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With the best of intentions, Americans have isolated religion from political discourse, says theology professor David Hollenbach, SJ, in his latest book.

AN INTERVIEW BY RICHARD J. HIGGINS

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In your new book, The Common Good and Christian Ethics (Cambridge, 2002), the good is by definition common. One accepts Aristotle's point, and yours, that the more common the good, the better. But is there any stand-alone sense of the good to which common adds something useful and distinctive? Is individual good intrinsically inferior?
I'm trying to make the case that conceiving of our lives as fulfilled in privacy is a bad idea; that our fulfillment as human beings comes in our relationships--our relationships with one another and as citizens in the larger society, and, I want to argue, ultimately in our relationship with God. If we understand the good as that which is fulfilling for human beings, it is profoundly imbedded in our relationships with one another.

You argue that individual freedom, the freedom to be self-determining, is not an absolute right, as libertarians allege, but is always situated. As you write, reworking Paul, the situated self lives and moves and has its being in community. It's such a basic point, I wonder how we have lost track of it today.
I would say that self-determination is something that has profoundly social dimensions to it. I really can't be self-determining unless I am given support by and sustained by a whole series of interrelationships and interconnections with other people. So a sense of being self-determining on my own, it seems to me, is illusory. Now, why have we come to stress individual self-determination as strongly as we do in our society? I think it's because notions of communal responsibility or the presumed good of the community have been used in repressive ways. For example, it's been thought that the good of the community demanded the repression of minority religious beliefs. We have over the course of centuries rebelled against the idea that society or authorities or the government or whoever can tell me what to do.

A deeply ingrained fear of tyranny?
Yes, we're deeply in fear of tyranny and we're deeply skeptical of the notion of community as something that can stifle freedom.

My argument about the common good is certainly no argument for stifling freedom. It's rather to say that there's a kind of freedom that we can only achieve if we achieve it together. For example, the freedom of a democracy can't exist if everyone stays home on election day. We all have to work together to create that democratic freedom. So I'm trying to give a new orientation to our thinking about freedom that is more social and more communal.

What worries me is the emphasis that one encounters today on freedom as meaning being left alone. That idea doesn't have the power to address important issues we face in our society today. The book deals with some of these issues—the split one often finds between cities and suburbs, an example being the contrast between public schools in an affluent place like Wellesley and those in Boston. Or the way healthcare is delivered, or not, in the United States. And there are global issues, like environmental degradation. We have to deal with all of these in some manner together. If we stress being on our own, what resources do we bring to protecting the environment? How are we going to reduce the economic dislocation caused by global competition? How are we going to build fruitful interaction between the inner city and the suburb? If we leave each other alone, we're saying the status quo is fine. That's just not enough.

If you had to fit a definition of the common good on a postage stamp, what would it say?
My short definition of the common good is the good of being a community at all, of being a community of people working together and making choices together about the direction in which our lives are going to go together.

I like the analogy of friendship. When two people are friends, something happens between them that isn't in each of them separately. Friendship is something that happens in interaction. You can't have a genuine friendship between a master and a slave. You might have coexistence, but it can't be friendship. Friendship has to be on the basis of some kind of reciprocal equality.

Nor can you have friendship between two people who are totally isolated from each other. There's something about friendship that demands reciprocal respect, interactive freedom, and decision-making that takes place together. The common good is like that, as well.

To what extent is your book a reply to the philosopher John Rawls's assertion, in A Theory of Justice, that the tolerance of difference is the highest aspiration a society can have?
I wouldn't want to bill my book as a response just to Rawls. I have great respect for Rawls and I admire his work immensely. My book is, however, a response to a larger cultural trend of stressing the acceptance of difference almost to the exclusion of searching for what we hold in common, a trend that Rawls's philosophy expresses and endorses. I don't want to deny the importance of tolerance and respect for difference, but I think we can go beyond what Rawls thinks we can. As a matter of fact, I think we must.

You mentioned in your book the 17th-century religious conflicts—the strife in England between Anglicans and Catholics, the Thirty Years' War in Europe—that gave birth to the modern conviction that common values are impossible to achieve and that therefore tolerance is the highest good. And you say that these were unique historical circumstances and should not deter us from searching for the common good today. But don't the contemporary political conflicts with religious roots belie your argument?
I don't believe so. My argument is that the diverse religious communities of the world are compelled by economic interconnections and the new dynamics of communications— the Internet and all that sort of stuff—to bang shoulders. We're rubbing shoulders against each other all the time. This is certainly true in the United States today. There are more Muslims in the United States now than there are Episcopalians. This interaction calls for something more than just leaving one another alone, I think. We need to find ways to understand each other.

You're asking us to move past the religious conflicts of the 20th century, and yet we see similar conflicts emerging in our time. Aren't we sunk in the same pit?
I don't think so. The reaction that we are seeing from the radical Islamists is a reaction, in large part, to Islam having been marginalized by colonialization and the rise of Western secular culture. One of the ways to define fundamentalism is as reactivity to modernity: a rebellion on the part of Muslims and others—there are Christians like this, too—against a purely secular view of how society should be organized; against the idea that religion is a private affair and doesn't effect public life.

Rather than try to put religion back strictly into private life, we have to find a way for these religious communities to come into a more fruitful interaction with one another in the public sphere. Now, that's a big, big challenge. It's what we're trying to do here at Boston College—getting students to take interreligious issues very seriously. You don't say, Well, it doesn't matter what anybody believes, it's all private anyway. You say, Let's look at our religious beliefs; let's argue about them; let's think about them; let's have serious grappling with them in public, right here in the middle of this university, where these issues are taken seriously, in the way that I think our culture should take them.

In describing how Christians can contribute as Christians to building a common morality, you note that the Second Vatican Council affirmed both the notion of interreligious dialogue and the distinctiveness of Christian truth. It said that human dignity resides in all human beings but can only be known "in its full depth through Christian revelation." How do you get beyond this wanting to have it both ways?
Well, I'm not sure I do. I want to affirm two things about religious truth in the book. One is that Christianity provides a privileged insight into what God and the universe are ultimately all about. In other words, I'm a Christian. I want to make a truth claim about Christianity. But I do not want to say that Christianity possesses the whole truth. I think Christianity has a lot to learn from interaction and serious dialogue with other religions. Does that mean I think all religions are equal? No, it doesn't. Does it mean that I think Christians ought to take other religions with deep seriousness? Yes, it does.

You introduce a new "ism," nonjudgmentalism, which captures perfectly our societal obsession with recognizing and accepting difference. Are you saying that we need to judge more?
Yes, but I'm not saying we need to be more judgmental about the goodness of individuals. I am saying we need to make judgments about the kind of life we want to share together. Do we really want to live in a city where a large number of people in the center are hungry, unemployed, hooked on drugs, for generation after generation? We ought to be able to reach a judgment that there's something wrong with that--with what the philosopher Cornell West calls the "institutionalization of despair."

You note that one of the challenges arising from globalization is that it changes the scale of community to a size that is hardly tenable for community at all. How big a world can we live in while aspiring to live communally?

I think the bonds have to be worldwide, but there are different kinds of bonds. One way to look at it is as a series of concentric circles. There's me and my family or immediate friends, the people who are closest to me. That's the inner circle. The circles get bigger and bigger, all the way out to the level of global interaction. This doesn't mean that the relationship I have with somebody in Bangladesh is necessarily going to have personal intensity, but that there is some kind of solidarity, some kind of concern that gets mediated through a series of political or economic interactions.

For example, something that means a lot to me is what happened in Rwanda. In 1994, genocide took place there. Some 800,000 people were killed in 100 days. The United States made decisions that had a major impact on what we, other countries, and the United Nations didn't do. In truth, we should have supported U.N. intervention to prevent that genocide from happening. We stood up and swore, in the light of the Holocaust, never again. We'll never let—well, the hell with that language. We did let it happen again, and we shouldn't have. Now, there are those who would argue that we can't be concerned about all those sorts of things, that it's beyond our national interest. That is George W. Bush's position. Bush was asked during the campaign, if there were another Rwanda genocide, should the United States intervene? His answer was no. Well, I think that's wrong. Why? Because I think there is a shared good that cuts across national boundaries, and it won't do to say we're only concerned about Americans.

The religious life, which you've chosen personally, is both highly communal and highly solitary. In your book, you explain that members of religious orders, even when silent or alone, are never out of connection with others in a spiritual sense. Would you elaborate?
Well, I think that monasticism makes sense from a Christian theological point of view and spiritual point of view if you see it as a school of love, as a form of life in which love for God and love for one's neighbors can be encouraged to grow. If somebody went off into solitude as a hermit, and did not grow in love for God and his or her neighbors, I would say that person is moving toward hell. A classic definition of hell, from a Christian point of view, is a state of radical isolation. Being cut off, ultimately, from any contact with God or one's neighbors. The opposite of that is what heaven is about.

I was at the Trappist monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts, for Easter, and they had special vespers. The place was filled with a sense of joy, interaction, communication. It wasn't a bunch of people just looking inside themselves. They were doing something different than that. The common good was very much alive.

Is there a place or country in the world where you believe the notion of the common good is being lived out? Has there ever been such a place?
there have been places in the past where people worked together to build a community that realized the common good, such as early New England towns and villages, or countries that have come together in times of war and conflict, as the United States did in World War II. But the challenges we face today will not be met by defining the common good simply for a town or even for an individual nation. The challenge we face is that of attaining a broader and deeper realization of the common good, because the world in which we live is more interconnected than was ever the case before.

Richard J. Higgins is a freelance writer based in the Boston area.

Photo: Gary Wayne Gilbert


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