Richard Young, one of the pioneers of clinical pastoral education, offered a cryptic expression of the ethical perspective with which we seem to enter this world.
“I want what I want when I want it,” he said 50 years ago in a seminary class.
A young child begins the human journey, Young said, with a focus that is limited to immediate needs and surroundings. The rest of life is a journey toward seeing oneself and the world in terms of increasingly wider horizons.
I have recalled this observation many times as I have watched that process in myself, in our children and grandchildren, and in the lives of others we’ve been privileged to share.
Life seems to be a journey of expanding consciousness that broadens one’s world with every step.
An interesting parallel to this process of personal development seems to occur in the development of traditions and cultures.
The biblical story, for example, reflects a long and gradual evolution from a tribal consciousness of the meaning of covenant faith toward a wider, more inclusive, even universal way of thinking about the pilgrimage of life.
The seeds of this broader consciousness are present in the promise of blessing to Abraham: “You will be a blessing … and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3).
Yet, it is in the later prophets of the Babylonian exile and in the wisdom literature that we see this expansion spelled out in a way that paves the way for its continued development in later Judaism and Christianity.
This pilgrimage of theological thought from tribal toward universal seems to be experiencing new attention in the context of interfaith dialogue.
Comparative study of religion is moving from the museum of interesting information to the communion table of genuine spiritual fellowship.
Christian theology has wrestled with the tension between affirmations of a universal God and of particular disclosures that necessarily are framed in the limited frameworks of language, culture and worldview.
Tribal consciousness is the soil in which the seeds of faith are sown and come to life.
But many of the teachings nurturing that faith pull us toward a wider and deeper vision of the mystery that we experience.
Jesus’ familiar words on the Law, which represents a foundational formulation of the covenant faith, present a case in point: “You have heard that it was said … but I say unto you…” (Matthew 5:17-48).
Theological thinking, both personal and communal, seems to move along a process of ever-expanding consciousness as individuals and communities of faith live into the mystery that we call God’s presence.
Various levels of tribal consciousness become the stepping stones to new vantage points that help us see that there is more to what we have embraced than our understanding at any given time can grasp.
The implications of this process for our ethical discernment and responses seem clear.
As we make choices in any area of life that give expression to our faith, we can make them in terms of the direction our faith is calling us to live or we can make them in terms of a level of consciousness that we are being called by that faith to move beyond.
A place where this distinction presently finds concrete expression involves the variety of appeals from persons who would be our elected leaders.
Polls indicate that it is effective to base an appeal on more “tribal’ levels of consciousness, where one’s own group, nationality, race or other distinction is the defining factor of who one’s community is.
It seems a bigger challenge to make an appeal that seeks a broader consciousness that moves beyond the comfortable and secure horizons of tribal thinking.
It will probably help us to ask whether a given appeal for our support is calling us toward a higher level of consciousness in the service of an increasingly common good or calling us to retreat to a more limited level of thinking defined by economic, social, political or even religious tribal boundaries.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.