Good with God

“They must not believe in God.”

These words from my daughter came after a conversation we had been having at bedtime about someone who she had heard yelling at their baby.  For her, it was clear: someone who believed in God simply would not do something as girl sleeping teedy bearmonstrous as scream “shut up!” at an infant.  People who believe in God don’t do such things, after all.  Right?

Needless to say, an interesting conversation followed.  We talked about how all kinds of people who believe all kinds of things exhibit all kinds of behaviours.  We talked about belief and behaviour and the connection between the two.  We talked about how we don’t always do the good we ought (or want) to do and how we sometimes do the bad we don’t want to do (Romans 7:14-25).  We talked about repentance and forgiveness and redemption.  It was an eventful bedtime—at least, more eventful than usual.

And, of course, it set my mind a-whirring on timeless question of the grounds of goodness.  Is God required to legitimate objective goodness?  Can we be good without God?  What about the bad behaviour of those who claim to know God?  These are old, old questions dating at least as far back as Plato’s Euthyphro and have constituted the subject matter of countless books and articles and lectures and conversations in coffee shops ever since.

They are also the subject of a post from a while back called “Good Minus God” by University of Massachusetts Amherst philosopher Louise Antony for The Stone (The New York Times’ philosophy blog).  Antony offers a fairly predictable critique of “divine command theory” (D.C.T.) and “divinerembrandt-the_sacrifice_of_isaac independence theory” (D.I.T.).  In the former case, if things are only good because God decrees that they be so, then anything God decrees is good and goodness is arbitrary.  The provocatively grim example offered is, “If God were to command you to eat your children, then it would be ‘right’ to eat your children.”  In the latter case, if what is good is independent of God—that is, if God prefers it because is good—then its goodness obtains its existence and resides outside of God, therefore God is unnecessary.

But surely there are better ways of framing the connection between goodness and God.  What about, for example, the possibility that God is inherently good and loving?  What if there is no contradiction between a property owing its existence to God and it being constitutive of God’s identity? What about the possibility that in creating us in his image, God made us to resonate with and hunger for what is good?  What if our human evaluating and deliberating upon matters of good/bad, right/wrong is not us defining or determining what is good, but responding, more or less accurately, to the goodness that precedes, surrounds, guides, and leads us?

For me, this provides a better image of both God and human beings.  God does not arbitrarily decide that some things are good and some are bad just to see if his puppets will dance accordingly, and we do not slavishly obey and align ourselves with a dictatorial God’s commands simply because “God said so.”  Part of what it means to bear God’s image, it seems to me, is to share a deep and intrinsic connection to goodness.  As believers, we do not (or ought not) behave ourselves out of fear or duty or out of the promise of reward or punishment, as Antony suggests.  Rather we strive to do what is good out of a God-given hunger and longing, however fitfully and incoherently this is understood or expressed, to be and to do what we were made to be and to do.

After reading Antony’s article, my thoughts returned to my conversation with my daughter.  How would I like for her to understand the connection between little-girl-kissing-daddyGod and goodness?  How would I like her to understand our human inconsistencies and confusions when it comes to what we believe and what we do?  How would I like for her to understand and affirm the goodness that she sees around her, whatever its professed source?

Quite simply, I think, I would like for her to know that God is good, that he has made (all of) us to long for, respond to, and participate in goodness.  I would like for her to know that all people—whatever they “believe” about God—resist God and his purposes.  Most of all, I think that I would like her to know that God delights in, longs for, and pursues his children with a fierce and determined goodness.  The good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful, the confused and conflicted, the rebellious, the joyful, the just-about-convinced, the hard-hearted and stubborn, the fearful, the expectant and hopeful.

Which is to say, all of us.

Ryan Dueck

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