Charting a Wise Future: The Need for Moral Imagination from Faith Communities

As People of Faith, we share common guiding principles and values. And together – by the way we put them into practice in our lives – we shape the culture. We know we are a People with a shared destiny, and we gather to reflect, pray, and endeavor together to build “heaven on earth,” to make and remake the world in the image of Christ. 

That shared endeavor is no small undertaking. It is the call of a lifetime. It is about waking up to the injustices of our time and humbly growing in awareness of the ways we are – consciously or unconsciously – complicit in those injustices. It means bringing a discerning lens to the status quo – what is working and for whom? What is not working and for whom? How do we creatively reimagine and reinvent our systems to better uphold the common good? 

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis invites us to let these questions – particularly the question of who is excluded from today’s systems and institutions – sink into our bones. 

“These days, [the excluded] are mentioned in international political and economic discussions, but one often has the impression that their problems are brought up as an afterthought, a question which gets added almost out of duty or in a tangential way, if not treated merely as collateral damage…This lack of physical contact and encounter, encouraged at times by the disintegration of our cities, can lead to a numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality. ”  (Laudato Si’ 49).  

By emphasizing a culture of encounter, Pope Francis points to the importance of sharing in the suffering of others, and allowing it to do its work on us, to transform us.  By being in relationship with those who are suffering, struggling, on and beyond the margins of what today’s economy benefits, we can strengthen our capacities for empathy and a different kind of decision-making in our personal lives.

But this call goes well beyond the personal. Each of us also lives inside systems that are always changing us. They shape us and either expand or contract the bounds of our empathy, and the extent to which we embody and lead with the values of our Faith. If we fail to consciously discern, define, and live our values, something else will. 

Our economic paradigm is one of those systems that is constantly working on us. Today, it emphasizes individual preference over collective good, and confuses the aggregation of these individual preferences with genuine shared prosperity. The system is creating untold benefits for some, while exacerbating the suffering of others. And the chasm between them is growing.  

As political philosopher Michael Sandel argues “…once we see that markets and commerce change the character of the goods they touch, we have to ask where markets belong—and where they don’t. As Sandel states, the values we define (or fail to define) in turn define us: “…without quite realizing it, without ever deciding to do so, we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.”

Where does this leave us? We need technologies and changemakers that shape and nudge us in the directions of our core values – values like care for one another and our common home, empathy for those who are suffering, long-term decision-making that honors and protects our descendents, and so much more. Communities of faith are among the most powerful and important of these changemakers. 

Communities of faith have a distinct advantage when it comes to engaging in systems critique and transformation work. Our grounding in shared principles and frameworks can grow our capacity to hold a plurality of views and engage in dissent – something that is precious amidst today’s forces of “cancel culture.” 

In his book Let Us Dream, Pope Francis defines these “plurality of views” as fruitful “contrapositions”: “One of the effects of conflict is to see as contradictions what are in fact contrapositions, as I like to call them. A contraposition involves two poles in tension, pulling apart from one another: horizon/limit, local/global, whole/part and so on. These are contrapositions because they are opposites that nonetheless interact in a fruitful, creative tension” (79). 

We can hold our differences of opinion while practicing mutual love. We can see and love God in each other, while sharing opinions and worldviews that have been formed through formal and social education, while committing together to grow and evolve as Children of God.  

This wrestling together amidst today’s complexities helps birth a new moral imagination. This “prophetic imagination”, in the words of Walter Brueggemann, offers an alternative to the dominant culture and arises from within its own “experience and…faith”, and not from external imposition. How often do we see failed attempts to impose change through today’s politics or other efforts?  Genuine change comes about from a turning of the mind and heart, which is what “conversion” actually means. 

The prophetic imagination also goes beyond the mere recognition that something is not right, to a presentation of an “alternative consciousness” that energizes the community to new vitality (Bruggemann:59). The question is not whether the “alternative is realistic, or practical or viable”, but “whether it is imaginable” (Bruggemann: 39).  This kind of “alternative consciousness”, born of communities of Faith, is essential when experimenting with new futures. For example, in the United States, we can look back to early Quaker settlers who were against the idea of investing in slavery, one of the biggest industries in the country at the time. The Quakers decided to put their money where their convictions were. This, combined with their public condemnation of the slave trade, boycotts, petitions, and civil disobedience, played a significant role in changing public opinion and law (see “When did Impact Investing Start?”

For many years, principles derived from faith traditions and communities of practice paved the way for “socially responsible investing” – something we deepen our journeys in as part of the Livable Future Investing workshop. These faith principles provided fertile soil for experimenting with practices like “negative screening” of options (divesting or avoiding investments in harmful institutions or asset classes) and eventually, in the early 1970s in the U.S., efforts by religious congregations to directly invest their finances to fund retirement needs in accordance with their values.

These examples illustrate the kind of needed experimentation, rooted in a moral imagination, that our society needs to chart a new, wiser course. This invitation to moral imagination allows us to look at the status quo and our dominant culture differently.  It opens us up to “see” with new eyes, “hear” with new ears, and discern our most important work and calling, individually and together. 

How fortunate we are to be on the cusp of yet another historic leap, and what a gift it is to be called to shape a new moral imagination for the future.

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