Sunday, October 19, 2014

The goodness of Christians

I have been reading from Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy? and came across this wonderful citation from Seneca, On Clemency, II.3.3 about the Stoic philosophers:

No school has more goodness and gentleness; none has more love for mankind or is more devoted to the common good. The goal it assigns for us is to be useful, to help others, and to take care not only of ourselves but of everyone in general and of each person in particular.

It is wonderful to think that there existed at some point in time a group of people who could earn such a description, a body of human persons so dedicated to the common good that they merited these words of praise from one of the most important wise men of the past. But it is a tragedy of tragedies that typically, this description would not apply to Christians in the present day.

Things weren't always like this, of course. Many of us probably know this citation from Julian the Apostate about the Christians: These impious Galileans . . . not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them to their agapae, they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes (quoted in Charles Schmidt, The Social Results of Early Christianity, p. 328). Irenaeus says somewhere that people become Christians because they feed the hungry and heal the sick, take in abandoned children and display goodness and kindness to everyone.

Very few people are convinced that these would be adequate descriptions of Christianity these days, however, and such a thing is to be lamented. But it is possible to bring this perception back, if we dedicate ourselves to doing good. It is perfectly within our power to begin to be the sorts of unconditionally good persons Christ has shown us by his example to be. The Theologia Germanica contains this fine passage describing God's goodness, when it comments on Jesus' calling Judas "friend" as he approaches him to betray:

As though God in human nature were saying: “I am pure, simple Goodness, and therefore I cannot will, or desire, or rejoice in, or do or give anything but goodness. If I am to reward thee for thy evil and wickedness, I must do it with goodness, for I am and have nothing else.” Hence therefore God, in a man who is “made partaker of His nature,” desireth and taketh no revenge for all the wrong that is or can be done unto Him. This we see in Christ, when He said: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (TG 33).

This same love and goodness ought to be in every person who wishes to be made perfect, which means nothing else than being made like God: . . . in a truly Godlike man, his love is pure and unmixed, and full of kindness, insomuch that he cannot but love in sincerity all men and things, and wish well, and do good to them, and rejoice in their welfare (ibid).

Yet I think it is within our power to do this, or at least take small steps towards it. It requires confronting yourself, confronting your impulses to return evil for evil, to exclude those with whom you disagree or whom you find unpalatable, Lord knows I have a lot of work to do in this respect.