Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Our True Self-Interest

Joanna Macy, famous for her work in deeply reconnecting humanity and the environment, suggests that when we reconnect with the earth, we find our ethical selves. She says that moralizing will not keep us from acting in our own self-interest. What we need is to become more aware of our true self-interest.

I was introduced to Macy’s work through a lecture I recently attended by Michael Dowd, author of The Gospel According to Science. While Dowd has much to say about finding spiritual truth in the “authority of natural evidence”, I find myself coming back to Macy’s observation.

In my context this means that I can preach morality all day long, but people are going to continue to act in their own self-interest. This is absolutely true and it is a truth that continues to disappoint those who know the “right way” and those who are endeavoring to live the “right way”.

This truth reflects the personal struggle of the Apostle Paul, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15)

Macy’s conclusion that we need to become more aware of our own true self-interest is the answer, but a challenging task. If we’re to change our behaviors, then our self-interest is bound up in the self-interest of others. What is good for another person or group of persons is good for each of us.

John Donne said it well way back in the 1600's: 
No man is an island, entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent, apart of the main. 
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were. 
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know for whome the bell tolls.
It tolls for thee.

While connectedness may be understood on the micro level of a family or a small community, the larger group is, the more difficult it is to see self-interest served by caring for others. This is reflected in those who call for the end to food, housing, and medical assistance for “those people” who are in need of it. It is reflected in the ease with which residents in a community, the state of Michigan or the nation work to diminish our educational institutions by reducing funding.

I have been giving thought to how this idea influences my preaching. While I would not call myself a preacher of morality, I am in the habit of suggesting a way to live that reflects Christ’s presence. Macy’s observation has me thinking differently.

What if preaching or spiritual teaching emphasized becoming more aware of our true self-interest. Where would that take us as a community of faith?

There is competition to name self-interest. We live in a society where professional marketing and social pressure for achievement are more than ready to guide us in what is best for us. For many, the world is a place of scarcity and it is in our self-interest to “get ours”, before someone else does.

What are our true self-interests? How might they connect us with one another and with all creation? If we know them, how will it change our walk with God?

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