Welcome to An Examined Life. Occassionally I delude myself into thinking that I understand some part of my life (or life in general) and I thought it might be a hoot to share those thoughts with whomever happens to stumble across this. I hope you find something enjoyable here. If I'm really lucky, I'll make you stop and think for a moment.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What I Don’t Understand about God (Part 2)

Among all of the other things that I do not understand about God is this: I do not understand what God is like.

I’m pretty sure that one of the things that God is supposed to be is good. One of my uncertainties is exactly how we know that God is good. My thought was this (and I remember hearing this somewhere a long time ago and thinking that it made sense to me, so I can’t claim any originality here): we claim that God is good, but supposedly God Himself defines what is good. If that’s true, then what is good is an arbitrary choice by God. Today, God might decide that genocide is not good and it would not be good. It might even be a sin. Tomorrow, though, God might decide that a little genocide is just fine. That isn’t, I think, what most of us mean by good. Good was good in the past, it’s good today, and will still be good tomorrow.

It seems to me that in order for us to say that God is good, good must exist apart from God, so that we can hold up good and see what it looks like and then hold up God and see what He (or She or It) looks like. If they look the same, well, then, God is good. If not…

And you might be thinking, but God is good and is the very definition of good. God would never do something like decide that “a little genocide is just fine.” As I recall, though, God on more than one occasion allowed, condoned, or ordered genocide. See, for just a few examples, Exodus 17:13, Numbers 21:3, Deuteronomy 2:33-34, and Deuteronomy 3:6.

It was at about this point that I was starting to feel confused and like I was missing something or possibly misrepresenting something. So, I Googled “Is God good?”

I’m going to ignore the author’s misrepresentation of Darwin and focus on my question. The site’s author simply asserts that God is good and that there is no conception of good without God. The author states, “Again, from where do you get your definition of ‘good’? Only the Bible provides an absolute moral standard by which we can measure what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad.’”
Well, as I noted above, that means that genocide is bad – or good – depending on the mood God’s in. I’m not sure that works for me.

So, I checked out this YouTube video: http://www.everystudent.com/videos/isGodgood.html

Right on its opening screen it promised to answer my question.

But, it didn’t. The narrator asked the question, then discussed the notion of human freedom of choice, and then simply asserted that God is good.

So, no help from a quick Google search. The video, however, did touch on another area in which I lack understanding. The narrator pointed out that God is omnipotent, that God can do anything that’s logically possible (thus, no square circles). She then pointed out that God created people. When He did so, though, He didn’t want robots. He wanted real people and that meant giving them freedom. According to the author, humans have used their freedom to make bad choices.

I’ve heard sermons in a number of churches over the years and listened to a number of Christians discuss this issue and all of them seemed to agree on this next point: humans are sinners and cannot help but be sinners. No matter how well-intentioned a person is, no matter how strong that person’s convictions might be, no matter how devoutly that person believes, that person cannot help but to sin.

And, for me, that’s the rub. If God is truly omnipotent, could He not create beings with the freedom to choose and the strength of will to live up to that choice?

I could go on, but I think I’ve maybe made my point. I have no idea what God’s like and many of the answers I get to that question give a picture of a God (like the nasty feudal king of a God described in the first Web site I talked about) that I could simply never follow.


  1. Dear Dr. Daily,

    These are great questions you're asking. In light of them, might I refer you to a useful book? It's "Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide," by Dr. Edward Feser. (St. Thomas) Aquinas was a medieval theologian whose whole life was basically dedicated to answering questions like these, and Feser sums up his very dense theology in a way that's thorough and detailed (countenancing practically every possible objection, including those from a scientific perspective), but also accessible to philosophy novices. Best of all, the book requires no theological background or knowledge: it's a philosophy book, and he lays out everything you need to know beginning at page 1.

    The question of how we know God to be good is going to be answered different ways by people of different theological traditions. It sounds like most of your interlocutors to date have been Protestants, who tend to subscribe to a fideistic/voluntarist view of things (hence good = God's say-so, which as you point out isn't a very compelling moral theology for people who don't already believe in God). More compelling, I think, is the classical view according to which evil is a privation of good. So vices can always be understood as a defect or deficiency in some way, as an act of ignorance or lack of proper moral ordering, rather than being ontologically real in their own right. Hence "evil" is parasitic on goodness. (Hence in the Christian tradition, the ultimate evil being, Lucifer, is simply a fallen angel -- a being who is good by nature, whose evil consists in his refusal to live according to that nature). In this view of things, "evil God" is a logical impossibility, since God is perfect (Feser goes into why this must be so) and evil is imperfection.

    The Canaanite issue is interesting. Let's take for granted for a moment that God both exists and is all-good (here again I'd refer you to Feser's book for a detailed treatment of why we need not merely assume either to be true). I propose that, if so, God can no more be fairly said to have ordered genocide than an Allied commander who ordered his troops to open fire on entrenched Nazi positions at Normandy could be said to have ordered murder. The context of the act makes the order something other than murder: the war was just, and the commander had authority of his troops to order them to open fire on the enemy. Of course there's an asymmetry here in that an Allied commander could not justly order the destruction of the German nation; but there's also an assymetry in the authority of the Allied commander and that of God. God created the Canaanites, he sustained them in being every moment they were alive; his authority over them was far more complete than that of any worldly general.


  2. And certainly, too, the war against the Canaanites was no less just than the war against the Nazis; the former were, after all, child-sacrificing demon-worshippers, and their destruction was ordered precisely to preven their black religion from poisoning the Israelites' religious life. Of course, the Israelites didn't follow God's command to the letter, but spared many of the women to take to wife; and sure enough, within a few generatons, they had adopted the Canaanite faith with their black sacraments, much to their shame and detriment.

    Re: the question of why man sinned, this too is interesting I think. Consider this: if God is to create something, then the thing he is creating must be different from himself in some way. But if God is perfect, the thing he is creating must be imperfect (since this is the only way to be different from perfection -- you can't be more perfect, can you?). Whatever is imperfect, by definition, contains within it a kind of potential for more imperfection.

    In the Catholic tradition, prelapsarian man was about as perfect as it's possible to get this side of the grave. He had the preternatural graces of immortality, of infused knowledge of creation, of perfect and total integration of his passions with his reason, and of sanctifying grace. He had every advantage: and he squandered it, anyway. If there was a defect in the design, the defect could only have been free will, because that's the only place where original sin could've happened. But can free will be said to be a defect if God desired a race of beings who would freely choose union with him? Rather, the possibility of sin is just a logical consequence of the reality of free will; and it's one which God, in his love for man and respect for human freedom, had to be (and was) prepared to deal with on its own terms, rather than overriding instantly at the first sign of things going off the rails.