Jul. 6, 2009, at 3:04pm
The indefatigable Bill Drennen has thoughtfully challenged a point I made earlier regarding Christopher West’s Hefner/JPII comparison and Chesterton’s famous assertion that a man who is knocking on the door of a brothel is really looking for God. My point was that, while I understand West’s and Chesterton’s meaning, their way of expressing it is problematic for this reason: it obscures the dramatic difference between moral goodness and badness.
It is true, as Bill points out, that all men experience a certain restlessness and incompleteness in their hearts for which they try to find a remedy. Objectively and ultimately speaking that remedy is God and God alone. In this sense all are indeed “looking for God”: John Paul II, Hugh Hefner, the prostitute and her client, you and me.
What I want to stress, however, is that from the moral point of view—from the point of view of our character and well-being as persons—it makes all the difference in the world how each of us chooses to deal with this restlessness. There are two radically different possibilities—in our lives as a whole and in each of our acts. (This, BTW, is the kernel of truth in the “fundamental option” moral theory. It’s also what “conversion” is all about.) There is what John Paul II has called the “utilitarian” approach, which scans the world for anything that can satisfy our desires and cravings, or there is the “value-responding” approach (von Hildebrand’s term) which looks expectantly out into the world for things that are truly good and beautiful, and tries to live in accord with them. A person with this attitude does not simply use (and then discard) people and things, but respects and appreciates them for what they are. He finds happiness in so doing. His happiness and peace are not so much the direct aim of his moral acting, but a gift and a fruit of living in harmony with the world of values.
An unqualified “all are looking for God” idea, on the other hand, can leave the impression that saints and scoundrels are not so different from each other, morally speaking. We’re all looking for the same thing, all doing our best. Sin is nothing more and nothing other than ignorance—a problem of not understanding where to find the good we all seek. The truth is much more serious and much uglier than that.
Much more needs to said, and what I have said could be further clarified and expanded upon. But I’ll leave that for later (if anyone cares to take it up with me), and turn now to some of Bill’s specific objections:
1) First, Bill proposes: Even though God is not exactly WHAT the sinner seeks, he is the reason for (i.e. the WHY of) the seeking.
I answer: I understand and agree with what you’re getting at, but I don’t like the formulation, for two reasons. First, in the sense explained above (2nd paragraph) God is, ultimately, BOTH the what AND the why of our seeking. And second, usually it is precisely the answer to the question “why?” that makes the moral difference between men clear. Why is he going to visit that woman? Because he loves her and wants to propose marriage? or to find a cheap and convenient release for his sexual urges? (This is what St. Anselm refers to when he writes that every act has not only a “what” but also a “why”.)
The difference you are getting at (I think) is more like the difference between a blind urge, which impels, spurs, or prods a person to do something (e.g. the feeling of being hungry), and a genuine motive, which is an objective reason for acting in a certain way (e.g. a perfectly cooked steak). What do you think?
2) Bill says: Not every bad choice is a conscious and explicit choice of self over God.
I answer: True. When we gossip, tell a small lie, fail to speak up when we know we should, and so on, we are commonly not thinking about God. (If we were, we probably wouldn’t do it.) But our stance toward Him, is nevertheless involved in each case. That’s why, if we’re serious about holiness, we confess it as a sin and ask for forgiveness. Even in the case of grave sins, such as adultery, we may not be thinking about God or fully realize the effects they have on our communion with Him. But regardless, a rejection of God is implied and accomplished.
3) Bill says: The “love of self to the contempt of God” is very rare and a sure sign of an advanced stage of corruption.
I answer (along similar lines): It is true that we rarely find this attitude in a fully conscious, explicit and deliberate form. It requires sincere and deep reflection on our own behavior to recognize it (such as Augustine’s famous reflections on stealing a pear from a neighbor’s orchard). There is also the important difference between one bad act, and a vice. In the latter case, it is not just one act but our moral character that is (mal)formed.