The ideas that direct our lives

Ideas are shared assumptions about how life works. They are too imprecise to be defined exactly and their course through the history of thought is too uncertain to predict or control. But they are powerful. Ideas direct our lives, though most people don’t know which ideas are in the driver’s seat.

Ideas are too big to be owned by a single individual. They are communicated, often unintentionally, and grow and mutate until they become fixed in the consciousness of society. Ground zero for any particular idea is usually impossible to discover.

An idea that has had enormous influence in America and elsewhere is the idea of progress. Progress suggests that things are getting better and better. Systems get better. Cars get better. Food production gets better. People get better. Progress has been one of the defining ideas governing America’s history, and almost everyone in America believes in progress. That is historically fascinating, since the idea of progress was absent from the world when Columbus landed here.

Politics is all about progress: the various political entities all promise that their program will get America back on track and enable her to once again make progress. Their particular party knows just how to stoke the engine so that it will steam along toward justice, prosperity and universal happiness.

This is one idea that capitalism and communism share. Both believe wholeheartedly in the inevitability of progress. Earlier centuries had Molech, Rah, Zeus and Odin. Our deities have other names, and high in the pantheon of the gods is Progress.

An idea that seems similar on the surface is the concept of fulfillment. It was an important idea to earlier generations, particularly to Jews and Christians, and still has currency within some groups.

While the idea of fulfillment shares some similarities with the idea of progress, there are also significant differences. Fulfillment suggests that everything is becoming more and more itself, realizing its inner nature in its outward form. This is not only true of things, but also of people. Everyone begins as a prospective self and as life goes on is shaped (and possibly hardened) into a fulfilled self, for good or bad.

A person who believes in progress – perhaps even worships Progress – will expect to see his or her life or, more generally, human life on earth, get better and better. Depending on the definition used, “better and better” might mean easier and easier, or healthier and healthier, or richer and richer.

A person who believes in fulfillment will expect something different. He or she will expect everything to become more and more itself. If this person is a fatalist, that self will have been predestined by a good God or by an amoral naturalism. But if the person believes in some kind of free will (another enormously influential idea in the history of thought), he or she will see an opportunity – indeed, a responsibility – to cooperate in his or her personal fulfillment.

This corresponds to another prominent idea from the Bible and other sacred literature: the idea of judgment. We think of God’s judgment as merely punitive, but that fails to do justice to biblical teaching, which also views it as revelatory. It will, to borrow St. Paul’s words on the subject, “bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts.”

As such, judgment does not so much impose a sentence upon a person as it discloses the person’s true self. Another way of putting it is to say that judgment confirms and finalizes the fulfillment process. This is very good news for some and very bad news for others, for it confirms the decisions we have made all along as we have directed our own fulfillment.

First Published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, March 29, 2014

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