On Renunciation, Liberation, Sin and Death

This follows on from my previous post, which was a simple expression of desire and yearning for liberation in the song Fisherman’s Blues by the Waterboys. But liberation from what? What are the chains which hold you fast? It is the big question – and different religions answer in different ways. Religions such as Buddhism usually characterise those chains as ones of ignorance and desire and suffering. In Hinduism the word Moksha expresses the idea of freedom from these marks of reincarnation. In Christianity the emphasis is more moral – the chains are ones of sin and thus death. As often happens, the reading I was doing today was saying a lot about this yearning for liberation, and the entrapment of the human being. For A2 students perhaps wondering what this has got to do with the exam – stay with me to the end!

As usual I have been doing one of my favourite things – reading about Tolkien! In particular the excellent ‘Tolkien’s Sacramental Vision’ by Craig Bernthal. I have based much of what I say here on his chapter ‘Penance, Reconciliation and Their Refusal’ in that book.

For Tolkien evil is something by which we are caught. There is a strong element of addiction in all those who are caught by evil in The Lord of the Rings – not just those who are caught by the Ring, but for instance Pippin with the Palantir etc. This is something especially fresh to me at this moment because in preparation for Lent – and hopefully beyond it – I have decided to try and break my dependence on mobile devices and social media by selling both my smartphone and my tablet.

This may seem extreme – ‘haven’t I got any self-discipline?’, people have said to me; ‘just stop checking them so much, there’s no need to go that far.’ My answer to that is – would you say to an alcoholic ‘just have a little glass of whisky – have you no self-control?’ Of course they haven’t, that’s the point, and whilst I don’t think my compulsion to check my phone and go on social media is quite that bad yet, I have become aware over the last few months of a rather negative impact of all these things on my life. Quite apart from the fact that I have not really read any actual books for years, when I used to a lot, (no time to – I have twitter to check!) my sleep was cut down because I would be on my phone until the early hours, I found myself forced by Facebook into a projecting a distorted version of myself and recognised rather a lot of ego investment and pride in what I was doing, which sometimes made my interactions with others negative. These are probably just some of the negative effects of having constant access to social media on mobile devices. I’m sure there are limited positive effects, but for me they have been massively outweighed by the downside mentioned above.

I mention all this not to further mire myself in pride – look how abstemious I am! – but to give a practical example of the results of effectively chosen renunciations. I have been more productive, at peace, calmer and happier this week than I have for a long time, all by giving stuff up. It will become more difficult as I realise that I cannot rely on things like Google Maps or Kindle on journeys! But as renunciation goes this has been fairly easy! I’m not quite ready for the hair shirt and bread and water yet!

My point is it is very easy to become caught in the technological age. You find whole hours have gone by just staring at your phone. For many people this is fine. They are happy playing candy crush saga or whatever. But I have too much that I want to do. I don’t want to obliterate myself, to numb my awareness. I want to stay awake. I need to stay awake – to be vigilant in a moral sense, but also to create – you cannot create without life making some kind of sharp and shocking splash against your skin every now and again. Those who create, be it art or poetry or whatever, I would guess have found working ways of allowing life to sabotage their carefully planned and controlled creative environments, but not sabotage too much. It’s a tightrope walk, creativity.

But once you remove the external traps that are there to catch you, it is not all plain sailing. A subtler form of trap lies in wait within, a tendency which the external technological traps were just there to exploit once it manifested. This is the inner disposition of restlessness. This is a much more difficult trap to renounce. [see Josef Pieper – Leisure; the Basis of Culture]

Returning to the Biblical basis of this, the Old Testament Covenant was a life or death choice. The choice of evil meant you were ensnared by death, and as Bernthal points out St. John says much the same thing: “He that loveth not, abideth in death” (1 John 3:14)

“Death is a condition you enter while alive, and you abide in it – you accept it, you don’t struggle, and your conscience grows numb” – The way Bernthal puts it echoes my fear that midway on my life’s journey I begin to blunder off the path, being full of sleep:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard–so tangled and rough

And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.
And yet, to treat the good I found there as well

I’ll tell what I saw, though how I came to enter
I cannot well say, being so full of sleep
Whatever moment it was I began to blunder

Off the true path.

Dante, Inferno, Canto I

The entrapment, the capture, is a slow process; you don’t presumably realise where you have started to go wrong until it’s too late. Persistence in sin makes you go spiritually blind, as Feser puts it here (Sex Part II – Aquinas on the daughters of lust), which explains a lot.

That abiding can be turned around – he that loveth, abideth in life, clearly, and this is the ‘life to the full’ that Jesus speaks of, which comes from drinking of the waters of eternal life that He gives us. Graham Ward says:

“The goal of contemplation is a mutual discerning – to know even as I am known. The knowing is a condition of being, a condition in the Johannine texts that is often described as abiding (‘meno’ – to stay, to stand, but transitively, to await, to expect.)”

The paradigmatic case in all Tolkien’s work of this abiding in death is Smaug. This dragon is possessed by what he possesses: his hoard of gold. He abides with death – a reign of pure quantity as Guenon put it – every last gold piece counted, and unable to rise from the hoard in case something goes missing. He is therefore bound to the tomb of his cave. This grasping or appropriation Tolkien uses as an analog of our epistemological appropriation, our inability to let the known be known without somehow attempting to make the known into an image of ourself, is a reverse case of that ‘knowing as we are known’ which is abiding in love. We must constantly practise renunciation in order to allow things to be as they are, not what we want them to be.

Heidegger takes the moment of death, cutting as it does across all our plans and intentions, as a spiritual opportunity, as it presents us with the possibility of absurdity and therefore invites us to live life authentically. At least, this is what I take him to be saying! Heideggerians correct me if I’m wrong! When life is lived ‘as rite not as flight’ then we are learning how to die well, which is surely the aim of a good life.

In the Silmarillion, men, when rejecting death, enter into a deeper spiritual death. They lose vibrancy and joy. The mark of being captured by evil is joylessness, lack of merriment or gaiety. How do we avoid this? Interior battle is Tolkien’s answer – look at how many battles there are in the Lord of the Rings – but most of them go on in the inner forum of conscience of the characters. We need all the spiritual weapons we can muster for these battles – waybread, the phial of galadriel, the elven rope – all of these gifts which save Frodo and Sam are sacramental or prayer related. We have been given help in the battle.

To go back to Dante, in the Inferno, the negative gravity of sin pulls him into hell – he cannot ascend the hills he has come down, and must go through hell to escape. ‘Sin creates a proclivity to sin’. In the Catholic tradition, this is why confession is so important. Herbert McCabe:

“The fire of hell is God. God is terrible and no man can look upon him and live, he is a consuming fire. To be safe in the presence of God you must yourself be sacred, you must share in God’s power and life. To have come into the presence of God without this protection is damnation. That is one picture of hell, the fundamental biblical one…

But hell is also the inability to accept death. The damned man is he who does not die in Christ, for whom death is therefore not a means of resurrection to new life. He is not able to make the act of self-sacrifice required of him. He is unable to see why he should. I picture the damned as spending their time continually justifying themselves to themselves, constantly showing how right they were and why they have no need to repent…

All the souls in hell, I think, are quite convinced that they have been damned unjustly. The analogy I find most useful is that of the child who has lost his temper and is sulking. He wants of course, to return to the affection of his friends, but he is blowed if he is going to apologize, his pride keeps him out even though he wants very much to return. Everybody is fully prepared to have him back if he will only make the gesture of returning, but this he finds himself unable to do. He cannot perform the self-abandonment required. He is unable to die.

Anyone in hell who was sorry for his sin would of course instantly be in heaven; the point of hell is that this does not happen.”

Student Essay – Explain the main principles of the Natural Law approach to ethics. (Full Essay)

Natural Law is an absolutist theory because it doesn’t vary its primary precepts with circumstances. Natural law is a mixture of teleological and deontological because it has primary precepts which are to do with duty, and secondary which apply to circumstances.

Thomas Aquinas based Natural Law on Aristotle’s teaching about causality. In Aristotle Final cause and purpose are important when trying to give an explanation of a thing. Eg. the final cause of a knife is to cut. Aristotle thought this is what made a good knife. Something is good inasmuch as it fulfills its purpose. (The most important cause is the final cause which when achieved by an object it reaches perfection – because it has moved from potentiality to actuality eg. a potential A grade student becomes an actual one through application of hard work. )

The contrast with other senses of the word good can be brought out if we consider that a good knife can be used to perform a bad deed – ie. to stab a person. However, if it cut cleanly it would be good in the sense of doing what it was made for. This use of the word good is taken up in Aquinas and used in his theory.

What is clear for a knife is not so clear for humans – what is our purpose? Ultimately, God Himself is the final purpose of human beings – our goals are not merely temporal, but eternal, because we have an immortal soul. However, we also have temporal purposes, which could be summarised as to live and flourish in certain ways discoverable by reason.

Thomas Aquinas believed that Natural Law was part of a hierarchy of laws that are part of the cosmos created by God. God created everything via the Eternal Law. As God is the ultimate cause of all being, he has the highest qualities in respect of his creation, therefore it follows that he is the ultimate lawgiver. Through the Eternal Law God creatively directs all beings to a common end by endowing them with spontaneous natural inclinations to move toward their own perfection.

Aquinas thought that humans have an essential rational nature established by God. We are to apply reason to know our purpose and that allows us to choose to follow our final goal. Thus, unlike non-rational animals who just follow natural inclination unknowingly towards their good, humans can freely and knowingly co-operate with the eternal law through the use of reason. These laws are discoverable by humans to give the goods appropriate to humans such as food, shelter, knowledge, friendship etc. This discovering ‘from within’ of the eternal law by reason is called natural law – not something extra to the eternal law. Aquinas says: “the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law”. 

Aristotle’s idea of eudaimonia is useful here. Seeking happiness and all-round well-being – all aim to find this in life and it enables us to thrive. Aquinas thought however, that there was a difference between apparent goods and actual goods. Apparent goods are things which we desire and think will be good, but which actually take us away from our final purpose – eg. drink, drugs, gambling and so on.

Aquinas makes the presumption that people will choose good and avoid evil. This inclination is called synderesis, which actually has the sense of an intuitive grasp of first principles. What this means is that, to Aquinas, certain basic precepts are self-evident to anyone with a functioning reason and some experience of the world. For instance, ‘bodily health is a good to be sought after, and bodily illness to be avoided’.

(Then explain the five primary precepts and the secondary precepts and you’re done)

 

 

Student Essay – Explain the main principles of the Natural Law approach to ethics. (25)

Natural Law is an absolutist theory because it doesn’t vary its primary precepts with circumstances. Natural law is a mixture of teleological and deontological because it has primary precepts which are to do with duty, and secondary which apply to circumstances.

Thomas Aquinas based Natural Law on Aristotle’s teaching about causality. In Aristotle Final cause and purpose are important when trying to give an explanation of a thing. Eg. the final cause of a knife is to cut. Aristotle thought this is what made a good knife. Something is good inasmuch as it fulfills its purpose. (The most important cause is the final cause which when achieved by an object it reaches perfection – because it has moved from potentiality to actuality eg. a potential A grade student becomes an actual one through application of hard work. )

The contrast with other senses of the word good can be brought out if we consider that a good knife can be used to perform a bad deed – ie. to stab a person. However, if it cut cleanly it would be good in the sense of doing what it was made for. This use of the word good is taken up in Aquinas and used in his theory.

What is clear for a knife is not so clear for humans – what is our purpose? Ultimately, God Himself is the final purpose of human beings – our goals are not merely temporal, but eternal, because we have an immortal soul. However, we also have temporal purposes, which could be summarised as to live and flourish in certain ways discoverable by reason.

Thomas Aquinas believed that Natural Law was part of a hierarchy of laws that are part of the cosmos created by God. God created everything via the Eternal Law. As God is the ultimate cause of all being, he has the highest qualities in respect of his creation, therefore it follows that he is the ultimate lawgiver. Through the Eternal Law God creatively directs all beings to a common end by endowing them with spontaneous natural inclinations to move toward their own perfection.

Aquinas thought that humans have an essential rational nature established by God. We are to apply reason to know our purpose and that allows us to choose to follow our final goal. Thus, unlike non-rational animals who just follow natural inclination unknowingly towards their good, humans can freely and knowingly co-operate with the eternal law through the use of reason. These laws are discoverable by humans to give the goods appropriate to humans such as food, shelter, knowledge, friendship etc. This discovering ‘from within’ of the eternal law by reason is called natural law – not something extra to the eternal law. Aquinas says: “the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law”. 

Aristotle’s idea of eudaimonia is useful here. Seeking happiness and all-round well-being – all aim to find this in life and it enables us to thrive. Aquinas thought however, that there was a difference between apparent goods and actual goods. Apparent goods are things which we desire and think will be good, but which actually take us away from our final purpose – eg. drink, drugs, gambling and so on.

To be continued…..