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A Transcendent Good Upholds the Universe

January 11, 2024

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There is a moral law of nature known to each man’s conscience and reason. “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good . . . to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 NIV). This common awareness of the good to which all ought to conform is, in the words of William Blackstone, “binding all over the globe, in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original” (1 Commentaries on the Laws of England at 41).  Without the natural law, we have no basis for human rights or law in any true sense. By it, however, we know “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

Surely, then, we cannot hold to moral relativism; we should search to find and follow the noble and virtuous way. But what many fail to realize, even those who aspire to hold to some level of moral truth absent religion, is that morality also requires an act of faith. As Dr. Jordan Peterson explains in his book Maps of Meaning, even the most basic act to create rather than destroy the planet and our species assumes the goodness of existence and its moral order.

In other words, how we live ultimately depends on how we view the universe—as a tragedy or as a miracle. And the answer to this question is determined by what happens at the end of the story. Thus the requisite faith in the goodness of the universe and its moral order is not in its goodness in the abstract, but in actuality; that in some way, he shadow is but a passing thing, in the words of Tolkien, and, at the end of it all, awaits eternal justice, harmony, and joy. “He shall judge the world in righteousness,” the Jewish prophet proclaims, “for the needy shall not always be forgotten, the expectation of the poor shall not perish forever” (Psalm 9:8, 18). This is the universal religious longing, that all we say and do is of eternal significance because, behind it all, there is a transcendent good upholding the universe, calling us forward and guiding our steps, working his eternal purpose. “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NKJV).  

There is a transcendent good upholding the universe, calling us forward and guiding our steps . . .

Socrates, the father of philosophy, himself recognized “the good” to be the ultimate source of reality, the pattern after which are modeled all human conceptions of good. Through reason, man could know the good, Socrates explained, if he thereby ordered the soul’s desires and passions. Pursuit of the good and the beautiful was therefore the health of the soul. This nature of the soul, moreover, demonstrated its immortal state and the eternal rewards of virtue to the soul. Socrates concludes, in words similar to St. Paul:

“Then this must be our notion of the just man, that even when he is in poverty or sickness, or any other seeming misfortune, all things will in the end work together for good to him in life and death: for the gods have a care of any one whose desire is to become just and be like God, as far as man can attain the divine likeness, by the pursuit of virtue.”

The Republic, trans. Benjamin Jowett

Socrates and the Greek philosophers were pagans who, nonetheless, recognized an eternal, transcendent reality with what revelation they had. This was called the logos—the “divine reason implicit in the cosmos, ordering it and giving it form and meaning.” Through faith in the logos, the great men of antiquity laid the foundations of Western civilization, dedicated, above all, to the pursuit of glory and honor transcending personal comfort and pleasure. For they sought that which separates us from our animal state—beauty, virtue, exploration, sacrifice, love. Our humanity, they believed, was not reducible to mere survival but instead, by definition, to our pursuit of the transcendent good. 

Which brings us to the story of Christ. Jesus’ mission was to overcome the power of the world and its so-called wisdom. We see this from the beginning of the story where Jesus refuses the offer of absolute power from Satan (Matthew 4). The stage is set for a battle of good versus evil, between competing philosophies of reality. Following the temptations, Christ opens his ministry by reading from the scroll of Isaiah that he has come to open blind eyes, free the oppressed, and proclaim good news to the poor (Luke 4:18-19). He casts out evil spirits. He calls people to repent of their sins and teaches them to “seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). This is all a continuation of the same theme—the battle of good versus evil. Jesus has come to conquer ground under the control of the evil one.

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The extent of Jesus’ victory over evil in all its forms is truly astounding. He is able to calm natural disasters, he brings the dead back to life, and in the final victory, he himself is resurrected and, in so doing, takes the keys of hell and frees the imprisoned souls. The story ends by coming full circle from the temptations. At last, evil is defeated and the world is conquered; Christ triumphantly declares: “All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).

In his article “Christ and Nothing” (First Things, Oct. 2003), David Bentley Hart points out how two diametrically opposed worldviews collide in Christ’s confrontation with the world. Here, we see the convergence of all worldly wisdom and power—Pilate, choosing social order over truth and justice; Caiaphas, plotting the murder of an innocent man for the “greater good” (John 18:14, 38)—set against the embodiment of the noble way, the righteous way, the humble and faithful, loving way, full of grace and truth; to give oneself in sacrifice, believing that in the end there is an eternal goodness upholding the universe. By perfect submission to righteousness, Christ overcomes the world, forever realizing the triumph of righteousness over every will to power (see Hebrews 2:9-10).

At the same time, both Jewish revelation and the Greek search for logos reached their fulfillment. The fatalism of paganism, like the nihilism of modernism, saw the universe as a tragedy. But with Christ’s victory came the defeat of every other god and the triumph of the transcendent good longed for by many, both Jew and Greek. As St. John records, “The Word [logos] became flesh . . . and we have seen his glory” (John 1 ESV). Paul, God’s chosen instrument to bring this message to the world, saw this clearly, and he sought above all to reach Rome, where the Gospel would one day prevail (see Acts 23:11; Acts 27-28; Romans 1:15). And so he did, and so was all Rome and the world transformed.

Paul wrote to the Romans: “[God] will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life . . . the Jew first and also the Greek” (Romans 2:6-10 ESV). Even so, today, whether Jew or Greek, let us seek for glory and honor and immortality. The choice is not between the sacred and the secular; rather, we bring the whole world into the sacred whether we discover cures to disease, take care of our families, build cathedrals, or give a cup of cold water in his name. Every good deed is of eternal significance: “They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor, their righteousness endures forever” (Psalm 112:9). 

Understanding Christ as Lord was transformative to the fatalism of paganism, and it remains the answer to the utilitarianism and nihilism of modernism. Discouragement, by definition, is a lack of courage. But “the righteous are as bold as a lion” (Proverbs 28:1). What the world needs is not a life free of suffering but the development of virtue through suffering. Virtue, in turn, requires faith in transcendent good. If Christ is victorious, if the universe is redeemed, if God is good, then we can truly walk in courageous joy. To quote Dostoevsky, “Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. . . . If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. . . . And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.” This love fulfills the human experience to the glory of God, both now and in the age to come.