Levels and Means of Good

Yesterday I wrote about Mathew 19:23-26:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich
to enter the Kingdom of heaven.
Again I say to you,
it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and said,
“Who then can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said,
“For men this is impossible,
but for God all things are possible.”

I made two points, first, that in order to detach from physical wealth we need to… well… detach physically from it. Meaning it is not enough to say I could give it up. Me must actually give it away or else our statement that we are not attached has no real meaning.

But my second point was that not all wealth is physical. Mental and physical prowess is a form of wealth. How do you detach yourself from that?

To answer that I want to back up a ways and examine the concept of detachment.

Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California (1868), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.
Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California (1868), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.

Genesis 1:31.

Principle 1: All Creation is Good!

The first thing to understand is that everything that God gives is good. This is especially true when talking about attachments and detachment because generally speaking the things that we are attached to are our greatest gifts. I am attached to my physical strength and mental acumen. Those are great gifts that I have been given, and in enjoying them I am recognizing and appreciating the good that comes from God. Money is the same way, for those who are attached to money. It is not the money itself that they are attached to (except in the later stages of the perversion which is greed), but the power to be secure from trouble and to influence the world. Both of these are good powers. Good things, i.e. gifts, can only become problems when they interfere with higher gifts, because…

Principle 2: Some created goods are higher than others.

Video games, pizza and pizza parties are three examples of created goods. Video games are entertainment, which provides pleasure (unless it becomes the perversion of sloth, and is an addiction) and pleasure is good. Pizza is food, which provides the pleasure of taste as well as nourishment. Pizza parties provide the pleasures of taste and nourishment, but also the pleasures of companionship and conversation. A very clear hierarchy is visible among these three. Our use of video games ceases to be a good if it takes up so much of our time that we do not eat. Eating alone is good, unless we prefer that to eating with others.

The Soviet gymnastics team at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
The Soviet gymnastics team at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

So with money. It is a good, but it is a secondary good, good only for the sake of other goods it can provide. If we love money so much that we will not buy food with it, we have perverted its purpose. Physical strength is a good, both for its own sake (the fully functioning human body is a thing of beauty) and for the sake of what it can do (a healthy body can serve other people). But if I am so focused on improving my physical strength that I neglect greater goods, then I am guilty of perverting the good of my body, which is a shameful thing to do to such an amazing creation.

So you see, we detach from things not because they are bad, but because other things are better. Not only that, but failure to subordinate a lesser good to a greater good is so wrong, in part because it degrades even that lesser gift.

Principle 3: Spiritual goods are higher than physical goods.

We look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.

— 2 Corinthians 4:18

This should go without saying, but just as our physical priorities can be out of whack, so our global priorities can be out of whack. If there is a heaven that is eternal, then it clearly outranks the world that is temporal. Only a fool gives up eternal bliss for the sake of a passing thrill, like food, drink, sex or power.

Overdone much?
Overdone much?

A child has to be taught that a 10 dollar bill is more valuable than a penny, because most will instinctively prefer the penny. It has weight, it is shiny, it tastes coppery. All of these are clear advantages over a wrinkly green slip of paper. The only thing it lacks is buying power, but we don’t know that unless we are taught. Once we learn that and internalize it we have not problem giving away pennies to get 10 dollar bills. Until then we react like someone is kidnapping our first born.

We are all fools. Otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation. This is why we must detach from lesser things, because we are distracted by the weight, glitter and taste of pennies and know nothing of the value of a dollar bill. Detachment is an act of trust, a way of telling God, “You say that your grace is more valuable than pizza, so I am going to believe you and give up this slice of pizza that I can see and smell and taste, and ask you to give me the grace that I cannot sense. I trust you know what you are talking about.”

However, we have to be careful because:

Principle 4: The “lower” physical goods are the means of “higher” spiritual goods.

This is important. God said that all creation was good. It is fallen, but still good, for “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” Romans 8:22.

We are not to despise creation because: “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him… For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Romans 14:3,17.

It would be easier if we could despise creation, because then it would be simple to detach. Just get rid of it, destroy it, withdraw from it. Suicide would be the ultimate act of detachment. However, as it is, we are faced with the dilemma, “How do I detach myself from this lower good without wasting it?”

The answer is the other side of asceticism…

Almsgiving.

God in His wisdom has decreed that created goods should be unequally distributed on the earth. This is not, as political liberals tend to think, an inherently unjust state of affairs. Nor is it, as political conservatives would like to believe, a reflection of relative merit and inherently just and right. Rather it is just the baseline. God has designed the world so that some people will be able to grow more food than others, some will have more water than others, some will be smarter than others, some will produce more science, some will have more taste for art, etc. Every single good you can think of is unequally distributed, and this is by design.

The purpose for this inequality is so that we will have an opportunity for active charity, i.e. almsgiving. Failing the presence of charity, we will at least have need for community, if for nothing else at least for exchange of goods and services, which brings fallen human beings closer to charity than we would ever get if left to ourselves.

If you feel the need to detach yourself from some good thing, (and if you don’t you haven’t examined yourself very closely), I submit that there is someone not too far from you who needs the thing that you are trying to detach yourself from. They, in turn, probably have something that you need. It may well be something that you do not know you need, like a story to tell or an opportunity to stop rushing around and just talk.

Detachment is only half the equation. It must be detachment with a purpose, and I challenge you to consider how to make every act of detachment also an act of charity. I will talk more about this in a later post, but right now I have to run to class. Psychology final today, then I am done with this quarter and can get back to work on Biochemistry and Korean. LOL!

For this is not for the ease of others and for your affliction, but by way of equality— at this present time your abundance being a supply for their need, so that their abundance also may become a supply for your need, that there may be equality; as it is written, ‘He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little had no lack.’

— 2 Corinthians 8:13-15

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