Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Criterion of Eternal Truth--Part 2, Addressing Humanity's Tragic Predicament

"You don't have to be religious to be a good person." Comments to that effect make it abundantly clear not so much that that Christian faith, but human life is in great need of being understood. For one cannot understand Christian faith without understanding the tragedy embedded in human existence to which it supplies an answer. To that end we look to the personal challenge at the heart of Christian faith, a challenge that applies the criterion of eternal truth set up in Part 1 to an individual human being's life.

In Part 1 ("The Criterion of Eternal Truth: An Abstract Challenge") we noted that it doesn't make sense to talk about the eternal entering human history unless it transforms all of history, and I used the first gospel--historically--to construct a simple model of the gospel that shows us that "If we aren't transformed by the good won't be good news to us." That was the abstract point. The substance introduced by Christian faith--I claimed--is this: " be committed to the principle of love is to be committed to transforming ourselves with respect to the unfolding of the world in history. ...[it requires] an unchanging approach to an ever changing reality. Love, that is, meets the criterion of eternal truth with which we began." The object of today's post is to make the general point of Christian faith relevant to individual human lives.

When we hear, "You don't have to be religious--meaning Christian, here--to be a good (or loving) person," who decides what's good, and how? The simple fact is that anyone can be good in their own estimation, if everyone decides how "good" is determined. But everyone has their own circumstances and preferences, so based on one's own circumstances and preferences everyone is justified. Even if a person is committed to "moral goodness"--based on cultural norms and expectations--ambiguities run deep, ambiguities that allow a person to get out of just about any moral judgment that is deemed unfortunate. I have used Sartre's analysis elsewhere to establish how ambiguities obscure responsibility to act in situations that contradict an underlying wish to avoid an inconvenient responsibility. Say that a correct choice puts a person's job in danger, and the ability to obfuscate arises. One can either accept alternatives which are unfortunate or obfuscate in an attempt to escape them. To be presented with an opportunity to ask with sincerity, What is truth? would be an ultimate instance, as the writer of the Gospel According to John must have seen, as I have argued here.

But what if the core choice were very simple, with just two alternatives? First, the option of ambiguity and obfuscation, of maintaining one's ability to seek good by one's own standards for one's own purposes and when desirable to hide the fact that one does so by putting the many alternative versions of "good" to use: the option of ambiguity includes your goods, my goods, the law's goods, my in-group's goods, my community's goods, ecological goods, aesthetic goods, state goods, the goods of society now, the goods of future generations, even the the goods of taking a holiday from worrying about the good, or concerns about the goods of those who might impose their standard of good on me, or us, or society, and so on till one just gets tired of the question and asks, "What is good?" One can then find a satisfactory answer by--of course--appeal to one's own standards. After all, whose standards should you, or I, prefer? It's all very messy, and convenient for implementing what Sartre called "bad faith," evading responsibility for inconvenient choices by obfuscating. In Paul Tillich's words, "Is not the split in one's conscience the end of the authority of one's conscience? If one has to choose between different authorities, not they but oneself is ultimate authority for oneself, and this means: there is no authority for him."1

And second, the option of clarity: Committing oneself to framing good by the best overall determination in any situation, including your goods, my goods, the law's goods, and so forth through all of the same kinds of goods that are used to muddle the search for a defining sense of good in the first alternative. The difference is that the search is in good faith and that it is not done to preserve a single person's goods as the determining factors--the covering up of which motivates the first choice. One cannot help but think of how the story of the fall illustrates this very thing.

Though the alternatives are complex in their ramifications, we are familar with them. They identify complexities embedded in our interactions with other people. Navagating complex political situations using one's own preferred goods as the primary goals makes it necessary to conceal that fact to other person's who expect good faith cooperation in a common goal. Alternatively one can try to genuinely navigate complex interpersonal situations in good faith seeking to determine the best overall plan.

But seeking the best overall plan over seeking the plan that best suits one's personal goals and values means putting others' good above one's own. That is the meaning of Christian agape love. And it requires a willingness to sacrifice one's desire for others' to sacrifice themselves for us. Stated more simply, it requires us to be willing to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others when the greater overall good is at stake. In the domain of human interaction, to love and to clearly seek a path of truth rather than obfuscation are inseperable. For one cannot love what one does not know.

That is the core point: One cannot love what one does not know. Clarity in human interaction only makes sense from the perspective of personal motivation when love is valued over personal success. In personal interaction, one seeks to know when one seeks to love. Alternatively, it is obfuscation that makes sense from the standpoint of human motivation when one seeks personal success over love (or it should be added, the success of a group a person identifies with over other groups).

What, then, should be said to a person who claims that it is possible to be good without being religious? Just this: Then you do not define good by narrow self-interest, but are committed to an ever-wider understanding that makes an ever-growing love for others possible? A person who sees the need for that commitment will see the prototype for that commitment in the proclamation of the Christian gospel.

A commitment to the ideals of seeking truth and love cannot be combined with self-seeking or seeking the advantage of a group one identifies with. Hence the gospel narratives portray Jesus as rejecting personal temptation before the start of his ministry and refusing to fulfill the expectations of a nation awaiting its Messiah to take them to national ascendency in the sequence that set up the passion: goodness brings tragedy. The resurrection in turn answers this tragic truth. It affirms that even when one understands the true nature of the tragedy at the core of human existence that the pursuit of truth and love, which usher the tragedy into human life, is not foolish. It is that hope which motivates faith.

Faith, then, is a full commitment to the highest human ideals of love and truth in full view of the nihilating human predicament which requires us to be willing to trade the goods we have in order to remain true to the ideal. This is a tragic, nihilating predicament for anyone who has not taken the time to be honest with themselves about their "goodness." No one's opinion that it is possible to be good as a human being can be taken seriously, until they understand that to be good is to court tragedy in this world. This is the meaning of the cross and the resurrection as its correlary: it is the statement of and answer to the tragic human predicament.

It is the glory of Christian faith to protray the tragic truth, to understand its entailment in the very best of human motives, and to offer through faith a perspective that transcends it. Positing a dimension transcendent to the reality we can sense--whether an infinite, or eternal, or holy, or spiritual--is not important as an abstract exercise. Theology is important because it cuts to the core of what it means to be human. At its most basic, the question of God and the question of man are the same question, and that question is brought to a head in the cross of Christ. "Behold the man!"

Paul Tillich tells us that all we can do, and all scripture can do, is to "...point the Crucified--as does the Baptist, in the tremendous picture by the old painter Matthais Grunewald. ...his whole being is in the finger with which he points to the Cross."2 (Italics added. This is the quote that I said I would add to the end of Part 1, and left off because I could not find it at the time--it works better here to help tie the two parts together.) All of one's being captured in a pointing to Christ on the cross, or not. Either the tragedy is contained and transcended in God, or not. Those who do not understand the ultimate tragic nature of human existence do not understand faith, or its denial. They are lost in what Sartre called "bad faith," the very nature of which is to keep us lost with respect to the tragedy Christian faith addresses.3

1. "By What Authority?" in The New Being (University of Nebraska Press, 2005) 86.
2. Ibid., 88.
3. By this I mean that bad faith as Sartre explains it applies to the core human tragedy that Christian faith addresses. That is not to say that Sartre ever understood Christian faith at the level where his term applies to it; he did not. But if true, there is no citation that can establish the negative. :-)