This and That

April 9th, 2018

Email This Post Email This Post

For centuries philosophers have asked what is the good life? Lately I’ve been learning there’s likely a better question.

A few weeks ago a good friend asked how I imagine “the good life.” He’s a thoughtful believer. He appreciates how I think in pictures. I sent him an image. He replied with some good thoughts, suggesting we write something meaningful on the subject. I was all in—until I remembered where the phrase “the good life” comes from.

Bruno Snell, a classicist in Greek literature, writes that the phrase “the good life” comes from the Greeks. He adds that Greek thought and literature tends toward abstractions.[1] One example is the Greek language inventing the definite article (“the”) and placing it in front of an adjective, turning a definite noun into an abstract idea.

Take the adjective “beautiful.” Everyday Greeks would describe some specific thing (noun) as “beautiful.” Greek philosophers added “the” to “beautiful” and spoke of “the beautiful,” turning a particular noun into an abstraction, like a thought bubble.

Greek philosophers had lots of thought bubbles. They discussed “the good” more than discerning whether a specific thing is good. They spoke of “the true” more than seeking people and things that are true. These thought bubbles form Plato’s idea of society’s highest virtues: “the good, the true, and the beautiful.” It’s why Greek philosophers spoke of “the good life.”

God doesn’t talk this way. Jason Poling, another good friend, recently reminded me of how, in John 3:16, the Greek houtos means this is the way God loved the world. There are many ways God could have demonstrated his love for his creation. He chose to do so by giving this—his only begotten son.

Older church traditions call this “the scandal of particularity.” John Duns Scotus (c.1265-1308) wrote that God deals in particulars and people, a quality he named “thisness.” Christ coming to earth as a flesh-and-blood human being is one example. Annie Dillard writes that it “occurred improbably, ridiculously, at such-and-such a time, into such-and-such a place.”[2] Love—God incarnate—always begins with particulars: this adulterous woman, that Roman centurion, this tax-gatherer. Love is always this and that.

The scandal is how particulars often humiliate us. They uncover our true loves. The rich young ruler is an example. He came to Jesus seeking eternal life. Jesus told him to do the commandments. I’ve done them, the ruler replied. Jesus knew he hadn’t (no one can) so he told the rich man to do this particular thing—sell all your possessions and follow me. The young man walked away. He was exposed. The scandal of particularity.

This is an occupational hazard of the rich or powerful. By the world’s standards, I’m rich. I can too often stay at the head level, professing to love “humanity” but actually loving a comfortable lifestyle more than my neighbor. Greek thinkers were guilty of this. They luxuriated in a comfortable world built on slave labor. They asked what is the good life? but didn’t to do much about it.[3] Lactanius’ indictment of paganism (“no more than worship by the fingertips”) applied to Greek thinkers as well.[4] The Greeks’ “good life” had a vagueness about it that ignored a slave’s short life expectancy.

Years ago, this and that specified particulars. Today we’re Greek. Ask someone “What are you doing today?” “Oh, just this and that.” Pretty vague. “If nature abhors a vacuum,” Christian Wiman writes, “Christ abhors a vagueness. If God is love, Christ is love for this one person, this one place, this one time-bound and time-ravaged self.”[5]

This is the 50-day period between Easter and Pentecost. It is during this time that Jesus meets these women, that man, this group of men of the road to Emmaus, and so on—over 500 this and that witnesses. They meet the embodiment of goodness.

Greek thinkers did get part of the story right. They knew “the good” included civic duty—community, or the wellbeing of the city. In scripture, wellbeing is shalom, or flourishing. Since we’re to seek the flourishing of all (Jer.29:7), the better question is what does flourishing look like? There is a good image for this. I’ll share it next week.

Stay tuned.

 

[1] Bruno Snell, The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature (Dover Publications, 2012)

[2] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Harper’s Magazine Press: 1974), 80.

[3] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religion in the Western World (HarperSanFrancisco Edition, 1997), 206.

[4] Lactanius, Divine Institutes 5.23, 1964 ed.

[5] Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2013), 121.

PDF24 Tools    Send article as PDF   

7 Responses to “This and That”

  1. marble says:

    Much to think on – in haste, though, wanted to ask if seeking the “flourishing of all” doesn’t get us right back into the Greek vagueness you so very pointedly present? This ties in with the idea of “Amusing Ourselves To Death”, where the knowledge of disasters everywhere immobilizes us even to the need right in front of us. . . .

    I’m thinking we might want to focus not on the flourishing of all, but on the flourishing of those particular people right in front of me. The people who are elsewhere can focus on the people right in front of them.

    Thoughts?

  2. Mike Metzger says:

    Ah… my good friend… you are right on. Wait ’til next week (and don’t steal all my thunder in the meantime!)

    Cheers. You’re on to it.

  3. gerard says:

    I just gotta know, Mike, if the picture next week is a picture of Mr. Rogers.

    Growing up I had know idea how profound the lyrics “the people that you meet each day” would be to me.

    But I will wait patiently for the unveiling of your picture.

  4. Mike Metzger says:

    Dang, Gerard, you guessed it. Fred Rogers.

    Now I can take a week off.

  5. Stan Wallace says:

    Mike, as always, appreciate your post. I certainly agree that we can tend to absolutize the abstract, and miss the particularity of creation. Thanks for articulating the problems with that.

    However, I fear you may have gone too far in the other direction, not seeing the “both/and” but rather offering a form of the “either/or” fallacy. A longstanding tradition of Christian thought, which I believe is assumed in Scripture, is the view that immaterial realities* (universals, also known as abstract objects) exist, but are “in” particulars, making them what they are. (*I wouldn’t call them “abstractions,” because they are not mental entities, but exist extra-mentally as part of reality created by God.)

    If there are no abstract objects that exist transcendently, the Christian has no grounding for objective truth (there are no propositions that can be “in” multiple particulars. For instance, when a pastor says “Look with me at John 3:16” we don’t all run up to the podium to peer over his shoulder–we can all “see” the same thing (the proposition) while looking at our own particular bibles (the instantiations of the proposition).

    The doctrines of the incarnation and substitutionary atonement are also at risk if there are no abstract objects, for in that case there are no such thing as natures, including human nature. I believe Jesus took on something real when he became a human, and thus has a real, actual human nature (again, abstract objects are immaterial realities that can be multiply instantiated in particular things, in this case human nature “in” Jesus and also the same human nature “in” all other particular humans.) Due to Jesus sharing this nature with all other human persons, his death can truly be in our place as an equal–as one who is also human, like us, in the most fundamental way. Those who deny natures exist as abstract objects do not have this explanation.

    Moral absolutes also depend on the existence of abstract objects. Otherwise there are only particular moral values—my values, your values, his values, her values. But no shared values that are true for all people at all times.

    For these reasons it seems that to reject all Greek thinking (specific Plato’s work to elucidate and defend the existence of universals) is to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. (I blog more on this in my post “Three Reasons We Should Believe in What We Can’t See” here: https://www.stanwallace.org/blog/three-reasons-to-believe-in-things-unseen-3 )

    And therefore, the good, for instance, is that universal which is instantiated in all good things, and makes them good. The same is true regarding the true and the beautiful. This is what the Fall caused to be lost—the instantiation of these universals in all things—and what God is redeeming as part of his redemption of all things (the task in which he invites us to participate).

    Flourishing then occurs increasingly as the good, true, and beautiful are once again instantiated in the particulars of human experience. And this is our task, given in the Cultural Mandate.

    Your thoughts, my friend?

  6. Mike Metzger says:

    Hi Stan:

    I like your push back and sure don’t want to swing the pendulum too far in the other direction. I think I’m making a distinction between the abstract (what you describe and I agree with) and an abstraction (generalities, which, if memory serves me correctly, Aristotle said are “the refuge of weak minds”).

    Your thoughts, my friend?

  7. Stan Wallace says:

    Mike, thanks for the clarification. Makes sense.

    I am a strong proponent, as I know you are, of affirming that “all truth is God’s truth,” and seek to appreciate it wherever it is found. In this case, I believe it is found in Plato’s work on universals. So I wanted to put a word in to defend his view, if it was under attack. 🙂

    Appreciate you!

Leave a Reply