The question of moral goodness can’t be considered without looking at religion. After all, religious leaders have been declaring themselves to be the true arbiters of goodness for thousands of years. But does God really have anything to do with human goodness?
Shortly after I began my quest a reader commented that the answer to my question about goodness is easy: Goodness comes from God. Period. End of discussion. But does it? And even if goodness does come from God, dripping down from heaven like a super sweet milkshake, how do we puny humans tap into that?
One of my failures in this quest is that I have not interviewed as many clergy as I’ve wanted. I haven’t completed a single formal interviews with Christian, Jewish, Hindu or Islamic clergy, although I have engaged in long conversations about goodness with friends who are Methodist ministers. If there is a Phase 2 of The Goodness Project, then I will have to fix that problem. For now, though, I’m going to have to hypothesize about how clergy might respond to my query about God and goodness. I’m also going to have to ask for your forgiveness because I’ll undoubtedly get this wrong.
What do I think religious leaders would tell us? Buddhists, especially Zen practitioners, would likely say that the question is irrelevant because to them God is irrelevant. What matters is a person’s meditation practice and actions. I am so ill informed about Islam, Judaism and Hinduism that I have no idea what those clergy might say, so I won’t guess.
For Christians, I suspect that prayer and meditation would be part of the answer. (God may be talking, but if you’re not listening through prayer and meditation, you’re not going to hear what he says.) Some denominations would no doubt urge immersion in The Bible, and some would probably say that you have to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior. All would likely emphasize attending church every Sunday.
Even if my guesses about a Christian approach are correct, I still don’t have an answer about what God, even a Christian God, has to do with goodness because there is no one Christian definition of goodness. There is no single interpretation of The Bible. To one denomination, I’m an abomination because I’m a lesbian. To another denomination, my sexual orientation is morally neutral, and it’s how I live that matters. To one minister, Jesus is the embodiment of love who preached turning the other cheek to your enemy. To another minister, Jesus is an avenger who uses a flaming sword to destroy those who disagree with him.
If I take God as the arbiter of good, or the source of all goodness, how do I chose which God? Which good?
And here we are back at the core of the issue: We all have to figure this out for ourselves. If we go to church, we have to decide which church and which interpretation of goodness to accept. If we sit in a pew on Sunday, we have to decide whether or not to adopt the minister’s interpretation of scripture, and hence of morality.
I don’t know if God exists, but if there is a divinity, then in an everyday, down-in-the-dirt, you’ve-gotta-figure-it-out-for-yourself way God doesn’t matter. We still have to make our own decisions. It’s still our responsibility. Isn’t that a kick in the pants?
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