Of Men, Measures, and Morals
By God’s creative purpose, a human being is an inveterate appraiser. Without our intent, without choice, we are people who go about saying “good” and “not good.” Whatever we look at, whether an object or a situation, whether external to us or appearing within our minds, we automatically measure it against some internal standard.
Popular culture would define this standard as one of “right vs. wrong.” Increasingly, this system fails as less and less can be confidently classified as either.
I owe my understand of this internal standard to a long line of thinkers who say that Good is Beauty and Beauty is Good. (These two qualities, along with Truth, define one another, so that no one should claim that we are reducing Goodness to aesthetics.
Actually, the fact that conservative thought has always linked Good, Beauty, and Truth together as distinct but united in nature can be seen as a secret revelation of the Trinity. For “none is Good but God,” and we know the Father by this Name. But Christ the Word is Truth – “Thy Word is Truth” – for he reveals the Father and expressly images his person. And the Holy Spirit is indeed like Beauty, for he ravishes everyone to whom he appears, yet never appears in his own but in every object manifests his presence to those who can perceive him and influences even those who cannot.
But I must retreat from speaking of things the thought of which should stop my mouth and still my fingers.)
I think there is a general understanding that religious people should also be good people. But how long has it been since religious people seriously examined the questions: What makes a good person good?
I have an answer to start with. It’s in two parts.
1) A good person knows the difference between good and bad. When a good person looks at what is actually good he accurately judges it to be good. When he looks at something that is not good he perceives it as such.
However, understanding that good shares a nature with beauty has implications not only for the nature of good but also for the nature of criticism. That is, discerning good and bad becomes a different process when we stop thinking of good as a particular point along a line of possibilities, and begin thinking of it as a quality, an inescapable yet elusive effusion of divine glory into created things.
When you understand what beauty is you can recognize it in a scene, a face, a phrase, a line of music, or a mathematical formula – even if you have never seen that particular thing before and been told that it qualifies as “right.” Good, beauty and truth – they have a flavor. Once learn the taste of them and you begin to recognize them in any of their endless manifestations.
Which brings us to the second thing that makes a good person good. When I say that a human being is an appraiser of good and bad, I am not saying that we are all equipped with a source of information about moral values. There is no virtue in having information.
2) Therefore a good person is one who actually prefers what is good.
I don’t think we should add up points 1 and 2 – as if someone could become good by first learning to discern and afterward disciplining himself to choose what is good. Rather the two define one another. How does someone reach the place at which his internal standard of beauty matches the objective reality of beauty? Only by loving beauty – valuing it enough to pursue it, casting aside all that hinders or falls short. Those who take pleasure in what is good are the ones who truly know its nature and recognize it wherever they see it. Likewise, those who see what is good are inclined toward it.
For human beings are not just appaisers. We are not like someone who knows the worth of a Vermeer in dollars or pounds but has no preferrence between a Vermeer and a canvass with some paint tossed at it. When we approve something we take joy or pleasure in it; when we long for something we also value it. Both of these affections rise from one and the same motion of the heart. Deep within us is a spring from which the multitudinous streams of thought, feeling, action flow in our conscious lives. This spring involves our capacity to be inclined toward or against something. It is this power of inclination that enslaves us to sin and yeilds us to God – that makes us a moral agent. I believe it is also this power that lends us the potential for true freedom.
There is much more to be said on this subject. I mostly wanted to point out that one of our first duties as Christians is to prefer good to bad.
I also wanted to point out that learning to discern between the two is a necessary corollory to this duty.
Christians should like good things better than those things that are not good. It should be obvious. But how greviously have we declined not only to prefer good to bad but even to think about the difference between the two.
Yesterday I drove past a church built to resemble a movie theater. I was horrified. But I was nearly alone in my sentiment as other Christians around me couldn’t see the difficulty.
I won’t attempt to prove that the designers of this church did “wrong.” Such an attempt is beside the point, and it would be met with blank stares and protests about “personal opinion” anyway.
I will say that to choose such a design instead of others that partake more of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, is truly wicked. It is a preferrence for something less good over something more good.
Architecture is a language and this building lied about the nature of God and Religion. There was no truth in it. There was little beauty – none worthy the subject of the discourse. As for Good, it seems elusive but where truth and beauty are absent I think the inner revolt can be justified.
For along with the moral quality of ourselves comes the moral quality of all our works. Everything we do speaks a language and everything we say in those languages either praises God or blasphemes him – or else it does both at the same time, which is the worst yet.
Do the Church a great service. Sit down with those souls for whom you are responsible – yourself alone if that is all – and teach yourself how to understand the language of music. Or architechure. Or images. God save us when the church is made up of people who don’t know Good from bad and led by people telling those who do to check their personal preferences at the Church door.
In the spirit of this endeavour, and of Lent, I recommend Tavener’s “Lamentations and Praises” sung by Chanticleer. I’ve been listening to it nearly every day for a couple of weeks now. It’s not good background music. It’s a serious discourse that speaks directly to your affections about things sacred and mysterious. Because is has words it also works as a sort of Rosetta Stone if you are unfamiliar with this kind of music. Give it the time of day.
One of my original motives for seeking out the Orthodox Church is that it appears to be the final reserve of ancient Christian feeling and thought. Here that which is good, true, and beautiful are honored by those who attempt to hold them in trinity, no matter how many centuries of use they have already seen.
Still, I’m not just seeking to escape Western culture. I think many of the answers for our destruction could be found in the East. I will always be greived by the long decline of the inner life and its outward consequences suffered by my people, my language, my nation, my culture, my heritage.
I have no stout theories about the future of human civilization. Will there only be the Orthodox Church 1,000 years from now? Or will faith all but die? However I do know that in each generation it is the duty of true men and women to preserve, love, protect, and embrace what is good – whatever is beneficial to human life, whatever is transcendantly valuable above all uses and purposes. So I’m saying to my fellow Orthodox Christians: please, consider in quiet careful thought what has befallen our bretheren. They confess the same God as us, the same Christ, the same Holy Spirit, the same Incarnation. But they don’t care to make a difference between Church and Theatre.
Let us devote ourselves to the Love of our God. Let us love what is Good.