I recently read an article in Christianity Today written by an author I really admire and respect, Andy Crouch, titled, “What’s So Great About the Common Good?” I encourage you to read this article for context on what I am about to write (you can read it here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/november/whats-so-great-about-common-good.html?paging=off&utm_source=buffer&buffer_share=b657b).
In short, Andy writes that the phrase, “the common good” is one that is rich in history and should be picked up by the Church as a way to reorder the world by reminding us that the world is better for all when it is best for all, including the marginalized, voiceless, and oppressed amongst us. What I wish to do is add to the conversation already building around this ancient but timely phrase.
This idea of the common good goes back at least as far as the Athenian concept of the polis, the city as community. For the Athenians, the concepts of “common” and “good” were at the heart of their understanding of morality, ethos, society, education, governance, and human flourishing.
In ancient Athens, the greatest outcast, the one who had no place in society, was the idiote, the individual, the one who looked out for himself first. Life in the polis was understood to be lived out as a communal project, where the telos (or fulfillment) of human life was to live a certain kind of life–a life of arete (excellence) rooted in human virtue. This, then, is what the “common” held together: a shared vision of the “good” that lead ultimately to the highest form of happiness and contentment for all.
There is another definition of “the commons” that is important to note here, and it comes from the English tradition of “commoning”: utilizing those shared elements (forests, rivers, grazing land, etc.) that were available to all for the good and enjoyment of all. “Commining,” according to author Raj Patal in his book The Value of Nothing, “involved a web of social relations designed to keep baser urges in check, foster different ways of valuing the world, and of relating to others.” In fact, According to the Charter of the Forest (the sister charter to the Magna Carta in feudal England), the commons was both a place and a “process of freedom,” in which people fought for the right to shape the terms on which they could share the commons. (The loss of this “process of freedom” did not occur until the commons was taken under private ownership by our Enlightenment forebears.)
When seen together, this idea of the “common” (a shared project utilizing the resources available to all for the good of all), offers a much richer vision of what “doing life together” should come to look like.
This vision of the “common” is a far cry from the over-indulgent focus on the individual that has come to dominate the modern sense of self. In fact, as scholar Alasdair MacIntyre notes, modern society seems to be nothing more than a collection of strangers, each coming together in the marketplace pursuing his or her own ends and needs. For example, the role of education is to provide means to individual consumption, the role of government is to protect the rights of the individual, and the role of the church is to get individual souls to heaven. What is lost, (indeed, what makes us seem like “idiots” to the ancient Greeks) is any sense of a shared vision for human flourishing that includes all members of the body, especially and most importantly the vulnerable.
To build upon the conversation begun by Andy Crouch, what the Church at large (and really any educative gathering) should think through is this: what is our common project, and does it serve to bring human flourishing, dignity, and value to everyone within our community? In other words, what is the common Story we wish to tell with our collective lives through our individual roles? What larger Story do the artists, dreamers, architects, city planners, business leaders, teachers, pastors, authors, etc. wish to tell within the context of their own personal stories? And is this a Story that ends with all things being made new for everyone? Is it a “good” Story worth telling over and over again?
Thanks, Andy, for bringing this ancient idea back into the “commons”!