Wednesday, September 5, 2012

On Christ's Obedience

A former student of mine from OLSWA doesn't, I think, want me to get soft, so she asks:

I have a question related to our St. Thomas course this past year...

We were, at some point I think, discussing the concept of Christ's obedience to the Father in terms of the passion. I was wondering if you could clarify for me the correlation between charity, freedom and obedience in that act: was Christ 'forced' by the Father, was it purely 'charity', and did he truly have the 'freedom' to choose? In particular, in what manner does Christ 'obey' the Father? Obviously it cannot be against His will, yet He says 'not My will, but Yours be done'.

I've been puzzling it over for a little while, and would love your thoughts!!!

I respond:

Good question. An important matter.

Good is defined as that to which the will is naturally directed/drawn. Unless there is some impediment in the will or intellect, a rational being will always chose the good, in general and specifically.

Good is coterminous with the pleasant and the beautiful.

Remember, St. Thomas said that the will can chose between goods, but is not 'free' with respect to good per se. That would be to say that something other than good is good (i.e. attractive, pleasant, fulfilling, etc.)

Freedom is defined as the ability to do the good. There is a bit of a circle developing here, but I think we can figure out how the good, the willed, and the beautiful, are only distinguishable in light of some auxiliary consideration. The beautiful is the good applied to appearances and affections; it is only distinguished from good in that it is the good when we speak of things admired or loved, things which draw out affections. 'The willed' is the good thing made known to the intellectual appetite, but it is not other than the good, it is just the term we use when we speak of the good in relation to the rational appetite.

Okay, now all that being said, we see that in Christ, any ultimate distinction between obedience and desire is false. He saw the good clearly; seeing it, He willed it. Again, such a distinction only makes sense when there is a blemish in the will or in knowledge. To will the good, one must know the good and knowing it be drawn to it. Only ignorance and evil desire can interfere with this. Thus, there could be neither sin nor error in Christ. The only caveat here is that Christ's human knowledge must be at least as great as what is required of the essential human vocation, i.e., to live in heaven with God. His human knowledge need not be equal to His divine knowledge for this.

Thus, He he was passionately in love with His Father because He knew the Father.

When Scripture distinguishes between the divine will and the will of Christ as expressed in 'not My will, but Thine' - which Scripture should distinguish, since the Third Council of Constantinople condemned monotheletism (the heresy that in Christ there is only one will, the divine will) - we distinguish between these two things, in my conception, according to the two distinct (but mutually complementary) vocations in Christ, that as God and that as man. In this sense, the body of Christ does not like suffering, the will of any rational being with a body does not like that body to suffer in and of itself, but nevertheless wills that suffering in another sense with respect to some goal: an athlete training, a mother giving birth to her child, Christ suffering His passion. He does not like to suffer for suffering's sake, but because of the good things to which it is directed. Obedience refers to the aligning of His human will with the good to which it is directed; it is good, very good, which means it is what God wills. Christ's will is not directed to the suffering of His body, but to obedience to the Father, which includes the suffering of His body.

Recap: Christ's obedience is not rule-following along the lines spelled out by Kant who described a good act as simply following the rule that the mind recognizes as moral. No, in Christ the recognition is not an intellectual act that can be contrasted from a passionate desire to do so. Christ is drawn to the good that is that Father; He does not obey simply because He knows that it is good to obey the Father in a merely cognitive sense.

If any human being's instructions were infallibly morally correct, obeying them would be following the good, but the person obeying cannot simply intellectually consent to them, his desire must be oriented to the good to which these commands are directed. Christ, in other words, did not simply know that the Father's instructions were truthful, He was already connected to the good itself in His heart, in His  moral vision. Take the case of murder. It is not enough not to kill, one must know why it is wrong, and to really know this why, one must love the good that is human life, one must love human life itself. Christ was connected to the good itself, thus, He was connected to the good that is human life, and every other good. These things are a part of the Beatific Vision that was granted to Christ's human nature. The Beatific Vision is the seeing of the good per se, therefore it is the beholding of every particular good to which any command might extend.

Christ's obedience could only be considered mercenary or draconian or pragmatic (I can't think of the right word), i.e., a matter of simply bowing before a greater power and not by love, if the Father could command something that was not good. That is impossible. Nor did Christ ever make an act of mercenary obedience (an act not motivated by love), since He saw the meaning of his entire life with perfect clarity and could order all short term goals to His ultimate goal, His ultimate good.