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Jonathan Edwards: Chief End, Ultimate End, Subordinate End

In his Dissertation Concerning the End for which God Created the World (which you can read for free HERE), Jonathan Edwards makes some logical distinctions about desire. This relates to God’s purposes in creating the world. It’s also helpful in understanding our own desires. I’ve written in the past HERE about his fountain analogy for creation. But in this post I’m going to summarize Edwards’ idea of ‘ends.’ The qualifications he make about our different types of desires have been helpful for me in understanding the Bible and my own motivations.

There are two reasons to desire something: (1) You desire a thing for its own sake or (2) you desire it for the sake of something else (as a means to a further end).

Under the heading of “desiring something for it’s own sake,” Edwards uses the terms “chief end” and “ultimate end.” What are they?:

  • Chief End: The absolute highest purpose; the thing most valued in and of itself. A person can have only one chief end.
  • Ultimate End: Something sought for its own sake. A person can have multiple ultimate ends and various levels of desire relating to them. An ultimate end is not necessarily a chief end.

When distinguishing between a more desired ultimate end and a less desired ultimate end, Edwards uses the phrase Inferior End.

  • Inferior (Ultimate) End: The lesser valued of two or more ultimate ends

He calls things desired not for their own sake but for the sake of something else (as means to an end) “subordinate ends.”

  • Subordinate End: something sought not for its own sake but for some further purpose (a means to an end)

To summarize: a chief end is desired in and of itself above all other things without qualification. An ultimate end is desired in an of itself, but only one ultimate end can be a chief end.

One person can have all sorts of ultimate ends at any given time. For example, if I take my wife out to dinner at a fancy steakhouse, I can have two ultimate ends. One is eating a steak. The other is spending time with my wife. I enjoy both things in and of themselves. Whichever I desire less is the inferior of the two ultimate ends. In order to get to the steakhouse, I have to drive for 30 minutes. Driving is a subordinate end. I don’t desire to make this drive in and of itself. I only want to do it because I want to get to the steakhouse.

That leaves the chief end. What’s my chief end in all this? The Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us “man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” This should be the chief end in everything that we do. In my driving, in my eating, and in my marriage, my desire should be to glorify and enjoy God.

The Giant Permanent

Last week, I posted about Marina Keegan’s idea of having an anti-nihilism device. This one is about her concept of eternal life. In two different essays, she notes her fear that the sun will burn out. The universe will freeze over. All is lost. This is how she describes it in her essay Song for the Special:

“If you didn’t already know this, the sun is going to die.When I think about the future, I don’t think about inescapable ends. But even if we solve global warming and destroy nuclear bombs and control population, ultimately, the human race will annihilate itself if we stay here. Eventually, inevitably, we will no longer be able to live on Earth: We have a giant fireball clock ticking down twilight by twilight. But maybe there’s hope.”

Later in the essay:

“The thing is, someday the sun is going to die and everything on Earth will freeze. This will happen. Even if we end global warming and clean up our radiation. The complete works of William Shakespeare, Monet’s lilies, all of Hemingway, all of Milton, all of Keats, our music libraries, our library libraries, our galleries, our poetry, our letters, our names etched in desks. I used to think printing things made them permanent, but that seems so silly now. Everything will be destroyed no matter how hard we work to create it. The idea terrifies me. I want tiny permanents. I want gigantic permanents!”

What’s the solution?:

“I read somewhere that radio waves just keep traveling outwards, flying into the universe with eternal vibrations. Sometime before I die I think I’ll find a microphone and climb to the top of a radio tower. I’ll take a deep breath and close my eyes because it will start to rain right when I reach the top. Hello, I’ll say to outer space, this is my card.”

Her answer for eternal life is finding a microphone strong enough to make her voice go on forever. Christians believe we don’t need a big microphone. We need a big Savior. Christ took the cold. His father turned cold against him so that he could make his face shine on us. And this is eternal life. It’s the only giant permanent.

Quotes from Marina Keegan, The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories. Read the essay online HERE.

Important Update: I’m moving

PODCAST LOGO

My friend Jeremy and I are launching a new site called Recognizing Christ (click HERE). We are working with a publisher and are hoping to launch a book in the next year or so. In light of that, we’re focusing our efforts on the new site. I will continue to monitor Tides and Turning, and probably make a post once in a blue moon, but my focus will be on the new site.

The new site is a work in progress, but in the coming months it will feature blog posts and a podcast focused on ‘Christ and culture’ primarily.

But here’s the main thing: You can also sign up for our insider updates where we’ll give updates on the progress of the book project, share what we’re reading and watching, and even let you read the first chapter of the book right before it goes to the publisher.

Want to know what the book is about? You’ll have to head over to www.recognizingchrist.com.

 

Recent Reading: The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God

Etgar Keret, The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God (& Other Stories)

I’m going to attempt to start writing some ‘recent reading’ posts. The goal of these posts, in the past, was to write down things from the books that I found helpful (think applications).

I was visiting Square Books in Oxford, MS and this book was on a ‘recommended reading’ shelf with a note from a staff member calling Keret ‘like Chuck Palahniuk, but better.’ I was sold. I absolutely loved this book and have already ordered another collection of Keret’s short stories to read.

Takeaways from several of the stories:

  • The Story About a Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God is a good picture of grace over strict legality; how compassion can impact people
  • Hole in the Wall was probably my favorite story int he collection. It involves a lonely man who wishes for a friend (more specifically an angel). His wish is answered, but the angel doesn’t live up to his expectations. The narrator calls him ‘a liar with wings.’ I’ve already used this in a sermon as an illustration of hypocrisy.
  • A Souvenir of Hell is about a town that borders an entrance of hell. Once every hundred years or so, residents of hell are allowed to visit the town. The main character is infatuated with a resident of hell, but after the hole is closed up by the government, she can only go on telling stories about what she had seen.
  • Breaking the Pig tells the story of a boy who chooses to save his friend. The friend happens to be a piggy bank. He values his friendship with the toy more than the money he would gain by breaking the bank.
  • Cocked and Locked is probably my second-favorite in the collection. It involves an Israeli military narrator patrolling the border. He is taunted every day by a Palestinian who doesn’t know that the narrator’s gun is useless. The narrator feels impotent, knowing he can’t use his weapon. The twist in the end shows us that we’re all really impotent in the end in some sense.
  • Korbi’s Girl is another good one. A young man steals another young man’s girlfriend. The other young man seeks revenge. The brother of the first young man (who stole the girlfriend) is caught in the middle. This story involves a lesson/exploration of the nature of justice.
  • Missing Kissinger is another favorite. It follows a husband as he attempts to fulfill his wife’s request to ‘prove his love’ to her.
  • Plague of the Firstborn involves the story of Exodus. It explores the idea that some mercies are actually judgement.
  • Pipes was another story in enjoyed. It involved a lonely man who found a way to heaven by building an intricate pipe. He discovered that heaven wasn’t for good people; it was “for people who were genuinely unable to be happy on earth.”

If We Hand It Over

Below is a quote from an interview with Jonathan Franzen on why it is essential to good writing that traditional publishers and editors continue to exist. This could be applied to a lot of things today, including the need for traditional denominational structures and ordination processes in churches. It also speaks to the need for isolation and meditation in a world inundated by technology.

Okay, let’s talk about those guys. What do you really think about Twitter?

[Laughs] I have a particular animus to the social-media world because I feel as if the kinds of writers I care about are just temperamentally not very good at that. Hard to see Kafka tweeting, hard to see Charlotte Bronte self-promoting. If we don’t maintain other avenues for establishing a literary reputation and finding some kind of readership – things like traditional publishers and reviewing, where the writer could just be a writer and not have to wear the flak hat, the salesman hat, the editor hat, the publisher hat – if we don’t maintain those, then we hand over the literary world to the personality types who are, I would say, less suited for the kind of work I care about.

It could be that my model of literature is simply outmoded, but I feel closer to Joyce with his ‘silence, exile and cunning.’ I worry that the ease and incessancy of communication through electronic media short-circuits the process whereby you go into deep isolation with yourself, you withdraw from the world so as to be able to hear the world better and know yourself better, and you produce something unique which you send out into the world and let communicate in a non-discursive way for you…

It’s not like I’m militantly opposed to discursive interactive communication. It’s fine, it’s great. But there’s a tipping point you reach where you can’t get away from the electronic community, where you become almost physically dependent on it. And that, I persist in thinking, is not compatible with my notion of where terrific literature comes from.

-From Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin, pp. 266-267

Double-Efficiency in Reading

In a letter (HERE) based upon Ecclesiastes 12:12, John Newton makes the case that wide reading does not necessarily relate to true intelligence:

An eager desire of reading many books, though it is often supposed to be the effect of a taste for knowledge, is perhaps a principal cause of detaining multitudes in ignorance and perplexity. When an inexperienced person thus ventures into the uncertain tide of opinions, he is liable to be hurried hither and thither with the changing stream; to fall in with every new proposal, and to be continually perplexed with the difficulty of distinguishing between probability and truth. Or if, at last, he happily finds a clue to lead him through the labyrinth wherein so many have been lost, he will acknowledge, upon a review, that from what he remembers to have read (for perhaps the greater part he has wholly forgotten), he has gained little more than a discovery of what mistakes, uncertainty, insignificance, acrimony, and presumption, are often obtruded on the world under the disguise of a plausible title-page.

He is making the point that absorbing vast amounts of information can lead to vast confusion and even, in a sense, vast ignorance. ‘Learning’ or the appearance of intelligence can give an illusion of wisdom as much as a nice title can give the illusion of good content.

He then urges the necessity of reading Scripture.

But should we only read Scripture? His answer is ‘no’:

Allowing, therefore, the advantage of a discreet and seasonable use of human writings, I would point out a still more excellent way for the acquisition of true knowledge: a method which, if wholly neglected, the utmost diligence in the use of every other means will prove ineffectual; but which, if faithfully pursued, in an humble dependence upon the Divine blessing, will not only of itself lead us by the straightest path to wisdom, but will also give a double efficacy to every subordinate assistance.

Notice the takeaway here. If you read all the books in the world, but do not understand God’s Word, you will gain essentially nothing. But if you have God’s word, everything else you read will gain ‘a double efficiency’ in helping to understand the truth.

The Preacher of Ecclesiastes makes this point: “My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecc. 12:12). Wearing yourself out with reading and study serves no ultimate purpose in itself. But if that studying is mingled with the words of the “Shepherd,” it will lead to wisdom, stimulation (“goads”), and longevity (“nails”) (12:11).

Ecclesiastes 12:11 The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.

At the end of his life, the Apostle Paul makes a request his younger student Timothy: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments” (2 Tim. 4:13). He wants to read until the day that he dies. But above all he wants to read the Scriptures.

Do you want to be a doubly efficient reader? Do you want to enjoy books more? Do you want your experience with literature to be more deep and rich? Then read and digest the Scriptures and let them form your imagination as you come to other writings.