Re-engaging excellence in our ethics

How do you respond to a powerful musical performance, or a gifted athlete performing feats no one else

Jamie Veitch

IN GOOD FAITH

How do you respond to a powerful musical performance, or a gifted athlete performing feats no one else can rival, or something as simple as a well-built home? I’m guessing you didn’t say to yourself, “Whoever is responsible for this must be a saint!” because in our culture, morality and results are not mutually convertible categories.

Modern western culture stands almost alone, both presently and historically, in terms of how very generous we are on the matter of morality. But it’s not just the individual behaviours we deem acceptable that make us unique; it’s the kind of things we accept as constituting morality. We do not judge based primarily on actions, but on intentions.

Most cultures place tremendous value on the outcomes of actions when judging morality. Without being blind to the importance of intentions, the emphasis is nevertheless on what result an action produces. If the result is favourable for society, generally the action is deemed ‘good.’ If the result is unfavourable, the action is deemed ‘bad.’ The difference is this: while we understand morality to be expressive, they understand it to be experiential.

We tend to think of morality as a process of self-discovery.

Since I am inherently good, the act of expressing myself must be equally good. But this world is complex and my actions might not produce the results I had hoped for. So, what must really matter is the discovery and expression of my intentions, which more accurately reflect the good thing I am.

Other cultures view morality as discovering the world outside of us. Morality is thought to be bigger than the individual. In fact, it impresses itself upon the individual from without, as a world created by a moral God (or gods), affirms proper behaviour through profitable results, and corrects improper behaviour through unprofitable results. Thus, proper morality results in a society experiencing tremendous benefit, because they interact appropriately with the moral world in which they live.

I don’t believe there has ever been a culture with a perfect ethical system, but there is one casualty of our system that I mourn: excellence.

Centuries before Christ, Aristotle believed excellence to be the highest measure of morality. As he saw it, everyone came into this world with a purpose. A king was born to rule and achieving good rule produced good results for everyone, while expressing virtues of self-control, wisdom, etc. Therefore, the more excellent the king, the better he was morally. Likewise, a carpenter was born to produce good homes, so families would not be left homeless when the first wind blew. An excellent carpenter also achieved moral excellence. We might be wary of Aristotle’s class distinctions, but he was able to articulate how pursuing our best potential produces good results, and improves life for everyone. Excellence is morality, is good outcomes.

Centuries later, the Christian theologian Aquinas went even further. Since we are born to perform a purpose for God, Aquinas taught, our achievement not only reflects ourselves, but our Creator.

A great carpenter reflects the wonder, creativity and skill of the Creator. And, in exercising his rule, a great king participates with, and offers a glimpse of, the Great King. Excellence is the exploration and imperfect image of a perfect God. Excellence is morality, is worship.

Pursuing excellence is not generally thought of as an act of Christian worship today, because our definition of worship largely reflects our culture’s view of morality. Worship is about self-expression. Singing is worship because it reflects inward adoration. Prayer is worship because it verbalizes inward orientation. Solid construction and brilliant engineering are not worship, because they are more about manipulating the world beyond us.

While it would be foolish to exclude expression from the categories of worship or morality, I honestly wonder what our churches and our culture would gain if we were to somehow find a way to re-engage excellence in our ethics.

Jamie Veitch is pastor of small groups and leadership development at Lacombe Pentecostal Church and a member of the Lacombe and District Ministerial Association.