© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, UCC, All Rights Reserved
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As Americans, we struggle with the choice framed in these dueling mock political ads. Indeed, I believe this struggle is what humans have faced for thousands of years. As President Calvin Coolidge once said, “Liberty is not collective, it is personal. All liberty is individual liberty.” In other words, the greatest of all freedoms is the right to pursue our own idols of money, fame and material goods. That freedom has been the engine of growth in our nation.
The other side of this debate might best be described by Susan Powter, a contemporary motivational speaker, who said, “What’s natural and right is interconnectedness, not individualism. What is natural and right is respect for the social good. What’s natural and right is love for all.” Ultimately, in this debate we confront the essence of our contemporary political and economic discussions: how much do we accept the ideal of American idolatry expressed best by freedom of the individual versus a concept of social altruism and the idea that meaning and purpose in life is not to live for oneself but to live for the good of all people.
In the message series for this month of love, I want to look at some of our tougher choices in how to best love and honor the people and material things we have in our lives. Today, we will take a non-political look at trying to resolve ideals of individualism and altruism. Must we choose sides or is there, as I sometimes say, a middle path of living for ourselves and our own individual idols while also serving the greater good of all people and all creation?
Next week, we’ll look at another tough love choice – how to do we establish appropriate boundaries in our relationships so that our love is genuine and real? How do we practice love in such a way so that we do not enable a weakness, addiction or sense of selfishness in another? How can our love encourage growth and learning? Finally, in the third week, we will consider false or co-dependant love. Is it possible to think we love another when, in fact, we really serve some inner need within ourselves? I will leave all of the romantic, sensual and heart-warming expressions of love during this month to Valentine’s Day! For me, I hope to be brave enough to confront and learn from the more difficult ways to love.
We are all familiar, I think, with the Bible stories about the Garden of Eden and the Ten Commandments. In each story, written, I believe, not as actual history but as lessons to instruct, humanity must choose between an altruistic view of life involving cooperation and obedience to a higher good, or choosing to go one’s own way – to eat of the tree of knowledge or to worship a golden calf. Both of these latter choices symbolize humanity’s decision to glorify the individual over altruism and a higher good. Most world religions encourage us to suppress our desires to satisfy the self and to, instead, work for others. Indeed, I have often spoken of that higher ideal. In many respects, religious altruism asks that the individual give up his or her idols and a pursuit of personal needs and replace them with communal and cooperative goals of equality, social welfare and concern for society as a whole. Rampant individualism is seen as a sin within almost all religions.
Beginning in the 17th and 18th centuries, however, philosophers, artists and writers began to encourage a new ethic of liberty and freedom. Martin Luther revolutionized Christianity by asserting that popes and priests and the Roman Catholic church are not the arbiters of truth but that each individual has direct access to Divine truth. We do not need to be told what the Bible says – we can read it and interpret it for ourselves. Other thinkers took ideals of human rights to new heights by asserting we are individually given universal rights to pursue happiness, education and wealth. The right to self-fulfillment according to our own thinking is a natural right. And, this right extends to economics where liberty and human development are given full voice when each person freely pursues advancement, property and wealth. The rise of today’s most flourishing economies has come because of such individual freedoms. The drive to get ahead, succeed and enjoy the financial and material benefits of one’s work has allowed our American economy to grow to a size not seen before in history. As a whole, we are the wealthiest nation ever to exist. On a personal level, each of us has risen to our station in life due to our own efforts and our own desires to enjoy the fruits of our labor.
How do we reconcile these two seeming inconsistent high ideals of communal altruism which calls for the well-being of all people versus individualism which champions liberty and the personal pursuit of happiness? Recently, the Economist magazine posed the question this way: how do corporations reconcile shareholder interests versus those of the employee and customer? Profits and wealth can increase for the shareholder if employees are exploited and the customer is cheated by an inferior product. On the other hand, employee and customer interests can be advanced with higher wages, benefits and products which contain superior, but more expensive, components. Taken to extremes, shareholders will ultimately lose out and see their profits decline if they exploit their employees and make inferior products. Should employees and customers demand excessive rights and benefits, shareholder profits will decline, innovation and investment in the company will fall and ultimately the company as a whole will cease to exist. Either extreme creates a no-win situation. Corporations, like individuals, cannot be extremely greedy but they also cannot be extremely altruistic either.
On that personal level, how can we as individuals help others if we ourselves are not happy, fulfilled and able to enjoy the fruits of our labor? Ultimately, our motivation to help others will cease if we are not also motivated to work harder for a better life. To put it bluntly but honestly, personal greed, at some level, is a strong motivator for hard work, innovation and economic advancement. If we do away with such a motivation in the name of charity and altruism for all people, then ultimately everybody will, I believe, lose.
And so we face this tough love choice. Love of things and of money or love of others and the society at large. Some contemporary conservative theorists have even said that spiritual ideals of altruism and social justice are wrong because ultimately they are opposed to the ethic of individual liberty. And, vice versa, some extreme liberal thinkers have encouraged doing away with individual rights because they work against the interests and needs of society as a whole. What is the answer to each of these seemingly good but inconsistent ideals?
I believe unrestrained individualism and personal liberty leads to rampant greed, evidenced by our recent economic collapse and put in stark perspective when one looks at a nation like Haiti where a few oligarchs control all of the wealth while the vast majority literally scrounge with pigs for scraps to eat.
To the other extreme, I believe unchecked communal altruism leads to a tyranny of the whole against the rights and freedoms of the individual – something many of us here at the Gathering would particularly abhor since I, for one, am a part of a maligned GLBT minority. Can we still love others and work for their well-being while still enjoying a comfortable home, a nice car and personal fulfillment? How we reconcile these two ideals is crucial. Spiritually, politically and economically, I believe there is a middle way – a cut the baby in half way, if you will. The Economist magazine calls it “ethical or rational egotism.” We must find the right balance between individual rights and self-interest versus the high ideal of social welfare.
I often find myself warring against two sides within me. Like many of you, I have worked to find self-fulfillment in life and, as such, have been fortunate to acquire a comfortable – certainly not wealthy – lifestyle. I chose the ministry as a career many years ago not to enrich myself but because I wanted to be more of a servant than to work within a corporate world where money and profit predominate. I do not reject business and corporations but, for me, such an atmosphere was not healthy. My demeanor is more suited to my current role.
As one who will continually repeat the ethic that our purpose in life is greater than to merely serve ourselves, I find guilt and tension within in my own soul. Can I enjoy my home, my car and the pleasures in life I have earned? Should I not be more of a servant to others? What about those who are less well off and shouldn’t I sacrifice more or even all of my own comforts for the sake of others? To what extent I give and serve is a personal decision for me as it is for all of you. Nevertheless, my spiritual sense of meaning and purpose calls me to give more than I receive. What I hope to practice and find in life is some sense of balance – a way to live out the individual liberties I enjoy to work and save and enjoy life while still keeping a laser focus on not letting that get out of hand. I must constantly encourage myself to love others, to serve, to give and to volunteer my time and talents for the well-being of our church, our society and our world.
Buddhists, as some of you know, seek a continual reduction of desire and need in their lives. Simply put, human wants are the source of unhappiness, according to Buddhists, and so we achieve greater personal happiness the more we relinquish those desires – those impulses to worship personal golden calves if you will. But Buddhists also acknowledge that we cannot escape living in a world where desire and temptation are all around us. As humans move toward a nirvana state of perfect peace, we are encouraged to live in balance. Kama, or worldly desire, will diminish as much as we allow dharma, or personal peace, to predominate. In this regard, concern for other humans and other creatures creates in us more and more a sense of wholeness and purpose. In many respects, Buddhism understands the spiritual implications of individualism versus communal altruism.
Interestingly, Islam also seeks to resolve the conflict we see played out both inside ourselves and in the world around us. For Muslims, there exists a natural state within humans called Fitrah. It is natural and human to seek pleasures associated with good food, love, sex, comfort and success. Such desires are encompassed within that condition of Fitrah. As Islam wisely notes, humans are not instinctive creatures. No matter how hard we try, we will never attain perfection in our attitudes. Temptations, despite all our better angels calling us to help others, will nevertheless drive us to serve the self often to excess. Humans must be regulated in their individual liberties by some outside force. For Muslims, that regulating force is Allah. We balance the pleasures of life and keep them in check by submitting to the will of Allah or God. In doing so, we are balanced by not following our human nature to pursue wealth, for instance, against the needs of others. Money is fine, according to Islam, as long as it is subservient to the command to love Allah and love others. Not surprisingly, this Islamic view echoes the apostle Paul’s statement in his Biblical Timothy letter that it is the LOVE of money that is the root of all evil – NOT money itself.
As I mentioned earlier, the Economist magazine calls for a renewed sense of what it calls “ethical or rational egotism.” This essentially states what many faiths also express. Unregulated capitalism, best represented by complete individual freedom, will ultimately lead to unrestrained greed, which logically will lead to a communal collapse. Unregulated communal altruism can lead to despotism, a denial of individual rights and, logically, societal collapse. In the continuum between extreme individualism and extreme communal altruism, each of us, and I believe, each economy, must seek a balance point.
Thus, I reach the point of my message. In practicing tough love on our personal idols, we must not elevate things, work or even individual people above a concern for the greater good. Many people are, for example, addicted to work or addicted to romantic love. They do so at the risk of forgetting a higher purpose to also serve and love others. They are out of balance. For those of us who call for greater communal altruism from ourselves, our church and from our government, I believe there must be tough love on the extremes of that impulse as well. The balanced way, as I propose and as many of us already practice, is a spiritual form of ethical egotism. We serve the needs of the self but we serve the needs of others even more. Such is a model for us and for our nation.
As I often say, truth for ourselves and in our political economy is not found in the extremes. Life is never black or white. It is grey and muddy and confusing. Ethical egotism is not easy to practice or even fully define. As I said, we each find the balance point in our own lives. But ethical egotism is a middle path to finding truth in the best and highest aspects of both individualism and communal altruism. Neither is right and neither is wrong. They are both good.
In the freedom to express ourselves, our beliefs and our personal choices in life, we must never, ever forget the high call to love our neighbor more than we love ourselves. In this month of love, I must exercise my own form of inner tough love. Yes, I will buy a box of chocolates for myself and I will eat them without guilt, but I’ll also buy some for Ed, for my family and for those in need. I wish you all peace and joy…