This column is the last in a series of 3 columns on ethics and human happiness
Knowledge of the Divine within the Created Order
St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans that knowledge of God for those without the Jewish faith,
“is clear to their minds; God himself has made it clear to them; from the foundations of the world men have caught sight of his invisible nature, his eternal power, and his divineness, as they are known through his creatures.” . . . Thus there is no excuse for them; although they had the knowledge of God, they did not honour him or give thanks to him as God; they became fantastic in their notions, and their senseless hearts grew benighted” (Romans 1:19-21).
Later St. Paul explains how this lack of honour for God leads to “filthy” practices and disordered relationships.
We can see in this passage a coming together of the themes of the two preceding columns in this series, namely, ethical conduct and happiness. The first column was concerned with the nature of ethics and how it leads us to “things that last.” The second column was concerned with elucidating our desire for the things that last and showing that these things actually constitute human happiness. Therefore, we as human beings ought to be ethical in order to fulfill this deep desire for happiness within our heart. However, St. Paul brings in a third element and that is knowledge and worship of God. Without this element, the pagans were left to “base” and “filthy” practices that left them “benighted.” The message seems to be clear, without God humans cannot be happy. The task of this final column is to illustrate, as far as possible in the given space, why this is so.
Happiness is More Than a Checklist
My wife and I teach a small Catechism class on Sundays. One of the girls that we teach has had very minimal exposure to Christ and His Church. During class one day she asked a very good question. She said, “It seems like a lot of this stuff boils down to doing good things and not being a bad person. Isn’t that obvious? Who would want to be a bad person and why do we need religion to tell us to be good?” If we look at what St. Paul says a little later in his letter to the Romans it appears that our student is correct; we do not need religion per se to be able to tell right from wrong. St. Paul says,
As for the Gentiles, though they have no law to guide them, there are times when they carry out the precepts of the law unbidden, finding in their own natures a rule to guide them, in default of any other rule; and this shows that the obligations of the law are written in their hearts (Romans 2:14-15).
Now, whether or not the moral law has binding force in the absence of knowledge of God is a contested topic in philosophical circles. I have written in detail on the subject elsewhere. However, it is clear that we can have some kind of moral knowledge apart from God as St. Paul says above. So where does that leave us with regards to happiness? St. Paul seems to say that we cannot be happy without God because those who did not seek to honour Him gave themselves up to “filthy” practices and they were “benighted.” But then there are those who follow the precepts of the law (i.e. do good) without knowledge of God. If we can be good without God, can we then be happy without God? What are we to make of this?
To begin to answer, I think we need to examine briefly the nature of goodness. Oftentimes goodness is looked upon as a checklist, and not without reason. In order to be a good accountant, for example, one needs to do a series of tasks well such as adding and subtracting relevant pieces of data, staying up to date on tax laws etc. The same holds for most other things as well, in order to be good or grow stronger in a certain area or profession one needs to do a series of tasks well. However, being a good person is much different than being a good accountant or being a good instructor. Someone can fail or be mediocre at their job and still be a good person, but if someone is a bad person, if someone fails at being a good human being then their entire life gets thrown off course. To fail in goodness is to become “benighted” and engage in “filthy” practices according to St. Paul.
Goodness, as it relates to the personal sphere, is not merely a checklist. This because in striving to be a good person we do not merely strive do certain tasks well; we are seeking a lasting foundation for personal fulfillment as we saw in the first column. Ethics and goodness beckon us to search for a lasting foundation in order to flourish. Flourishing and living well is what happiness consists in according to our reasoning in the second column of the series. So if we look at human happiness and goodness as merely a checklist that has to be completed then it will seem odd that God has to come into the picture. However, if we look at happiness as a lifelong pursuit for fulfillment in need of a lasting foundation it is easier to see how God might fit into that picture for He alone is both eternal and personal[i].
A Kingdom Without End
Knowledge of goodness, therefore, can be had without God. We can know right from wrong without knowing about God. But once we seek to put this knowledge into practice, once we start trying to be good, then we can see the need for God in our life. Striving for goodness and happiness impels us to search for constancy and fulfillment. Happiness and goodness are not one-night affairs; they require constant effort in order to be achieved and are characterized by a constant disposition to do what is right. Such constancy cannot be had in this world. This world is characterized by nothing if not change.
However, we can detect within the flux of the world a divine imprint. We can discover the moral law which serves as a guide towards happiness. Such a law cannot have been made by the world or any natural process within the world because the world is always changing, always growing and then decaying. Not only this, but the law of goodness that we find within the world is intrinsically tied up with our personal character and flourishing. Living by it keeps us from being “benighted” and engaging in deplorable actions. So the source of this law of goodness must be concerned with our well being. If the law we find is itself eternal and conducive to our happiness then the source itself must constitute the fullness of eternity and goodness.
Therefore, the source of this law of goodness that is “written on our hearts” as St. Paul says, must be drawing us into itself since it alone constitutes the fullness of eternity and goodness which are prerequisites for happiness. But more to this, we see that the law of goodness beckons us to have right relations with our neighbors and that ethics and goodness are as much other oriented and they are self-oriented. Our happiness then consists in a relationship not only with the source of the law of goodness but in spreading this happiness to others. We are fulfilled; then when we inhabit a society of goodness and happiness that is centered around the source of the law of goodness which is then distributed to all of our neighbors with whom we can then live in peace and happiness.
God, Himself is the only possible source of this law of goodness since He alone is both eternal and personal. Therefore, it is only in His kingdom that we find true and lasting happiness. Without Him, we can know what is good, but we cannot have the fullness of happiness because we will lack the constancy that is the foundation of ethics and happiness. We will not be able, in this world of temptation and change, to always and everywhere do what is right. But doing with is right with a constant will is a requirement of ethics and therefore of happiness as we have seen. Further, since God’s kingdom is eternal it cannot be of this world. Here we now see the seeming paradox of ethical inquiry and the desire for happiness. A rational inquiry (ethics) and a natural desire (i.e. the desire for happiness) lead to the super-rational and the supernatural.
To put it another way, we naturally desire what the world cannot naturally give and we rationally inquire about something that is ultimately super-rational. The goal is far and yet near since the precepts of happiness are written upon our hearts and but the Source of these precepts is not of this world. We have therefore a powerful means by which we can work with our neighbors in this life to grow in the knowledge of God and find happiness in the next. We can explain and converse with them on a rational level about the nature of their desire for ethical living and happiness. And we can use this inquiry to guide them to the supernatural and super-rational source of their desires. We Christians then are without excuse since we have the faith as well as the law written upon our hearts. Let us work diligently then to better ourselves by the grace of God and increase His fold as we pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”
[i] Just for the sake of clarity, I am not here arguing that God is eternal and personal; I am assuming it. For arguments supporting these claims see http://newadvent.org/summa/1010.htm and http://newadvent.org/summa/1029.htm.