Saw a friend last week that I haven’t seen for a while. Found out he is struggling with his health; experiencing weird symptoms for a guy who’s 37 and otherwise pretty healthy. It's really messing with his head. Made me stop and think about how things were for me in the months leading up to, and following my MS diagnosis in 2003. Looking back, it was a time filled with pain, difficulty and anxiety. I just remember leaning forward and praying a lot.
Struggling to live a normal life while managing a complex and difficult neurological condition has given me the opportunity to consider, and to a degree understand, life's difficulties both in terms God’s will and my choices. This understanding is based upon three premises
There must be a God who is perfect.
Because God is perfect, he didn't/doesn't need us, and His act of creation, including creating us, demonstrates His love for us.
Pain and difficulty are both God's gift, and the result of man's choice. They are a reminder that although we live in a broken world that can trace it's brokenness to our rejection of God’s plan for us, His love is revealed to us through an existence where our decisions and actions proceed from free will, the consequences of which allow us to experience the opportunity for His reconciliation and grace.
We'll cover each of these topics in three separate posts.
Part 1: THERE MUST BE A GOD WHO IS PERFECT
GOOD, MORE GOOD, MOST GOOD
Our capacity to perceive things that are not identical but similar--to recognize them, group them into a class and name them--is fundamental to creating language and our ability to communicate with others. It would not be possible to discuss a short vacation, a friendly dog, or a great cup of coffee with someone unless they understand what a vacation, dog or cup is. Because we can understand what cup means despite the huge variety of things that can be called cup, there must be something--or perhaps more than one thing--that all cups share which enables us to establish their "cup-ness."
We can identify that quality of cup-ness--that some things have and others do not--because we are able to distinguish an encounter with A cup--a thing that has a kind of similarity with other cups--from an encounter with THE cup--a unique one-of-a-kind thing. When we encounter cup-ness, even if we can't describe it well, we know intuitively that quality of a thing that makes it cup-like; for example, its shape, the material from which it's made, the fact that it doesn't have a hole in the bottom.
In that way, a thing's cup-ness is not only what gives us the ability to recognize it as a cup, but also to the ability to compare it to all the other things we may also call cups; to see its goodness in terms of being a cup. In other words, even when we may not be able to describe exactly what cup-ness is, we can often distinguish between good cups (for examples ones that can hold liquid without spilling easily) and ones that are not as good (for example, ones with a round bottom).
Being able to distinguish not-so-good cups from really good cups, and really good cups from the greatest of cups shows that (at least in terms of cup-ness) there must be a spectrum where less good, more good, and ultimately the most good--or perfect--all exist. So knowing the essence of a thing (its cup-ness) also means knowing how to evaluate its goodness in terms of being that type of thing (i.e. good cups are ones that have relatively more cup-ness, and not-so-good cups are ones that have less).
This vertical, hierarchical nature of things (from not-so-good to better to the best) serves us well in our need to choose from among things in our day-to-day lives. We identify the nature of things by their capacity to fulfill their purpose (i.e. the best cups do what cups do best) and we tend to prefer those that are best at achieving their purpose. In other words, we tend to choose things because of their capacity for goodness.
And while most things express their goodness in terms of achieving some end (ie, good cups hold liquid better), there are some things that seem to demonstrate good outside of their purpose. For example flowers have bright colors and smell pungent to attract birds and insects, but those same qualities make flowers pleasant to our eyes and nose even though we're not intended to pollinate them. What is it about a field of flowers, a colorful sunset, or a vast mountain range that strikes us as compelling?
The term sublime refers to things "of such excellence or grandeur as to inspire great admiration or awe." This ability to appreciate the sublime for how it appears and what it represents seems to be intrinsic to human beings since children can recognize value in a sunset the first time they see it, long before they comprehend the physics of refraction. Further reinforcing this universality are imaging studies of the brains of hundreds of study participants that showed focalized brain activity in parts of the brain often associated with the perception of feelings, emotions and pleasure while participants looked at a variety of paintings or listened to their favorite music.
In that same light, we might seek understanding for a specific purpose, such as learning how to tie a bowline knot to fasten a sail. Our lives are filled with such things--inextricably linked to reason and science--which exist to help us navigate our world, to make sense of the complex or make the difficult more easy. However, there are also forms of knowledge--like the pythagorean theorem or irrational numbers--the existence of which has innate value even if you don't frequently calculate hypotenuses, create actuarial tables or calculate the probability that magnetic event A will cause photon emission B.
BEAUTY POINTS US TOWARD PERFECT
The excellence we can perceive outside of a thing's known purpose--the symmetry of flowers, the constancy of math, and the scientific ordering of chaos--is a trait we call beauty; an expression of comparative goodness beyond--or outside of--the pursuit of purpose. Our universal capacity to perceive and appreciate beauty--to be drawn to it--reveals an essential characteristic of human nature: the desire for perfection.
The pursuit of perfection flows naturally from the intersection of the hierarchy of goodness and an appreciation of beauty. In other words, once you accept that our ability to define things relies on the good, more good, most good scale that enables us to conceive, name and compare things, eventually you must concede there is something at the end of that scale that is the most interesting, most valuable and most desirable.
Knit that conclusion together with our innate pursuit of beauty--that which is interesting, valuable and desirable for its own sake, and ultimately we seem destined to search for the thing that is most interesting, most valuable and most desirable for its own sake. Whatever you name it, logic and experience dictates there must be something (or someone) that lies at the top of that scale of beautiful and desirable things which our human nature compels us to seek; a most beautiful and most desirable form of beauty that exists for its own sake. In my culture, according to my heritage, we call that perfect being God.
READ PART 2 to learn why a perfect God's act of creation, including creating us, demonstrates His love for us.
2. Salimpoor, V., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K.et al. Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music.Nat Neurosci14,257–262 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.2726