Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Above All Things – The Summum Bonum – The Supreme Good

I’m recalling just now some of the many saving graces that have acted throughout my life, particularly for the 2003/04 period, when life was unusually dark for me. Henry Drummond’s 19th Century The Greatest Thing in the World essay proved one of those saving graces—a tall cedar in the spiritual resurrection of a broken man. I dictated the essay neatly onto 90-minute audio tapes and played it over and over, giving copies also to friends. At the time I needed a lot of love and hope as my faith was slowly rebuilt, from firmer foundations, starting from the ground up.

But the message of this essay is not only for those ailing; it is a sweet monologue from God. Let’s take a little gander at its fundamental premise.

What hinges this classical piece is the central aspect of the summum bonum—the Supreme or Highest Good. The Latin word “summum” gives it an ‘end’ flavour—it could otherwise be viewed as the ‘summary good.’

For Drummond, Paul’s 1 Corinthians 13 exposé is “Christianity at its source,” and it’s there he starts and finishes (i.e. completes) his search for the summum bonum—the most practical; the “verb,” love:

The Spectrum of Love has nine ingredients:— Patience... “Love suffereth long.” Kindness... “And is kind.” Generosity... “Love envieth not.” Humility... “Love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up.” Courtesy... “Doth not behave itself unseemly.” Unselfishness... “Seeketh not her own.” Good Temper... “Is not easily provoked.” Guilelessness... “Thinketh no evil.” Sincerity... “Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth.”

It’s pretty easy picking right there. It’s commonly acknowledged that what sets Christianity apart from other religions—besides the unique item of God’s ‘grace’ in salvation—is the tripartite virtues of faith, hope and love. And these are central to Paul’s excursus on love, featured above, in the words of Drummond. Whilst these are somewhat unique to Christianity, it appears summum bonum is not.[1]

I also found that Augustine had many things to say about the summum bonum. He cited Plato—who revealed the summum bonum to be God; Augustine asserted that:

“[T]he true philosopher is the lover of God, since the aim of philosophy is happiness, and he [or she] who has set [their] heart on God will be happy in the enjoyment of him.”[2]

But, then, I think Augustine clarifies the role of summum bonum in the context of the Christian’s life (and hence also in the non-Christian’s life too) by stating later that ‘happiness’ in the truest sense is only possible in eternity with God—and we know this already; none of us are happy all the time whilst here in the ‘body and mind.’

Yet, we then instantly gain access to overwhelming happiness as we approach the Ultimate Good—the temporary state. Now, without getting into the philosophy of the Cynics and Stoics and all manner of desiderata, it can be plainly said that the Supreme Good may only be truly found in God.

Others might find happiness in the every-day material thing i.e. without God. But it’s a delusive happiness, as Augustine would put it,[3] because they do not see what is plain for every eye to see—the majesty and comprehensive virtue of the Supreme Good.

Like Drummond, Augustine takes us on a free and sweeping ride through the canopy of virtue—and it’s a vain attempt to bring us close to God; for God is Virtue—every good thing. And this is our very human reaction; to try to struggle with God in this way—we need to play with and explore what this means. And virtue is the simplest way there. But it brings us little closer to what we seek to ameliorate.

Now, the abiding thing in a cursory look at the summum bonum is hope; projected forward to perfect love—the love received, and not rescinded, in eternity. For as Augustine cites Romans 8:24f, it is hope that saves us, and this hope is not something we already have—it is still some distance off. And the key is we wait ‘with steadfast endurance.’[4] This sense of hope makes us happy. We can be content in our hope.

So, this summum bonum idea is another of the ‘now, but not yet’ genre. But critically, the Supreme Good—and therefore true happiness—is only attained by those who approach God, both now—temporarily from an experiential viewpoint—and more fully after the death event—if we’re saved through faith in Jesus Christ; for there is no other way.

True and delusive happiness abound; it all depends on the source. So, where are we looking?

But let me now finish with the essence of Drummond’s summum bonum message:

“The words which all of us shall one Day hear, sound not of theology but of life, not of churches and saints but of the hungry and the poor, not of creeds and doctrines but of shelter and clothing, not of Bibles and prayer-books but of cups of cold water in the name of Christ.”

Now what does salvation look like?

© S. J. Wickham, 2009.

[1] For more information, see: “summum bonum.” Wikipedia. Retrieved: 28 October 2009.

[2] Saint Augustine, City of God (London, England: Penguin Classics, [1467], 1972, 1984, 2003), p. 311.

[3] “... so they attempt to fabricate for themselves an utterly delusive happiness by means of a virtue whose falsity is in proportion to its arrogance.” (p. 857).

[4] Ibid, p. 857.

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