Down to “Rock Bottom” of Christian Theism: God and the Good
Unfortunately for everyone (including God), the vast majority of people who consider themselves Christians have little to no understanding of basic Christian world and life perspective. Unfortunately for Christianity, the vast majority of people who consider themselves astute critics of Christianity have little to no understanding of basic Christian world and life perspective. A few of us Christians do, but getting people, Christians and critics of Christianity, to sit still and listen long enough to understand is almost impossible.
As a student and teacher of Christian intellectual history, I have worked hard to get down to the “rock bottom” of Christian thought. What is the most basic intellectual idea that governs everything else about Christian theism—belief in God and God’s relationship with the world?
Two of the greatest minds Christianity has produced are Augustine (d. 430) and Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274). Especially Catholics admire these men. But one idea they both brought into Christian intellectual history (or brought out from within it) that is also entirely consistent with the best of Greek philosophy, is that God and “the Good” are one and the same. With this all Christians should agree because any disagreement leads over a cliff into nihilism. (Here, by “nihilism” I mean any idea that the good is contingent and that this universe is not a naturally moral one, that the cosmos is basically a-moral either because God is or because there is no God.)
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
To jump to the twentieth century from the fifth and the thirteenth, C. S. Lewis, a Protestant, grasped this necessary (to escape nihilism) truth and attempted to communicate it through most of his writings—without precisely expressing it in the way I am expressing it here. However, the way I am expressing it here is consistent with Lewis’s entire Christian philosophy.
I believe the Bible simply takes this for granted; there is no other reasonable way to interpret Scripture than this—that the Creator, Redeemer, and Renewer of the world is goodness itself. God is the good and the good is God.
If you are having trouble understanding this point, think of Plato’s theory of the forms. There had to be a “form of the forms” and Plato labeled that “the Good” (or Goodness itself) and also sometimes God. (I am not claiming that Plato was a theist, but his “the Good” functioned much like God functions in Christian metaphysics and ethics. Augustine simply identified Yahweh with the Good and imported the forms into God’s eternal being as transcendent ideals or patterns.)
“God is good” is a tautology but not a useless one. Not useless because so many people misunderstand “goodness” as either whatever God does, making it contingent, or as humans independently of God willing and acting for the happiness of themselves and others. “God is good” really means “the true good, goodness itself, is God.” And God, goodness itself, love, if you will, is that “end” (telos) toward which all of creation is directed internally by virtue of having being. God is the fullness of being, “being itself,” understood correctly (not impersonally), and the fullness of goodness. Being and goodness are one. When humans choose to follow the path of their own true good—union with God—by means of grace and free will—their beingness is enhanced. Movement away from union with God diminishes their beingness.
All this is why theologian Karl Barth seemingly obliquely referred to Satan as “das Nichtige”—“Nothingness.” He did not mean that Satan does not exist. Darkness exists! But it has no being. Without being darkness even has power. (Try sitting in a cave without any light at all as I have; you will feel its power.)
All this is why C. S. Lewis’s classic The Great Divorce gets to the rock bottom of Christian thought, metaphysics, in the form of an allegory. Hell is lack of being as it is lack of goodness. It exists as the place of near nonbeing. Heaven is fullness of being or near fullness of being because it is the home of God and the “residence” of goodness. Allegorically, it is too “hard” for wills that are turned against goodness. (Read the book if you haven’t!)
I have come to believe there are two great misunderstandings (actually sometimes ignorance) about Christian theism.
So what do I want to say to critics of Christianity? Only that God is love and goodness itself is love. No secular, naturalistic life and world view can say that goodness itself is love and explain why.
Second, there is the misunderstanding that bedevils the minds of many Christians. “The Good” is whatever God does and commands and is contingent—not rooted in God’s own eternal being. These Christians have to think of God as a great cosmic dictator who is arbitrary and just takes pleasure in commanding things and punishing those who violate his arbitrary commands. Of course, the moment one says it this way, almost every Christian will shrink back and say this is not what they believe, but their everyday language about God and the good shows they do suppose this.
I have talked much here about this second misunderstanding—as well as the first one. Here I want to connect them and say that the second one is a major cause of the first one. Most atheists, agnostics, and critics of Christian theism I know suppose that Christianity includes belief in God as an omnipotent, arbitrary dictator who gets pleasure out of commanding things arbitrarily and then punishing those who do not obey.
May I add here a side bar about popular culture? If you have not seen commercials for the forthcoming new television series in which Steve Buscemi plays “God,” you should look at it online—just to see how vulgar popular culture can make theism look. This new forthcoming television series is a vulgarization of the old movie “Oh God!” starring John Denver and George Burns (as God) (1977). Is it possible to vulgarize the already fully vulgar? Apparently so.
Back to my main point. Absolutely fundamental to Christian theism—although widely unknown and unacknowledged and often denied even by Christians!—is the Great Idea promoted by Augustine, Aquinas, and Lewis (to name only three) that God is being itself and goodness itself and that the three are really just three distinct ways of talking about the same thing (which is not a “thing” at all)! And that “goodness itself” is love. God cannot be unloving. To suggest such would be to make a mockery of God and love and undercut ethics. But that latter assertion is for another blog post. I have hinted at it here many, many times before.
Another way of making my point: It is necessary to believe that we live in a moral universe; that requires belief in a divine being, Creator, Redeemer, Renewer, who is being itself (but not impersonal) and goodness itself—not contingently but necessarily. Everything depends on this, literally everything—unless we are willing to believe that goodness is contingent—an invention either of God or ourselves.
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