Editorial: What we talk about when we talk about society

A good society has not only its institutions, but its loves in order.

Appears in Fall 2011 Issue: The good society
September 1st, 2011

"There is no such thing as society." So the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, is reported to have said. This bit of political rhetoric is terse but true: "Society" does not really exist, or at least not in the concrete, monolithic sense. We cannot point to one thing and say, "See? That is society."

What we call society is not so much a thing as a complex web of relationships, multifarious institutions, and individuals working towards various ends in all kinds of physical environments. The complexity of "society" defies definition. Comment's parent organization, Cardus, speaks of its work as "renewing social architecture"—in other words, working to renew society. But what does that actually mean?

Renewing social infrastructure involves renewing institutions. Institutions serve as the infrastructure through which our life together is enacted. Individual action is important, of course, but as Jonathan Chaplin says in this issue, "loving institutions is key to any constructive response to our current economic and political malaise."

And so, in this issue of Comment, we examine institutions—including universities, markets, and the church—so that we might better love them.

Today, faithfully loving institutions is countercultural. We don't think about institutions much; we're more inclined to focus on networks and ad hoc communities comprised of individuals. So to say that we instead must think of institutions which have enduring—even creational—design is to paddle against a strong current.

But when we talk about society, we must think beyond just our institutions. We often take another basic reality, the natural world, for granted, but it works to shape our common lives in ways we often miss. Our shared memory within and among communities helps us understand our past and future, so we need both history and memoir. And our cultural products, like our art, our literature, and our criticism, steer us toward the place we end up—as do the people who make those things.

When we talk about society, this is what we mean: this soup of institutions, culture, and environment, with all its interdependence and complexity.

As in a soup, we can tell when the ingredients of society are working together to make something good, and when there's too much salt or not enough noodles. We intuitively sense when society is in a state of discord or concord. Sometimes it is both at once.

When everything is working together, we say the soup is good, and we take seconds. We can also make the bold claim that there is such a thing as "the good society," in which peace and justice reign.

Peace, as St. Augustine says, is more than simply the absence of war. It is the tranquility of order—when all of the spheres of society function in such a way as to create wonderful music. And this is a radical, prophetic notion: To speak of peace and a tranquil order in a world plagued by restlessness and extreme social disorder is, again, to canoe against the current of reality.

To dare to speak this way is to hope. It presumes that there is an order, and that there can be peace.

So here we return to one of Comment's deepest themes: The good society, as St. Augustine says, has not only its institutions, but its loves in order. No society can be "good" unless it helps its people direct their love toward the common good—and the highest good: the love of God.

Our hearts are restless until they are at rest in God, and our society will likewise never fully realize a sense of the tranquility of order until all of our work, our institutions, and our culture are marked by the love of God.

We hope this edition of Comment helps you see the deep love of Christ present everywhere in that complex soup of institutions, individuals, and culture that we call society. And we hope it assists you in your work toward the common good, and in waiting patiently for the Creator, whose return will bring everlasting peace.

 

Brian Dijkema is Program Director, Work and Economics at Cardus and senior editor with Comment. Prior to joining Cardus, Brian worked for almost a decade in labour relations in Canada after completing his master's degree with Cardus Senior Fellow, Jonathan Chaplin. He has also done work on international human rights, with a focus on labour, economic, and social rights in Latin America and China.

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Alissa Wilkinson is assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City, chief film critic at Christianity Today, and editor of QIdeas.org. Her work on pop culture, politics, art, and religion appears in publications including The Atlantic, Christianity Today, Books & Culture, Marginalia Review of Books, Relief, the Globe & Mail, WORLD, and Paste. In 2008, she founded The Curator and served as editor while on staff with International Arts Movement until 2010.

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