The Personal and the Common Good: The Heart of our Needed Transformation

The Personal and the Common Good

Stuart Higginbotham

August 19, 2021

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Rublev’s icon of the Three Visitors with Abraham is well known


This transformation will continue to take as long as it will take.  We continue to experience the reality of living within a truly watershed moment as a society.  The painful struggle we are experiencing now is nothing less than contractions that are the sign of a birth into a new way of living together and sharing a planet as a society.  I believe we will look back on this time as an inflection point, a liminal space that challenged us to our core.  We can be honest about our grief and anger even as we trust that a new, more whole embodiment of life can come into being among us and within us.

Many old patterns have been shown to be unhelpful at best and harmful and oppressive at worst.  Assumptions around what it means to be a person worthy of life are being laid bare.  Anxiety and anger are spiking, and these are rooted in the fear that things have gotten out of control–which, in many ways, they have.  

It feels as though our political structure is completely broken, with these two parties that we have.  (And can we find a new name other than “party” to describe them, since there is not one single thing celebratory about this experience?)  “Factions” sounds more fitting.  “Structures” gets closer to the reality of how the platforms are shaped and honed.

The Republican Party, on the whole, wants to emphasize personal choice on the individual level (with some exceptions). They shy away from having any mandates that, they feel, infringe on personal liberty (with some exceptions).  The criticism from the other side is that their actions enable continued behavior that is neglectful of the common good, in this time of crisis.  

The Democratic Party wants to emphasize the way that the government can establish helpful frameworks to guide and support the wider population.  They encourage decisions on the governmental level that, they feel, support more responsible choices that emphasize the common good.  The criticism from the other side is that they infringe on personal freedom on one hand and fail to encourage personal responsibility on the other.  

We act as though there are only two choices here, and the illusion of these two choices continues to choke off our potential growth–as well as offering convenient talking points for politicians who want to cynically leverage our anxiety and fear for their political advantage.   

The reality of our existence is that we need to find a way to encourage responsible personal choice that respects and nurtures the common good.  We need both of the most noble aspects of both “sides,” if we’re honest, but our society’s long obsession with a consumeristic posture has corrupted our understanding of personal choice into a warped self-centeredness that fails to understand our inherent interconnectedness. I need only be concerned about me, and much of society is geared toward nurturing my existence as a “consumer” that feeds what I want, what others convince me that I need.  

Even much of how we understand religious belief in this country has centered on an idea of personal salvation without regard for our responsibility for one another and our connection within the wider planet.  In many religious circles, we have emphasized an escapist mentality, a particular understanding of “salvation” that focuses only on leaving a sinful world full of sinful people whose personal choices have led them to their sinful lives.  We fail to see the deeper truth of how God loved this world so much that God entered into it–and continues to dwell within it, giving life to everything that moves and lives on this planet that we share.  Salvation, at its heart, means wholeness, but we fail to see the whole because of our obsession with ourselves.

We should not expect that our political dysfunction will resolve itself since the deeper struggle we are facing is one of value and meaning.  The transformation of our values demands an intentional spiritual engagement within each personal heart so that we realize our essential connection to the heart of each and other being on this planet–indeed the heart of creation as a whole.  Politicians cannot fix this for us, because they are an expression of us–for better or worse.  

This space or sphere of deep value and meaning is the life-blood and purpose of our spiritual and religious traditions.  The wisdom traditions of all faith cultivate practices ways of understanding how our personal choices are anchored in a responsibility toward the common good–of which we, as persons, share.  We, as persons, are not annihilated into some vague, amorphous commonality; rather, the particular gifts, beauty, and gifts that each one of us has are supported and encouraged within the wider community.  The particular and the whole are held understood together. This is God’s dream, and, for Christians, it is why Jesus (and then St. Paul) spends so much time talking about the Body.  We can also the fantastic beauty of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, with God being understood in/as three persons.

So, here we are, at this watershed moment when we face so much pain and suffering.  This will take as long as it will take, but it truly feels that we must keep at this until our hearts are transformed and we begin to see a wider and deeper vision of what it means to live together as a community.  Stay close to your practice, my friends, and keep supporting one another and all those who care so deeply in these days.  

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