Sally Myers reflects on the place of faith in good character and conduct during times of crisis.
'Wisdom cries…' - Book of Proverbs
To state the obvious, the world has been going through a very difficult period thanks to COVID-19. From a general psychological perspective the full extent of the impact of coronavirus is as yet unknown. What is beyond doubt is that it has afforded plenty of opportunity to reflect on character and conduct in times of crisis. Intense media coverage has enabled in-depth analysis of how leaders in all kinds of contexts have responded. I am not going to go any further down that route other than to say that I teach ethics and I can't help thinking that there are some very interesting case studies available!
Psychologists tell us that in perilous circumstances less immediate than the ones that provoke the fight, flight or freeze response, but nevertheless where time to make decisions and take action is short, there is a tendency for default positions to become hardened, empathy and vision to become reduced, and for regressive behaviour and self-justification to occur. All of this is natural and understandable. However, I think we can still hope, if not expect, our leaders to be at least conscious of natural reactions, and perhaps even to set them aside and act with wisdom.
Wisdom is a tricky concept, not least because if you are wise you are supposed to realise it is unattainable. Aristotle called practical wisdom 'Phronesis'. This might be roughly translated as 'knowing about stuff well enough to know what to do'. It involves embracing complexity in decision-making rather than simply following rules (deontology) or making choices based upon the least-awful short-term effects (consequentialism). To attain the capacity and ability for such deliberation involves ongoing learning alongside sustained personal reflection and the cultivation of day-to-day virtue and balance. It doesn't seem to come naturally as whilst the soul might benefit in the long term, the ego can take quite a battering on the way. Perseverance, however, is supposed not only to lead to good life in the individual and community, but also the ability when trauma strikes, to wise thought-through responses rather than unwise knee-jerk reactions.
It is of course difficult to define, but you know it when you see it, and when you don't.
Formal opportunities to reflect on what it means to be a good person and to live a good life have perhaps always been the rarefied prerogative of the elite. I am in no way defending that exclusivity here. But since faith and educational institutions have always been part of that number, I do think this is an historic responsibility we may be being called to live up to.
Faith and interfaith networks have of course been providing enormous support, both physical and spiritual during the difficulties. There are some wonderful examples of this, many of them recorded in previous blogs here. However, in addition, perhaps it is timely for faith communities to have a more intentional collegial conversation about what a good life and good global community might look like, post-COVID-19.
My research at the Woolf Institute is a very modest step towards that ambition. It is concerned with how the wisdom traditions across different faiths might inform how individuals represent their faith to themselves and to others, and how that might inform and influence the way that they live. Whilst not wanting to pre-empt the findings, I suspect that common themes might include: temperance and prudence, social justice, consideration of community mutual support and altruism.
If you are interested in this too I would be really pleased to hear from you. Please contact me on email@example.com.
This blog is written by Sally Myers who is researching the theology and psychology of wisdom across different faith traditions. Sally joined the Woolf Institute in March 2020 as a Visiting Scholar.
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