After reading Josef Pieper over the last few weeks, this sentence has stuck in my head: “…there is a necessary link between obligation and being.” Pieper points out that when we disconnect our obligations from the truth of things, we find ourselves aimless and disordered. To act with integrity and wisdom, we have to conform our actions with the nature of reality.
Jesus says we disconnect obligation and being when we say things are one way but do not act accordingly. The wise person, the one who flourishes, is he who aligns his affections and actions to truth (Mt. 5:8). The “pure in heart” are those who marry doing with being. They orient their lives, decisions, and thinking around the kingdom and when they do, “all these things” are added to them. The path of flourishing presents itself to them. In contrast, the Pharisees find the tasks that seem right, clear, and attainable and fixate on those. They reduce ethics to compliance because “specific rules are always easier to obey than broad principles.” The sense of obligation and motivation to act is grounded in self, not truth.
Paul provides a similar “is before ought” ethical framework. He tells the Romans to be in practice who they already are in position (6:12-14). He says, “…present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life.” You, Roman Christians, have been set free. That is an objective truth, so now live in light of the truth. Let your actions align with your status as one who is liberated from the law’s constraints. Be who you already are! In this sense, Paul implies, obligation feels less like a weight to be carried or wages to be earned, and more like a mere gift to be received.
Pieper said, “A man is wise if all things taste to him as they really are.” The problem is, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality” (T.S. Eliot). We are far more invested in a version of the truth that allows us to survive and save face than encounter things as they really are. But, if we are to lead well and live well, we must come to grips with the fact that obligation is downstream from being. Leadership and life are about aligning what should be with what is, not what we wish it to be; not what it needs to be to fit the circumstance; not what it must be now that we have walked ourselves down a path of no return.
Paul’s vision for the culmination of the cosmos is the reconciliation and uniting of all things. What will be reconciled and united? We will experience the perfect synthesis between what is and what should be. We shall know him “as he is” and all of our being and doing will be one in Him. As believers, we can reflect and project the kingdom today by uniting being and obligation.