Restoration

Restoration

Posted December 05, 2011:
The Beauty of Goodness (Relativism - Part 3)

by Fr. Denis Lemieux.

I’ve been talking in Restoration these last two months about our post-modern situation, namely, the challenge of relativism. Relativism is the belief that there is no truth, or that we cannot know the truth (which amounts to the same thing, really—what good is a truth that we cannot know, right?).

Alongside that questioning of truth comes the questioning of "morality," and specifically whether we can definitely know whether things are good or evil.

Is there a moral law that is objective and binding for everyone? Post-modernism says, emphatically, no.

Last month, I talked about "truth"—what it means when we say there is truth or that something is true. I talked about the classical definition of truth: that truth is when our minds "conform" in a certain sense to the object we are contemplating.

In other words, truth means that we have a real relationship to other beings in the universe—that there is a place in our minds where other things and other people can truly rest. In other words, we can know them.

This is so important in terms of our ability to live peacefully in the world. We are not a bunch of disconnected fragments floating around with no relationship to each other. Every being is presenting itself to me, and I am able to take in and cherish the truth of each being.

So that’s what truth is about. What about goodness? Remember that I said truth and goodness were transcendentals, meaning that you can apply them to everything that exists. Everything that is, is true (i.e. knowable). Everything that is, is good.

Really? Wait a minute here. That can’t be right! Everything that exists is good. Like, the devil? The AIDS virus? Hitler? Mosquitoes?

What does this word "good" mean, and does it mean anything if we apply it to everything and everyone?

OK, let’s take this one step at a time. First, the ancients and medievals defined "the good" as, strictly, that which everyone desires.

When you think about it, this is hard to argue with. If something is good, you want it. A good hamburger is a hamburger you desire to eat; a good person is a person you desire to know, a good act is one you want to do, and so on.

Thomas Aquinas advanced this understanding considerably, however. He pointed out that, in fact, what everyone and everything "desires" is to exist, to be. And what we desire about other things is that they "are" what they should be.

So a good hamburger is juicy, is tasty, is cooked, is topped with our favourite condiments. And this holds true for anything of which we say ‘this is good’. It is good insofar as it possesses existence.

This is true of our own selves, too, right? I consider myself good if I am what I should be. Debates may rage about the specifics of what I should be, but whatever it is, I’m good if I am that, not so good if I ain’t.

So Aquinas concluded that being itself is good, insofar as it is desirable to be. And therefore, every being is good insofar as it possesses existence.

So what about the devil, mosquitoes, Hitler, and the AIDS virus? The key here is that we are created not only to possess existence, but to be perfected into the kind of thing we are.

A human being is good by virtue of possession of existence and a human nature: these are created gifts of God and hence good. But we are meant to become perfected in our nature, and for us this means choosing to grow in virtue.

Virtue is our human equivalent of the hamburger being juicy, tasty, well-cooked, and covered with tasty condiments.

The more we behave with justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude and above all charity, the more we possess existence, the more we are what we truly are. So a bad human being is good insofar as he or she exists, but woefully deficient in the degree of existence (and thus, goodness!) that he or she possesses.

This is so important in the area of relativism. We have this horrible idea of the moral law, even we who are Christians and accept it. We think of it as some terrible burden, some arduous task placed upon our shoulders from above that we must carry out lest we be sentenced to eternal damnation.

The idea, rather, is that "the good" is something that wells up from the heart of our own being, that it is simply to "be all that you can be," to attain the fulfillment of one’s own being, the deepest and most complete development of one’s human potential.

The moral law is nothing more or less than a teacher telling us which actions cut us off from this full human life and so are to be avoided.

Without this concept of "the good," we are left either with no possibility of genuine growth and progress (because there is no perfection to aim at) or a perfection that is alien to us and terribly burdensome (because it is imposed from above) or the even more terrible burden of having to invent our own concept of perfection, of being "a law unto ourselves."

Transcendental goodness—goodness flowing from the truth of our being, proclaiming that it is good to exist, to be, to grow—is a revolutionary idea today.

Truth and goodness, far from being cruel taskmasters or weapons wielded against one another, become the very ground of communion and life, the very realities that make it possible for us to love one another and grow towards becoming fully alive.

Without truth and goodness, we are left in a meaningless world of mere power, where each person strives against all others to impose his or her will on the world.

From this positive vision of truth and goodness flows the final transcendental—the beautiful.

Beauty is the radiant splendour of Being which attracts us and makes us want to seek and live true and good lives. And it is these true and good lives, which are lives spent in love, service, humility and peace, that bear witness to the post-modern world that there is something better than relativism.

There is indeed something worth pursuing, something real that we can open ourselves to and give our lives to. Something that brings joy and delight in its wake, even as its calls us to the high adventure of heroic love and sacrifice.

It seems to me that this witness of our lives given to truth and goodness is our primary response to relativism today.

The End

If you’re interested in exploring these questions further with Fr. Denis, see his blog at www.frdenis.blogspot.com

 

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