Two Kinds Of Goodness

Two Kinds Of Goodness December 20, 2022

Margaret Almon: Goodness / flickr

Scripture appears to offer us contradictory statements about who or what is good. Some passages, such as found at the beginning of Genesis, show us that God finds all things are good: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day” (Gen. 1:31 RSV). Other passages, however, suggest that nothing in creation can or should be said to be good, for only God is good. “And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone’” (Mk. 10:18 RSV). We can both of these notions throughout Scripture, explaining why many Christians will look at the world with different approaches, some seeing the created world as fundamentally good, while others seeing it as fundamentally evil. While it is possible to point out that Scripture was written by many different authors, with many different viewpoints, and suggest that this is what lies behind such contradictory statements, even if we accept that as true, for Christians, there is the belief that there must be a way to reconcile these apparently two opposing viewpoints. The question, then, is, how can and should Christians do this?

While there are many potential solutions which can be offered, a popular one involves ontology, the study of being. Those of us who embrace this approach would suggest we must consider how things are being described as good or not good. Different passages, though they seem to be talking about the same thing, are not. Some talk about something being made good, and so possessing goodness, not from itself, but from someone or something other than itself, making their goodness relative. Others deal with the point that only one, God, has unmediated goodness, that is, God’s goodness does not come from someone or something else, which is why only God can be said to be good in the absolute sense. Or, as St. Augustine explained:

There is one good in itself and in the highest sense, that is, by its own nature and essence and not by participation in some other good. And there is another good that is good by participation, deriving its good from the supreme good which, however, continued to be itself and loses nothing. This good, as we have said before, is a creature to whom harm can come through defect, but God is not the author of such defect, since He is the author of existence and, as I say, of being. [1]

Thus, the question is, how is someone said to be good. If we understand no one but God can establish their own goodness, then we can say someone is good insofar as they open up to and participate in the goodness which is being offered to them. This is exactly what we learn from James: “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change”(Jas. 1:17 RSV). And, then, as St. John of Kronstadt wrote, we can see how and why God can call all things good as God sees the way all things participate in God’s absolute goodness:

GOD created all things, because he is good ; and because he is good he also recalls to himself all things according to their capacity, that he may bountifully communicate himself to them. There is nothing that does not in some degree partake of God ; since it is from God that all have both their existence and their well-being. [2]

It is possible to believe both everything is good, because everything has been made good, and given a nature of its own which is good, while also believing what Jesus said, that no one is good other than God. But in doing so, we must be careful. We must make sure we do not let these truths become misunderstood and lead us astray. When we recognize the inherent goodness in all things in the way all things are made to participate in and experience the goodness of God, we must not do this in such a way as to suggest free subjects can’t turn against that good. Free subjects are capable of doing what can be described as evil. Similarly, we can believe only God is good in the absolute sense, but we must not let the relative, mediated goodness of creation lead us to think there is something evil in the way creation is a “lesser good.” We must always keep in mind that the world outside of God is to be viewed as good, and so we must not follow any chain of thought which would suggest the created order is sinful in and of itself.

The two extreme views, that in some fashion creation can be said to be evil by nature, or that there is no way for created being to do wrong (and so, no way to engage evil), must be denied. Both errors lead us away from the fullness of the good and distort our relationship with goodness itself. We must counter them by embracing the middle view which lies between them. Sadly, even when we understand this, we can still express ourselves in ways which are confusing, suggesting that our ideas are closer to one or the other extremes. If, however, spirit of our text is understood, it could be shown that the problem lay not with our understanding, but by the way we poorly expressed our point (though it is still possible, we might realize the problem, but we have not filtered out the ideas flowing from one of extremes from our thoughts). Poorly constructed theological or philosophical constructs on this issue, therefore, can be a problem, as our words can and will be used by others to lead people astray.  That is, despite our best intentions, our words can be used to reinforce the ideologies of one of the extremes, indeed, when people already think dualistically, we must understand such dualism will influence how they read and interpret our words. This is why a dualistic embrace of the world, seen represented as the tree of knowledge of good and evil, causes great difficulties, as not only does it reinforce itself upon people who are unaware of its corrupting influence, it will encourage people to act based upon what they think is true,

The tree of knowledge of good and evil, the tree that uproots love, is planted in this very knowledge. It investigates the minute faults of other men and the causes thereof, and their weaknesses; and it arms a man for stubbornly upholding his opinion, for disputation, and aids him in cunningly employing devices and crafty machinations and other means which dishonor a man. In this knowledge are produced and are found presumption and pride, for it attributes every good thing to itself, and does not refer it to God. [3]

This is why Christianity, in its proper teaching, points out the tree of knowledge of good and evil brings about a curse, not because it brings people into knowledge of what is good, but rather, because it leads them away from the truth and into a dualistic view of the world. It creates and sustains a dualistic ontology which runs contrary to the truth. People can state facts based upon all kinds of analysis deduced, in part, from their dualistic ideology. Those facts and ideas can be memorized, studied, and discussed, making it seem that those who do so, have gained knowledge and insight into the world. In reality, what is being collected is but the shadows of reality, and an incomplete, imperfect understanding which reifies itself, encouraging those who hold on to such “knowledge” to act upon it, and so to act unwisely due to the incomplete nature of their “knowledge.”

While, then, all things are good, because all things have goodness mediated to them, and they participate in that good in some fashion or another, it is clear, many things were initially given a level of goodness which they did not sustain. They fell away from the height of goodness they once had. Nonetheless,  God would have them return to where they were. Thus, all of us, insofar as we have sinned, have gone astray, are called to return goodness we once had, to the state we had before we divided the world thanks to our reception of the “fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil”:

‘Return, O my soul, to your tranquility.’ Since it says return to your tranquility, the soul possessed tranquility before it lost its peace and serenity. No one returns except to that state or place where he was before. The Lord created us good and of His own choice placed and left us all with Adm in the Garden of Paradise. Because, however, we fell away from that state of happiness through our own decision, and came into the valley of tears, the just man is urging his soul to return thither whence he fell. [4]

Yet, as God is all good, thanks to God’s goodness, God shares goodness with all, even those who have turned away from it. This is where divine grace comes into play. It is grace which gave all things their goodness from the beginning, and so it is grace which enables them to be restored to what they were:

Divine grace is a good, a good that is given to man and not simply thought by him. As has been said above, man’s nature and his reason, which teaches him the moral law, are insufficient to bring about good in him, and so he has either to give it up altogether or to recognize that it exists outside and independently of human nature and reason, and it exists as an absolute and communicates itself to man from itself. The true good, the being which possesses in himself the fullness of good and the source of grace, is God. [5]

The thing with such grace is that God granted it to us in our beginning, not intending us to remain as we were, but to grow in grace, to grow in goodness, to participate more and more with the divine goodness itself. Thus, though we need to return to our innate goodness,  that return should not be seen as all that God intends for us. Rather, it must be seen only as a waypoint in the journey we are to take. “God, supremely and unchangeably good, knowing that His beatitude could be shared without being in the least lessened, made the rational creature in order to make him a sharer in His beatitude.” [6] We are to share more and more in the beatitude of God, to be deified,  but since we are not good by our own doing, but by participation, our deification itself is always going to be said to be given to us by grace. It is not something which we will possess inherently in ourselves, that is, it will not be ours by nature. Our nature will never have us become God’s equals. We will always be good thanks to the good which has been shared with us by God. It will always be limited, while God’s is not. Indeed, as God’s goodness is infinite, so our participation in that good can and will continue for eternity without any lessening of the divine nature nor any equivocation of our nature with the divine nature itself. God alone will always be good without mediation from another, while we will always be good thanks to the way God shares the bounty of the divine nature with us.

[1] St. Augustine, “The Way of Life of the Manichaeans” in The Catholic and Manichaen Ways of Life. Trans. Donald a. Gallagher and Idella J. Gallagher (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1963), 68-9.

[2] John Colet, “Celestial Hierarchy” in Two Treatises on the Hierarchies of Dionysius. Trans. Joseph Hirst Lupton (London: Chiswick Press, 1869), 16.

[3] Saint Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian. Trans. Monks of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery. Rev. 2nd ed (Boston, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011), 397 [Homily 52]

[4] St. Jerome, The Homilies of Saint Jerome: Volume I (1-59 On the Psalms). Trans. Marie Liguori Ewald, IHM (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1963), 289 [Homily 39].

[5] Vladimir Solovyey, God, Man & The Church. The Spiritual Foundations Of Life. Trans. Donald Attwater (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 2016), 9.

[6] Richard of St. Victor, “The Book of Notes” in Interpretation of Scripture: Theory. Trans. Hugh Feiss OSB. Ed. Franklin T. Harkins and Frans van Liere (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2013), 299.

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