Posted by: gcarkner | April 15, 2013

Transcendence and the Good

Transcendent Goodness & the Human  Potential for the Good

Following Charles Taylor’s lead, there must be a source of empowerment for living in a positive, inspiring relationship to the good, for the practices of the good, for mediating transcendent goodness in everyday life. Otherwise, it remains a fantasy. If one pursues it, how can transcendent goodness avoid the charge of unattainable ideal and thus discouragement (Nietzsche)? What is human possibility for mediating a good that is transcendent of self (i.e. not self-fabricated)? This argument follows the series on Quality of the Will.

With these questions in mind, it is crucial knowledge that the Holy Spirit is a key inspirational and transformational factor in human goodness, human actualization and mediation of divine goodness. To use Taylor’s language, this is the constitutive good. D. S. Long (The Goodness of God, 2001) is optimistic about the human quest for the good because of this. He believes that with the Holy Spirit, moral self-constitution can be intimately and fruitfully related to the goodness of God, and that this will rejuvenate ethics and moral self-constitution to a significant degree. Moral relativism leading to moral cynicism is not the only alternative for thinking people. The Holy Spirit offers a reconstitution of both goodness and freedom for the moral self. Dostoyevsky spoke of this in his idea of the circulation of grace.

The Holy Spirit infuses a goodness into us that makes us better than we know we are by ourselves. This better is what theologians mean by grace. People find themselves caught up in a journey that results in the cultivation of gifts and beatitudes they did not know were possible. They discover that this journey was possible only through friendship … The mission of the Holy Spirit is to move us towards the charity that defines the relationship between the Father and the Son, a charity so full that it is thoroughly one and yet cannot be contained within a single origin or between an original and a copy, but always, eternally, exceeds that relationship into another. The Holy Spirit is that relationship. (D. Stephen Long, The Goodness of God. 2001, pp. 302-3)

Divine goodness is made available as a gift by means of the Holy Spirit for the transformation of the self; the Holy Spirit offers relationship and empowerment towards both doing and promoting the good. Amazingly, humans can become entrepreneurs of divine goodness by this very means. Here lies incredible meaning and purpose for life and flourishing.

This is an example of the epiphanic experience of encounter of the I-Thou sort. The Holy Spirit is central to the moral life because he gifts individuals for works that they cannot achieve in their own autonomous power, within the limits of their own resources. He makes them capable of forgiveness, reconciliation and loving in an agape sense. He makes possible and effective the mission of goodness of Jesus Christ and his church.

He represents the ongoing presence of Jesus in the church and the world, and makes possible the transformation of the self within community towards love in communion. The Spirit catches humans up into the life of God in a personal way, into the communion within the Trinity. This relationship is transformational.

Such a process of self-constitution opens up the horizon of human moral thinking and action, first towards God, but secondly, connecting the self through compassion with human suffering, empowering the self to move beyond radical self-interest and individualism into community and service. Within a trinitarian plausibility structure, the answer to Taylor’s question, Can we sustain our world commitment to benevolence? is a resounding Yes because the Holy Spirit enriches and empowers the self as the unrelenting, abundant and fecund source of goodness. This assures substantial empowerment of the human good.

Long has an important addendum to this thought. In support of Christoph Schwöbel, he finds that the kind of ethics (Foucault and many other late moderns) that emphasizes the will and absolute freedom of choice, is ill-focused and actually a form of disempowerment. It leads to the human temptation to set our own standard of goodness as the final or ultimate standard. We thereby manipulate the language of the good in the direction of self-interest, self-indulgence or even self-righteousness. This has been the source of great moral failure, conflict and corruption throughout history.

Humans are quite capable of using their freedom in contradiction to God’s goodness: to coerce other humans or abuse the natural world through their own controlling interest in moral currency. Long and Schwöbel promote the vision that ethics be focused on the constitution of the self as it relates dynamically to, and embraces, God and transcendent goodness as a moral a priori. This is a parallel thought to that of Charles Taylor who noted that the first question of ethics is Who or what do you love?

The quality of the will comes into play at exactly this point. If we open ourselves to the infinite source of the highest goodness, our love will change us in a positive way. Long believes that moral self-constitution must be rooted in, and animated by, a love of God and a celebration of the infinitely superior goodness of God. This is the route of self-transformation and seriously creative energy for the good in the human context, and a correction to false self or ignoble claims to the good. It offers a fantastic way to get one’s life unstuck emotionally, existentially and morally, to escape the deadly trap of cynicism.

~Gord Carkner


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