Balancing Interests vs Creating Selves

"Democracy is the name of a way of life of free and enriching communion."
- John Dewey (1859 - 1952)

My choice to pour the energy of my hopes into nurturing faith community is based on my belief that the building of beloved community is always a two-pronged project:
(1) We must build beloved community within congregations; and also
(2) We must re-make our world on that model of care, respect, and connection.
Alasdair MacIntyre (quoted in the previous "Liberal Pulpit" post), whatever else we might think of his thesis, does do a good job of capturing the sense that our public life lacks civility, is disconnected, barbaric -- is unsustaining and unsustainable. The calling to beloved community has been, in recent generations, growing both more urgent and more difficult.

The needs of democracy are the needs of life. As Terry Tempest Williams put it:
"Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up –ever – trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy.”
You may have noticed, we kinda need each other. We need each other to become and to be what we are. Recognizing this, a number of theologians have begun to conceive of hell not as a place, not as an afterlife condition, but as alienation. Hell, they say, is disconnection from the social soil from which we draw essential nutrients. A number of years ago, the Anglican Bishops came out with a position statement saying that Hell was not a state of punishment, but a state of nonbeing.

OK. That’s about right. For in alienation we lose our Being.

Around four hundred years ago, Western political thought began moving toward a conception of individuals which, by 1776, Thomas Jefferson could assert without fear of sounding absurd, were created equal. They had certain inalienable rights. They had interests. You’ve got your interests, and I’ve got mine, and the political problem is that your pursuit of happiness is liable to interfere with mine. To solve that problem, governments, said Jefferson, “are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” for the purpose of balancing and co-ordinating individual interests.

For Jefferson -- and for John Locke, from whom Jefferson heavily cribbed, and for the thought of the European Enlightenment generally -- these individuals with their interests were simply given. The task for government, then, was to get these atoms of individual interest to curb the urge to kill each other and set aside enough of their interests to be able to cooperate for their own good. The thought we inherit from that era insufficiently attends to how much we need each other not just to cooperate in getting what we want. Oh, no. Our need is much deeper than that.

We need each other in order to become individuals in the first place. Societies make individuals, not the other way around. Shared social life is our fulfillment, not a competing force with which we must bargain a compromise, nor even a tool to employ for our ends. Said John Dewey, in the male-dominated language of his day:
“Individuality cannot be opposed to association. It is through association that man has acquired his individuality and it is through association that he exercises it. The theory which sets the individual over against society, of necessity contradicts itself” (Dewey Papers, qtd in Westbrook 44).
Democracy, then, is not just the means of compromising and balancing out our various interests. It is the means through which we become who we are, the place of our origin, the dialog that creates both us and our interests in the first place.

The problem, then, is not how to get people to set aside interests, but how to form meaningful interests; not how to leave people alone, but how to integrate them with others.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Democracy and the Meaning of Life"
See also
Part 1: Neither Skinner Nor Benedict
Part 3: Big Problems
Part 4: Five Habits of the Heart

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