Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Beauty, Goodness and Home

"As we struggle through life, we seem compelled to acknowledge, sooner or later, that our human good, our flourishing and fulfilment, depends on orienting ourselves towards values that we did not create. Love, compassion, mercy, truth, justice, courage, endurance, fidelity - all belong to a core of key virtues that all the world's great religions (and the secular cultures that have emerged from them) recognise, and which command our allegiance whether we like it or not. We may try to go against them, to live our lives without reference to them, but such attempts are always, in the end, self-defeating and productive of misery and frustration rather than human flourishing.

These facts are already, if we think about them, very striking and important ones. We are dependent and vulnerable creatures, who need, for our fulfilment, to orient ourselves toward certain enduring values. If we reflect on this, and couple it with an awareness of the obvious fact of our human weakness, and the notorious difficulty humans experience in steadfastly pursuing the good they aspire to, then one is struck by the extent to which religious belief offers a home for our aspirations. Theism, in its traditional form found in the three great Abrahamic faiths, involves the idea of a match between our aspirations and our ultimate destiny. On this picture, the creative power that ultimately shaped us is itself the source of the values we find ourselves constrained to acknowledge, and has made our nature such that we can find true fulfilment only in seeking those values. In the much-quoted words of St. Augustine, "You have made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it finds repose in you." The natural response to this - to acknowledge that creative source of goodness with joy, and to turn towards it for strength in our struggle - is so basic that it presents itself to the believer as a fundamental and necessary way of going through life. It is not a matter of scientific hypothesis about the precise macro- or micro-mechanisms that formed our planet or our species, but rather a necessary impulse of trust, something that, as William Wordsworth conveyed in his poetry, stems from moments of vivid awareness of the beauty and goodness of the world and our place within it. It is an impulse so deep that we feel that neither abstract intellectual speculation, nor the drudgery or pain of our routine experience,

Shall e'er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith that all which we behold
Is full of blessings.

Few have been more eloquent advocates of the benefits of faith: the uplifting sense of openness to beauty and goodness, and the trust that our best and deepest aspirations in life are not arbitrary flailings around in the dark, but part of the quest for 'God, who is our home'2. To describe God as our 'home' is to conceive of him as the ultimate source from which we come and the point of return to which our restlessness drives us - the final end where our true peace lies."

- John Cottingham

  1. William Wordsworth, "Line Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey" (1798), lines 135-6. 
  2. Wordsworth, "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollection of Early Childhood" (1807), lines 64-5. 

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