do we need god to be good?

April 30, 2008 § 12 Comments

The editors of Parabola thought it could be fruitful to use this space to chronicle and explore how the themes of this magazine resonate in contemporary life. For many months, we wondered how should we start the proverbial ball rolling, the wheel turning. And it came to pass that we decided to begin at the beginningless beginning, with God.

The Germanic root of the word “God” and the word “good” are the same, and this root connection exists in other languages as well. Human beings have worshipped gods as long as they have used language. I wonder if God and goodness are inextricably connected?

Plato didn’t think so. If God had no moral reason for his commands, Plato reasoned, they were just divine whims. If his moral laws did conform to reason, why not skip God entirely? But where do those higher reasons come from? These days, neuroscientists using brain-imaging techniques, psychologists using Web-based surveys to explore the moral intuitions of hundreds of thousands of people from different countries and cultures, and other scientists around the world are uncovering a rich evidence of, if not a gene for goodness, a moral intuition.

Some suggest that living a good life has to do with connecting this rudimentary sense of what it means to be good with higher ideas like the Golden Rule, which was discovered again and again through human history. According to many, including Jacob Needleman in his book Why Can’t We Be Good?, such ideas come from a higher level of thought and represent a finer perception of reality and our possible human role in it than any of us could find on our own. To truly be understood, however, such ideas must be taken on, body, heart, and mind, not just mused about.

“To care for one’s neighbor is to care for God and to care for God is to care for one’s neighbor,” writes Needleman, by way of explaining a Hebraic vision of reality. There are many neuroscientists who would make quick work of this ancient equation, assuring us that everything we think and feel and do is excreted by our physical brain and nervous system–no God, no free will, no being open or closed to anything higher or finer than ourselves.

When I was young, I was drawn to Parabola because it deepened my questions rather than handing me easy answers. Now I’m not so young and my faith in the goodness of questioning has grown. Holding a question rather than grasping at rigid certainties, invariably opens me. It leads me towards a oneness with the truth of what is and sometimes towards the Oneness that is God.

What do you think? Please respond to this and future posts by clicking on the “comments” link, above.


§ 12 Responses to do we need god to be good?

  • Barak says:

    The main problem I have with this is how anthropomorphized God is made out to be. Not to mention that “goodness” seems to be associated with “niceness” or “kindness,” which to me are not necessary synonymous with God–that which can not be contained. The question itself is a bit sneaky. It’s hard to need something that already IS. Needing [it] presupposes that you don’t have [it] or that you could wake up one day without [it]. The question itself assumes quite a bit about a person’s relationship to the almighty neti-neti.

  • lizbeth65 says:

    The right question can transform consciousness. Isn’t that what Socrates tried to do and the Zen master with his koan? So, as a lay person wanting a taste of transformation, I thank you for taking the time to post and share your reflections. Parabola is always an oasis in a rather arid and mechanical world. It always encourages a dialogue with consciousness.

    So, do I need God to be good? Certainly, as a child, being told what “God” considered good had an impact on me. After all, what small child would dare argue with God? Ultimately, stories like the Good Samaritan and Not Casting the First Stone left an indelible mark on my consciousness.

    Culture shapes our consciousness. We literally see the world through the lens of our culture. So, while I may not be near the goodness of a Jesus or the wisdom of a Buddha or the inner freedom of a Gurdjieff, I have been influenced by them. Their stories and struggles have become part of how I see the world. Of what I strive to be.

    I guess my response is rather pedestrian. I am not up high on the Himalayas of consciousness. But even from the street, it’s clear that moral and ethical actions come from our training. And while Gandhi believed in Satyagraha or a love and truth force within us all, I believe that only the truly self-actualized are in touch with it. But through their teachings and their stories, they provide the rest of us with a sort of moral compass that can lead us in the direction of truth, love, and goodness. The truly greats may be the superheroes of consciousness. But as we watch their lofty heights, we raise our own moral standards. So, yes, the average Joe needs God to be good. Otherwise, we all succumb to our lower instincts. Thank God for God.

  • Barak says:

    Hmmm… I wonder… I’m not so sure teaching the average Joe about the Pie in the Sky and asking him to “be more like that” has done much good for us. And as a culture that’s been our M.O. for “God knows” how long (pun intended). I know from experience, having went to Catholic school as a young kid etc. that it basically came down to: That God far away is really out of touch. That said, I’m also not suggesting some base materialism, but I do believe that there is a huge (infinite?) expanse of spirituality that doesn’t reduce itself to either approach that we, as a Wester culture at least, have yet to embrace.

    Teaching the young to in fact self-actualize seems to me a good start. I think kids can handle some of those concepts even better than adults can. Big Mind and all…

  • Tracy Cochran says:

    Hi Barak and Lizbeth: It’s good to hear from you–and I chose “good” on purpose, and not to be nice. For me, goodness does not consist in niceness or kindness in a sentimental or moralistic sense but in opening up to reality. There is a yearning to be open to what is beyond the sticky grasp of my own thoughts and ego-driven desires, to be one with others and with life (and even neti neti), rather than trapped in the illusion of separation. I don’t personally relate to God as an anthropomorphic presence but I do find that I wish to be open and go beyond in a very anthropomorphic way–sometimes prayerful way, and sometimes in a less dignified suffering, pleading way. I practice buddhist mindfulness meditation and agree with you about the utterly uncontainable and elusive nature of god (and everything) but still there is this way of approaching the unknown that I might have inherited from my earliest ancestors. Oneness, goodness, IS God to me…and I wish to be part of or in alignment with it and once in a blue moon while digging in the garden or on the meditation cushion or even in the midst of exchange with another everything drops away and i’m one with it. I’m good. How do you experience it?

  • Barak says:

    Your “good” and my “good” are the same. Also, and admittedly off subject, doesn’t being “good” and being “great” have such different connotations–far beyond a difference in mere quantity of goodness.

  • BobWallace says:

    Hello. Your reference to Plato in your initial question was aimed at his Euthyphro. I don’t think Plato means, there, to suggest that we could “skip God.” He refers frequently to “God” in other dialogues, in a uniformly positive sense (though without ever giving a definition of the word). For example, he says in the Theaetetus that by practicing philosophy one can “become as like God as possible.” When you say that oneness, goodness is God to you, you sound very Platonic to me. The tradition of Neoplatonic mysticism, from Plotinus through Meister Eckhart and Rumi to Ralph Waldo Emerson, is very much about the interrelations of oneness and goodness. “Do we need God to be good?” By seeking what’s truly good (through philosophy: love of wisdom) we achieve oneness within ourselves (unite the “parts” of our life/soul) and oneness in the universe, and the ascent to this oneness/goodness is probably what Plato means by “God.” Personally, I experience this ascent and this oneness when I get clearer about what I really want in life (clearer about what’s really good). In doing so I feel that I get beyond what you call the sticky grasp of my own thoughts and ego-driven desires, into a region of clarity in which boundaries of me vs. you are not the issue. I find that this getting-beyond depends very much on love that I receive, which I think of as a manifestation of God, and which I do my best to pass on to others.

  • jbschieber says:

    Tracy –
    Well, being a neophyte in the area of the philosophies of Plato and the like, as well as to the teachings of Paraobla, maybe I have comments or maybe I have questions. The first thing that came to mind when you said ‘good’ was my judgement of a person’s actions. And while my initial response to the question was ‘yes, of course,’ I started thinking about all the atrocities that have been committed in and under the name of God. Then I am moved to take the position that God has nothing to do with good – in the traditional, moralistic sense. Then I think that if God is free will, then you need to have God to be good or bad. But you don’t really have God or need God, God just is, so it (God) is all available all the time, always, to everyone, no matter what any of us think on a personal level, no matter what we judge, whether we want that or not. Yes?

    Then I read the other comments and from your responses I realize that the good you may be referring to is the connection that you feel to either the Universe or God or the totality of human-kind? And to you, goodness would be those moments of connection for you to everything or oneness? Is this correct?

  • Tracy Cochran says:

    Hi Bob, jb, and Barak. Bob, thank you especially for illuminating a passing reference to Plato. It’s so interesting that seeking clarity about what we want in life–about what constitutes a good life–puts us on the path towards goodness, oneness. For me, jb, coming closer to goodness does depend being more connected–starting with myself. I find that when I pull my attention out of my thoughts and allow myself to be aware of what is happening in the present moment, inside and outside, insights, even wisdom, can arise. When I’m more connected to myself and others and the life around, I tend to want the good–wreaking havoc isn’t as appealing as it is when I’m caught up in my own anger, disconnected. What’s really cool to me is that this is common sense yet, as Bob describes, it can also be very profound. In the same way, “God” is a ridiculously huge subject to tackle. It is even unwise to approach–many sages from many traditions say so. But at the same time, on a daily basis, while going about my life as an ordinary mother and human being , I’m aware of these interior moments or intervals, these little gaps in the action, when I wonder what is the best thing to do, and then I turn towards connection or rebel against it and insist on having my way.

  • Alex99 says:

    Thank God, my Goodness Gracious!

    Goodness may only be achieved through a lot of sacrifice or pain. I felt that as I visited many of the battlefields of eastern Europe when the Nazis fought the Communists while searching for my ancestral roots in that part of the world. Reading about how terrible a man Stalin was and how many deaths occurred in this part of the world in the 20th century makes me wonder if that sacrifice was really necessary to save the world from “evil” or was it just one evil battling another? Now we look back on the Nazi and those Soviet times in horror, but the sacrifice made by these people did stop Hitler. Was that goodness at work? How can goodness work in the midst of evil? Zoroaster said, “Think good thoughts” and the idea was that the battle for the universe between Ahura Mazda and the forces of darkness or evil could be won by man’s transformative role as a positive ideal. Zoroaster’s God was a god of goodness, an awful goodness, not the goodness of Kellogg’s of Battle Creek or the goodness we feel today wrapped in our middle class cultural values. Saint Silouan, one of the monks of Mont Athos, had a mantra that I remember reading from his life story: “Keep thy mind in Hell and despair not”. God even descends down into Hell and can transform the worst into the best.

    In North America it seems that goodness has be reduced to that “which is pleasing, valuable or useful” not this awe inspiring force of terrible proportions that can “‘move mountains” and transform evil into good. When one is “good” one does what one is told to do, following the moral or even legal rules. But there are forces of “good” that are constantly battling “evil”. Greed is rampant in our society, individuals and groups are motivated only by profits, materialism, excessive consumption, even official power that allegedly exists for the “good” can be easily corrupted as we have learnt recently in New York. Does all this imply oneness? It is just a matter of accepting all these bad people? Do we have to accept everything or is there some struggle, inner and outer, involved in moving from bad to good that is not moralistic but profoundly transformative? I know that Gurdjieff said, “It is not this or that, it is this and that” to Alexander de Hartmann, but the absorbing quality of good over evil may be more like the appearance of Krishna on the battlefield with Arjuna than some kind of sweet, happy ceremony that spiritual consumerism promotes today. I am not seeking a goodness that allows me to speak of the Universal Oneness, but one that helps me in the battle to overcome and supplant evil, no matter where it appears. We all have that inner guide that can lead us towards good and we know good when it appears, but sometimes appearances can be deceiving and what appears good can be bad, and an act that seems bad may be the act necessary to lead one towards the good. In fact I don’t feel qualified to judge, ultimately what is good or bad, but only be led by my own inner principles or Khidr; nor can I judge others as they must also be guided from their point of view. It is in this sense that I understand surrender, my role is to remain attentive and to sense the divine presence and allow such presence to move through me, perhaps even in spite of me. Who am I know really “know” good from evil? Thank God, my Goodness Gracious!

  • Tracy Cochran says:

    Hi Alex: Most people do seem to have an inner guide that leads them to the good, but appearances can be deceiving….and an act or event that seems bad may lead to great goodness. What inner principles or attitudes or actions can we rely on?

  • scott says:

    i would venture to guess that we do not need god to be good. it is inherent in human nature to sense that this thing that i am doing is wrong. just as it is clear that what i am doing is good.
    if i waver in doing good, it is just a measure of how asleep i am.
    when i succumb to weakness of character in a situation, there is no blame,because i did not know.
    i guess what i am saying is that i am responsible for my life; every minute of it, every action and every word i utter. and when i sin, i must see it as sinning.
    sin: missed the mark.

  • Lewis says:

    In the introduction to the Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis reasons that a good God would not create personified evil – that evil IS simply the lack of good. If the Western God is as defined, and unopposed in His actions, how could He do otherwise – the alternative would be the schizophrenic God of Harlan Elison, a thug bereft of reason, unfit to follow and having NO symmetry with the creations made to some extent in His image.

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