01/30/2014 12:20 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2014

Religious Idealism vs. Worldly Realities -- Part 2

In the previous post, where I contrasted the views of the left of the political "Left" with those of the "Right" in terms of their differing views of human nature, I also pointed out that (unless they are perversely misanthropic) both right and left really do claim to hold the same goal: a prosperous and relatively decent life for every human being on the planet. The only real argument seems to be on how to actually achieve it.

Socialism seems to aim at that goal most directly, but demands a generosity that only a few people are either psychologically or spiritually mature enough to possess, leaving it vulnerable to cheaters and especially defenseless against any hypocrisy in its leadership that quickly undermines whatever ideals it once held. And when socialism is motivated by a purely materialistic view of humanity, it too easily turns into the kind of totalitarian state that existed under Soviet Communism or the corrupt form of government-controlled crony capitalism that we now see in China.

Free-Market capitalism, on the other hand, seeks to convert that same selfishness into a beneficial wealth-creating force. Yet, in focusing on profit or material wealth, it all too often creates the same materialism that destroys the soul of humanity, re-enforcing the worst in human nature, even while it continues to claim to promote something better. In either case, a crassly materialistic view of life destroys whatever humanistic or idealistic goals that may have once been held under either economic system. And it is here that we see the role of religion as a corrective or counterbalance.

However, it needs to be a religion that is grounded in reality -- especially psychological realities. If we can believe that the Gospels accurately report what Jesus was preaching, we can see that he profoundly understood human nature. Thus he knew that at the beginning stages only a "carrot and stick" approach is apt to work -- hence the promises of heavenly rewards as well as the threats of eternal loss. Yet, he also knew that if he stopped at that level or failed to call us to something higher than that, he would have failed in his mission. Thus, he could not or would not stop at simply calling on people to "Love your neighbor as you love yourself." After all, every progressive ethical teacher in the world has said more or less the same thing in one way or another. Instead, Jesus went on to call on his followers to love their enemy, to counter their evil-doing and avarice by overcoming it with kindness and generosity, and even to sacrifice their own life, as he was to do, out of love for humanity.

What the new pope is doing, it seems to me, is simply to announce the Gospel, the good news of Christ, again to the world in the plain language of worldly realities. No doubt this offends those who would like to believe that their religion is all about seeking "heaven above" while allowing millions even billions of people to continue to live in misery or without hope of a decent existence, or who think they can save their own souls by substituting "charity" for fundamental justice (more about that in the future). If so, then it seems to me that they have missed the main message of Christianity and mock Jesus who taught us to work and pray constantly that God's kingdom come and his will be done "on earth as it is in heaven".