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Where is Wisdom to be found?


THE coronavirus crisis has been handled by politicians using emergency measures to curtail freedom of movement drastically to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Our political leaders have used the mass media to repeat daily the message that the public must stay home to stay safe and protect the NHS from being overwhelmed. This mantra has been drummed in word for word through the main broadcasting agencies, and the politicians have stressed that their lockdown policy and reluctance to test are rooted in ‘the science’. This science is found in the collective advice of SAGE and NERVTAG, panels of scientists. Without medical science the pandemic would much worse and treatment would not be possible: science has been an immeasurable benefit to us, without question. 

The ‘hard’ science produces ever more accurate results in terms of the nature of the virus, and this will eventually enable virologists to produce a vaccine. Natural science yields provable results as experiments confirm or disprove hypotheses. A mind-boggling example of the power of pure science to confirm a mathematically constructed theory was announced recently: ‘A star orbiting a supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way has proved Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity right, astronomers have found. [The theory], published in 1915, explains gravity as a consequence of the curvature of space-time created by the presence of mass and energy.’ The great physicist Stephen Hawking declared that he did not believe in God but rather in the laws discovered by, and controlling, science: ‘I think the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science,’ wrote Hawking, who died in 2018. ‘If you accept, as I do, that the laws of nature are fixed, then it doesn’t take long to ask: What role is there for God?’ In fact some philosophers define God in terms of the laws of nature, Spinoza in particular. The fact of the same laws applying throughout the unimaginable vastness of the universe has moved some thinkers towards the need for a creator to establish such consistency. Einstein and Hawking are speaking of hard science, as are virologists tackling the Covid-19 virus. 

But ‘the science’ spoken of by SAGE and NERVTAG includes softer science and seems to include sociology and the factor of human behaviour in all its non-predictable, irrational and chaotic facets. Lockdown and ending the lockdown is being managed by a continuum of methods, the hard biological science of the virologists and at the other end sociological observation and modelling of how humans behave, how susceptible they are to infection, how much capacity the NHS has to cope with cases severe and far less so. 

‘The science’ here is not that of Einstein and Hawking, and there is no decisive control experiment available, however many variables computer scientists can factor in to the educated guess of how Covid-19 will spread and kill in the UK. In fact the modelling of the Imperial College research unit which dictated the mass cull of livestock in the foot and mouth outbreak has been powerfully rejected by other scientific experts as overkill, and there can be no proof to confirm or deny the Imperial work. 

Today we know that the scientists disagree about the timing of easing lockdown so as to preserve the economy sufficiently to pay for the NHS and the research centres themselves. ‘The science’ is not uniform. The disagreements among the research scientists are about the softer scientific theories of the spread and containment of this disease, with Sweden, for example, differing from Germany and then again from Italy and the UK. Just as scientists disagree, so the statistics given out daily often perplex: why were care homes ignored for the first few weeks; how can deaths in care homes be certified as ‘suspected Covid’ when also ‘asymptomatic’ ?  

The politicians are choosing to cover their backs with the most pessimistic need to keep lockdown going, not sharing their evidence and reasons for this interpretation but drilling on with the Big Brother insistence that the public is in danger if lockdown is eased. This is being internalised by a majority of people who fearfully feed the government message back to opinion pollsters. The Telegraph’s Janet Daley says: ‘It would be quite possible to conclude that the Government – and the media – wants you to be as afraid and demoralised as it is possible to be because that will make you less inclined to challenge the prolonging of extraordinarily repressive measures.’ 

‘The science’ claimed by the politicians includes human sciences such as psychology and sociology. Their practitioners will be, presumably, gauging how long the public can put up with quarantine, how they will react, what might happen if they cease to believe the ‘messaging’ as hoped-for lockdown endings are dashed by the ‘second wave’ threat. Why not a third and fourth wave? Is this a programme of a year of lockdown being administered in bite-sized pieces? The human sciences are descriptive and analytical, utilitarian essentially, to manage lives under strain. But they do not touch the heart.

It is the actual experience of day-to-day life that is now producing the increasing distress of endless lockdown. The economic concern is very great: our health bureaucrats are leading us to ruin, says an eminent financial commentator. The question of proportion forces itself on us, which ‘science’ cannot answer – it was not science’s fault that the UK care home population was forgotten in the Health Secretary’s planning and figures till late in the day. This was a deep political and administrative failure of the Department of Health and its Permanent Secretary whose remit covers all health, not just the NHS. How far lockdown can be allowed to destroy the future economy is again not a matter for purely ‘scientific’ judgement but for wise counsel and what Janet Daley has called ‘moral trade-offs’ in society. 

Moral and spiritual wisdom goes beyond science, while requiring its services, and politicians are tasked with making wise proportionate judgements, in real time for real people and their children who must live in deeper and deeper poverty the longer the lockdown is enforced. 

Wisdom is needed for the desperate human distress of bereaved families denied funerals, of children missing educational development, of the suffocated bonds between grandparents and grandchildren, of teenagers in love, students needing lectures and exams, tradesmen whose lives are involved with customers. This distress is being increasingly well discussed by our best columnists.

Kant distinguished pure scientific reason from practical moral reason. He taught that we cannot get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’; morals and values cannot be got from equations and animal instincts. Have our politicians forgotten this? The one criterion they speak of is ‘the science’, as if they were elected to be no more than mediators of epidemiological modellers with chequered histories. The voters expect to have MPs with wisdom, morally good people with empathetic hearts who take a wide-angled lens to problems.

The Queen has stood out as the voice of patience and wisdom in this crisis. Her ‘Easter is not cancelled’ message, glad to confess that she needs the risen Christ through trials and tribulations, was calm, concise, non-emotivist witness to our common human needs, troubles and hope. It is no accident that she stands in her Christian faith and her message expresses that hope beyond the present hopelessness. For Christianity the wisdom of God is the cross of Christ. In the figure of Jesus we find the divine ‘modelling’ of humanity for reconciliation and healing. Jesus touched the leper, engaged with the hated tax collector, treated the prostitute as a human being, as the woman with the issue of blood – ritually untouchable. We find the inverse of self-isolation in his ministry.

Another voice, perhaps surprising to a public quite cynical towards the moral values of many MPs, is that of Chris Loder, Conservative member for West Dorset. In a letter to the Times he expressed dismay at Archbishop Welby’s closure of churches for funerals when this is not required by law. Loder asks why the Archbishop has imposed this ban when such a deep need exists at this time for proper funerals. Why indeed? Loder says that he considered becoming an Anglican clergyman, and finds it is paradoxical that the church is going political and bureaucratic rather than focusing on its pastoral spiritual role, especially at such a time as this.

Spiritual moral wisdom: has our culture grown so utilitarian and scientistic, so dominated by what Coleridge called ‘cutting and squaring’, technocratic and calculating, as to lose its beating heart of empathetic goodness? What is this Wisdom, this Word through the universe which resonates with a dimension of our lives not capturable by science? Bach’s St Matthew Passion is perhaps the greatest piece of religious music. Listening to it communicates with the human heart of sorrow, suffering and endurance, empathy and hope through despair. Audio science cannot do that, it is not its task. The music is not reducible to digitised analysis of noises.

Do our politicians push aside this dimension of wisdom and rush to a divided science – have they rushed down a narrow hole they cannot reverse from – as a result of an overly narrow perspective?

They have certainly failed to explain to the public the reasons, the hard choices, the possibilities and probabilities. Instead they have espoused the megaphone to create terror. They have decided against a mature moral conversation with a public quite able to join in such an exercise. A good leader will bring followers along by persuasion and reason; likewise a good educator wants pupils really to understand and not just parrot answers, or the answer. 

The BBC has a role in this, as it had in WWII of helping the public to plumb the depths of wisdom in a time of chaos and fear. From 1941 to 1944 C S Lewis delivered his talks, later published as Mere Christianity, high-quality reasoned philosophical theology in plain language, not grey academic dress. Here was substantial wisdom to engage and challenge a very wide audience. Likewise his 1943 publication The Abolition of Man is a heavyweight Christian treatment of who we are and how we might end up conditioned by well-meaning scientists treating humanity as manipulable plastic rather than inherently moral realities. This really would be a good read during lockdown. A lecture on the book was written by one of Oxford’s finest philosophers, John Lucas, who died this year, see here.

Archbishop William Temple in 1942 published his vision of a Christian society, Christianity and Social Order, also deliberately readable to a wide range of people. In it he probes issues again of the greatest relevance today. He asserts the church’s role in the public forum in policy matters with its distinctive voice; the need to determine the proper balance between the profit motive and service to the community; and between the power of the state and the freedom of the individual; and the importance for man of rediscovering his true relationship with the earth upon which he lives. Temple wrote heavier theological works on Nature, Man and God, and was able to communicate deep classical doctrine clearly and reasonably. 

There seems to be an emerging sense of a lack of such learned thinkers such as Lewis and Temple who can reappropriate the moral and spiritual assumptions on which our society and culture have rested, and which are now eroding. This vacuum is implicitly suggested by our columnists. Janet Daley rightly says: ‘The Government has closed us out of the conversation at just the point where it becomes a matter of values, rather than (what is assumed to be) concrete fact.’ And on matters of deepest human value ‘science’ cannot decide. Government seems paralysed, with no moral compass or wisdom at all.

Or again Sherelle Jacobs specifically declares: ‘A mass breakdown about the limits of science has plunged our society into a dangerous new political era,’ with the public now used to trusting science for the solution to all life’s problems. It is in the name of ‘the science’ that the government is requiring the sacrifice of the future economy, of children’s education, and possibly the sanity and wellbeing of all people over 70, on the altar of shielding the NHS so it is not overwhelmed, and of the vulnerable being shielded – like it or not. Jacobs thinks that science is being seen as a kind of magic to be trusted.

The locked-down public are distressed and perplexed, like sheep without a shepherd, as they despair at being told this fate must go on and on when the second wave threat is pulled out of the hat. Here we meet the very warp and weft of humanity, relationships, love and pain, hope and endurance, Gethsemane, Calvary and Easter Day in HM the Queen’s lexicon. We, the public, want a mature moral discussion about the proportionality of lockdown, of moral trade-offs, of economic sacrifices we are happy to make to ensure a future for our children and theirs. We want a far higher level of political wisdom than we are currently getting. It is no insult to science to say that this is beyond its remit. Indeed science needs protecting from being abused and prostituted by politicians who want cover for their moral vacuity.

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Timothy Bradshaw
Timothy Bradshaw
Timothy Bradshaw is a Theological lecturer and Anglican clergyman

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