It is probably not surprising that a pandemic brings out both the best and the worst in us. In recent weeks, we have been moved by the courage of frontline workers, the kindness of strangers, and the patience of large populations staying home for the common good. Communities are coming together in creative and encouraging ways. But strong divisions are also appearing, as polarization that was already visible before the pandemic seems to be further exacerbated in this time of crisis.

On a surface level, the fault line appears to be that of economy vs. health: those who want to reopen quickly are prioritizing the economy, while those who urge caution are prioritizing health. Of course, health and economic practices can never be so neatly divided, as economically vulnerable populations are also at greater health risk, and a stable economy relies on the health of its workers. Both health and economic stability are important aspects of human flourishing, and a global pandemic highlights even more than usual the ways in which one affects the other. But taking a step back from the economy vs. health debate, it seems clear that there are larger ideological differences fueling these tensions. I would suggest that at least part of this is due to a conflict between two important modern ideals: human freedom and universal benevolence.

These are both ideals that Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor identifies as central to modernity’s vision of the Good.[1] Although there is wide disagreement on how these ideals should be enacted, Taylor argues that the ideals themselves are so much a part of the collective mental landscape of the modern West that most of the time we don’t have to articulate why we believe them to be true. We simply assume that human beings should have certain rights and freedoms and that good people care about other people.

Taylor maps the historical development of these ideals in his book Sources of the Self. The origin of each can be traced, at least in part, to Christian theology. This is especially true for the ideal of universal benevolence, a descendant of Christian agape,[2] the love that reaches to all without limit. The ideal of individual human rights and freedoms has a somewhat more complex development, as the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and political revolutions all contributed to a new emphasis on the individual as an autonomous, self-governing agent. However, this, too, was fueled at least in part by the Judaeo-Christian belief that human beings are created in the image of God and that, whatever else it means, imago Dei confers dignity on each human being.

Theologically, agape can be understood as a response to imago Dei, as we join God in the work of loving the creation that God loves. Philosophically, the ideal of universal benevolence can work hand in hand with the ideal of individual rights and freedoms, as we seek to ensure the dignity and freedom of others, especially those who have been denied these rights and freedoms. However, the two ideals can also come into conflict with each other—especially when divorced from their theological sources[3] and turned into ideologies.

If and when these two modern ideals come into conflict with each other, how should Christians navigate the tension? If there seems to be a conflict between two goods, how do we choose between them? Jesus was asked a similar question once. “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest?” (Matt. 22:36). We all know Jesus’ answer to that question: Love God. Love your neighbour as yourself. Together, these two commandments make up the Good to which we should direct our lives.

This pandemic presents complex problems that don’t always have simple answers. And appealing to neighbour-love won’t solve all of these problems, as we may still have very different ideas of what that looks like and what it might mean to care for those around us. However, I would encourage Christians to consider their ideas about rights and freedoms through the lens of neighbour-love. What kind of freedom do we hope for? Is it a freedom in which the most vulnerable and marginalized are cared for and provided for? Is it a freedom that works toward human flourishing? What kind of freedom would it be, if I gain it only at the cost of my neighbour’s life or well-being?

Freedom and human rights remain an important good that we value in our society. However, for Christians, the ideal of individual freedom must always remain nestled within its theological origins of God’s love for God’s creation and the theological imperative of neighbour-love. As we continue to walk through this crisis together, may we seek the flourishing, dignity, and well-being of each person made in God’s image.

[1] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 394-395, 495.

[2] Ibid, 410, 516.

[3] Taylor warns, “High standards need strong sources,” (p. 516) and hints that grace is what is needed to sustain and enact these ideals (p.521).

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