Jesus explains the purpose of his life and death, ‘that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ (Jn 10.10). He offers us life, abundant life, being fully alive, individually, and collectively. It is our common good.
In my book, Recovering Common Goods, recently given an award by the Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice Foundation (16 December 2021), I attempt to situate the Church’s teaching on common goods in a vision of God’s creative and redemptive action. To do so, I draw on a common and familiar human experience, the sharing of a joke in a convivial atmosphere.
A community is created by the telling of a story. Not a very intense or deep community, and possibly short-lived, but nonetheless real.
Laughter is therapeutic. Especially if we can laugh at ourselves, it helps us to get things in perspective and to manage crises that might otherwise overwhelm us. Laughter, like song, lifts us out of ourselves and enables us to turn our attention to a wider reality. We value the company of those who can tell amusing stories and share jokes with eloquence and fluency. Such friends can unite a disparate group and bring a community together. Their presence is a bonus for any gathering. People are drawn to a group that shares joy and laughter.
Have you ever been part of a group of people enjoying themselves, telling entertaining stories and swapping jokes, but you feel left out because somehow or other you don’t understand? Perhaps they are speaking a language that you are just learning, so you don’t understand enough to see the point, or perhaps the stories all refer to some area of work experience that is foreign to you. To be present but not included: that is hell. A very unpleasant experience, in that we are made aware of our exclusion, but it also makes us aware of the deep desire to belong, to be a member of the community sharing in the joy and fun.
A community is created by the telling of a story. Not a very intense or deep community, and possibly short-lived, but nonetheless real. We find ourselves united in wanting to hear the story and how it ends; in a noisy room you can see how the heads lean in to catch what is being said. And when the punchline is delivered, we are united in the explosion of laughter, and we enjoy the joke all the more in seeing that our companions are also enjoying it immensely.
God the Son, entered human history, has become part of the story and indeed has become the point of the story which we call Good News, gospel. It is a delightful, beautiful story, which invites our enjoyment. The Holy Spirit is the sense of humour
This experience of storytelling allows us to identify several different but related goods in common. In the experience of sharing an entertaining story we have a group of people united in the enjoyment of something in which they delight. What they enjoy is a good in common: the fun, the understanding of the punchline and the grasp of the whole. But that moment of shared enjoyment and shared appreciation of the wit and humour is not the only good in common. The community itself, the group, brought together by the shared experience, is also a common good shared by the participants. The sense of humour that enables each of the members to share in the fun is also a resource for all together: without it, the group could not enjoy the company of others, essential for the experience. Another good in common is the occasion and the opportunity to be together and to have fun; while such occasions can occur spontaneously, they are usually the result of someone taking the trouble to organise the event and bring people together.
The telling of a story creates a community; the community presupposes a shared sense of humour; the community’s enjoyment of the story occurs in the appreciation of the point, the punchline. Can this be used as an analogy to understand what is going on in revelation? God the Father is telling a story, through the work of creation and through revelation in the scriptures and especially in the gospels. The Son is the Word, the point of it all, for whom and through whom all things were made. God the Son, entered human history, has become part of the story and indeed has become the point of the story which we call Good News, gospel. It is a delightful, beautiful story, which invites our enjoyment. The Holy Spirit is the sense of humour in the listeners to the story, which enables them to understand and enjoy what they are hearing. Without this gift we are at a loss and completely unable to enter into the spirit of the tale. Also, those who listen and appreciate the story are bonded together in a community of enjoyment and celebration, which gives us an analogy for Church, the community of those who have the Spirit enabling them to receive the Word and treasure it in their hearts.
Hell (…) would be exclusion – presence without inclusion, without participation, not because anyone is actually excluding you, but because you lack the Spirit of humour and fail to see the Truth of the Good News story.
This analogy gives us another clarification about the difference between time and eternity, this life and the next. In time, in history, there is a sequence of events, as in the telling of a story. The elements of the story or joke are laid out, step by step, one after the other, building up the tension and the expectation and wonder how it will all end. Finally, with the delivery of the punchline or the dramatic point of the entertaining tale, there is an explosion of laughter all-at-once, as all the elements are finally grasped in their unity, contributing to the meaning of the point. This is the analogy for eternity: not an endless continuation and repetition of the same, but a single reality in which all the elements of meaning are grasped and enjoyed. That would be heaven, an existence beyond time, but in which all time is grasped in its entirety. As hinted above, hell by contrast would be exclusion – presence without inclusion, without participation, not because anyone is actually excluding you, but because you lack the Spirit of humour and fail to see the Truth of the Good News story. With this reflection on the divine narrative we have further meanings for common goods, being the goods of community in the enjoyment of God’s self-communication. The ultimate common good is God himself, the source of all goodness.
This faith vision frames what we Catholics hope to contribute to the Second Vatican Council’s mandate in Gaudium et spes to serve the common good as ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily’ (§26; §74). Their fulfilment is to participate in the fullness of life offered by Jesus.