Advent III

 

The hope of Advent is described by the prophets as a dawning of a new age, marked by peace and plenty, by banqueting and feasting, by security and rest. Don’t let the “new age” handle upset you. It is nothing of which to be afraid. This New Age has a spiritual dimension as well as a material one. But if we take Matthew 5 seriously, it all depends on the practice of justice and it is a justice after which we hunger and thirst – a justice made perfect by the coming of Christ as judge and liberator. Most Christians, including Friends, earnestly believe that the new age, which we more often describe as ‘the Kingdom of God’ has already begun with Jesus the ‘Christ’ ( the Messiah, the anointed one). The Gospel of John’s sacramental imagery blends into one the material and spiritual dimensions of this new age. The huge challenge for us is to see how that messianic reality find expression in our economic life.

 

The hope of Advent is described by the prophets as a dawning of a new age, marked by peace and plenty, by banqueting and feasting, by security and rest. Don’t let the “new age” handle upset you. It is nothing of which to be afraid. This New Age has a spiritual dimension as well as a material one. But if we take Matthew 5 seriously, it all depends on the practice of justice and it is a justice after which we hunger and thirst – a justice made perfect by the coming of Christ as judge and liberator. Most Christians, including Friends, earnestly believe that the new age, which we more often describe as ‘the Kingdom of God’ has already begun with Jesus the ‘Christ’ ( the Messiah, the anointed one). The Gospel of John’s sacramental imagery blends into one the material and spiritual dimensions of this new age. The huge challenge for us is to see how that messianic reality find expression in our economic life. Economist John Maynard Keynes wrote to Roy Harrod: ‘Economics is essentially a moral science, not a natural science. ‘That is to say, ‘he continued, ‘it employs introspection and judgments of value…with motives, expectations, psychological uncertainties.’

 

Schools of business management have in recent decades increasingly required students to take courses in business ethics. Ethics is the branch of philosophy that deals with values related to human conduct – the rightness or wrongness of certain acts – the goodness or badness of a person’s motivation and the results of their actions. But are ethics enough? The more you look at the causes of the present global economic crisis the more you suspect that there are places where ethics can’t seem to reach. The issues that need to be addressed lie deeper than principles, codes of conduct and procedures for decision-making. They have to do with underlying values, types of virtue, dominant motivation and the basic purposes that shape economic life. The problem is deeper than ethics and some suggest that it goes to morality. Morality precedes ethics: it denotes those concrete activities of which ethics is the science. Morality is embedded in culture, not simply enshrined in codes. It doesn’t explain why any behavior is right or wrong, only that it it so, based on a commonly held understanding. It may be defined as human conduct in so far as it is freely subordinated to the ideal of what is right and fitting. Because moral beliefs may be grounded in prejudice, ignorance or even hatred I personally think we need to go deeper even than morality. But it isn’t a bad place for us to begin simply because it is a dimension once given prominence by classical economists such as Adam Smith with his theory of the moral sentiments and in a different way by visionaries such as John Ruskin.

 

More recently, Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, stressed that: “… every economic decision has a moral consequence…. Perhaps at one time it was conceivable that first the creation of wealth could be entrusted to the economy, and then the task of distributing it could be assigned to politics. Today that would be more difficult.” In a recent interview London’s Minister of the City expressed his concern that we may have ‘neglected’ the moral purpose of life. He wrote: ‘This is very evident in the financial community – that money has become everything. People have lost their sense of purpose. The absence of clear moral purpose is something that is very troubling.’ That was followed by the publication of Good Value by Stephen Green, an Anglican priest, who also happens to be former Chief Executive and current Chair of the largest ‘neighborhood bank’ in the world, HSBC. His critique was directed at the way we have compartmentalized our economic and moral lives, which results in ‘seeing our work life as being a neutral realm in which questions of value (other than shareholder value) or rightness (other than what is lawful) or of wisdom (other than what is practical) need not arise.’ It’s like the popular phrase “Oh, it’s not personal, it’s business”.

 

Would the return of morality to economic life place a damper on our activity? Far from it. A healthy morality could breathe new life into our economy. It would reveal the impoverished character of the prevailing economic immorality with its emaciated model of ‘economic man’ motivated by self-interested utilitarian calculations and its impersonal rule of ‘efficient markets’. It would spark off vital questions about the actual purpose of what we are doing. Morality need not mean austerity, asceticism, or guilt. Morality can – and should – also mean freedom, justice, fulfillment. An economy infused with that sort of morality is more likely to lead to true prosperity and real happiness.

 

Barclay in his Apology, after discussing the principles of religion related to doctrine and worship speaks to what he characterized as products of these principles which have become the practice of the witnesses that God has raised up to testify for his truth. He wrote that “if one is called a Quaker he is not expected to do the things which others commonly do.” His development of that notion is that there are certain things which Friends have found to be inappropriate for us even though others do not find them inconsistent with the Christian religion. He weighs in on the question of possessions by first making clear that Friends do not hold to the idea that all things are to be held in common, quite the opposite, ‘Our principles allow every man to enjoy peaceably whatever his own industry … have purchased for him.” “His only instruction is that he should use it properly for his own good, for that of his brethren, and to the glory of God.” And those who have an abundance are warned to be on their guard and see that they use it moderately and without excess. They should be willing to help those in need. And others should not envy those who have such a greater abundance of worldly goods knowing that they have received an abundance of the things which belong to the inward man. He asks Wouldn’t those who lay aside superfluous titles of honor, excesses and extravagances in food and clothing, gaming, gay pastimes, and diversions walk more in the way of Christ and his apostles? Wouldn’t they be closer to their example than thous who do use such things? “Would it not contribute greatly to the commendation of Christianity and to the life and virtue of Christ” if we live such lives of integrity?

 

Once the Apostle Paul sought to follow the Biblical laws to perfection, but then he saw that the letter killed and that in the Spirit a new life and a new kind of freedom could be lived in Christ (Philippians 3:4-9). Paul had made his own personal move from an old morality to a new standard of love. Even when in detention in Rome, facing the possibility of execution, he was a free man, urging those outside to rejoice (Philippians 4:4). This week’s reflections on happiness and morality will not be about a search for some silver lining to our economic hardships nor will they try to make the utilitarian case that ‘religion is good for your health’. They will look at various ways in which economic activity needs to be rooted in something far deeper than moral culture, a standard that reflects the values of the Kingdom of God.

 

This is the time, Barclay argued, of Christ’s spiritual appearance. It is a living, inward, spiritual and pure thing of great substance. The notion of God as being ‘beyond the clouds’, he said will be of little use if they can not also find God near them. Merely talking about the outward life of Christ on earth will not redeem or justify us – no, we must know Christ resurrected in us. It that experience we come to know Christ’s judgment in our hearts, to believe in the Light and follow it, Christ Jesus.

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