My kids and I drove my wife Maribeth to the airport Friday morning. Her grandfather was found on Thursday morning collapsed next to his truck and rushed to the ER in Saint Paul, Minnesota. It’s tough to be half a continent away when a beloved family member is suffering. Such events inevitably draw us back to the things that matter, and the assured death that hangs over each of us – and each of the ones that we love. But they also draw us forward to consider the shape of life, the good life. I have written in past posts about virtue ethics, which is an approach to ethics that understands our lives as the unfolding of a story, and ethics in relationship to a picture of ‘the good’ and ‘the good life.’ In this view, ethical reflection is less about making right decisions and more about the capacity or power (virtue) to live a good life.
But what is the good life? What is the good? It is difficult to answer this question in abstraction, but much easier if we tell a story. The story of Maribeth’s grandfather, for instance, discloses the shape of the good for humanity. In his wife and the throngs of children, grand-and great-grand children gathered around his hospital bed, his life bears the shape of fidelity and trustworthiness. In the work of his hands in and around his community, his life encapsulates tireless service and friendship. In the pastor who drove over an hour to the hospital and the phone calls (and facebook messages) encouraging others to pray, his life demonstrates a legacy of trust in God and commitment to a people of faith. His particular life gives us a frame for the good: that the good life is one of fidelity, trust, and trustworthiness, service, faith, and friendship. It might all be summed up with Paul’s triad in 1 Corinthians: faith, hope, and love.
Clarifying ‘the good’ and living it, however, are two different things. We all need to learn the particular ‘virtues’ – the power or capacity – to live a story characterized by faith, hope, and love. Since the meaning of a human life is inseparable from its particular story, I think attending to our stories is important here, too. Maribeth’s grandfather was shaped by his submission to the wisdom of several communities: from his family of origin, to his education and socialization as a member of a small town in Wisconsin, to his apprenticeship in the practices of farming. But these interconnected communities of formation still need a narrative arc to hold them together. What ‘good’ becomes the logic to hold them together? For Maribeth’s grandfather, formation in the practices, language, and hope of the Christian faith became that narrative arc: family, farming, marriage, friendship found its aim or end in the transforming hope of new life in Christ. Hard work, discipline, fidelity, were all given meaning, given a telos as they participated in a broader story. In the end, ‘the good’ is something that must be received rather than achieved.
And I think this is the key. Psalm 34 says “taste and see that the Lord is good.” 1 Peter 2:3 (and the surrounding text) encourages the church: “if indeed you have tasted and seen that the Lord is good…” you must “love one another deeply from the heart.” The good life, or ‘the good’ is not an abstract aim, but an enfleshed encounter, a tactile experience at once overwhelming and compelling. The good is something we must live rather than a focus for conversation. As such, it is inseparable from the interconnected, social reality that marks human life. 1 Peter draws a direct connection between our experience of God’s goodness and our life in community. Love one another deeply from the heart…if you have tasted and seen that the Lord is good.
In my blog for the past few months, I’ve been circling around issues of human agency in relationship to visions of formation. I have been trying to articulate the way that even our sense of action or initiative is conditioned by our social context. Even in initiation we are responsive. I’m struck by watching my wife’s family rally around her grandfather how true this is: we are always participants in larger networks of relationship and care. The folks around her grandfather’s bed say a lot about her grandfather himself, and the character he displays. And yet, they are there because of something his particular story, his particular narrative arc with its accomplishments and failures, has accomplished in and with them. His story is incomplete without those gathered around his hospital bed. And so is theirs without him. So is mine. ‘The good’ that directs the arc of a virtuous life is always received rather than achieved.
I’ve been circling these issues of agency because of two basic theological commitments that seem clearer to me at this moment. The first is a commitment to a social understanding of the Trinity. This leads to a second commitment, which is an understanding of human personhood (theological anthropology) as inherently relational. A Trinitarian theology leads to a relational ontology. I think I’m still trying to work out these shifts in relationship to all kinds of concrete situations, but in light of the shape of ‘the good’ and 1 Peter, I see that we ‘taste and see’ that the Lord is good within real relationships rather than in flights of interiority.
At one level, then, our love for one another discloses the goodness and love of God (as 1 John says “anyone who loves knows God…”). But if this statement stands on its own, we reverse the movement from Trinitarian theology to a relational ontology. For 1 Peter 1:22ff connects the imperative (love one another deeply) with the indicative (you have been born anew by the imperishable word of God). The Triune God gives life and makes us new such that the love and mutuality of Father-Son-Spirit within salvation history (the self-giving Word) creates the possibility for the gift of our self-giving and love for one another. We love because he first loved us. We receive ‘the good’ from the communities within which we participate; but any possibility of goodness has its origin in the God who is love.