CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

God and Goodness

Nov 13, 2008

The biblical understanding of morality is rather straightforward: There exists an objective, universal moral law because there is a transcendent, personal moral lawgiver – God. Our triune God is a personal, volitional and moral being who is the source of all morality. And we, made in God’s image, are capable of making moral judgments, decisions and actions.

Of course the biblical storyline goes further: Mankind has chosen to reject God and his rightful place, and we have sought to make ourselves autonomous and free of God’s moral universe. Thus the fall has skewed everything, and we now see in every human being elements of goodness but also elements of evil.

The biblical doctrine of the fall and sin means that we are all born into the world with an orientation away from God and toward sin and self. Thus God has created the institution of the state to keep evil in check, administer justice, and punish wrongdoing.

In fact, there are two main things which keep us from being as evil as we might be. One, as mentioned, is the restraining influence of government and its laws. They provide the outward check on individual and social evil. The second is internal: conscience. Because we are made in God’s image, we all have an inner moral compass. But because of the fall, that compass is badly damaged. But our internal conscience, along with external policing, keeps human civilisation in some sort of order and equilibrium.

We can all do good, because we are moral beings made in God’s image. But this goodness is derivative. The biblical understanding goes by the term ‘common grace’. We are able to do good because of God’s general grace to all men – whether to believers or unbelievers. Thus Jesus could say that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous”.

But because we are ultimately driven by sin and self, it takes the life-transforming work of God to help us do that which is right for the right reasons. We are given the ability by God to live proper moral lives, when we acknowledge our sin, accept the work of Christ on our behalf, and allow his Spirit to indwell us and guide us in a life which is pleasing to Him.

Of course this is all just basic Christian teaching on the general issues of right and wrong, good and evil.

Philosophical considerations

But some might want to take things a bit further. How do we understand the relationship between God and goodness? This is not a new question by any means. Indeed, it goes at least as far back as Plato, some four centuries before Christ.

He examined this issue in his book, Euthyphro. Thus we now have what is known as the Euthyphro dilemma. The question comes down to this: is something good because God commands it, or does God command that which is good?  Put another way, is something good because God approves of it, or does God approve of what is good?

In the dialogue, Plato has Euthyphro arguing that God chooses what is good, while Socrates argues God is subject to what is good. For the thinking Christian, problems can be found with both positions. In the first, it seems to make morality arbitrary. In the second, it seems that morality is something greater than God, and something which even He must appeal to. Thus goodness is independent of God.

So what is the biblical position? Actually, it is to argue that this is a false dilemma, and that there is a third position: what is good or right is based on God’s unchanging nature – God wills what is in accord with his own nature. God’s character determines what goodness is. God is good, and he orders actions to be in conformity with who he is, his being and character. Morality or goodness is grounded in God’s character.

Thus God’s goodness is coterminous with his nature. The third – and biblical – option fully equates goodness with God. What God commands is good because it is in accord with his own good nature.

Can we be good without God?

But there are more questions that can be asked. Atheists and secularists for example argue that we do not need God to be good. All people – whether religious or not – are basically good. They ask, Why drag God into morality? Goodness just is, and we do not need a supernatural explanation for it.

An illustration of this is found in today’s newspapers. There was a story about American secularists who have unveiled a holiday season ad campaign. The ad says: “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.” The ads will appear in Washington DC from next week until Christmas.

Here is how one press account reports the story: “The American Humanist Association unveiled the provocative $40,000 holiday ad campaign Tuesday. . . . Said Fred Edwords, spokesman for the humanist group. ‘Our reason for doing it during the holidays is there are an awful lot of agnostics, atheists and other types of non-theists who feel a little alone during the holidays because of its association with traditional religion’.”

Given what we just said about the biblical position on goodness, what can we say about this campaign? First, as mentioned, we are moral beings because we are made in the image of a moral God. Other attempts to explain morality apart from God – such as utilitarianism – have not been overly convincing.

If one begins with the premise that there is no God and no transcendent reality, but only the physical world, then it is awfully hard to make the case for right and wrong. Morality is a non-material reality. If all reality is simply material in nature, then abstract concepts such as right and wrong, justice and injustice, are hard to account for.

That does not mean of course that the anti-supernaturalists have not tried to come up with some naturalistic explanations for morality – and all other non-material realities, such as love, justice, truth, beauty and even rationality itself.

For example, the sociobiologists, and more recently, the evolutionary psychologists, have tried their hardest to come up with a rationale for morality in a purely material world. They have offered all sorts of explanations, but it remains to be seen if they are in fact all that convincing.

A common ploy is to argue that morality evolved because of the need to protect one’s kin. Evolutionists speak of “kin selection” and “reciprocal altruism”.  We “do good” or help one another in our immediate circle because that is what is needed to survive – it is the way we can understand such things as natural selection and the survival of the fittest.

It is a sort of “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” approach. It is in my interests to survive that I do good to my kinsmen. We take risks and seek to help those who are genetically closest to us. Now even if this theory were true, it still explains far too little. (And how exactly could you prove it empirically anyway? It is really a philosophical construct, not the stuff of hard empirical findings.)

For example, genuine altruism to strangers, or even to one’s enemies, cannot be accounted for in this evolutionary scheme. People often do things which seem to have no immediate genetic advantage or survival benefit, or advantage to oneself, or one’s kin group.

If a person jumps on a live hand grenade in order to save a complete set of strangers, there seems to be no survival value to that. Genuine self-sacrifice and pure deeds of real good with no thought of reward or payback do not make sense in the world of blind Darwinian evolution.

But they do make sense in the light of the very heart of the Christian gospel: Jesus Christ himself was the epitome of selfless, heroic self-sacrifice. He voluntarily gave his life, knowing full well that many people would reject him and his actions, and scoff at his claims of selfless love.

And ever since then, people whose lives have been transformed by the love of God have been doing likewise, living lives of selfless service for others, even their very enemies. The story of the church is the story of martyrdom, self-giving service and sacrifice, and extraordinary love, going above and beyond the call of duty.

Jesus told us to love our enemies and he was a living example of this. But how do we get love for enemies out of a purely material world where genes are simply survival machines? How do we get love of enemies out of deterministic Darwinism?

In the Darwinian dog-eat-dog world, crap just happens, and the weak will always be at the mercy of the strong. Genetic survival machines just are, and morality seems to be nowhere found in such a scheme. And the more honest atheists admit as much. Hear what Richard Dawkins has to candidly say about God and goodness:

“Theologians worry away at the `problem of evil’ and a related ‘problem of suffering.’ … On the contrary, if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies… are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A.E. Housman put it: ‘For Nature, heartless, witless Nature. Will neither care nor know.’ DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”

Evolutionist Michael Ruse puts it this way: “Morality is no more … than an adaptation, and as such has the same status as such things as teeth and eyes and noses. . . . [M]orality is a creation of the genes”. Naturalist Simon Blackburn says much the same: “Nature has no concern for good or bad, right or wrong. . . . We cannot get behind ethics.”

And evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson said that morality is just a survival mechanism: Ethics “is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate,” and “the way our biology enforces its ends is by making us think that there is an objective higher code to which we are all subject.”

Such quotes could be multiplied at length. The truth is, in the Darwinian world of matter, natural selection, and selfish genes, talk of morality makes little sense at all. But it all makes great sense if we accept the Judeo-Christian understanding.

So our humanist friends can go on all they like – and spend all their money – on ads telling us to be “good for goodness sake”, but in their worldview, there really is no such thing as goodness. Life just advances without any directed purpose, and our genes just dance to the music. No good and evil, no right or wrong. Stuff just happens, and we had better get used to it.

Excuse me, but I find the Christian alternative to be far more plausible. I just don’t have enough faith to take on board the atheistic understanding of morality.

ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5hwC0YbZwVAbCmWOlRFmS23TBsQFgD94D1RTO0

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3 Responses to God and Goodness

  • Humanists and atheists might attempt to demythologise or despiritualise morality just as they do with every aspect of existence by pointing to some natural or material explanation. However this attempt to explain away morality rapidly moves to redefining it. Pretty soon good and bad no longer become recognisable. Society then becomes incapable of articulating what it does believe but instead unthinkingly conforms and marches in step to whatever is the consensus of opinion, or as the communists call it, collective thought (and increasingly the demands of vociferous minority pressure groups)… yet all the while being deluded into the conceit that it is free……absolutely free. The reality is that we are under bondage to own compulsive natures and the standards around us. Without any fixed point of reference, like a ship without compass or captain, society will drift in a sea of relativity and will change its attitudes and values according to the political climate. The passengers and crew do not mind where the ship is going, just so long as everything is running smoothly and everyone has the feel-good factor. The only moral compass is a constantly changing political correctness – the average consensus at any particular moment. What might be shocking and completely unacceptable behaviour can almost overnight become respectable and what was previously considered to be decent and responsible behaviour can become criminalised. Without any fixed, absolute point of reference, human nature has a way of accommodating and becoming comfortable over a period of time with a state of hell. It can gradually sleep walk into becoming hardened, desensitised to cruelty, barbarism and evil, until what was considered abnormal or deviant becomes the acceptable norm, as happened in Nazi Germany, Russia, China, Cambodia and now the entire western civilisation. The daylight is shrinking and it’s later in the day than we think.
    David Skinner, UK

  • Bill, you ask
    “How do we get love of enemies out of deterministic Darwinism?”
    I ask: forget about love, how does a Darwinian even get “beyond the call of duty”?
    John Angelico

  • I don’t understand. If “DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.” Then how can morality be “a creation of the genes”.

    I can see how some would argue that morality is a social construct, that it is learnt through environment – however there is very simple and strong evidence to the contrary such as why a child who is brought up in a community where incest is commonly perpetrated feel violated, or likewise very young children who know nothing else but are abused by their parents/relatives instinctively know it is wrong and be subsequently so emotionally and even mentally damaged by it.

    But where is the logic in it being ‘in our genes”? I really don’t follow.

    Surely if it is purely a construct, then why do we, as children, instinctively know certain things are wrong?

    Garth Penglase

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