Posted by: gcarkner | September 24, 2021

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 13.

The Power of the Transcendent Good in Society

We have been discussing incarnation presence in our last post. Now we want to define this presence in terms of goodness. We enlist the aid of two key theologians, American D. Stephen Long and German Christoph Schwöbel, for a richer articulation of the point of a transcendent turn to the divine good. Their work on the interface between divine and human goodness has resonance with Taylor’s trajectory for cultural renewal: a transcendent turn to agape love (C. Taylor, 1989). It will help to define more fully the character of such transcendence and the concept of the epiphanic encounter. In Taylor’s thought, agape, at one level, is a quality of human relationships, a hypergood that informs and even organizes the other goods within one’s moral horizon. It changes everything.

But agape, at another level, can also be seen as animating and empowering the ethical subject, and thus a constitutive good rooted in transcendent divine goodness. Constitutive speaks of sources. We now proceed to a further understanding of this concept, and its implications for the healthy moral self. There is a certain strangeness to the idea of transcendent divine goodness. It exceeds one’s human cognitive grasp, or ability to define it. One can use terms like infinite, excellent, most intense, purest, unfathomable, or superlative, as adjectives to describe this goodness. But one cannot fully grasp the qualitative dimensions of transcendent divine goodness with propositions alone. It is radically other, a radical alterity, trans-historical. At one level, it is incompatible, incommensurable with human concepts of the good–divine goodness is infinitely good. It blows our imagination circuits. It is no mere human projection–goodness that we find in the world points to and participates in, but is not identical with, goodness that is God.

By definition, it is much more than an absolute or a highest principle. Goodness is of the very essence of God; the claim that ‘God is good’ entails a distinctive character trait. D.S. Long attempts such an articulation when he writes: “God is good in the most excellent way” (2001, 21). This means that there can be no greater good, nor a position of goodness from which to judge God. Her we have a qualitative transcendence that is completely worthy of love and admiration, a goodness that is much more than moral virtue or useful/pragmatic goodness. God is the gold standard by which all human currencies of the good are measured. Another way of saying this is that there is an “irreducible density to God’s goodness” (Hardy, 2001, 75). Schwöbel (1992, 72) proceeds logically from this to say that in creation:

God has set the conditions for being and doing the good and for knowledge of the good in the human condition. On this account, transcendent divine goodness is the ontological ground of the human good; the human moral horizon is rooted in God, contextualized by God.

Not vice versa. Furthermore, 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. Stephen Long adds:

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. (D.S. Long, 2001, 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 GodThis in fact (blasphemy) is a working assumption in Michel Foucault’s moral self-making which I covered thoroughly in my PhD dissertation ( If the individual is the origin of the moral life, ethics would tend to be reduced to anthropology (what a tribe does) or autobiography (what I decide as values for myself).

Another conclusion that can be drawn from the premise of transcendent goodness is that this divine goodness is fortunately beyond human control, manufacture or manipulation. In the human world, it constitutes 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 power interest, as Foucault saw so clearly. This is what incurs cynicism about the very use of the language of the good in our late modern condition. Some human standards are even tribal or historically contingent, or a product of corrupt self-interest by those in power, employed in coercive or abusive ways, or employed arbitrarily by the leadership, as we see in the news about several of our elites. Human claims and social constructions of the good are necessary, but not final. There is a critical need for a transcendent divine goodness standard to arbitrate and critique various human claims to the good, and human social constructions of the good.

Furthermore, the transcendent goodness addressed here is trinitarian and relational, an intensely personal goodness of a tri-personal God (the Trinity). This transcendent goodness begins/is sourced in God and then flows to creation as generous gift. This transcendence automatically has a relationship to the immanent human world. They are distinct but not totally separate. It is communicable, but the understanding and experience of goodness involves a journey towards the triune God. A full defence of trinitarian theology of goodness is beyond the scope of this post. Instead, we will limit this discussion to the exploration of what trinitarian goodness looks like as a plausibility structure, and how it assists in answering some of the problems and gaps in Foucault’s thin, self-reflexive moral self. It also provides a discourse and a subject position from which to further identify and protest Foucault’s aspiration toward the hegemony of the aesthetic. The task of ethics, from within this plausibility structure, is to assist the self in the journey from human nature as it is—with its inclination toward the good but its lack of substantive context, its lack of robust moral source, and thus its temptation toward evil, harm and violence—towards the concrete embodiment of what the self can become in heuristic relation to God’s goodness.

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 (incarnationally, existentially), not apart from the world or from 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” (Schwöbel, 1992, 71). The transcendent is effective and impactful in the culture spheres (science, ethics, religion and aesthetics) of the immanent and entails significant implications for the moral self.

This goodness is communicated through creation represented by the Father, through the Son, the God-Man, in the incarnation, and by the Holy Spirit as the source of empowerment and inspiration of human morality starting with the Christian community. The three persons create the conditions (the horizon) for knowing and doing the good (Schwöbel, 1992, 73). The Father as Creator has established the order, and the possibility of goodness in the creation, a relational structure of goodness. He created both a moral and a good world–to promote human flourishing. The Son, in Jesus Christ, is the fullest earthly revelation of divine goodness, a dramatic opportunity to see, encounter and experience God’s goodness within the human sphere, the articulation of divine goodness within human culture, society and history. The Spirit is the inspiration of goodness in human creatures, a key source of the good (constitutive good) for the moral self. This is how we can be morally good and grow into goodness beyond our current imagination.

This articulation shows key ways that the finite human self is made aware of, and drawn up into, the transcendent relationship through covenant, making divine goodness accessible and efficacious within the realm of human experience, yet without being assimilated into, or reduced to, the human realm. According to theologian Christoph Schwöbel,

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. (C. Schwöbel, 1992, 70)

Transcendent trinitarian goodness is both secure and relevant because it resides in the integrity of trinitarian relationality, the benevolent sociality and communion of God as three persons (one-anotherness). And yet it becomes accessible and possible within the human condition because of the creation, revelation and inspiration work of the Trinity. This means that Taylor’s transcendent turn to a greater horizon of the good is no fantasy. 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). “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

This now leads, in the next post, into a discussion of the quality of the will and a further exploration of agape love as a way forward. What are the implications of the transcendent turn to agape love in further substantiating the case for transcendent goodness as a viable source of the self?

Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, Meta-Educator with UBC Postgraduate Students, Author, YouTube Webinars

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

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

Hardy, D.W. (2001). Finding the Church: The Dynamic of Anglicanism. London: SCM Press.

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self: The making of the modern identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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