Though this blog focuses on the topic of economic growth, from time to time we are known to digress into other topics. Today is Easter, one of the principal holidays in Christianity. Please give me some latitude, or if you prefer, just tune in tomorrow.
Easter follows Good Friday, which is a day that makes me very uncomfortable. Sin, judgment, suffering, and death are not pleasant topics. Good Friday reminds us of God’s “No” to some things, and we don’t willingly embrace “No”. Easter, in contrast, reminds us of the “Yes” to life and resurrection. It resonates with themes of hope, growth, and opportunity. We like those themes, and given our druthers we would prefer to dwell there. But like many things, there are hard realities that we sometimes must address first. The yes is not meaningful unless it is contrasted to the no.
Though we often focus on the economic and political world with an eye toward development and improvement of material conditions and political freedom, we all recognize that there is more to development than what happens outside. There is the matter of inward development and growth, which is an important yet often neglected part of the human experience.
Collective action towards inward development doesn't work so well, particularly that fostered by government. We seem to gravitate to a model that leaves the human soul off limits to government, and with good reason. We react strongly to governments that seek to crush the human spirit by oppression, “reeducation”, and in some cases physical violence and death. We don’t trust governments to do good in the realm of the soul, and thus we leave that realm to other institutions – like the church – where answers to bigger questions about meaning and significance can be answered.
Some of our heroes, like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, come to their senses and recognize the significance of the human soul in the midst of government oppression. It seems like the government pressure to shape their souls into something useful to the state instead drove them to become stronger, building human dignity and depriving their enemies of their power. In contrast, others of us, who dwell with luxury, security, and material abundance, seem to neglect the soul. It is a sad paradox. We fight for freedom, but without constant vigilance that freedom can ultimately enslave.
I have marked several passages in the Gulag Archipelago that have struck me as very insightful. One of them goes like this: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” (1974 Harper & Row, p. 168.)
Solzhenitsyn reminds us that we all have problems with evil. Serious ones. And later he raises some questions about the building a society on materialist presuppositions. Quoting from a “sermon” by one of his fellow captors: “Do you think you can build a just society on a foundation of self-serving and envious people?” (Id., p. 171).
Though this question was addressed to communist captors, the question must also be answered by those of us in the capitalist camp. When we speak of the “invisible hand of self interest”, as described by Adam Smith, we are relying on that self-serving and envious nature of human beings as predictable outcomes. In this sense, we are dealing with a reality of a fallen nature and we are trying to harness it for productive purposes.
But we must also remember that we need to cultivate and develop other dimensions of human nature if we are to have a just society. The opportunity for second chances -- for showing mercy, and for giving a hand up to those who need it – flows from generous and charitable impulses. Our government may reflect these human traits, but it is really powerless to inculcate them. Mediating institutions such as the church have important work to do here, as these aspects of the human condition also play an important role in creating a world of hope, growth, and opportunity.