Posted by: gcarkner | January 31, 2014

Is God Really Good? #3

Further Examination of God’s Goodness

Vancouver Harbour

Existential choice is necessary for ethics but not sufficient; it lacks discernment concerning the wide variety of human expressions and motives, constructive and destructive. Charles Taylor reveals dimensions of the moral self that are repressed (even subverted) by various ethical projects. These dimensions are deemed to be crucial for the health and well-being of the self: a moral horizon which includes community, narrative, the hypergood, life goods, a common good, sources of the good and the constitutive good. See the Blog Series “Qualities of the Will”. He contends that one cannot truly flourish (is morally handicapped) without them.

Taylor believes that it is possible to win on freedom and responsibility, mutuality and complementarity, amidst a renewed self-conscious relationship to the good, in order to establish deeper relationships and build accountability into society. He holds that this more rooted, embedded self will endure and enjoy its freedom as it discerns its calling within a larger context. It offers a more full-blooded conception of subjectivity. Taylor wants a deeper theme of personal freedom and choice, with more infrastructure for a thick self. This entails an ethics that is in quest of a substantive context and a robust source of the good.

In this series exploring the Goodness of God, we contend that the knowledge of the good is intimately linked with the knowledge of God, and one’s relation to the good is ultimately connected to one’s relationship to God.  It is an exploration of the heuristic relationship to God’s goodness. American theologian D. Stephen Long (2001) notes:

Participation in God is necessary for the good and for freedom. Evil arises when freedom is lost through turning towards one’s own autonomous resources for ethics. The fall does not result from people seeking to be more than they are capable of through pride but from their becoming less than they could be because they separate the knowledge of the good from its true end, God, and find themselves self-sufficient … Seeking the good through nonparticipation in God, through the “virtue of what was in themselves” makes disobedience possible. (Long, 2001, p. 128)

This is what Long refers to as the blasphemy of the a priori, that is, the philosophical preoccupation that assumes one can determine the conditions for knowledge of the good a priori, without engaging the good at its best in a trinitarian God.

Another conclusion that can be drawn from the premise of transcendent goodness is that this goodness is, in one sense, beyond human control, manufacture or manipulation. In the human world it is no mere social, legal or governmental construction of the good. Human attempts to articulate the good, construct the good, or to be good, are only vague, finite and inadequate facsimiles of God’s goodness. These articulations are also vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation, conflict of interpretations, and will to power interest. Human claims and social constructions of the good are necessary, but not final or ultimate; there is need for a transcendent divine goodness to arbitrate and critique various human claims to the good, and human social constructions of the good.

There is a pure fragility and necessary incompleteness to any finite thing; nothing has its actuality entirely in itself, fully enjoyed in some impregnable present instant, but must always receive itself from beyond itself, and then only by losing itself at the same time. Nothing in the cosmos contains the ground of its own being…. One is contingent through and through, partaking of being rather than generating it out of some source within oneself; and the same it true of the whole intricate web of interdependencies that constitutes nature. (Hart, 3013, pp. 92-93)

As rooted in the Trinity, this transcendent horizon of goodness involves the dynamic action of all three persons of the Christian Trinity in the world, not separate from the world or society. Here are some of the implications that human goodness can be defined in the light of divine goodness, rather than in exclusion of it. According to this theological premise, ‘the trinitarian action in creation, revelation and inspiration in the world is all part of the moral horizon in which human moral reflection occurs’ (Christoph Schwöbel, 1992, p. 71). The transcendent is effective in the culture-spheres of the immanent human realm and entails dramatic implications for the moral self.

Furthermore, the transcendent goodness addressed here is trinitarian and relational, a personal goodness of a tri-personal God. This transcendent goodness begins in God and then flows to creation as gift; this transcendence automatically has a relationship to the immanent human world. It is communicable as gift. The understanding and experience of goodness involves a journey towards the triune God, and a reception from God who is infinite goodness, which works to transform the self.

The Trinitarian action in creation, revelation and inspiration in the world is all part of the moral horizon in which human moral reflection occurs, and provides the condition for the possibility of created goodness within a God-shaped physical and moral playing field. This goodness is communicated through creation represented by the Father, through the Son, the God-Man, in the incarnation [Jesus is exemplar of divine goodness], and by the Holy Spirit as the source of empowerment and inspiration of human morality. The three persons create the possibility conditions (the horizon) for knowing and doing the good (Schwöbel, 1992, p. 73).

The Father as Creator has established the order, and the possibility of goodness in the creation, a relational structure of goodness. The Son in Jesus Christ is the revelation of divine goodness, a dramatic means to see, encounter and experience God’s goodness within the human sphere, the articulation of divine goodness within human culture and history. The Spirit is the inspiration of goodness in human creatures (the reason why we aspire to the good and seek transcendent help in our human condition).

God alone has necessity in and of himself. That is, if the word “God” has any meaning at all, it must refer to a reality that is not just metaphysically  indestructible but necessary in the fullest and most proper sense; it must refer to a reality that is logically necessary and that therefore provides the ultimate explanation of all other realities, without need of being explained in turn…. God is absolute being as such, apart from whom nothing else could exist, as either a possibility or an actuality…. It is God’s necessity, as the unconditional source of all things, that makes any world possible in the first place. (Hart, 2013, pp. 116 and 122)

This articulation shows key ways that the finite human self is made aware of and drawn up into the transcendent relationship, making divine goodness accessible and efficacious within the realm of human experience, yet without being assimilated into, or reduced to, this realm. According to Schwöbel (1992, p.70),

It is one of the implications of this trinitarian conception of divine agency that the intentionality of divine action is not to be inferred from the structure of the world God has created, but has to be understood as grounded in the revelation in the Son. It is this paradigmatic action that is authenticated by the inspiration of the Spirit which then provides the framework for the interpretation of God’s work in creation. In a similar way the character of the work of the Spirit as inspiration indicates how God involves human beings in the realization of his intentions. It is the context of the interrelatedness of creation, revelation and inspiration that we can talk about God’s action in terms of free, intentional action.

Transcendent goodness is both secure and relevant because it resides in the integrity of the trinitarian relationality, the mutuality and sociality of God. And yet it becomes accessible and possible within the human condition because of the creation, revelation and inspiration of the Trinity. This provides the larger context for the moral self that Taylor seeks, a transcendent turn to a greater horizon of the good. It provides a robust plausibility structure, and a dynamic context for the identity of the self, as well as an open horizon for moral and spiritual growth towards a self with a transcendent dimension of depth (a thick self).  It entails a proposal of a new moral geography, one that includes God, even within a secular age. At the end of the day, science cannot provide us with the proper context or tools for morality.

Schwobel also wants to say that, “human beings are the image of God insofar as they have the freedom to realize created goodness as the appropriate response to the goodness of the Creator” (Schwobel, 1992, p. 74). The image refers to the degree of transparency humans have with respect to God’s goodness. It is not extraneous to human existence, but does depend upon human openness. Since it is woven into the very fabric of creation, goodness is not an add-on or after-thought to creation. Transcendent goodness is secure because it resides in the dignity of God, and yet it becomes real and possible in this dynamic human history; it is livable within the human condition. Trinitarian transcendent goodness is the larger context/horizon for moral reflection, deliberation and action.

Therefore an essential characteristic of goodness seems to be that goodness is that which enables, furthers and enhances goodness in others, within the world, as a redemptive influence on society. One can grow in this goodness, and become a conduit of such goodness as a grace. William Wilberforce, a nineteenth century star British politician, exemplified this connection with a trinitarian God in a way that had positive impact in British society and around the world; he and his colleagues in the Clapham Circle were key to the abolition of slave trade as well as other major social reforms. This connection with transcendent goodness seems necessary for predicating goodness as a relational attribute of any intention, action or person. Our discussion thus far opens up the playing field of moral philosophy, refusing to ignore a critical dimension of human existence, seeing the constructive relation with the transcendent. Charles Taylor would call this a new social imaginary.

Naturalism is a picture of the whole of reality that cannot, according to its own intrinsic premises, address  the being of the whole; it is a metaphysics of the rejection of metaphysics, a transcendental certainity of the impossibility of transcendent truth, and so requires an act of pure credence logically immune to any verification…. Thus naturalism must forever remain a pure assertion, a pure conviction, a confession of blind assurance in an inaccessible beyond; and that beyond, more paradoxically still, is the beyond of no beyond. (Hart, 2013, p. 77)

~Gordon Carkner 

Hart, David Bentley (2013). The Experience of God:  being, consciousness, bliss. Yale.

Schwöbel, C. (1992). God’s Goodness and Human Morality. In C. Schwöbel,: Action and revelation (pp. 63-82). Kampen, Holland: Pharos.

Schwöbel, C. (1995). Imago Libertatis: Human and Divine Freedom.  In C. Gunton (Ed.) God & Freedom: Essays in historical and systematic theology  (pp. 57-81). Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Long, D. Stephen (2001). The Goodness of God. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press. 


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