Social reform and divine guidance

Robert Barron says, in a review of the movie The Giver,

And now we see that what makes the society in The Giver most like contemporary Europe is precisely the forgetfulness of Christianity. What the story suggests, quite rightly, is that suppression of the good news of the Incarnation is in fact what conduces to dysfunctional and dangerous totalitarianism. The source of the greatest suffering throughout human history is the attempt to deal with original sin on our own, through our political, economic, military, or cultural efforts. When we try to eliminate conflict and sin through social reform, we inevitably make matters worse. As Pascal said long ago, “He who would turn himself into an angel, turns himself into a beast.” The key to joy at the personal level and justice at the societal level is in fact the conviction that God has dealt with original sin, by taking it on himself and suffering with us and for us. This belief allows us to embrace the world in both its beauty and its tragedy, for we see salvation as God’s project, not our own. It is the Incarnation—the event celebrated by the singing of “Silent Night”—that frees us from our self-importance and gives the lie to our programs of perfectibility. 

(emphasis added)

It seems a better way to say this – according to Christianity – is that we ought to embark on these sorts of efforts while attempting to get as good of guidance from God (as well as all other sorts of sources!) as possible, and mindful of how often the best of intentions can lead to poor outcomes – i.e., epistemic humility. Indeed, the strength of the Christian sensibility here is a suspicion of how good we are at reasoning to intended outcomes, when dealing with complex systems like societies. Consider that the Christian vision is centrally about bringing about a highly-functioning society through our efforts combined with God’s guidance – not of accepting sub-optimal outcomes and externalizing the way in which things will change, as Barron seems to suggest. If humans aren’t supposed to do anything, what’s the point of being a human, of having a body, and so on. Salvation (i.e., making things better) is God’s project, but it seems human actions are an important part of that project – at least according to standard Christian beliefs.

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