I pulled out my old copy of Hans Küng’s On Being a Christian and was surprised at how many notes I had made such a long time ago. That I ever read it at all had eluded me. But to go on, he wrote in part that “the morally good …is what works for man, what permits human life in its individual and social dimensions to succeed and to work out happily in the long run, when freedom and love are engendered.” (p.534) The morally good enabled, at least in part, by freedom and love, is a worthy goal that yet escapes our reach, but it’s worth the reaching.
Who has the right to do the reaching? Using Küng’s words, it depends on who “man” is. Küng has a strong commitment to the freedom of the individual, but recognizes that it can be defined only in the context of community, which creates political tension between individual autonomy and community restrictions on it. Given the time in which Küng wrote it’s easy enough to say that “man” is gender neutral, although some would argue. More important, it seems to me, is who else is to be admitted to the class of “man,” given that the subject is the morally good optimized for both the individual and the community.
For most of Western history, the “man” entitled to decide and enforce what would permit human life, individually and in community, to succeed and work out happily in the long run, when freedom and love are engendered, was a white male. The chosen among them worked out what that meant. With good intent and bad, they negotiated, and if the good of others who were not white men was ever given consideration, it was up to the chosen men to decide what that good was, and how it was to be distributed. It all began to change in the 20th century with new voices demanding to be a part of the negotiation. The new voices didn’t want selected white men to decide what was good for them, they wanted a place at the table to speak for themselves, and participate in the decision making. It hasn’t been smooth progress, more like being pushed, lurching into an unknown where footing has to be tested before trusting.
We shouldn’t be surprised that demanding new voices were not appeased by helpful, needed reforms offered as a gesture of good will by the historically recognized decision makers loathe to give up, or share, their prerogatives. Nevertheless, the new voices must be included in full, there is no alternative, and it does mean giving up prerogatives once held to be the exclusive domain of a few. Given the cognitive dissonance created, there’s no way to avoid conflict, although associated violence is inexcusable, even if explainable. Nevertheless, the prevailing attitude among people of good will, until now, has been “we can work this out.” That seems to have changed in the last decade. Current national leadership, and tea partying libertarian ideologues on the right, have made it a zero sum game in which there must be a winner and the rest losers. What about extremists on the left? They’re there but small in number and long ago dismissed as a serious threat to our society.
I’m looking forward to new leadership, and stronger voices, who understand that what is being worked out, given new birth, will not be the victory of one side and defeat of all others with nothing left over. It will be a new thing that may disappoint the most strident among the voices demanding to be heard, but will provide an acceptable rebalancing between individual autonomy and the well being of the community. Whom we choose to negotiate what that means will be broadly representative of the population as a whole.
Those with a libertarian bent will be suspicious. Individual autonomy has been both highly valued and a bone of contention for the whole of our history. Is it possible to be autonomous within the context of a community that defines what is allowed and what isn’t? That’s a sticking point for the individualism that Americans value so much. In fact, individual autonomy never has had an absolute claim. It’s always been understood in the context of social and political mores. It’s always been constructed from the society in which one was raised, which means that community of some kind always sets the foundation for what any person thinks autonomy is. So Küng is right that “the morally good …is what works for man, what permits human life in its individual and social dimensions to succeed and to work out happily in the long run, when freedom and love are engendered.”
That’s helpful, but doesn’t resolve crucial questions. For one, human interpretation of what is morally good is never unconditionally valid, which is not to say it is invalid, only that it can never be more than provisionally valid. Is there an authoritative guide against which provisionally valid truth can be measured, not once for all, but again and again?
Speaking as a Christian and to Christians, that ultimate and unconditional authority is God, as we know God in Christ Jesus. I can almost hear my theologically conservative friends jumping on that saying, “Aha, so you admit there is absolute truth.” To which I reply, “Yes, but we don’t know what it is.” The bible doesn’t reveal it, but it does point us in the right direction. How one understands the truth of holy scripture is itself conditioned by how one was raised and educated, so it’s always a matter of trying to hear what God is saying now through the filter of our prejudices. I think that’s why Paul wrote that we must “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil. 2.12)
I can’t say how the nation should proceed, but I can say how Christians must proceed as members of the communities in which they live. We have only one choice: to follow where Christ has led. It means above all that we are to make our decisions about the morally good within the context of loving God, loving our neighbor, and loving others as Christ has loved us. We’re not without help in learning how to do it. Scripture guides us through two millennia of successes and failures. It ends with the nascent church struggling to find its footing in a new world, just as we struggle to find ours. We have two more millennia of Christian history illustrating progress, regress, and dead ends. They have much to teach us, but everything always comes back to loving God, loving neighbor, and loving others as Christ has loved us.
Michael Curry, my denomination’s presiding bishop, gave a rousing sermon at the royal wedding in which love was the word of the day, and he would say the word for all days. It had an impact on the entire world, and one version of it was overheard in the barber shop a few days ago. “You know that bishop guy at the wedding? All he ever said was love, love, love, blah, blah, blah. It doesn’t mean anything.” Is that what love of God and neighbor is: blah, blah, blah?
I think it means hard, practical work. Christians who are engaged in conversation about what the morally good is that will work for all the people, that will permit human life in its individual and social dimensions to succeed as equitably as is currently possible, and is most likely to work out well in the long run, must employ their best understanding of how that can be done through public policies that reflect love of God and love of neighbor in the ways that Jesus demonstrated it. And that means knowing the ways Jesus demonstrated it. And that means doing what we can to lay aside the filters of our prejudices so we can hear what God is saying now. It does not mean putting the Ten Commandments on the court house lawn, nor does it mean forcing public school students to read the bible. It does mean using one’s individual autonomy in as close to the way Jesus used his as one is able to do. Doing that is anything but meek and mild. It may not even be safe, but it is good.