Thursday, July 09, 2009

Losing the wood for the trees, and vice versa: or, the eschatological reconciliation of complex goods

"...evil is always the assertion of some self-interest without regard to the whole,. whether the whole be conceived as the immediate community, or the total community of mankind, or the total order of the world. The good is, on the other hand, always the harmony of the whole on various levels. Devotion to a subordinate and premature 'whole', such as the nation, may of course become evil, viewed from the perspective of a larger whole, such as the community of mankind."

- Reinhold Neibuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, 14.

In this account, evil is a failure of contextualisation, a mistaking of a part for the whole, an insufficient awakening to the complex goods of the world. There may be other aspects to an account of evil (not simply the intellect, but also our will and imagination and desire are corrupt. All evil is not simply ignorance), but this is an important point to ponder. Is my desire for some good thing actually undermining someone else's blessing? Or is the way that I am pursuing my desire making it harder for others to love life? Or perhaps even more subtly and yet disastrously, might the aggregation of many individuals pursuing their various goods diminish the common good of each?

And yet, there are still "various levels" at which the good is to be sought, noticed, preserved and pursued. It will not do simply to replace a myopic individualism with a hypermetropic collectivism. It is often difficult to see how the good of both the individual and the wider community can be attained when they come into conflict, but if life is not ultimately a competition then it is possible to attempt the creative and imaginative task of seeking an integration between apparently competing goods in hope that such a reconciliation is possible. Or, in other words, we hope for win-win situations.

Yet our grasp on what is good, on what constitutes a life truly called blessed, is fragmentary. The complexity of all the various goods in a single human life, in society and throughout the created order is too vast for any individual to comprehend. And so we continue to mistake partial goods for complete goods and even our provisional attempts at reconciliation may end up creating new injustices. We may even despair of the possibility of win-win outcomes in many situations. We may conclude that it is a dog-eat-dog world and for me and mine to do well, others must do poorly.

And so, this belief (in the non-competitiveness of human, and indeed creaturely, flourishing) is a tenet of faith, presently unseen and repeatedly thwarted by a fallen world. It is an eschatological hope for the reconciliation of all things, anticipated in Christ's earthly life and promised and inaugurated in his resurrection. And so today we seek signs and foretastes of this future reality, bearing witness to the one who is alive and brings life to all. Today is not the day to achieve this final reconciliation, but we must be content in our discontentment, eschewing utopian fantasies for the good that it is possible to do today.
Good to see that Niebuhr agrees with me.


andrewE said...

Great post Byron—it's nice when you really go for it on eschatology.

"if life is not ultimately a competition then it is possible to attempt the creative and imaginative task of seeking an integration between apparently competing goods in hope that such a reconciliation is possible."

How does this fit with your final paragraph, which stresses the eschatological nature of this reconciliation, such that we aim for "signs" of it here and now? What do you think it looks like to attempt this imaginative task?


byron smith said...

Well, perhaps the key terms here are "seeking" and "in hope".

I certainly don't think that every case of competing goods can be solved by the application of a little more mental elbow grease in order to discover a previously unseen win/win situation (though many probably can and continuing such efforts are far from futile).

Often, what is needed is not simply more imagination or willpower, but a converted imagination and desire that has died to self and has been resurrected to love. So the imaginative task requires saturation in the gospel of the dead and raised Christ to keep unlearning and re-learning what it looks like to 'win'. I've been pondering this quote quite frequently to see where it takes me.

NB Does this mean that those outside of Christ are unable to participate in these foretastes of the reconciliation of the good? Of course not, since God's Spirit blows in directions not necessarily limited to the visible church.