Religious Idealism and Worldly Realities
Quite a bit of speculation is appearing in the media about the possible impact of recent statements by the new pope, both off-the-cuff as well as the more carefully crafted, about the world’s economy and especially about the deplorable, even atrocious degree of economic inequality that separates the rich from the poor in so many parts of the world. One could argue that what he is saying is nothing new, that in fact what he is saying not only is only a continuation of what the Church has been saying over and over again, in quite specific detail, for the past hundred years or so. But it has its roots in the Gospel and before that, nearly two millennia of biblical tradition. So if the pope is making headlines, it is probably because his language is more direct and unmistakable than past papal pronouncements.
When you come down to it, that message is really quite simple. It is that God created the earth and its resources for the benefit of all and that when certain people succeed amassing those resources for their own exclusive use, they are, in effect, robbing the rest of humanity. Whether such theft is by invading armies, by political chicanery, or ruthless business practices makes little difference, as the end is the same — a privileged few living in the lap of luxury compared the masses of people who barely get by, while far too many others are left to live in complete hopelessness and misery.
Of course, there are those who are quick to point out that such a black and white picture is far too simplistic and that the kind of egalitarian society that the Church has held up as an ideal is … well, simply idealistic, in fact, naively so. And perhaps it is. But is it not the function of religion above all else, to hold up ideals to be achieved, even if we never ever quite perfectly achieve them? When Jesus said “Blessed are the poor (or poor of heart)” he was not praising poverty as such. Quite the contrary: he was warning us that the Kingdom of God (or of heaven on earth) would never be realized, much less possessed, by the avaricious or the greedy.
Another way of looking at this whole issue might be in terms of the old concept of “original sin” and its effect on the human character. While I personally don’t hold much to any literal belief in Adam and Eve’s eating a piece of forbidden fruit as being the cause of all our problems, I do see the story as a good parable of the human condition. This is because, having evolved from the apes, we carry within our genes quite a bit of evolutionary baggage — much of it not very helpful in achieving civilized behavior. But if we are to be truly realistic about the human condition, one way or another we have to face up to its consequences of its existence. If the political “left” makes a major mistake, it is in denying “original sin” and assuming that human nature is immaculately conceived and thus flawless. But if the political “right” makes a mistake, it is in sanctifying original sin and somehow assuming that this fatal flaw will eventually turn out to be a virtue in disguise — hence yet another kind of naïve idealism, one singled out by Pope Francis, known as “trickle down” economic theory.
Nevertheless I think it might be said that it is such idealism, whether it be of the right or the left, that is at the root of all human progress and that if we ever succumb to the kind of survival-of-the-fittest realism that characterizes humanity’s evolutionary past, we will have, in the end, find ourselves having “devolved” back to the pre-human level of our primate ancestors. So when you get down to it, both right and left really do claim to hold the same ideal, a prosperous and relatively decent life for every human being on the planet. The only real argument seems to be on how to actually achieve it.
Socialism seems to
aim at that goal most directly, but demands a generosity that only a few people
are psychologically or spiritually mature enough to possess, leaving it
defenseless against cheating or against any hypocrisy in its leadership that
quickly undermines whatever ideals it once held. And when socialism is motivated by a purely
materialistic view of humanity, it too easily turns into the kind of
totalitarian state that existed under Soviet Communism or the corrupt form of
government-controlled crony capitalism that we now see in
Free-Market capitalism, on the other hand, seeks to convert that same selfishness into a beneficial wealth-creating force. Yet in focusing on profit or material wealth, it all too often creates the same materialism that destroys the soul of humanity, re-enforcing the worst in human nature, even while it continues to claim to promote something better. In either case, a crassly materialistic view of life destroys whatever humanistic or idealistic goals that may have once been held under either economic system. And it is here that we see the role of religion as a corrective or counterbalance.
However, it needs to be a religion that is grounded in reality — especially psychological realities. If we can believe that the Gospels accurately report what Jesus was preaching, we can see that he profoundly understood human nature. Thus he knew that at the beginning stages only a “carrot and stick” approach is apt to work — hence the promises of heavenly rewards as well as the threats of eternal punishment. Yet he also knew that if he stopped at that level or failed to call us to something higher than that, he would have failed in his mission. Thus he could not or would not stop at simply calling on people to “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” After all, every progressive ethical teacher in the world has said more or less the same thing in one way or another. Instead, Jesus went on to call on his followers to love their enemy, to counter their evil-doing and avarice by overcoming it with kindness and generosity, and even to sacrifice their own life, as he was to do, out of love for humanity.
What the new pope is doing, it seems to me, is simply to announce the Gospel, the good-news of Christ, again to the world in the plain language of worldly realities. No doubt this offends those who would like to believe that their religion is all about seeking “heaven above” while allowing millions even billions of people to continue to live in misery or without hope of a decent existence, or that they can save their own souls by substituting “charity” in place of a just social order. If so, then it seems to me that they have missed the main message of Christianity and mock Jesus who taught us to work and pray constantly that God’s kingdom come and his will be done “on earth as it is in heaven”.