Posted by: gcarkner | December 15, 2021

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 14

Transcendent Goodness and Human Hospitality

Dr. Gordon E. Carkner

Abstract: What are the theological and philosophical roots or drivers of hospitality? From his research on the self in late modernity, Dr. Carkner delves into this question. He draws on the insights of eminent Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor. In his project Sources of the Self, Taylor attempts to recover a discourse of the good for contemporary moral philosophy, and for culture. He believes that a transcendent turn towards agape love could help solve a contemporary existential crisis of affirmation. The human goodness that is hospitality stems from a social imagination inspired by the self-giving love within the Trinity. Jesus in his human flesh is the most clear instantiation of this agape love. He embodies and mediates God’s goodness, his gift of hospitality in dramatic and fruitful ways. The Body of Christ thereby knows that hospitality, generosity and grace lie at the core of its identity.

Strong transcendence is critical to our exploration of the good. For Charles Taylor, transcendent agape love transforms the self, a love from above, transcendent of the human community. This is the constitutive good which can empower the moral self, a self that emerges most robustly within a community of mutuality. Trinitarian divine love offers the self a certain stance towards society; it sees something good in the human self, that is, the created image of God (imago dei) in the human (C. Taylor, 1999, 33). Taylor’s solution is an unconditional love, and a belief that people are made in the image of God:

Our being in the image of God is also our standing among others in the stream of love, which is that facet of God’s life we try to grasp, very inadequately, in speaking of the Trinity. Now it makes a whole lot of difference whether you think this kind of love is a possibility for us humans. I think it is, but only to the extent that we open ourselves up to God, which means in fact, overstepping the limits set by Nietzsche and Foucault. (C. Taylor, 1999, 35)

It is intriguing to see that Taylor suggests that Foucault sets limits (weak transcendence) that stifle certain alternatives for self-constitution. Foucault operates within the immanent frame and a posture of intense self-love/self-care. This is ironic, because Foucault is the champion of a freedom which resists stifling limits. What will transform the self, under these circumstances, is an “ability to love the world and our selves, to see both as good despite the wrong and the suffering”. Taylor extends that thought.

The original Christian notion of agape love is of a love that God has for humans which is connected with their goodness as creatures (though we don’t have to decide whether they are loved because good or good because loved). Human beings participate through grace in this love. There is a divine affirmation of the creature, which is captured in the repeated phrase in Genesis 1 about each stage of the creation, “and God saw that it was good”. Agape is inseparable from such “seeing-good”. (C. Taylor, 1989, 516)

The individual self is elevated by this love, affirmed in its destiny. Agape informs the good and the quality of the will. Trinitarian goodness empowers, clarifies, and animates the human self in its moral and meaning quest. It acknowledges the value that each person gains from the recognition, mercy and affirmation of God. Within this paradigm, the self does not struggle to define itself by itself alone (self-reflexivity) but engages this transforming love from the divine Other.

Divine trinitarian love creates the very possibility of human loving, a love that issues from the power to love in spite of rejection: a sacrificial, courageous love of friends and enemies. This goodness is a relational attribute in God; it exists and exhibits itself in the form of a communion of love: the relational, interpersonal, mutually supportive, loving relationship among the persons of the Trinity. Theologian Christoph Schwöbel (1992, 73) explains how human goodness is rooted in this divine transcendent love: “In a conception where goodness is understood as a divine attribute, rooted in God’s trinitarian agency, goodness has to be understood as an essentially relational attribute.” From this perspective, humans do not invent the good, but discover it derivatively from God and in community. We don’t invent it, but it comes to us as a gift from God, full of surprise and delight. Agape love (I Corinthians 13) overcomes the distance between divine and human goodness. We can love one another because He first loved us (I John 4).

This plausibility structure of divine trinitarian goodness calls into question the validity of a pure self-assertion, self-indulgence or violence. Taylor’s appeal to the concept of quality of the will offers one hope and a basis for critical evaluation between destructive forces like Dachau, Hiroshima or Cambodia’s Killing Fields, and the constructive forces like Amnesty International, Doctors without Borders, the World Wildlife Fund. The motives for the former are destructive and death-dealing greed and will-to-power; the motives of the latter are compassionate, life-affirming and life-protecting. They are not both legitimized because they are self-expressions or practices of freedom. Foucault’s outlook of aesthetic freedom and anti-normativity makes him blind to this discernment at a fundamental level.

The discussion of this section lays the foundation for a new definition of freedom as goodness-freedom, freedom qualified by divine goodness. The will is qualified; pure autonomous choice is seen not to be adequate or sufficient; the beautiful life must be scrutinized by transcendent goodness and the Other.

This transcendent divine goodness is both present and accessible in the human sphere through the incarnation of Jesus the Christ, one of the members of the Trinity. Transcendence does not therefore mean aloofness and indifference, or a burdensome or unreachable standard of perfection, but rather a creative, fruitful engagement with the world, everyday people, society and its institutions. Transcendent divine goodness takes on an historical and christological determination in order to impact the human moral world. By reading the moral life through the life of Christ, one cannot espouse a minimalist and juridical conception of the moral life that merely acts on what is permitted and forbidden. We find a moral life that makes sense in the light of a Christ who is full of a rich and dynamic goodness, who incarnates goodness in human flesh, articulates it historically and culturally with integrity. D. Stephen Long appeals to the moral normativity of the life of Jesus.

In Christian theology, Jesus reveals to us not only who God is but also what it means to be truly human. This true humanity is not something we achieve on our own; it comes to us as a gift … The reception of this gift contains an ineliminable element of mystery that will always require faith. Jesus in his life, teaching, death and resurrection and ongoing presence in the church and through the Holy Spirit … orders us towards God. He directs our passions and desires towards that which can finally fulfil them and bring us happiness … [and] reveal to us what it means to be human. (D. S. Long, 2001, 106-7)

This immanence offers the option of life of the self, lived not autonomously but in cooperation with divine wisdom and goodness. In the incarnation of Jesus Christ, goodness is made accessible, personal and real. It is not left as an abstract unattainable ideal, or a wholly other reality alone. It is a transcendent goodness expressed within immanent reality, a will-to-hospitality.

Within the plausibility structure of the Christian meta-narrative, the roots for the ethical life, the transcendent condition for this life, lie in God, not in a mythological ontology of freedom (a hollow concept). Jesus and his followers (the church) are the dynamic unity between the transcendent and the temporal, eternity and time, the absolute and the contingent. The relational goodness of God is discovered not by means of a merely abstract speculation but in embodied human lives oriented toward God. It involves human subjectivity engaged and inspired by the needs of the human Other, as well as by the goodness of God.

Therefore, the first human life to consider for this position of hopeful goodness-freedom is the life of Jesus. This trinitarian goodness is a gift, and profoundly it is the gift to the human race of Jesus Christ. He is God’s goodness embodied, God’s own self revealed in a most dramatic way. It makes him the ultimate mentor, as Jordan Peterson might say. The big shift from Foucault’s interpretation is that the human self, in this case, is constituted by its engagement with the divine self in the process of discovering spiritual and moral epiphany. This is breakthrough at its best. It is an existential encounter which provides transformation of the self to be better, more resilient in doing the good, living the good. The focus is on love not power. One does have a relationship with one’s self, but one can also have a relationship with a transcendent self who is goodness, love-in-communion. This social imaginary provides a morality that is robust and sustainable.

The church at its best is an organization that majors on hospitality (welcoming the other). As Christ’s representatives on earth, it produces people on a quest for goodness of this quality, and seeks to mediate this transcendent goodness (righteousness) into society. It still believes that God speaks and acts, that the triune God is present to and in the world, that it is vital to love this personal Good and be loved by him, vital to seek the divine personal, unfathomable Good and be sought by him. It renders problematic the seeking of the good or goodness apart from seeking God, the pursuit of the good while walking away from relationship to God. It transforms ethics, within the economy of human relations, from a contest within a general will to power and self-assertion, to the economy of grace within a communion of agape love. It is not the economy of a naked, free human will choosing to design oneself autonomously. Goodness is no mere achievement of the human will. It is truly a mysterious gift of God. That is what we celebrate at Christmas.

Ruth Haley Barton has a wonderful chapter on our longing for a strong sense of God’s goodness in leadership loneliness in Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership (155-167). It is rooted in a meditation on Moses dilemma of leadership in Exodus 33.

~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, Meta-Educator with UBC Postgraduate Students and Faculty, Author, Blogger, YouTube Seminars.

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

Taylor, C. (1999). In J.L. Heft (S.M.). (Ed.). A Catholic Modernity? Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

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. 

Prayer on Christmas Day

Giver of all that is good,
we thank you today for the gift of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who was born into poverty in a hard and cruel time,
who gave himself for us,
and lives with you in glory.

We thank you for all your friends and prophets who have gone before us,
and those who taught us to celebrate this feast of the Nativity with beloved
Scripture, and beloved carols, and loud rejoicing;
help us to teach those who come after us that Christmas is a holy time, a
time to seek reconciliation and peace.

Bless us, Lord, as we seek Christ in the lowly mangers of this world,
bless us, as we seek to honor the mystery of the Incarnation in our midst,
remembering always that you made us, and all humanity, in your divine 
image.

Help us to gladly welcome today, and all days,
your Wisdom, your Power,
your Emmanuel, your Prince of Peace.

– Kathleen Norris from God With Us

Song for the New Year: “By Gracious Powers So Wonderfully Sheltered,” whose lyrics are from an Advent poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  During this time of pandemic weariness and economic ruin facing so many nations, the words are indeed a salve and source of encouragement, especially when we learn that Bonhoeffer wrote it just months before his execution, in order to comfort and encourage his parents and fiancée.  

https://youtu.be/aN7dGz6NH5M (German, with English subtitles)


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