Thursday, January 13, 2011

Brad Boydston and Jacques Maritain on "Who is Responsible?"

Some of the best sermons are not preached from behind pulpits. Below, Brad Boydston, pastor of MasterPiece Church, in Laveen (Phoenix), AZ, gives his thoughts on Who is Responsible?
"Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them -- not collectively with all the citizens of the state..." ~ Sarah Palin

Biblically speaking Sarah Palin is mistaken. Her's is an over-individualized understanding of sin. Indeed the person who is primarily responsible is the actor. But we also see in scripture a vibrant group understanding.

Notice that the Lord's Prayer is all collective language. It is not "My Father in heaven...." or "Forgive me my sins..."
          Our Father in heaven,
          may your name be kept holy.
          May your Kingdom come soon.
          May your will be done on earth,
          as it is in heaven.
          Give us today the food we need,
          and forgive us our sins,
          as we have forgiven those who sin against us.
         And don’t let us yield to temptation,
         but rescue us from the evil one. ~ Matthew 6:9-13 (NLT)
The collective nature of responsibility is seen quite clearly in the Old Testament, too, where there are whole societies condemned because of community participation in evil. Occasionally the prophets condenm individuals for their sins -- usually rulers. But more often judgment (and forgiveness) is declared toward the people as a whole -- the group
For example, Hosea 14:1-4 (TNIV) --
         Return, Israel, to the LORD your God.
         Your sins have been your downfall!
         Take words with you
         and return to the LORD.
         Say to him:
         “Forgive all our sins
         and receive us graciously,
         that we may offer the fruit of our lips.
         Assyria cannot save us;
         we will not mount warhorses.
         We will never again say ‘Our gods’
         to what our own hands have made,
         for in you the fatherless find compassion.”
        “I will heal their waywardness
         and love them freely,
         for my anger has turned away from them.
Note the collective language -- them, their, your, our, us.

In other words, we're in it together. When one person acts monstrously we together as a society share in some of the responsibility. We have failed in our collective responsibility toward that person and his victims.

This in no way shifts blame from the individual but acknowledges that responsibility cannot be that of an individual alone (contrary to anti-Christian Enlightenment thinking). Collectively we have failed Jared Loughner and his victims.

Perhaps more scandalous than the inexplicable national debt, we have created a society where an individual can act alone. To save a few dollars and make life easier for us, the wealthier individuals in society, we systematically dismantled a government-supported mental health system which 30 years ago would have more quickly intervened -- preemptively. We placed rights in front of responsibility when it came to gun access. We put the school system in a position where they could not share their concerns with family and other agencies because of a student's right to privacy. And we have embraced a kind of political rhetoric which publicly dehumanizes the opposition through baleful bantering. Together we have allowed this to happen. And together we share the responsibility.

So, what do we do about it? How can we shift the course and improve the situation for future generations?

We have to consciously reject the over-individualized thinking that came to us through the so-called Enlightenment. Descartes was misleading. We need to be quick to embrace responsibility for the problems around us. If there are issues in the neighborhood we can't just blame an individual or a group. It is too easy for cocooned individuals to gripe and to expect their words to magically fix things.
We can start to use an old African response to the question, "How are you?" The answer is, "I'm well -- if you are well."
We can memorize the great commandment (which Scot McKnight calls the Jesus Creed) --
Jesus replied, “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with all your being, with your whole mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these. ~ Mark 12:29-31 (CEB)
We can reintroduce the collective confession of sin into worship.
Almighty God, creator of all,
you marvelously made us in your image;
but we have corrupted ourselves
and damaged your likeness
by rejecting your love and hurting our neighbors.
We have done wrong and neglected to do right.
We are sincerely sorry and heartily repent of our sins.
Cleanse us and forgive us by the sacrifice of your Son;
remake us and lead us by your Spirit, the Comforter.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
~ Our Modern Services, Anglican Church of Kenya, p. 78  
We can and must start to take responsibility not only for ourselves but for those around us.

Brad has pinpointed the problem here in very accessible language. Elsewhere, I have put it philosophically: will we be nominalists, or realists? Our biblical hermeneutic, our politics, our ethics, and our understanding of ourselves all fall out of whether we take individuals (atomic units, monads) or persons (substances, things with natures) to be the prime/sole reality. What we have here is the classic clash of premodern and modern/postmodern metaphyics. Obama, by stressing the universals that unite us, clearly telegraphs his opposition to nominalism. Palin, by emphasizing difference and individualism, has signaled that she is a nominalist.

In the early part of the sixth century A.D.,  Boethius defined the person as “an individual substance of rational nature” (rationalis naturae individua substantia). This is a "both-and" definition, one in which relationship is essential: an individual substance instantiating or participating in something universal. In 1947,  Jacques Maritain wrote a little book, The Person and the Common Good.  In the introduction he asks, "Does society exist for each one of us, or does each one of us exist for society? He goes one to discuss the two metaphysical aspects of the human being: individuality and personality. Individuality (grounded in the material) is the source of our uniqueness, difference and autonomy; personality (grounded in  participation in the universal) is the means of our relationship to that which is beyond us. For Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, and Maritain,  to be human is to be both an individual and a person.

At time Maritain was writing, he was threatened by communist totalitarianism (arguably a type of nominalism, for communism can only envision the collective  individual material things, not individual substances participating in universals.)  Maritain worried that human beings would lose their uniqueness and their relationship to things (and Beings) which transcend political society.  I wonder if today he might not write a similar book, worrying that human beings are losing their ability simply to relate to one another in political society. And so the pendulum swings.  Either/or, or both-and?  That is the question. Tell me how you answer it, and I'll tell you your political sympathies.

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