April 29, 2006

Goodness: Does It Work? (Mere Conference 1.2)

The second plenary session at the C.S. Lewis Conference is led by Dr. Peter Kreeft, Christian apologist and professor of philosophy at Boston College, and is entitled, "The Only Apologetic Guaranteed to Win the World."

You have to be true to talk about truth; you don't have to be beautiful to talk about beauty. Is goodness like one or the other? Dr. Kreeft holds that it is like the latter: "You don't have to be good to talk about goodness. You just have to aspire to it." Augustine is an example. He was in love with two mistresses, God's goodness and his own pleasure. "He lived mainly in the city of the world, but he had given his heart to the city of God." What he gave his heart to was not just truth but wisdom; not just knowledge of the truth, but knowledge of the true good. "His wishes were converted 11 years before his will." This qualified him to speak about good, even if only by contrast. His confessions of his own sinfulness were confessions of God's goodness.

Three questions, the three simplest we can possibly ask about goodness:

  1. What is goodness? This is the question of a definition, not of a name but of a reality, of the thing itself. Just as the true is the object of the mind, the good is the object of the will. To see means to see colors and shapes, to know means to know what is true; in the same way, to will means to will the good. You can't want what seems to you to be un-good; all desires are desires for the good. Things appear good or bad in different ways. We can choose what appears to be morally evil if it appears to be good in another way. This gives a natural hierarchy of goods: sub-moral, moral, and supra-moral. Being morally good is both a means and an end; it pays off both in making you happy and in making you good. The moral good is good not just because it satisfies my desire for happiness, but because it is good in itself. The only way a human self can truly be happy is to seek and find something bigger than itself. Kant separated these two justifications for morality; he made the intrinsically moral justification the only one. "Ignore the desires of the ego entirely; do the right thing simply because it's right." What does Jesus think about Aristotle and Kant? "He agrees with both," then adds a third dimension, the supra-moral. You can't get to it without going through the moral good; grace pre-supposes law. But grace is more than law; the life of Christian goodness is more than morality. Because its roots are grace its flowers are gratitude. It cannot pay god back for grace, so it pays it forward, giving grace to others. We all know these things; we know so well that there are almost no problems of the will at all. Our so-called moral dilemmas come from the mind, looking for ways to avoid making hard choices. "We all know we are absolutely obligated to do good, we know what things are good, and we know that we haven't done good things but instead have done evil things. But we are all good at hiding one of these three truths that we know." Knowing God makes it hard for us to hide them. Because we know that God is the great I AM, we are constantly making an exception for ourselves (violating Kant's first categorical imperative). We are experts at eros and amateurs at agape. And, worst of all, we all know that we are wrong to be this way...and we know it by experience, rather than by faith! When we find this amazing critique of the ego present in other religions, and even the practice of it among their adherents, we are right to be amazed by it. The Christ-ian truth that the only way to truly live is to die for the sake of others seems to find expression in many or most of the world's religions. Lewis takes all this in: "Mere morality is not the end of life; you were made for something quite different from that...we are to be remade...a real man, an ageless god, a son of god, strong, radiant, wise, beautiful, and drenched in joy." The life and energy of God move us up the ladder. The ego can't transcend itself, it can only let God do it. And God does it! He gives grace freely and generously. Physical gravity is an image and metaphor of divine grace; it draws us inexorably upward to God. This is an upside down gravity; it seems upside down to us because of our own falleness. Sin is the "anti-gravity," a parasite which borrows all of its power from the grace of good. "Satan has to bait his hook with God's worm." (An extended quotation here from Chesterton on the "two altars," comparing the Eucharistic altar to a woman's body, two places where God makes life-filled bodies out of "words of love." Fascinating!)
  2. Why be good rather than evil? (What Dr. Kreeft called "calling up the ghost of Nietczshe so that you can exorcise it.") Note that this assumes the first question, that we know what goodness is! Three answers here: For yourself, for others, and for God. We must be good for ourselves because it is the only way to be and to become who we truly are. The reason we are not good, in the end, is that we do not want to be. The reason we are not saints is because we will not allow God to make us saints. Saints are the unanswerable apologetic. You cannot argue with the life of a saint. Professors and apologists use inductive logic; saints use se-ductive logic; they seduce people into the following of God. Will a critical mass of saints lead the world toward Christ, or will a critical mass of sinners lead the world away? The choice is ours, and the future is in our hands. Being a saint is not just for your sake, it is the primary means of saving the world! (Recall God's promise to spare Sodom if 10 righteous people could be found there.) We must all apply ourselves to the work of God: poverty, chastity, and obedience. This means making peace in the world by fighting Christ's war against the world! (Lucas, what did you think of this line of thought?) "If nobody wants to crucify you, you're not being enough like Christ...you can't win the world for Christ without being Christ." "The better you are, the more friends you will have and the more enemies you will have...you need more friends, and your enemies need you. All who met Christ either became his friends or his enemies. He split the world in half." We think goodness will not repel as well as attract; we forget that people love cheap grace. (Preachers are not calling people to sainthood if they do not deal with sin, suffering, sacrifice, and sex...even though it will make a dividing line in the sanctuary, make him both friends and enemies.) The title "sinner" is a weight of glory--what a height from which we have fallen, what a paradise we have lost! We are broken masterpieces, fallen heroes, prodigal sons of God. The world can offer no greater compliment than this! We who claim the title "sinner" admit that we are cripples and that religion is indeed our crutch and that we go to church and so on because we need to, and we love it, for we know that Christ said that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled. "The only thing God wants from us is the only thing he cannot give himself: our free choice to love him. He is infinitely more tolerant than any modern relativist. Creating ex nihilo was nothing for God, because nothing cannot resist. Making saints out of sinners is infinitely more difficult because we resist the creation. God is an absolute respecter of our freedom who "will not rape the one he loves." When we choose to become saints, we become light that goes out and seeks to touch the darkness. The rest is up to God. Being is infinitely more powerful than saying, and that is what we are called to--authentic being.
  3. How do we practice goodness? Note that this assumes the second question, that we want to be good rather than evil. Christianity is like a wheelchair, provided by God for people without feet. Faith is simply getting in. "Jesus is like a wheelchair." But how to we do it? There is no recipe, method, means, technique, or cause that can produce that effect becase the effect transcends the cause. Saints transcend the cause as the spirit transcends the flesh. Christ, however, is the saintmaker, the untranscendable cause. "We just go there, where he happens. We just send our spirits out into the Christ-rain. That's all. But 'that's all' is the hardest thing; the simplicity is the biggest challenge." Jesus Christ is all that matters. We are sin-addicts, and we must hit bottom and realize that we are so far gone that only the Divine can save us. The question is not, "How can we trust him," but rather "How can we not?" It's evil that requires methods and techniques and machines; good needs none of this. We have only to see Christ, but to do this we have to will to see him. The only way to become what we are, to save the world, to give God what he demands and deserves, is to keep saying over and over again, "This is yours...and this is yours...and this is yours...
My thoughts: This was at least equal parts polemic and profoundity. I would have been more moved without the polemic. That being said, much of what he said was very deeply redemptive.


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