The Good Society By Barkley Thompson

“Only someone who submits to the authority of the universal order and of creation, who values the right to be a part of it and a participant in it, can genuinely value himself and his neighbors, and thus honor their right as well.”  – Vaclav Havel, first president of the Czech Republic, speaking at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, July 4, 1994.

 I have recently returned from a most remarkable experience.  Last week I participated in the Aspen Seminar, conducted by the Aspen Institute on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  The seminar drew people from all walks of life.  I sat around the table with a deputy director from the Central Intelligence Agency, the president of a Fortune 200 company, a diplomat with the Romanian Embassy, the head of a non-profit that seeks to preserve traditional tribal lands in the American Southwest, and others.   I was impressed by each and every seminar participant.  After each session, I was in awe at the erudition, insight, and passion brought to the conversation by those around the table.

As illustrious as the participants were (except for me, that is), what is most remarkable about the Aspen Seminar is its theme.  In an age when most professional development is dryly utilitarian, the theme of the Aspen Seminar is “Leadership, Values, and the Good Society.”  It operates from the conviction that without a deep commitment to the values we hold dear—to the things we claim define us—we will be unmoored in every aspect of our lives.  This is as true of business as it is of the arts, of government as it is of the church.

Over the course of the week, we read and discussed Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau, Martin Luther King, Jr., and a dozen other provocative and challenging authors.  One of the last authors we read was Vaclav Havel, quoted above.  Havel argues that humanity finds itself in a major transitional period, the kind in which “value systems collapse,” and he says that we can only rediscover our authentic humanity—what it would look like to live with one another in the Good Society—when we acknowledge the transcendent reality in whom we find our meaning.

Havel says we can only fully understand our human liberty “if we do not forget the One who endowed us with it.”  Even so, this acknowledgement must be broad, expansive, and generous rather than narrow and sectarian.  Otherwise, the vastly different cultural communities that make up our global village have no way effectively to talk to one another.

As the seminar participants discussed Havel, I silently considered the role of the church in building the Good Society.  Here, we acknowledge the transcendent reality that endows us with life and human liberty.  We call that reality God, and we unabashedly claim that in the person of Jesus, God showed us what it means to live fully in relationship with God and with one another.  Yet, we’ve not always extended the generosity which grants that God also speaks to and through other cultures and communities of faith.

In Acts 17, St. Paul speaks to the Athenians, who do not share his Christian faith.  He acknowledges that they seek God just as he does—any may even find God—and he quotes two Greek poets to make his point.  Indeed, one of these pagan poets gives us a saying we now consider quintessentially Christian: “In him we live and move and have our being.”

Surely, Paul believes that the truth he knows in Jesus completes the Athenians partial knowledge, but in drawing from pagan poets he also acknowledges that the Athenians have insight into God’s truth to share with him as well.  Perhaps if we Christians openly and humbly engage in conversation with those who differ from us in culture and belief, we will discover that we share deep and defining values with them.  Perhaps we can even learn from them, and they from us.  Then we truly will take a step forward toward the Good Society.

St. John’s Episcopal Church is located at the corner of Jefferson Street and Elm Avenue.  Sunday worship is at 8 a.m., 9 a.m., 11 a.m., and 5 p.m.  Look St. John’s up on the web at www.stjohnsronaoke.org.