Christ and the Philosophers: the Good
Years ago, when my daughter, Anna, was in high school, she asked me to come talk to one of her school clubs about Philosophy and Religion. I prepared a talk and delivered it – and I came across the handout for that talk recently while cleaning out a closet. One of the major points I made in that talk given to high school youth was that everybody thinks philosophically. That doesn’t mean that everyone is wise – or even consistent in their logic – but the kinds of questions philosophy asks, using ten-dollar words, are the kinds of questions everybody asks, all day long.
Essentially, philosophy asks three questions: what is the Good? What is the True? And what is the Beautiful? The Good, the True, and the Beautiful (not the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – that’s an old Clint Eastwood film): Determining the good, the true, and the beautiful is ordinary stuff. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to determine any of those things, but it’s not something that takes an advanced degree. We do it from our earliest years.
“That’s just not right.” “That was very kind.” “Five Guys makes the best fries.” What is The Good? Or, in the words of a famous tabloid headline: "Doctors Discover: CHOCOLATE CAN CURE ANTHING!” What is The True? And then – we can start talking about art and fashion and landscapes and tattoos, and the question “What is The Beautiful?” will start an argument in five seconds flat. Life is full of instances where you are asked to make a determination between good and bad, between true and false, between beautiful and ugly – and we all do.
You could go so far as the say that Philosophy is the Operating System of the Mind. In order to run your brain, you must think in these categories. Meanwhile, Religion is merely an App – an add-on, a program you can run. And you can so configure your soul that everything goes through the Religion App; indeed, we recommend that you do. That’s the meaning of WWJD, that you see on all those little bracelets – not to mention Paul’s admonition that whatsoever you do, do it all to the glory of God. But there are plenty of people who only check their Religion App once in a while, and others who basically never use it - while everybody uses Philosophy, because everybody is constantly making one kind of choice or another. And choices – distinctions – value judgments – is what Philosophy is all about.
Now, there is no Official Christian Philosophy. People with all sorts of opinions and organizing principles become Christians; but still, the Bible and Church tradition has some things to say about how we should go about making the important choices life presents us with. And so, today, I want to talk about the first of those questions: What is The Good?
And as [Jesus] was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'" And he said to him, "Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth."Y’know, there’s a whole lot going on in that little interchange – more than we usually realize. Let’s start with the matter of Ethics. One of the major approaches to talking about the Good is to talk about Ethics: What is good behavior vs. bad behavior: What is fair, what is just, what is humane? When the rich young man asks him how to qualify for eternal life, Jesus mentions the commandments: Everybody knows the commandments; do those.
Now, when you get right down to it, an awful lot of people think that the commandments are just arbitrary. God makes up the rules just because he can, and then threatens people with hell and damnation if they step over his lines. And people who think that way often wind up arguing with the commandments, thinking, Surely God isn’t like that. As Charles II – he of the many mistresses – put it, “Surely God will never damn a man for allowing himself a little pleasure.” But if you listen to people argue about things when they don’t work out the way they want, you’ll notice an interesting thing: They’ll say: “that’s unfair!” And they expect to you to agree with them.
Amazing. Even people who claim that God – or Man – or Society – just makes up the Rules (in order to make up their own) will howl about how unfair some outcome is. And they expect to convince you, because after all, it’s not just that they wanted it to turn out their way – they expect you to know that it should have turned out their way. “You know the commandments” – don’t you?
The plain fact is, whatever one says one believes, everybody acts as if the standards of right and wrong – of fair vs. unfair – are not just my standards or your standards, but everybody’s standards; that, in fact, there is an authoritative code of the Good which exists outside all human society, and to which all humans are accountable. Otherwise, claiming “that’s unfair!” and expecting you to care, much less do anything about it, makes no sense.
And what do Christians believe? We believe that the definition of Good starts with the God of the Bible, who is an ethical God. “No one is good but God alone,” says Jesus. And so the Rules are not just made up: they reflect God’s nature, and they’re the same for everybody, and everybody is accountable to – God? Yes, God – for obeying them. Or else your complaint about unfairness, or injustice, or somebody’s evil behavior, is just a waste of breath.
But wait! There’s more! Everyone acts as if there’s a universal code of Good, and everyone acts as if it’s universally known, but the odd thing is, Nobody manages to obey it. We expect them to, but they don’t. For that matter, while we’re complaining about the outrage that’s been done to us, we act as if we know the code of the Good, and that we at least live up to its demands - when in fact, if we’re honest, we have to admit that we do no such thing.
We are all alike guilty of the very same acts we complain about when done to us. Which is a very odd thing. Cats never fail to live up to the ideals of cat-ness. Cows are never known to disappoint other cows in their behavior. Elephants never lose a night’s sleep worrying over whether they did the right thing today. But human beings, despite our complaints about others, find it impossible to live up to even the most minimal standards ourselves – even those accepted by ourselves beforehand. Why, just keeping a diet going more than a day is a severe trial for us, let alone treating others as we should wish to be treated.
This universal failure to live up to our own acknowledged standards is called sin – and as G.K. Chesterton pointed out, it’s as common as potatoes. We all do it. Every one of us, the rich young man who told Jesus he had kept all the commandments from his youth notwithstanding. And we didn’t just start falling short. We have always fallen short. We have an inborn tendency to not quite get it right. Which is why G.K. Chesterton, again, said that Original Sin was the only dogma of Christianity which could actually be proved.
So, the situation we find ourselves in, is that we have an inborn sense that there is a right and a wrong, and we are responsible for doing the one and avoiding the other, but none of us manages to do so. And if the definition of the Good comes from God, who is the Good, then we find ourselves on the outs with him, and that affects how our lives turn out now – and how they will turn out hereafter, yea, even eternally. Which is why we are told that we need to repent, to turn away from the bad, and embrace the good.
And, we are told that Jesus has sacrificed himself for us, dying on the cross in order to pay for all our misdeeds, to take away our reproach before God and make it possible for us to have a right relationship with God – and therefore, the Good -- again. This is why we say that Jesus makes us right with God. He gives effect to our repentance, so that the evil we have done can be repaired, not merely rejected.
Back again to Jesus and the rich young man for a moment: And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone." “Are you calling me God?” There’s a challenge there. For there’s another angle to the Good. If God is the Good, then he communicates goodness to his creation.
Being is an essential property of God, and he causes the universe to Be. Being is better than Not-being. God is Life. He breathed into Man and he became a living soul. Being alive is better than being dead. God is Spirit. “And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” Being free is better than being a slave. God is Love. God is Joy. God is Glory. Everything we could desire in this life derives its goodness from its imitation of God.
The Good is not only good actions: it is also things that are Good to have. And so when those political philosophers who created our country said “that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” they were saying just what I’ve been saying here. We desire not only to be good, but to possess the good, to take it into our souls and enjoy it.
Now, when Jesus died for our sins, he made it possible for us to be reconciled to God, to be (as they say) justified – to be righteous. But it is only when he rose from the dead that he could communicate to us the good things that we most desire, "for Christ being risen from the dead, will never die again" – and the life he now has, he shares with those who have repented of their sin and turned to him. He communicates the Goodness of God to us, he breathes into us the new life – the eternal life – which makes all good things possible.
"Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" What must I do in order to have the Good: the abundant life, the freedom of the soul, the hope of glory? Well, do all the right things, sure – but then, “come, follow me.”
You know, if you only open up your Religion App once in a while, all the talk of commandments and salvation and Jesus and the cross and mysteries and so on can look pretty confusing – which is why a lot of folks don’t open it very often. They just keep muddling through on their own – even though things never quite work out like they think they’re supposed to. But then, what can you do?
But for those who will turn their lives over to Jesus – for those who will expand their Religion App into a new Operating System for their souls – then all this makes perfect sense. It’s not about satisfying arbitrary demands, or looking for the get-out-of-hell-free card, or trying to wheedle someone into letting you keep your pet sins in the kingdom of heaven. We have found the Good – for we have found God - in Jesus Christ. And he has unsnarled the whole tangle of our wrongs, forgiven them, wiped them out, and made us new again, clean and right before God.
And he has filled us with himself, and so we find ourselves experiencing the Good – really experiencing it – fresh from the hands of the Good himself. He has promised to give us abundant life – indeed, eternal life – and so he has.
Blessed be his Name for ever. Amen.