Does self-interest necessarily rule – with inevitable destruction?

May 12, 2024
World map painted in green on the palms of a man. Top view.

Before attempting an answer, first let us hold the mirror up to obvious signs of our dysfunction.

The last few days have spotlighted electronic media, the billionaires who profit from it, and their business model which refuses accountability. Domestic violence has many causes but misogynist treatment of women as objects of male fantasy is standard viewing by young men. Clicks of a button trick many into thinking they have many friends, but in the real world the same people are trapped in a pandemic of loneliness and depression.

Ominous threats to world order are not being addressed. Despite political and international rhetoric, no committed and verifiable plan exists to limit global warming to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, let alone 1.5. The effective veto by any one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council – China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US effectively ensures no action is taken on any of the hard issues. Purveyors of armaments (war is part of their business plan) are keeping conflicts alive in Gaza, Ukraine, and Sudan. (Australia sells armaments to Israel).

States were once viewed as earthly approximations of an eternal order with the City of Man modeled on the City of God. Now, they have come to be seen as mutually beneficial arrangements aimed at protecting the natural rights and self-interest of the citizens of each. This self-interest almost always mitigates against global best interest. Interference in support of their own self-interest by the US, Russia and China keeps the Doomsday clock at 90 seconds to midnight.

Self-interest is most damaging in politics. The West’s democracy is blighted by a binary, conflictual political system in which the interest and ambition of major parties has become more important than good policy.

Neo-liberal economics has failed. Unsurprising, given its appalling philosophical basis, that self-interest is in everyone’s best interest. Despite the crumbling edifice, self-interest prevents economic reform and renewal. An unregulated capitalist economy is powerless to bridge the wealth divide between nations, and within nations between those who own property and those who don’t; those who work in essential services and those who can afford to access them; those who for a variety of reasons cannot gain a foothold and those who can.

Now for a diagnosis!

What you are about to read in response might be perceived as the last gasp of air from one who has served and led a now defunct and irrelevant institution. Its dying, you might say, has been taking too long!

But hang on. I am not wanting to argue for the institution, I am wanting to argue for something more fundamental.

Upon what authority do we make sense of the world, our lives, our purpose – if we have one? For the short span of our own life, what is our aim, wherein do we attribute success or failure? 80 years in the context of billions is not very much!

According to AI analysis, in the lead up to the Federal budget, Coalition governments have historically framed their presentation in terms of economics while Labor governments have framed theirs in term of social well-being outcomes. Either way, they assume a meta narrative.

Past civilizations have been founded on meta-stories of belief, stories which have made sense of the world as they experienced it, shaping behaviours. Indigenous Australians had a meta-story which nourished them for thousands of years on this continent, until being brutally disconnected from it. White man’s money on its own does not ensure reconnection. Voice might have helped.

Generations back, many if not most of us, of European origin, have Celtic ancestors. Celtic symbols and stories rooted our ancestors in their place within rhythms of nature and seasons of the year which were greater than them. Communities were gathered around a tree which through its roots and branches symbolized the web of life to which they and the natural world symbiotically belonged, leading to one of the most familiar Celtic symbols – the Tree of Life.

Pope Gregory sent Augustine to England in 601 AD with the instructions Libellus Responsionum. He instructed that the Christian faith become incarnate, indigenized amongst Britons. The Christian narrative became the meta-narrative of the English-speaking world. That shocking excesses motivated by greed and power have blighted the faith every century does not change the fact that the faith is a civilization building narrative, which proclaims the supremacy of grace, confidence that light and goodness dispel darkness, that life is gift, that to walk humbly is strength – arrogance is weakness, and can be summarized in that humanity and divinity met on a cross.

In more recent times, the period known as the Enlightenment challenged the place of meta-story. Pre-eminence was given to rationality as a way of explaining the world, and prominence to the individual’s right to determine their own value system. In the mid-twentieth century CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, seeing the English world as almost uniquely bereft of identity nourished in story, attempted to reengage with meta-story out of their Christian conviction.

The consequences of a vacuum left by the rapid decline of Christianity, to the extent that the majority have virtually no knowledge of it, has in my view not been acknowledged and thought through. What story now commands our attention as foundational? Where are today’s Chaucer or Bunyan? The word ‘god’ is shorthand for the entity claiming our primary commitment or devotion. Having no religious identity does not mean we have no ‘god’. In the absence of wide acceptance (if not practice) of Christianity, there is no obvious common, binding narrative commanding moral or social behaviour. In practice ‘gods’ vary, but are inclusive of wealth, happiness, family, longevity, power, all viewed from an individual or personal perspective.

Sadly, within Christianity it is also true that personal interest has played a significant role. Post the Reformation, the multiplicity of new denominations sold the advantage of their brand, either through a watertight guarantee of personal salvation within their tent, or material wealth, or both – today’s successors are obvious.

I remain a deeply committed Christian because I know of no other story with universal reach that insists I am neighbour to all, including the natural order, and all are neighbour to me. I know of no other story that insists good must be common. I know of no other story which has a table at its centre to which none are excluded. I know of no other story which insists future aspirations, to be meaningful, must be lived as present realities. And of course, I know of no other story that majors in grace as the world’s dominant transformative energy.

Neary two decades ago I presented at a National Library symposium titled “Does humanity have a future”. Most artists and scientists were pessimistic. I remember saying it depends on what meta narrative humanity is prepared to honour.

The role of Christian leaders, and Christians generally, must move from servicing the diminishing numbers who claim tribal allegiance to full engagement and participation in the wider community. Live, and tell the meta-story.

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