Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Conflicting Views of Self-Interest

For radically individualist, for those who hold to what Robert Bellah and his colleagues in Habits of the Heart call ontological individualism, the traditional notion of community is at once both attractive and frightening. A traditional life is attractive in that it offers an end to loneliness, to a life of isolation in which the person is left to his or her own ever diminishing physical and spiritual resources. But a traditional life is also frightening in that admission to such a life is never something I can simply will; I cannot in the strict sense choose this life, I can only be admitted by the invitation of a hospitable other. The love embodied by a traditional society is not mine. Rather life in as a member of a community is, in the strict sense, outside of my control, it a gift that is first and freely given and only then before can I receive it.

And, once received, it limits my autarkic mode of self-presence and self-expression. Contemporary culture is an autarky predicated as it is on an (illusory) ontology of self-sufficiency; traditional societies, for all their differences in religion and even morality, are based on an ontology of what Western Medieval philosophers describe as primary and secondary contingency, on our radical dependence on God and our proximate dependence upon humanity.

Self-discover and self-expression (including in the sexual dimension) remains an essential developmental goal for the human person in both contemporary and traditional societies. And, and again in both, these are done not simply within social structures but with others.

Where contemporary secular culture deviates, however, is on the goal, or teleos, of human self-discovery and expression. In the autarky that is secular culture, human development is directed toward a self-sufficiency that beings and ends in the individual while in traditional societies, our self-sufficiency is in the service of the community and indeed remains inchoate if it is not in the hospitable and gracious service of the community.

Safer sex and condom education, to return to where I began, seem to me to appeal (rightly I think) to self-interest. We hear similar appeals to self-interest in the Scriptures. For example, in Jeremiah, God instructs His prophet:

"Now you shall say to this people, 'Thus says the LORD: "Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death. He who remains in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but he who goes out and defects to the Chaldeans who besiege you, he shall live, and his life shall be as a prize to him. For I have set My face against this city for adversity and not for good," says the LORD. "It shall be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire."' (21.8-10)

But where traditional forms of self-interest and expression, to repeat what I said above, are grounded in and return to an appreciative and obedient service of the community, contemporary appeals to self-interest are typically set in opposition to the community. No where is this difference as clearly seen then in matters of sexual ethics.

More tomorrow.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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