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An article by Alton C. Thompson

The Most Interesting Passage
that I have found in the Bible.
Its climate change implications.

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The passage in the Bible that I find most interesting (and relevant, in 2019) is this one from Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, Chapter 12:

  • 4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. 
  • 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.
  • 6 There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
  • 7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 
  • 8 To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit,
  • 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit,
  • 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues,[a]  and to still another the interpretation of tongues.[b]
  • 11  All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

When we think of a gift, we usually think of an item given to someone without the expectation of payment or anything in return.  An item is not a gift if that item is already owned by the one to whom it is given.  Although gift-giving might involve an expectation of reciprocity, a gift is meant to be free.

However, in this passage by Paul, “gifts” are given “for the common good.”  That is, the “gifts” referred to by Paul are given with a purpose â€" to be used, and used specifically to serve the common good.

I have two reactions to this assertion by Paul:'

It calls to my mind this statement by Adam Smith [1723 - 1790] in his The Wealth of Nations:

  • "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.  We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chooses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens.  Even a beggar does not depend upon it entirely. The charity of well-disposed people, indeed, supplies him with the whole fund of his subsistence. But though this principle ultimately provides him with all the necessaries of life which he has occasion for, it neither does nor can provide him with them as he has occasion for them. The greater part of his occasional wants are supplied in the same manner as those of other people, by treaty, by barter, and by purchase.  With the money which one man gives him he purchases food. The old clothes which another bestows upon him he exchanges for other old clothes which suit him better, or for lodging, or for food, or for money, with which he can buy either food, clothes, or lodging, as he has occasion."

Whereas Smith argued that the common good is best served by each individual acting according to that person’s self-interest, no such suggestion exists in the statement by Paul!  This makes one ask: Who was right; Paul or Smith?

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The United States has the most inegalitarian society in the “developed” world, and the unequal nature of our society has been linked to our social problems; see this article and the books of Richard G. Wilkinson, (e.g., his 2005 The Impact of Inequality:  How to Make Sick Societies Healthier).

Given that it is Smith’s ideas that have been dominant in this society, not Paul’s, it is not surprising that the “common good” has not be served well in this society!

This passage by Paul is the only passage in the entire Bible (so far as I have been able to determine) that has a perspective that can be construed as having societal implications.  When one thinks, e.g., of the “sheep and goats” parable in Matthew or the Good Samaritan parable in Luke, one is likely to interpret both parables as of an individualistic nature.  That is, like the Decalogue, they instruct the individual regarding what the individual should, and should not, do -- with reference to other individuals, in particular.

The passage quoted above from I Corinthians 12, in contrast, has a group orientation.  Paul may have had the particular group to whom he was directing his epistle when he wrote this passage; but that possibility does not restrict us to such an interpretation:  There’s no reason why we today should not apply Paul’s “common good” concept to our society!

Picking up on that last sentence:  Scientists have found that we humans are naturally good!  We are “good natured” (to allude to a book by Frans de Waal).  We are “born to be good” (to allude to a book by Dacher Keltner) who is also “the founder and faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center." and host of the podcast The Science of Happiness.”

While reading an article by anthropologist James Suzman, I encountered this passage:

“Imagine a society in which the work week seldom exceeds 19 hours, material wealth is considered a burden, and no one is much richer than anyone else”, gushed Time Magazine in an editorial about the Bushmen in November 1969, “The people are comfortable, peaceable, happy and secure. ... This Elysian community actually exists.”

What the research of Suzman and other anthropologists suggests is that just as foragers of the present tend to be “comfortable, peaceable, happy and secure,” so is it likely that our forager ancestors were as well.  Giving credence to the claim by Jared Diamond that the invention and adoption of agriculture, about 12,000 years ago, was “the worst mistake in the history of the human race”!

It appears that during the lengthy period while our ancestors were foragers, they became “designed” -- physically, psychologically, and sociologically -- for a foraging-based way of life, and especially the small-group living that characterized that way of life.  For whatever reasons, the adoption of agriculture by some early groups caused those groups to grow in group size, that caused a weakening of the bonds that had connected members of the group one to another . . .  with the rise of “civilization and its discontents” being the result!

Probably the most important “feature” of our current situation is the global warming produced by us “civilized” peoples.  We are in such a dire situation at present that 11,000 scientists recently declared a “climate emergency”!  Here’s what I wonder:

Had Paul’s “common good” idea gained “traction” rather than Adam Smith’s argument that pursuing one’s self-interest is the right path to that goal, would we now be in a “climate emergency.”

My answer, for what it’s worth:  NO, WE WOULD NOT!!

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Original posting: 2019-NOV
Author: Alton C. Thompson
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