Posted by: gcarkner | April 15, 2013

Transcendence and the Good…2

Further Pressing Notes on Transcendence and the Human Good

Late modernity’s picture of a lone will choosing between good and evil, or embracing both in an aesthetic move of conscious moral self-mutilation constitutes a tragic distraction from a move into the goodness-which-is-God, being captivated and transformed by transcendent, epiphanic goodness. D. Stephen Long’s focus is to build one’s life-orientation, one’s identity, one’s lifestyle around this goodness. He suggests that it ought not to be reduced to an achievement of the human will alone. Goodness-making is not a faculty within the self that can be conjured. It requires something outside the self, calling us into a higher level of being.

Long writes that “Human freedom is not about the capacity to choose between good and evil. Human freedom occurs when our desires are so turned toward God and the good that no choice is necessary ….  Jesus shows us that such a life is possible in our humanity—not against it.” (D.S. Long, The Goodness of God. 2001, p. 46)

Moral transformation in this situation comes through a commitment to the good, not through seeking a controlling knowledge of good and evil, nor through creative strategies for self-control or manipulation of precarious power relations and truth games however important. Human creatures as self-legislating beings do not possess the moral resources within to enact true goodness. Acts of the will do not automatically constitute acts of goodness; it is discovered not invented.

Long, somewhat further along the same moral trajectory as Charles Taylor’s transcendent philosophical turn towards agape love, concludes that the primary question for the moral self is “What or who is the good that I seek and that seeks me?” (Goodness of God, p. 130) This is the concept of quest or journey. The adventurous road to human goodness can be a long one. Christoph Schwöbel sums up this thought:

The reconstitution of created freedom through the appropriation of the revelation of God’s goodness in Christ which is made possible in the Spirit is characterized by the acknowledgement of the limitations of human freedom that become evident where this freedom is no longer understood as self-produced, but as a gift of grace. The liberation from the abortive attempt of self-constitution of human freedom discloses the reality of the other person and the non-human creation as the one to whom good action is directed. Human goodness is realized where it is acknowledged that it is not self-produced, but the gift of God’s creative, revealing and inspiring action. (Schwöbel, C. (1992). “God’s Goodness and Human Morality.” in C. Schwöbel, God: Action and Revelation (pp. 63-82). Kampen, Holland: Pharos. p. 75)

Through the Holy Spirit, goodness becomes a communicable and accessible human reality as gift. It becomes grounded, embodied, situated in real life. The individual self is not left alone to fend for herself, left to her own devices and resources to make her way in the world, or on her own to continually defend/legitimate her behaviour. This highway is very stressful.

This connection of human goodness to the transcendent brings an appropriate hopefulness of retrieving, reviving and continuing the language of the good, and yet carries a certain humility regarding any human claim to (construction of) the good. The conversation about the good in moral self-constitution is thereby enlivened and opened up. The metaphor gains new power pulling us forward in the journey.

This approach offers a qualitative paradigm shift from Foucault’s position of assuming that the individual human is the origin and controlling agent of moral currency, and creator of the moral life through an ethics as aesthetics (creative self-invention and self-reflexive stance). The moral self, in Foucault’s picture, seeks for autonomous resources apart from God in the pursuit of a radical freedom of self-expression and self-construction. It seems much less appealing given the broader and richer horizons of the good and transcendent goodness. There is so much more to the human story.

In the ongoing debate between Foucault and Taylor, it does come to a watershed between the sovereignty of self or the sovereignty of God (who is ultimate goodness beyond the immanent human frame) in ethical self-constitution. It is a watershed between the telos of self with its interests, desires and needs or the telos of divine agape love. It makes a dramatic difference whether God and agape love are allowed to appear on the map of our moral horizon. It can be a revolutionary experience.

We open the bidding on a freedom with the content of agape love to power the human will (freedom with creativity, joy and responsibility) in late modernity. This offers an important philosophical option that releases the self from the horns of the dilemma of self-hatred or moral lobotomy (Nietzsche et al). Instead of embracing both good and evil without discernment, one can be free to embrace an empowering and liberating divine goodness.

~Gord Carkner


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