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.