In a post last week on the ‘Fake News’ scandal and the way that our information sources have become distorted, narrowed and – some now claim – deliberately confused by digital algorithms, I concluded by saying:
In the chaos of this truthless mental and political environment, we more naturally turn to brands for security, to corporations and cat memes to lift us away and sustain the illusion that all will be well.
This, essentially is the message of Adam Curtis’ excellent polemical documentary, Hypernormalisation: confusion and absurdity have become political strategies that work to favour ‘strong men.’ These super-powers can either be figures like Putin, or major corporate interests. Both benefit from a confused population who have given up and gone Post-Truth. In this environment, re-election and retail are more simple. There is no effective opposition.
This is the politics of illusion, the creation and management of an artificial light by which our view of reality is augmented, is made virtual. It happens when life becomes mediated by a screen. And, like all illusions, all means of comforting ourselves against what is really true, we fight vociferously for it:
‘You have to defend the […] illusion with all your might; if it were discredited then your world would collapse, there would be nothing left for you but to despair of everything.’ – Sigmund Freud in The Future of Illusion,
I have been wondering what the task of ‘Radical Theology’ is in the light of Brexit and Trump. One thing must be clear: it is not simply to get people to change their views on Jesus. I believe absolutely that if the goal of Radical Theology doesn’t extend beyond the church, it is worse than useless.
Though it may begin with this core illusion of the divine force tending the light – and the ways that people diminish themselves and society through dogged attention to it – if it is to have any significant impact it must then move beyond the confines of religious belief and out into society as a whole, where myriad other illusions hold sway.
In a sense, Radical Theology thus performs a ‘priestly’ role like that given to Israel: to be a community tasked with taking a vital message out to other communities. Israel’s failure to do this, and its turning of attention instead in on itself, is the core tragedy of the Old Testament.
Radical Theology should be similarly harshly judged if it serves only to create a community of self-congratulatory people who have critiqued the divine illusion, but gone no further.
No, in this new post-factual world, in the Hypernormalised world where politicians have given up on politics, and corporations run the show (aided by a corporate anti-politics President Trump), and the world becomes so convinced that nothing can change and looks away and turns to cat videos… in this world, Radical Theology becomes the bedrock of a new kind of sociopolitical activism.
Both piratic and pragmatic, it has one task: seeking out the illusion wherever it can be found, in Apple stores, council chambers, sports bars and university campuses. It functions not in violence – in tearing down illusions – but in empathetically funding spaces and conversations that allow people to see the illusion for what it is, and begin the difficult journey of dismantling their dehumanising devotion to it themselves.
My fear is that this far, far more radical than the place I’ve seen many people come to. To feel that things stop once we have critiqued our religious beliefs is, I think, to fail to finish the job. As I have set out in Getting High, part of the miraculous curse of consciousness is our constant creating of new illusions, new means by which we might generate meaning. We will never hammer in the last nail on the last cross on the last god we have served. There will always be new ones being created. But as to where they are, and the technologies and political forces that are generating them, if we satisfy ourselves with the bounds of Christianity, we are blinding ourselves to the forest through close inspection of one tiny tree.
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