This is the first of two sequels to “Under the Banner of ‘Life’s Flourishing'” that ran as an op/ed in May, 2021.
In a previous piece (Under the Banner of ‘Life’s Flourishing'”), I argued that it is only with the emergence of Life, and then with the emergence — within Life’s world — of creatures who experience some things as better and some as worse,” that Value – that is, the Good – entered our world.
“In a lifeless universe,” I wrote, “nothing matters. Nothing CAN matter. Only with the emergence of creatures to whom things matter – who can experience fulfillment or frustration of their needs – can the idea of “the Good” have any conceivable meaning.
I can imagine that — for many readers — that would feel off-base because I’ve left God out of the picture. “God was always there,” they would say, “and have always mattered to God.”
Let me start by saying that the reason for my omission is not because I wouldn’t love to know there’s a God who is Good who rules the universe. I would. Rather, I simply have not been able to see God in the picture.
I seek but do not find. So I talk here about our situation in terms of what human investigation into our world has shown to be true.
(But for all that, I recognize the mystery that remains at the heart of it all, in which a Creator may well figure.)
My omission reflects an additional element: to my mind, including God in the picture – while hugely important in many ways — doesn’t change the centrality of “Life’s Flourishing.”
Many of those same people who can’t relate to a picture not focused on God would define “the Good” in different terms. Instead of “the experience of fulfillment of sentient creatures,” that I point to, they would say “The Good is whatever God commands.”
There’s a question about just what that means?
Does it mean that it’s Good because it pleases God for us to obey his commands?
If that’s so, that contradicts what so many theologians have said about God’s being so perfect that he lacks nothing and has no need of anything for Himself.
Or, if the theologians are wrong and God is wielding his commandments to get results pleasing to him, whether or not it serves the good of His children, that hardly models good parenthood.
If saying “God’s saying it’s good makes it good” expresses merely an automatic submission to power and authority – “Because I said so!” — that kind of authoritarian power arrangement that seems to me quite dangerous. That logic could enable Evil define the “Good.”
That’s hardly impossible: Peoples through history have imagined God (or gods) in quite terrible forms—more monstrous than virtuous.
Should we regard as “Good” what a cruel and vindictive tyrant might command?
Which leaves us with the obvious way out: i.e. to claim that God isn’t a monster, but is good. However, if we’re in a position to make that judgment about God being good, then obviously we already have some understanding of what “good” means.
And if we already have an understanding of the Good, we didn’t need God in the picture to see what’s Good.
That’s how it is between me and a dear friend of mine – the best Christian I know – who is a Methodist Minister. The spirit he brings to his churches is so good that, after he’s been pastor for a while in a new church, the size of the congregation has tripled.
My friend lives as best he can to follow in the path of the love and the teachings of Jesus Christ. A prayerful spirit of receptivity opens him up to what he calls “the Holy Spirit,” which guides and inspires him as he serves as pastor to his flock.
As he follows the guidance he “hears” from the Holy Spirit, we on the sidelines see him
- consoling grieving families,
- making the poor and frightened and hated and excluded feel welcome,
- caring for the orphans of brutal war in Sierra Leone,
- powerfully carrying the message of Christ’s love as he ministers to the needs of his flock
All of them ways of helping life to flourish.
(And one can see that he flourishes too! His path — following God’s call to bring out his best in the service of what’s Good – has brought him more than the usual portion of fulfillment.
(That two-fer exemplifies the Wholeness toward which Life strives: the path that helps life to flourish both makes the world more Whole and leads to inner fulfillment – the spiritual fulfillment that seems to bring the deepest level of the Good in our Lives.)
So, between my friend’s view of the Good and mine, there is no conflict.
He and I can talk about the battle between Good and Evil in the world in its many dimensions, and agree profoundly on what we see going on. And we share a passion to work toward a world that is just and loving and in which life is thriving in all its dimensions.
Which suggests to me that people with different religious views – but who share an allegiance to the Good – might come together “Under the Banner of ‘Life’s Flourishing.’” Might together embrace a shared mission to make the world more whole. United – if not in all their basic beliefs – to help life to flourish in all the dimensions that need to be served.