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Being Above and Beyond Yourself

January 25, 2024


We all face a fundamental choice in life: Am I going to live primarily for myself, or am I going to live primarily for others (e.g., for God, for my spouse, for my children, for my friends, for my church, for my community, for my country, for the common good of humanity, etc.)? The choice each of us makes here will determine not only the basic tone and quality of our everyday lives, but also our ultimate destiny: whether we will find our “true selves” and attain deep and lasting happiness.

Roger Scruton, the British philosopher and social commentator, lamented the fact that more and more people these days seem to be choosing to live primarily for themselves, and that they also seem to be teaching their children to do the same (that is, if they even have children, since children, from this viewpoint, just get in the way of living for oneself). Scruton points out that the Golden Rule (“Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them,” Matt. 7:12) used to be “the first piece of moral advice” that parents would give their children, but these days, not so much.1

Scruton was speaking specifically of European culture, but his observations hold true for contemporary Western culture as a whole. Many parents, in fact, do not seem to be teaching their children the Golden Rule. And those kids certainly aren’t hearing any semblance of the Golden Rule from pop culture. Advertisers, pop musicians, social media influencers—many of these people practically shout at us and at our kids that happiness is found in focusing exclusively on oneself. Scruton claimed that, as a culture, we have largely lost contact with what he called “sakehood”—doing things for the sake of someone other than oneself. He also insisted that in losing contact with “sakehood,” we have lost touch with the “core idea of morality,” and that this loss has had serious negative ramifications not only for our personal lives, but also for society as a whole.

Of course, Scruton was right to frame the choice between living for ourselves versus living for others as an issue of morality. But the choice actually involves an even deeper issue. The choice isn’t just about morality; it’s about ontology. The choice is about the kind of people we want to be, not just about what we ought to do. In fact, it’s a choice that goes to the heart of being itself, to the heart of what life and existence itself are all about.

Hell is the choice of self over others; heaven is the choice of others over self.

We human beings are all driven by what the ancient Greeks called eros. Subsequent philosophers and theologians broadened and deepened the concept of eros, with Josef Pieper providing what is perhaps the most eloquent extant definition of eros as “the quintessence of all desire for fullness of being, for quenching of the thirst for happiness, for satiation by the good things of life, which include not only closeness and community with our fellow men but also participation in the life of God himself.”2 We all want the “fullness of being” (i.e., we all want to live life to the fullest); we all want happiness; we all want to share in the divine life and love of God. And in what do all those things consist? In a life lived for others. Why? Because living for others, or what Hans Urs von Balthasar and Pope Benedict XVI have called “being for,” is the essence of the divine life, and only in God do we find the fulfillment of all our deepest desires. As Balthasar put it, “God is never first and foremost for himself: from all eternity he is there for the Other.”3 “Being for” constitutes the very heart of who God is. “Being for” others—making the choice to live primarily for others rather than for ourselves—aligns us with the essence of divine Being, and therefore with the fullness of life itself.

How do we know that “being for” is the essence of God? And how do we know that “being for” God and other people is how we are to live? Through the revelation of Jesus Christ, the “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15) who has revealed God to us and us to ourselves.4 As Jesus said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). And Jesus revealed himself, and therefore God the Father, as self-giving love, as the One who is always “for others.” The divine life, the eternal circulation of love among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is a life of “being-for-one-another.”5 The Son of God took on human flesh in order to reveal to us that the essence of the divine life is self-giving love, and to make it possible for us to share in the infinite bliss of this “being-for-one-another.” Our participation in the divine life can begin right now, if we choose a life lived for others, striving to imitate what Pope Benedict XVI has referred to as Christ’s “forness” and Balthasar has referred to as Christ’s “being-for-others,” his “pro-existence,” and his “pro-omnibus.” Pope Benedict noted that this “forness” lies at the very core of what it means to be a follower of Jesus: “Being a Christian means essentially changing over from being for oneself to being for one another.”6 As Christians, we are called to live out, as fully as possible, this “being for others” of Christ, so that we might grow into what Balthasar calls “God’s bright image” of us,7 our “true selves,” the loving people God created us to be.

But how? How can we possibly imitate Jesus’ radical “forness”? Only through the grace of God, of course. And that means that we will need to imitate Jesus’ “fromness” as well as his “forness.” During his earthly ministry, Jesus did not only emphasize that he was “for” others; he also emphasized his “fromness”—that he had come from God the Father, had been sent by the Father, had come to do the will of his Father, and is, indeed, one with the Father. One can especially see this by reading the Gospel of John from start to finish in one sitting. In doing so, one can hardly help being struck by just how many times Jesus emphasizes the themes of having come from the Father, being sent by the Father, seeking to do the Father’s will, and being intimately connected to the Father. To imitate Jesus’ forness, we also need to imitate this “fromness.” 

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We need to stay intimately and continuously connected to God—through the sacraments, through prayer, through regularly reading and meditating on God’s Word, etc.—so that the divine life and energy, the divine “forness,” can flow through us to other people. Pope Benedict XVI has described Jesus as the man who is both “from” and “for,” the man who is always “open on both sides”: always open to the Father and the Holy Spirit, and always open to us human beings.8 We, too, need to be radically “open on both sides”; we, too, need to be radically “from” and “for.” To live out the “for,” we need to abide in the “from,” because the energy for the “for” comes from the “from” (John 15:4-5). 

Ultimately, the choice between living primarily for others versus living primarily for oneself is literally a choice between heaven and hell. Pope Benedict XVI described hell as “the definitive rejection of ‘being for,’” and he noted that “the depths we call hell man can only give to himself” through his own freely-chosen rejection of love.9 Hell is the choice of self over others; heaven is the choice of others over self. Paradoxically, it is only in the choosing of others over self that we find our true selves and our ultimate fulfillment—a share in the divine life and love. In the end, the choice between living for oneself and living for others comes down to a choice in this earthly life between what Balthasar calls “the boredom of an exitless being-for-oneself” and a “being-above-and-beyond-oneself, with all the surprises and adventures that such an excursion promises.”10

1 Roger Scruton, “Altruism and Selfishness,” The American Spectator, 2007.
2 Josef Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1997), 222.
3 Hans Urs von Balthasar, You Crown the Year with Your Goodness (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1989), 159.
4 Gaudium et Spes, §22.
5 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Elucidations ( San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998), 94.
6 Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004), 252.
7 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Heart of the World (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1980), 94.
8 Introduction to Christianity, 186-187.
9 Introduction to Christianity, 312.
10 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Credo (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2000), 102.