There is a lingering, though prominent, tendency in the Church to pit the created realm against our eternal destiny. To put it differently, there are some who have a tendency to see eternity with God as the only thing that matters, and anything lower than this goal is at best unimportant and at worst impeding it. This mentality, often unrecognized and typically based in no ill will, suggests God is against his creation, creating a competition between us and God. By that is meant that whatever, or whomever, “wins out” will dominate over the loser. The problem with this view is that God, being God, will always win and, moreover, dominate. Furthermore, the competitive view of God and creation looks at the relationship through the lens of power, which means that promoting the eternal to the neglect of the created ultimately overwhelms the latter and removes any sense of importance.
A common misconception lies at the root of this false competition. While it is obviously true that God and our destiny toward him are the most important things in our lives, we often make an error in reasoning about the lesser goods — namely that we think “because this is the highest good, the lower goods are of no importance.”
Just because something is more important, it does not entail a neglect of the lower goods, but rather an orienting of them toward the highest good. For example, though our eternal destiny is our ultimate goal, part of achieving that goal is to look after our neighbors, which entails looking after their health, etc. These are all the means by which we achieve the eternal goal: through lower concrete goods that God has tasked us with.
Not looking at the hierarchy of goods with a properly Christian attitude can undermine some basic truths of Christian revelation. For example, the competitive view described above can undermine our understanding of the person of Jesus and the doctrine of the Incarnation. When the Word took on flesh in Jesus Christ, humanity was not overwhelmed, but rather was it lifted up and perfected. Jesus’ Incarnation has a reason and a purpose: to lift up all that is created — matter, time, spirit, indeed the entire cosmos — and put it all in right relationship with God. But this redemption happens in cooperation with and within the created order. Putting God and creation in competition portrays a view of the Incarnation that the only meaningful doctrine is the divinity of Jesus, that his humanity can be cast aside, at best, and at worst it is destroyed and overwhelmed by the presence of God. If the eternal is all that matters, then we have to put blinders on some key aspects of Jesus’ saving mission—– notably his death and resurrection. Yet, it is precisely in Jesus’ saving mission that God shows he has no desire to circumvent his creation. Rather, through Jesus, God embraces his creation, works through it and raises its dignity. What God has created good, he does not want to destroy, rather, he wants to save it.
The Christian understanding of the human person also shows how it is problematic to pit eternity against creation. So often we can forget that our eternal destiny happens by means of and through our created nature. Yes, we have an eternal goal, but that goal is achieved in and through creation — through time and space. The soul is not all that matters, but the body does, too, because, ultimately, our goal is more than heaven — it is the resurrection of the body. To say that the eternal is really all that matters facilitates in us the idea that our health, the poverty of our neighbor, or even the common good really are not all that important because they will dissolve in the eternal presence of God. Rather, though, we see life as a training for the resurrection, whereby God wants to redeem and redeem all that is good, including the body and all of creation. Our eternal goal is important, but it is done in and through the body. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and caring for them — in working to safeguard the health and wellbeing of ourselves and others and looking out for the material needs of those less fortunate — is vital practice for our share in the divine life.
And so, our higher goods are not in competition with the lower. Rather, it is through the lower goods that we actually come to achieve the final goal — our eternal destiny. God works through created things to draw us to himself, this is his primary mode of working. This means health and holiness are not opposed. Catholics would do well to stop looking at the hierarchy of goods as somehow in competition, but rather as the means to submit all things to Christ.
Father Harrison Ayre is a priest of the Diocese of Victoria, British Columbia. Follow him on Twitter at @FrHarrison.