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Excellence

By Marybeth Davis Baggett

Speaking in the voice of the demon Screwtape in his positively diabolic letters, C. S. Lewis attributes to pleasure a “touchstone of reality,” a means by which people can immediately apprehend the good and God. The demon’s nephew Wormwood, for whose counsel the letters were written, has foolishly allowed his “patient” to read a book purely for pleasure and to enjoy a walk through a pleasant countryside, all without thought to utility. Screwtape argues that such “real pleasures,” enjoyed for themselves alone—not for social advancement or self-elevation—give the lie to the “vanity, bustle, irony, and expensive tedium” demons must recommend to those they would turn from God.

While Wormwood is only then beginning to learn of the power of pleasure to draw people toward God, Screwtape recognizes that the “deepest likings and impulses of any man are the raw material, the starting-point, with which [God] has furnished him.” Pleasure, of course, seems more the domain of the devils, but the creation story—and the entirety of scripture, really—challenges that conception. Genesis 1 is punctuated with God’s evaluation of the created order as good, a category that encompasses more than just the moral. In Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics, Robert Adams explores the ways in which consideration of intrinsic aesthetic and intellectual excellences rounds out a rightly-conceived axiological theory (4).

It is to this source of the good that Screwtape points earlier in his letters when he warns Wormwood to be careful in allowing his “patient” to experience pleasure:

Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on [God’s] ground. [. . .] He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which [God] has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden.

This awareness of the potential misuse of the good, however, should not prevent our celebration of the good and, most definitely, should not interfere with our promotion of the good as a means of orienting others toward God.

Alan Jacobs picks up this same strain in A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love. Specifically in defense of quality literature, Jacobs gives his readers permission to revel in excellent works, not simply because of the paltry and minimalist excuse that it “does no harm,” but because it does positive good: “The kind of pleasure we take in a well-crafted work of literary art is very like the pleasure we take in a well-cooked meal, in that it is something given to us by another person.” These pleasures we should receive as a means to connect better with others but ultimately to partake in the good God has instilled in this world. This excellence productive of pleasure can be found in many areas, from the natural to human-made, as Augustine catalogues in De Trinitate. Goodness, Augustine says, is manifest in mountains, hills, fields, farms, the construction of houses, animals, the environment, food, health, friendship, justice, the celestial bodies, and literature. Even the worm has its glories, Augustine argues, if we but look for them.

This attitude, both of goodness made manifest and of being attentive to glimpses of the good wherever they come to light as reflections of God, shows through in the literary work of Marilynne Robinson. Robinson’s most recent novel Lila wraps up a trilogy of companion pieces beginning with her 2004 Gilead. She is a master stylist who deals with tenderness and honesty toward her characters and this world. She has a lushness in her prose that bespeaks loving care of her subject matter. Robinson is also explicitly Christian, and her religious sentiments clearly inform her literary ones, as she has explained in numerous nonfiction pieces.

In case you’ve never read Robinson, let me offer you this example from her first novel Housekeeping, a passage in which the narrator is describing the novel’s setting:

So a diaspora threatened always. And there is no living creature, though the whims of eons had put its eyes on boggling stalks and clamped it in a carapace, diminished it to a pinpoint and given it a taste for mud and stuck it down a well or hid it under a stone, but that creature will live on if it can. So certainly Fingerbone, which despite all its difficulties sometimes seemed pleasant and ordinary, would value itself, too, and live on if and as it could. (178)

This passage exudes control of language, positive appreciation for what’s good in the world, a celebration of the possibilities of words. And much as I’d love to use this space simply to include passage after passage of Robinson’s work, my point here is a little broader. I’d like to use Robinson’s work to reflect on the importance of acknowledging, appreciating, and affirming excellence.

I recently taught this novel in a contemporary literature course. During a conversation with one of my students about the effect reading Robinson’s novel had on her, she explained how moved she was by the prose, that the beauty of some passages would arrest her while reading, requiring her to slow down and experience the moment or scene being described. I felt and appreciated that, too, while re-reading the book and preparing class lecture and discussion. Like bad news that fills our newspapers and cable stations, overshadowing the good in this world, bad writing and slipshod work can pile up so high that we forget the power of excellent work. Encountering it is enlivening and, in my view, echoes the transcendent.

The brilliance of this excellence is that non-theists need not agree with this conclusion to apprehend its power. Robinson’s work, for example, is recognized beyond the boundaries of Christian fiction, as she has won a major literary prize for each of her published novels. Martin O’Connell, who discussed Robinson’s writing in an article for The New Yorker, offers some explanation of what draws readers of all stripes, including him—an atheist—to her work. He describes “the grace of Robinson’s prose” and explains that “[t]he simple, unself-conscious beauty of [her writings is] inseparable from, and equal to, the beauty they describe.” The excellence of Robinson’s work, O’Connell explains, provides him with the experience of “what it must be like to live with a sense of the divine.”

O’Connell’s descriptions of the excellences of Robinson’s writing resonate with Adams’s definition of excellence as “the type of goodness exemplified by the beauty of a sunset, a painting, or a mathematical proof, or by the greatness of a novel, the nobility of an unselfish deed, or the quality of an athletic or a philosophical performance” (83), what is intrinsically “worthy of love or admiration, honor or worship” (83).

The quality of such excellences, Adams explains, derives from God who is the Infinite Good. Of course, Adams acknowledges that the temporal, finite goods of this world will always fall short of the supreme Good, yet he maintains that theists should “care about loving the excellent, inasmuch as worship celebrates an excellence in God that is surely much more than narrowly moral” (4).

2 Peter 1 echoes this argument, explaining that God is the source of life, glory, and excellence and that these gifts allow us to partake in the divine nature. James 1:17, too, tells us that “[e]very good gift and every perfect gift is from above.” On such grounds, Adams, as an ethicist, binds together desiring the excellent with the qualifications for living a moral life, arguing that the “good” for a person “is a life characterized by enjoyment of the excellent” (93). He argues further that a good person is one who is for the good (189).

If we are to accept this understanding of goodness as deriving from God, discerning, desiring, and pursuing the excellent ultimately helps orient our minds toward God and enlarge our understanding of worship as daily practice, a mode of living. Our everyday actions and our engagement with others should be bound up in this moral activity, discerning, encouraging, and practicing the excellent, as a means to know, recognize, worship, and follow God.

I’ll go as far as to say that I think it’s our obligation as Christians to do so. Gene Edward Veith explains, in Reading between the Lines, that “[t]he process of learning how to enjoy (subjectively) what is admirable (objectively) is known as the cultivation of tastes. [. . .] What we delight in has a spiritual dimension” (46).  As Philippians 4:8 phrases it: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Adams goes as far as to say that “loving the excellent has the more foundational role” than doing one’s moral duty (4). Picture morality as a sprawling Gothic mansion; obligations—however important they may be at our current stage of moral development—constitute but a small interior anteroom; the farther reaches of morality exploding into its towering spires are gift and love, sacrifice and excellence, echoes of the former categories of rights and duties a distant memory.

I’ll leave you with one more Robinson quote, this one from Gilead, which calls us to recognize the goodness of this world and, more importantly, to identify its source:

It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. That is what I said in the Pentecost sermon. I have reflected on that sermon, and there is some truth in it. But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. (245)

This world is still the Lord’s, and He is at work in it.  Be willing to see.

 

Photo: “2011 08 06 Farmer’s Market” by G. Billings. CC License. 

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