Sunday, February 27, 2005

God's Will

Pure Intention and Man Made Law Chapter four of Thomas Merton's No Man is an Island is a look at what he calls "Pure Intention," by which he means learning to discern what we want from what God wills. I'm going to try and bring this around to a comparison of John Rawls' argument about liberty from what he calls the "Original Position." Bear with me. First, Merton offers some clarification about what is meant by the "will of God," a term that is the subject of much abuse and misunderstanding. One thing we ought to get right off the top is that we are not talking about God as a figure like Zeus who wants to have one thing rather than another (who made the things Zeus wants?), and we we are not talking about impersonal power number crunching it's way through time:
There are religious men who have become so familiar with the concept of God's will that their familiarity has bred and apparent contempt. It has made them forget that's God's will is more than a concept. It is a terrible and transcendent reality, a secret power which is given to us, from moment to moment, to be the life of our life and the soul of our soul's life. It is the living flame of God's own Spirit, in whom our souls flame can play, if it wills, like a mysterious angel. God's will is not an abstraction, not a machine, not an esoteric system. It is a living concrete reality in the lives of men, and our souls are created to burn as flames in His flame. The will of the Lord is not some static center drawing our souls blindly toward itself. It is a creative power, working everywhere, giving life and direction to all things, and above all forming and creating, in the midst of creation, a whole new world which is called the Kingdom of God. What we call the "will of God" is the movement of His love and wisdom, ordering and governing all free and necessary agents, moving movers and causing causes, driving drivers and ruling those who rule, so that even those who resist Him carry out his will without realizing that they are doing so. In all His acts God orders all things, whether good or evil, for the good of those who know Him and seek Him and who strive to bring their own freedom under obedience to his divine purpose.
This is a very traditional Christian view; we are all fumbling about in the dark, trying to align ourselves with the divine will. We fail a lot because we are so in the dark and because we really are free to stay in the dark. Not one of us can claim to have a better view than another, no matter how strong or fast or intelligent, because Grace is available to all. That this Grace is available at all to anyone is a great mercy. Not one of us earns it. That mercy shows up a lot in today's readings. Consider the second reading, from Paul's letter to the Romans:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Merit also has nothing to do with the mery God extends to the Samarian woman. She does not want to give him the water he asks for because of the enmity between her tribe, the Samaritans and his, the Jews. She has not kept the commandments and in fact knows little about them. She has had five husbands, none of them her own (!). Yet God chooses her to be the one through which he will teach the Samaritans about the His will. Towards the end of the story He says:
Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
The sower here is God, who sowed the world and who sustains it from moment to moment, and also makes available his Grace to those who would have it. We can claim responsibility for none of that, but we are free to reap it, such is his generosity and mercy. Contrast this position of human fallibility and divine mercy with Rawls' "Original Position." To begin with, Rawls' argument follows in a long line of political theory that sees human relations in terms of a contract. This is a funny line of thought, since a contract normally has limits, and the parties can opt out under certain circumstances. It is hard, however, to see how any of us can opt of any social contract, if that is indeed what binds us together, because no matter where we go, there is a contract already in place. There is no opt out. Let's leave that aside and consider the proposal itself. Rawls asks leaders and legislators to consider laws before them as if they did not have their present talents and signs of merit. What would you vote for if you had no idea ahead of time what you were going to be in human society? He concludes that two principles emerge:
  1. The liberty principle, which guarantees an adequate set of basic liberties (e.g. freedom of speech and conscience) to all citizens.
  2. The difference principle, which requires that social and economic inequalities be arranged so as the benefit the least well-off group in society.
There is a very large problem here in asking someone to use their talents to consider what they would or would not value if they had no talents. There is a further problem in reconciling the two principles that Rawls draws from his thought experiment. Even if we grant them, how they are to be blended together is not at all clear. The liberty principle is an old idea, going back to the old testament at least. God is always present, as are his laws and commandments, but each person is free to accept or reject them. In their stumbling and fumbling, many characters in the Bible come to see the folly of going their own way. The prodigal son is one example. In these struggles, people come to learn the truth about their situation. Rulers often do not lead as God leads, but instead compel their people to do or not do this or that. Pharoh's struggles with Moses come to mind here, and Pharaoh is a negative example. It's not clear Rawls is offering anything new here. The difference principle is more troublesome because it sets the ground for an endless set of limitations principle one, liberty. It attempts to whitewash this by arguing that this is not just permissible but necessary to fulfill the best rational outcome of the original position. On what grounds, however, does one in Rawls original position claim to be perfectly rational? Further, on what grounds is Rawls original position itself considered to be rational? One has to ask these very hard questions because the difference principle opens the door to tyranny by white washing it (let us do evil that good might come of it) and by putting human wisdom on a pedestal it has no right to claim. We know enough to know that. What about suffering, however? Must it be unjust to put limits on liberty in order to hinder suffering? No, it isn't. In fact, Christians are asked to deny ourselves in order to aid others, and we are told that true freedom is found in doing just that. If we give because we are coerced, however, then we really haven't given anything of our selves. Our selves, as a result, remain shriveled and stunted. As Merton puts it:
An impure intention, without doubting that in theory that God wills what is universally best, practically doubts that He can always will what is best for me in willing what is best for all. And so the man whose intention is not pure is compelled by his weakness to pass judgment on the will of God before he obeys it. He is not free to do the will of God with perfect generosity. He diminishes his love and obedience by making an adjustment between God's will and his own, and so the will of God comes to have, for him, a variety of values: richer when it is more pleasing to him, valueless when it offers less immediate satisfaction, valueless when it demands a sacrifice of his own selfish interests.
A Christian in his relationship with God is free to work this out and overcome it. The problem is an internal one. A citizen having this relationship with those he is governed by, as when his money is taxed away and spent in ways he thinks foolish (like on national daycare, for example), has no easy way out because the problem is external to him. He can't reconcile himself to the wisdom of those who govern as he can to the wisdom of God for many reasons. Men who govern are men, just as he is. As he knows that he himself loves power and friends and pet causes, he know that those who rule are subject to them as well. Since a spiritual reconciliation is impossible, he simply bows his knee to the power that confronts him. Rawls' theory of government is even worse for those who rule, since it cuts them off from all correction. Are they not acting out of selflessness? Well then! Stop complaining and get on with it. Stop being selfish and irrational! How often have we heard that from those would call themselves "liberal." The original position cuts itself off from God's Grace and presumes to put those who assume it in His place. It gives them the illusion that they can be perfect lawmakers and enforcers and it removes feedback and accountability by lobbing the charge of irrationality at anyone who dissents. In the end Rawls' philosophy is merely a cotton cover for an iron fist. We accept it out of fear even in Rawls' own calculations. To escape it we need two things. One is faith - faith that our hardships are not without purpose:
If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!
With that we are much less likely to use the government against our neighbors and for our own betterment. The other thing the governed and the government need to do is remember God's mercy and why and how he extends it. This lessens the desire for perfect man made law and its ruthless enforcement.

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