Posted by: dacalu | 29 November 2016

Christian Goodness

In a previous post, I mentioned my philosophy of the Good. In short, things that are Good are worthy of my attention, love, and respect. I recognize the Good. I do not label it. All things are Good and curiosity is my creed. Without curiosity, there can be no love and love is the highest good. I can imagine several potential objections that Christians might make. I wanted to address them. For many Christians, my position will even sound heretical. It’s not. It is in fact a fairly traditional interpretation Genesis 1 and the position Thomas Aquinas. It is close to the positon of Augustine and C.S. Lewis, just to name two other prominent theologians. Still it is hard for many to believe.

Many, perhaps most, Ancient religions proposed theomachy – war between the gods. They held that the universe – at the most fundamental level – represented a conflict between competing forces. The Babylonians had kingly order (Marduk) slaying the watery chaos (Tiamat). The Greeks had a whole pantheon of Gods with competing interests. There was no absolute goodness, only the goodness of your faction. Heroes sided with Athena over Venus, or perhaps Venus over Athena, but they were never Good with a capital gee. Plato makes a compelling case (in Euthyphro) that the gods cannot agree on goodness, therefore they cannot be the arbiters of a single standard. A higher, unitary Good must apply even to the gods. This appeals to Christians and other monotheists who feel that God is to the gods as Goodness is to goodnesses. There is exactly one universal worthiness found in the will of God as it could never be found in the wills of the gods.

This universal worthiness is essential for understanding the meaning of Genesis 1, which can be read in contrast to the Babylonian mythology. In Babylon, the primal waters are slain by Marduk. The two are at war. In Genesis, the primal waters become the stuff of light and life when God breathes on them. God finds them Good.

Despite a constant temptation to return to a war narrative, Christians have affirmed again and again that conflict occurs within the Good cosmos. All things are made Good and for Good at the most fundamental level. God is not the ruler of a faction, but the ruler of all. That’s why the major creeds of the Christian faith start with God’s omnipotence.

 

We believe in one God, the Father, the All Powerful,

Maker (of heaven and Earth, and) of all things visible and invisible. –Nicene Creed

 

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,

Creator of heaven and earth. –Apostles Creed

 

It was central to early Christian understanding that God was not one among many, but the source of all that is. Vast effort went into the Athanasian Creed, the Chalcedonian Definition, and other arguments about the divinity of Christ for precisely this reason. Gnosticism, Arianism, Dualism, and countless other strands of thought were labelled heresy to avoid the two god problem. If we allow God to become two, they cannot both be God, they must be gods. And if gods, then less than the Good.

But, you ask, if God is all powerful and Good, where does Evil come from? The Thomist answer is that there simply is no Evil. Where, then does sin, disease, death, and general badness come from (I hear you asking in an exasperated voice). Not from God. Anselm dives into this in extensively in De Casu Diaboli as does Augustine, Aquinas, and many others. The most straightforward answer is that God gives us free will. That will is a good in and of itself, for there are many ways to pursue the Good and human creativity – in the image of Divine Creativity – makes the world a better place. Having received this good gift, however, humans (and angels) used it to cut ourselves off from God. In so doing, we lost proper perspective on how to balance our Good desires. Above all, we taught ourselves to value self over other (lacking love), even over God (pride). Therefore, humility is the greatest virtue in medieval ethics; only in looking to God can we see the Good which puts personal goods in perspective.

Jesus says this again and again. You cannot love God and wealth. You must choose one over the other. You must hate father and mother and follow Christ, not because parents are Evil, but because they are only Good in the context of God, in the context of love. All things shall pass away, but hope, faith, and love, and the greatest of these is love.

Once you label a person Evil (or even Neutral), you can harm them with impunity; you can cease to care for their well-being. That leads to apathy, if not active violence.

Once you label a thing Evil (or even Neutral) you can start to think of it as personal property and not as Divine creation and a Divine trust.

Once you say a person has evil desires, you stop listening to what they want and choose for them, taking away their dignity. If they are, in their creativity and free will, made in the image and likeness of God, I must respect not only their existence but their choices. I need not agree, support, or like, but I must recognize the Goodness inherent in their ability to choose.

Once you label a state of affairs Evil – no matter how bad it seems – you affirm that God’s power is less than complete. You turn God into a god. This may be necessary for emotional and pastoral reasons, certainly. There are other truths to be maintained and this is one of the harder ones. Still, it is idolatry. It admits of a Good that is greater than YHVH and represents a form of idolatry. Worse still it is almost always an idolatry of personal judgment about Good and Evil – the very sin of Adam and Eve that set us on our wobbly course.

I would add that the sin is not the taking of the apple – though that was bad – nor the disobedience – though that was also bad. The ultimate sin, the original sin that blinded us to Goodness was our refusal to talk to God and work it out. Adam and Eve denied and blamed so that they could keep their own sense of good and evil and not be forced to deal with the sense of Good that is God’s will.

This is not abstract theology – call it academic, theoretical, systematic, dogmatic, or what you will. This is concrete day to day relationship with God and neighbor stuff. Any position other than “all things are Good” leads to treating others badly. Any other postion, no matter how benignly phrased, contributes to actions that harm others, because it does not account for their intrinsic worth.

Genesis 1 comes before Genesis 2-3 for a reason. It is the foundation upon which the Fall and Original Sin make sense. If they are to make any sense at all, God must first be all in all, the font of all light and life, the source of Goodness, the ground of being, and the Father Almighty. Only then can any sense of trespass and forgiveness be the act of a loving Governor and not an arbitrary tyrant, fighting other forces for power.

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