Posted by: gcarkner | January 7, 2022

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 15

The Holy Spirit as Ultimate Source of Human Goodness

As the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is a vital part of the discussion of goodness within incarnational spirituality. Humans cannot flourish by the example of Jesus alone. If goodness is a dynamic, mysterious gift, and cannot be achieved by human effort alone, even heroic effort, from whence comes Taylor’s source of motivation in the constitutive good (note 1. below)? How is the quality of the human will actually enhanced in everyday terms?

The Incarnation is the locus of God’s self-revelation–the primary site of God’s self-giving. Thus the logic of the incarnation is fundamentally an account of what gives, of how difference and otherness is revealed–whether that is the “horizontal” revelation of ourselves to one another or, paradigmatically, the revelation of divine transcendence in the region of immanence that is creation. Hence the logic of incarnation is an account of revelation. (J. K. A Smith, 2021, 201)

But how is goodness mediated through the transcendent turn towards agape love (Taylor, 1989), beyond the life example of the person of Jesus the Christ? Is this why Jesus sent the Holy Spirit after his ascension? Clearly, there must be a source of empowerment for living in a positive, inspiring relationship to the transcendent trinitarian good, motivation for the practices of the good, for mediating such goodness within society. If one pursues it alone without epiphanic divine help (grace), how can transcendent goodness avoid the charge of unattainable ideal–so heaveny other that it is no earthly help? What is its tangible, embodied human possibility of goodness transformation?

With these questions in mind, it is crucial knowledge that the Holy Spirit is a key inspirational and transformational factor in human goodness, that is, the human receipt and actualization of divine goodness. The Spirit is at work amidst the historical contingencies of community development. This is pertinent to the “logic of incarnation” spoken of by James K. A. Smith (2021, 63-92). Incarnation does not stop at the life of Jesus. Brilliant theologian D. Stephen Long (2001) is both realistic and optimistic about the human quest for the good, and for good reason. He believes that with the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity, moral self-constitution can be intimately and fruitfully interfaced with the goodness of God. This will in turn rejuvenate ethics and moral self-realization. It offers a reconstitution of both goodness and freedom for the individual (producing goodness-freedom).

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. S. Long, 2001, 302-3)

Divine goodness is made tangibly available as a gift, by means of the Holy Spirit, for the transformation of the individual self–everyday folks have the potential to become ‘new creatures in Christ’. The Holy Spirit offers relationship and empowerment towards acting out and promoting the good in the world, working towards a more fair and just world. Humans embody and become entrepreneurs of divine goodness via the empowerment of the Spirit.

This is an aspect of the epiphanic experience of I-Thou encounter that we spoke of in earlier posts. The Holy Spirit is very central to the moral life because the Spirit gifts individuals for works they cannot achieve in their own strength, i.e., within the limits of their personal resources. He makes them capable of forgiveness, virtue, reconciliation and love. He makes possible and effective the mission of transformative goodness of Jesus Christ within and through his church. The Spirit represents the ongoing presence of Jesus in the church and in the world; the church can become the faithful presence of Christ (J.D. Hunter). The Spirit catches humans up into the life of God in this profound way, into the communion of the Trinity.

This particular process of moral self-constitution and spiritual wholeness opens up the horizon of human moral thinking and action (qualities of the will), first towards God. Secondly, it connects the individual through compassion with human suffering, empowering people to move beyond raw self-interest into self-giving service to the other (hospitality). Within the trinitarian goodness plausibility structure, we can answer Charles Taylor’s question: Can we sustain our world benevolence? The Holy Spirit enriches, motivates and empowers the self and the human community as the abundant and fecund source of goodness/grace.

Stephen Long adds an important addendum. Along with Christoph Schwöbel, he finds that the kind of ethics that emphasizes the will and absolute freedom of choice (Foucault et al), is poorly focused on a Dionysian release of the self and its desires. It leads to the dangerous human temptation to set its own standard of goodness as the ultimate standard, and thereby to manipulate the language of the good in the direction of self-interest. In past, that has created a problem for human society and lead to corruption, violence and exclusion of the other (especially the poor and weak).

Humans are very capable of using their freedom in contradiction to God’s goodness: to coerce or deceive fellow humans, to misrepresent the truth, or abuse the natural world through their own controlling interest in setting the standard of moral currency. Long and Schwöbel promote the idea that ethics should be focused on the constitution of the self as it relates dynamically, 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 qualities of the will comes into play at exactly this point (see the series in this blog on Qualities of the Will). Long believes that moral self-constitution must be rooted in, and animated by, a love of God and a love of the infinitely superior and pure goodness that is God. This is a trajectory for self-transformation and renewed energy for the good.

The picture of a lone will choosing between good and evil, or embracing both in an aesthetic move of self-mutilation, or choosing to define self, constitutes a distraction from moving into the goodness-which-is-God, and being taken captive by this goodness. Long’s focus is to build one’s life-orientation, one’s identity, one’s lifestyle around transcendent trinitarian goodness. It cannot to be reduced to an achievement of the mere human will. Goodness-making is not a faculty, within the all-too-human, that can be conjured.

Human freedom is not about the capacity to choose [merely] 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, 2001, 46)

It follows in sync with the trajectory of our lives, loves and longings. Moral transformation comes to us through a commitment to the good, not through seeking a controlling knowledge of good and evil or through creative strategies for self-control or manipulation of power relations and truth games (Foucault). Human creatures as self-legislating, individualistic beings do not possess the moral resources to enact goodness per se, although they certainly have tried. Acts of the will do not automatically constitute acts of goodness. Goodness is discovered in God, not invented by the self. Further in the same moral direction as Taylor, Long concludes that the primary question for the moral self is “What or who is the good I seek and that seeks me?” (D. S. Long, 2001, 130) Here lies the idea of a serious quest for the good in one’s whole life. Schwöbel summarizes the thrust of our argument.

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. (C. Schwoebel, 1992, 75)

Through the Spirit, goodness becomes both radically communicable and accessible. It impacts culture deeply as Larry Siedentop (2014) writes in Inventing the Individual. The individual is not left alone to their own devices and resources, to make their way in the world, nor to continually justify their behaviour (which can be a narcissistic obsession). The Holy Spirit initiated connection of human goodness to the transcendent brings a robust hopefulness of reviving the culture along with the language of the good. Charles Taylor has sought to do this in Sources of the Self (1989). This is also writ large in the poetry of Psalms 90-103; the sheer majesty of the breathtaking goodness of God is made very powerful and transformative in the lives of people. We remain skeptical regarding human construction of the good, but open to all that can be communicated about the goodness of the triune God. The conversation about the good in moral discourse is fruitfully enlivened as we experience the tangible presence of the life transforming divine goodness within the New Covenant.

This is a paradigm shift from Foucault’s position. He assumes that individual humans are the origin and controlling agents of moral currency and the moral life through his ethics as aesthetics. The moral self, in his picture, seeks for autonomous resources (apart from God) in the pursuit of a radical freedom of self-control, self-expression and self-construction. In the dialogue/debate between Foucault and Taylor, it does come to a watershed between the sovereignty of self versus the sovereignty of God (who is essential, infinite goodness), the telos of self versus the telos of divine love. It makes a huge difference whether God and agape love are allowed to enter the map of one’s moral and spiritual horizon. This raises us to a new horizon level. It encourages love of self and love of the world (despite the evil inherent in that world and in oneself) as one is open to the circulation of grace (Ephesians 3: 14-19). This is incarnational spirituality at its core.

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

In light of all this, one is inspired by a new possible hermeneutic of emancipation, a theonomous goodness-freedom, a God-related freedom that is defined or qualified by trinitarian transcendent goodness. The transcendent turn has proved a fruitful thought experiment that bears deep consideration and reflection for progressive moral identity thinking and just living. As an alternative to the radical approach of Foucault’s aesthetic, autonomous view of morality, a paradigm of trinitarian goodness-freedom reveals a fresh and vital subject position within community–with weighty agape love at its core. The Holy Spirit builds this relationship.

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

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

Smith, James K.A. (2021) The Nicene Option: An Incarnational Phenomenology. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.

Siedentop, L. (2014). Inventing the Individualthe origins of Western Liberalism. Belnap Press.

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

Note 1. The constitutive good (a category of moral motivation) gives meaning to and empowers, the hypergood (our dominant inspirational ideal) and the other life goods within the moral framework. It provides the constitutive ground of the worth or value of the life goods, and allows the self to live the good life, to flourish. Moral identity is interwoven with the pursuit of the good in life in Charles Taylor’s moral ontology. It is the type of good that provides enabling conditions for the realization of strong qualifications in one’s life. Therefore, one’s relationship to such a good is vital to building moral capacity for individuals and communities. Knowing such a good personally also means loving it, wanting to act in accord with it, growing toward it. Crucial to the position of the constitutive good is that it has independence from the self. As Taylor put it to me, “A constitutive good is a term I used for what I also called moral sources, something the recognition of which can make you stronger or more focused in seeking or doing the good. It’s a matter of motivation and resilience, and not just definition of your moral position.”

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