?” The balloonist replied: “He spoke in a loud and confident voice. He was technically correct. And he did not tell us anything that we did not already know”.

Utterly untrue!

Anyway, I am not one of those economists who want the parable of the talents to be read at their funerals. On the contrary, I have always felt a certain twinge of sympathy for the servant who buried the bag of gold, and handed it back to his master intact. It is true that he discourteously criticised his master for wanting to reap where he had not sown, but that does not seem quite enough to justify his being sent to the place of wailing and gnashing of teeth.

My sympathy for him arises from thinking that the parable should have considered an additional possibility. Suppose there had been a fourth servant who was given twenty bags of gold, who went at once and employed them in business and who not only failed to make a profit, but lost the whole of his investment. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that he went forth and bought shares in the Northern Rock of Judea. He did not realise at the time that it had recently turned itself from being a building society, run on co-operative principles, into a much more lightly regulated bank, whose directors could earn much bigger bonuses by using the depositors’ money for a reckless business plan. He therefore lost everything his master had given him. In comparison, the servant returning what he had been given – even without any interest – seems to me to come out of the parable not too badly.

When we think about the kind of life that we want to lead, one of the things that we have to think about is risk. The Quakers enjoin their members to “live adventurously” (Advices and Queries No. 27). Unitarians encourage each other to live life more abundantly. This seems to point us in the direction of embracing risk, rather than avoiding it. There are good reasons for doing so. After all, nothing ventured, nothing gained – a saying well illustrated by the One-bag servant. If we want to gain anything, however, there are risks that have to be run. It is a good rule of thumb that the bigger is the risk, the bigger is the reward. Yet, since risk is risk, and not anything else, not everyone who takes the risk will make the potential gain. Some like our imaginary fourth servant in the parable of the talents (my revised version), will come to utter disaster.

On the subject of disaster, I had a moment of enlightenment while sitting at my computer last week. I had to make a list of my publications for a public authority that thought it might want to hire an economist – I assume that they had not heard the balloon joke. I knew I had written a particular article ten years ago, but I could not remember the details of it. So I typed my name into the search engine Google, to see if I could find my lost article on the Internet. And I found it. That was the good news

The bad news was that I found out what was happening to some of the other people who are also called “John Toye”. Here is what I found. One John Toye had just been found guilty of sexually abusing children. A different John Toye had just been convicted and fined for inflicting cruelty on his cattle. A third John Toye, who had appeared drunk on TV, had become the subject of much public ridicule. I know that it is a small sample, but several of the tribe of John Toyes in Great Britain seem to have tipped right over the edge into moral disaster. The Internet suddenly brought me up against the disastrous reality of some of my namesakes’ lives. Well, what can I say except “there but for the grace of God go I”?

I have spoken of financial disaster and of moral disaster. On this Palm Sunday, however, we think of another scenario, that of moral triumph closely followed by political disaster. We see Jesus on a borrowed donkey, hailed by crowds as he rode into Jerusalem to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven. I find myself wondering: What was his state of mind? In his ministry, he had warned against being anxious about worldly concerns, like food and clothing. He asked his disciples not to be bound by their family attachments and warned his rich hearers that clinging to their worldly wealth instead of sharing it would block their spiritual progress. All such anxieties, he preached, are not consistent with living in the Kingdom of Heaven.

At the same time, the Gospels tell us that he had perfect foreknowledge of his betrayal, trial and execution. To the Gospel writers his lack of anxiety despite what he knew of his fate made perfect sense, because they believed that Jesus knew that his life was the fulfilment of a series of Old Testament prophecies. To the modern mind, however, the combination of low anxiety and foreknowledge of doom creates a picture of someone sleep-walking from triumph to disaster, of someone seeking to establish the Kingdom of Heaven and failing in the most tragic way possible.

What do we need in order to live our lives adventurously? If we are thinking about making an investment, the answer is obvious. We need some form of insurance that can be called on in the event of disaster. We need limited liability laws, we need a fair bankruptcy procedure, we need a social security system and a national health service available to all. Only in a society that has these institutions can enterprise flourish, because only in such a society can people afford to take those risks that bring the greatest rewards.

And, when we tumble into moral disaster, we need institutions that call us to account, make us see our errors and bring us to repentance. From repentance flows forgiveness by our victims, and the moral support and guidance of our family and friends.

Living adventurously therefore should not be viewed as an exercise in extreme individualism. It should not be anybody’s ego trip. It is only possible on the basis of social co-operation, sometimes in a quite sophisticated form. The early Christians held their property in common, accepted a simple standard of life, bonded together as if they were family members. They showed a special concern for the poor and the outcasts of society. They welcomed non-Jews into their ranks, and tried to respond to evil treatment with good. These forms of mutual co-operation were strong enough to enable them to survive the great disasters that befell them – the political trial and execution of their leader Jesus, and the destruction of the Second Temple, which represented the whole of their religious heritage. Despite these stunning disasters, the disciples and their followers were able to salvage the essential messages of Jesus, including the Golden Rule, and propagate them for the benefit of the wider world.

And now it is our turn. The growth of scientific knowledge in our time has had much the same impact on traditional Christian religious belief as the Roman army had on the Second Temple. Science has undermined the traditional creeds of Christianity in much the same way as the loss of the Temple undermined Judaism two thousand years ago. So, like the Jews who lost Judaism, each of us who cannot conscientiously subscribe to the Christian creeds of salvation and physical resurrection has the responsibility to seek out new interpretations of the working of the divine in our lives. That is our first challenge, as rational dissenters, and that is why we are here today.

The second challenge is to realise that the risks of such a venture are best taken in a context of social solidarity. We still live in a world where people can be put on trial for their religious beliefs, convicted on trumped-up charges and subjected to cruel and unusual punishments – even death. Today the Unitarian Peace Fellowship Appeal, for which we are collecting at the end of this service, is in aid of Amnesty International. Amnesty has made a reality of the idea of a network of support for people who, for whatever reason, religious or political, are abused by governments. Amnesty is not able to help every victim of state persecution, but its actions have helped very many. As well as helping victims, the publicity of its reports has helped to deter the cruelties of numerous would-be tyrants and dictators.

So, yes, live adventurously! Yes, defend liberty, truth and religion. But before you do, don’t forget to strengthen those social networks – of which Amnesty International is perhaps the most famous – that pledge themselves to come to your aid if, while living adventurously, you misjudge the risks and plunge from moral triumph to political disaster.