Posted by: gcarkner | January 26, 2014

Is God Really Good? #2

The Goodness of God Under Investigation … continued

Vancouver Harbour

We have discussed the negative aspects of the definition of God’s goodness. It has helped to free God, so to speak, from human judgment or stereotype, to let God be God regarding goodness. Now we move to the corollary, the positive aspects of a dynamic divine transcendent goodness. According to Marquette University theologian D. Stephen Long, goodness is a character trait predicate of the triune God as three active Persons. God is entirely and transcendently good in essence and existence. Without God’s goodness, we would not be having this discussion, because he is unapologetically the very ground of all goodness. Goodness begins with the infinite transcendent God, not with finite humans, and then flows to creation. This constitutes a theological side of the discourse of ethics that we have been sponsoring under the theme Charles Taylor and  Qualities of the Will in this blog. According to German theologian Christoph Schwobel,

It is one of the implications of this trinitarian conception of divine agency that the intentionality of divine action is not to be inferred from the structure of the world God has created, but has to be understood as grounded in the revelation in the Son. It is this paradigmatic action that is authenticated by the inspiration of the Spirit which then provides the framework for the interpretation of God’s work in creation. In a similar way the character of the work of the Spirit as inspiration indicates how God involves human beings in the realization of his intentions. It is the context of the interrelatedness of creation, revelation and inspiration that we can talk about God’s action in terms of free, intentional action. (Christoph Schwöbel, 1992, p. 70)

This leads to an understanding of goodness where it is not conceived merely as an absolute value, an abstract norm, or an unreachable ideal, but as a deeply personal goodness of the tri-personal God, where it is a pulsating, dynamic, relational goodness . It is a goodness that is ascribed to God on the basis of his actions, his engagement with the world. It is thoroughly endemic to the very being of God and the actions of God. This entails a universal, relational goodness that is based in the universal, creative agency of God and his will to show mercy to his creation.

Category Mistake: The most pervasive error one encounters in contemporary arguments about belief in God–especially, but not exclusively, on the atheist side–is the habit of conceiving of God simply as some very large object or agency within the universe, or perhaps alongside the universe, a being among other beings, who differs from all other beings in magnitude, power, and duration, but not ontologically, and who is related to the world more or less as a craftsman is related to an artifact…. Beliefs regarding God concern the source and ground and end of all reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and the totality of all things, the ground of the possibility of anything at all…. As it happens, the god with whom most popular atheism usually concerns itself is one we might call a “demiurge” (demiurgos): a Greek term that originally meant a kind of public technician or artisan but came to mean a particular kind of divine “world-maker” or cosmic craftsman. (David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: being, consciousness, bliss. 2013, pp. 32-33 and 35)

Secondly, on this constructive side of the discussion, this type of goodness is a relational attribute.  It is rooted in the very relational, inter-personal, mutually supportive, perichoretic relationship among the three Persons of the Trinity. It exists as immanent love and good will between members of the divine Trinity. Intense good will towards one another is of the fundamental spirit of intra-relations between the persons Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It exists as a super-abundant goodness and mutuality of self-giving. Thus, it is not a static first principle, but an active, dynamic relationship that is the precedent for human, finite, creaturely goodness. Goodness is fundamentally relational; it starts with immanent love between divine Persons, and moves out from there to creation. Good will and intention towards one another is part of the fundamental spirit of the Trinity.

Thirdly, divine goodness is also keyed into God’s complex relation to creation, especially human creation—the issues that are part of the Economic Trinity. This is how Schwöbel captures the phenomenon.

In a conception where goodness is understood as a divine attribute, rooted in God’s Trinitarian agency, goodness has to be understood as an essentially relational attribute, and the transcendence of God can consequentially not be understood apart from the transcendent relationship of God to the world. (Schwöbel, C. (1992), p. 73.)

In fact, God is the source of, and condition for, human or created this-worldly goodness. God is in fact the only ground or guarantee of goodness. Humans discover it by grace, as a gift. It is a transcendent relationship that God has with creation. There is a major categorical and qualitative difference between the goodness of the infinite tri-personal God and the goodness of finite persons, but also an amazing and intimate involvement between them.

The goodness of God the creator would therefore have to be interpreted as the condition for the possibility of all created goodness. The self-disclosure of God in revelation would have to be seen as the condition of the possibility of finite knowledge of goodness, and the inspiration of the Spirit as the motivation for the realization of goodness by finite human agents. (Schwöbel, C. (1992), p. 72)

God, as transcendent Creator, establishes and provides the conditions of the possibility of finite existence, knowledge and action, and therefore the possibility of understanding and living robustly in the good. But human goodness is always derivative; humans do not invent the good, ex nihilo. Only because the good is first theological, can it also become anthropological. This is the foundation of relational moral realism, i.e. that it is possible to move towards and build a relationship with the good in this world. Humans know goodness only analogically, but never directly which keeps them humble; they never achieve God’s supreme goodness. They can never control it, bottle it or sell it. It is most dramatically revealed in the world through Jesus the Christ which we see through the gospel narratives, in place like the Sermon on the Mount.

This perspective helps to avoid cynicism about goodness within the human theatre; one cannot judge goodness by human standards, claims or presentations of the good, but by God as the most excellent standard and guarantee of the possibility of the good. God is the standard of goodness within creation; human morality is not secure without him. Trinitarian goodness is the ultimate critique of human claims to goodness, human positing of the good or written moral standards for society (constructions or laws).

God establishes a standard of goodness in his relationship with creation, in the very act of creation. Without God’s high standard of goodness, morality is vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation, revealing a major source of human inter-relational conflict. Human standards of goodness are always insecure, transient, historically relative, subject to the will to power, to tribalism, and self-interest, and of course the “conflict of interpretations” (pluralism). Foucault agrees that, following Nietzsche, if God is not in the equation, morality is contingent, fragile and a mere mobile metaphor, constantly evolving anyway it wills, a moving goal post so to speak.

A key assumption in this new paradigm is that God is the Creator of world in toto. Creation is the “ecosystem”, relational and natural, where God sets up the playing field of morality, a secure order of moral relationships and moral possibilities. Therefore, one’s relationship to God is key to one’s understanding of the play of morality. As D. Stephen Long writes, with this perspective, if one sets up a moral system or knowledge of good and evil outside of a relationship with God, it creates dysfunctionality through rebellion against creation and creational intent. It creates existential awkwardness and alienation. This would constitute humans asserting themselves as the origin of their own moral faculty and moral life (D. Stephen Long, The Goodness of God, pp. 122-28). This self-assertion is part of our crisis of identity, our angst, in late modernity. We are trying to be something that we are not, living a false self.

But rather, God the Holy Spirit is the dynamic source of empowerment and inspiration of human morality and moral self-constitution through his empowering love.  To use Charles Taylor’s language, God the Spirit is the ultimate and active source of the good, and thus the richest source of the self. Humans should not be cynical about or fear the good, but pursue it vigorously, with all means they have at their disposal.

~Gordon Carkner PhD


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

Schwöbel, C. (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.

Hart, David Bentley (2013). The Experience of God:  being, consciousness, bliss. Yale.


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