Virtue in Troubled Times

“Virtue in Troubled Times”     Thoughts on 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time  October 22, 2017

by Rev. Jim Ryan,  jimryan6885@gmail.com

Maybe you share with me the disgust I am experiencing at a time when the occupant of the Office of President of the United States acts worse than the 5 year old child who has been told they must put the candy back on the shelf.  Oh, the flailing, the shrieking, the lashing out, the uncontrollable wailing, the hateful words for any and all who dares get in the way.   Yes, sadly,”It’s all about me.”

Such a time gives meaning to the term “schadenfreude.”  It is the combination of the revelation of great lament while also revealing the light of truth.  And all of it is filled with anxiety.  Feel familiar to you?

In such a time I find it necessary to consider the light.  The contrast between truth and ignorance, good and evil, virtue and depravity is absolutely revelatory at such a time.  This past weekend I found such an opportunity to consider the light.

“Virtue, Meaning and the Happiness of Life” is a research project funded by the John Templeton Foundation.  As an interdisciplinary effort it joins Psychology, Religious Studies, and Philosophy into scholarly conversations for the sake of, hopefully, making practical applications to everyday life.  One question in the conversation is: How does one explain the connection that makes these three fit?  What does it take for a virtuous person to be happy and to find meaning?  Or, also: what determines that a happy person finds meaning of life if not through the practice of virtue?

The project wants to search for this interconnection and many of its participants think they have found it in the work of “self-transcendence.”  This is a term often used in clinical psychology.  Psychologists use measurements and produce grids that show positive results in people’s lives when they transcend their own personal boundaries to reach for interpersonal and social goods.  This reach to the beyond is evidence for clinicians that self-transcendence explains the interconnection between virtue, meaning and the happiness of life.

Or, they could have read from today’s reading from St. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians.  They would have read, “You know as well as we do the sort of life we led when we were with you, which was for your sake.”  In short, I lived my life for your sake.

Isn’t it interesting and wouldn’t the Templeton Foundation have saved a lot of money and time if that one line from Thessalonians would have been the first line of the research project.

Well, maybe – if one thinks that self-transcendence in and of itself produces virtue, meaning and happiness.

Just consider that some people practice what they might call self-transcendence for the discipline of study, or getting a college degree, or a promotion at work.  Others might practice self-discipline to follow rather than to lead – as those who followed Nazi beliefs in opposition to their own beliefs.

No, self-transcendence does not necessarily lead to virtue, meaning and happiness.

Why do I make this point?  Because virtue is not complete unless/until it connects with others.  To engage in self-discipline is nice but it can just as easily create a feedback loop back to myself without resulting in the social connection of real virtue.

Virtue, meaning and happiness – as it turns out – are connected by means of self-transcendence only when the common good is the fundamental basis for human flourishing.

And here is where Cardinal Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago,  comes in.  Because Jean and I went to hear his keynote address at the conference on “Virtue, Meaning and Happiness in Life” last weekend at the University of Chicago.  His topic was, “A Consistent Ethic of Solidarity.”  He spoke on a theme familiar to us all which is that virtue and solidarity go hand in glove.  As if to counter the isolation of certain types of self-transcendence he made 3 observations about what he called “fault lines” in the pursuit of true virtue which is social.

First, is the radical polarization that exists in the world today.  The distance between the haves and the have-nots grows alarmingly.  Inequality and racial separation have created a divided humanity which the Cardinal said strains any notion that virtue’s end goal is solidarity.

Secondly, he regards Libertarianism and its glorification of all things that puff up the self and its material resources as a great threat to solidarity.  In particular, he gave the example of the false idea that Free Markets are Fair Markets.  All one needs do is look around the world at the growing gap between countries and the concentrated wealth that determines their health or their collapse.  I wonder how much of the misery now experienced by our Puerto Rican fellow citizens is being caused by not only ineptitude but also by the unwillingness to save people no matter the cost.

Thirdly, Cardinal Cupich observed that technology, when it’s not available to all, also creates a line of demarcation between the haves and the have-nots.  In this time of mass migrations, when there are more homeless people on the move that at any time in the last 150 years on this earth, it is clear that the struggle for food and shelter means that technological resources are nowhere close to being available to these people.  And without these resources how will migrants and refugees, yes our own citizens, climb into the 21st century?

With the help of these insights Cardinal Cupich focused his own beam of light on the bond between virtue and solidarity.  In that light he concluded with an encouragement as old as the Greeks – which is to value and to cultivate friendships.  This world with its Clouds and its Servers and its Social Media too often forgets that virtue is to be practiced.

Which means that friends lead their lives for the sake of their friends.

A Prayer  (JR)

We expect in this time and place words of encouragement, actions of embrace, and quiet conviction.  O God of solidarity, you reveal to us the foundation of community and call us to act for each other’s sake.  Our hope is to do that here and now – and every day and time you enter our lives.  You are God, there is no other.   Amen.

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