“Comparisons are odious.” This aphorism, my siblings and I were told, had been a favorite of our grandmother. Today to indulge in any such discourse would be politically incorrect and socially unacceptable, but we were raised on this principle. And now I am about to violate it with an impertinent inquiry.
Because of the “third world” organizations a few of our donors support, we at NCCF are to some extent aware of what life is like for many communities in the so-called “undeveloped” countries. Learning about their struggles and aspirations and impressed by the vibrancy of their religious faith we cannot help but compare their approach to life’s challenges with our own here in the so-called “developed” nations. The comparison is not so much odious as it is illustrative.
Risking gross generalization I would say one salient difference between the “developed” and “undeveloped” is teleological, that is in our respective concepts of life’s ultimate purpose and end.
In spite of its Christian underpinnings, many of us in what is referenced as “western civilization” have embraced a utopian approach to life’s eternal verities. For us progress is defined in terms of material wellbeing and is assured exclusively by technological advancement. So confident have we become in our demonstrated ability to promote such improvement we are slipping into the alluring mindset that we ourselves are in control of our destiny, that we determine our own reality, and therefore – unaided by any external force – can create our own Panglossian world. Indeed, many of us have jettisoned the once universal belief in the existence of God and of an afterlife. “Heaven,” we have decided, is the utopia we ourselves construct here and now. Nothing else matters.
In contrast, the all consuming challenge of daily survival with which families in the “underdeveloped” world are faced seems to reinforce rather than refute their abiding hope for and expectation of the eschaton, that long awaited ‘telos’ or end made perfect not by them but by a Being greater than themselves.
Is it not significant that those of us afloat in the godless mainstream of utopianism often succumb to its creeping effects of desperation and nihilism? Do we ever perceive a correlation between our joyless sense of power that intimates we alone design our future and our gnawing sense of purposeless that haunts us with the question: why bother? What’s more, do we consider the lives of those others who, lacking the luxury of such musings and relying fundamentally on a power greater than themselves, embrace each day’s trials and triumphs with sanity and joy?
Such reflections bring to mind the biblical admonitions against hubris. However, even if we fashionably ignore scriptural guidance shouldn’t our gift of reason – objectively employed – lead us to conclude that our “undeveloped” brethren know something we don’t or perhaps have forgotten?
What is it St. Paul writes about wisdom confounding the wise?
Dana Robinson is chair of the Board of Trustees of the National Catholic Community Foundation.