Part of growing up is screwing up. Many times, people are defined and refined by their foibles and pratfalls. Sometimes those mistakes are chalked up as learning experiences, sometimes there is no grading curve and people are marked forever by their mistakes. A basic lesson in moral philosophy is that without the bad, there is no way to determine what is good; Eastern philosophy talks about this in terms of yin and yang, equilibrium.
Could it be that the converse is also true: without good, we would not understand what is bad, evil, wrong?
I would like to take this in two directions: first, in an ethical consideration of the need of an arbiter of good; and second, a consideration of the nature of the God-man, that is, Christ.
Democracy does not lend itself well to ethical principle. The concept of critical mass bears this out: if a good or service (and, for the sake of this conversation, societal actions) attains a level of popularity, that product or action ceases being new or innovative and entrenches itself into the cultural status quo. Things start out innovative or cutting edge and, for its survival, strive toward mediocrity. Ten years ago, the concept of Facebook or MySpace was virtually unheard of: today, Facebook or MySpace has exploded from its entrenchment in young adults into the middle-aged crowd. Those of us who are online check our accounts multiple times a day; going without it long enough creates abnormalcy, leaves unfulfillment. 20 years ago, cell phones were a luxury afforded by the elite and upper-middle class, now cells are not only ubitquitous, but people are texting (or checking Facebook.)
Societal trends and behaviors are no different: something can explode onto the scene and be labeled innovative, dangerous, revolutionary or whatever, and after time be de rigueur. Thomas Kuhn (and Michael Polanyi before him) talked about this kind of thing in terms of paradigm shifts, perhaps what I’m talking about here is paradigm integration. The construct does not necessarily collapse–though it can–but is at least added on to or renovated. Or, more caustically, the frog dies from the slow boil of cultural hegemony.
The rise of the naturalistic, atomistic West and the devolution of ethics and philosophy from sources of wisdom to deconstruction of language and situational ethics are not unrelated.
Ethics may not necessarily require God, but it is certainly hard to derive ethics from something like Darwinian naturalism or semiotics. That, and while people may disagree about original sin or total depravity, we can all agree that people are generally prone to stupidity. Dan Quayle can get ripped for his unorthodox spelling of ‘tomato’, while companies spend gift money on lavish junkets and bonuses. There’s stupid and then there’s stupid, but they’re both stupid.
If things, moments, behaviors are or they aren’t, then those things by default are either good or not good. Hegemony and critical mass–both democratic patterns of behavior–act in a way that blurs and then paints over the line. The reality of the matter, though, is that the very inception of any noun is, by default, the moment it is open to scrutiny. And what is open to scrutiny is subject to unintended consequences.
The struggle I’m working through is the nature of Christ: how is a man who knows no sin defined? What can refine that? If Jesus was, during his time here, fully man–and I believe he was–does it really matter that he was sinless pre-crucifixion? What defined Jesus in that context was that he was falsely accused and wrongfully executed, but he was sinless, hence the resurrection. Sin and death are inextricably linked; the resurrection is, in no small part, a paradigm implosion.
How could a person like that relate with anyone? Goody-goodies are precisely that for a reason. We can’t stand them. Maybe that’s why he needed to be put down. And perhaps that is why he could live with such profound compassion, and so much prophetic authority against the religious. Jesus, the incarnation of the God who is, is the envoy of a God who has no definition other than being. Being and rightness (or, righteousness) then have to be linked somehow. Bonhoeffer says as much in his ethical musings, and I think he’s right. Creation ought to reflect creator, any disunion is separation; Jesus then is the creation-creator: his life means more because of the attempt of fallen man to define him than anything before. Sinlessness doesn’t mean anything until then, Jesus is a good guy until faced with death, at which point he becomes the Christ.
The question that extends from this understanding, though, is somewhat disconcerting: what is it that Jesus taught while he was with us? Clearly, doing good doesn’t cut it. Repentance from sin is an aspect, but no one could claim Jesus as their salvation pre-resurrection. Our soteriology is utterly reliant on the death and resurrection of Christ; the Christ-event is a unifying portal between creation and creator. But the kingdom of God Jesus preached was not his atoning sacrifice; that would be senseless.
I do not intend to minimize the Christ-event, but want to understand what Christ’s work was prior to the Christ-event, especially as we approach passion week. The crucifixion and resurrection change everything, this much is obvious, but it is only obvious contextually, that is, to us in the [post-]Christian West. Could it be that the Christian ethic, that is, union with God and walking in repentance, is all there is to it? Are we to model Christ and his teachings, or live in the resurrection? Am I the only one who sees these as not necessarily entangled?
This obviosuly lends itself to the “what about those who have never heard?” conversation, but I don’t find that germane to this conversation. Your feedback is welcomed.