Rising Tide

Michael Metzger

What does human flourishing look like? How about a rising tide lifting all boats? Not original with me. Nor is the tension that others tie to this image.

A rising tide comes from love. God is love. Love is the enjoyment of another while seeking to expand the circle of love. The Father, Son, and Spirit enjoy one another. They seek to expand the circle by having the Son wed a bride—originally, the entire human race. This means everyone is supernaturally connected. We rise and fall together.

We see this in God’s command: “seek the flourishing—shalom—of the city, for as it flourishes, so shall you” (Jer. 29:7). When others flourish, we flourish. When others do not flourish, the faith community does not flourish. So we seek the flourishing of all.

This gave rise to commonweal, a 14th century term for the general welfare. Weal refers to wellbeing and wealth. This explains the Puritans calling America “a city set on a hill”—a new Jerusalem—Yeru (city) and shalom (wellbeing). America was founded for the wellbeing of all, which is why four states are called Commonwealths (Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Kentucky). The flourishing of all explains the New England Council (Chamber of Commerce) slogan: “A rising tide lifts all the boats.”

A rising tide aligns with Duns Scotus’ “scandal of particularity.” He felt a community always shows itself in the specific, the concrete, and the particular—refusing to be an abstraction. A rising tide seeks the wellbeing of this local community, that individual.

Scotus wasn’t, however, promoting individualism. The cult of the individual came later with the Enlightenment. It sunk deep into American soil. By the 1830s, Tocqueville defined an American as “the individualist.” In his 1871 essay “Democratic Vistas,” Walt Whitman wrote that purpose of democracy is the full flowering of individuals. America’s flowering led to excessive individualism. Today we too narrowly frame how we imagine flourishing. We think if my boat is rising (my income, my business, my nest egg, my family, my church), then my faith is flourishing.

Hate to sound harsh, but God might say hogwash. Our flourishing is tied to the entire community’s flourishing (Jer.29:7). Kathy and I live in Annapolis, a trifurcated town (black, Hispanic, white). The black and Hispanic schools are generally poor performers. The streets are not safe at night. In these neighborhoods, a rising tide means if you don’t have a boat, you drown. If your boat leaks, you’re going down. If it’s tethered to a dock (i.e., you lack the means to shift work in a shifting economy), your boat is going under. Move your boat to higher ground? Easier said than done. Watch this short film on how climate change adversely affects coffee growers in Guatemala. Is this human flourishing?

A rising tide asks specific questions that often scandalize us. Take the Clapham Sect. They enlisted Wedgwood to make a dinner plate asking a particular question: “Am I Not A Man And A Brother?” As guests enjoyed a meal, that specific question appeared at the bottom of the plate. Clapham was asking: Does this look like human flourishing?

A rising tide asks particular questions that scandalize me. My wife Kathy works in the poorer part of town. I occasionally visit her school. I look around and ask: Is this flourishing? Do I want to I live here? Not really. Am I a fraud? Maybe.

A rising tide complicates my convenient picture of flourishing. I didn’t appreciate this until we moved to the homeless highway in town. No—not the ‘hood. The gentrified part of town. Homeless folks knock on our door at the most inconvenient times.

Michael Gerson recently wrote about life being “splendidly complicated.” He learned this from Catholic social thought, which is “If, then” (if they flourish, then we flourish) and based on two ideas: solidarity and subsidiarity. Gerson, an evangelical, says this is an important intellectual piece missing in modern evangelicalism. Solidarity means you see the weakest and most vulnerable members of your town and ask a specific question: Is this flourishing? Subsidiarity means local institutions are the best solutions, for problems are systemic, requiring systemic, institutional solutions.

Younger evangelicals might be starting to add this important piece. One example is Rising Tide Capital, a non-profit organization seeking the flourishing of the city by building strong businesses and families. They imagine flourishing as a rising tide.

E. B. White might have as well. The author of such beloved children’s classics as Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little wrote, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world.” A rising tide provokes both desires, which is why it’s the right image even though it leaves me feeling torn.

What can we do to fix this? Next week I’ll describe the most effective infrastructure for promoting a rising tide.


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  1. Serendipitously, today I read 1 Samuel 30, where David made it a statute that “The share of the man who stayed with the supplies is to be the same as that of him who went down to the battle. All will share alike.”

    This sticks in my craw, as I consider the failure of communism and of our own “welfare-ism”. When we seek to equalize portions without regard to the person or circumstance, there will be resentment and injustice. What is missing, is committed community. If my neighbor is too sick to go to the feast, I will bring her a plate and no one will object. Of course she should eat! And we will all gladly make sure some is taken to her. If, however, strangers show up just as we are sitting down, and demand that we provide them a feast that they may take away with them to enjoy on their own terms apart from us – that’s a problem. Especially if their demands mean that there is no feast left for the community.

    I note that Clapham pointed out brotherhood in the Wedgewood plate example you give. As you said, that is particular. Today, rather than brotherhood, we’re hearing more of ‘humanity’. That is much more abstract, somehow: universal. At some point, we’re going to have to look again at question of belonging. We have resisted it, I think for fear of wrongfully excluding people. Share and share alike does seem to require some sense of sharing – a mutuality of some sort, and a relationship. Where that relationship is not present, there is no sharing. Something else is going on. . . . I think we will do well to name that something – from both sides.

    Interesting ideas you’re bringing up – thank you!

  2. P.S. – and I would note that David was operating within community – not the anonymous entitlement that robs both the giver and the receiver, leaving only resentment on both sides.

  3. Mike, I think I share in your sentiment of a rising tide, but the examples of the Puritans and a coffee farmer in South America doesn’t seem to fit. Can you help me understand why you chose these examples?

    First, it was my understanding that Puritans were not interested in the “flourishing of all”. Their regard was very specific to those who obeyed very specific religious code. And that they were proponents of using the force of the civil authorities to maintain purity of doctrine.

    Secondly, the often quoted passage about seeking the good of the city was about the city in which the Israelite were carried away to live.

    To bring up a coffee grower in South America to a primarily US audience (assumption on my part), would be as if the scripture verse said, “seek the good of Egypt while you are in Babylon”.

    In my estimation more human flourishing would come to the southern countries through changes in government (increase in liberty and decrease in corruption) than through changes in temperature.

    I am convinced that “love your neighbor” is connected to a rising tide that brings human flourishing.

    The more we practice loving our neighbor the more we will see individuals, voluntary groups, and local institutions rising to meet the needs.

    But your examples make we wonder if I am not understanding what you mean by rising tide.

    Much appreciate the thoughtful dialogue you make possible here.

  4. Gerard:

    As usual (for you), good questions all.

    The Puritans sought to renew (purify) the Church of England by essentially starting over in the New World. They continued the Jewish theme of seeking the flourishing of all.

    The coffee grower is simply an example of how easy it is for me to acknowledge climate change and blithely suggest people simply relocate, all the while failing to recognize the hardship imposed by climate change because a) I live in a comfy bubble and b) can probably relocate (if I have to) without the hardships this farmer faces.

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