By Jet Weigand-Timmer
Look at this picture. It is a by the well-known Dutch graphic M.C. Escher. When you take parts of this picture, it makes perfect sense. But when you take the whole of it, you see that it is all wrong. This building can not exist.
And take this picture also by Escher. This building seems even more all right than the previous one. But take a closer look at the top of the tower and you will see that people are going nowhere. This building makes people go round and round, but they can never escape their fate.
These are just pictures drawn by an artist showing us how the eye can trick us and how we can make use of a drawing on the flat surface of the paper to twist the three-dimensional reality that it represents. We will be puzzled for a moment, but we can see that no architect would come up with such a design.
We can also look at the world as an architectural design. We may not realise that we are looking at the world that way. But we try to make sense of the world and therefore we use theories, visions. They explain for us and at the same time they guide us in decisions for the future, either personal or political. But what if the design would be like those misleading pictures of Escher? What if the decisions we make are leading to nothing?
This article is about societal buildings, about visions of society. So be prepared for some architectural critique.
Two pictures of society
As you know, arts can be a cultural mirror. They reflect a vision of society, people’s worldview. Take a look at this painting of the French revolution by Eugène Delacroix. It reflects the upcoming liberal society. The discovery of the value of the individual. Conformism is over. We want to break free. It is the romantic view of people that think that free individuals can achieve anything they want. Work means personal growth. The liberal philosophy said that if free rational people want the best for themselves, society as a whole will flourish. Globalisation was seen as an extension of the possibilities for individuals. Hold on to this picture. For this might not be as distant as it seems.
Here is another painting. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that this picture was painted in Russia, of all places. It is painted by Ilya Repin and it is called “Barge Haulers on the Volga”. It shows us the misery of the workers. As the upper-class people had more and more freedom, the workers still lived in misery. Individuals are often too weak to withstand the powerful. This is the background of the socialistic and social democratic tradition: people need the community to fight against the exploitation by the strong. The worldview of the socialist was that community is more important than the individual. The state is such a community. Work, according to the socialistic worldview, is seen as a way to gain collective growth. And globalisation is seen as a threat for the own collective.
Today we still can see the influence of both worldviews in society. They seem quite different. They both provide a blueprint for an ideal society, but in opposite directions that seem to exclude one another. But as we discovered in the 20th century, both worldviews are of poor architectural quality. Because in the end they both lead to nowhere. The link between these two opposites is the materialistic worldview from both Liberals and Social Democrats. These worldviews miss the spiritual dimension of life. People want their lives to have meaning. In a world that offers no meaning, people become indifferent and cynical. What is the use of it all? People that have lost their innocence but desperately looking for ways to reach out to one another, beyond the material world, in need of the warmth of human compassion. All we seem to have left is bare personal emotion. As Armand shows us in his “Office Fetish”: a pile of telephones, unable to connect.
Is there a way out of this materialistic trap? Is there any alternative picture that we can draw? Christians often have tried to offer an alternative. The bible has inspired many. Not only in their personal lives, but also in their social and political actions.
We should not be surprised that the one that started the communistic revolution, Karl Marx, was a Jew. The tradition of communitarian thinking roots deeply in the Jewish tradition. Before the throne of God, we are all equal. He created us in all diversity, but in his own image, so of equal value. We need each other, because we supplement each other. Only together we have the power to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, Paul writes in the third chapter of his letter to the Ephesians. Therefore, communism can be a very appealing alternative for Christians. Throughout history we even see examples of Christians trying to live in communities. But they only succeeded when people shared not only their material goods, but also a spiritual life. When they could see each other through the eyes of God. Unique people created by God serving the community, not being impersonalized and dissolved in the state. If we glorify the work of man instead of God, like communism does and is shown in this statue in Moscow, a community is doomed to fail.
Another popular alternative amongst Christians is individualistic conservatism. This is the idea that people believe that you are on your own. The bible tells us to honour our fathers, learn from the past and keep the old ways. Psalm 78 tells us: I will utter hidden things, things of old – what we have heard and known, what our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell the next generation. The appeal of tradition and continuity is strong from a biblical point of view. And if every person would keep Gods laws, if we could pass on tradition in a perfect way, this would indeed be ideal. But as we are all human, even the example of our fathers can not be our blueprint for the future. So, in the same Psalm it goes on: “He decreed statues for Jacob and established the law in Israel… so the next generation would know them… They would not be like their forefathers.” Tradition is never enough. If it misses correction by Gods law, it is doomed to become hollow and empty. And as there is no man that can draw the whole picture, we need each other to correct. We can’t do without a renewing community. To prevent us from becoming selfish and stubborn but also from being alone. Munch shows us how existentially frightful this is. A scream that is heard with your eyes.
So, neither of these alternatives can offer us Christians a worldview that satisfies. Both are designed to answer some basic biblical principles, but they draw a very one-sided picture that leaves out the middle. What we have to see is a triptych. We need a centre part that holds our societal picture together. A picture that can give both the person as an individual and society’s structure hope. Chagall painted this beautiful picture of the rainbow. Sign of the Union of Heave and Earth. People need God in the centre of all life.
The Christian Social alternative
Let’s create another picture. In the late 19th century, there was a Dutch man, Dr. Abraham Kuyper. He was a pastor, a theologian but he became also a politician and a leading person in what we now call the neo-Calvinistic or Christian Social movement. He saw that society in the 19th century had major faults. Faults that couldn’t be restore by means of Christian charity. Many people lived in poverty. The industrialisation led to social injustice that couldn’t be healed by means of some patches. The society that was being build was structural wrong. Christians have to engage in all aspects of life, also in political life. They must work on society’s structures. Therefore, Kuyper came up with his architectonical critique. Let’s build a Christian cathedral.
Gaudi designed his Sagrada Familia. It is paid, not by tax money, but by the communion of people that want this building. And it is adapted when time progresses. A true symbol.
Neither the individual nor the state could be the focal point in society for Kuyper. Therefore, he formulated the principle of sphere sovereignty. It means that a community is not merely individuals living together in the same place and a government to regulate this, but these individuals also live in several independent social groups. For example: a family, a church, a state, or a business. Every group has its own meaning and value. Each of these groups has its own characteristics. Reality has many aspects. Not all aspects are of equal importance in all these social groups. The main aspect of a church is religion, the main aspect of a school is education, and the main aspect of the state is law. But all the other aspects of life must also be considered. There are of course larger and smaller social groups. And although the groups are independent, and have their own responsibility, all groups must deal with the other groups and react upon each other. But there is no hierarchy, is not a top-down structure. The state is never above all, nor is the family. God is sovereign over all. All structures have to be according to his rules. He is the father of all. Although this picture of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt is so well known that it almost has become too familiar, I just wanted you to take one more look at this magnificent painting of this loving Father.
This looks like the popular idea of communitarism. In our individualistic and fragmented society people miss some kind of glue that holds society together. So, we long for unity, or community. But we have seen that communism fails because people don’t want the state ruling over every aspect of life. Communitarism looks like a good middle piece of a triptych. A promoter of this is mr. Amitai Etzioni. Its strong point is that it doesn’t need any religious basis. But the weak point of that is that it doesn’t have an anchor point for its principles. It basically is a ship in a storm without a compass. It will never reach home. William Turner painted this ship in a snowstorm. Can you imagine your life being lost like that?
Christians have their compass in Christ. All communities must obey the laws that God has given. This is the deep meaning of sovereignty. It doesn’t mean that we are sovereign within our own lives or within our own social structure. It means that Christ is sovereign. Only if we recognize His laws, not only for our personal life but also for the societal structure, we can build a true good society. That is also what we need today. We need some architectural critique. We need a démasqué of the terror of economical and materialistic thinking. Both socialists and liberals today are based on materialism. We need to see that Christ indeed is sovereign. This is true for our spiritual life and therefore we have a missionary task in this world. But we have also the task to preserve and serve creation by working, making things, and creating order according to God’s purpose.
Now, let’s discuss the problems and needs for young people in our society. What do we think about the future of youth? What about school, work, and culture? These questions are not new. Every generation has asked and tried to answer these questions. In our modern society we are very focussed on having a job. It looks like your job is who you are. And that is not such a bad thing. Using your God-given talents is a biblical task. Parts of the societal building that need repair. But I challenge you not to forget the overall picture. We are not living for ourselves. We are not living for the state. We are not living for our jobs or “the economy”.
This last painting by Simone Wijnschenk is one of my favourites. It is called The Jump. A person that is framed but is vibrating free. Yes, God has given us structures with laws that are for our benefit. Freedom is not living in free space, without a history, without a goal and without a compass to get there. But we neither are boxed and suppressed. We are free and unique. We may live responsible within a framework of Gods laws for creation but happy and free through Jesus Christ His Son.
Jet Weigand-Timmer is born in 1959 in The Hague in the Netherlands. She is a Dutch politician, theologian and educational policy specialist. Jet studied Educational Theory at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Theology at ETF Leuven. She has worked as the director of the Centre for Reformational Philosophy and was interim-president of the Dutch Christian Artists Union (CNV-Kunstenbond) and manager to the Continental Arts Centre. She has been speaking at many (international) conferences. Jet is and has been a member of the board of several (Christian) associations and foundations like the Kuyperfoundation and the Foundation Christelijk Sociaal Congres. Currently Jet is working as a politician in the village Ermelo and as a preacher in different churches in the Netherlands, Belgium. Jet has published several books (in Dutch) and many articles. Jet’s hobbies are: singing, musical theatre, reading, travelling, cooking, playing computer games.