…He sees you when you’re sleeping / He knows when you’re awake / He knows if you’ve been bad or good / So be good for goodness sake…
The photo above is of this year’s edition (acrylic painting) of my annual Christmas image. After these introductory comments, the rest of this post, in its entirety, is not my writing. That’s a first. But I found this blog post by Father Dwight Longenecker so important, intelligent and true that I offer it to you as a gift. Though I am not a practicing Catholic, I am nonetheless a Christian, and Longenecker’s words are humbling, inspiring and encouraging. In his original post there are other links to pertinent materials supporting his observations, so here’s the link to his blog with the post below: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/standingonmyhead/2012/06/can-you-be-good-without-god.html Before you embark upon the following message, I add these words from Jesus: But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself. (John 12:32) Merry Christmas!
Can You be Good Without God? By Father Dwight Longenecker
Atheists like to tell us that they can be “good without God.”
What they rarely do is define what they mean by “good”. If they mean they can have good manners, do volunteer work, give to worthy causes to make the world a better place, then of course they can be “good without God.” If they mean they can be sophisticated people of good taste with fine connections in the world and a place at high table, of course they can be “good without God.” If they mean they can be noble souls who endure suffering in a dignified silence, weep at moments of tragic romance, gasp with delight at the finest art and the beauties of nature, of course they can be “good without God.” If they mean they can love family and friends and country and be loyal and kind and gentle and feel the sweep of fine feelings within their heart, of course they can be “good without God.” Can they feel themselves to be good and have high self- esteem and deem themselves upright and worthy individuals? Then they can indeed by “good without God.”
All of these things are possible without God. In fact there is more to it than that. Catholics have always believed that man, according to natural reason alone can understand what is good and evil, and that he can also know by general revelation that there is a God. In other words, not only can man be “good without God” in this sense, but he can also know the difference between good and evil and make good choices over evil choices.
Humans might be able to live (and) pursue a noble and tasteful and even an altruistic life without God, but why should they? What’s the point? Without God the only point of human goodness must be utilitarian. There must be some purpose to it. So the atheist who wishes to be good must point to the consequences: “I will be good because I will thereby enjoy higher self- esteem and be more contented and happy in this life.” or “I will be good because if we were all good the world would be a happier, safer and more peaceful place to live.” or “I will be good because my being good will be the best way for my family and friends and I want them to be happier and more peaceful too because I love them.” All this is fine as far as it goes, but unfortunately it doesn’t go far enough.
Any moral stance that is based only on utilitarian principles must therefore be relativistic. If one is good because there is a “good” or desirable outcome, then when the desirability of the outcome changes what is good must change. If one’s concept of “goodness” is based on some sort of useful end result, then when the desired end result changes what is good changes, and there is nothing that can undo this change.
Here is an example: Let us say that a good atheist determines that to be good one should not kill another human being intentionally. One should certainly not kill another human being intentionally for one’s own benefit. The atheist takes this humane position because it brings about whatever desirable end he determines (either consciously or unconsciously). What if, however, the atheist’s elderly mother suffers from dementia and the family can no longer afford to keep her? How would he decide whether to end her life or not? Because his ethic is determined by utilitarian principles he may change his code of conduct and decide to euthanize her. There is no reason why he should, but there is also no good reason why he shouldn’t. There was no greater underlying principle to his ethical choice than some form of utilitarianism. As an atheist he has no grounds on which to say there is some innate, eternal worth to a particular human person. Why would there necessarily be any innate worth to a particular human person except (by the Catholic reckoning) that person was a unique creation of God–an eternal soul created in the image and likeness of God?
Either the human person is an animal who can be put to sleep in the interests of the greater good, or he is an eternal soul created by God who cannot be intentionally killed for any reason. This difficulty will echo into every ethical position of the “good atheist” for the atheist’s goodness can never be more than an ornate form of utilitarianism. Whatever goodness the atheist upholds he can only uphold for a practical, utilitarian reason and therefore when the practical reason changes it makes sense for the ethical position to change. This is why atheists down the ages have so happily committed themselves to genocide. As good human beings they were not in favor of killing millions of people, but because the greater good demanded it for utilitarian purposes–there was no great loss. This is the end point of ideologies–thought systems that aim to do good but end up doing great evil.
I therefore welcome the goodness of all atheists. I’m glad they want to have high values, make good moral decisions and lead the good life for all, and I agree that they can be good in all these practical and laudable ways. What they seem to miss however, is that their lives of good deeds are not actually what Christianity is all about anyway. In fact, if they had even a Sunday School level of understanding of Christianity they would realize that it’s not about “being good” anyway, but about “becoming good.”
See, Christianity is far more radical than simply setting up a set of rules to obey. Christianity is concerned not so much with being good and behaving ourselves and staying out of trouble and being good citizens and tasteful, polite, well- educated good “all rounders”. Instead Christianity is about being transformed by a supernatural power into beings who are virtual gods and goddesses.
The Eastern fathers talk about something called “theosis”–a process by which an ordinary person is transformed by a supernatural goodness into goodness itself. They are not just “good people” they are people who have been merged into all that is good. They have ingested goodness if you like. They have become one with goodness. They have been made radiant with goodness like a candle flame is one with light.
Atheists may go about being nice good and noble people all they like. Christians are trying to do something far greater than that, and the process of doing this–compared to merely being good–is like climbing Mt Everest is to a walk in the park. Christians are seeking to become the very stars of heaven. Compared to this simply “being good” is like switching on a flashlight. Christians are attempting to become radiant eternal beings–sons and daughters of the most high God–infused by eternal light to become all that they were created to be.
To do this requires a lifetime of prayer, sacrifice, discipline and courage. The lives of the saints reveal a strange and supernatural journey–one in which there are no directions, vast confusion, darkness, alienation, suffering and for each their own agony in the garden. To do this requires a lifetime of obedience, submission to a greater and more mysterious will and a bewildering psychic launch into worlds unknown. Obeying the moral law and “being good” for them was only the first baby steps of the journey. “Being good” for them was simply what learning their scales might be to a great concert pianist.
This greatness–incredibly–is the destiny of all who call themselves Christians. Do Christians fail in this great enterprise? Of course we do. Most of us do. Many of us fail magnificently and tragically, but that doesn’t stop us trying. Can we accomplish this “divinization” simply by being good and nice people? That is not only a heresy, but a banality.
I fully accept that non- believers may find this post to be so unusual as to be insane. I expect a very good number of people who call themselves Christians will find it odd. That’s fine, but I am simply expressing the historic Catholic faith.
If anyone doesn’t like it I suppose they could just go ahead and try to be good.