The Need for Co-Operation

This could be called a political post, but it is not a party political post. The distinction is important because there are those who argue that the Church (meaning usually clergy and religious) should never express any opinion, either as individuals or as an organization, about the way in which society functions, the laws that govern it or the values it seeks to express. I don’t subscribe to that view for the simple reason that the Church (which is more than just clergy and religious) is concerned with life on earth as much as life hereafter. Those familiar with the political thought of St Thomas Aquinas know that he called the state societas christiana. In other words, the fundamental relationship between citizens is meant to be what is implied by the word ‘society’ — friendly, companionable, mutually beneficial. Sadly, I’m not sure we can say that British society reflects that; we definitely cannot assert it of international relations.

You do not need me to list all the matters that contribute to widespread unease about where we are going either as a country or as a world. Different factors affect us in different degree, according to our personal experience or feelings of vulnerability, and there are a host of proposed solutions vying for our attention. I think, however, one need stands out above all others: the need for co-operation. At a time when many are pursuing ‘go it alone’ policies, it is increasingly clear that we cannot actually do that. We cannot solve the problem of climate change without action on a global scale. We cannot maintain the economic structures of America and Europe without reference to Asia or Africa. Perhaps most important of all, we cannot retain our own humanity without acknowledging and valuing the humanity of others.

This morning, as I glanced at the BBC headlines, I was struck by how much pain and suffering is caused by our wanting to dominate rather than co-operate. Those who live in community know how hard it can be to co-operate with others, but is there really any alternative? Do we want a world in which a few grab all there is to grab and the rest are condemned to a form of slavery? Don’t we want to live as friends to each other, despite our differences? That is not a mere rhetorical question. It is one we must ask ourselves every day because the answer we give will determine our conduct and the shape of the society — remember that word! — in which we live. For Christians, it also has an eschatalogical dimension: it should make us uncomfortable; it should make us act.

I began with Aristotle, mediated by Aquinas, but I’ll end with Plato: ‘it is no mean topic that engages us, for our subject is, how we should order our life.’ (Republic, 352.D)

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The Beauty of Truth

St Dominic’s love of truth was ultimately love of a Person, Jesus Christ our Lord. That is the sticking point for many who would otherwise be quite happy to talk about the importance of the good, the true and the beautiful in their lives. (As an aside, when I was doing intellectual history under Christopher Morris, one of his frequent moans was that people plucked ideas from Plato without actually reading him. Not guilty, m’ Lud.) It is also a sticking point for those more Aristotelian types who are interested in virtue ethics. How can something as abstract as truth be personal? How can it be loved?

My own answer would run along the lines of saying that ultimate reality is to be found outside the universe rather than within its structure and function. Since that is not accessible to reason by and of itself, we must allow for the transcendent. However, in the person of Jesus that which is transcendent has become accessible to us as revelation. In him we see and hear and touch ‘the love that moves the sun and lesser stars’. For God is love. The question then is not so much whether Truth is a Person, but whether Truth is lovable as we understand loving. (I have compressed the argument of what would be a long book into a short paragraph, so do not be surprised at the leaps I take.)

How can we love Truth? St Thomas Aquinas has some fine things to say on this subject, but I think we can put things very simply by acknowledging that Christ is so vast, measureless in fact, that we can experience but never explain him. We can know his love without being able to explain it. The image of God is stamped on all creation. There is a truth in all things if we are ready to seek it, and it is infinitely lovable.

On this feast of St Dominic, when we pray for Dominicans the world over, I think we can make our own a sentence of St Thomas which expresses the hope of every Christian scholar: ‘Lord, in my zeal for the love of truth, let me not forget the truth about love.’ There is mystery in those words, and deep humility, as there is in all love.

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