Wednesday 15 January 2014

Delight In and Despite the World’s Ambiguity

We live in an ambiguous world. In the Reformational tradition we acknowledge this fact when naming the fundamental impulse toward the world manifest over and over again by people whose sense of the world is saturated with the cadences of Scripture. We speak of the animating force of Creation-Fall-Redemption. Some of us add a fourth term “Consummation” in order to acknowledge the distinct importance of the eschaton in our sense of the world-made-right. What we signal in this formula is that our movements toward the world reflect its ambiguity. Our approach is filled with the expectation of an enduring original goodness that has everywhere undergone marring but a marring equally, everywhere subject to a divine action that both recuperates and nudges things along toward their flourishing. We could make the same point in another way. We who approach the world from out of the cadences of Scripture approach it as if its narrative gist were etched into the world’s every particle. However we choose to name it, we bring a bible-lover’s eye for ambiguity with us into our simple movements toward the world, including ourselves of course.

In light of this complexity the question is always: “How do we (in the Reformational tradition it is always a community rather than an individual that is in question) come to see what is deep, original goodness and the trajectory of its present unto its future flourishing?” This is where the Reformational tradition has introduced the notion of Law/Word. Something of the will of the Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer of the Universe is not so much embedded in things as bespoken through them so that they respond. By a process that is really very mysterious (a point often made over the years by the tradition’s many sceptics) the same process of biblical immersion that embeds the complexity of Creation-Fall-Redemption into our every movement in (and toward) the world also gives us a kind of sonar by which to make out the Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer’s voice whispering to us what we need to know to decide what in the world seems legitimate and what seems off somehow. In our discerning and the judgments we base upon it, we come to an understanding of things that guides us forward, but one that is ever subject to further listening in order to discern and address any gap between our saying and the divine voice we would re-present in our saying. And since the process of biblically saturated discernment is mysterious, Reformational figures have come to different conclusions about things in the world, sometimes even important things. That is all well and good in the academy. From its very medieval origins the university has understood the importance of disputation in its shared search for truth. Indeed, from a pedagogical point of view, provided disputation takes place within the right communal ethos, vive la difference! Of course, from the point of view of the activist attempting to mobilize a Reformational community to act in concert and to effect reformation in the world disputation among the community’s public intellectuals has a deflating effect. People are left to ask who it is who offers bread and who offers stones.

True to its Reformed roots, the Reformational tradition insists on the central role of Scripture in equipping us to see and hear what God is saying and doing in the world so as to discern what we ought to be doing as our grateful service. The expectation is that deep scriptural familiarity will lead to the appropriate epiphany such that it is not we who see and hear but somehow God acting in and through us. But, . . . our own experience is in principle problematic; it participates in the very same ambiguous world in which we strive to discern the lawful voice of God and his consequent call to serve. But when two people equally saturated with the Scriptures come to different conclusions—what then? How do we cut that little Gordian knot?

A word from Thomas Aquinas—look to delight. Trust your senses, delight will tell you unfailingly when you are in the presence of the good. That is: in his view we are made to respond to the good; we cannot help but do so. And our response to the presence of the good is ever the same: delight. Of course, it is not as simple as all that. He was not a Hugh Heffner avant le fait. He too lived in the presence of the Scriptures and knew of the ambiguity ubiquitous in God’s world. The presence of delight bespoke the presence of the good, to be sure, but one still had to work out what exactly the good was that was present and how it was present in order to know how to respond properly to it. To give an example, the handsomeness or beauty of a person will legitimately impress itself upon one as a source of delight. The well-formed human body is a testament to the Creator’s handiwork. But, any invitation to respond to that delight in ways that degrade either the handsome/beautiful one or yourself via an exploitative pattern of objectification, say, must be discerned as a potential perversion of delight to be resisted rather than acted upon. The initial delight however—that remains, and does so unproblematically; it is not undermined by any of its potential perversions. You can trust it and indeed count on it in your exploration of God’s world. Every proper object of delight, every good, will point to deep original goodness, graced beyond its marring, pointing us in turn toward its and our deep present and future flourishing. Here we may be given a clue as to how to begin to think about the process of discernment that we are called to but which remains mysterious and so vulnerable within Reformation understandings. At any rate that is an idea that I am working with these days. Delight had an important role in Aquinas’s understanding. Human living was marked by its delights; they gave to a human life its determinate shape. Delight provided a horizon for understanding one’s gifts and the call those gifts entailed.

There is something earthy and positive in Thomas’s moral reflection upon delight, something we do not always associate with medieval religious whom we are more accustomed to think of in Jerome’s phrase as instituted in order to weep for the world and in withdrawal from it. I find that Thomas’s reflection upon delight delights me. I sigh contentedly: Ah the ironic sense of humour of the Lord of history! What a further delight. May all our lives and all our works be pregnant with the delight that belongs to all whose sensitivity to the presence of God in the make of his Creation illumines their living with the joy of one epiphany after another. Not a bad prayer for the next month or so, wouldn’t you say?

Bob Sweetman