The Idea of a Good Life

Leading Small

Ideas matter. The way we live is patterned by what we think. Ideas that are commonly accepted as “the way things are” merit our special attention, because seldom are they truly of the essence of things.

While I’ve previously written about the love of money in our culture, and the growing gap between the wealthy and the rest, the following excerpt from a December article by David Cloutier, in “Commonweal,” offers a somewhat new slant: our relentless pursuit of goods is social glue. In a fragmented society in which hierarchies have crumbled and authorities have been discredited, we are held together in consumption. What Cloutier doesn’t mention, is that this way of groping for cohesion leads, ironically, to more isolation.

The idea that unlimited acquisitiveness is a good thing, is an idea that leads to no good end. Among other ill effects, it produces a state of mind in the general population that enough is never enough– a state of mind that grinds people (depending on their temperament and social status) into either a neurotic busyness, or into a hopeless, listless despondency. Equating a good life with unlimited acquisitiveness is a bankrupt and bankrupting idea.

Modesty is one old-fashioned idea that needs lifted up anew.

In the excerpt below, you can substitute the word “Christian” wherever Cloutier writes “Catholic”:

But if many Catholics are more willing to admire someone like Dorothy Day than to follow her example, that is also partly because many of us have adapted to our country’s consumer culture—a culture in which affluence is morally innocent or even commendable. “More” is taken to be a universal aspiration, perhaps one of the few we are all supposed to share in our multicultural society. Everyone wants “a better life” or “the American dream” for their children. In The Unintended Reformation, Brad Gregory suggests that “the goods life” is the social glue uniting an otherwise “hyperpluralistic” society. Whatever else we may disagree about, we agree that if you can have nicer things, you should have nicer things. In such a culture, it is easy for Catholic Americans to forget their church’s teaching that our excess wealth must be directed to the common good rather than to private indulgence. We cling tenaciously to the ideology of happiness as the pursuit of limitless wealth, buying into what Fr. John A. Ryan called the “higher-standard-of-living fallacy.” Ryan insists that social reform requires us to “put away that false conception of life and values which permeates all classes of contemporary society, and which holds that right life consists in the indefinite expansion of material wants.”

via Sending the Wrong Signal | Commonweal Magazine.

Robert Bellah on the (Dis)Ordering of Society

Robert Bellah

Commonweal recently noted the death, this July, of contributor Robert Bellah. Emeritus professor of sociology at Berkeley, Bellah began his career as a teacher at the college from which he received his undergraduate degree: Harvard.

His article “The Church & the Search for the Common Good” appeared in 1982.  Thirty years later, Bellah’s insights remain helpful as we try to understand where we 21st-century Americans are today: societal disorder is one of the costs, when economic values dominate and consume all other values (moral, aesthetic, communal, ecological, transcendent). While Bellah is tracing a century’s-old development in Western civilization, life as we have lived it in the recent, say, half-century– and the policies we have embraced, or at least to which we have acquiesced– confirms Bellah’s thesis.

The excerpt at length is below, but the executive summary is this: whereas once religion or politics served to define a telos or purpose for society, economics by its nature supplies society with no such organizing principle. Instead, a society dominated by economic values is flattened into an amoral  marketplace (not necessarily immoral, but not necessarily moral, either); and the human being is reduced to a bundle of appetites.

Bellah does not say this, but it is worth adding: a society dominated by economic values is great for those who win. The winners end up making the rules, and inevitably those rules will favor the continual winning of the winners. That’s where we are today.

Here’s Bellah in 1982:

Modern society replaces the older ideal of organic hierarchy with a new idea of functional differentiation of spheres of life. In this new society the central institution is no longer religion or even the political order but the economy. But because the economy lacks a telos of the sort that religion and politics had the end of religion is salvation, of politics the common good, the economy does not replace them as a new kind of dominant hierarchical institution. Rather it radically undermines all older conceptions of ethical hierarchy and replaces them with functional or even technical utility instead. In so doing modern society produces a new worldview, one that reverses the traditional conception of higher and lower energies. The modern ideology is radically egalitarian and individualistic and hopes to create a good society through unleashing and manipulating egoistic and selfish desires. The new social philosophy, in the form of classical liberalism, replaces the older conception of ethical, political, practical reason, even in the political sphere. Even as early as Hobbes the problem of political leadership was replaced by the problem of regulation, of the management of human beings conceived as the material to be subjected to technical manipulation.

All of these changes were not without their precursors and accompaniments in the religious sphere, as we know from Max Weber. Yet as we also know from Weber, the increasing dominance of functional rationalization changes the place of religion as it was known in all previous societies. Religion is to be displaced from its role as guardian of the public worldview that gives human life its coherence–  a role that it retained in early Protestant communities as well as in Catholic ones. Religion is now relegated to the purely private sphere where it is to be considered merely one of a variety of possible private options.

via A Language of Solidarity | Commonweal Magazine.

Things Change. They Just Do.

E. J. Dionne has a piece in Commonweal about the decline of democracy in America and Europe. Hard-data seekers will be frustrated, because quantifying this decline is not possible. Historical development, like human nature itself, defies final summation in mathematical equations.

The afterglow of the dissolution of the Soviet Union is still with us. Despite our anxieties about militant Islam; despite our less than triumphant wars in Central Asia and the Middle East; despite the unraveling of domestic civility and the worst economic crisis in nearly a century– despite all this, we like to think that American democracy is the culminating apex of historical development. We won the Cold War; that victory proved the superiority of American democracy over any autocratic or totalitarian system.

Let’s say that’s true. Let’s say that the fall of the Berlin Wall was the sign that democracy won. The mistake is to believe that democracy won forever: that history had come to an end, and that all the world– if it were progressing to enlightened ends– would inevitably become like us.

The merits and shortcomings of democracy aside, what such triumphalism lacks is historical imagination. Historical imagination involves two activities of the mind: first, it considers centuries– rather than today’s hours and minutes, or the next election cycle– as the pertinent measure of time; second, it consciously resists projecting this era’s dominant worldview onto the past, or into the future. Not unlike the religious imagination, historical imagination both recalls us to the truth that our life is but a breath, and checks our natural inclination to believe that the sun revolves around us.

With historical imagination, it’s not hard to foresee a time when American democracy is not triumphant; to conceive of a day when another way will work better to meet the challenges of that particular day. Things change. They just do.

We can prepare for inevitable change– the inevitable, unavoidable change that comes at many times in a human life, and throughout human history. How we can prepare for the changes that will come, is for next time.

An excerpt from Dionne, and the link, follow:

We know American politics are dysfunctional. But after a week of scandal obsession during which the nation’s capital and the media virtually ignored the problems most voters care about — jobs, incomes, growth, opportunity, education — it’s worth asking if there is something especially flawed about our democracy….

Citizen dissatisfaction is hardly surprising in the wake of a deeply damaging economic downturn. That doesn’t make the challenge any less daunting. We should consider whether democracy itself is in danger of being discredited. Politicians might usefully disentangle themselves from their day-to-day power struggles long enough to take seriously their responsibility to a noble idea and the systems that undergird it.

Earlier this month, the Transatlantic Academy, a global partnership of think tanks led by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, issued “The Democratic Disconnect,” a sober report by a group of distinguished academics.

“Democracy is in trouble,” the report begins. “The collective engagement of a concerned citizenry for the public good — the bedrock of a healthy democracy — is eroding. Democratic governments often seem crippled in their capacity to deliver what their people want and need….”

via Is Democracy in Trouble? | Commonweal Magazine.

Capitalism and Its Discontents

We’ve been considering different themes  in Eugene McCarraher’s “Morbid Symptoms”  (Commonweal, November 2012). The last one to mention is his critique of capitalism. Coincidentally, this month’s feature story in Foreign Affairs is an evaluation of capitalism: “Capitalism and Inequality”, by Jerry Muller.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, and then with the decades-long rise of China and India through their participation in the Western-dominated economic order, criticizing capitalism feels like swimming against the tide of history. Surely the way that the Cold War ended, combined with the last quarter-century of unprecedented wealth creation, prove that capitalism is above reproach?

McCarraher dowses us with a bucket of cold water. “Wake up!” he shouts in muscular prose: capitalism comes with huge costs to the material of the world, and to the spirit of humanity. How could we fail to see that an economic engine which harnesses the power of human avarice to drive it, will inevitably grind us down, diminishing and deflating our sense of what a human life means. Are we made for the Love of God, or for the market? We are socialized to live as though we are made for the market– ie, that we are commodities– and it takes an act of will to choose otherwise. Market-thinking dominates our culture; how could it not penetrate our most basic understanding of who we are, and what the purpose of life is?

Muller is less radical. He sees chronic insecurity as the inevitable result of capitalism, since the dynamism of creative destruction brings continual change. His conclusion: don’t dismantle the welfare state, but strengthen it, because too much insecurity will lead to rebellion. Enlightened self-interest would suggest some level of re-distribution of wealth, in order to increase social stability.

While Muller and McCarraher have fundamentally different points of departure, both see serious flaws in laissez-faire capitalism. The system, while ascendant, is not above reproach– and without critique and correction, it contains the seeds of its own destruction. It may be said of capitalism as an economic system, as Churchill said of democracy: “It’s the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Which is to say that capitalism, like democracy, is not the holy grail. It is not our salvation.

The Church Called America

Eugene McCarraher (“Morbid Symptoms,” Commmonweal, November 2012) makes reference to the “church called America”– which he understands to be separate from, and significantly different from, a Christian church. In making this distinction, he identifies one of the faultlines in American culture today. That faultline is the point of collision between two continent-sized ideas: one, that God’s good will for the world is co-extensive with American economic, political, and military principles and practices; and two, that God’s good will for the world is co-extensive NOT with any state or nation, but with a person whose self-sacrificing love revealed a divine, redeeming, inexhaustable Love at the heart of all.

This gets messy. Why can’t it be both, some may say: why can’t Jesus be the Savior AND America be the light, lately arrived on history’s scene, to show the world the way of God? Why not both?

Because we are human. Perhaps there is such a thing as “American exceptionalism,” but even if there is such a thing, it does not apply to our basic fallen nature: power corrupts always; pride leads to overreach always; nothing is purely good, ever.

McCarraher is criticizing the US Roman Catholic bishops for conflating the way of Christ with the way of American consumer capitalism/militarism, but the criticism applies to all who have authority in Christian churches (hello, self): we need to draw more clearly the lines that locate the God of Christ at work in the world, and the lines that locate the god of America at work in the world. We may imagine a time when those lines corresponded, but that time is not the present time.

To say so, is to make possible a love for both God AND country, with a love that is appropriate to each.

“Morbid Symptoms”– Eugene McCarraher

Cardinal Timothy Dolan

A good essay is like a good compass: it points north, and the truth of its pointing helps us find our way. Eugene McCarraher’s “Morbid Symptoms” (November Commonweal) is just this kind of “true north.”

The essay– cultural critique disguised as a book review– uses the material in four recent books by Catholic clerics as a runway to gain speed, before soaring wheels-up over today’s American cultural landscape. The view is impressive. This is not McCarraher’s first flight; he knows where to go, and when to dip a wing so that we get a clear view down.

The essay, at 4000 words, is longer than most of us will want to take the time for. Religion in the Balance will be considering the article in smaller bits, over the next weeks. “Morbid Symptoms” gives us so many helpful vantage points, that it is worth lingering over.

It’s important to remember that while a major theme of the essay is criticism of the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, our interest is in McCarraher’s critiques of America’s cultural life, and of a particularly unhelpful response by religious leaders– a response that is by no means limited to the Roman Catholic Church. I’m not into bashing Catholicism, and I don’t think McCarraher’s article is most fruitfully read in that manner.

Here is just a sample of what McCarraher offers– a critique of American culture that is much more penetrating, and therefore much more interesting, than the facile finger-pointing that we often get:

As Stanley Hauerwas perceptively reminds us in War and the American Difference, “America is a culture of death because Americans cannot conceive of how life is possible in the face of death”; as unregulated accumulators and consumers of ever-expanding wealth, Americans share nothing in common “other than the presumption that death is to be avoided at all costs.”

More on this to come.

via Morbid Symptoms | Commonweal magazine.

Sex and the Roman Catholic

Commonweal is a fine periodical, filled with closely-reasoned and finely-nuanced essays. Jo McGowan’s essay “Simplifying Sex” is another instance of this thoughtfulness.

The argument is simply that sex and sexuality can be life-promoting and life-enhancing– and therefore in harmony with the God revealed in Christian Scripture– without requiring the sexual act necessarily to lead to procreation. Earlier in his career, Rowan Williams, the soon-to-become-former Archbishop of Canterbury, used similar reasoning to offer a broader theological context for homosexuality. (A treatment of Williams’ thinking on homosexuality is here:

Jo McGowan’s essay is a defense of contraceptive use, within the context of marriage, written by a Roman Catholic. While Roman Catholicism helpfully reminds us that sex and sexuality is a gift of God, the restrictions that the Church places on sexual expression need revision. Roman Catholic teaching does not as yet encompass many of the ways that sexual relations can be redemptive and sacramental.

Here is a piece of McGowan’s essay:

To defend contraception within marriage is not to defend sexual license. Married couples who have pledged a lifetime of commitment to each other and their families have the right and the duty to make their own decisions about contraception. The church’s role is to help them arrive at the decision that is right for their lives. It is not to dictate one-size-fits-all rules that have no foundation in practical experience.

via Simplifying Sex | Commonweal magazine.