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The Archbishop and the Common Good

by The Revd Dr James Jones

Posted: 10 Jul 2013

Last month (June 12 to be exact) Archbishop Justin Welby came to St. Paul's to speak about money, banking, and the economic crisis. He displayed a steely resolve that suggests he is not a man you would want as an opponent if you could avoid it. But such a trait will serve him well if he continues to talk directly about the current and ongoing crisis of the economy. And if so he would be a model of ethical vigor for religious leaders in Britain and America to speak bluntly to one of the two issues (along with climate change) that will, in time, undermine British and American societies (and many others as well) if not confronted.

The Archbishop spoke of society as a "body," a theological metaphor traditionally associated with catholic (Roman and Anglican) social ethics. As the Archbishop implicitly recognized, such a model is the necessary grounding for an appeal to the common good. Such an organic image was the reigning model of society in the premodern era. Historians suggest that the coming of modernity, and particularly the Protestant Reformation, began a growing shift of focus from the social to the individual. So that eventually some came to believe that there is no such thing as society but only individuals. If there are only individuals, there is no common good, only private goods.

The church must insist that this is a fundamental theological concern-the nature of human persons. Are persons simply autonomous, individual atoms? Recently in Christian theology there has been a trend away from such an individualistic model towards a "relational" view of human nature. But "relational" is a fuzzy word here. The question is: are people simply autonomous agents who choose (or not) to enter relationships? Or is their very personhood constituted by the relational connections and experiences in which they are embedded?

Each position leads to a specific social ethic. If we are primarily autonomous atoms, than society is something foreign, imposed on us from without in the service of social control. And talk of the common good is fiction or rhetoric in the service of tyranny. That tended to be the modern sensibility (for example Freud or Nietzsche). If we are inherently relational, than social relations grow naturally from our nature as persons. And the common good is also our good.

If the church is to re-invigorate an ethic of the common good, as the Archbishop seemed to be calling for, it must do more than re-theorize society as a body, although that is a good first step. The church must find ways for people to actually experience themselves as interconnected and inter-related and as members of a body. This is a radical shift in sensibility from the way of experiencing oneself cultivated in modernity. Such shifts in basic sensibilities concerning the self and the world require conversion and spiritual discipline.

About this author

The Rev'd. Dr. James W. Jones is a Priest in the Episcopal Church USA and a Professor at Rutgers University.


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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.