The Transformation of Society

Creating a well-ordered society involves more than care for the material welfare of humanity.  It involves what are called “the finer things of life.”  It certainly involves fostering for all of humankind a common life of intellect, emotion, spirituality, and moral consciousness.

The preceding section dealt with ways to foster a shared con­sciousness of the enterprise of living a good life, a life of doing the most good.  This section will outline the special roles that can be played by the arts, religion, the humanities and the social science to transform public dis­course and give vision to this enterprise.

The Role of the Arts

The arts give people a vision of what is possible, of a world exalting every form of human excellence.  The arts create images which inspire new undertak­ings and set new directions for the develop­ment of human abilities.  They create a world of freshness and imagination as well as beauty.  Within each culture the arts reflect that culture’s spirit and sense of purpose and yet set the tone for change and adaptation.  The arts can also move people to action by showing them the suffering and injustices in the world.

How great a role the arts play in any society depends upon the values of that society.  In today’s world of “mass culture” the arts are largely ignored.  A very derivative type of art is borrowed from for commercial purposes.  There comes to be a great separation between high culture and low culture.

For the arts to play a truly transformative role in any nation or society they must function within the sinews of the nation.  They must be part of the work life of ordinary people and even more must be part of their enjoyment and pleasure.  Both public pressure and enforced standards must encourage the raising of artistic quality in the broadcast media.

The enjoyment of the arts cannot be a passive activity and cannot be confined to “appreciation.”   At the very least it must in­volve learning to recognize what is new and different in each work of art.  A greater level of enjoyment involves entering into the world of the artist, getting some grasp of what various artists are trying to do and how they are going about it.

The full transformative power of the arts comes to be realized when the world of the artists and the world of the people become one and the same.  The full enjoyment and appreciation of the arts occurs only when the people are artists themselves.  The fostering of the arts must there­fore involve not the building of museums but the training and encouragement of children and adults to develop their creative abilities.

Children need to be taught to draw, to sing and to dance.  Child­hood needs to continually open new avenues of creative expres­sion.  Each avenue needs to give exposure to a variety of works of art, some by renowned artists and some by in­novative local artists much less widely recognized.  This kind of training and exposure needs to continue throughout life for many people.  And art needs to be everywhere.

Artists and their audiences need to be in creative and critical contact with each other.  Artists need to know what effect their work has on their audiences.  In each case the audience needs to have some grasp of the realm that the artist is exploring and how that realm relates to the world they live in.  The artist needs to know what the audience understands about his work and what they do not understand or what they misunderstand.

Ultimately artists and audiences need to recognize each other’s abilities.  What has been said up to here should make it clear that this recognition is very difficult for each without the other’s help.  All that has been said before about the acquisition and utiliza­tion of abilities and the need for a shared consciousness applies again, but the relation of artist to audience is an espe­cially sym­biotic one.

The Role of Religion

The theory of ethics being set forth in this book propos­es that each individual should aim for the kind of enduring happiness that re­sults from persevering in developing and using one’s abilities, streng­then­ing one’s virtues through prac­tice, and correcting one’s faults by chang­ing one’s habits, all with the continu­ing objec­tive of doing the most good and the least harm that one can.  Broadly speaking the social function envisioned for religion is that of helping people, in whatever way religion best can, to attain this kind of happiness.  It is proposed that religion can best serve this purpose by: (1) directly helping people build some kind of inner strength and unity of effort, and (2) holding together a community of persons aimed at helping one another to build their own inner strength and unity of effort.

The word “religion” comes from the latin word religio, which means to tie or bind back, specifically to tie or bind back to some preestablished order or way of life.  Religion in this sense of tying or binding a person conscien­tiously to a way of life has a special contribu­tion to make to human well-being by inspiring people to put forth their best effort toward the practical realization of social values and yet not to be dishear­tened by failures and inadequacies.  Religion in this original sense has no need to be dogmatic or to give undue credence to any set of beliefs.

As religious practices have evolved and as religions have become more institutionalized, this tying or binding has been to a particular mode of religious life within the total business of living.  Religions differ in the extent to which they hold religious life separate from the rest of life and the extent to which they want their religious teachings to affect and pervade the whole of life.

Most major reli­gions today sponsor a wide variety of different reli­gious orders and societies.  Some of these are centered around certain occupa­tions or certain nationali­ties.  Some are dedicated to particular kinds of service, such as medical care, teaching, or missionary work.  Each of these groups typically has certain ideals and often certain standards of conduct and perfor­mance, even certain man­ners and styles of dress, that they up­hold.  Usually the ideals are in conformity with the teachings of the religion, but some­times incompatibilities exist and are over­looked.

The function of tying or binding its members to a way of life or a set of ideals is an extension of the kinds of sponsorships just mentioned.  People have various ethnic affiliations and occupa­tions.  They need to be strengthened in those affiliations.  They also need to be working to improve their ethnic group and the work life of their oc­cupation by setting and upholding ideals and standards of conduct and performance.  They need to infuse these groups with the spirit of “doing the most good.”

In their work of teaching (through sermons, talks, story­telling, and leading discussions) and their counseling, religious bodies disseminate their religious teachings in ways designed to give encouragement or consolation to their listeners, to remind them of ideals and maxims for living, and to give them practical assistance.  They sustain hope and joy.  This teaching and coun­seling would be more aligned with the aim of “doing the most good” if it could be focused more specifi­cally at helping in­divid­uals build some kind of inner strength and unity of effort.  People would thereby gain more auton­o­mous control over their lives, which would aid them in evaluating their life situation, formulating realistic short-term and longer-term plans, and carrying out these plans.

However a religious body is organized at the local

level–as parishes, synagogues, temples, or whatever–there tends to be some kind of community of adherents to that religion.  These are people who come together for worship ceremonies and who, if they wish, talk to one another before or after the ceremonies.  There may be other opportunities for members of the community to meet with each other.  There is often a greater feeling of kinship and relatedness among members of such a community than there is, say, at business or civic meetings.

People need to try to find a coherence to their lives and they need to find a coherence that they can share with others.  Com­munities of ad­herents to a reli­gion can greatly help to fill this need.  Such a community can support people in their efforts to live the kind of “good life” that is claimed for a life of doing the most good.  People can be brought togeth­er to share their life experien­ces and to help each other in these efforts.

The phrase “religious tradition” has a special meaning for each religious denomination.  For Jews it is in part a tradition of scholarship concerning the Torah, the Talmud, the Midrash, and later Commentaries that has today expanded to include all Jewish thought.  In part, too, it involves a variety of rich cultural legacies in many lands.  The Catho­lic tradition includes a his­tory of scholarship beginning with Ignatius of Antioch and Origen and extending through Jerome, Augustine, Peter Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, and Erasmus and continuing in work at many univer­sities and within religious orders such as the Jesuits, the Franciscans, and the Dominicans.  Each religion spiritually and intellectually has a rich history and literature.  Each religion also has a history of misdeeds which is perhaps the part of its tradition that each religion most needs to draw lessons from.

A religious tradition can serve two interrelated pur­poses.  First, it can give people a sense of history–their own history–and of their connectedness with the past.  Looking forward it can give them a recognition of their role in shaping the lives of future generations, creating the cultural and intellectual environment in which people will live their lives.  Second, a tradition builds upon and adds to the intellectual accomplishments of the past, adding the “spirit,” the insights, and the perspectives of each new age.  It sifts through the life ex­peri­ences and life stories of outstanding individuals, creates a new literature and new styles, enriches languages.  In this way, too, it gives meaning to people’s lives in terms of symbols, images, and historic events and figures.

Nothing in this account suggests that these religions would fail to be enriched by a closer alignment with the aim of doing the most good.

The final component of the social function envisioned for reli­gion the promotion of peace and justice.  The Reign of God is an important goal and hope within Islam, Judaism and Christianity.  Other religions espouse peace and justice in their own way.  Although these ef­forts often seem to be like voices crying in the desert, hopes have not diminished and there are now concerted efforts in the United Nations, in the European Community and throughout Eastern and Western Europe to make concrete progress toward these goals.

The churches have had a long history of involvement in work for peace and justice.  Now seems a propitious time to renew and strengthen these efforts, to organize them better, to devote more thought and more material resources to them.  Doing the most good can be a goal for religious and secular organizations and for governments as well as for individu­als.



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