Trading Personhood for Power
How is it that we live in societies of great abundance and prosperity, unparalleled in history in terms of the wealth and health we enjoy, and yet those societies are plagued by a chronic problem with loneliness? In the UK, up to 20% of people report feeling lonely most or all of the time and 75% of GPs say they see one to five people a day who are experiencing loneliness. The UK also now has the world’s first minister for loneliness, and October saw the launch of the government’s first loneliness strategy. Well, in a talk posted at Q Andy Crouch argues that this strange paradox is the result of a series of revolutions in which we have traded personhood for power.
Crouch outlines three revolutions in which personal interactions have been replaced by impersonal interactions.
- The Financial Revolution – The founding of banks, starting with the Medici Bank in 1397, moved the location of wealth from the land and its produce to currency. Unlike fruitful land, currency is transferable in a way which requires no personal interaction. Land has been replaced by money, the personal replaced with the impersonal.
- The Industrial Revolution – With the invention of the steam engine work was radically transformed. Whereas previously work had always been done by bodies – whether human or animal – now work would be done by engines. Bodies have been replaced by machines, the personal replaced with the impersonal.
- The Informational Revolution – Historically knowledge has always been relational and consisted in the passing on of wisdom through the generations. Now knowledge has become about information, facts which can be acquired without anyone else involved. Wisdom has been replaced by knowledge, the personal replaced with the impersonal.
So, it’s not surprising that while in many ways we’ve prospered, relationally we have suffered greatly. Modern life no longer requires interpersonal connections, and yet the human heart does. This disconnection leads to loneliness.
That is fascinating and enlightening enough, but Crouch doesn’t stop there. He points out that in a different way these three revolutions all took place at the time of the Roman Empire. The Romans minted coins and formed a currency in a way which hadn’t been done before. They took steps in engineering and technology which were unprecedented in the ancient world, and they acquired and absorbed the knowledge of the many peoples they subsumed into their vast empire. They were a forerunner to the trading of personhood for power seen in later revolutions, resulting in a society with huge inequalities in personhood where only a freeborn male who ruled over his family – the paterfamilias – was a true person.
And it was into this impersonal world that the early church came, recognising, acknowledging and embracing anyone, regardless of background or status. The fact that slave and free, male and female could stand alongside one another and embrace one another as brothers and sisters was truly radical. The exchange of personhood for power had been revolutionised by one who laid down his power in order to love people.
The situation of the Roman Empire gave the early church the perfect opportunity to show the radically different approach to power demonstrated in the gospel. Perhaps the situation in the modern Western world gives the Church today that same opportunity. In a world where people are ignored, overlooked and isolated, we can be the ones who see, acknowledge and embrace.