Dion's random ramblings

Monday, October 12, 2009

With no desire whatsoever... The saddest state in existence...

This week I shall be teaching ethics for the students at the Theological faculty of Stellenbosch University - tomorrows class deals with the concept of adiaphoria - a concept that was popularized on Stoic philosophy.  Basically adiaphora refers to actions and things that are neither good nor evil.  Let me give you an example...

Whether I should wear black socks or white socks is neither good nor evil (unless of course I am wearing black pants... Then I should only wear white socks if I am going to a 1980's revival party! ha ha).  Or, whether I have short hair or long hair is neither good nor evil.  This category in ethics came to be known as adiaphora from the Greek meaning 'indifferent things'.  The Stoics of course realized that there are few things that are indifferent in society.  For example, whether I eat rice or bread should make no difference, except of course if the owner of the rice paddy abuses his workers, then I should rather eat bread than rice!  Rice (and bread) are of course not just internal choices, they are choices that relate to very real contexts and situations outside of the individual who chooses.

So, the Stoics suggested that an ethical person would always consider supposed adiaphora (e.g., money) from the perspective of proegmena - seeking what is preferable rather than apoproegmena - seeking that is not preferable. In the case of money, it would be preferable to have enough money to meet one's needs (and of course the needs of those for whom one cares and has responsibility).  However, there is a possibility, as we so often see in a contested estate of a family member, the possibility that money (an adiaphora) whilst desirable for general good (proegmena) could be undesirable since it could cause strife, division and even violence among family members who want a larger share of the estate (this would surely be an apoproegmena).

The conclusion, of the philosophers, was that one should their seek to find a state of freedom in oudetera (a Greek word that means 'neither of the two', i.e., neither that which is desirable or that which is undesirable).

Of course that is a very bland and sad state in which to exist!  From a neuroscientific point of view humans are designed to respond to anticipation (we receive dopamine 'injections' into the brain when we anticipate something, or long for it).  The Bible also speaks of the notion of hope - we cannot live without the great hope that is ours in Christ.

It is for this reason that Christian ethics has sought to strive for a different standard, the standard of diapheronta (that which is 'excellent' see Phil 1:19).  There are a few reasons for this:

1.  As Christians we have to acknowledge that there is not a single decision that could possibly fit outside of God's perfect will.  God has a perfect will for the most important, and least important, decisions in our lives (well, what is important and not important is a measure of our perspective, not God's perspective after all).

2.  As Christians we acknowledge not only that our decisions are subject to God's will, they are also subject to the community of humanity within which God has placed us - in truth we cannot be fully human without relating fully to other humans... This is the model of the Trinity (in the sense of the economic Trinity).  The persons in the Godhead find their being, identity, and mission within their interrelated nature (the Father is Father in that the Father is a Father to the Son, and the Son is Son in that the Son is a Son to the Father... You can see where I am going with this).

3.  We acknowledge that our try worth and blessing does not come from  doing, but from our being.  The fact that we are created in the image of God means that all humans bear the image of God and so find their true value in God, and not in what they own, do, or know.  Thus there are no adiaphora when it comes to people - every person is valuable.

4.  God's creation forms part of God's perfect economy.  The Bible teaches us that God cares as much about the earth, and all living creatures as God cares for people (It was the Psalmist who reminds us that the ALL of the Earth is the Lords, and everything in it!)

So, I have been reminded, once again, that I am a servant...  I am called to serve God, and those who God loves.  It is not my task to live FOR desire (as a primary orientation for my life, like the hedonists) proegmena  or avoid what is not desirable (as a primary way of living, like the pietists) apoproegmena.  Rather, as a Christian I should strive for what is truly excellent, and good and loving.  For in that we shall all find the blessing and peace of Christ (Eph 2:8-10).

The following quote was a good reminder that we need to hold onto community as primary orientation for our lives:

Christian discipleship requires being held in love and being held accountable. We simply cannot follow Christ apart from a community that holds us in compassion and calls us to accountability. Solitary discipleship is a misnomer. We cannot be Christian alone. Kenneth Carder, Duke Divinity School professor and retired United Methodist bishop

I had the joy of meeting Bishop Carder on a few occassions, once at Duke Divinity school when I visited there in 2005, and then two years later at Oxford University when I met him at the Oxford Institute.  He is a remarkable person with a clear understanding of what is right and wrong, and also what helps to make us right and wrong!  I enjoyed listening to him speak!


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