Thursday, June 17, 2010

Looking for the goodness in all things...

In the church "small group" study I have been attending, we are reading through C.S. Lewis' small book, Letters to Malcolm, which is a collection of essays in letter form, as though written to a friend (for some time several of us thought they were actual letters, but I grew suspicious when some of the sentences became so ornate that I thought, "man, no one writes letters like that, not even Lewis!" :-P) Anyway...

In the book, Lewis talks about prayer, and a variety of theological topics related to prayer. Tonight we were discussing his idea that prayer often begins with looking around at the simple beauty found in your current situation. Even if there is nothing profound happening in our lives - even if we are in a bad situation - it is still possible to find a bit of goodness and linger there. As Lewis puts it: "Begin where you are."

But Lewis then expands on this idea a bit more, and we found ourselves (or at least I found myself!) drawn to the understanding that goodness is always present in our lives, at least to some extent, and to that extent, God is present. In other words, anywhere there is any good, it is a reflection - even if a very dim one - of God. This, of course, is not a new idea: St. Augustine, for example, viewed God as the source of all goodness, and to the extent that there is evil, he called it the "absence of good." Augustine (following a neo-Platonic route) went on to say that evil has no actual reality to it, because since it is not good, it is also the absence of God, which makes it also lack reality.

Of course, most of us will question such a notion, because evil seems quite real to us. But Augustine's point was subtle. Think of theft, for example. In theft, what takes place? If someone steals an apple, they do not eliminate the goodness of the apple. They just take that goodness (assuming we like apples! :-D) and transfer it from one location to another. In so doing, they take goodness away from someone else. This is the evil; the taking of good from someone else and keeping it for yourself. Even if you were to smash the apple under your foot, you haven't eliminated the goodness. It simply returns to the earth, where it has the potential to actually create more goodness (i.e. a new apple tree).

Lewis makes a similar point, and one that I think is quite helpful for us in developing not only a more accurate picture of evil, but of sin as well. Lewis describes the theft of the apple in Augustinian terms, but goes on to add that in stealing the apple, we are actually doing harm not only to the person we robbed, but also to ourselves, and indeed to all of creation. Why? Because every time we sin, we transgress against God's goodness. Sin is not simply the fact that I took something which wasn't mine, it is also the fact that I contributed, in a small but nonetheless profound way, to the reduction of good in creation.

Now, someone may point out that an apple isn't everything - for that matter, everything in creation has limits. All is finite. We can't all have our own apples all the time, so to speak. It is true that we are, in a sense, caught in a catch-22. We can't solve all the world's problems and eliminate sin. But Christ calls us to live as though we will (see Matt. 5-7 for example). But even though we cannot eliminate evil - only God can - we are asked to believe, by faith, that God will do so. And living with that faith gives us the courage to foster goodness in the world, even when it seems like it won't make much difference.

This is where the dual lesson of goodness can transform the Christian. If we are, through Christ, able to see that any and every act of goodness is a small taste of what God is like, and every act of sin is a small (or big) taste of what it's like when goodness is stripped from the world, we can begin to see what Christ calls us to be. We are bringers of goodness!

And with that goodness (which is really God's goodness), we also hope that maybe, just maybe, our actions have the power to re-make the world in some sense. What we do really matters! Following Christ has the power to transform not just people, but all of creation. Not completely, of course, but God never asked or expected us to do everything. God does ask us to live as conduits of goodness, bringing hope - even in small doses - into the world by following Christ.

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