What does it mean to be great? (Part 3)

It can be argued that greatness is similar; that is, what is considered great in one culture may not be considered great in another. This can vary even among subcultures within the same cultural cluster. A few examples might help.

An individualist culture stresses the importance of individual freedom as a primary value, while a collectivist culture stresses the importance of social harmony in the community. A prime example of an individualist culture is the United States where individual freedom seems to be the highest political value. Island cultures tend to be more collectivist in that harmony within the family group or the community are primary values and the individual is expected to place family or community above self-interest. It doesn’t always work out this way but even when a person places self-interest above others that person is in the wrong. In a collectivist culture greatness would be seen in the person who sacrifices for the family or community. In an individualist culture greatness would be seen in the individual who stands up to social pressure and gets what he wants in the end.

A cooperative culture emphasizes the importance of collaboration as the most effective strategy for achieving important goals. Many minds and hands working together are the best way to reach any goal. A competitive culture stresses the need to compete with others to achieve goals. The competition provides the pressure and energy to push ahead and reach the goal. Greatness in a cooperative culture would be the ability of a group of people to work together and the capacity of leaders to promote such cooperation. Greatness in a competitive culture is the ability to use competition to achieve the goal; be the winner in the competition.

A direct culture is one in which many different people are living together in direct proximity and communication is dependent upon clear, understandable and adequate information being conveyed routinely. The words carry the necessary information to get things done. An indirect culture is one that relies heavily upon context to convey information. Important information may be conveyed as much in body language, as through the words spoken. Greatness in a direct culture would be in the ability to say what needs to be said to accomplish the goal. Greatness in an indirect culture would be seen in the leader whose words and body language don’t necessarily speak directly to the issue at hand but through nuance, context and the subtlety of what is expressed clearly gets the message across but with elegance. The United States and Germany are “direct” cultures. Japan is an indirect culture.

A universalist culture is one in which the same rules apply to everyone with no exception. A particularist culture is one in which there is some flexibility in interpreting the rules to allow for situations that don’t fit the rule. Livermore tell the story of a student from the Middle East who was attending UCLA. His parents sent his college tuition each month but they were from Iraq. The country was in turmoil, banks were not functioning effectively and it was extremely difficult to get the tuition money to their son each month. The student would go to the bursar’s office each month to pay the tuition. He was usually late with the payment because of the difficulties in getting the money to him. The university always charged him a heavy fee for being late. He explained the situation to the bursar who felt sorry for the student but refused to cut the student any slack. He would say that it he made an exception for the student he would have to make it for everyone. The bursar was working from a universalist perspective. After many months of this, the student asked the bursar how many students were at the university that came from a country at war, whose economy had runaway inflation, and whose parents struggled to simply transfer the tuition money to their child so he could pay the tuition bill? The student was trying to get the bursar to see the situation from a particularist perspective. In a universalist culture greatness would be found in treating everyone equally before the law. Greatness in a particularist culture would be in knowing when to be flexible in interpreting the law.

Religion stresses the establishment of a right relationship with God, however a community understands that relationship. It usually involves certain beliefs about God; moral guidelines and actions that help to transform beliefs and guidelines into human behavior. Greatness would be seen in those persons who best incorporate and demonstrate those virtues.

About 1600 years ago the Roman Empire in the West was in decline. Barbarian hordes were regularly over running the city of Rome and its territories in Italy, the capital of the empire having moved to Constantinople. The political cry of the era was “Make Rome Great Again!” Christianity was being blamed by some of the wealthy and powerful as undermining the values and greatness of the empire. St. Augustine was a highly respected intellectual of the era, both as a philosopher and a theologian. He spent about 15 years writing on this topic with the final produce being the book “City of God”.  This became a classic and the basis for political theory throughout the Middle Ages.

He argues that society is the result of our efforts to build up human communities that reflect fundamental values. The most common values that we use as the foundation of our vision of society are the traditional values that have long been the basis of human society. These values include an emphasis on financial success, military prowess, and the primacy of self-interest. Augustine describes the society built upon these values as the “City of Man”.

Augustine goes on to argue that as Christians we are called to something more. We are to take part in the building up of the Kingdom of God. He sees that our participation in this task involves building the “City of God”. This is the society that results from our efforts to put the Gospels into action. It is a society that is characterized by mercy, compassion, self-sacrifice and seeking the common good. According to Augustine, greatness is not measured by our wealth but by our virtue in pursuit of the common good.  Matthew 25 and its discussion of the Beatitudes is the best place to begin any discussion of greatness from a Christian perspective.

Greatness is not coming to America by turning our backs on those in need. It does not come to America by pulling out of agreements on protecting the environment. Greatness does not come by putting our priorities on making more financial profit for the wealthy. Greatness does not come by becoming factionalized as a nation or enflaming tensions among people. All of these things destroy the greatness of America, as each of these place the “City of Man” as our goal and rejects the “City of God”.

 

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