Tuesday, 12 August 2014

On Being People of Good Will

In July of this year the world was assailed by news of war in Gaza, Ebola in West Africa, mass water shut-offs in Detroit, genocide in Iraq. Theologically I cut my teeth on liberation theology and spent my undergraduate degree immersed in a department of anthropology dominated by Marxist perspectives; my earliest publications were in the area of Marxist biblical scholarship. I will admit fully that my inner-Gutierrez is seething at these situations. It really takes very little work to frame this within a post-colonial perspective, Marxist or otherwise, and no doubt one would gain genuine insights from so doing. Equally one could gain genuine insights from situating these situations within a feminist perspective, or that whole host of disparate "Leftist" viewpoints that fall within our discipline under the general rubric of "ideological criticism." My tendency, given my own temperament, is to think in terms of a moral theology that is informed by the genuine insights of such perspectives, and coordinated generally by Lonergan's historicized Thomism.

What does that mean, in practice? In an early post on this blog I suggested that all Lonergan is summed up in AIRR, i.e. his four-fold imperative to Be Attentive, Be Intelligent, Be Reasonable, Be Responsible. Now, Lonergan notes that often in practice we begin by being responsible. I hear about mass killings in Iraq. I have a visceral reaction that tells me that this is wrong and that something must be done. Then I sit back and ask two related questions. One, why do I think that this is wrong? Two, what can be done that will positively alter the situation? That is where one must be attentive to the data, intelligent in understanding its significance, reasonable on weighing out various possibilities. This leads to a responsibility that is more than just a visceral reaction but predicated upon genuine knowledge about the matter.

To become genuinely attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible is to undergo conversion, which Lonergan schematizes into three "moments": religious, moral, and intellectual. "Religious" means not conversion to a particular or even any religion but rather to the profound conviction that the world should be a good place and a willingness to work towards the realization of such goodness in and around oneself. It is to confront the problem of evil in its starkest form by acknowledging the problem of good, viz. that despite all appearances to the contrary the world is yet a good and beautiful place. Religious conversion is to become, in the words of the Gloria, "people of good will." Such goodwill leads to moral conversion: converted to goodwill one wills to do good, i.e. to prefer value over self-satisfaction. This in turn leads to intellectual conversion: willing to do good one becomes concerned to discover what is truly good, and this requires that we learn more generally how to distinguish true from false. Put more succinctly, only a person of goodwill can be genuinely open to truth.

The salient point is that not everyone is equally prepared for the work of responsibility. One who gives not a whit about others is going to suffer a chronic handicap when it comes to responsibility, for such a person will recurrently fail to consider the needs of anyone but her or his self. Such a person will think that people suffering from war in Gaza, hemorrhagic fever in West Africa, from thirst in Detroit, from mass murder in Iraq, have no claim on her or his attentions or sympathies, let alone her or his operations to effect a positive difference in their lives. We have a word for such a person: psychopath. Such a person might well come up with this or that quite clever ideology to justify such psychopathic indifference to others, but that is just a smokescreen to cover over the fact that she or he is a piece of crap, and this precisely because there have not been the conversions necessary to generate caring and compassion for others. Such a person is not a person of good will.

The biblical scholar should be particularly disturbed when such ideologies invoke aspects of the biblical tradition. For instance, perhaps Paul's words on effeminacy are used to justify the most egregious homophobia, or passages from Proverbs on the necessity for hard work are used to show how poverty is not the result of complex cultural, historical, and social realities but rather of simple moral failures on the part of "the poor" (a group conveniently generic enough so as to obviate any identification with real persons, thus preventing those pesky pangs of empathy). I would suggest that as the members of the academy most fully trained in the study of scripture that biblical scholars have a responsibility to counter such misuses and abuses of the biblical tradition, and that moreover insofar as a given biblical scholar is a person of goodwill she or he will feel compelled to do so. She or he will be simply outraged, and will find it takes greater energy to stay silent than to speak up. For that is what a person of goodwill truly is: one who cannot but respond to the sufferings of others. The intellectual task is simply to ensure that one's responses are attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible.

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