This Thanksgiving, as we stop to ponder the material, social, and spiritual abundance that we are immersed in and give thanks for it, I have been thinking about what makes for a good social system. At a time when right and left wing politics across Western civilization have imploded into intractable debates between oligarchs, when every system seems to enslave and oppress others in the service of the few, it makes me wonder: What should our public institutions-- political and religious, educational and economic-- be striving for.
In looking at this situation, I propose that the dictum of Irenaeus must be applied to God's children and all their works. When Irenaeus said "The Glory of God is humanity fully alive" he was absolutely correct. God's glory is not in rote obedience, nor fearful worship, nor abject compliments (although clearly God wants us to recognize his gifts in thanksgiving, for honest recognition of another's generosity is good for the health of our own soul). God's glory is not primarily found in what we do for or to God, but in who we become as we live in the world God has given us. The analogy of parenthood is apt here, for the primary goal and final glory of parenthood is NOT merely obedient children. The goal and glory of parenthood is healthy, vibrant, virtuous, self-actualized children. Thus God's glory is the full flourishing of his children.
What is this "full flourishing" of humanity? What does it mean to be "fully alive"? This is first of all our basic health and wholeness, starting with our physical bodies and their need for "daily bread", and reaching up into mental, emotional and spiritual wellness. But secondly, as we climb Maslow's hierarchy, our full flourishing is found in our actualization of our potential. To be fully alive means to be healthy persons who are actualizing our divine potential. And third, this actualization cannot happen in a purely individualistic way, as if we can fulfill our potential by narcissistically and selfishly seeking our own self-interest.
Rather, our potential is limited by the potential and abilities of all those who surround us, including the totality of humanity and to an extent the ecosystem. If I diminish the potential of others, I have diminished the total field of potential within which I can actualize myself, and have closed doors to my full human flourishing. Indeed, without others we are not even fully aware of the potential implicit in ourselves, and it is only in concrete acts of service to and with others that we transcend ourselves and learn who and what we really are. Therefore, to adapt the words of Jesus in Mark 8.36: It is the person who selfishly seeks to consume the world who looses themselves, because in parasitically sucking life out of others, they have slammed shut all the doors through which they could have glimpsed and fulfilled their potential. On the other hand, it is the person who looses themselves in altruistic loving service to others who truly fulfills their potential by helping to fulfill the potential of the interconnected web of divine potentiality that is the human race.
This in turn provides some of the rationale that makes sense of why altruistic Love is the highest commandment (cf. Mat 22.37-40), the premier spiritual gift (cf. 1Co 13) and the very nature of God (1Jo 4.8-16). This Love-- the emotional delight in the other that leads to giving of self to fulfill the other-- is precisely the meaning of life and the purpose for which and from which we are created.
Any suffering or death which diminishes this full human flourishing diminishes God and diminishes God's purpose for the Universe. It makes us question God's power and goodness and existence. Why would a good God allow that which is directly contrary to his Love: The diminishment and death of humans? This question of "theodicy" is something I have pondered a great deal, written at length about on several occasions, and preached a few sermons on.
But as interesting of a question as this is, the obsession with it can blind us to the more immediate question that is right before our eyes. WE are made in the image of God. WE are God's hands and feet in the world. WE construct institutions such as religion, government, business and education that should further God's mission of the full human flourishing of every child of God. So why do OUR human institutions so often act as direct instruments of human diminishment and death rather than human flourishing?
By the standard we judge God, so must we judge the works of our hands (cf. Matthew 7.1-2). For we have become "gods" who mirror the intelligence and creativity of God (cf. John 10.34). And if we have been blessed by God to become "gods", it is time we started acting like it.
We need to realize that the glory of God-- thus politics, religion and economics-- is humanity fully alive. Any system that diminishes human life is anti-God.
So perhaps we need to bracket the question of God's complicity in moral evil and suffering for a time, and bring full attention to our own complicity, and then work together to create institutions which reverse this course and help make "humanity fully alive". Perhaps we need to realize that the standard by which we judge all of our social institutions is not whether they are in accord with some tradition or towing some party line, but whether they are contributing to the full human flourishing of all they touch, without diminishing anyone who will cooperate with them.
I do realize that systems which operate to promote and protect full human flourishing cannot, by definition, help those who are bent against the very project they are dedicated to. There are those who are selfish and self-centered, who pursue their own pleasure and power at the cost of diminishing and destroying others. Sometimes this is done by mere social and emotional manipulation, and sometimes it is pursued by harming other's persons and property.
Good institutions will seek to curb and redirect this behavior toward altruistic love by education and imitation of altruistic examples. If the destructive behavior is severe enough to be a public threat, good institutions will have to use force to stop such behavior and protect the public (by probation or incarceration or direct action). But even then, force and incarceration should be a last recourse and should be fundamentally redemptive: Aimed at re-education and reformation of criminals so they can attain virtue and participate in the project of full human flourishing.
Thus, we must, as people of good will and diverse faiths, commit to creating a society which provides all persons the material resources necessary to survive and thrive, beginning with those with the most need. We must build political institutions, religious institutions, educational institutions, economic institutions, and even judicial and military institutions which function together for a common goal: The fullest possible human life for all whom they touch.
But how do we make this concrete? This may be a nice theory and a helpful way to frame issues of institutional accountability. But how can we tell if the "rubber has met the road" so to speak? Perhaps the best way to do this is to focus on concrete, material human needs, starting from the most basic and building up to the most systemic. To the extent an institutional system efficiently meets actual human need, it is a good system. To the extent it doesn't, it is a system in need of reform or replacement.
To this end, I propose we can concretely work together to bring about full human flourishing by providing every person access to the seven fundamental material resources, under the acronym "WAFSHEC":
Water: Clean water, free of pollution, reliably available for all.
Air: Clean air, free of pollution, reliably available for all.
Food: Nutritional food, produced in sustainable ways, providing the calories and nutrients necessary for human flourishing.
Shelter: Safe housing, produced and maintained in sustainable ways, providing space necessary for human flourishing.
Healthcare: Universal access to basic healthcare services, both preventative and acute care, necessary to maintain full human flourishing.
Education: Access to high quality education, beginning with primary and going to secondary and then graduate education, that allows access to the knowledge and skills necessary to actualize our full potential. This begins with training in basic literacy, math, science, history technology, and life skills. It continues by securing access for all to information technologies, such as broad band internet access, which is necessary for education and employment in technological societies.
Courts: Access to impartial and just legal systems, including police, judges and legal counsel, which allow for protection of persons and property, redress of grievances, and restitution of material resources when crimes have been committed or life has been threatened, harmed, or ended.
The question is not which economic or political system is more coherent or more justified by this or that canon of rationality (regardless of whether that canon is secular or religious, leftist or right wing, radical or liberal, progressive or conservative). The question is whether these actual concrete, particular material resources are actually making it into the hands (and bodies!) of the actual, concrete, particular people who need them.
And further, are we prioritizing those who are most vulnerable, in the most need, with the most life ahead of them? The great teachers across world religions and across the history of political reform have always placed a premium on the needs of those who are most displaced, oppressed, harmed and excluded by the social systems of their day. This is true of the teachings of Jesus, the laws of Moses, the book of James, the compassion of the Buddha, the way of Confucius, the charity of Muhammed, and the messages of prophets and sages across world history. The good society is that society that provides a path to full human flourishing for even the last, the lost, and the least in society.
Thus, the socio-economic delivery system which best answers these questions, and meets these material needs, is the best system available regardless of ideological underpinning. In fact, there is no such thing as an ideological compromise so long as we are seeking to provide the seven resources of "WAFSHEC" to the most people possible, starting with those most in need.
The best systems are those that meet human needs in the most sustainable ways, with the least waste of resources, beginning with the most vulnerable people and working up to the least vulnerable. So, which government system is best? The system that meets the most needs with the least waste. Which economic system is best? The system that meets the most needs with the least waste. Which religious, educational, or judicial systems are best? The systems that meet the most needs with the least waste.
And since I am speaking as follower of Jesus as Messiah, Lord, and God incarnate, I feel I must answer the specifically Christian question raised by this: Where is Jesus in all of this? What about Christ's death and resurrection and the truths taught by the Church? I would say that the concerns in this essay are precisely many of the basic concerns of Jesus in his teachings. Read the Gospels. Read the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matthew ch. 5-7). Read the parable of the Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25.31-46). Full human flourishing, through sacrificial love, to meet each other's needs, is precisely the common core of Jesus' teachings. And if we stand and act for these things we are by definition standing and acting for Jesus, whether we use his Name or not.
And not only that, but the great Christian doctrine such as the Incarnation, the Trinity, and the Resurrection should not be merely items of knowledge in our intellectual libraries. Rather, understood correctly, they should spur us on and empower us for mission to do good in the world. As a Christian, I would in fact argue that these ideas and ideals provide the best possible foundation for doing good in the world.
Someone from another religion or worldview may argue with that and say theirs is a better foundation for doing good in the world. And to that I would say "great"! Let us test these claims publicly, and see which group does more good in the world. Let us see which group can work together to provide the material needs of WAFSHEC to the most people, with the least waste, starting with the most vulnerable. Let us not test our religion by abstract debates about philosophical concepts and historical claims. Let us test our religion by concrete action, by helping one another, to help all, to live into the fullness of their divine potential. Then, perhaps, we will find that all people of good will, from all faiths, will be "winners", and it will be hard to tell indeed who "lost".
Therefore let us all pray:
O God our Creator and Father, look with justice and compassion upon the whole human family, into which your Son became incarnate, and for which he died and rose again. Empower us by your Holy Spirit to provide all of your children with daily bread, especially those who are most vulnerable, so that we ALL may have the material resources we need for full human flourishing, especially access to water, air, food, shelter, healthcare, education, and courts of law. All this we ask for the sake for your glory, for we know that the glory of God is humanity fully alive. Amen.