Is Evil a Derivative of Good? A Theologian’s View

Jeremy John would like to see us deal directly with the concept of evil. Here’s how he thinks about it.

I constantly meet people wherein we eventually have the following exchange:

(them) “Oh, you’re a Christian, doesn’t that make you judgmental?”
(me) “Any value system causes a person to believe that some things are right and others wrong.”
(them) “No, not mine. I don’t believe in Universal Truths. To do so would be judgmental. That is, I judge only those that believe in something. The ultimate wrong is to attempt to convince another of your own point of view. By the way, WTF, how are you a Christian? Hello, Crusades?!?!”

By this point I always feel thoroughly annoyed but I am glued to this same intellectual train wreck, as always, unable to look away.

In order to confront the great injustices of this world, we must first root ourselves in satyagraha, or, truth firmness. That is, in order to move outwards to change the world we must first know what we ourselves believe. Know thyself, as Socrates famously did not say. Or, know the thing you believe, the thing that is higher than yourself.

The second step in Alcoholics Anonymous is to believe in a power greater than yourself. Why is this essential? Because, if there is no God greater than the mewling self, there is nothing other than the satisfaction of desire. Why is this bad, you may ask? Anybody that has ever struggled against addiction, or any uncontrollable self-destructive urge, will know why you must accept something greater than your own desire if you are to overcome it.

What about those that struggle with darker drives? Those Colombian paramilitary soldiers that rape and kill, who played soccer with a man’s head? How do you tell them not to do what they desire? Or, even worse, how do you tell them that what they think is right is actually wrong?

You have three options.

  1. Kill them
  2. Incarcerate them (prevent them from crime by threat of force)
  3. Convert them

How bad does conversion look now, stacked up against its options? Some may argue that it is impossible to convert a murderer, but I do not believe that is the case, as I will address further down.

When we use the word “injustice”, we refer to a state of affairs that is out of harmony, that is dissonant, with a perfect world. This is what, throughout history, people have referred to as “evil.” For most, evil conjures up a comic book villain, fully destructible, and fully mythological. This is the notion known as Manicheanism. To the Christian, evil is a force derivative of good. There is no absolute evil, only good that has strayed from it’s original, created nature. Satan himself was once the morning star, the lightbearer. Therefore, justice resembles healing rather than destruction. We all have strayed from the path of justice and it takes hard work to return. Or, as Martin Luther King puts it, “…the method of non-violence is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice.”

On the other hand, lack of conviction will never change the world.

Some find the use of the word “evil” jarring. I believe that we can only root ourselves in goodness when we know what injustice and evil are, but in order to understand evil in a spirit of peace and nonviolence, we must leave behind Manicheanism and understand that no person is fully evil, and all people are originally, inherently good.

Of course, there are many cultures, with many different beliefs. Good and evil must be parsed within the context of cultures and traditions. Many people, when they hear I am a Christian, imagine I am asserting some large body of beliefs that are hidden inside my words like the evils inside Pandora’s Box. Generally, we live in a culture of religious and biblical illiteracy, for the religious and not. What that means is that people in America think they understand the Bible, but they lack even the most basic facts about what it contains.

But one thing I will assert, is that I don’t believe in nihilists. We all have values, whether we value non-judgmentalism or being well-fed and getting plenty of sleep, these are the values that motor our decisions. If someone locks up a nihilist for no good reason or kills his or her parents, he or she will quickly gain a sense of right and wrong, and from that basis, will quickly move to condemn the actions of his or her persecutors. And most would actually march to war over the murder of a parent, the ultimate loss of relativism.

Nihilism is either the product of a privileged culture that has not experienced real injustice, or it is the result of a long personal narrative of deep struggle with such personal injustice that the person in question has lost hope in any kind of justice whatsoever.

Finally, to confront every Christian with the Crusades would be the equivalent of confronting every person who believed in evolution with the social Darwinism derived from the now discredited anthropological eugenics that drove Hitler to exterminate Jews and Gypsies.

In order to condemn the Crusades you must first believe in good, evil, justice, and injustice. I condemn the Crusades as evil from the Christian framework of good and evil. Tell me, why do you condemn the Crusades?

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About Jeremy John

Jeremy John is the Food and Faith Network Director at the Quixote Center, where he builds alternative economies in faith institutions for food justice, where he landed after Occupy DC remade his hopes and dreams. Jeremy has been an activist ever since he accidentally ate the red pill instead of the more harmless blue one. He converted to Christianity, to his horror, while serving a six-month prison term for civil disobedience to close the School of the Americas. He blogs about faith and activism and tweets about whatever catches his fancy, usually faith.

Comments

  1. Dr. Benway says:

    I don’t condemn the Crusades. Condemning the Crusades is a morally useless position. It is easy to condemn an event that took place the better part of a millenium ago, whose history most of us don’t understand and in which none of us played a role.

    When I look at Christianity, I’m more worried about the beliefs the vast majority of its adherents express today, particularly the belief that certain kinds of victimless sexual acts are, in fact, profoundly harmful and thus deserve to be repressed.

    If it was only Christians’ BELIEFS, qua beliefs, that were at issue, it would be one thing. But it’s the fact that a substantial portion of these beliefs become translated into laws and prejudices that worries me. The fact that, in both the U.S. And Brazil, Christians believe that the State has a responsability to maintain the laws in such a way so that Christian beliefs aren’t disturbed.

    I disagree with the view that things are either good or evil and that evil is simply good gone awry. I believe, like Hannah Arendt, that evil is more likely to be a banalized sentiment, a prejudice that has become violent and widely accepted by the majority simply because, hey, everyone else is doing it. I don’t think, for example, that racism is simply “good strayed from its initial nature”.

    It seems to me, Jeremy, that the belief that evil is simply good gone awry suffers from the sin of simplicity. My core belief is that the universe – and especially the human universe – is much more complex that we are able to easily comprehend. While I, too, disagree with manichaenism, my problem with it is that it, too, is far too simple a moral structure to adequately explain reality. I don’t think that folding manichaenism into a singularity called “good” helps us to understand the world, though it may very well help us to live in the world. In fact, I think that by moving from manichaenism to monotheism, one is in fact moving TOWARDS nihilism and not away from it.

    Let’s put it this way: you believe that there’s essentially one moral pole in this world. A nihilist believes that there are zero and a manicheanist believes that there are two. In calling for people to move from a two pole moral universe to a one pole moral universe, you’re headed towards nihilism, not away from it.

    I believe that we should go in the opposite direction. I believe that there are many moral poles in the universe, not just good and bad and certainly not just good. How many? I don`t know. But I believe that what´s worthwhile (as opposed to “good”) is attempting to perceive this diversity of human moral life. So as long as were using the terms that Christianity applies to its heresies, I guess that would place me in the category of “pagan”.

    Though I don’t share your moral beliefs, I enjoyed your article very much and fully agree with you that what most people claim as “nihilism” today in the West is, in fact a sort of moral laziness and lack of sociological imagination. Moving people away from that can only be a good thing.

    • Dr Benway,

      Thanks for your well-thought comment! I am glad you appreciated my article.

      To business! I want to first start by repeating that my theology here, regarding human’s essential created goodness, is wholly orthodox from a historical Christian perspective.

      First, I don’t believe that “racism” is good strayed, but I do believe that a racist is a person who is created good, inherently good, who has strayed from good.

      But even if you take Arendt’s perspective re: banality of evil, you’re still in my court. If that person would, in a normal social context, behave well, then you’re essentially asserting what I am, where evil, or the corrupting influence on normal or good society, is a strayed violent sentiment replicated by the mob.

      So I guess I’m failing to see the difference.

      I want to flip something for you. You may or may not be a secular humanist. Try this out, “If it was only secular humanist’s BELIEFS, qua beliefs, that were at issue, it would be one thing. But it’s the fact that a substantial portion of these beliefs become translated into laws and prejudices that worries me.”

      A person’s believe are woven whole cloth from their beliefs and who they are. Christianity is not just a suspension of the rational. In fact, I am positing a rationality above which affirms the goodness of all people, in a stronger way that I have heard secular humanists do it. So there are Christian rationalities, and there are Christian rationalities, if you take my meaning.

      Do people really need Christianity as an excuse for disliking people different than themselves, discriminating against homosexuals, for instance? Nah. They do that because they represent the status quo, the privileged elite, which just happens to be those who were historically Christian but lack the balls to tell their parents they don’t actually believe in God because church is a great place to find a spouse.

      But I get it, Christians aren’t welcome in the political sphere. You may re-think that when you see what my political theology looks like: http://www.redletterchristians.org/from-a-comfortable-faith-to-a-missional-one/

      The problem is that liberals are so uncomfortable with Christianity that Christians on that tend left have a hard time articulating a specifically Christian political theology. So the religious faith is dominated by the right.

      Peace,
      Jeremy

      • Dr. Benway says:

        Dear John,

        Arendt is not arguing that a person who is essentially good strayed into evil via the influence of the mob. Her summing up of her arguments in Eichmann in Jerusalem made that very clear: a person’s acts in the face of evil define how society is to morally treat that person: whether the person was good or evil in the beginning makes no difference at all to Arendt.

        As for Christianty versus secularism…

        The argument that secularism is simply another belief form, like Christianity, is a commonly abused one. While all moral structures – including those of secularism – are ultimately based upon values, secularism strives to base its structures upon values that can be empirically supported and are as free of culturally coded a prioris as possible. Does it achieve its goals with perfection? No, hardly. But it at least strives for rationalitty.

        Christianity, in the other hand, does not. Although there is rational christianity (as you`ve pointed out), those are hardly the people leading the religion`s many branches. And as for Christians not being welcome in politics…. Oh, c`mon, John! Surely you jest! Christianty of various stripes is so well entrenched in the U.S. political system that it would be almost impossible to get elected is one weren`t a Christian! U.S. morality laws are almost exclusively Christian.

        But I`m curious, John, if humanism or secularism is the same thing as Christianity, can we secular humanists declare ourselves to be a church and avoid paying taxes? Or, better yet, since it`s all belief, perhaps that means churches shouldn`t be given any protection at all and should be treated just like any other corporation, subjecting them to affirmative action laws, taxation and the first amendment.

        It seems to me that Christians are quick to assert that their religion and science are effectively the same sort of phenomenon, up until the moment when any of religion`s privileges are threatened (say the privilege of the Catholic Church to hide pedophiles from the law). At that point, religion all of a sudden becomes hallowed and unique.

        • Fair, I won’t try to bend Arendt into something else. Arendt is Arendt and I am me. I haven’t delved into Arendt’s trilogy, just Eichmann in Jerusalem.

          You’re totally right, Christianity doesn’t strive for rationality, it strives for LOVE. Rationality is just consistency to a set belief framework. I don’t believe in ultimate rationality.

          Namely, I don’t believe in a rationality free of cultural encoding. But I do believe in pluralism, where people of all different religions, including the one that believe themselves moderately successful at overcoming cultural bias and operate with true rationality, can come together for government.

          So that’s what is at issue in your remarks. Is that in pluralism, we come together with our beliefs, and make decisions, Christian, Jew, Muslim, and Secular Humanist. But it seems that Christians are not welcome at the table, for many liberals, because they are sub-rational.

          Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like George W. Bush either, but I think he exploited Iraq (or attempted to) for political and economic reasons, and then clothed his rhetoric in Manichean quasi-Christian rhetoric. The problem here is MANICHEANISM, not Christianity. Manicheanism dominates our cultural myths, what we teach our children. See comic books or cartoons. And it is inherently not Christian.

          Secular humanists do have their tax-free institutions, called non-profits.

          Yes, I think that the Catholic Church’s privilege to hide pedophiles should be revoked.

          I’m less interested in the way Christianity operates as an institution and more interested in the way I see it operating in culture, specifically, our liberal culture.

          • Dr. Benway says:

            OK, Jeremy, so if you could please define LOVE?

            Christians who bash homosexuals say that they do so in the name of love. While you may not agree with their definition of the word, it does seem to indicate that this “love” thing is very, very flexible.

            Also, I doubt any reflective scientist could ever believe in “ultimate” rationality, or a culturally free notion of rationality. “More rational” versus “less rational” would be the key metric there and the “culture” of science is unique, but it is also one that is open to EVERYONE, which is something that’s difficult to say for the world’s religions.

            But looking at your arguments as to what constitutes Christianity, it seems to me that you’ve taken protestantism to its most logical point and now are a church of one man. You’ve thus dived off the edge of religionn into the well of spiritualism. Which is good and fine, in my book, but makes me wonder why you feel that what you say about Christianity actually reflects what the vast majority of self-identified Christians feel.

            Any ideology can be polished and refined until it becomes a perfect individualistic mirror of one’s own beliefs. Hell, you could probably push a peace-and-love kind of nazism is you tried (remember Franz Leibkind in Mel Brook’s “The Producers”?) But if you were to do that, people would probably take a step back when you walked around claiming to be a Nazi, just – you know – not one of those BAD nazis.

    • Dr Benway and @Karin,

      So here’s what’s up really.

      I think that when we put good and evil onto societal structures, we take away the moral agency in an individual. A squishy understanding of evil!

      There are people who, in the face of Hitler’s Germany, choose certain death and resistance, and there are those who go into the paramilitary death squads and when, when a severed head is cast at their feet, in order to curry favor with their superiors, kick it like a soccer ball. There are people who, like in Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning, choose to give away their bread, and those that collaborate with the Nazi guards.

      So yes, context has a great deal to do with bravery and courage for action, willingness to stick by the truth in nonviolence, but more than that, it has to do with a life lived towards good, practicing every single day from when you wake up until you sleep. You develop a muscle for it.

      And, when the time comes, you’ll be able to resist.

      We all have the opportunity to be good in the right context. For some, being good means not stabbing people after robbing them. Yes, good is in context, but there’s always a choice. And when you start to choose, and you keep going, that’s when you can really make a difference for good.

      Yes, there are people like Eichmann, who are stupid and rule-bound, encased in society’s preferences and choices for them. I would prefer that MLK, Bonhoeffer, Ghandi, or yes, Jesus, be my starting place for good and evil.

      Peace,
      Jeremy

      • Actually, Arendt’s point was that Eichmann was neither stupid no necessarily rule bound. He was simply, banally, evil and for that reason alone deserved to die.

        I’ve just finnished reading Sebastian Junger’s “War” for a lark and am convinced by his understanding of courage as a form of love of the group. In order to be courageous in a situation like the holocaust, you need to have a much deeper commitment to a much wider group than most humans seem wired to love. The White Rose, for example (and Stauffel of “Operation Valkyrie fame) died for their love of a concept of Germany which was not just following the rules of the Maximum Leader. Such people are not courageous in the chest-pounding sense: they, too, operate quietly and matter-of-factly. It’s a small, mean thing, evil. Good, likewise. We mistake their nature when we think that they are these huge, cinematographic forces.

        • Agreed, basically. I read texts through my own analytic filter, this is true, but Arendt deeply shapes me, along with other theology/history of the holocaust.

          That’s why I think we must base our theology on being exceptionally good people, above and beyond society’s standard. It’s not enough to be ordinary people, we must be activists. Part of why Jesus’ philosophy is attractive to me is because it is precisely something unattainable, morally out of reach. It’s a spectrum that you can’t fully live into. But that’s why grace and love are so important.

      • Dr Benway and Karin,

        This comment thread got oddly heated, from my perspective. I was confused by the responses for a little while, but then I realized that I must offer a clarification.

        My point is not to work toward a conversion of people to Christianity. At least, not in the sense that evangelicals mean it. My point is that we must be converted out of a spirituality of violence and/or oppression into good. I don’t think that’s synonymous with Christianity in a written or propositional sense. However, I do believe in one God. I just think that God has many servants, in and out of the church, and and out of other religions.

        I will quote at length here from my favorite theologian, Walter Wink. I want you all to understand that I think this is a call to the world, both Christian and non, both me and you. In a non-Manichean world where all people are inherently good, conversion is redemption, a restoration to harmony with society, nature, and God.

        “Many modern Christians have unfortunately understood injustice in simply materialistic terms and have not recognized the need to “convert” people from the spirituality that binds them to a particular material expression of power. It is not enough merely to change social structures. People are not simply determined by the material forces that impinge on them. They are also the victims of the very spirituality that the material means of production and socialization have fostered, even as these material means are themselves the spin-off of a particular spirituality.

        The repugnance with which most liberal Christians regard evangelism betrays their own failure to discern that all liberation involves conversion.

        Too often our social action has been as devoid of spirituality as our evangelism has been politically innocuous.”

        Walter Wink 
        Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament, p 116

  2. Bravo, Jeremy. While I’m essentially on the same ‘belief’ boat as Dr. Benway, your writing is still a pleasure and a thing I’m glad to see published. If only because Christianity, too, is too easily dismissed when it is a complex thing.

    You make a leap that I don’t quite understand, which is maybe why I don’t understand Christianity. It doesn’t seem to me you ever look at ‘evil’ or say what it is, other than ‘the great injustices’. (huh? that says….nothing. yes, we all know them. but what is it, why is it, and what are you supposed to do about it?)

    You answer ‘the great injustices’ with alcoholism and then the colombian paramilitaries, in both cases making that same leap I don’t quiet follow. A) to believe something is bigger than you does not mean there is a god, and B) to believe the paramilitaries are being violent and immoral does not make them ‘evil’, nor explain what it is they are doing or why it is wrong. It skips those questions and labels them, instead, as the problem. They, instead, are evil.

    To which you kill them, incarcerate them, or convert them.

    Yeah, that’s pretty much my problem with Christianity. It blames rather than understands, and then arrogantly thinks it has a duty to teach the other.

    There are more choices than the three you list, Jeremy. Most of them more humane, too. Most of them going deeper into the complexity of both the paramilitay’s life, and that of his victim’s. Most of them being more just to both the alcoholic, and the world he lives in.

    Your point, and your passion, and your just plain gutsy-ness to stand up for what you see as just, is precious. But I don’t think it has to do with nihilism, crusades, or Christ. Keep passionating. Keep writing. Keep protesting. There is a truth, there.

    • Hey Karen,

      Thanks for your comments and for your encouragement.

      So here’s the big picture point of what I am saying. Because all people are good, inherently good, and are capable of returning to good from doing obviously evil things, you can’t kill them, regardless of whether they’ve killed someone else. That’s the point.

      The problem is that there are things which we understand to be terribly wrong, which I believe are terribly wrong. Here’s a short list. Murder, rape, disappearance and kidnapping, slavery, exploitation, destruction of the environment, robbery, and pedophilia. A short list. Right, so these things are evil.

      So I’m not sure that this is arrogant. In fact, relativism in the face of the victims of these crimes would be apathy. So I know you’re not a relativist.

      But here’s what I’m missing. Ultimately, whether you seek to heal the person who commits the crime or the society itself, your ultimate goal is the CONVERSION of evil.

      But! Only if you love the doer of wrong, and only if you think they are capable of turning back to good. That is necessary.

      Otherwise, yes, we can remove poverty, etc. But there will still always be people, and usually they will navigate to the head of a multinational corporation.

      Or, as Galeano puts it, “The worst violators of nature and human rights never go to jail. They hold the keys. In the world as it is, the looking-glass world, the countries that guard the peace also make and sell the most weapons. The most prestigious banks launder the most drug money and harbor the most stolen cash. The most successful industries are the most poisonous for the planet. And saving the environment is the brilliant endeavor of the very companies that profit from annihilating it. Those who kill the most people in the shortest time win immunity and praise, as do those who destroy the most nature at the lowest cost.”

      So these people. What do you do with them? Give them a ladder and they climb to the top and drop bricks down. I don’t actually hear an answer apart from conversion, yes, it’s an ugly word. But redemption is a better one.

      Furthermore, as a Christian I believe that I am capable of the same evil myself if I am not careful. That is, it’s hardly arrogant when I myself am a part of the problem.

      I suppose, like a good liberal, you’d like to change society and culture and that would trickle down, eliminating these forms of behavior. Yet, I fail to see how this is not conversion.

      I also have certainly not eliminated changing structures my own self. That’s why I’m an occupier.

      Peace,
      Jeremy

  3. There’s a word for what you’re doing but it’s escaping me right now. You change viewpoint/subject with each point you try to make. Conflating issues and characters. You make an argument based on one quote, but conclude with a different context. You make assumptions about me, and then conclude with yourself. You change the meaning of the word ‘arrogant’ or justify it as being well-intentioned, but stay arrogant. And you don’t really exemplify christian humility by saying “I might be as evil as the evil guy, I better redeem him”. Really? Failure to resist – nazism or the many layers of Colombian invisible war to #occupy – is evil. Really?

    Again: your point, and your care, is admirable. I don’t really want to get into a hairtooth comb discussion of your argument, as that is BESIDE the point. Your faith is admirable. Your passion is admirable. Your reasoning.. well, I disagree. I guess I don’t think that the ultimate goal of any ‘mission’ worth it’s salt is ‘conversion’. Conversion is a selfish and ulterior motive. The goal of a mission should be the doing of the mission. Do your mission. But keep your Jesus in your pants.

    • Hey Karin,

      Love it. I really do. That’s hilarious. Keep Jesus in my pants. Right. First, I apologize for making assumptions about you. I respect you (you’re also an great writer), and I have no right to conflate this conversation with a multitude of others.

      I’m quite serious about all of us, as individuals, needing to actively choose good and resist evil. I say this in light of the fact that I believe ALL PEOPLE ARE INHERENTLY GOOD.

      If it seems that I am changing topics then, I fear, you may be missing my whole picture for bits of paint. Can we leave Jesus out of this? He’s not essential for the point I’m making.

      The essential problemata revolves around the word convert. I used this word to be shocking, but I think it’s something we all must do, to turn from evil and towards good. We have laws about this sort of thing, and a penal code.

      However, those laws choose incarceration over reformation. The prison code doesn’t truck with reformation, it warehouses. Except drug courts. Drug courts work for redemption.

      I think the problem around conversion is that you are afraid by this I mean some sort of Jesus-in-your-heart thing, or read the Bible. No, I don’t. I see the world in grays and I see morality as something fluid. But I do see goodness as a single pole, rooted in love. Redemption means not doing evil, some of which is so gross that society will imprison those who take those roads.

      This is a pole which I am on a journey towards, not which I exemplify.

  4. One last: the reason why I can’t keep Jesus in my pants.

    Popular Christian theology is dominated by Manicheanists and spiritualists. The rest of us keep quiet about our faith, because Jesus is not super-welcome in liberal circles.

    Not me. I think my beliefs are good, and my faith is my best attempt at good.

    If we liberal Christians with reasonable, historically orthodox faith keep quiet society’s view of Christianity is dominated by the televangelists.

    And that’s toxic, especially for those that are within the religion because there’s something important for them there.

    So part of my project is to explain a reasonable social justice Christianity to liberals so that Christianity does not equal Manicheanism. And why Christian theology of inherent goodness and redemption is important.

    Of course, there are Calvinists about… Fortunately none of them have hijacked this thread with their particularly toxic view of humanity.

  5. If you want to leave Jesus out of the conversation, especially because you want to ‘make a point’ and stay ‘rational’, than you’ve just agreed with the good Dr. Benson and I.

    If you hear my questions about your ‘rationality’ as MY problem with your language, than you haven’t really listened to the questions, and you skip the work of understanding and responsibility by blaming me.

    If people are inherently good, than ‘evil’ is not a thing we need to root out of them or ‘reform’ them from.

    It’s a thing we need to prevent, not punish. Yes, there are laws and we need them. Arendt shows that evil has consequences and society must follow through with them, however banal. But that punishment (what you call conversion or redemption) is in itself unfortunate. Not a positive good or a basis for ‘ethical’ action. The basis of your ‘love’ is negative and unfortunate, punishing and arrogant, entitled and privileged. As any faith based politics must be.

    It seems to me if you really want to be ethical, you need to be able to overcome your own faith.

  6. What is your point? If it is a personal statement of faith and politics and understanding, you’ve made it, and both Dr. Benson and I rushed in to say thank you.

    If it is conversion, (which I think it is) proving your statements of faith and politics to be the true ones, you lose the beauty of that first point. And both Dr. Benson and I take you up, pointing to the inherent illogic of your ‘truth’.

    We need you as #occupier, as man, as liberal Christian. We do not need you as stand in for grace. Come down from there.

  7. apologies Dr. Benway for misspelling your name.

  8. Because, if there is no God greater than the mewling self, there is nothing other than the satisfaction of desire.

    I see things like this asserted by theists quite often, but, as is the case here, there is almost never any attempt to support this assertion with reasons. It is apparently taken as self-evidently true. Please do a little basic reading on metaethics, Divine Command Theory and the Euthyphro Dilemma before repeating such nonsense. Plato showed in the Euthyphro that even if God existed, God can’t be the ground for morality because either God’s will is arbitrary, in which case we have no reason to trust it, or there is a separate standard of good which determines God’s will and to which we can appeal without having to appeal to God.

  9. I’m not sure what that response means.

    Love is the standard by which God’s moral decrees are judge? If love is a standard separate from God, why do we need to talk about God when we discuss morality? Why can’t we just talk about whether our actions meet the standard of love?

    If love ISN’T a standard separate from God, then you’re choosing the arbitrariness horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma, which means God could decree that murder and rape were part of the standard of love.

    • Christianity conflates God and love together in poetry. God isn’t really omnipotent in the sense of being able to do anything, because God has attributes, a nature, which is love.

      I only step into the horn of the dilemma if I accept Platonic concepts as a priori existent. I believe that moral ideas spring from actions. That is, we know love because it is the revealed, enacted nature of the creator God. A Platonic idea regarding morality is, essentially, a descriptive heuristic device that clusters a series of actions about which a description can be applied.

      Sure, we can avoid talk of God and speak of love, but in so doing, I believe we ignore its source. Just as we can talk about light or warmth without the sun, without the sun we’d never have evolved. We’d not exist, and the sun is the primary source of both light and heat for us.

      Look, this is all apologetics. I can do apologetics from rationality, but it’s not terribly interesting. I believe in God because I have felt a presence beyond myself, not because I deny a horn of Euthyphro’s dilemma.

      And you, why do you believe or not believe in God?

  10. To me, “god” is a sound conveying no meaning; I don’t think “god” even qualifies as a concept. For this and other philosophical reasons, the Euthyphro Dilemma being just one of them, I don’t find the existence or not of god to be relevant to my life in any way. So one could call me an apatheist, but I am technically an atheist because I don’t believe in God (a-theist); I have yet to be given a good reason why I should so believe. (For epistemological reasons, I also doubt that if a deity exists that we are even capable of knowing or figuring that out.) A bit of further background – I studied Theology and Philosophy in my undergrad at a small Catholic university and what my studies taught me is that religion is invented by humans and is usually corrupt, like all human institutions.

    • You could substitute “God” for “objective reality” in the above, and it’d be just about the same. Not to conflate the two, but I’m just pointing out that reality itself is unknowable, ineffable, in its fullness, like I believe God to be.

      True: religion is corrupted, but so is the lack of religion, in that case, or the critique of religions.

      We have to raise our banner somewhere and move forwards with our ideas and beliefs, if we are to be good.

      I also appreciate Plato’s forms, but I think they take on an existence I’d describe as God-like in his philosophy.

      Peace,
      Jeremy

  11. This is the most nuanced, thoughtful and grammatically correct comment stream that I think I’ve ever seen. The level of depth is unfamiliar, and jarring after a day of surfing blogs for a living. I thought I would rectify this, leveling out the playing field to a more comfortably shallow pitch by making this comment. Always enjoy your columns, Jeremy–I believe I’ve encountered this one before on GlassDimly. Keep’em coming.

  12. “… I don’t find the existence or not of god to be relevant to my life in any way.”

    This makes no sense. Whether or not God exists is the most relevant question in our lives, the primary question.
    If God does not exist, than we must find our own way in the universe. We must come to our own conclusions about what to do, why to do it, and how to do it. We must decide.
    If God does exist, then we must come to understand what God is and what (if anything) is the relationship between us. Does God expect anything from us? What does God want us to do, why does God want us to do it, and how does God want us to do it? Is God worthy of such expectations? Should we listen and do what God expects? Depending on our answer, we either continue as if God did not exist or we do as God expects us to do.
    We cannot move forward in life in any way until we answer this question. It is the first question we must answer. Everything—all other questions—comes after.

    • I don't know says:

      Children must learn many things–and ask many questions–before they can even begin to understand what it means to believe in god or not. And with the multitude of religions and philosophies, the question isn’t as easy as you suggest. And so, not being at all simple, many people would be incapacitated if they had to answer that question before asking any others.

    • I can’t agree that this is relevant – how can you possibly answer it? Pick any god and give us a rational way to test for its existence that doesn’t really on an empowered or mystical observer.

      This may seem an alien thought to some, but there are those of us that would continue our lives in the same manner even if God was discovered at some point in the future. We have so much to discover – an entire universe to unravel – that it hardly seems a good idea for all of us to focus on such a question.

  13. hi. i write from chiloe, sourthen of chile. my english is bad, for the moment. i read your articles and coment tomorrow maybe. bye

  14. In order to condemn the Crusades you must first believe in good, evil, justice, and injustice. I condemn the Crusades as evil from the Christian framework of good and evil. Tell me, why do you condemn the Crusades?
    I condemn them on the gounds that it is evil to be willing to kill others for the sake of worshipping differently, in order to control ground, and the other things they were willing to kill people for.

  15. Valter Viglietti says:

    Very interesting article (and thread), Jeremy; thank you. :)
    I’m usually suspicious about believers (I’ve seen so much evil done by them with exquisite alibis), but I’ve come to understand you’re what I could call a “reasoning Christian” :D and I like it.
    We might disagree but A) you won’t think you have all the answers, and B) you won’t need to change me. That’s a good ground for fertile debate.

    My main issue with your position is that I am a relativist, i.e. I believe that “good” and “bad” are (at least often) relative to the point of view. My trivial example: the lion is running after a zebra, if he kills and eat her, is this good or bad? Good for the lion, bad for the zebra.
    Another one: you house is good for you, but bad for the wood that was destroyed to built it.
    Since every event has consequences, something we deem “good” can have “bad” consequences as well: so is it good or bad… ot both?
    Only if someone (a person, a country, a species) think his POV is the only one possible, they can believe in absolute good/bad (it would be good/bad for them, and that’s what only counts for them).

    While I believe your good will, I think you simplify the complexity of reality in order to sustain your belief.

  16. MichelleG says:

    All babies are born innocent and non-religious; we all know this. It’s interesting how children grow up mirroring their parents, including their religion, which often times is forced upon them to learn and to adopt — little choice to think for yourself at that age.

    My parents are Buddhists but they never went out of their way to ensure that, we live and breathe Buddhism. I had a pretty non-religious upbringing, therefore I guess I can call myself an atheist. Yet I’m not anti-religion; people can do whatever they want, as long as I’m unaffected. It’s interesting that some atheists have more morals than those with a religion.

    I think it’s awful there’s an Atheist organization and leader who went around posting billboards protesting other people’s religion. That money is better spent towards homelessness or something. Believing in God is harmless, I don’t see the point protesting God. LOL. Leave people alone!

  17. wellokaythen says:

    First of all, there is not all one kind of Christianity. Not all Christians have the same viewpoint regarding the nature of evil relative to good. There are multiple valid theological viewpoints within present-day Christianity and certainly many philosophical viewpoints across the history of Christianity. I know a little how the specific late 20th century American Protestant denomination I grew up in sees these things, but I would be very reticent to speak for Ethiopian Christians, Coptic Christians (did you know they had their own pope?), Russian Orthodox, Georgian Orthodox, etc. So, to say “the Christian” view about evil is ____ is quite a stretch. Unless you want to make a theological argument that none of those are “really Christians,” which is also a poor argument to make.

    Similarly, your point about biblical illiteracy is well taken, but only up to a point. People feel confident saying whatever they like about what’s in the Bible whether they ever read it or not, and that’s a shame. (It’s hilarious when some social conservatives see the Bible as supporting modern corporate capitalism. Where did they read that?) However, there is no one single universally accepted version of the book known as “The Bible.” Even the King James Version so beloved of old-fashioned fundamentalists comes with footnotes that suggest multiple versions of scripture. (And the KJV came with more material in it 300 years ago than it does now, so even it has changed.) There is no agency enforcing the integrity of the modern-day Bible, because there’s no copyright on the Bible. You can print a book saying anything you like and call it The Bible, and there’s no way to stop it. You may as well say that people today don’t have any comic book superhero literacy.

    To me, as a historian, “biblical literacy” starts with understanding that it is a book (more like a collection of books) with a long, complicated history, and what you hold in your hands is the most recent version. The best you could do is talk about the most commonly accepted version of it at any point in time, or the interpretations that have the most influence at any given moment.

  18. Mason J Stewart says:

    Man’s distinction will forever drive peace away.

  19. I have found Jung’s exploration of the shadow to be personally transformative. The shadow is our darkside, deeply imbedded in our psyche, largely unconscious and unknown to us, but apparent every time we lose it, get angry, get forceful. I’m being very simplistic here. It was formed by the wounds sustained in childhood, when we were free, open, joyous and loving and vulnerable. Failure to intergrate the shadow results in projection of the wound onto others – “he’s an asshole”( he hurt me and caused pain ) Full intergration means knowing this part of yourself, delving beneath the anger and rage to the pain, and fully embracing with unconditional love, acceptance and approval- this action transforms, and one can begin to meet others with acceptance and understanding. Next time he behaves like the asshole, it doesn’t arouse anger (chime wipain), because you reside in your true nature, love, with an inviolable core, and know that his issues are being projected onto you. Maybe you did do something that upset him, but the mechanics were already there waiting for the opportunity to be unleashed. You understand him as being as a wounded child and retaliation does not occur to you, as you understand him.

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