The project of modernity was to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story they choose when they had no story. Such a story is called a story of freedom – institutionalized economically as capitalism and politically as democracy. That story, and the institutions that embody it, is the enemy we must attack through Christian preaching.
Stanley Hauerwas, “Sanctify Them in the Truth,” 197-198.
The chart I am sharing with this post came to my attention through my newsfeed on social media. It is an outstanding example of how the modern world understands the meaning and role of the individual. It is, on its surface, a guide towards “purpose.” And, as can be seen, purpose is composed of the intersection of what we love, what the world needs, what we’re good at, and what we can be paid to do. It is a map of a “responsible” version of the American Dream. It is also an illustration of the false understanding of what it means to be human upon which our culture is built. This, Stanley Hauerwas would say, is one of the “enemies we must attack through preaching.”
Our modern world (dating from the late 18th century) set the task for itself of redefining what it means to be a human person. This was in reaction to various forms of classical Christian civilization that had come before. The new man was to be the crowning achievement of the Enlightenment. Freed from the superstitions of the past, he would discover a new freedom and dignity in the world that was being created.
The result was the birth of individualism and the rise of freedom and self-determination. Free of the shackles of Church and tradition, the new man was free to choose how and whom he would worship, if he worshipped at all. He was free to choose his path in life without regard to station or his father’s last name. This march towards freedom was not clearly meant for all – at first. But with time the notion of equality extended the same freedom of choice to others – to women, to blacks, to minorities of all persuasions. Humanity was a blank slate and modernity empowered each with his/her own chalk and eraser.
As Hauerwas noted, the economic expression of this freedom is capitalism, where the markets enshrine the free exchange of goods and the individual’s right to consume. Democracy is the political expression of this same notion of what it means to be human. Of course, free markets can exist elsewhere and democracy could work within other understandings. But for our modern era, it is Enlightenment individualism that has carried the day.
But not all things are well with the new world order. For though everyone is free to choose, it is apparently not possible to effectively choose success. The market is fickle and good investors still lose. And the losses become catastrophic if the investment was life’s one chance at a college education.
And though equality can be asserted and enforced through laws and policy, it can never be made real in practice. For some are brighter, smarter, prettier, more talented, more aggressive, luckier, better-connected, and so it goes.
And the very dark underside of all of this is that individualism has itself been cast into a free-market existence. We compete for all of those goals in the diagram. And when yours doesn’t work out, it’s your fault. That’s the conclusion of all individualistic models. For you are the individual and it’s your fault.
We can comfort ourselves by blaming someone else, but for everyone I blame I can think of another who found a way to get around it when I did not. And it is my own fault. But the pinnacle of the Enlightenment failure (and the failure of the model pictured above) is enshrined in the poem “Richard Cory.” I’ll use the better known Paul Simon lyrics:
They say that Richard Cory Owns one-half of this whole town
With political connections to spread his wealth around
Born into society, a banker’s only child
He had everything a man could want
Power, grace and style
The papers print his picture almost everywhere he goes
Richard Cory at the opera, Richard Cory at a show
And the rumor of his party and the orgies on his yacht!
Oh, he surely must be happy with everything he’s got
He freely gave to charity, he had the common touch
And they were grateful for his patronage and they thanked him very much
So my mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read
“Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head”
But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I’m living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be
Oh, I wish that I could be
Oh, I wish that I could be Richard Cory.
To reach the “purpose” proposed above is a proposition of emptiness. It persists and lingers and tempts so many because so few actually achieve it that its failure goes unnoticed. But the tabloids are filled daily with Richard Cory’s of every stripe and form. They are empty and vapid, insipid and decadent. But we wish that we could be…them.
Theirs is a story they tell themselves when they have no story other than the one they tell themselves.
Christians live in the narrative of Christ. The purpose of our lives is union with Christ. And that purpose is fulfilled daily by union with Christ in all things and all people. It is found as readily on the dung heap as it is in the halls of kings (or more so). We work and study and labor, “as unto the Lord,” for this is the commandment of the Apostle. Markets come and markets go, but the increase belongs to God.
St. John Chrysostom said that “the rich exist for the sake of the poor and the poor exist for the sake of the rich.” Of course, both only truly exist if they exist for Christ, through whom all things exist.
But what of our careers? What shall we tell our children?
Tell them to think about what kind of person they want to be when they grow up rather than what career they want. My father was an auto mechanic, the son of a sharecropper. He worked hard. I never once heard him tell a story about how he got the better of another man. And the day that I told my parents I was leaving my successful Church career in order to be Orthodox, I was told by both of them, “You have our blessing and any help we can give.” They only ever wanted me to be a good man.
There are doubtless better examples than my own (I’ve seen them). But, in truth, do whatever job you want to do. If it’s something you like that’s good. If it is of benefit to others, that’s even better. But in time you will die. And your job will not have been all that important.
Your purpose in life is union with Christ. Not surprisingly, we ask godparents at a child’s baptism, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” If it begins in infancy and continues for a lifetime, that is a good life. That is a purposeful life.
As for the other false myth, it and its institutions are “the enemy we must attack through Christian preaching.”