But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming. He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you. Everything that the Father has is mine; for this reason I told you that he will take from me what is mine and declare it to you.John 16: 13-15
Perhaps members of every generation, as they age and find themselves increasingly observers rather than participants, experience something akin to my own present perspective. As I look at the decreased sense of possibility experienced by our currently emergent generations and the degradation of our public life, I cannot help but feel that we are witnessing the decline of the powerful and taken-for-granted capitalism that has fueled our country’s life and growth as well as the personal ambitions of most of us for several generations. The “system” has become a caricature of itself. If its effectiveness lay in its recognition of the connection between acquisition and affluence, on the one hand, and ambition and competition on the other, it seems now to have become mere possessiveness and exclusivity for their own sake. If there ever had been any kind of balance between competition and personal striving on one side and the common good on the other, the very concept of the common good seems to have disappeared from consciousness. Politically even so-called progressives feel the need to cloak any call for social justice with an emphasis on personal gain. “Yes, it is good for all citizens to have health care, but we guarantee you that you will not lose your personal privilege or status.” Our government is now in the process of suppressing information about the effects of climate change, lest that even the most selfish of us might begin to understand that our own lives are at risk.
Jesus’ description of the relationship among the Spirit, himself, and his Father reminds us today that our social formation tradition of capitalism and competition, especially in its current extreme form, is based on a very basic misunderstanding of the truth of the cosmos: relationship is the very heart and nature of reality. Jesus strikingly says that he is “glorified” by the Spirit in the Spirit’s taking from him what is his and declaring/giving it to all. Similarly, says Jesus, “everything that the Father has is mine.” The Eastern Church speaks of “created and uncreated energies.” Jesus is describing that the life of God is the uncreated energy of the shared common love within God. This also implies that, unlike the sinful illusions within which we operate, we, as all creation, live a common life in a love that is common to all. Sin is the impeding of that common life, of that common love which is the very created energy of our being.
Yesterday I was telling a friend that, as rare as the experience is, what sustains me are the glimpses, Jan van Ruusbroec would call them “blics,” of the uncreated, flowing, all-encompassing love of God in which all of us share our common life. It is to know the possibility of a “life to the full” that is a life in unrestricted and unrestrained love. He then asked me, most appropriately, what it was that kept me from knowing this more consistently and fully throughout my life. The answer I gave, while familiar to me, also contained a new and striking thought for me. The core of my response was that it was the ways that I constrained and inhibited my love that kept me from more often experiencing and realizing its truth. So often I hear the call of Jesus to “love another” as an ethical or moral demand. As we hear Jesus’ description of the inner life of God, however, we realize that we must love one another if we are to know and to enter into that life, as it manifests both within God but in all of creation. Without practicing, that is acting in, love for others, we cannot know and experience the flow of love that is the energy of all creation. It is my fear of the other and my fear of losing myself that restricts my loving. It is my possessiveness of “myself” that keeps me from giving it away.
This possessiveness, which can take the form of self-centeredness and greediness, is a powerful force, a strong energy within us. This is the energy that powers capitalism, consumerism, and competition among us. It is based, however, on an ontological error. It comes out of our illusion of separateness. The Spirit takes everything that is Jesus’ and declares it to us, just as Jesus takes everything of his Father’s. No one has anything that does not belong to the others. Being caught up and transformed into the very life of Jesus is why the first community of believers in Jesus could live in no other way than that described in Acts 4:32: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.”
The poverty of an economic and social system based on an illusion will ultimately manifest itself in that system’s imbalance and exhaustion. Any human construct will in time diminish and die because reality, the true laws of nature and of creation, will ultimately prevail. The question always is: Given our human propensities to pride and sin, will we continue to insist on the truth of the illusion unto our own destruction? This is the story of the known world in the time of Noah, and, increasingly, it feels like the story of our own time.
A barometer of the health of a system and a people is the intensity with which they justify and aggrandize themselves. Some researchers have looked at political movements and suggested that societies, like individuals, live along “a shame-pride continuum.” If their self-consciousness becomes overly shameful, they will balance by becoming prideful, and vice-versa. In this schema, the election of Ronald Reagan following Jimmy Carter was a reaction to Carter’s call to the populace to face the social and structural tensions beneath the inflation and the pessimism that people were experiencing. Reagan then came with a message of “morning in America,” which provided an emotional shift without the recognition and effort that Carter implied. Currently, at the very time that the fault lines of our system are becoming so apparent (as embodied in the life and values of our President), we speak of how America is becoming great again. We seem heedless that greatness does not build walls around it, nor weaken itself in resentments and scapegoating. Once our walls are constructed, do we then discover that we are now imprisoned with each other and that our internecine hatreds leave us no recourse but to devour each other? If we are so great, how is it that we so resent and despise each other?
Perhaps when the basis of our social construction of our reality is competition such a result is inevitable. How can the other be both competitor and sister or brother? Our economic, and so what we take to be our societal health, is now based on our consumption of the unnecessary and on the ballooning affluence of the financial class. There is, thus, an increasing discrepancy between what we call economic progress and social well being. Albert Einstein famously said: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” As long as we are more devoted to the consciousness to which our “system” has given rise rather than to the reality that confronts us, we shall find ourselves never truly open to the creative energies of the Divine.
Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Laudato Si, is on the crisis of climate change. Yet, its significance lies in how it is also so much more than that. It reminds us that our problem is a problem of restricted and selfish consciousness. There is no way out of this human dilemma until we acknowledge, repent of, and change the sinful behaviors that brought us to this place. The great opposition to Pope Francis, largely from “within” the Church, is based on the threat that he is to the status quo. The proximate locus of that threat is a benighted and privileged Church bureaucracy. The threat is also much more universal, however. He, as many who preceded him, insist on reminding us that: “The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and ‘the first principle of the whole ethical and social order.’” Francis insists that “the world is essentially a shared inheritance.” Interestingly enough, the loudest critics of this encyclical proclaim that Francis is out of his depth, that he speaks here of cosmology and social structures and not of what they claim should be his limited area of concern which is Church doctrine and personal morality.
“The whole ethical and social order,” however, must reflect reality. Inevitably, as a human construct, every social order will in time become deficient in reflecting the truth of things. And that truth is what Jesus tells us today, that everything that the Father has is his and that everything that is his he gives to the Spirit. Anything we possess must be held lightly, for it ultimately belongs to all. We shall only be able to change our relationship to the planet when our consciousness of how we relate to each other changes. When our systems and structures do not support our openness and generosity to each other in love but rather serve our sinful tendencies of restricting the flow of love within us, they become perversions of the truth and obstacles to a common life. Jesus says that the way to be great is to be the lowest and the servant of all. Given the affluence of our country, what could be possible for all if we could change our consciousness? How much “common purpose” could we find in together sacrificing ourselves, especially in our consumerism and wastefulness, for the sake of the planet?
What moves the values of unbridled consumerism and competition is a mistaken comprehension of the world, a belief in and fear of scarcity. But Jesus says this is false consciousness: “Give and you shall be given: Into your lap they will pour a goodly measure, pressed down, shaken together and spilling over; for in whatever measure you measure it shall in turn be meted out to you.” In Jesus’ view, we experience scarcity because of our possessiveness and lack of generosity. When we live by giving away all we have, we experience, much to our surprise, abundance. The earth’s resources are not infinite, yet there are more than enough for all of us. They are not, however, more than enough for a few of us to possess and hoard more than our share. It is the possessiveness and selfishness of some that creates scarcity for the many. This is why there is no mere “technological” solution to the problem of climate change. For, as long as we demand more for ourselves than for others, we shall always deplete the natural world. On the other hand, to the degree we give all we have to each other, there will always be more than enough for all.
Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone. For believers, this becomes a question of fidelity to the Creator, since God created the world for everyone. Hence every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged. The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and “the first principle of the whole ethical and social order”. The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property. Saint John Paul II forcefully reaffirmed this teaching, stating that “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone”. These are strong words. He noted that “a type of development which did not respect and promote human rights – personal and social, economic and political, including the rights of nations and of peoples – would not be really worthy of man”. He clearly explained that “the Church does indeed defend the legitimate right to private property, but she also teaches no less clearly that there is always a social mortgage on all private property, in order that goods may serve the general purpose that God gave them”. Consequently, he maintained, “it is not in accord with God’s plan that this gift be used in such a way that its benefits favour only a few”. This calls into serious question the unjust habits of a part of humanity.Pope Francis, Laudato Si: On Care For Our Common Home, #93