“Either tragic loss is the ultimate truth, or ultimate truth passes beyond tragedy, transfigures death”


With the hyperbole God being good, in a sense, everything is at stake. It effects how we relate to everything, as good or not. Is there a goodness to creation – in the first instance, and in the end? What is at stake is the ultimate love and what we are to love as ultimate. Love is at issue with the good, for the truly good is the lovable. If the absolutely good would be the absolutely lovable, is the issue not alone we loving, but we being loved – ultimately? We might love the good but does the good love us? To speak of God as the good seems to be both the easiest and the hardest. Easiest: this is the “highest” name, goodness itself. Hardest: here we are most challenged to avoid mere “speculation” – we are brought back to earth in terms of honesty. We must be true to what we know of goodness from the between – and what we know of evil. We might hope that God in being true keeps faith with the goodness of being. Being true is not living a lie, and this is something ontological. Must the ultimately good also be true to tragic loss? Either tragic loss is the ultimate truth, or ultimate truth passes beyond tragedy, transfigures death. Either death is the truth, or being true is beyond death. God being good faces us into the knowing of suffering, the pathei mathos. The question of ultimate evil is hyperbolic even to tragic loss.

Thus also, God being good seems the most necessary and most challenging. Necessary: a neutral God unthinkable; an evil God impossible; an immoral God hateful; and amoral God contemptible. Challenging: how think the hyperbolic in terms of immanent good; in terms of immanent evil; in terms of what is beyond the measure of our justice; in terms of what is senseless and cruel in finite life? Everything is a stake: the goodness or the pointlessness of the whole; God or nothing at all.

Our being in the between is exposed to a mingling of good and evil, and very often we define the good relative to ourselves. In that respect to think of the good would be to ponder something hyperbolic to the between and its mixed condition. How at all conceive of such a hyperbolic good, if our familiar engagement is with the mixed? Or does the hyperbolic good, so to say, mix with the mixture? If so, would it not then be itself mixed, and if so, how then still the good?

We are directed to a togetherness of transcendence and immanence, mystery and intimacy in the good of being agapeic. There is something hyperbolic about being agapeic, in exceeding the determinate and self-determining measure; yet there is something intimate, since it goes to the heart of being at all, in terms of its love of the “to be” as good. We are dealing with what is “over above,” “beyond,” and always “more,” and yet is radically immanent; with what is serenely universal yet ardently engaged with the singular as such. Being agapeic is the communication of good in the intimate universal. The agapeic good is the way – making a way by not getting in the way. Following thinkers like Dionysius and Bonaventure, there is a fitting sense in which the good is the hyperbolic name par excellence for God. . . .

Evil sometimes seems unloosed with a life of its own, outside our best good will and power. It seems to have a power disproportionate to anything attributable to the evil we undoubtedly originate. Anguish torments us, not despite but because of the promise of hyperbolic good: Why evil at all, if the origin is good as giving “coming to be,” and if “coming to be” as issuing in creation is good? I try a reply. Creation comes to be over nothing, it is the arising of being as something and not nothing, Coming to be is double – mixing the giving of being and the possibility of (being) nothing. Out of this doubleness, beings in creation are given over to becoming: becoming what they are not yet, becoming what they are to be: exigent to be yet marked by the vulnerability of ontological fragility. The mixing of the power to be with the nothing means that the power to be, affirmative as it is for itself, is also expressed ambiguously as the power of negation. Thus any process of becoming, as open to novelty, is always the alteration of the mixing of the power to be and negation, with the possibility of disturbing either their equilibrium or the proper excess of the power to be.

How does the unruliness arise if creation is a good? The very openness of creation to novelty and freedom means that its processes of becoming are inseparable from the power of negation, which itself shows the ontological mixture of the power to be and the nothing. The possibility of not being is constitutive of the being of creation. A being’s affirmation of the power to be may refuse to consent to its own passio essendi, for this tells it of its own being given to be as something rather than nothing, and it is against this possibility of being nothing that its self-affirming power to be strives – for the most part remorselessly. Whence disequilibrium, disorder, unruliness? Through a certain inordinate hypertrophy of the power of self-mediation in the double being. Beings that are seconds want to be the primal First. I mean: beings are given for themselves, and as the promise of self-mediation; but this co-exists always with relation to the other and intermediation, first from the gift of the origin, second in relation to other finite beings. Within itself the power of self-mediation can be drawn to its own fulfillment, though never severed from its own passio essendi, and the possibility of its not being. Self-mediation can so affirm itself so that it seeks to recess or overcome the passio and the possibility of being nothing. The latter is finally impossible for a finite being, both on its own terms, and in relation to others. The double relativity is disordered in reduction to single self-mediation through an endeavor to be that is inordinately affirming of itself as the good. This is absolutizing what cannot be absolute, in the sense of ab-solo. The relation to the other is deformed, and so then also is the relation to self. Seconds given for themselves want to be First absolutely through themselves. Metaxological community is blocked, and the promise of creation betrayed. The creature’s freedom to be other turns into the dualism of opposition rather than the solidarity of community. Our porosity to the divine becomes clogged: at odds with the given character of our created being as passio essendi, we absolutize our own conatus essendi, as now circling around itself and nothing but itself. By means of this self-(en)circling conatus, impatient and self-clogged, we figure ourselves as gods. In truth, we have re-figured ourselves as counterfeit doubles of God.

In us the reduction of intermediation to self-mediation can be intensified in innerness to the point of infinity, hence can extend beyond itself infinitely in destructiveness. There is no limit to the possibility of human destruction, whereas animal destruction is finite. The lamb devoured, the lion will rest in peace, till hunger disturbs anew its satisfied self-mediation with new lack. As we human beings seek infinitely, we come to express lack infinitely, and this turns to unlimited violence when its lack is nothing but lack, turned against the surplus promise of agape still in reserve in itself, even when it is turned towards evil. There arises the infinite project of the reduction of other-being to the medium, or means of our own self-mediation. As given to be for ourselves, we make other-being be for us – for our good. One might say: We make ourselves the whole. This is being evil: being (the) whole in a non-agapeic way: being (the) whole closed to agapeic porosity. True goodness is beyond the self-enclosing whole – as the agapeic God is. We claim life. We grab. We have no claim. Life is gift.

Finite life, such as we know it, is impossible without some striving for sovereignty. We are, and are to be, self-affirming. Evil comes with a defection from the plural promise of metaxological community, when self-mediating beings, in one sense rightly affirming themselves, strive to seize sovereignty over all forms of intermediation with otherness. Making ourselves gods we rise up as sovereigns of a kingdom of death. We overlay the goodness of creation with our defection, and our kingdom comes. And yet without the promise of being itself as good no power of evil would emerge. Evil power is parasitical, growing on the forgiving enabling of the host on which it battens. Gorging itself on the good, evil curdles the honeyed milk into poison. The honey of the good may yet arrest our taste for mischief, stop us with a new savor for the truly worthy. Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost was disarmed by his first sight of the beauty of Eve; overtaken, arrested, he stood for a while enchanted, and as Milton marvelously puts it, “stupidly good.” Stupid: idiot: return to the elemental: rocked back on himself totally, taken out of himself totally: sacred stupor as involuntary amazement, and admiration. The good stuns us when, unguarded, the primal porosity of our being is briefly unclogged. The porosity decomposes the idol of self-mediation. We clot on ourselves again and close the porosity. The blood stream of life is made the carrier of death, and unless the clot is dissolved it may move and strike the heart. How does Satan clot? By returning to himself again. Satan collects himself; clots himself, makes himself impervious to beauty. He resumes his unswerving will to self-mediation, and the fire of his hate returns more fierce.

William Desmond

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4 Responses to “Either tragic loss is the ultimate truth, or ultimate truth passes beyond tragedy, transfigures death”

  1. Robert Fortuin says:

    Desmond fruitful as ever – I especially appreciate the terms in which he puts it, that “everything is at stake: the goodness or the pointlessness of the whole; God or nothing at all.” It sets things up in a very interesting manner, namely that goodness isn’t merely a moral attribute (“nice to know that God is good” who cares, right?) but that goodness enfolds our very own being and that truly nothing can avoid or falls outside of it.

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  2. Jonathan Barker says:

    Death requires a loving, fearless, sorrowless, unangered volunteer of me. Death requires the felling-heart’s participation – enamored, self-forgetting, and without anticipation.
    Death is an unselfing kind of wind – a Sudden weather, any day. Death is the body’s True fidelity to life, to love, and to Reality – regardless of the weather and the day.
    To die is necessary, in life’s poor theater – but, it is not Right and True, unless it is enacted from the feeling-heart. To die by yielding bodily, from the feeling-heart – as when in the Embrace of body-love, is PERFECT trust, beyond every thought of the little bed of “I”-and”other”-in-a-room. Such feeling-death exceeds All loss of human love – by means of the human heart’s felt Un-denial of the Divine Inherent Fullness of Reality’s own Love-Bliss.

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  3. Tom says:

    His handling of mortality/death reminds me of Fr Behr’s treatment of the same.

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