Saturday, May 14, 2005

One Common Faith, paragraphs 10-11

The fate of what the world has learned to call social and economic development has left no doubt that not even the most idealistic motives can correct materialism's fundamental flaws. Born in the wake of the chaos of the Second World War, "development" became by far the largest and most ambitious collective undertaking on which the human race has ever embarked. Its humanitarian motivation matched its enormous material and technological investment. Fifty years later, while acknowledging the impressive benefits development has brought, the enterprise must be adjudged, by its own standards, a disheartening failure. Far from narrowing the gap between the well-being of the small segment of the human family who enjoy the benefits of modernity and the condition of the vast populations mired in hopeless want, the collective effort that began with such high hopes has seen the gap widen into an abyss.

Certainly, the UHJ is right to be concerned about the enormous gap between rich and poor in the world -- a gap which has stubbornly resisted solution. However, I don't think that the aid given to these poor countries was ever really intended to narrow that gap substantially. The wealthier countries of the world mostly want the Third World to be a source of resources and cheap labor. So, it's by the UHJ's standards that this effort has been judged a failure, not by its own. And, I am uncertain as to what solution is being offered here that would be better than what is being done. The context would suggest that replacing material values with spiritual ones would somehow solve this problem. But what do they expect to happen if there were, indeed, the kind of spiritual revolution in the world that the UHJ wants?

Consumer culture, today's inheritor by default of materialism's gospel of human betterment, is unembarrassed by the ephemeral nature of the goals that inspire it. For the small minority of people who can afford them, the benefits it offers are immediate, and the rationale unapologetic.

Well, they've got us there. Consumer culture is seen as being pretty hollow and bankrupt even by the people caught up in it. It's virtually inescapable. Americans live in what, by the world's standard, extreme wealth, but it takes two good incomes and going into incredible debt in order to sustain a middle-class lifestyle -- and we feel perpetually stressed and like we're falling behind.

Emboldened by the breakdown of traditional morality, the advance of the new creed is essentially no more than the triumph of animal impulse, as instinctive and blind as appetite, released at long last from the restraints of supernatural sanctions.

I'm not sure what "traditional morality" has to do with it. The greatest shift I've seen, since my parents' and grandparents' generation is that we no longer know how to be careful with our money, we have higher expectations for material comforts, and we go into debt at the drop of a hat. I don't think that's less "materialistic", though. Saving money and pinching pennies is just as materialistically motivated as spending it. As for supernatural sanctions", I haven't noticed the religious people of this country being particularly afraid they are going to hell because they have a high standard of living, in spite of what Jesus said about rich men and the eye of a needle.

Its most obvious casualty has been language. Tendencies once universally castigated as moral failings mutate into necessities of social progress. Selfishness becomes a prized commercial resource;

"Selfishness" has always been "a prized commercial resource". People invest in order to make money -- and that also ends up making money, or at least a living, for other people. The big difference I see with earlier generations is that they also took pride in hard work; people still work hard, but they complain about it.

falsehood reinvents itself as public information;

I'm not sure what they are talking about here. We do, now, live in an information society, and with so much out there, it is sometimes no easy task to separate the true from the false -- and sometimes it's just a matter of what spin is put on the facts. Yes, people lie -- but people have always lied. They just have broader platforms on which to do it.

perversions of various kinds unabashedly claim the status of civil rights.

I assume they are talking about the Gay Rights movement here. I don't think "spiritual values" are going to put that genie back in the bottle. Young people are every bit as offended by our bias against gays as we were about our parents' racism. Religious leaders can go ahead and thunder all they want about the sin of homosexuality, but the trend towards tolerance isn't going to be reversed for the foreseeable future. I'm not sure exactly what the UHJ would like to see happen anyway, in terms of social attitudes. I've got a cousin who is a lesbian, and she and her partner show up to family gatherings -- and this is a pretty conservative family, on the whole. Would it be a better thing to make her an outcast? Would that be more "spiritual"?

Under appropriate euphemisms, greed, lust, indolence, pride-even violence-acquire not merely broad acceptance but social and economic value. Ironically, as words have been drained of meaning, so have the very material comforts and acquisitions for which truth has been casually sacrificed.

I don't really know what they are talking about here, except perhaps that playing upon our "greed, lust, indolence, pride" and violent tendencies is used to sell us stuff. But it's a two-way street; if advertisers could sell by appealing to our better nature, they'd do that. And sometimes they do -- advertising appeals to the desire to be good parents, for example, when they sell child-oriented products. "Material comforts" aren't supposed to provide meaning; they provide material comfort -- they just are what they are. I don't sacrifice "truth" in order to buy something new; I sacrifice money which could possibly go to another purpose. The morality involved has to do with choices we make.

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