Posted by: gcarkner | January 20, 2014

Is God Really Good?

Is God Really Good? That is the Pressing Question

Vancouver Harbour

Many discussions these days seem in one way or another to lead to this bigger question: Is God Really Good? Job was severely tested on this question. It’s not a new, but a pressing one today. The answer has huge consequences. If we discovered that God was indeed good, what difference would it make? Definitions often cause confusion, so let me begin with what we mean by the language of goodness. Brilliant Oxford Ethicist Iris Murdoch mused about this idea of the good man in one of her essays (Murdoch, I. (1997). On ‘God’ and the ‘Good’. In P. Conradi (Ed.) Iris Murdoch on Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on philosophy and literature. London: Chatto & Windus). Charles Taylor, who learned much from Murdoch during his D.Phil. in Philosophy, has made much of the recovery of the language of the good for moral philosophy (Sources of the Self). But at the end of the day, are we not most concerned about whether there is a good God? It strikes us that this could be one of the most important questions to settle in university discourse and debate, even though it is often seen to be irrelevant to many academics.

The gods of the Greeks and Romans were often capricious, petty, manipulative and sometimes malevolent. It seems appropriate, for the sake of the argument, to provide a preliminary definition of transcendent trinitarian divine goodness before discussing its implications for moral self-constitution or human identity. Definitions are important for any discussion. This provides the broader moral horizon for self-constitution that seems urgent, but often lacking (Chad Meister, Paul Copan). First, it will be helpful for clarity to begin by explaining this horizon on the negative side: what goodness does not mean as a character trait of God. Goodness is not an absolute principle like the rationally structured Good of Plato’s divine Idea, or Iris Murdoch’s concept of the cosmic Good, an impersonal good, devoid of a personal God—a transcendent absolute value, or abstract norm.  Charles Taylor’s definition of the transcendent turn to a transcendent good in Sources of the Self is more fully developed in A Secular Age. A Taylor admirer theologian D. Stephen Long provides helpful characterization of the divine good.

No being is co-eternal with God, not even a being we might designate as nothing. Only God is. Good, then, cannot be a function of a category called being more encompassing than God. Ethics cannot be the province of a philosophical discourse that brackets out theological consideration, unless philosophers assume a being greater than God giving access to goodness…. We realize that any discourse about the good must also entail discourse about God. (D. Stephen Long, The Goodness of God, p. 300)

The good, under these conditions, is not an independent criterion by which one judges God. God is goodness at its highest, infinite, most intense and purest, the highest possible standard of the good. Long continues:  “God is good in the most excellent way.” (Long, Ibid., p. 21); He is the ultimate standard of all goodness, and the ultimate position of critique for human claims to goodness. There exists no more transcendent, no more secure standard of pure goodness. Otherwise that would be God.

Secondly, under  the negative aspect of our definition, this is not to be seen as the reductionist goodness of a divine law-giver/cosmic dictator, concerned only about obedience to rules, or a pernicious God who seeks to imprison humans within the revealed laws and commands. This is often depicted as the demand to be good absent of the necessary resources and motivation to accomplish the good, like a Greek tragedy. This perception of God has been all too common in Christian theology or perceptions of theology, and has led into legalism and unfreedom, not liberated love. This is true of the Manualist school of Catholic ethics of permissions and prohibitions which was regnant from Council of Trent to Vatican II. This is the kind of religion against which Michel Foucault rightly reacts—religious ethics as a stifling entrapment of the self, a patronizing rather than empowering ethics. It can also lead to ethical Pharisaic narcissism—an obsession with following law “religiously” with one’s own self-interest and eternal benefits in mind. Our definition rather entails the goodness of a triune God who establishes a standard of goodness in his relationship with creation. This includes a playing field on which to engage human creatures morally and spiritually.

Thirdly, the qualitative perfection of goodness is not the type that humans can control, manipulate or manufacture through personal effort. It is transcendent, incommensurable, the goodness of the most excellent sort, an aspect of God’s infinite otherness than creation. It is not inferred, contrived or derived from nature or the structure of the natural or societal world; it is not a human faculty. Rather, it is endemic to the very essence and character of God and thereby only the secure possession of God, and only secure in God. God’s very being is his essence, which is goodness. Essence equals existence in the case of God. God is Good.

Humanly speaking, there is no such thing as a secure moral faculty apart from God. Goodness is first of all theological, rooted in the divine, and only secondarily or derivatively anthropological, a human possibility. There exists a massive qualitative distinction between human and divine goodness; it is human by gift and analogy only, a pale but important translation of divine goodness in the human theatre. Therefore any discourse about the good must also entail discourse about God.

Goodness is discovered first and most impressively in God, not invented by humans. This is a truly radical position on ethics today.

More to come …
~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, PhD Philosophical Theology

Schwöbel, Christoph (1992). God’s Goodness and Human Morality. In C. Schwöbel, God: Action and revelation (pp. 63-82). Kampen, Holland: Pharos.

Schwöbel, Christoph (1995). Imago Libertatis: Human and Divine Freedom.  In C. Gunton (Ed.) God & Freedom: Essays in historical and systematic theology  (pp. 57-81). Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Long, D. Stephen (2001). The Goodness of God. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.

Murdoch, I. (1997). On ‘God’ and the ‘Good’. In P. Conradi (Ed.) Iris Murdoch on Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on philosophy and literature. London: Chatto & Windus.

Adams, Robert Merrihew (1999). Infinite and Finite Goods: a framework for ethics. Oxford University Press.

Taylor, Charles (1989). Sources of the Self: the making of the modern identity. Harvard University Press.

Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts: a dare to live life fully right where you are.

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