This past week the Society for Christian Ethics has been meeting here in Chicago. I had the honor of attending a small dinner of very distinguished ethicists. I took it as an occasion to ask them a question that I have asked many of you of late: what do the changes that we have seen in the economy mean for how we should live?
Personally, I think it is rather likely that the main part of the economic decline may already be behind us. And I read a poll of economic experts that indicated that the predominance of opinion among those who are wise about such things is that the recession will end this spring or summer (http://www.philadelphiafed.org/research-and-data/real-time-center/survey-of-professional-forecasters/2008/survq408.cfm
At another level I suspect that something has changed much more profoundly—a way of being, a way of living that made sense just a few months ago may now no longer make sense. It may be that the economy will tilt marginally from decline to growth before we are all eating sweet corn again. Yet the culture of debt in which the middle class—and therefore many of us—financed our lifestyles on credit and home equity will probably not return. What will this mean for our communities? For our congregations? For our families? The ethicists at the table observed that for the past twenty years the subject of economics has mostly been business ethics (I might observe impertinently that teaching ethics to business students has been good business for ethicists). And the question of economics has retained a residual place among us as part of our struggle with diversity and identity. We often remind ourselves that, if issues of race are hard for UUs, issues of social class may be harder.
Yet, neither the frame of business ethics nor the frame of acceptance of diversity captures well the question of economics as it now presents itself to us. The question of economics and ethics as it now presents itself to us is more connected with the Greek word from which our word economics is derived. This word was oikos meaning roughly household or the principles on which we will run our households—by what principles should we run our lives? What does living well mean or what ought it to mean?
What the best of my dinner companion ethicists were able to do by way of an answer was to point to the new ways they had seen the question posed, notably in a report from the Institute for American Values titled For a New Thrift: Confronting the Debt Culture (http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/08_42/b4104054847273_page_2.htm
). Along the same lines these professors pointed me to the writings of a Newsweek journalist, Fareed Zakaria (http://www.newsweek.com/id/163449) who had posed the question of what it would mean to live within our means economically and ecologically and at the same time to live abundantly.
As religious communities we need to wrestle with this Zen koan for the 21st century. All the technical things we do in our congregations at the level of best management practices need to be undergirded by an effort to find more adequate answers to the question of best practices for living.. Not long ago I spoke to a friend Brad Hirscheld (of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership). I asked him his advice for guiding congregations through the current crisis. Quoting Einstein, he cautioned, “remember, no profound problem is ever solved at the same level of thinking at which it was created.” Let us all hope that before we all are eating sweet corn again that we will be out of this recession. Yet the economic crisis points to a problem that will last longer and will not be solved on the level of better management. We need to go deeper into better living.