Saturday, July 02, 2011

God and the Good

Here is a textbox for one of my endlessly undone projects.
Surely the author of a book is allowed to give his or her thoughts on something, even if s/he is in the minority.  I personally am unable to see any intrinsic connection between actions/events and their meaning.  There are connections and they are easily explained.  They are just not intrinsic connections. For example, we define painful or pleasurable events as bad or good.  The problem is that the same event can have the opposite significance to different individuals.  And even the briefest study of culture leaves us with an extremely small common human sense of right and wrong.

This situation leads me to the conclusion that good is good because God says so, that "the good" is not entirely obvious from events themselves.  The Christian definition of good relates directly to the twin values of loving God and loving neighbor. Good is that which is beneficial to ourselves, but even more so that which is beneficial to others, and ultimately that which is beneficial to humanity and God's creation as a whole.

Although the creation does not demand this understanding of the good, it makes sense.  It makes sense because pleasure and pain are built in to us.  It makes sense because human society prospers when we work for our mutual benefit.  Humanity flourishes more the more individuals orient their life around this good.

Could God create a world where the good was defined in some other way?  I personally do not see that we have any point of reference from which to answer this question.  Our descriptions of the "nature" of God relate directly to how God has revealed himself in this cosmos.  But the essence of God pre-dates this cosmos and thus is not limited by the rules of this cosmos.  In my opinion, therefore, to think we have God's nature figured out, other than to speak of it in relation to this cosmos, is insanity.

Good is good because God says so in this particular cosmos.  To say otherwise is anthropomorphism.


Nathaniel said...

"The problem is that the same event can have the opposite significance to different individuals. And even the briefest study of culture leaves us with an extremely small common human sense of right and wrong." - Determining meaning is difficult.

"They are just not intrinsic connections." - There is no meaning.

First, this seems to me non-sequitur. Just because something is difficult to obtain does not mean it does not exist. This is essentially atheist logic (it is difficult to perceive God, therefore he doesn't exist).

Second, when you divide esse from telos you also destroy any potential to even know what God says. You've already posited that there is no intrinsic meaning to events. Thus by what method did the authors perceive inspiration or the reader know what it means? If there is no intrinsic link between esse and telos, than inspiration is impossible.

Third, you sever the link between esse and telos and then propose the examples of pleasure/pain and societal benefit. And yet, these are precisely undone by abandoning telos. If there is no intrinsic connection between an event and its meaning, than what meaning do you derive from experiencing pain or pleasure? Further, your phrase "mutual benefit" assumes that humanity has an intrinsic telos, that is a specific goal. Otherwise, by what means could we even identify something beneficial?

Your penultimate paragraph is just bizarre coming from a Christian. Does the Son not reveal the Father? Did he not assume human flesh in this cosmos? This paragraph is just, in my mind, theology without Christ, that is to say not Christian theology. Certainly we can find this kind of talk among the neo-platonists. But when Christian authors speak of the incomprehensibility of the divine essence they also immediately return to the fact that in Christ God has been made known. For instance in one case when John Chrysostom does this, he immediately turns and says "but God has ordained words to speak about Him" and in particular the divine Word made flesh.

In short, this seems to me an extremely strange meditation on the Good. We cannot know God and we cannot know the meaning of events. But the Good is what God speaks to us (even though we can't perceive when or where he speaks to us, since such meaning is not intrinsic to the event).

Perhaps I've missed something?

Ken Schenck said...

I doubt that I have presented my thought clearly--and perhaps I am not clear myself at every point. But here is a quick attempt to clarify:

1. By intrinsic, I mean "in" events or actions. I am considering God's assignment of meaning very real but extrinsic to events themselves.

2. I am saying that esse is telos. I am not doing away with telos but saying that there in effect is no such thing as moral esse.

3. The Son reveals the Father in this universe, is what the last paragraph assumes. Rightly or wrongly, I believe that it has not been until recent times that we have been equipped to grasp fully the implications of ex nihilo creation. In that sense, most of Christian thinking still paints God inside this universe.

I am not willing to die for anything here. I do not assert any of it as certainly. It is simply my attempt to make meta-sense of things, of the reality behind our language. I am not in any way denying the reality of what we say as believers, just trying to get behind it--which many would say is foolish.

Ken Schenck said...

Another way to put what I think I'm saying is that I am trying to analyze the limits of our phenomenological language. That language is true, but may not be precise or as "literal," recognizing that analytical language is perhaps not in the end literal either... just more literal perhaps.

Nathaniel said...

I understand your intention to define the limits of phenomenological language. This is of course well-tread ground. Probably the most cogent work on this problem is found in Ricoeur.

I certainly understand that your Christological view is implied. However, while it may be implied, it certainly doesn't appear to influence your phenomenology. The world doesn't need yet-another neo-platonic phenomenology, it needs a Christian one. This is where the heart of my critique comes from. We need a phenomenology that begins with the Cross and works outward.

I'll disagree sharply that the implications of ex nihilo creation have not been worked out until recently, unless perhaps you mean within evangelical circles. Athanasius' On the Incarnation is practically the authoritative treatise on this topic. And his work is certainly not the first Christian treatment.

Regarding your treatment of meaning and events, I did indeed understand what you were trying to accomplish. Unfortunately, I think you have missed some crucial subtleties in Aristotle's usage of the terms. Regarding these, I think the first two chapters of Bradshaw's "Aristotle East and West" should outline this in detail. In short, pay attention to the interplay of telos and energia.

I am certainly not denying that there is a certain interplay between someone's narrative domain (ie "outside") and the event itself (ie "inside"). However, by identifying esse and telos, you are, I think, suggesting that an ascribed meaning has no connection whatsoever to the particulars of an event. This makes no sense. Take for example the case of Elisha parting the Jordan. One might interpret this as reminiscent of the Red Sea encounter. Now of course, the narrative of Moses is outside of the given text. And yet, it is intimately related to the features of the two texts which are intrinsic to them.

Now, if a large comet were to fall on San Francisco causing significant damage, you'd get people interpreting this in the type of Sodom and Gomorrah. Certainly, again, the narrative domain is in a sense external to the event, but yet the connection is not merely due to the act of the interpreter, but also due to significant parallels integral to the event. The telos (meaning) of the event (esse) is related by the common energia (often translated attributes or potentia) which reveal the esse.

Nathaniel said...

Further interesting, though most likely foreign to most contemporary Western thinkers due to their lack of familiarity with the Palamite controversy, is the idea that multiple energia permits a multiplicity of ("valid") interpretations which vary according to their ability to relate the attributes. It is the lack of this category that I think results in the collapse of modern thought into nominalism. This last point directly relates to the Good as expressed in human freedom. In Western circles, predestination, fatalism and universalism have been the result of the collapse into a single Good. Interestingly, Gregory Palamas' answer to this permits a multiplicity of Good in the divine.

I've said all that to say this: the rejection of association of meaning and event in Western phenomenology is directly the result of despair in the face of the inability for interpreters to reduce an event to a single meaning. And yet, I don't think we need to retreat into privatization and/or nominalism.

Lastly, I fail to see how your position does not undo all revelation (this is Ricoeur's observation). If there are no energia which proceed from the esse and reveal the telos, than there is no means by which you can say that one interpretation is better than another. And yet, this is precisely what revelation does: it chooses among interpretations. For instance, how is John "the voice crying out in the wilderness" if there is no essential relationship between the event and its prophetic text? Why is the gospel's interpretation normative?

A modern controversy which I hope can prove illustrative is the issue of the morality of homosexuality. Those who support homosex as a moral act begin by denying any intrinsic relation between the sexual act and procreation (against their own darwinism, for which the only virtue is increased procreation). It is also for this reason that, at least in "high" churches ("low" churches unpack this differently) the ordination of openly homosexual clergy is *always* tied closely to female ordination qua the rejection of motherhood as the telos of the female sex.

Anyway, I think a rediscovery of Aristotle on these points is well overdue and I think much of the difficulty of phenomenology in the West is due to an implicit or explicit monergism. Those are my thoughts, which with $5 can get you a latte. :)

Ken Schenck said...

You've at least convinced me that the issue is far too complicated to capture in a text box. I'll remove it from the text.

I still maintain that from Athanasius to Oden, God is basically treated as up at the top of this universe rather than truly outside of it. Language that must surely be analogical is treated as more or less literal. The apophatic tradition comes the closest, but to my knowledge it was not formulated with the clear sense of ex nihilo creation that a scientific age creates.

Nathaniel said...

What in your mind disqualifies pseudo-Dionysius?