Corruption and Perfection

Imagine the horror of your bad habits being made known on your body, on the news, or to the masses on social media. Even more than your social life, imagine the effects of such habits on your soul or upon your highest aspirations in life. If you’ve ever read The Picture of Dorian Gray you get to experience that through a man whose indiscretions are hidden from view by virtue of their effects being transferred to a painting of himself that essentially represents the sum total of his virtues or vices.

The power of the novel, or even the concept of a painting that ages in our place for anybody who hasn’t read it, is in its ability to make us reflect upon whether or not our actions move us closer to perfection or deeper into soul and aspiration destroying corruption.

The processes of corruption and perfection are measurable by comparison to an ideal self, a moral standard, or, in the case of physical goals, literally measurable by the strictest standards of science (fitness, financial, and other such material based goals).

With this in mind, I suspect that the best way to help somebody pursue a like of moral virtue is to get them to imagine an ideal version of themselves that seems ideal to them. Once you start pursuing that vision of the good, two things can happen. First, you realize how poorly you make choices, in other words, you’re a sinner by your own law. Secondly, you realize both the greatness to which you could realistically aspire and the silliness and small-mindedness of your ideals.

Richard Swinburne explains the process of personal corruption. It is essentially the encouragement of bad desires and elimination or deformation of good desires. This is the result of choices we make. In the book he proposes the case of somebody who decides to do what they know (or think they know) to be evil. He describes what he considers to be the two possibilities for somebody who repent of their actions:

“Gradually, unless a man to some degree pursues the good, one of two things happens. First, the agent may try to persuade himself that the action which he believes to be wrong, say stealing, is not really wrong. He looks for disanalogies between stealing and other wrong acts, and analogies between stealing and acts which are not wrong. ‘It’s only luck the victim had the watch to start with,’ says the thief; ‘so I’m just upsetting the balance of luck. Anyway, hardly anyone really loses anything, because almost everybody is insured.’ And so on. Or secondly, the agent may say ‘I don’t care about right and wrong. I’m not going to be a moral man in future.’ In one or other of these ways the agent intentionally dulls his conscience, blinds himself to awareness of good and bad, right and wrong.”1

In other words, as we make poor decisions we either deaden our emotions to that decision but justifying it over and over again or we convince ourselves that morality in this or in all cases is not real.

An important question for thoughtful people is this:

Are there any habits for which I feel the need to justify myself to my conscience? And then ask, “Is my conscience right or wrong?”

This process, I think, applies not just to matters of right and wrong, though it obviously does. I think it applies to any good habit that makes us more fully alive, more fully functioning, and more happily human. Areas that take extra effort to develop good habit like diet, frugality, paying bills on time, working on your art daily, managing your property, reading instead of watching television, exercise, cleanliness, intellectual effort, and so-on can go through the process of corruption until we find ourselves unfeeling and ungoverned by reason with respect to these things. We revert to our merely animal nature and live on the basis of impulses rather than reason.

This particular discussion is interesting to me because my favorite definition of free-will is “the ability conceive of an ideal and pursue it.” I heard it in a lecture and I don’t know from whom the lecturer was quoting. But it’s elegant and sidesteps all the other metaphysical baggage that comes with debates concerning free will.

Anyway, what good thing do you want? Do you want honesty, freedom from pornography, control over your emotions, a positive net-worth, to be truly tranquil in yourself and benevolent to those around you? Now ask, do my habits tend toward these goods or away from them? Is it worth it to keep up with habits that lead you to eventually abandon your highest aspirations or live with the anxiety caused by desiring what you believe you’ll never acquire? In other words, ask yourself if you’re on the path to corruption or perfection. You’ll have plenty of time to decay when you’re dead.

 

Footnotes

1 Richard Swinburne, Responsibility and Atonement (Oxford [England]; New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, 1989), 174

*Image: By Ivan Albright (1897 – 1983) – en:File:The Picture of Dorian Gray- Ivan Albright.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48757597

Reflections on Abraham

Abraham and Melchizedek in the Loggia di Raffaello in Vatican City.

What is a father?

Genesis presents Abraham as being the father of many nations.

The whole Bible presents the Israelites as the ‘sons of Abraham’ on multiple occasions.

The New Testament, in particular, presents anybody with appropriate faith in God (whatever that means…but usually faith in Christ) as a child of Abraham.

This is significant for many reasons, not the least of which is that the father in the Bible is a figure for the accumulated wisdom of the past in a way that is indicative of a divine voice:[1]

See: Proverbs 1:8,10,15; 2:1; 3:1,11,21; 4:10,20; 5:1,20; 6:1,3,20; 7:1; 19:27; 23:15,19,26; 24:13,21; 27:11; 31:2.

Why does this matter? Abraham’s story in the Bible could be read as a representation of the ideal life of goodness in a post-catastrophic world. Or in question and answer format:

Q: In a world where evil, disaster, and death are a given, what does it mean to seek the good God has for us in the world?

A: Look at Abraham.

The New Testament does not shy away from this answer, despite having Jesus as an example. Jesus, in John 8 points to the works of Abraham. Paul in Romans 4 and Galatians 3-4 points to the faith of Abraham. Hebrews is largely about Abraham’s patient faith in God. And James 2 points directly at the good works of Abraham as exemplary even for those after the resurrection of Christ.

Below are my reflections on some of the passages that indicate that Genesis means for us to see Abraham as an example of the good life:

Genesis 12:1-3

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (2) And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. (3) I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

In the passage above, we see that there is an implied condition. Abraham must go to be made into a great nation. That Genesis presents the promise as fulfilled shows that we’re meant to see Abraham as a man who kept a covenant with God. Incidentally, he also took the offer out of self-interest. I’ve written about this before.

Genesis 17:1-8

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, (2) that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” (3) Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, (4) “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. (5) No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. (6) I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. (7) And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. (8) And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”

Here, God’s covenant is made more explicit. It’s called a covenant and in it Abraham is promised to be a father of nations. But what is the condition, “walk before me and be blameless.” The reader is to understand that Abraham actually did do this. God promises to make Abraham very fruitful here, which hearkens back to Noah and Adam as the first man and the second first man. While I don’t quote it, the covenant above includes circumcision, which appears to be a civilizational curtailing of sexual obsession. “You’ll be fruitful but there is a limit to that.” I suspect that circumcision goes back to Genesis 2:22-24 to indicate that sexuality is a blessing and a limitation. Abraham is to be the father of many but that understanding is that his sexuality and those of his children be limited by the wound and healing power of marriage.

Genesis 24:1

Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years. And the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things.

And this passage shows that by the end of it all, Abraham had been blessed by God in all things. He kept the covenant as best a man can in the circumstances (fallen nature, a barbaric world, and a pagan worldview). And so the indication is that if a reader/listener to Genesis wants to experience the blessing offered to humanity in Genesis 1:26-31, being like Abraham is a stable method of doing so.

This is the affirmation of the Old and New Testaments, of prophets, apostles, and Jesus.

Footnote

[1] Obviously, fathers can also be wrong which is why the Bible commends listening more than tradition, like Scripture and reason to know the truth.