The Theological Framework
The virtue of gratitude finds its nourishing context in the lively world of God’s creation, in which we enjoy exploring our human nature as made in the image of God. Our real human world is one that is characterized by the gracious presence of God: love lies at the heart of our world as we experience it. Our gratitude, if it is to be life-giving, cannot be partial: it must embrace the whole of our world insofar as we can “see” it. I can only be truly grateful for the success of Manchester United Football Club if I am grateful for association football, and only grateful for association football if I am grateful for sport, and only grateful for sport if I am grateful for human being, and so on.
No matter with what experience we begin, we are led into the world of wholeness beyond.
We have, I believe, a view of the nature of our total environment, including ourselves in relation to it, which informs implicitly or explicitly our dispositions and attitudes toward life. But it will only be fruitful if we pay attention to it, keep it under review, and in the light of experience, work to make its meaning more explicit. If and when it reveals “reality,” we will be able to find ourselves and draw life from giving it our full attention. Such a presumed real world is likely to be much more influential on our moral attitudes and commitment to the practice of the virtues than an attempt to embrace a moral theory and deduce how we should behave from strict adherence to it. Utilitarianism and deontology, for example, offer no moral consistency in the way that they can be applied. In any case, moral judgment is more than simply the accurate direction of rational thought.
I turn to Iris Murdoch again, for, following Simone Weil, she holds together the unity of human being and our capacity to “see” reality as the revelation of love:
Will and reason . . . are not entirely separate faculties in the moral agent. Will continually influences belief, for better or worse, and is ideally able to influence it through a sustained attention to reality. This is what Simone Weil means when she says that “will is obedience not resolution. As moral agents we have to try to see justly, to overcome prejudice, to avoid temptation, to control and curb imagination, to direct reflection. Man is not a combination of an impersonal rational agent and a personal will. He is a unified being who sees, and who desires in accordance with what he sees, and who has some continual slight control over the direction and focus of his vision.” (Murdoch, 1970, p. 40)
What the moral agent sees, according to Murdoch, is “reality,” an elusive normative term to which we should not “try to give any single organised background sense” but that, provided its limitations are understood, may be used as a philosophical term: “What is real may be non-empirical without being in the grand sense systematic. In particular situations ‘reality’ as that which is revealed to the patient eye of love is an idea entirely comprehensible to the ordinary person” (p. 40). The reality revealed in the Christian theological framework is love, God’s love in creation, a love that embraces the whole world and all people. It is an active love presented in the Christian understanding of the nature of God as Trinity—a lively, mutual, coeternal, loving relationship that human being is invited to share. The mutual self-giving of the divine nature is the image in which human being is made too: people will find their true natures and reveal themselves to others by giving and finding themselves in loving service. In so doing, they bear witness to reality, attention to which has nourished their will so that they want to do what their reason tells them they are capable of achieving.
“Love is knowledge of the individual,” affirms Iris Murdoch (Murdoch, 1970, p. 28). In Christian theological terms, we could say that love is the knowledge of Jesus, the Christ in whom we see God’s love in creation in our own likeness. But it is difficult to learn goodness from another person, so the simple question that has seemed to some to be the summary of Christian ethics—what would Jesus do?—is ridiculous. The “reality” to which Jesus draws our attention by his teaching, example, and self-sacrifice is the goodness of God, the Creator whose forgiving, redemptive, and loving presence reveals the nature of the creation for which he takes responsibility. The allembracing range of his loving presence is expressed in the Christian Creed, which talks of Jesus’s being with God, the presence of God with him in his life and death, his descent into hell, his Resurrection, and his ascension to the Father. There is nothing that is outside the love of God in creation. As St. Paul puts it, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:18-19). Hence we can, with God, declare that when we look upon the “real” world God has made, it is good: we can truthfully celebrate his “Real Presence.”
However, notwithstanding this fact, we cannot simply read from the world what we should do if we are to behave well. There is no one whose example we must simply imitate. Indeed, were we to be no more than obediently imitative, we would not be acting morally; to act morally requires personal judgment. Much more important, “There exists a moral reality, a real though infinitely distant standard: the difficulties of understanding and imitating remain” (Murdoch, 1970, p. 31). The point is that we grow by small degrees through giving attention to reality and growing in the light of what we see. This is certainly a metaphysical perspective, but it is not unreal. Indeed what distinguishes the Christian from the Murdochian perspective on goodness is that its character is the lively, divine life of God himself, present in the world in the person of Christ, who inspires us and enters into our minds and hearts so that we can join our wills with God’s and “will one will.”
Sarah Bachelard points to Murdoch’s claim that “many of our most profound moral differences are an expression of the fact that ‘we see different worlds’” (Bachelard, 2014, p. 2). We might, following Wittgenstein, call them similes. But choosing between the “validity” of similes is not the product of rational inquiry; it will be a matter of choice but a choice informed by the whole of oneself. This is not a matter of blind choice; on the contrary, it implies a perspective on life that includes reason, aesthetic insight, feelings, and the emotions. It is unlikely to be completely developed at any time but to grow and be filled out in the course of one’s life. Perhaps this is why Wittgenstein said that “a man’s philosophy is a matter of temperament” (Wittgenstein, 1980, p. 20e). It might explain, too, why he should also say that when life becomes difficult, we think of a change in our circumstances while a change in our attitude does not cross our minds (Wittgenstein, 1980, p. 53e).
Changes in attitude are, however, of the essence of a maturing sense of what we believe to be reality and the development of the moral imagination with which it is associated. A breadth of experience, not merely of what we call “facts,” will assist us in coming to terms with what we understand to be reality, at which point we shall want to reconsider our ethical stance and our place in the world. It is a matter of considerable importance analogous to religious conversion. As Lonergan reflects, “Religious conversion is a matter of being grasped by ultimate concern. It is other-worldly falling in love” (Lonergan, 1972, p. 240).
Formation of the ground of our theological perspective begins with the demand of truth. To repeat Wittgenstein’s remark, “No one can speak the truth: if he has still not mastered himself. He cannot speak it; but not because he is not clever enough yet. The truth can be spoken only by someone who is already at home in it; not by someone who still lives in falsehood and reaches out from falsehood to speak the truth” (Wittgenstein, 1980, p. 35e). The search for God, for reality, for truth, for beauty, for goodness is a struggle that can bring suffering. Unfortunately, we have almost lost the willingness, let alone the ability, to struggle for the truth.
Our education is too bland: knowledge is accessed through mechanical processes, and even its links to more incisive perspectives are identified by technical maneuvers. Wittgenstein was right when he reflected, “I think the way people are educated nowadays tends to diminish their capacity for suffering. At present a school is reckoned good ‘if the children have a good time’ . . . Endurance of suffering isn’t rated highly because there is supposed not to be any suffering—really it’s out of date” (Wittgenstein, 1980, p. 71e). We are unprepared for the demands that we are required to accept if we are to attend to the reality that lies within and beyond our experience. Yet only by attending to it will we make the effort to inch toward the truth and freedom of our humanity, made as we are in the image of God.