General Meeting of 5th October 2006
6 Oct 2006
Each of our lives, and therefore the true good of each of us, has several dimensions. These dimensions need to be distinguished but never separated.
Our Bodily Life
We are not persons who 'own' bodies, as if these were somehow detached from our identity. Our experience is embodied experience, our perceptions and thoughts are inseparable from our senses, from their openness to the world and their active response to it. The 'good' in this dimension of our lives is of at least two kinds: firstly the fulfilment of basic bodily needs such as food and drink, shelter, warmth and clothing, fresh air and clean water; secondly, the freedom from violence, imprisonment, serious illness or disability (or, out positively, the gift of appropriate vigour for time of life) and so on. A certain freedom with regard to our own needs is admirable, if it stems from our free striving for some greater good, or it may be wrongful, if it merely expresses a lack of self-respect. The neglect of others basic needs is almost always evil.
Our Interior Life
We are not human apart from our unique 'inner life': our consciousness, our joys and sorrows, our dreams, our hopes and fears. The 'good' here will include such elements as freedom from disabling fear, from despair, from the terrible sense that life is futile or meaningless.
Our Personal Relationships
It is false to think of ourselves as essentially isolated persons who just happen to meet others. On the contrary, we are simply not human apart from our relationships with other people. These relationships may be casual (with shop assistants, with people we 'know' only on the telephone) or intimate (with spouses, partners, children, close friends). In either case they are part of who we are. In other words the self does not end at the boundary of the skin. In this dimension the 'good' means such qualities as courtesy and respect, freedom from bitterness, a capacity for warmth, tenderness and loyalty, but also from manipulation/domination of others or over-dependence on them. Loving (and being loved) changes us, because we grow as persons largely to the extent that we can welcome others without first 'censoring', we shrink as we increasingly reject them. But this good is also in tension with others. Personal relationships are not the whole of life (in spite of the novelist E M Forster's slogan "Only connect": remember his famous claim that it was morally better to betray one's country than to betray a friend).
Our Lives as Members of Society
The society in which we live is not merely a stage or backdrop, against which we live out our independent lives as individuals. A line of thought which runs from Plato and Aristotle through to Thomas Aquinas, is that human beings are 'political animals'. No individual is self-sufficient, because human goods are realised collectively: In the Politics he writes,
He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god. (S.1253a).
The Greek word idiotes means both a private individual who renounces any care for the state and 'an ill-informed or ignorant person'! Only in the polis could the full range of 'excellences' be realised, and the state's specific function was to realise these excellences. Our society affects our lives at their very heart, and it is we, together, who are 'sóciety' . In Hitler's Germany, people's Jewish or Aryan 'identity' must have determined their deepest experiences, including the 'private' ones: likewise, cf. Exodus 1. Belonging is a fundamental personal need: note the bitterness of its denial, feared by Cain in Genesis 4. We are related to each other as members of groups, which affect each others' lives for better or worse. It follows that we are truly involved with people whom we shall never meet face to face. In this dimension of our lives, the 'good' may be conceived in terms of justice: for example, as deliverance from exploiting others (i.e. systematically gaining from their suffering) or being exploited by them. This too, is less than the whole story, and it is necessary to retain the sense of individual (and group) freedom towards 'society at large'. It is important to note that this dimension is broader than the specifically political. The whole realm of culture is opened up by reflection on this dimension.
Our Lives as Dwellers on Earth
Once again, the fact that we inhabit the earth is not incidental to our lives, but is of their essence. We rely on the earth to support us, and we cannot survive if we destroy it. We are the children and tenants of the earth rather than its owners. Even the specific good of the human species, therefore, requires the 'good' of this dimension: freedom from the greed that pollutes or ruins our own habitat. We need to cultivate both respect for the earth and appreciation of its beauty.
LIFE AS A UNITY
It is obvious that the fifth category overlaps with the fourth. Pollution, in the end, harms other people, especially the poor who have little chance of escaping it. But in fact all the categories constantly merge, because our lives are a unity which we lead in all dimensions at once. A person's 'sexual' life, for instance, has obvious bodily and inter-personal aspects. But our sexuality is lived out no less in our inmost psyche (in our daydreams, fears): and in our membership of society, since sexual embodiment is inextricably connected with socially and culturally constructed 'gender roles', and with society's expectations of us. Whether we conform to these expedtations or challenge them, we are profoundly affected by them.
It is possible for our horizons to shrink, so that we neglect life in one or more dimensions. This is unproblematic for brief periods -- it's all right if falling in love temporarily distracts you from local politics! -- but is destructive if it persists. We recognise the narrowness of the 'food freak', the hypochondriac, the ruthless executive with no time for friends or family. However, it is quite legitimate to focus on any one or more of the dimensions (to be a counsellor or spiritual director, a surgeon or hairdresser, a politician) so long as one does not implicitly or explicitly deny the reality of other dimensions, or the legitimacy of focusing there. This course takes politics as a topic and a source of theological reflection, and as a source of theological reflection. It isn't the whole of theology, but any theology which dismisses it, or pretends to be apolitical, is probably distorted or ideological.
As God is the Lord of the whole of our lives, we cannot truly 'believe in God' without discerning the presence and call of God across the whole range of these dimensions. The neatest biblical summary of this claim is perhaps that of Micah 6:8: "One thing, O Israel, the Lord asks of you, only this: to act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with your God." The 'one thing' is 'three things'.
It is impossible to say a priori whether some areas of human experience are rightly to be privileged as focuses of reflection. They emerge into prominence largely in response to felt need, to 'the signs of the times', to intellectual paradigm shifts, to social realities (e.g. the rapid contemporary development of feminist or ecological theology). Christians in the last couple of centuries have tended to ignore the political dimensions of their faith, largely in understandable reaction to the preceding epoch in which wars were brutally fought on allegedly religious grounds, and in which the churches exercised massive social power from which they had to be dislodged by secular movements. Now the churches' public role would be widely recognised, and so too, therefore, the importance of theological reflection on that role and those responsibilities.
Frank Turner SJ
Fr Frank Turner SJ