The Summum Bonum

Whether we are conscious of it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all religious in the sense that we have an ultimate good that gives meaning to our lives. The worship of this ultimate good, this summum bonum, is what constitutes our religion.

Do you worship mammon (money)? Then your religion is all about consumerism and material possessions, wealth and prosperity. Do you worship power and influence? Do you worship popularity and honour? Do you worship pleasure and gratification?

Whatever you worship is your god, is your religion. It may be that you worship several gods, that you are a “polytheist”. Some of these gods may be abstract values, some may be admirable historical personalities and great thinkers, some may be pop idols. In the Biblical view, they are all idols, all falling short of the only proper summum bonum, which is God.

But what is God? God is love. Not affection (storge), friendship (philia) or sexual attraction (eros) but the transcendent love (agape) which flows through them. Not care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity or liberty, but the transcendent love which flows through them.

The summum bonum of a healthy soul oriented rightly (righteously) to God is love. The summum bonum of an unhealthy soul is pretty much anything else, even “mental health” or “psychological well-being”. This is the god of the modern religions of psychotherapy and personal development.

Psychological well-being is a human good, of course, but like wealth, power, honour or pleasure, becomes an idol when we worship it as our ultimate good. It eventually becomes a psychological trap, a “happiness trap” as Russ Harris put it, a god which is never satisfied, however many sacrifices we bring to its altar.

Just as affection or care are reduced and inadequate versions of the transcendent love of God, so is psychological well-being. It is a form of self-love, even where it tries to be more loving to others for the sake of psychological well-being. The motive is not love but health. At the extreme it breeds narcissism, “therapy narcissism” and “spiritual narcissism”.

This is a particular pitfall for mental health professionals, spiritual directors and shamans. In worshiping their own spiritual and psychological health, as well as the spiritual and psychological health of their clients, they lose sight of the true end, the true goal, the true aim, which is the love of God, pure and simple. Their self-concern eclipses their proper summum bonum.

“Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

1 Corinthians 10:31