Through most of our lifetime there have been two strongly held versions of the Good Life vying with each other for the allegiance of thinking people and both representing themselves as offering a Garden of Eden. It is surprising how many people cling to a social and political vision of Eden as if that alone were the fulfilment of human destiny.
One version centres on the growth in freedom of each individual and on the vigorous virtues, including personal mobility, self-reliance, self-discipline, enterprise and hard work. The other centres on human solidarity, co-operation and the compassionate virtues.
The fracture between these two has damaged the capacity of our country to rally behind moral goals. I think the time has come to recognise that each of the two has important Christian and humanitarian insights to offer but neither can justify the excessive and extravagant claims that have been made on its behalf. We are, and should be, leaving both these versions of Utopia behind us and searching for a new synthesis, recognising that this is an age of transition.
Many of us believed in the Sixties and mid-Seventies that community caring for one another, not least through the operation of central and local government, was the authentic expression of Christianity for our time. What was perceived as the arrant selfishness and injustice of the 1930s was still sharply in the minds of many. The idealistic desire to build a better Britain out of the ruination of a world war had not died. A platform of well-being, below which no member of the community would be allowed to fall, in material wealth, in education, and in health, would ensure there would be no return to the scandalous inequalities of the 1930s.
What we failed to see was that the social and political arrangement of things too easily stifled creativity and enterprise in the individual and unintentionally sapped self-respect in too many of the elderly and less able in the community. It tended to exaggerate the power of collective instruments; even to the point of detracting from the sense of individual ability of every citizen. There were risks in institutionalising compassion.
Moreover, a somewhat naive faith was placed in the corporate institutions which carried the main responsibility for the shaping of our communities. The possibility that they might falter, fall prey to ideological or bureaucratic interests or succumb to corruption was not taken seriously enough. The vision of Eden failed to take into account the stubborn facts of human sin and selfishness.
Not surprisingly, therefore, in retrospect, those deep-seated human instincts and desires for individual creativity, enterprise and success seized their moment in the different climate of the Eighties. The supremacy of the market, the enterprise culture, the drive for success and wealth creation, constructed their own vision of the Good Life. It was, and will always be, a mistake to decry many of the insights lying behind this upsurge of the human spirit as though they were intrinsically unchristian or evil.
The desire to do well and to see the fruits of one's labours is not to be despised. True wealth must be created if common wealth and the common good are to be sustained at acceptable levels. It may be justified to condemn scandalous inequalities of wealth, but to do so does not imply that poverty is generally desirable. To ignore the need to stimulate the innate desire in human beings to improve the world they live in, and to achieve goals which they set for themselves, is to stifle something God-given. But again, the vision is insufficient and potentially disastrous by itself.
To assume complacently that material success by a few in society will inevitably 'trickle down' to benefit the rest is misleading and can be a cover for selfish instincts. If nothing is done about it, it is quite possible for the rich to get even richer while the poor remain oppressed by poverty. To define success exclusively in terms of material wealth is to trivialise life by ignoring much that is most precious in human relationships, religion and culture.
To encourage people to see much of life outside their own families as little more than a competitive struggle - and their fellow human beings as being intrinsically competitors - risks poisoning the human capacity for love near its very roots. The cultivation of individual and family success needs to take account of human sin, just as much as does the reliance on corporate institutions to produce the Good Life.
Is it not time for us now to see that both these subcultures contain and express a great deal of what is good, God-given, and Christian and also the seeds of their own downfall if given exclusive scope and allowed to dominate our society? The conflict between them is sterile and outdated, and we may now see a way forward to the Good Life in some synthesis of what is best in both.
We need to stand with the poor and the disadvantaged, but also to praise and encourage those who are conscientiously striving to make the best of whatever talents and resources they possess. We need to encourage success and reward enterprise and effort, and also show a generous compassion towards those who, for whatever reason, are being denied the fruits of success. We need to liberate the almost unlimited resources of the human will and spirit to transform life for the better; but we must also accept that without a moral framework and sense of direction, which comes ultimately from God, liberation can prove demonic and destructive.
I sense that each of our political parties is in its own way struggling to rebalance the claims of community and the individual, of material success and morality, of the vigorous and compassionate virtues. As we should have learned, whatever vision we pursue is bound to require the discovery and exploitation of so much that is good in human life, together with the honest recognition that temptation and sin are constant companions also. The one thing that we cannot ultimately depend on is our own unaided human capacity to achieve virtue or the good life by our own efforts.
That brings us to the spiritual formation of our quest for virtue and the Good Life. True hope rests on the love of God for all people despite our weakness. Virtue is not, of course, a Christian monopoly. We hope to share virtuous qualities with men and women of all faiths or none. But the Christian understanding of the place of virtue in human living is distinctive. We see it in the person of our Lord and his expression of human living; we see it in the fact that none of us can live fully as human beings without admitting our intrinsic human weakness and sin. We need help to survive and do better.
For me, the best place to begin is at the foot of the Cross, where all things are made new; and at Easter, because this is the season of hope, of liberation and renewal.Reuse content