Reflecting Upon The Seamless Garment

Holy_Robe_in_TrierJust as truth does not contradict truth, and yet, truth separated and elevated in its importance to reject the holistic unity of the truth leads to error, so we find that the good does not contradict the good and yet partial acceptance of the good denying the fullness of the good is what leads to evil.

The truth, by its nature, transcends us and our comprehension.  We can be said to know and believe in and accept the truth when we do not contend against the holistic unity of the truth through our conventional representation of the truth. We must accept the limits of our conventions, recognizing the absolute truth lies beyond them. The absolute truth is the truth as it is, but our representation of the truth is said to be true insofar as it continues to point to the fullness of the truth while coming to us in a form we can understand and accept that transcendent truth. We construct these representations of the truth so that at times, with the proper audience and engagement with them, they remain proper representations and pointers to the truth, but with a wrong audience, who absolutizes the convention and misunderstands how they are to be engaged, they turn inward and away from the absolute truth and end up being used for erroneous beliefs. Similarly, our good actions can be said to be good and remain as good as long as they are not used to counter and reject the greater transcendent good from which all good things flow.  The truth, after all, is one with the good and the beautiful, as traditional metaphysics, represented by Pavel Florensky, understood:

“Truth, Good, and Beauty.” This metaphysical triad is not three different principles, but one principle. It is one and the same spiritual life, but seen from different points of view. Spiritual life as emanating from “I,” as having its center in “I,” is the Truth. Perceived as the immediate action of another, it is Good. Objectively contemplated by a third, as radiating outward, it is Beauty. [1]

From all this, how a truth taken out of context from the greater, holistic truth can lead to error, for it takes that element of the truth and distorts it, making more of it than it should be, can likewise be seen reflected in the goodness and beauty. We can take an aspect of the transcendent it, cut it off from its source, and turn it in against itself, turning truth into falsehood, goodness into evil, and beauty into ugliness.

For the good to remain good, it must not deny or detract from the fullness of the good. This is at the heart of the teaching of the “seamless garment.” It is a principle which is often brought up in pro-life discussions, because it points out that to be pro-life is to follow all the principles which come from the good. There should be no limitation two one or two ideological preferences which are used to ignore and reject all the other applications of the good, for that is what evil does: evil uses some aspect of the good for the defense of its rejection of the good itself. The “seamless garment” is not just about the dignity of the human person and pro-life positions; it is merely those who claim to be pro-life need to be reminded of the holistic nature of the good and so the seamless garment argument is presented, following traditional teaching on the nature of goodness itself.

The point of the seamless garment, then, is that there is a whole continuity of moral positions which reflect upon and complement each other, and a rejection of one ends up destroying all of them. It is the moral equivalent to the great chain of being; whereas in the great chain of being all existing things are seen to be related and joined together in one ontological continuum, in the seamless garment, all the goods are seen to be related and joined together in and through one common foundation which is not to be torn apart and dismantled.  The great chain of being with the interdependent relationship of all things which exists is the ontological ground on which the seamless garment is to be understood: all things in the world are inter-related, so we must work for the good of all in the world. What hurts one through a rejection of one aspect of moral truth will end up hurting all. Ignoring some aspects of the good because it is inconvenient is bad enough, trying to put one good over the fullness of the good because of the benefit you gain from the good you support is worse, and indeed, is the foundation for all kinds of great evil in the world.

This is why Patriarch Bartholomew, in his engagement with the duty Christians have to the earth, explains it comes from the seamless garment of creation, where the whole continuity is brought into one whole which is to be considered and acted upon by us as priestly mediators for the common good:

One of our greatest  goals  has  always  been  to weave  together  the  seemingly  disparate threads of issues related to human life with those related to the natural environment and climate change. For as we read the mystical  teachings  of  the  Eastern  Church,  these  form  a  single  fabric, a seamless garment that connects every aspect and detail of this created world to the Creator God that we worship.[2]

God became a creature to help all of creation; humanity is a steward of creation, expected to follow with and act upon God’s initiative and truly fulfill their priestly vocation to the world. Limiting our moral reflection to anything outside of this seamless garment which connects all things together will end up creating the evil which will undermine the good we do. To reject abortion and use that rejection to justify other evils, such as racism or anti-environmentalism, is to undermine the reason to reject abortion itself.  For why is abortion to be rejected and worked against by helping the women who feel it is their only option? Because life, all life, is good; the baby as well as the woman, both must be treated well and with respect, with their needs met lest one or both of the lives becomes undermined and destroyed. The whole life perspective, which understands and accepts the seamless garment, understand this, which is why those who follow it promote the fullness of the good and not some partial representation of it against the greater good. It should be obvious that rejecting the needs of people in the world and letting them to starve and die off because they are poor or needy or seen as worthless persons for any reason whatsoever is to reject the goodness of life itself and in that rejection, abortion not only is to be expected, it is truly a reflection of the good which is being established. For the principle which comes clear in such an engagement with life issues is that only some lives are worth saving and protecting.

Nonetheless, it should be clear, many reject the seamless garment, and its application to life issues, because it counters modern ways of thought. Our society has at its core a radical form of individualism which almost reflexively rejects holistic treatment of the transcendentals, including that of the good. As Alasdair MacIntyre explained, we try to think through our actions atomistically, dividing and separating the various their necessary unity:

The philosophical obstacles derive from two distinct tendencies, one chiefly, though not only, domesticated in analytical philosophy and one at home both in sociological theory and existentialism. The former is the tendency to think atomistically about human action and to analyze complex actions and transactions in simple components. Hence the recurrence in more than one context of the notion of  ‘a basic action’. That particular actions derive their character as parts of larger wholes is a point of view alien to our dominant way of thinking and yet one which it is necessary at least to consider if we are to begin understanding how a life may be more than a sequence of individual actions and episodes. [3]

When a good is cut off from the good and this is seen as the norm, then it is understandable why others, upon seeing the seamless garment, do not understand how it is the foundation by which the goods they support remain good. They do not see things, including moral actions, as being interconnected; everything is divided, everything is radically individual and so anything which counters their individualism is rejected as evil. Yet, again, this shows how perverted the modern view is and why it leads to such great evil all around us: we compartmentalize the good into particular representations closed off from each other. The fullness of the good is lost, and even the little compartment of the truth which we hold to ends up collapsing in upon itself as a result of our moral decay. We have not learned to understand the foundation behind evil is the inappropriate engagement with the good and therefore we do not know the good truly is as we argue for a position which cuts off a particular good so we can turn that particular good into the absolute good. We must realize, as tradition speaks, all evil will be able to appear as good for it is an individuated good cut off from the fullness of the good, as Lombard in The Sentences indicated:

One who knows rightly and acutely, understands evil to be in nothing other than a good, that is, in a good nature. For evil is the corruption or privation of the good, and where there is not a good, there cannot be corruption or privation of the good.[4]

Therefore, promoting some element of the good, and focusing on it while cutting it off from the rest of the good is where evil is to be found; when the seamless garment with the interdependent relationship of the good is rejected, evil is consequently going to be the result. This is why the seamless garment is a necessary component of moral reflection, for it metaphorically uses Jesus’ “seamless garment” to remind us of the interdependent relationship of all moral goods that needs to be promoted if any of the goods are to remain and used for the good[5]. Evil can take any partial good, no matter how good it is, and use it for the rejection of what Is truly good. This is can be seen to be true in the way many people pick and choose the good they will support and decry any other good as getting in the way of the promotion of their own private application of the good: they use their partial good to excuse and reject the fullness of the good. While there might be some initial good done in this fashion, the lack of a proper acceptance of the fullness of the good will be made known as that good leads to and promotes great evil.

Likewise, then, the good which we receive, the rights associated with the goodness of our being, is given to us so that we remain responsible not only for that good, but also all correlative goods as well. The more of that good we receive, the greater we find ourselves penetrated by being itself and so the higher we can find ourselves on the great chain of being, means we have greater responsibility for the promotion and engagement of the fullness of the good in the world, as Solovyov once explained:

A moral person cannot have rights without corresponding responsibilities. It is universally recognized that the right of property entails certain social responsibilities; but it would be erroneous to ignore the fact that man has duties not only with regard to his fellow creatures, but also with regard to the lower world – to the earth and to all that inhabit it. If he was the right to exploit nature for his use and for that of his fellow creatures, he also has a duty to cultivate and perfect this nature for the good of the lower creatures themselves, who must consequently be considered not as a simple means, but also as an end.[6]

Care for the earth is truly the Christian perspective because it not only acknowledges its own good, but also, the good which Christ accomplished for its own sake. Care for the earth cannot be rejected because of concerns we have for other goods, because those other goods will themselves be found affected by the destruction wrought on the earth. We can’t call ourselves pro-life if we destroy the environment in which such life is to dwell and find its good; we end up destroying that life and its good if we reject the needs of that life which is found in the world around it.

We, who want the grace of God, want the good which we have lost due to our sin to be grafted back into us, healing us from the damage we and others have wrought to our own good. Yet, that good can only remain good, and heal us from our evil actions, if we let it remain true to itself and connect with and remain one with the fullness of the good. We must tie ourselves to the good of all if we want the good to penetrate us and lift us up to the good which we truly seek and desire for ourselves. All things, all goods, must be seen as goods and not just means to some good. They must also be seen as interdependent to each other, so that what is good for one, if it is truly good, will be good for all, and the greater the good, the greater that good is expected be employed and used for all. If we undermine the lower forms on the great chain of being, we will break the chain itself, and the good which we thought we had will be shown to fall beneath us before we find ourselves also falling down, perishing in the collapse of the good which we established for ourselves.

[Image=Holy Robe in Trier by U.S. Air Force photo by 2nd Lt. Stephani Schafer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]


 

[1] Pavel Florensky. The Pillar and Ground of the Truth. Trans. Boris Jakim (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 56.

[2] Patriarch Bartholomew, “Saving the Soul of the Planet” at The Brookings Institute. Nov. 4, 2009. Central to many of his comments are the writings of fathers like St. Maximus the Confessor who look at the cosmic accomplishments of Christ and how we are to follow in and act with Christ in his work for the salvation of the universe.

[3] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue. Second Edition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 204.

[4] Peter Lombard, The Sentences. Book 2: On Creation. Trans. Giulio Silano (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2008), 172 [XXXIV -iv.2]

[5] See John 19:23-24.

[6] Vladimir Soloviev, “The Social Question in Europe” in Politics, Law & Morality: Essays by V.S. Soloviev.ed. and trans. Vladimir Wozniuk (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 35.

 

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