Recovering the Commons II: Countering Selfishism

We are persons because of other persons.

– Archbishop Desmond Tutu

By W. Christopher Evans

Almighty God, who hast so linked our lives one with another

that all we do affecteth, for good or ill, all other lives:

So guide us in all the work we do, that we may do it not for self along,

but for the common good; and as we seek a proper return for our own labor,

make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers,

and arouse our concern for those who are out of work;

through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit,

one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

–Collect for Labor Day, Book of Common Prayer, 210

In much recent U.S. American political rhetoric, socialism and anything resembling a concern for shared efforts, the social welfare, the common good, or the commons is mocked, upbraided, and cast out as demonic. To be concerned with others’ welfare is to be labeled that most feared opprobrium, un-American. And now, perhaps, even treasonous.

To be concerned that others’ have clean water, nourishing food, safe shelter, meaningful work, and necessary care is anathema, is the spectre of government control in our lives. Yet ironically, as required affirmation, the same people who employ this rhetoric are quite interested in governmentally regulating fully others’ welfare in our most intimate pair bondings and the most difficult decisions of our lives in ways that brook neither shades of gray, nor rainbow gradations.

At the heart of this rhetoric are incompatible tenets. Government is the problem. Government is the solution. This should not surprise us, for this rhetoric contains within itself very seeds of dictatorial communalism it decries. On the one hand eschewing any rules of life for the national economy, and on the other hand demanding imposition of a very narrow rule of life on every household economy.

This moves well beyond differences in economic theory and application in a time of recession, of whether or not taxes should be lowered or spending raised. It has moved into the bizarre realm of only me and mine. Many commentators of late note the influence of Ayn Rand and her objectivist philosolipsistic writings on much of this rhetoric, a rhetoric that is neither conservative, nor social. It is selfishism, the championing of the self-contained, self-serving self (and those considered extensions of my existence).

Such influence is not conservative because it reaches for an utopian—some would say dystopian, notion that fails to acknowledge our finitude, limitedness, and proclivity to be only for ourselves to the destruction of others.

In this regard, selfishism is the very antithesis of a mature conservatism steeped in the best of Augustinian influences on our general societal and cultural worldview. This reactionary right uptopian thinking is every bit as naïve as revolutionary left utopian thinking. At their extremes, both eschew governance and government at all because they embrace an overly optimistic view of the human condition that results in a form of enthusiasm, of unmediated immediacy on the level of human relations often mirrored in an understanding of relation to the divine. In both cases, where such extremes have taken hold coupled with dictatorial aftermaths that promise to pull it all together again, much must be torn down that holds us together as a single thread woven into a great fabric, and it is rarely clear if what is left or resewn is of better quality, nevermind, of finer beauty.

Such influence is not social because by its very definition it reaches for an absolutizing of the self over and against, and indeed, without any need of one another or the Other.

In this regard, selfishism, enamoured with our finitude, enthralled to the fact that we die, seeks to overcome these by swallowing in itself claims no creature can rightly make and remain sane, right-thinking and right-praising: Infinite, unlimited, self-centered and self-absorbed. But to have a self-not-by-with-and-for-others is finally to have no self at all, for the very nature of a created self is to be by-with-and-for others, an image of One Who Is Persons Three. To be left without a self is to be left open to the sway of those who would play to our basest temptations. In this regard, extremes of communalism are coterminous with extremes of selfishism.

Adam Smith himself would not recognize this absolute mantra of the self and the market divorced from care for the good and the commons. Smith after all notably insisted that those with much should have a larger portion of their wealth devoted to the common good. To absolutize the self-contained, self-serving self alongside the mythically self-regulating market divorces the good, the good for the person and a few and the good for the many persons in community. To absolutize the first over or without the second is to create a monster every bit as all-consuming and dangerous as the monster of dictatorial communism and other communalisms such as facism. The monster may have different ways of operating, but the ends come eerily close to the same conclusion: We are but producers and consumers.

While the extremes of various socialisms, the dictatorships of communism and facism, mark out a communalism that denies self (at least for the many). The extremes of late market capitalism deny society (at least for the few).

The truth is that no distribution system will be perfect until God is all in all. To make such a claim is conservative in the best of the Augustinian tradition. The truth is also, however, that any distribution system is meant to serve the needs of each and all, and this too, is an Augustinian claim.

And these needs not only include jobs, but meaningful work; not only rivets, but masterpieces of engineering (I think of the Golden Gate Bridge); not only the sounds of industry, but the sounds of the symphony. The socially conservative Augustinian tradition radically embraces that we need not only the necessities of survival, but beauty.

We find ourselves in a paradoxical or rather eschatological tension. We live in a mixed economy not only on the level of goods and services and common life, but in the tensions of God’s Kingdom now and not yet, God’s Kingdom given in Christ fully once-for-all and received-and-lived-out by us ever-imperfectly. To deny this tension will lead to claims of self or society as the fulfillment of all things.

Just as with self, a society not engaged in the often-frustrated, ever-concern for the good of each and all is a society that requires the Church to proclaim the Gospel in His fullness. And by this, I do mean the Gospel that does not divorce the self-gift of God in Christ Jesus from the tangible graces of daily need we each require to live. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

“I don’t preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, “Now is that political or social?” He said, “I feed you.” Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.”

To claim that government has no part in this, to claim that individual or even corporate charity alone will suffice is to cut off a portion of government responsibility. In this regard, former President Ronald Reagan was wrong. Government is neither the problem, nor the solution. (And ironically, in my lifetime, I have seen positive claims of both justify imperial actions, that is, actions that inflate God and God’s Kingdom with the state.) Government is an imperfect necessity in a world yet to be perfected.

Government is a necessary limitation on utopian frenzies with their overly optimistic fantasies about the human condition, left and right. These limitations can and should take both the form of rules for national economic and household life, that is, laws and regulations intended to maintain a society that cares for each and all while being ever-mindful that these laws and regulations are always contestable in the light of new learning and God’s Kingdom. (And for Anglicans, this contestability reaches as much to the government of the sojourning Church.) Government is necessary; good governance is hard work. The call for good government, for better government, is the responsibility of every person.

No, the greatest danger to America today is not socialism, it is selfishism. Selfishism, that absolutizing of the self as a singularly-self-contained, self-serving existence unrelated to other human beings, much less to other living beings and the whole of creation. As F.D. Maurice reminds us again and again, at the heart of the God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ is precisely that in this same Jesus Christ we are related to all of creation, to every living being, to one another, to God Who In Godself Is One In Three Persons, Who Is A Society.

The greatest danger to the Church is that we will imbibe this poisoned mixtum, selfishism, denying who by baptism we are—Christ’s Society, Christ’s very Body, a sojourning sign of, a waiting witness to, and a broken-open vessel offering God’s call and hope and promise to general society and the whole of creation that finally all shall be image, indeed, all shall be icon of God who shall be all in all, and all manner of thing shall be well. Until then, we sojourn, struggle, and proclaim.

But today, the increasing marriage of selfishism and Christianity in the socio-cultural-political sphere signals a turn that I dare to name heretical, a choosing for one’s self, indeed a choosing of one’s self to the exclusion of everyone else, to the extreme of nullity, of a way of thinking and praising that is at odds with Christological-Trinitarian thinking and praise. Selfishism by its very own claims eschews the very heart of Christian claims: being-in-relationship, self-by-with-and-for-others, persons-in-community, and most importantly, subjection to and praise of an Other Who is all of these on the level of the uncreated, beyond our imaginings, in Godself, and in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit for us, all living beings, and the whole of creation to the Father. And at the same time, it conflates the self and God’s Kingdom, creating in the words of Lutheran theologian, Carol Jacobson, an eschaton collapse. The human being can somehow be complete and perfected and unlimited and infinite unto self without God and God’s Consummation. Such a claim is the very denial of the created self. Selfishism and Christianity are incompatible.

Maurice, an early Anglican recoverer of the social aspects of Christological-Trinitarian thinking, often defines sin as selfishness. Selfishness is no small thing. It is, in the words of the anonymous Medieval mystic of the Theologica Germanica and her or his popularizer, Martin Luther, the self curved in upon the self. It is to utterly turn away from the very and only One Who gives us life at all. Selfishness is death! To be primarily and singularly for-ones-self is to be at odds with God’s intent and hope for us personally and socially and cosmically. To be utterly unto self is to become nothing, having closed off the only One Who gives us everything, our very existence as pure gift out of infinite Love. To uphold the self formed to covetousness, greed, and exploitation without reserve or regulation or limit is to uphold a way of being utterly opposed to the Divine Life and God’s call, hope, and promise to general society and the whole of creation. I cannot help but think of the corrupt, cruel, self-absorbed Walaran Bigod in the screen adaptation of Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth, finally letting himself fall from the cathedral height rather than accept the help of another. To not name this sin is to give up a part of Christian witness.

Christological-Trinitarian response to selfishism turns us to the One Who Are Other Than Ourselves: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, reminding us that we receive our self as pure gift of the Creator to be a self-by-with-and-for-others, to go out of our self for all of creation, to live in ecstasy—the term the Cappadocian Fathers and after them St Maximos the Great and St. John of Damascus use to describe this going out of self not only in God’s inner uncreated life and God’s life toward us and all of creation, but also in turn to describe in Christ, our own created life toward creation, one another, and God. At the heart of our response is profession of faith as praise:

We believe in one God,

the Father, the Almighty,

maker of heaven and earth,

of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, Light from Light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made,

of one Being with the Father.

Through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation

he came down from heaven:

by the power of the Holy Spirit

he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,

and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;

he suffered death and was buried.

On the third day he rose again

in accordance with the Scriptures;

he ascended into heaven

and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,

and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,

who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.

He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

We look for the + resurrection of the dead,

and the life of the world to come. Amen.

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