Ismael commented on my last sermon, and he asked a very good question:
If I'm doing good and helping other people causing as little harm as I can... why to change?
Of course, the simple answer is, one shouldn't. I mean, I think we should all do good and cause as little harm as possible.
But let's delve a little bit deeper. First, let me ask: what is good? How do you know what is good? What is bad? What is indifferent?
Do you judge it based upon a particular outcome or the results? Do the ends justify the means?
Do you judge something to be good because there is such a thing as intrinsic good and intrinsic worth?
If there is no God and no transcendent reality, then there is no such thing as intrinsic worth and intrinsic goodness. That which is good or that which is bad is only a matter of perspective. (Nietzsche) I have seen a few attempts to argue for transcendence (Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought), but I think they fail to establish any sort of true argument for something beyond; or in other words to get to an "ought" from "is".
And if there is no way to establish something good because it is necessarily good by definition, then one is almost forced to enter into teleological ethics. (The end result is the most important.) Of course, teleological ethics rests on the premise that we should do the greatest good for the greatest number, but why should that be the case? What grounds do you have for suggesting that this ought to govern our thought? (That is the first problem.) The second problem comes when the greatest good for the greatest number adversely affects the minority. It was the greatest good for the greatest number to have slaves do all the agricultural work in the U.S. 200+ years ago. It was not good for the slaves themselves, of course; but what recourse do you have for proposing that things should change? The arguments against slavery all came from establishing the fact that slaves were people who had intrinsic value and worth and should not be claimed as property. It was an appeal, not to the greater good, but to the Greatest Good--transcendent goodness.
We could probably spend more time arguing this point, but I will not belabor it any longer. Ismael agreed with much of what I said in my sermon by his own admission in regards to transcendence and ethics. Therefore, I will move on to the next issue--the issue of motivation.
Why does one engage in doing good and limiting the amount of harm caused? If one is not engaged in doing good because something is inherently good (there is no transcendence), then essentially there are two motivations for doing good: 1) I like doing good and feel like what I am doing is good. 2) The other person needs me to do something for them, and I do it for their sake.
#1, I think we can agree is selfish motivation. If I am pursuing good because of how it makes me feel, then I am engaging in it because I get a certain benefit from it. I feel better about myself. I feel good about what I have done and accomplished.
One may ask: what is wrong with this?
Nothing, to begin with. The problem comes when others do not share your vision of what is good. If I am a tolerant person who believes in allowing folks freedom to do things, then (by definition) I must also be tolerant of those who are intolerant. Rarely does anyone do this. In fact, those who preach tolerance are oftentimes vehemently opposed to those they deem intolerant. They become just as self-righteous as those whom they deem intolerant! Examples abound of this throughout the blogosphere. One will suffice.
Before the ELCA website Living Lutheran changed its format and did away with comments, a very interesting exchange took place in a discussion over the ELCA's change to allow practicing homosexual clergy. "Michael", a proponent of the change, adamantly defended the church's new position by saying, "If there are those in the church who don't like the decision, then they can just find another church." Do you see the hypocrisy in the statement? For if "those in the church who do not like the decision" should just find another church, then why didn't "Michael" do so when the church held the opposite position previously? Why did "Michael" and others who fought for change simply leave previously? Answer: Self-righteousness. It pervades our churches and our society. Why?
This is the inevitable outcome of doing things for one's self. It becomes all about me, and I become self-righteous, narcissistic, and I even use others to accomplish what I want, convinced I am doing good. (I do not say such things as someone who is immune from this. I have been there, done that in a real way and am in a constant battle with my self-righteous, self-centered self.)
#2, might not seem to be such a bad thing. I mean, we should do good to others for their sake and not our own. We should be sensitive to their needs and concerns and do our best to ease their suffering. There doesn't seem to be a downside to this one.
On the surface.
But as one who has experienced such things; as one who works in a helping profession, I can say quite honestly, if you live for others and try to satisfy their needs and ease their sufferings, you will burn out. There is not enough of you to go around. Plus, you will run into someone who does not have any boundaries who will literally suck you dry and take every ounce of energy you have.
You will strive to live up to their expectations and their needs, and you will eventually fall. Evidence abounds for this among care-givers. Not only will you burn out, but you will spend your entire life seeking your value and worth from others. You will desperately want to hear their affirmation. You will desperately want to receive their pats on the back. And when such things are not forthcoming, you will fall deeply into despair. It is not a pleasant place to be.
Now, here is where things get interesting because one could argue for a third option. One could "change one's mind" --remember, we are not talking about changing one's actions because I think we can agree that the actions of doing good and helping others are laudable--and say, "I neither act for myself nor act for others. I seek to do good because there is an ultimate Good."
For the sake of this blog post, I will call that ultimate Good, God. Why? Well, if there is an ultimate Good--an ultimate sense of what is right and what is wrong--then that had to come from somewhere. We didn't make it up. If we did, we are right back to perspectivism and Nietzsche. If there is a natural law of what is right and wrong, then it is logical to assume a Law Giver--an ultimate Good. (C.S. Lewis develops this argument much more fully in Mere Christianity.)
Now, I must ask myself whether or not I achieve that ultimate Good? Do I accomplish the good I need? Do I do a reasonable enough job of accomplishing enough good and easing the suffering of others? Do I fulfill this sense of the natural law that I find inherent in nature?
I think, if we are honest with ourselves, we know that we do not. We know that we do not ease the suffering of others as much as we could. Most of the time, we give out of our abundance--where it doesn't affect our lifestyle or our ability to do the things that we want to do. We give as long as we are comfortable. We ease the sufferings of others as long as we don't feel put out by it. We enjoy the fruits of others' labor even if that labor cost someone else dearly. At the very least, we are contributors to the brokenness and injustice of this world. We do not live up to that natural law.
One may choose to argue this point, so let me delve into it just a little further. C.S. Lewis showed in his book The Abolition of Man, that nearly every culture and philosophy shared the common axiom "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Nearly everyone I know believes this axiom should be followed. Some folks do relatively well in sticking to it, but not fully. How so? Well, if I am going to do unto others as I would have them do unto me, then if I were poor and hungry, then I would want folks to help me out whenever I was in this state. I would desire them to give me enough that I might be able to have the necessities of life. Perhaps an individual would not be able to give me enough to sustain me, but through a collective effort, I would have enough. This would mean, that if I had enough, I would give a little bit to every poor person I encounter. I would willingly and graciously give to everyone who begged, even if it were a trifle amount. The question is: do I do so? Do I give even a little bit to everyone who begs from me--who believes him or her self poor and in need? Regardless if I do not think they are in need, do I still give because the other believes he or she is in need? Does anyone fulfill this to the extent of what is required? Short answer: no.
So, where does that leave us in relationship to the Law Giver? If we are not fulfilling the Law to the extent necessary, where does that leave us? If we have no sense of shame or guilt, then it leaves us exactly nowhere. I can simply go about my life thinking I am good enough even if I don't follow the universal axioms. I can convince myself that I'm doing my part and should be satisfied with doing that part even if it isn't the fullest extent of what I can do. If you find yourself in this category, then I simply make one observation: you cannot judge another person ever. You cannot make any sort of moral judgement or statement about the beliefs and practices of another for you have no moral high ground to operate from. You cannot tell anyone "you should do unto others" because you are not following the axiom yourself, and you must be content with what others choose to do and allow them to be just as satisfied with the job they believe they are doing as you are satisfied with yours.
But if I know that I do not follow the axiom to the extent it needs to be followed, and if I have a sense of shame and guilt about this, then I know I need to do something to rectify the situation. I need to somehow make amends for not following through in doing what I know I am supposed to do. I need to make things right within myself and with the Law Giver. And how do I do that?
Every other religion and philosophy says, "Try harder." "Do more." "Overcome your selfish nature by your own strength."
The problem is, we cannot. Why? Well, first off, we are acting in our own self-interest when we do such things. We are not acting in the interest of others or in the interest of the Greatest Good. Our self is at the center, and we will head right down the path of self-righteousness. Secondly, even when we try harder, we still will not accomplish the extent of following the axioms. "Do unto others..." If I followed this to the extent necessary, I would exhaust my resources and then be dependent upon others to give to me. In a perfect world, that might work out, but we do not live in a perfect world... History is replete with folks who say try harder, and time and again, it doesn't work out.
Only Christianity offers an alternative. Only Christianity says, "You cannot make amends for your failure to follow the axioms of the Law Giver. You cannot overcome your guilt and shame by trying harder. You cannot walk a path that will not lead to self-righteousness or to self-destruction on your own. You will either be dominated by self or be dominated by others. Therefore, since you do not have the ability to change and overcome; since you cannot break out of this reality, the Law Giver will act to change the situation."
And the Word became flesh and lived among us...
God took on flesh and lived among us, not to take advantage of us (as in many of the Greek and Roman myths), but to die for us.
In no other religion or philosophy does God die on behalf of His creation. Only Christianity. (There is much, much more to it than this. Books have been written explaining this further. I am trying to condense it into a very small blog post, and I am just not doing it justice!!!)
And Christianity says, "To the extent you believe in what God has done for you, you will be able to overcome your selfish nature and accomplish following the great commands; not because you have to or because your self-worth or satisfaction or salvation depends upon it, but because you are thankful for what has been done on your behalf."
It is a radical departure from every other train of thought, and it is either crazy because it goes against the way the world works, or it is brilliant because its origins do not originate in the way the world actually works.
And it is this last point which leads me to say this is why one should change. For in Jesus we find a path that does not lead to self-righteousness (it can't because we have to acknowledge our inability to follow the universal axioms). Neither does it lead to destruction of self through trying to please others (for we do not get our value and worth from pleasing others and doing all the right things). It also answers how we are justified in not following the universal law or axioms (not by our own action but by the action of the Law Giver), and frees us from the guilt and shame of not fulfilling what we know we should do. And last, it gives us the ability to point to what we ought to do because the Laws are still in effect--they are our guide in right and wrong, but we point to them in humility not in arrogance.
(If you would like to delve into this more, I highly recommend C.S. Lewis' book Mere Christianity and Timothy Keller's book The Reason for God. I cannot even come close to doing justice to what these apologists have done in explaining the Christian faith.)