Friday, May 22, 2009

God's Goodness, Part 1

Imagine that an alien from another galaxy came to Earth. He/She/It had technology and powers far beyond our comprehension. It would be able to create and manipulate life, able to heal all sicknesses. It could manipulate time, space and matter. Because it was telepathic, it could read minds and essentially be all-knowing.

To us primitive humans, it would be God-like.

My question is, would we accept such a creature as God, or as a god? If it began to give us commands to enslave part of the population, or to serve it without resistance, would we do so because of our fear of being destroyed by such a powerful being?

It's a simple thought exercise.

After thinking about this for a few minutes the other day, I came to the conclusion that we wouldn't label such a being as God. No matter how powerful and all-knowing the creature might be, no matter how God-like it might seem, if it failed the basic test of goodness, we would revile it. 

At its most basic, the concept of God conveys the idea that God is somehow outside of the Universe; He is its cause and designer, not a physical creature flitting about trying to achieve an earthly goal such as the subjugation of primitive peoples. Even more integral is the idea that God is good...not just good, but the ultimate form of the most high version of goodness that exists. He is benevolent, wanting the highest goodness for Creation. 

If God isn't good, then there is no point in trying to appease Him. He can do whatever He wants and there's nothing we can do about it. That's actually a simplistic picture of Calvinism, in which it is not God's goodness which serves as His ultimate definer, but God's Power and Glory. 

In one sense, it is God's power which makes Him God, "might makes right" and all that. However, any image of God which has at its core God's own self-interest in being glorified causes difficulties, because a God who is only interested in Himself owes no allegiance of any kind to humanity. (I can hear the hyper-Calvinists singing the amen chorus on that one.)

The overall theme of Christ's redemption of humanity finds its source, not in God's self-interested navel-gazing, but in His goodness and love towards humanity and creation, the desire to set things right and bless all nations through Christ.

Threads of the importance of believing in God's goodness can be found  in various Scriptures. Doubting God's loving and pure character is one of the first steps towards original sin in the story of the Garden of Eden. In order to tempt Eve, the serpent initially attacks Eve's vision of God as trustworthy and good. He tells Eve that God is trying to keep something from her, trying to limit her in some way. God is selfish and wants to hoard all the power for himself, not wanting to share it with humans. 

Genesis 2:4-5
"You will not surely die," the serpent said to the woman. 5 "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."
Believing the serpent's spin sets Eve on the path to self-destruction.

If Eve had considered God's innate goodness might the story have a different ending?  

When reading Jesus' teaching of the parable of the talents, we often focus on the good and faithful servants who took what their master had given them and multiplied it through their diligence. 

Matthew 25:14-30
14"Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. 15To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. 17So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. 18But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.

 19"After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.'

 21"His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'

 22"The man with the two talents also came. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.'

 23"His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'

 24"Then the man who had received the one talent came. 'Master,' he said, 'I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.'

 26"His master replied, 'You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

 28" 'Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. 29For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 30And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

It's clear that Jesus is teaching responsibility and action in the parable, but there's a secondary lesson in the parable, the wicked servant's misunderstanding of the master's character. He feared the master. He thought him unfair and demanding. Consumed with the idea that he might fail and incur the master's wrath, he did nothing with the resource he possessed. He buried it.

After reading through the parable recently, I was left wondering, was the master upset because his talent had not been multiplied, or because of the insulting characterization of the wicked servant? The master doesn't admit to the servant's characterization, but declares that if fear motivated the reasoning behind the servant's inaction, he should have at least earned interest on the talent. It's another example of poor choices motivated by fear or suspicion. 

If the servant had thought of the master as good and fair, and not harsh and unfair, would he have made different decisions? Would he have thrown himself into his task trusting that his master would be pleased with his efforts?

The Pharisees were continually upset with Jesus' healings and exorcisms. When faced with his kind and generous acts towards the people, they responded with shouts of, "Blasphemy!" They even went so far as to attribute his miracles to demonic forces.

Matthew 12:24-32

24But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, "It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons."

 25Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, "Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. 26If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? 27And if I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 28But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

 29"Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man's house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house.

 30"He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. 31And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.32Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

Jesus expected people to recognize the goodness in his actions. He is scathing towards the Pharisees because an obvious good work has been performed and they are unwilling to accept that goodness as evidence of God's work in and through Jesus. Attributing evil as the source of obviously good miracles is an insult to God's Spirit.

It's awfully similar to Eve's mistake, and the attitude of the wicked servant.

Jesus appears to expect people to have a fundamental understanding of good and evil as a way to assess his ministry and understand God's tricks involved. 

James exhorts believers to have faith when they pray, not on the basis of their perfection, but on the basis of God's goodness.

James 1:5
If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.
He also makes it clear that God is not in the business of tempting people, or advancing evil in any way, but only gives what is pure and perfect: 

James 1:13-16 

13When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.15Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

 16Don't be deceived, my dear brothers. 17Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

This post is really just an attempt to lay the groundwork for what I truly want to address in another post, reconciling God's goodness with certain theological attitudes.  I'm hoping to get to that one in the next week.


Anonymous said...

You should read Jerome Segal's "Joseph's Bones" about whether the writers of the Pentateuch thought God was good or capricious. In his telling, the characters acted in a way to protect themselves from God. A different and interesting take on the subject.


Chris said...

I agree that God is good and that this is a fundamental characteristic. I am interested in what you believe man's primary purpose here on Earth is concerning God. I believe that our primary function is to glorify God. I personally would not characterize God's receiving of glory as navel-gazing, but I believe I know what you meant.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Most peoples thought their gods were capricious, and there is certainly a flavor of that as the story unfolds in Genesis. Lot seems to understand nothing about goodness, only that this particular god is powerful and he wants to be on his side. Interestingly, the God of Genesis seems quite comfortable with that early on.

But this is God gradually revealing his goodness, and the Jews gradually realizing it. Perhaps it's the only way the lesson can be learned, as we read Jesus being quite explicit that he does miracles because there are some who will learn no other way - and He doesn't seem happy about that.

Most of this idea is lifted straight from Lewis and Chesterton, BTW.

terri said...

I agree that God seems capricious at times in the Old Testament.

I would ask is God portrayed as capricious because he is capricious...or because, like the wicked servant in Jesus' parable, that's how people viewed him?

The more I consider it, the more I wonder if that was really Jesus' main point to Israel. They had neglected true service to the Master because of their warped view of Him.

As a Christian, I tend to see Jesus as the ultimate self-revelation of God to humanity. Jesus seems to spend much of his ministry, not only performing miracles, but addressing how people view God.

Sometimes he gently reveals error, at other times he bluntly calls out the Pharisees and Sadducees and their legalism.

"He is good and his love endures forever" He? Does it?

I think "yes" to both.

Do we always perceive that goodness and

Buz said...

First, I disagree with your original assumption. I think that most people on this earth would follow a deceitful being, just because he wielded great power. We have seen it in the past and we see it now among many peoples of the earth who follow their "god" because they want to be on its good side.

We even see pseudo-Christian cults who follow a deceitful leader who presents an angry or capricious God without questioning why God would have them do this or that.

As to the OT, I think you can look at God's covenant with Abram, which He made without requiring anything from Abram except his friendship.

I believe that the view of an angry or capricious God comes when we choose to live like everyone else and ignore God's laws. When the consequences of our own actions fall on us, we don't compare ourselves to the standard which God has set out, we compare ourselves to our neighbor, whom we judge to be even more reprobate than we are, and complain that God is being whimsical in punishing us. Kind of like the guy doing 75 mph in a 55 mph zone and then complaining to the cop that he didn't get the guy who passed us going 80.


Anonymous said...

If God isn't good, then there is no point in trying to appease Him. He can do whatever He wants and there's nothing we can do about it. That's actually a simplistic picture of Calvinism, in which it is not God's goodness which serves as His ultimate definer, but God's Power and Glory. -- Terri

Not just Calvinism, but ISLAM.