In the beginning, God created…And it was GOOD. It was not “nice;” it was not “pleasant.” It was not “cute,” or “creative,” or even “beautiful” – it was GOOD. I imagine God’s creation as created was all those other things as well, but the characteristic that got written down and has survived as the single descriptive pretty much since mankind started writing things down is GOOD. That fact would indicate that goodness is a pretty important thing. More important, in fact, than just about anything else. One could reasonably conclude that it is better to be good than to be nice or pleasant or cute or creative or beautiful.
If you think about it for a minute, that explains quite a bit that people often struggle with about the Bible. How could a loving God destroy virtually everything in a flood? To create goodness. How could a loving God order his chosen people to massacre entire nations? To create goodness. How could a benevolent God demand sacrifice, up to and including His own Son? Because it is the only way to create goodness. If goodness is that important, then sometimes it may be necessary to be a little nasty, mean or even seemingly cruel in its pursuit. If everybody pursues goodness, chances are there will be no apparent nastiness or cruelty. But if people are proclaiming something other than good as their aim, even if they think their aim is good, and they are unwilling to change their mind, then in pursuit of actual good, things could get a little rough. We should never make the mistake of confusing pleasantness with goodness, nor even strict morality with goodness. Pure goodness will, hopefully, be expressed in those ways, but to be sure they are not the same thing.
Two articles have come to my attention recently that set me to thinking about this. One by Kyle Smith and one by Al Mohler. They both dance around the idea of goodness in different ways, but they never actually get there, and the idea is vitally important to almost everything we do. Too often we claim the pursuit of goodness as justification for doing its opposite and we have to work very hard to understand goodness to avoid this trap. Most people think they are doing good, even when they are not. Some of the greatest atrocities in human history were committed by people who mistakenly thought they were pursuing good. So what is goodness?
For one thing, goodness is substantive. Goodness is not purely a matter of style. The Kyle Smith piece talks about the contrast between apparent “niceness” of the Left ad the seeming harshness of the Right.
These thoughts arise from an argument made by Peter Augustine Lawler, a professor of government at Berry College, in the new edition of National Affairs. Lawler sees the Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton contest as in large part a tale of the brutish against the nice. Many a Clinton voter would enthusiastically agree. But while the dangers of brutish thinking are obvious, Lawler points out that there is also good reason for niceness to be rejected by Americans in large parts of the country.
Niceness isn’t really a virtue, Lawler says. It’s more of a cop-out, a moral shrug. “A nice person won’t fight for you,” he points out. “A nice person isn’t animated by love or honor or God. Niceness, if you think about it, is the most selfish of virtues, one, as Tocqueville noticed, rooted in a deep indifference to the well-being of others.” Trump’s lack of niceness, so horrifying to Clinton voters, registered to his acolytes as a willingness to fight for what’s good, particularly American jobs and American culture.
To do good, motivation matters – motivation producing action and reality, not merely intent. A shove is not just a shove. If you shove someone out of the way to get to the front of the line, this is not good. But if you shove someone out of the way of oncoming traffic, this is very good. But if you just yell at the person in traffic and they still get hit, your intent was fine, but no actual good occurred. Goodness is substantive.
And since motivation matters, goodness is also self-less. Al Mohler wrote a while back about how to preach into the current secular culture.
Taylor makes the same point, although not as anecdotally as Oberman. As Taylor notes, on this side of modernity when people believe, they are making a choice to believe that previous generations did not make. Belief is now a provisional choice, an exercise of personal autonomy. When people identify as believers in Jesus Christ they are making a far more individualistic statement than was possible in years past. Furthermore, they are doing so in the face of alternative worldview options that were simply unavailable until very recently.
Here lies the root of much of what we are seeing in our coarsening culture. How is it that churches are making choices that in generations past would have been considered impossible? “Personal autonomy” and “individualistic statements” – that’s how. But what do I mean when I say “self-less?” It is not that good does not serve the self – it is that good is objectively good – it is a not a personal expression.. What is good for one person is good for every person. We do not get to decide, based on personal circumstances and desires, what is good. If you are in a wheelchair and all you are capable of is shouting at the person in traffic, then you can be forgiven for not pushing the person out of traffic, but you still did not do the good that the person that shoved them out of the way did. That’s a fact – a harsh fact, but a fact nonetheless.
Goodness is sacrificial. George Herbert Palmer, Harvard Professor in the early part of the 20th century wrote a book called “The Nature of Goodness.” In it, he writes:
But when we thus accept self-realization as our supreme aim, we bring ourselves into seeming conflict with one of our profoundest moral instincts. It is self-sacrifice that calls forth from all mankind, as nothing else does, the distinctively moral response of reverence. Intelligence, skill, beauty, learning–we admire them all; but when we see an act of self-sacrifice, however small, an awe falls on us; we bow our heads, fearful that we might not have been capable of anything so glorious. We thus acknowledge self-sacrifice to be the very culmination of the moral life. He who understand it has comprehended all righteousness, human and divine.
Palmer writes these words contrasting self-sacrifice with self-realization. The problem with shoving someone out of the way of on-coming traffic is that the person who does the shoving often ends up being hit by that traffic.
Goodness is of God. Isaiah 45:24:
Goodness and strength come only from the Lord. And all who show their anger against him will be humiliated.
Think about it. God is where objectivity comes from, without God there is only our various and subjective views. Self-sacrifice of the kind Palmer discusses is simply following the example of God Himself. God is indeed the source of goodness.
Our current world seems chaotic and cruel. But if we understand goodness we will find it around many corners. There is a lot good happening. Let’s concentrate on it.