Tim Muldoon, starting classes with a new year of undergraduates, writes about the most important question of their lives: what is worth loving?
That is the question, I think, that lies at the foundation of any good society. In studying the Western cultural tradition, it is clear to me that good societies, those comprised of people with a shared sense of purpose that spills over into care for their fellow citizens, are those built around a shared myth. In ancient Greece, there was a myth of the hero; in classical Greece, of virtue; in ancient Israel, of divine protection; in Christian Europe, of Christ the King. By “myth” here I do not mean a false story, nor do I suggest that all myths are equal. Instead I mean a story that gives shape to a culture, gives its efforts meaning, gives its people a sense of what they strive for as a community.
The current American myth is about freedom, and it is becoming tired, because it is a kind of anti-myth that suggests that everyone should go his or her own way. The panoramic view of millennia reminds us that the American myth, and the Enlightenment virtues upon which it is constructed, are still young and limited. I hope my students will see that a good society cannot thrive upon an anti-myth, and that they will return to the fundamental question of what is worth loving. The shared pursuit of that question, drawing from the wisdom of the past, opens us up to consider the very nature of love itself and the reasons why we naturally feel that people and life itself are worth loving.
The better myth upon which to build the good society is a myth about love, and for that reason I find the Christian story so compelling. I want to challenge my students to see through the veneer of the freedom myth, with its consequent disasters in attitudes toward money, power, and sex. The Christian story proposes that God became human in order to free us to love, and not be shackled by tiny desires. Instead of grasping for cash, reputation, and random pleasures, it proposes that we can orchestrate our lives as gifts to others. In the process, we can discover that instead of losing ourselves, we find both God and our truest selves.
I think he’s a little overdismissive of the freedom myth. It is a dream that has been strongest among those who are not free. For without freedom, it is impossible to be true to any of the other great myths that govern our particularly society. The dream of freedom is at its best when it is a dream for the freedom of others – freedom based on love. I agree, though, that when it becomes simply a desire for personal control, and for freedom from constraints, then it is, indeed, a disaster.