Wednesday, August 21, 2019

In Search of the Common Good

Jake Meador's In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World (Inter-Varsity Press, 2019) offers an explicitly evangelical perspective on politics and society that is also surprisingly somewhat Catholic in its inspiration, language, and aspirations. It is perhaps unsurprising that he starts out asserting: "Our decline is a predictable product of choices we have made." More surprising, that statement introduces a critique not just of secular society's social breakdown (saved for chapter two) but of the Christian Churches themselves: "Where God calls his people to service, the American church has far too often pursued power. ... A movement designed to obtain power and prestige and status will end up where Jesus predicted it would and where the American church has ended up."

Only after confronting the Churches' failures does he turn to society. Though he never uses the term, Meador makes a sort of natural-law argument for connecting Christian and more universal moral norms: "Christianity's moral norms are based on the idea that there is a way people are meant to function in the world." Meador's corollary: "Religious life and common life decline together."

He eloquently describes the increasingly familiar consequences of our individualistic culture: the depletion of America's "social capital," Americans' increasing loneliness, social media and screen-based activities, and the decline of the family, "the spiritual cost to having fewer children in a society" and the outsourcing of everyday care. The crisis is "a comprehensive social breakdown that leaves no corner of life untouched, no person immune to its effects. What we are seeing is a comprehensive crisis of public life." 

He locates that crisis such formulations as Justice Anthony Kennedy's infamous line in Planned Parenthood v. Casey: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." He traces such sentiments back to the traditional villains of modern political philosophy, Locke and Rousseau, and more originally to the influence of existentialism, especially Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. "What has happened," he argues, "is that the modern story has seized on one of love's necessary qualities - freedom - and forgotten all the others." And he illustrates the consequence by considering the contemporary crisis of climate change: "the story of how human beings have seen the chief purpose of the earth as being to facilitate their own immediate freedom from constraint, even at the cost of the planet's health."  

He devotes an entire chapter to what he calls "the loss of good work."  He stresses how one way "our economy impoverishes us spiritually is by teaching us that the only sort of work that is really work is work that a member of the capitalist class will pay us to do in the form of a wage of some sort." He cites traditional classical Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin on the universal destination of goods and the relativity of private property, even quoting Pope Francis: "Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property" (Evangelii Gaudium, 189).

Having diagnosed what ails us, Meador tries in the second half of his book to offer alternative practices for Christians to make their own: "the most important thing we can do is be properly Christian in the totality of our lives, starting with the way we shape our homes and carrying that out into our individual vocations, whatever those may be." Basing himself on the Genesis creation account and its image of human life before the fall, he identifies three norms for recovering common life: "work, home, and sabbath."

Treating them in reverse order, he starts with sabbath, which he contrasts to the ideology of the factory. Sabbath is an Old Testament institution which Catholics have integrated into our spiritual life differently from evangelicals. Both, however, historically have emphasized, as Meador does, the primacy of participating in public worship on the sabbath (or, as Catholics would prefer to say, the Lord's Day): "public worship is an inherently social thing that breaks me out of my natural individualism ... it also forces me into contact with people I might not like very much if not for Christ." Meador warns against the widespread contemporary tendency to "find ways of fitting our religious practice into a schedule that is otherwise defined and controlled by other concerns and obligations." To combat this, he proposes returning to the older evangelical practice of a second service on Sunday evening. (The long-lost Catholic equivalent was Sunday afternoon Vespers and Benediction - or, later, vernacular devotions and Benediction. Trying to imagine returning to that highlights what a lifestyle challenge Meader's proposals imply!)

Secondly, he emphasizes what he calls the membership: "the idea that we do not exist in the world as lonely, alienated individuals, but as embodied creatures made by the same God, who made the rivers and the animals and the mountains and the ocean." He highlights two callings to membership: marriage and celibacy. He emphasizes a traditional understanding of marriage that long predates our contemporary preoccupation with the married couple. Thus, "marriage is a covenant relationship ... designed to provide a stable place for children to grow up and for the couple to mature in love fore on another ... a relationship oriented toward the flourishing of the world, seen in the bearing of children and making of households."

If his emphasis on the more traditional family and household model of marriage goes against the contemporary preoccupation with the couple, he valorization of celibacy seems even more counter-cultural - especially coming from an evangelical. He quotes Oliver O'Donovan (Resurrection and Moral Order) on how marriage vindicates "the order of creation," while singleness points "beyond to its eschatological transformation."

Finally, work, which he pointedly distinguishes from what he calls "technique" (an argument which draws significantly upon Jacques Ellul). Referencing the pre-lapsarian human state in Genesis, he speaks of "the work of men and women given to them by the God they are called to imitate." Referencing the way we work in contemporary society, he notes how hard it is "to feel enthusiasm for work in which a person has minimal freedom to make their own decisions about how to do a task and in which they are under constant surveillance, two qualities that describe a great deal of the jobs people now do in the United States." Referencing Luther's notion of being turned in on oneself, he notes that "there is such a thing as bad work" in which people are "curved inward, focused on their own desires and comfort rather than the divine call to love their neighbor." He even identifies particular jobs that "are utterly unnecessary to the welfare of society."

Returning finally to our contemporary political context, he notes that in recent campaigns Democrats devalued "nongovernmental community," while Republicans "actively despised nearly half the population and virtually every poor American." Accordingly, Christians need to adopt "ways of thinking that have become quite foreign to us in an era in which both parties are so stridently committed to their own bankrupt ideas." To this end, he argues the values of solidarity, sphere sovereignty, and subsidiarity.

Solidarity is the easiest for me to appreciate, since it most explicitly rejects a neo-Hobbesian "modernist understanding of politics," which is all about securing "the right to narrate one's own identity" through "action and choice." Sphere sovereignty, a term I had never encountered, emphasizes the "distinctions between the work and different communities that exist in a society," a Protestant formulation for prioritizing the pluralism of mediating institutions in society. Finally, subsidiarity, which "helps us to recognize the unique social utility offered by different human institutions and frees up those communities to do what they are best at."

More interestingly, he argues for an inherent priority of doctrine and virtue over policy: "The most basic work of Christian citizenship is to cultivate the virtues of humility and wisdom in order to make oneself a gifted public servant in whatever venue God has called one to. By understanding the basic Christian political doctrines as well as the civil virtues, we can equip ourselves to repair the fracturing body politic of America and to offer a positive vision of mutual flourishing and hope in our decadent society."

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