June 16, 2024

By Josie Bopp

In a conversation with the Pevensie children in C.S. Lewis’s iconic book “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” Susan Pevensie timidly asks Mr. Beaver about Aslan, the great Christ figure in the story. “Is he safe?” To which the beaver boldly responds, “Of course he isn’t safe! But he’s good. He’s the king, I tell you.”

As we continue our exploration of some of the transcendental, or metaphysical, attributes we use in reference to God, namely goodness, truth and beauty, we now take a deep dive into the good, or goodness.

A word that has been perhaps overused and under-defined in contemporary culture, goodness is at once a simple and yet profound way to understand God and the pursuit of missionary discipleship.

Above all else

Dr. Jason Heron, the S. Wilma Lyle Chair of Theology at Mount Marty University, reminds us that when we speak of transcendentals or the transcendental nature of God, what we mean is a property that “isn’t exhausted by anything that possesses it,” which is why we use this term to help us understand God.

Dr. Jason Heron, the S. Wilma Lyle Chair of Theology at Mount Marty University

“Goodness, truth and beauty are present in every created thing, but they are not exhausted by any given created thing or by all created things taken together,” Dr. Heron said. “They are other names for the Lord, who is the eternal fountain of being. They transcend any example given, no matter how exalted, that we can know or love.”

In other words, we can give people or other created things attributes to help us understand or describe them, but goodness, truth and beauty transcend or go beyond any example we can use. God contains in himself and is these attributes, whereas creation can only contain glimpses of these attributes.

Dr. Heron says the fact that we can obtain glimpses of God’s transcendent attributes in the order of creation tells us that as Christians, we discern a God who desires communication with his creation, a God who is “eager for intimacy,” and it gives us a sense of the Lord’s own generosity in desiring to be known. And as missionary disciples, he says, we have nothing to fear.

“[Christians] don’t have to be afraid of sin because they have seen the goodness of God in Jesus’ cross,” Dr. Heron said. “They don’t have to worry about being right all the time because truth is a person not a contest. And they don’t have to run away from all the ugliness and disorder we create because they have seen the beauty of the risen Christ.”

Bringing it down now to the level of creation, Dr. Heron says all of the transcendentals point to a thing or a person’s essential integrity. The more a creature is what it is created to be, the more we can observe or discern the goodness, truth and beauty that creature possesses. For Christian disciples, Dr. Heron says the closer we get to intimacy with the Creator, the more “coherent” we become, because God himself is and perfectly contains these transcendental qualities.

“The more goodness, truth and beauty you have, the closer you are to the source, which means you have more unity,” he said. “You aren’t fragmented. You’ve become one thing.

“Imagine rising up a funnel. The further up you go, the closer together everything is.”

Deep dive into goodness

Let’s key in now on the attribute of goodness. As with the other transcendentals, Dr. Heron says when we refer to something as “good,” we actually mean that the thing fulfills its purpose. As Christian missionary disciples, to pursue the good then means to pursue “the fulfillment of our function or purpose,” he said.

As human beings made in the image and likeness of God, we are most fully human the closer we get to our own origin and destiny, the “Creator, the triune Lord who has called [us] into being and who draws [us] home,” Dr. Heron says. In mirroring the Trinity, a fundamental aspect of our humanity is that we are made for friendship with creation and our Creator. It is to be given away in and received in love, just as the Trinity communes in an eternal exchange of love. Thus, Dr. Heron says that in speaking of the good and pursuing goodness, it is helpful to consider friendship.

“To pursue the good means to pursue love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control and all the other virtues you need in order to be a good friend to someone,” he said. “To the extent you lack these virtues, your friendships suffer. To the extent you possess these virtues, your friendships become luminous icons of the Trinity’s eternal communion.”

Because friendship is a marker of a fuller, well-lived humanity, of the potential for goodness, Dr. Heron says we all need it to thrive, and no friendship exists without love. St. Thomas Aquinas is famous for defining love as “willing the good of the other.” Dr. Heron says some philosophers even described having a friend as having a “second self,” in which two lives are bound up with each other’s, with open and united wills.

“And so friendship teaches me to love more than just my own fulfillment,” he said. “It teaches me to love the fulfillment of others. It turns me out of my dark little cocoon and into the bright light of others, which is just another way of saying friendship teaches me to will the good of someone else.”

Practically, the virtues help us in this great pursuit of the good in our lives. As with the transcendentals, virtue points us to the fulfillment of our function and purpose as humans, Dr. Heron says. When we say someone is virtuous, we are saying that person is “good at being human.”

“If everything I’ve said about goodness is accurate, then our ordinary lives are best understood as schools for friendship,” he said. “This is a remarkable sign of the Creator’s presence—that everywhere I go, I am offered the opportunity to grow in friendship.”

The implications of this are far-reaching in our lives today. The reality of our great call and ability to enter into friendship first and foremost with God himself and then with others has a transformative effect in how we relate to all of creation.

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“There isn’t a single place I can go where the gift of friendship isn’t an urgent need,” he said. “So, when St. Paul says that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, this is part of what he means: the urgent need for friendship is everywhere. Nothing can separate me from this need in my own life and throughout creation. Another way to say this is that the Trinity’s desire for communion is expressed everywhere, all the time. All of creation is groaning for this communion, and an ordinary Christian life is responsive to that groaning.”

As missionary disciples, Dr. Heron says this urgent need for friendship is an animating principle in how we live out the great call to follow Christ, who calls us to go out.

“That’s the heart of Christian discipleship: to apprentice yourself to our friend, Jesus,” he said. “That’s the good news we have to bring to others: the Creator wants to be friends with us. Look! We even tried to kill him, and he came back for us. He’s that kind of friend.”

Pathway to embracing goodness

Because life as a missionary disciple of Jesus is aimed at friendship with the Trinity and with all of creation, Dr. Heron says the Church helps us to live in the gap between who we are now and who we are created to be. In particular, he says the Mass helps us see ourselves as humans and our great mission more clearly. It helps us by teaching us to say, “I’m sorry,” “Please” and “Thank you.”

Rorate Caeli Mass at Holy Spirit Parish, Sioux Falls (photo by Elise Heier).

Firstly, he said the Mass teaches us how to say, “I’m sorry,” by reminding us that we are all sinners among sinners, in constant need of mercy. The Mass functions as a sort of clinic for the tired, brokenhearted, shortsighted, narrow minded, selfish and impatient, he said.

“I can learn a lot about how to live the gap by hearing our story again and again,” Dr. Heron said. “It’s the story of a bunch of people, across thousands of years, who are learning to stand up and say, ‘I confess, to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned.…’”

Secondly, Dr. Heron says the Mass teaches us how to say, “Please.” Rather than our sin being the focus or the most interesting thing about us, he says the most important thing about us is that our Creator loves us and wants us to become like him in friendship.

“I am a beloved child, bold to ask my Father for good things,” he said. “I am a good friend, comfortable being myself around my Creator. In other words, I am learning to pray.”

Finally, he says the Mass teaches us how to say, “Thank you.” As human beings, he says we struggle to remain in a posture of gratitude for the life, the people, and the great creation God has given us, surrounded by those we find easy to love, and those we find difficult to love.

“I go to the table of thanksgiving, the Eucharist, with a bunch of other ungrateful people, and we eat the flesh of our friend and brother, the Beloved Son,” Dr. Heron said. “He nourishes us with his own body. He even nourishes the people I disagree with, the ones I find annoying, the ones who cost me too much, the ones I try to avoid. He is friends with them, too. He loves them the way he loves me. He wills their good. He cherishes them. They are precious.”

The Mass fully reveals to us this great gap in the Christian pursuit of the good, the true and the beautiful—the pursuit of being fully human as God created us to be. It is the display of both our poverty and our glory, Dr. Heron says, illuminated by Jesus’ own mysterious chosen poverty and the glory he receives from the Father.

“It’s the light that leads the way toward love, which is the highest good,” he said.

To be a saint

As Catholics, we refer to this integrated life, this pursuit of virtue, of goodness, truth and beauty often in the context of pursuing holiness, of pursuing sainthood. Like the Mass, the Church beautifully offers us myriad examples of this pursuit of humanity that God created us for in the lives of the saints. In the saints, we find the very best qualities of the friendship we long for and strive to enter into here on earth. In the saints, we find lives that grasped more fully at unity with the Trinity, and thus are the best examples of what it means to be human.

“A saint is a little Christ, an icon of our friend and brother,” Dr. Heron said. “And as the Church te aches us, Christ reveals us to ourselves. He is the true human. He is our destiny. So, every saint is as good at being human as that human can possibly be. When we name a saint, we are saying they embody goodness: they’re good at being human because they are like Christ.”

Josie Bopp holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and journalism and worked in church ministry for nearly a decade before taking on her life’s great work: motherhood. She is currently a stay-at-home mom for (soon to be) three boys.