Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Good: A Paradox

There have been some related ideas floating around in my thoughts and conversations lately.

Some of it was spurred by this Vox Nova post on the Natural Law and common "externalistic" misunderstandings of it. I tried to clarify in that thread that the natural law is actually about what we can know about the nature of The Good and ordering our wills towards it without Revelation.

However, as I eventually discussed in the comments of that thread, one of the issues that we face in a world of Secular Pluralism is that there is a different paradigm now about the very nature of the good and human fulfillment in general, let alone just disagreements about what individual things constitute part of genuine human fulfillment.

So I can demonstrate with masterful rationality that certain things are not in accordance with the Good, but such arguments are perhaps largely irrelevant (except when "preaching to the choir") in a world where "The Good" is no long even accepted, where it has been replaced by "the good." Perhaps I have for too long been just assuming that I was appealing to common values with people, when in reality our basic paradigms were different (the real problem with "apologetics" these days).

This article (which I may reply to in its own post later) lays out the problem well:
the 'nature' and the 'reason' considered by secular people, on the one hand, and religious people, on the other, are not likely to coincide. Christians are likely to frame the debate [...] in terms of the true human good, the proper goals that human beings should aim for. Secular people, on the other hand, are likely to reject the idea that such goals can be objectively shared in common, and to frame the debate in terms of rights and private utility.
Today, most people do not understand The Good as something transcendent and unitary, do not think there is one Meaning of Life for human beings which, in our manifold states of life, we can all fulfill by following Reason. Rather, The Good is conceived of as something private and individual; desire is arbitrary, a product of evolution and circumstances, and "happiness" is simply its maximal fulfillment as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else (hence the paradigm of "rights" being so important now.) Rather than a notion that The Good is something external and absolute that is the last end of all desire, where The Good comes first and is what informs desire...instead "the good" is conceived of simply as the construct of the various desires people have arbitrarily, desire comes first and the good is derived from that.

There are many reasons for this. Some are philosophical; one cannot but see the influence of Marx or Nietzsche in this Killing of God (killing in the sense of deconstructing any idea of a transcendent and unitary Good, a single Meaning of Life). Darwinism certainly opened up the possibility of thinking that the universe and life are ultimately accidental, that various desires may just be vestigial biological glitches that ultimately cannot necessarily be reconciled with each other, that might be incoherent and require compromise, or admit of different interpretations. And Existentialism has provided a way for people to "rescue" the idea of meaning or value of the good from all this, from the threat of nihilism, by demonstrating that human choice and agency, subjectivity itself, is what confers values on whatever individualistic "project" of the good an individual person wants to pursue in life.

Of course (to use ones of Marx's own insights) many of these philosophical turns were likely just responses to socio-economic and political changes in the world. Industrialism and capitalism (at least in the usurious, materialistic, consumerist forms they've taken; though these forms may have been a necessary "stage" of "progress") seemingly "require" the privatization of the good, and the notion of common pursuit being deconstructed.

This however, leaves Christians with quite a conundrum or paradox, in which Faith or orthodoxy today cannot be the same phenomenon as it was in, say, the Catholic Middle Ages. Don't get me wrong, I believe true faith is a supernatural gift that is not merely some sociological phenomenon, and as such the cultural context wouldn't have to matter for the individual for whom God chooses to give it. But on the experiential level, on the level of that is going to be a very different thing today, the means of the grace of faith are going to be very different (and necessarily probably not as widespread).

The paradox is this. Even though people today can (like me or other orthodox Catholics) choose to pursue the transcendent and unitary Good, and hold that concept of it...nevertheless, this choice or outlook is essentially still private and individual! Without the organic process of the community socializing a common notion of the Good...we can no longer hold a notion of a transcendent Good in the same way. We can hold it, but only in the context or form of being, ironically, a private individual conception of the good. That the private individual notion of the good held by some individuals happens to correspond to the traditional transcendent and unitary almost just accidental under this system. That conception of the Good as common is rendered not a counter-point contradicting the notion of relativism and pluralism and the private good...but is simply rendered one more private notion of the good among many private notions of the good.

The irony or paradox works in the reverse too, of course. People who pursue other private notions of the good, who happen to have and pursue other desires in the quest of individual self-fulfillment...are actually, in the broad or general sense, pursuing this conception of the Good (or good) exactly because it is the one society at large has promoted! Because pluralism has become the new "common" notion of the good (or Good.) It isn't exactly transcendent or unitary (except perhaps in the form of a "void") but "be yourself!" is nevertheless a common narrative, even if a narrative of individualism and potentially competing or conflicting interests.

This leaves the Church in quite a pickle. If there is no communally socialized common Good (except the private good) and if the transcendent Good has been reduced to just one private account of the good among becomes rather more unrealistic to just expect everyone to "coincidentally" embrace nevertheless that account of the good as their own privately. The whole point of the transcendent Good was that it was to be pursued "instead of" private individual desire. Therefore, expecting everyone to internalize it as their own private individual rather naive, to say the least!

Perhaps "instead of" I should say, rather, the transcendent Good was to organize and prioritize them all in the same way. But if the decision regarding the "organizing" meta-value itself of a common Meaning has been transferred to the internal individual as well, if the "externally imposed" standard has been gotten rid of in favor of a narrative of Freedom or Liberty, then expecting everyone to coincidentally adopt the same internal rather counter-intuitive and sort of misses the whole point of what the standard being internal means or is supposed to accomplish; it's sort of like saying "Freedom's great! long as you all use your freedom to choose the same thing..."

In fact, I think we should probably be giving the benefit of the doubt to most people out there who are pursuing their own private accounts of the good, even when they are not the account which we know should be the external standard...because in doing so they are, in fact, pursuing the current external standard (which is the very lack of one; I'm reminded of a line in Brave New World where Mustapha Mond says that God now "manifests himself as an absence") and thus in some very real sense these people are not reprobates filled with pride and hubris, but are truly following the proper "instinct" regarding where to get their notions of the Good (the community or society itself, which currently answers them only with the void). In that sense these people are victims, having been deprived of the external standard that human nature craves, in favor of a sort of anti-standard.

What this means for the Church in our pastoral approach or evangelization is a very tricky question, and one the current approach clearly does not adequately address. Yes, for the individual as a private individual, the only advice I personally can give is to embrace orthodoxy...but I can only do so as one idea competing in a market of other ideas. As such, one can only do so by convincing people that the unitary transcendent Good is actually equivalent to the maximal fulfillment of their own private values or desires, that it in fact concides with their private good...and so involves basically "convincing people that they are miserable without it" or, even, trying to make them feel miserable without it. This is, of course, very troubling.

However, I find equally bizarre the approach of certain liberal or heterodox Catholics who try to argue that various things (usually its unchastity) that people pursue are actually part of The Good. To me this is silly, because the people doing these things usually never claim that their actions are part of "The Good," because their very paradigm is the good as private and individualistic. As far as I can tell, there's no reason to think these people (if they truly understood the philosophical distinction) would even want their goods artificially boxed into The Good (which is fitting a square peg into a round hole anyway), so trying to "save the appearances" by making such arguments for loosening our moral code strikes me as absurd.

Yes, liberals will get offended by the teaching that such-and-such is a sin, but if they really understood what "Sin" was in the internal logic of the Catholic understanding (an offense against The Good)...I'm pretty sure most would not
care, or even would celebrate that fact, as The Good is already no longer their standard, they already do not share that paradigm. At best The Good (and what violates it) is irrelevant to them, at worst it is something oppressive and tyrannical that has been used throughout history to stifle individual "self expression and actualization" and all that. Trying to entice them back into accepting The Good through a laxism that would admit that many of their private goods were actually part of The an accomodationism that misses the point that the underlying phenomenon is that The Good itself has been deconstructed. Trying to loosen it up so as to make it more appealing to their private goods is a category error similar to people trying to make obedient Christianity "cool" through Rock music, when the whole coolness of Rock consists in rebellion in the first place.

Different societies throughout history, of course, have gotten The Good wrong. Aquinas lists many ends that various people have identified as the Good: wealth, honor, fame and glory, power, health of the body, pleasure, knowledge and virtue, other created goods. We might be tempted to say "Yes, virtue is the correct answer," but even it is not. If virtue doesn't point to God in the Catholic conception, even it is not truly fulfilling. And the Church has indeed evangelized various societies and gotten them to impose the correct understanding of the Good. However, the approach when a given community already has some notion of a unitary Good that is merely incorrect is one thing, but what do we do when the very notion of the Good as something common, transcendent, or unitary...has been deconstructed. When we are faced with the void which is antichrist?

As laid out above, clearly trying to get each individual (or even just a certain "critical mass" of individuals) to individually embrace the correct notion of the Good as their own good by coercive pressure until it can be re-established externally as something more than just likely naive, especially today. However, trying to convince people that they are miserable without it, or make them miserable without it, is just as unworthy an approach because it actually attacks a basic instinct in these people which really is good (the instinct to conform to the external social standard of the good; even if in our society the standard is the absence of one). So what do we do?

I don't know exactly. The Church obviously shouldn't abandon orthodoxy as its own internal communal standard, and individuals who are able to make their own private good and this transcendent notion of the good coincide...certainly should do so and will be held culpable if they don't. But when it comes to the culture at large, fundamentalism or antagonizing those who are merely trying to fulfill the account of the good they've been given (the individualistic private one) are clearly bad approaches, wrong approaches. Condemning people all to Hell is a pretty poor way to save them from Hell! But then what do we do? What stance can we take in a world where God has been taken away as a social reality and, at best, can exist only in the individual heart as a private good, or at most a small community of freely associated people of like-mind on the matter?

I don't know. It is very troubling to me. However, this recent Vox Nova post shed some light on perhaps the proper response for me. The idea was that, taking the post-exile Jews as our model, the proper stance can only be one of Penance for each individual for whom God does still exist, for whom the transcendent Good is still alive in their heart (even if, under the current system, only in the form of their private good):

The question remains, however, how can a Church whose credibility has been destroyed through its own most grievous faults possibly hope to bear witness to the city of God? How can its being a “people set apart” be seen as anything but hypocrisy? If Pope Benedict’s claim is true, that “History shows that, when the Church becomes less worldly, her missionary witness shines more brightly… [and she] can reach out more effectively and in a truly Christian way to the whole world,” then how might this becoming less worldly witness to anything more than a sort of triumphalism in which you are either with us or against us, on the ark or drowning? Here, the key is found not in Jonah’s expression of the mission of the Jews to the world, but in that of Isaiah’s suffering servant. After all, nearly the entire history of Israel as the chosen people of God is told in a penitential key, a key which, according to William Cavanaugh, is vital for the proper life of the church. “The recognition of our sinfulness becomes not recognition of our tragic fate but a humble acknowledgment that we are not in charge of making history come out right by violent means…The city of God is not the shape of our triumph, but of our repentance.”

Within the life of the Church, this is most frequently and powerfully expressed in the liturgy, as it was for those suffering under Seleucid terror. For example, in Daniel’s prayer of penitence, he confesses sins to God and begs for mercy and deliverance (Daniel 9:4-19). Smith-Christopher shows that such acknowledgment of shame in penitential prayers, like the one in Daniel, serves as a “break with the past, to be an alternative people of God…To remind oneself constantly of the failure of power (in the ancestors and kings), to advocate an alternative mode of living.” Accordingly, by placing the blame for the exile and persecution at their own feet, that is, as a result of their sin, the Jews who prayed Daniel’s prayer stripped Antiochus’ claim to be in control and re-situated him as an implement of punishment used by God, who remains in control.

Similarly, in order to be an effective witness as a people set apart, the Church must acknowledge her own past sins and be a reminder to the world of humanity’s utter dependence on God’s mercy. “What the church makes visible to the world is the whole dynamic drama of sin and salvation, no only the end result of humanity purified and unified." Of course, this repentance mustn’t be a utilitarian strategy but a cry to God, a cry motivated by the experience of sin and a simultaneous witness to the world that even now God has not abandoned his people. “It is in this repentance that the church may make Christ and the drama of sin and redemption possible," and fulfill its role as the universal sacrament of salvation.

This approach seems correct to me. We can't make war against "them" as if "they" are the ones who killed God by pursuing some private good other than Him. They're only doing so because "they know not what they do," because they are (as is human nature) following the only standard society has given them (which in this case is the void). No, if God is "manifesting Himself as an absence" it is our fault. If He has withdrawn, it is the fault of the sinfulness of those of us who do keep God alive in our hearts and yet nevertheless betray Him by our own selfishness and sin.

We killed Him, we nailed Him to the Cross (Christianity, in this way, anticipated Nietzsche by 1900 years), and the proper response can only be weeping and mourning on our part, each individually. There are things the Church could do to facilitate this penitential stance. Certainly, the Church itself needs to provide more genuine community in order to support the individual (because bearing the weight of God privately in contradiction to the surrounding culture can be exhausting for many, and can sour into bitterness inside them), but ultimately there may be no large-scale "fix" at this stage if we are at "that point" in the macrocosm of history playing out the microcosm (of the individual spiritual life, or the life of Christ, etc).

So will this ever "restore" the external standard of a transcendent Good? I don't know; the emergence of Antichrist is itself implicit in the Christ event, and our own narrative has always known that, has always predicted things unfolding this way (so it's not like we should have been blindsided). But, certainly, for the individual, if God is in the tomb, if the soul of Christ is sojourning in Hell, if that's what our Modernity or Postmodernity has become, then we can only mourn, do penance, and keep Him alive in our own hearts, witness Him with love (not fear) to others, and await the Easter morn we know will come.


Nes said...

I think these are extremely important thoughts pertinent to a discussion I wish more people were involved in. I think there is a lot to discuss here, but I only have time at the moment for one quick critique.

(First of all, if you haven't already, you might want to consider reading Charles Taylor's A Secular Age (2007). It addresses the question why our narratives have changed and suggests an interesting solution to your primary question, but more on that later perhaps.)

If you'll allow me to play devil's advocate (perhaps quite literally here) for a moment:

When you say,

"..if God is 'manifesting himself as an absence" it is our fault"

It seems then that the God you suggest is absent in this world here is indeed an immanent one, as his presence is contingent upon what we do instead of what he does. I think this may put you strikingly close to the "death of God" (anti-)theologians (Tom Altizer, Slavoj Zizek et. al) in stating that God is indeed dead, and the only thing that keeps him alive is us (or rather, God has died and only "lives on" now in the "community of believers"). Thus in proposing it is us who must keep God alive, it makes God's vitality out to be dependent on our own strength. Perhaps there is a paradox in this approach as well.

This third solution of "penance" and "keeping him alive in our hearts", then, proclaims the narrative of a weak, dying (or dead) God who truly has no transcendent power to work in history. Many people may be uncomfortable with such a solution because it takes the power out of God's hands and places it into our own… and if we know anything about our own power it is that it is corrupt, weak, and often ineffective.

I guess I get the feeling that lots of people want God to do something drastic in history; they want him to just intervene and show to all the 'unbelievers' that he really is a powerful God after all, that he does exist and isn't dead. Granted, it is often this type of believer that has given up on society and wait in their bunkers for the apocalypse, but I can sometimes understand this desire to see a 'mighty work of God' in contrast to an essentially godless landscape.

Alright, I'm done playing devil's advocate. I'm not sure if I really buy my own critique here as I think your argument is much more nuanced and helpful - but again, more on this later. Thanks for the post.

A Sinner said...

It's interesting you mention them, because I'm quite sure my understanding here IS largely bastardized amateur reading of Taylor and Zizek which has been filtering down to me in the past couple years through a friend for whom all these "concerns" have basically become a way to justify a sort of masturbatory "spiritual" life without orthodoxy or morality or an actual personal relationship with God (see my Meat Eating Vegan post...)

I myself am no reader of academics, especially not academic "theologians" and frankly find them contemptible. Count me in the camp of Savanarola, not anyone with a degree!

However, as for what you say about whether the God I'm proposing is imminent, I'd say of course not. I don't actually believe that "God" is merely an Idea (though, I might say the Idea of God IS God in some sense, but certainly He precedes us) or some sort of socially mediated phenomenon. He's there, and the whole point of my "penance" approach is what that Vox Nova article says. If we see His "absence" (ie, the lack of faith in the surrounding culture) as HIS punishment of US...then that puts the agency back on Him. "by placing the blame for the exile and persecution at their own feet, that is, as a result of their sin, the Jews who prayed Daniel’s prayer stripped Antiochus’ claim to be in control and re-situated him as an implement of punishment used by God, who remains in control."

As I say at the end, I do think Easter Morning will come, there will be a Parousia (it may even be preceded by a "great monarch and angelic pastor" in the sense of one final temporal triumph of Christianity before the final Antichrist), but the Church cannot pretend like this is Christendom anymore, and naively assuming that the vast mass of non-believers and decadents out there are all consciously rejecting The Good out of pride and hubris...will not be very helpful pastorally. The actual situation, as laid out in this post, is in one sense more optimistic (they are actually trying to be Good!) but on the other hand more troubling (The Good itself has been deconstructed socially...)

My point, I suppose, is more just about, as I say, the different forms the grace that leads to Faith is taking in history. There was a stage when people received Faith through mass external social coercion as it were. Now, Faith is going to be received by those for whom it does provide private utility, who likely are going to be those disaffected for some reason from mainstream society or philosophy. Who WOULDN'T pursue, say, hedonistic sex, unless they personally had hang-ups?

I know people whom this disturbs, who thinks that means "true believers" are all bitter people who have turned to Faith out of our own sense of inadequacy or repression as a way of spiting the World and thus it must be fundamentalism and so of a bad motive. While I see the danger of fundamentalism, and certainly see neuroticism in a lot of believers (and clearly linked with their belief!) I actually am at peace with the idea that I have Faith because I NEEDED Faith, that my investment in it may have original had (or have) some impure personal vendetta behind it.

Because that's how God comes, that's how He uses our weakness, He wants us to need Him. I mean, heck, look at the Apostles...surely some of them originally followed Christ because they were seeking some power in their own sense of inadequacy or alienation.

However, it's one thing to admit this about myself and pursue it. It's not antisocial, because I am still pursuing private values (which itself is the new public value or anti-value). It's another thing, however, to take people whose private utility isn't like that, who are following that anti-value (out of a Good instinct) to different conclusions based on their own individuality, and try to make them as miserable as I so that they too will need Faith.

Michael said...

I think that arguing for an absolute and universalized notion of God in our secular age ultimately has to come from our intuitive sense and cultural obsession with justice. The fact that so many people are gullible and passionate about social justice issues (for example: rape, child abuse, pedophilia, or KONY 2012) shows that they already intuitively subscribe to a vaguely-standardized and universal morality within the culture itself (secular or not). Moreover, what's the point of becoming passionate and fighting for all of those "causes" if all morality is relative or just my own in a sea of others? How else am I sure that someone is a criminal except by popularity or arbitrarily-determined secular law?

My professor (a Jesuit) brought this point up in Metaphysics class (a core requirement) and everyone was dumb-struck. The same people who had been arguing for relative notions of ethics, morality and the good looked like they had no way out. Fighting for a cause suddenly became less "cool."

As an evangelization tool for the church then, I would suggest simply pointing out this inconsistency of motives in secular people's own values concerning justice. The US today imprisons more people than the Soviet Union did throughout its whole history. Crime and justice seem like things that are pretty fixed and unquestioned in the culture. Use that to extrapolate to God's justice, which can't be relative or wishy-washy.