Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Loaves and Fishes part two - Goodness vs. Power

I think the two scenarios in part one come down to this distinction. The first demonstrates power followed by goodness. The second displays goodness followed by power.

With the first interpretation, a supernatural feat is performed displaying power. Power over the physical universe. But power, in itself, is not necessarily good. Do we follow someone or something because it is powerful, or because we deem it to be good?

Jesus did use his power for goodness in the story, of course - to feed people. But then should we wonder why he does not use that power today? People are hungry all over the world. One could also argue whether goodness is possible without some level of sacrifice. Conjuring food out of thin air is not an act of sacrifice, and there is no real risk involved. But sharing does demand risk and sacrifice. Of course, Jesus speaks of loving your neighbor (and your enemy), and I suppose we might take him more seriously if he has supernatural power.

Another point to consider: Is the “supernatural” more beautiful or powerful than the reality we see everyday? How is conjuring a loaf out of the air more beautiful than small seeds planted in the ground “miraculously” turning into plants which are then harvested by human hands and gradually turned into food? Which is more aesthetically pleasing? Which is more powerful?

As John Donne writes, “There is nothing that God hath established in a constant course of nature but would seem a miracle, and exercise our admiration, if it were done but once.”

In the second interpretation, Jesus demonstrates goodness itself through action. Not merely through words alone, and not through a (literally) “free lunch” approach to doing a good work. He promotes community, actively realized through a shared meal. Fear from individual separateness, from the possibility of hunger, is overcome through an example which requires risk and sacrifice. Perhaps there might not have been enough, or people would not share, or the instigator of the sharing might not get anything back....

The second situation shows a real potential power that is coiled and ready to be released at any moment in time - any time we can invoke the spirit of Jesus feeding the 5,000. It requires no supernatural ability. It requires what he have in front of us. Perhaps in our search for magic we forget that the entire world is magic. And we are here, a floating awareness here and now. Perhaps in our quest for something which can break physical laws, we miss the real question concerning that something - “What is the benefit?” When we answer that question, we might find that it is possible to reach that benefit despite our interpretation of the loaves and fishes story.

I also like this saying by Jesus when the crowd, that he has fed, finds him and questions him afterwards. Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”

Interesting stuff!

Goodness vs. power. Which is primary? Which is more appealing to you or to me?

In scenario one, Jesus has power over natural laws through his status as a supernatural being (fully God and fully man). In scenario two, Jesus has power over people through goodness and example, perhaps appealing to the power inside each one of us, and we might argue that he could still be described as fully God and fully man, if we look to God for His goodness.


  1. Hi Steven, do you think that goodness itself is power of a sort?

  2. I think so. I think people are attracted to goodness, whether consciously or not. People want to be close to that, when they really feel its presence. So goodness has power in it, but perhaps all power does not have goodness in it? Of course, this is all contingent on how we define goodness - to me it would be the affirmation of our connectedness. So in the presence of goodness, everyone has a place at the table and I think that's what we all want to feel - that we have a place, that we belong, that we are a part of ......this crazy thing called existence.

  3. reminds me of kantian ethics. you know, the will being the only source of good, humans being the only source of the will, the only good is done out of duty, not because it makes us feel good to do good, how do we know we're doing the good from duty, not feelings, by applying the categorical imperative. if you apply it to the loaves and fishes, i'm thinking that jesus was acting from a moral duty, not because he gained personally from teaching people community lessons. it's universally awesome. way to go, jesus. he could've made some real bucks by charging people at the gate to hear him speak. maybe he did! maybe he charged everyone a loaf and a fish. so then, when it got time for lunch, people were like, whoa, i don't have enough, so then, jesus was like, here is your lunch *poof!* enough to go around just appears out of nowhere.

  4. I am fairly utilitarian in my views on morality. If we argue that someone tries to judge their actions by the categorical imperative, then we should ask ourselves why they do this. The answer would have to be utilitarian.

    So even if, yes, Jesus and his followers do not gain immediate physical benefits from sharing, we can argue that the emotional sense of well-being, an existential satisfaction, is the utilitarian reward.

    We might look at how parents sacrifice for their kids as a good example of this. The well-being, the self-identity of knowing you are providing for your kids, outweighs the material costs incurred.

    However, I recognize that our perceived positive feedback for any action we perform is contingent somewhat on a pre-existing perspective. so in this sense, morality is somewhat paradoxical. We choose our actions based on perceived positive feedback, but that perception is based on the perspectives we have chosen. To an extent. We also have ingrained tendencies developed through genetics and environment, etc.

    Basically, the categorical imperative seems a useful perspective, but it will only be employed if it is deemed to be utilitarian to do so.

  5. i always thought it was unnatural for kant to say that if we got any personal satisfaction from performing good acts, it was basically an immoral act - not done from duty. i refuse to be a robot! so there, kant. the outcome is important, so utilitarianism is deemed a more acceptable philosophy for morality, i guess. it gives us more wiggle room to judge what morals are more important based on specific circumstances. but... i could be wrong. i just ate the rest of the fried wontons from lido and and i'm just feeling reckless.