With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Sunday, August 20, 2006

For What Good Is The Good If It Is Not A Joy?

St. Augustine noted that the cause of sin is the joy we expect to receive in its execution. What we desire, what we seek, is not the sin, but the pleasure, the good that we associate with it. The problem of sin is not that what we desire lacks all goodness, but that what we desire is disordered: we seek to tear what is good in and of itself out of its proper context.

Yet goodness itself is attractive. Those who are holy gain our admiration. What is the cause of this? Like Florensky, "I ask myself, Why are the common folk, in their pure immediacy, involuntarily drawn to the saints? Why in their mute sorrow do the common folk find comfort in these saints as well as the joy of forgiveness and the beauty of the heavenly celebration?" Pavel Florenseky, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth. Trans. Boris Jakim (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997), p.5.

The answer lies in the nature of what it means to be good – that is, to be truly good. Goodness in its proper element will always be beautiful. Goodness and beauty are actually visions of the same spiritual life taken from different perspectives.

Understanding this reveals to us something about the nature of moral theology, its many failures in the past, and the way it should be practiced.

In seeking to explain how we should live our life, moralists often forgot the unity between goodness and beauty. They wanted a simple, logical explanation which they believed will summarize the fullness of what it means to be good. They wanted lists which they could give out and say if you do X, you did good, and if you did Y, you did bad.

While there is indeed value in this perspective (for the good is also that which is true), it ignores the organic whole which is needed to clarify what it means to be good. A simplified logic which quickly divides everything into that which is good and evil creates a dualistic ideology and quickly forgets that what is behind any evil is some lesser, perverted good.

When asked why something was bad, the only answer this perspective could be offer was a simple, legalistic answer: because it is.

Why then did people find joy in what is bad and desire it above that which is good?

Moral theology to be consistent to itself must be a holistic theology which recognizes the unity of goodness, truth and beauty. It must seek to draw people to holiness not through compulsion and laws but through desire and beauty. While it is true that laws are needed and are justified by the logical dimension of goodness, this cannot be the end. If it is, what we have is an evil, tyrannical system. It is evil because it is a lesser good, a perversion of the fullness of what it means to be good. Moreover, it is evil because it drives people away from what is good. Its inherent ugliness confuses us, makes us wonder if what is proclaimed good has any real goodness at all.

For what good is the good if it is not a joy?

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  • At 8/22/2006 5:26 PM, Blogger The Lesser Thomas said…

    Moral theology must involve desire and beauty. I think this is so because desire and beauty are part of the structure of love, and this is what moral theology (all theology, in fact) attempts to articulate: 'how to love,' or, perhaps, 'how to love better.'

  • At 8/23/2006 3:26 PM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…

    Certainly true, and that is the problem with the manualist tradition when it engaged moral theology. This dimension more often than not was lost, and now we are in a time of moral relativism, in part, I believe, because the full dimension of what it meant to be good had not been preached.

  • At 8/24/2006 2:55 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    I agree Henry. I think the 'manualization' of action for the sake of morality, while perhaps a necessary and not entirely unfruitful step, also - as you point out - led to a place of moral relativism.

    Along with your reasoning, I believe (at the risk of conjuring up good Pope Benedict's wrath) one reason is because the 'manualist' approach suffocated the 'relative' dimension to human action, which is the broader sphere of morality. And, as common wisdom understands, whenever a thing is not properly appropriated, it tends to rebel, asserting its desire to be properly ordered by overextending itself.

    So I propose we also need to reorder the proper place of relativism in the broader sphere of human action and love.

    Am I saying that morality is relative? By no means. I am saying (as I'm sure you would agree) that it is not ONLY objective. I am alo saying that there is a necessary, intimate and very personal relative dimension to human action. Whenever a 'system' of morality overlooks this, it cannot provide for the 'moral human need.'

    Why is this so? Because those elements that comprise the very essence of a person, those particularities that a person is given that distinguishes her from all others, are also the most relative - the particularities that are never again capable of being repeated. They are the 'once and for all' of a person's integrity.

    Kierkegaard stressed this in his 'teleological suspension of the ethical' (Fear and Trembling): that at the end of the day, true moral (ethical) action can never be measured by universal laws and regulations, because all human action takes place in the context of particulars to which those universal laws simply cannot extend.

    Of course, he was not making a declaration of moral relativism (nor was even Derrida when he echoed this in his celebrated "The Gift of Death"); instead, one can only 'ascend' to the beauty of those particulars through initial obedience to the universal constancies given in the law. This is why Abraham was Kierkegaard's example - through his obedeince to the voice of God, he came to a personal encounter with the truth that he did NOT have to obey what was at the time a culturally moral norm: that love for deity (and his polytheistic culture would not have specified too much here) is shown most vividly by sacrificing via death one's son.

    Further, because to a large degree moral constancies cannot escape the mediation by culture, true moral behavior often becomes confused with cultural etiquette, or cultural doctrines. The teleological suspension of the ethical also points to this fact: to trulty enter the moral law, one must pass beyond all mediated expression (which is ultimately every linguistic expression). Moving beyond does not mean denying or refusing, instead, it is a fuller embrace.


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