Tuesday, July 16, 2019

"Worldliness" Fails to See the Goodness of Things

I have continued to ponder the distinction between the "attraction" for "worldly goods" which Saint Bonaventure identifies as the root of avarice, and the personal understanding and engagement of the things of space and time that largely constitutes the ordinary human vocation.

This is an important distinction that Bonaventure certainly recognizes. He articulates elsewhere his theology of material creation in terms of a highly original (Augustinian inspired) symbolic mystical realism. This unmistakably Catholic Christian realism about the goodness of all created things is a basic theme for Bonaventure (see e.g. Itinerarium Mentis Ad Deum I:14-15, usually found in English translation as "The Journey of the Mind to God"). It is entirely different from pagan neoplatonism, gnostic spiritualism, and especially the dualism and vilification of material reality put forth by Bonaventure's contemporaries in the Albigensian sect.

Genuine Christian faith entails the conviction that created things are good. As humans, we are meant to be "attracted" by the good in creatures, drawn to desire and love them, and drawn toward God through them, drawn to love God preeminently, who is the source and fulfillment of the being and goodness of created things.

The problem is not "attraction" in itself. The problem is the mess that sin has made of our humanity. It is not that things themselves are evil; rather it is our sinful self-obsession, our drive to construct the foundation of our selves in things that we control by our own power, that skews our perception of their essential, gratuitous fullness.

We become "worldly" (and avaricious) insofar as we willingly blind ourselves to the reality of the world as the place where embodied persons give and receive love in a multitude of "incarnate" gestures and expressions. Our "worldly desire" perceives only "worldly goods," things only insofar as they are subject to our own grasping and manipulation.

Thus we do violence to the world God has created in the gift of His love. We covet, take, steal, hoard, violate, and destroy things because we refuse to receive them and give them. When we forget the gift of God, we cannot engage reality: we don't know how to "possess" things with freedom, to learn from them, deepen them by "collaborating" with their riches and marking them with the seal of our own personal creativity, and thus being able to give of ourselves through them. We are the ones who have brought evil and destruction into the world; we have made the world a deceitful, harmful, dangerous place.

But God loves the world. He loves us. The Father reveals the depths of this love by sending His Son, Jesus, the Word made flesh, who dwells among us, accompanies us, dies for us (and thus stays with us even through death) so He can raise us up, heal us, and transform us by joining us to Himself and drawing our hearts to Him.

In following Him we rediscover all the created things of the world in Him. We begin to see ourselves and all things as having their true meaning in Him and for Him. There is nothing reductive about this, because reality is ultimately personal and interpersonal. The encounter with the Person of Jesus is decisive because He fulfills and transcends (in infinite depth) every person and every thing.

In Him, our lives and everything on our earthly path is transfigured. Even though it doesn't often seem that way, as we trudge through the many difficult and lonely days in this life, we hold onto the truth in love and hope, through faith in Jesus who has gone before us in death to resurrection. Thus we learn to engage the world passionately, attentively, but with peace and joy in our hearts, because we know that Jesus Christ has saved the world.