Wednesday, 18 May 2011

To do good, or to become good?

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One form of personal crisis is the sense that you are doing no good, or doing harm, in your work - and the desire to do good with your life.

To do something worthwhile.

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Because of the way that modern people conceptualize the world, doing good equates with 'helping people'.

And helping people equates with giving them stuff they need (or, at any rate want).

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But helping people turns-out be harder than you hoped.

In modern society it seems that 'helping people' requires training, exams, screening, a lot of paperwork, a lot of management...

And somehow the officially defined and measured and approved sort of 'helping' does not, at a common sense level, equate with actual, you know, helping...

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And you want to help people that need helping.

And helping (nowadays) involves giving stuff.

But most people in the West have enough stuff, more than enough - so first you need to find people who lack basic stuff before you can help them: before you can 'do good'.

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For moderns, the ultimate 'good' is to find someone materially poor, clearly suffering; then share your stuff and relieve their suffering.

If the media and institutional literature are anything to judge by - the ultimate modern act of goodness is, basically: to make Africans happy.

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The multi-faceted unsatisfactoriness of this moral strategy seems obvious enough; but for many people - including many Christians - it seems the only sure way that they can do good is... to make Africans happy.

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The problem is: if not that, then what?

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As so often, it is the basic assumptions that need to be questioned.

The mainstream modern assumptions are that the aim of life is hedonic: enhancing happiness, diminishing suffering - the main moral imperative is unselfishness, sharing.

But that fact should be seen as a reductio ad absurdum of mainstream modern morality, not a call to action...

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However, to find an answer involves nothing less than an abandonment of this-worldly materialism; it involves nothing less a belief in the soul and in life beyond death: nothing less than religious conversion.

(Which can be difficult if you consider yourself already to be religious, already a Christian - yet you nonetheless regard reducing suffering by giving people stuff to be the ultimate moral imperative.)

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But what if the main problem is not suffering, and especially not the kind of suffering that can be relieved by stuff - but what might be called 'lack of holiness' - spiritual impoverishment.

Then there would be two main ways to do good: missionary work, and spiritual progress.

Successful missionary work gets people across the line and is therefore of immense value.

But missionary work is hampered by the extremely low level of holiness that prevails, even among Christians.

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So perhaps the most valuable thing that could be done nowadays is to strive for sanctity, in oneself I mean.

By traditional means: prayer, asceticism, participation in rites and rituals and so on.

Because, if you are a Christian, you will know that all humanity is in fact united and all human choices are significant; so in seeking sanctity you are not engaged in a personal (nor 'selfish') behaviour - it is for everybody.

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At the same time, it is very difficult to seek sanctity in a society so spiritually impoverished - where do you start?

Who can give you good counsel and guard against the snares of spiritual pride?

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Who indeed? - it is a big risk to strive for sanctity nowadays (more so than it used to be, which may be one reason why success seems so very rare).

Nonetheless, that is what is most needed.

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The world does not really need more people to 'do good', but for some people to become good.

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