Simple Goodness

In previous years I have written about St Dominic in terms of truth and beauty, but this morning, with Iraqi Christians and Yazidis fleeing before their persecutors and the situation of Christians in Syria and other parts of the Near and Middle East scarcely better, I am attracted to that third part of the Platonic trinity: goodness.

Goodness doesn’t get very much attention these days, probably because we have become lazy in our thinking. We tend to see goodness as something other than virtue, i.e. not a moral quality as such but something innate over which we have little control. We are ‘good’ in the same way that we are blue-eyed or brown-haired. It may not be in our genes, but it is somehow part of us. I’m not quite convinced of that.

God is the supreme good, and I trust St Dominic might forgive this non-Dominican for thinking that the love of truth he inculcated in his sons and daughters was part of the quest for this supreme good. But how is goodness linked to this supreme good, God? In the Germanic languages the connection with God is fairly obvious; so can we say that goodness is a reflection of God, a God-given quality, in fact? If so, it is something we are free either to accept or reject, and so far is it from being innate, we must work at it as we must work at other qualities.

I think part of the solution to the problem I have posed myself can be found in the title of this blog post. I spoke of ‘simple goodness’. The Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict is largely about purity of heart — the simplification of being that results in closeness to God. To be close to God is to be like him — to be good, as he is good. St Dominic wanted everyone to be close to God and as like him as possible. It is a challenge we must take up in our own lives.

I am not sure how that can help our Iraqi brothers and sisters, but I am certain that it can.

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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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