Church promotes the common good by modeling community

Oliver O'Donovan, professor emeritus of Christian ethics and practical theology a the University of Edinburgh, delivers a lecture at Baylor University about the common good. (Photo / Ken Camp)

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WACO—The call to pursue the common good in an increasingly polarized political environment involves understanding meaningful communication and community—behavior the church uniquely is qualified to model, theologian and ethicist Oliver O’Donovan told a Baylor University audience.

Genuine communication happens when people assert their private interests only to the extent that they serve a common interest, O’Donovan said, noting, “It is not the material goods of life, as such, that constitute the common good but the practices of communication.”

Community develops when people genuinely are interested in one another—an attitude summed up in the statement, “What’s mine is ours,” he said.

“The private interest first must be located within the common interest,” O’Donovan said. “The ‘I’ finds its context within the ‘we.’”

O’Donovan, professor emeritus of Christian ethics and practical theology at the University of Edinburgh, lectured on the common good at an event sponsored by the Baylor Honors College and the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.

Common good defies labels of ‘left’ and right’

The common good transcends political divisions of “left” and “right,” calling society to a shared mutual interest in making it possible for others to prosper, he asserted.

Political policies necessarily change and adapt to different circumstances, times and places, but abiding principles inherent in the common good shape the imagination from which political policies are developed, O’Donovan said.

On the one hand, the common good is radically progressive, because it serves as a call to renew impoverished imaginations and look critically at existing structures. At the same time, it is conservative because it reminds people to “be observant of human life before we rush in with our prescriptions for it,” O’Donovan said.

“The idea of the common good invites us to look with new and more appreciative eyes at forms of social communication that actually work well,” he said.

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Engage beyond boundaries

The idea of the common good also brings into question the boundaries that define the communication in which people engage, O’Donovan asserted.

“The idea of the common good requires us to extend our imagination outwards from the community in which we find ourselves in order to engage in communication across its frontiers,” he said.

O’Donovan noted his preference for the terms “engage” or “extend” over “the much more fashionable language of inclusion.” The idea of a community or nation presuming to “wrap around” other people groups smacks of totalitarianism, but a community that engages beyond its frontiers broadens its scope of communication rather than forcing itself on others, he explained.

The notion of the common good serves as a reminder “that even in the case of communities, the concrete has no light in itself to live by but depends on the universal to give it moral significance,” he said.

By encouraging people to take community and communication seriously, he said, pursuit of the common good can encourage “paradigms of social flourishing” where individual fulfillment and collective benefit coincide, he said.

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