Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

The Sovereignty of God

Posted in Theology by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 13 January 2010

Among the Western thinkers of the Cold War Era, Iris Murdoch (Jean Iris Murdoch, 1919-1999) holds a very special place of honor and distinction.  It is not the fact that she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire,—there have been scores of distinguished women before and after Murdoch; and in 1987, she was one of nine.  Nor was it that she was truly intelligent, for although the truly intelligent may be more rare these days than the Dames Commander, they nonetheless abound even among Murdoch’s contemporaries.  What sets Murdoch apart is the rarest quality of all—honesty, primarily with herself, which cannot but captivate and humble her reader. 

In fact, I believe that this honesty is really the quality which Orthodox Christianity calls “humility.”  To be sure, “humility” is a prominent concept in Western Christianity as well.  But, perhaps unlike the West, the Eastern thought tends to accentuate the lack of pretence, rather than the feeling of lowliness.  “Humility” in the East means a true and unpretentious vision of oneself.  And it appears that Iris Murdoch possessed this rare quality so hailed by the East as the true virtue and the foundation of all virtues.  Far from placing Murdoch into the collegium of Eastern saints, it is nonetheless indicative of her insight that she speaks of humility as the “selfless respect for reality and one of the most difficult and central all virtues” (93).  In another place in her collection of essays titled quite ominously, The Sovereignty of Good, Murdoch asserts that “the honesty and humility required of the student—not to pretend to know what one does not know—is the preparation for the honesty and humility of the scholar who does not even feel tempted to suppress the fact which damns his theory” (87).  How simple yet rare an insight!  And Murdoch was just that kind of honest and humble scholar, as is abundantly evidenced in her writings. 

In The Sovereignty of Good, Murdoch attempts to address the central problem in the Western religious thought of post-World War II (really, I and II, and into the sixties and the seventies) period—the death of God.  Having been witness to more violence and death in the first half of the twentieth century than perhaps in all previously recorded history, humans saw entire worldviews collapse, religion notwithstanding.  Many thinkers besides Murdoch were keenly aware of the inadequacy of old models and their inability to give meaning to life but, most importantly, to suffering and death. 

In one rather broad stroke, Murdoch dismisses both philosophy and religion: “The old serious metaphysical quest had better be let go, together with the out-dated concept of God the Father” (70).  All this—in order “to keep the human race going” (ibid.).  One cannot help but note that this passionate plea is perhaps a bit hasty; for not only has metaphysical philosophy and faith in God the Father sustained the human quest for meaning and continues to do so, but the human race is quite a bit larger than Western Europe and its post-war philosophical landscape.  Perhaps, it would be more proper to speak of the inadequacy of traditional Western philosophical and religious thought to exorcise das Gespenst which has been haunting Europe. 

More to the point, however, Murdoch sought ways to replace the idea of a hypostatic God with the concept of Good as the guiding principle of the “human race.”  This attempt is in no way novel,—all those who reject the idea of the hypostatic God as the source of all goodness, must in some way look for an impersonal Good as a concept upon which to build their morality.  It is not that in the presence of God Good as a concept ceases to exist—not at all.  But it is in the hypostasis of God that Good, a concept, acquires its physis and becomes a reality through God’s actions (ἐνέργειαι).

When we read that “every good [αγαθη] gift … comes down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17), we are faced with the task of discerning what is good, and usually we appeal to God Himself for definitions: “good” is that which reflects the goodness of God.  In other words, Good, though still akin to the Aristotelian primary categories, gains its definition (for us) through God’s relation to His creation.  In traditional Christian thought, Good becomes a relational concept that gains its ontological qualities from the hypostatic relationship within the Trinity, and is revealed in God’s relation to His creation: “and God saw that it was good” (Gen. 1:10).  Good exists in the eyes of God as a reflection of His own goodness that He reveals in the world, in this particular verse, through the act of creation.  In the absence of the hypostasis of God, the physis of Good necessarily must gain its ontological properties through the human hypostasis which is also in relation.  The logic is really very simple: in the absence of God, imagine an uninhabited planet far away in the cosmos.  We can no more speak of Goodness in that world than we can of love, beauty, or any other relational concept.  At least in Aristotelian philosophy (although Murdoch seems to favor Plato), a concept that does not reveal itself through its actions (ἐνέργειαι), ceases to exist in any ontological sense.

Murdoch is certainly aware of this difficulty of working with relational concepts in a godless world.  She notes, for example, that “it makes sense to speak of loving God, a person, but very little sense to speak of loving Good, a concept” (70).  But this impossibility to relate goes in the opposite direction as well.  And despite Murdoch’s assertion that the Good “lies always beyond, and it is from this beyond that it exercises its authority” (61), the true and only home of Good in a godless world is within, and its only authority is derived from a sort of existential schizophrenia.  In the words of Apostle Paul, “For I do not do the good [αγαθον] I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do… For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Rom. 7:19, 22, 23 NRSV).  This experience is attested to be common to all humans, regardless of their religious conviction.  But if God were missing from this equation, man would become the measure of all things, and a short one at that. 

The yearning for Goodness has been with us through the recorded history of humanity.  In the words of Plato, Good, “is that which every soul pursues and for the sake of which it does all that it does…” (Republic 505, qtd. in Murdoch 95)   Men have been striving to do what is good, and not always selfishly what is good for them.  Every new philosophy tried to market itself by appealing to some universal good to be achieved.  And yet the result of all of our intense labors has horrified us in the twentieth century, and the twenty-first one is up to no good start.  Good appears to be other than sovereign in our hearts.  And if not there, can it find refuge anywhere in a godless world?

Murdoch writes that “the chief enemy of excellence in morality … is personal fantasy: the tissue of self-aggrandizing and consoling wishes and dreams, which prevents one from seeing what is there outside one” (57).  This personal fantasy, or in patristic terms, logos fantastikon, also and perhaps most importantly, prevents one from seeing what is there inside one.  And if we humble ourselves enough to see our true state, then would we not cry out with Apostle Paul: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24 NRSV)  If Good is merely a concept, a creation of the human mind, then there can be no hope.  If man is the measure of all things, then “mene, mene, tekel u-parsin” (Dan. 5:25).

The abandonment of a hypostatic God in favor of an un-relational conceptual Good presents all of the philosophical problems of atheism and none of the benefits.  To be bound by a moral code, in other words, to sacrifice one’s freedom for the sake of One Who loves and Whom one loves is not at all contrary to human nature, but to offer ultimate sacrifices to an impersonal concept is a bit more problematic.  In her treatment of Good, Murdoch recognizes all of these problems and arrives at the impossibility to define or locate the Good which is by itself.  She does not offer any solutions beyond assertions that Good must exist, because the alternative is unbearable to human nature.

If these assertions sound more like statements of faith than solid philosophy, it is because they are.  One can no more prove the existence of Good than he can prove the existence of God.  The philosophical mind makes both concepts sovereign to human intellect, and thus impossible to possess through proofs and definitions.  And in doing so, both philosophers and theologians must build the very foundations of their systems on statements of faith, rather than on empirical data.  But unlike the “love of wisdom,” the “knowledge of God” implies a sacred union, a living relationship which is primary to any abstract concept or intellectual knowledge. 

It is because of this relationship between God and His creation, that all virtues are understood as relational.  In some way, the best way to think about them is as God’s uncreated energies in the Palamite sense—God is fully revealed in each one, and yet none fully contains Him.  In other words, God is good, but goodness is not God; God is love, but love is not God; God is perfect, but perfection is not God, etc.  Thus, in a theological context, any talk of some Platonic idea of Good is no more meaningful than of the idea of a horse eating the idea of grass and producing the idea of dung.  In traditional Christian theology that relies on the “out-dated faith in God the Father,” Good, like love, is not a concept, but an action (νέργεια).  In this, it must be said, Murdoch’s conclusions are as incompatible with Christian thought as her definition of prayer as “simply an attention to God” (53).  One can successfully pay attention to a concept, but one cannot successfully pray to God without entering into a relationship in which there is not only mutual attention, but also mutual action.

Murdoch writes that “the humble man, because he sees himself as nothing, can see other things as they are. … And although he is not by definition the good man perhaps he is the kind of man who is most likely of all to become good” (101).  The man who sees himself as nothing is hardly the humble man,—he is the man who has achieved nirvana.  The humble man, on the other hand, sees all things as they are, including himself.  This detail notwithstanding, the observation is probably correct.  But in a godless world, why would any man, even the humble one, want to become anything?


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Murdoch, Iris.  The Sovereignty of Good. London: Routledge, 1970.



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