Do You Believe in Good?

Not long ago, in New York City’s subway system, there was a campaign underway proclaiming that people can be “good without God.” The ads’ anti-gospel followed upon the good news previously advertised f ro m the so-called Coalition of Reason: “Don’t Believe in God? You’re Not Alone.”

Of course, it’s unlikely that even God “believes” in God. And He certainly knows He’s not alone. So what of it?

If we’re talking about reasoned judgments that can prove or disprove the existence of God apart from premises of religious belief — similar to the way the Christian tradition unfashionably but consistently judges that abortion is gravely unjust to the embryonic child, his or her parents, and even society — then let’s have at it. That’s what democracy, a liberal education, and debate should be about. But a billboard cannot articulate the studied reasoning of a judgment — yea or nay — about God’s potential irrelevance. (Admittedly, some Christians themselves travel this sensationalist route, the benefit of which is not always clear.)

 

Moreover, religionists have contrary evidence of their own. For example, the Catholic Church — and, a fortiori, Christians in toto — constitutes the single largest charitable body in the world. Or, as many New Yorkers might recall, an astounding proportion of the funerals for policemen and firemen after 9/11 were those of Catholics: men and women who had been religiously reared in a tradition of self-sacrificial service. Discussion could also be moved out of the purportedly narrow constraints of religion and morality and into the broader halls of the museum: Has art really become more artful after the death of God?

But this kind of evidence doesn’t prove that God is good or that He exists. Such exampling is impressive because it affects convictions: It pertains to the art of suasion. The rhetorical use of anecdotes can be alluring or repelling, but it isn’t conclusive. That is, it’s not the kind of evidence on which you should stake a major decision. It’d be like marrying someone based on what his or her parents, education, and profession are like . . . without having actually ever met the guy or girl.

But this is precisely the kind of specious argumentation that is deployed by the so-called “humanist” campaign: It’s an artfully commercial selection of evidence that is, at best, circumstantial — akin to picking out violent or oppressive statements from the Bible to “prove” its moral inauthenticity.

On the other hand, it seems that the advertisers are specifically alluding to religious belief in God. “Organized” religions tend to substantiate this kind of belief by reference to a privileged resource, such as divine revelation, a particular cultural tradition, or even some unique and personal gnosis. But shouldn’t there be more reserve in the desire to influence the public at large in these matters? The profane marketplace of ideas is not an appropriate forum for subverting religious “belief” in God, especially when strategically deployed during the Christmas and Easter seasons to target the Christian faith. (Alternatively, have you ever seen a subway ad for transubstantiation, for papal primacy, or for the divinity of a Jew who was executed some 2,000 years ago?)

 

All of us want what is “good.” But how is that possible? This is the question that must be asked. People are so radically different from each other, and yet all of us are able to recognize what is good. The concern here is not with this or that thing or goal; it goes much deeper. It has to do with how we can talk about myriad things in the very terms of “good.” Just where does this attraction to what is “good” come from?

“Good” is not merely some empty placeholder. No, it’s rooted in the universal experience of having an object of desire that will make its recipient fulfilled in this or that respect; or, when it comes to the supreme good and object of our desires, that which will make us fulfilled in the ultimate respect — being perfectly happy.

All animals have some kind of experience of the desire for good. But we humans can talk about it and organize our pursuit of it in beautifully helpful ways. And we can also thwart it: Humans are the only animals capable of degrading themselves and their species.

Nevertheless, good is foundational to our most noble endeavors as a self-organized society of persons. Whatever its particularities in the history of man, it is both originating and transcendent. Good is more than we are, but we are not less than good. We live for what is good because we are made to be good. It is intrinsic to our very desires as individual members of an animal species.

The prospect of “the good,” and even that of a “common good,” exceeds the scope of particular people and peoples because this good is real.

The question, then, is where does it come from?

It can only come from One who is good, and who made us to be and to desire good. Even Thomas Jefferson, who excised all that was supernatural from his “translation” of the New Testament, believed that the Supreme Being was “essentially benevolent.” The personal nature of the necessarily existent God is the radically irreducible presupposition for the universal right to pursue happiness.

This kind of reasoning is not tantamount to the design argument. It’s about the transcendental origin of a reality that we implicitly recognize in all our purposive affairs: goodness. Only that which is good could substantiate goodness. That’s why the social pursuit of happiness demands that it be united under one God.

There is no good without God, because all good participates in God. Consequently, a truly reasonable coalition of good would teach that, whether you believe in God or not, you’re in fact not alone.

And that’s not bad. It’s actually pretty good.

 

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By

Rev. Bruno M. Shah, O.P., is parochial vicar of St. Vincent Ferrer Church in New York City (www.csvfblog.org). He co-hosts The Catholic Channel's weekly radio show "Word to Life," which discusses the upcoming readings for the Sunday Mass (Sirius 159/XM 117, Fridays 1-2 PM EST).

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