Friday, January 8, 2010

For the Common Good

One Thinking Friend (Craig D.) wrote (and doesn’t he write eloquently!) in response to my previous posting about the “struggle over the definition of ‘progress.’" I think he is right. Communication is often difficult, because words and concepts are not understood by everyone in the same way. So let me say a little more about what I mean by progress.

I certainly do not think that all change is progress. But all progress involves change. That is my problem with a cyclical worldview; it understands the world in terms of repetition (like the seasons) rather than in terms of change. Sure, there is change from one season to the other, but it is the same every year; there is never a new (a fifth and then a sixth) season.

“Do we have any choice other than to look for progress?” Craig wrote. Well, not looking for progress (at least on earth during one’s lifetime) was the position of most of the people of India for centuries (or millennia). The best example of a circular worldview is that of traditional India, which was basically a view of accepting what is with little thought of or effort toward effecting societal change or progress. The only choice, it seems, was accepting the situation (caste) into which one was born.

Certainly there were some Asian Indians who sought change. Gandhi is the best example. But before he began to work for change (progress) he studied in England and was, by his own admission, greatly influenced by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Tolstoy, and John Ruskin, a British artist who was an advocate of Christian socialism.

Another good question from Craig: “Can we define progress in such a way that it furthers peace and justice, life and hope, rather than just measuring acres of trees cut down?” Yes, we can and we must, I believe. As I wrote in the last paragraph of the previous posting, “Our challenge is to join with all people of good will to work for progress so that at the end of this new year the planet and those who dwell on it, especially those who are suffering the most, will be better off than they are now.”

True progress is that which enhances the common good—for the planet and all who dwell on it. Progress on this earth is seen where, and only where, shalom is expanded. Progress is seen in material things only to the extent that they better provide the necessities of life for everyone: food, clothing, shelter, and (can’t we say) health care.

Progress is seen when chronic hunger and starvation are eliminated, when the sick are increasingly cured and diseases dispelled, when those who have been enslaved, abused, oppressed, and/or exploited are freed from such treatment, and when there is, truly, liberty and (social) justice for all.


  1. I can agree with an idea of progress as opposed to linearity in time/thinking. The two are not synonymous and, in fact, we know that progress does not occur in any linear fashion at all, it ebbs and flows like seasons, like the tide, etc, and is not unitary in form, but is diverse, leading from multiple paths which often cross, converge, and diverge, which a single line cannot do.

    I like the example of Gandhi, who by no means considered himself a Christian and understood that truths could be found in multiple places --- Hindu faith, Muslim faith, Judeo-Christian faith(s), etc. Gandhi was open to all, found truth in all, and looked to all for addressing the crippling effects of brutal imperialism.

    As noted in Gandhi: His Life and Message for The World, Gandhi did not believe that progress (industrial or otherwise) was an end in itself as he judged material advances by their own moral and spiritual effect on human beings (pg. 88). Gandhi "identified industrialism with materialism and feared both as menaces to man's growth." (pg. 88)

    Importantly, Gandhi was not big on absolute truths. Gandhi once wrote "My aim is not to be consistent with my previous statement on a given question, but to be consistent with the truth as it may present itself to me at a given moment. The result is that I've grown from truth to truth."

    Gandhi indicated that when he broke one of his fasts he would like "the Imam Sahib to recite the opening verses of the Koran, then I should like you to sing the Christian hymn...that...ends with the words "Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all..." which was to be followed by a Hindu hymn. (pg. 78). Gandhi once noted when asked about his faith --- "I am a Christian, and a Hindu, and a Muslim, and a Jew."(pg. 130). Gandhi believed that "Jesus possessed a great force, the love force, but Christianity became disfigured when it went to the West. It became the religion of kings." (Pg 131).

    As for status quo (as opposed to the "progress" you suggest), we Western Christians (especially American Christians) are no less static in our thinking in many respects --- women in ministry, women in public office, Jim Crow apartheid, current obstructions prevening Indian people to vote and to worship in traditional ways, we could go on. It seems in many ways, we Americans are less than progressive (no society or culture owns a brand called "progress"). Interestingly, Winston Churchill once stated that "Gandhism and all it stands for must ultimately be grappled with and finally crushed." Churchill, the Westerner, wanted to get in the way of progress as understood by the Indian, the Easterner, Gandhi.

    Finally, Gandhi did not seek independence as much as he sought "voluntary interdependence," (pg. 105) which is a concept foreign to Western ideals of individualism and independence, and yet is consistent with Eastern and indigenous understandings of inter-relatedness (mitakuye oyasin --- all my relations, in the Lakota).

    We know then that a certain progress, that brought an Indian who followed multiple paths and who sought interdependence, not independence, through peaceful means, overcame a certain hindrance to progress, namely, Western imperialism.

    Thank you for using Gandhi as an example, as he is a wonderful example for us all who are interested in justice. We have much to learn from this Hindu about progress.

  2. I share LKS's vision of human civilization and appreciate CT's mapping of its being shared by individuals who do not have western worldviews (I guess that means linear worldviews). My concern arises when we hold to such visions as inevitable core components of our universe. Milton's Paradise Lost (Bk XII) envisions the tenuousness of the couple's existence as they leave the garden:

    "Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
    The world was all before them, where to choose
    Their place of rest, and Providence their guide
    They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
    Through Eden took their solitary way."

    First, shouldn't we distinguish between progress as an aspect of human civilization as distinct from nature? Progress is measured as the maximizing of the effectiveness of humanity (to paraphrase Whitehead). If progress is not inherent in nature (I don't think notions of the common good are the driving force of nature, for instance: nature "red in tooth and claw..."). Second, I think we recognize that whatever progress is it comes with "wandering steps and slow." What counts as progress to me (because I can benefit from western definitions of it) may not to others. Even elimination of diseases by establishing western civilization can have unintended consequences (e.g., what's happening to rain forests is a prime example). Whitehead's criterion of maximizing the effectiveness of the human race leaves open for more discussion the meaning of effectiveness (must it really be western notions of common good? In fact, western notions of justice may be well-intentioned, but do they escape cultural and historical bias themselves?).

    Yes, there may be such a thing as progress in this universe that is equally fortified with randomness, but, again, it comes only "with wandering steps and slow."