“Abide in me,” says Jesus (SUPPOSEDLY). “The dude abides,” says Jefferey Lebowski (CERTAINLY).
I used to dismiss the “problem of good.” My professor brought it up, using a hand-drawn chart: if God is all good, why does evil happen? If God is not all good, why does good happen? I heard the problem of good as a hasty rebuttal to the problem of evil, as a quick and flimsy “proof for God.”
The easiest solution, I think, is to shake God loose from good and evil. Here: “people are basically good. People also have a capacity for evil. God doesn’t really determine these things. (Although I’m not sure I believe any of this.) God plays with absence.”
God’s model of love is something like absence, or God’s love is bloody, or maybe God just did not love Jesus that much. Maybe Jesus should have told God, “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy not sacrifice.” I don’t know if God plays in good and evil.
But the question, following these problems, is “where do ethics come from?” A problem of good or evil points at their origin and wonders whether good is really so simple, or why evil happens at all, or whether the origin of ethics is worth any respect at all—should we even behave ourselves? In God’s absence, ethics are just made up, and if they’re just made up they’re probably not worth following, according to preachers and some philosophers and the theologians shoring up reasons to believe in Jesus Christ. But this is all so much and I think we are moving too quickly.
I’ve been, for a long time, mildly disturbed by a sense that we cannot actually know what’s good and bad. “Ethics has become epistemology,” one of my professors said, and in the long run I do not know that much, or really anything at all. Otherwise, some people call our ethical problems “analysis paralysis” so that it sounds cute. I am sitting in my car so uncertain, that maybe theoretically I can read an ethics book or two but it’s still all up for grabs. And I think of some quotes I’ve read, about leaving philosophical discussions behind to build a better world for our children. Give up, they say. At some point you’ve got to believe something with your heart and run with it. I don’t believe them. If I can figure out what good is, then I can believe with my heart and run with it.
My Buddhism professor spoke about how knowledge works for the Buddha. If knowledge does not land in the body, and if you do not feel it in your heart, then it’s not true knowledge. In Christian terms, I think of the word “conviction,” and immediately this idea turns sour for me, for people can be convicted for bad causes; that someone can have a heart for evil as if it is truth. Religious truth finds a home in the heart, I guess. Think of the people, believing in their own goodness, full of heart, standing on street corners passionately listing every person that will burn in hell, like fans of Metallica, for example. Yikes. How do you know that you aren’t convicted for a different cause just as ridiculous? I’m not sure you can know without giving up your conviction, and examining it like a specimen in a lab, outside of your heart. But, back to the disturbance: give me a few ethics books about your conviction, the truth in your heart, and the uncertainty still will not resolve. I am not so sure that this stagnation of belief and heart has to do with knowing anymore.
How bold we might be, thinking that our convictions of good and evil correspond to the way the world is. How bold we might be to think that we share the same goodness as God, or that our goodness is truly even goodness. My goodness! How bold we might be to be convicted of anything at all. But I think the world requires that sort of boldness, cultivated thoughtfully, so you don’t, in good faith, condemn Metallica fans. Maybe you cannot know whether what you do is good (maybe you shouldn’t, suggests Jesus), but you can know whether it was full of heart; performing actions that, in a gesture of goodness, matter. All we have is heart and gesture.