The attempt to identify and promote human flourishing is the sine qua non of a liberal society. But what the heck do you do when bad things happen to good people? Or even when bad things happen to kinda borderline people who are no innocent Job being tried by the whirlwind of life? Well, what about when life attacks and human flourishing is out of reach?
The Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor has something to say about this in his A Secular Age:
Does the highest, the best life involve our seeking, or acknowledging, or serving, a good which is beyond, in the sense of independent of human flourishing?…. It’s clear that in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition the answer to this question is affirmative. Loving, worshiping God is the ultimate end… The injunction ‘Thy will be done’ isn’t equivalent to ‘Let humans flourish’…
What might a serious theological image of a God who conforms to these outlines look like? You have to peer in fear and trembling into Karl Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans for an image of a God who bites a bit:
The reality of divinity depends upon its universality. Its universality depends upon every mouth being stopped and the whole world being guilty before Him (iii. 19); it depends upon the firm recognition that all men have fallen short of the glory of God (iii. 23). If relationship with God were to produce an enhancement of human being and having and doing in this world, rather than a weakening, or even a deprivation, of these things, God would become visibly and concretely a spiritual or historical element in the midst of other elements, differing only relatively from these other notable spiritual or historical powers with which men have been endowed. God would then be the God of the Jews only, the God only of certain privileged and well-disposed people; He would become, like ‘religion’, a specialty of certain special circles and epochs and temperaments; He would be comparatively easy to attain, and to be without Him would be no very serious deprivation. In that case much use would be made of the word ‘ God’, but the theme would not be concerned with righteousness, or redemption, or resurrection, it would not be concerned with all things, or with the Last Things, or with Eternity.
How strangely liberating such a picture of a depriving God is! What a relief to see someone give human failure back its indignity. Barth takes so much pressure away from our busy-body striving toward human flourishing. Yet, ironically, there is also an element of sacrificing human flourishing in the pursuit of human flourishing in a postmodern-capitalist context. Charles Taylor in The Ethics of Authenticity, talks of the normativity of sacrificing your children to the market:
What’s more, children are expensive and require a lot of work too. Can we really afford children anymore? Our nearly universal consent to this form of child sacrifice makes the stereotypical “Old Testament God” look more human, especially since he released Abraham from this obligation, and made a mess of it by resurrecting Jesus.
It’s not just that people sacrifice their love relationships, and the care of their children, to pursue their careers. Something like this has perhaps always existed. The point is that today many people feel called to do this, feel they ought to do this, feel their lives would be somehow wasted or unfulfilled if they didn’t do it.
Barth talks of salvation as a gift of mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation as a “no-work,” a kind of human unemployment by the divine. His theology can be read as a Calvinist destruction of the Protestant work ethic. It also overlaps with Marvin C. Shaw’s argument in The Paradox of Intention:
This book is a study of a single, simple idea, that of reaching a goal by giving up the attempt to reach it. The difficulty which some readers may have in understanding this is not caused by any complexity or abstractness in the concept, but by the fact that it seems contrary to common sense and everyday practice. Normally, we assume that goals are reached through the expenditure of mental and physical effort, and the so-called paradox of intention strikes us as perhaps intriguing, as some sort of mental puzzle, but finally as illogical and unavailaing. Now if this or any other difficulty arises, and the point of what you are reading escapes you, you have an opportunity to put into practice this paradoxical method we are attempting to understand. Simply take the advice of the medieval Christian mystic Suso, let go of the effort to grasp the meaning, read on, and the meaning which evades you may well arise on its own.
So yeah God, I’m enjoying my coffee, finishing my coffee, and sending out applications to places that probably aren’t looking to employ me (but who can afford pride before the market anyhow?), while Thou:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for youAs yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bendYour force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.I, like an usurp’d town to another due,Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,But am betroth’d unto your enemy;Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,Take me to you, imprison me, for I,Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Now I can say I’m John Donne with this post and with trying in general.
I’ll instead wait for something outside my powers to wake me with a scratch or two:
You might also want to read about the virtue of imaging God badly after surviving today’s post. Or not, I’m not going to force you to read it. Actually, don’t read it.
Do consider making a donation to this blog as I dive off the cliff of replying to job ads. I’ve given up on making clever pitches for that. I throw myself upon your mercy and the PayPal donation button.