Jan 30, 2017

The Problem of Good

For the disciple of Jesus Christ[1], what is the most strategic way to talk about God with one who does not believe? For example, should I aim to first convince him of God’s existence, or should I instead begin by sharing the Gospel, convincing the unbeliever of his need for God?

In determining the framework of such a challenging and somewhat elusive subject as God[2], I suspect that the most productive discussions are built on some awareness of each other’s story. This is a root of identity. For example, the initial emphasis of the conversation should not necessarily be on what my, your, or her view of God is, but perhaps how you, she, and I have come to uphold such a view. In other words, what has influenced one’s current conclusions?

The influence of parents, friends, schooling, ethnicity, culture, religion, other religious practitioners; all of these and more contribute to one’s understanding of the world—or rejection of it. This could begin to be defined as worldview, though it is really more expansive than that. It is about accepting truth as neither fully objective nor subjective; that one’s faith or belief is inseparable from his perception of reality. In short, it a conversation built on an awareness of personal limitations.

This awareness should humble my perspective; open it to new ideas, all the while helping quell my ego. In an environment where each person nurtures such openness, there can be productive conversation. Where ego rules, however, there can be none.  

Humility opens me to not only knowing myself better, but to also knowing others—to live in relationship with the potential of community. In a way, potential is like faith. Relationship deepens awareness, furthering understanding. Moreover, understanding can motivate and be motivated by love, which flows from a well of compassion, grace, and a myriad of other mysteries.

In other words, if I dare to know love, I dare to know truth. To pursue understanding and allow it to mature into conscious action (i.e. wisdom) requires courage, but relationship ultimately bolsters courage. Courage influences action. Round and round the stories go, action transforming potential into purpose.

The point is that purpose and relationship are intertwined, which is what helps define values. At the soul of every human being is a common value. Humanity fundamentally shares the same need, or looks toward the same horizon. The language that defines such a need or horizon is what seems to differ the most—whether called love, success, happiness, peace, etc.—which too often conflicts peoples’ understanding of a gift like potential.

Nevertheless, by beginning to recognize each other’s story and limitations as well as how they relate to each other’s potential, purpose, and values—hopefully building community in that awareness—we may begin at last to approach life’s challenging questions with a readiness for healthy discourse, the process of which not only further informs value, but reveals new layers of purpose, potential, and limitations.

Most will readily admit that other people influence individual identity. Academically, there are numerous additional ways of trying to further understand such influence, reaching beyond an awareness of one’s identity to broader spheres of the human story through the study of history, sociology, and psychology; or through an exploration of Nature—the space and natural environments we live in—employing reason (e.g. science, philosophy); or by unleashing inclination (e.g. art, athletics).

Many of these mediums are not exclusive to one another, including religion, and all can be thought of as means to furthering wisdom. Still, such realms of study and/or practice leave gaps of understanding. So what shall I do with the lingering uncertainty—the mysterious and unknown?

For the most part, each of us approaches relationships and the aforementioned mediums based on having already concluded one fundamental question: Does God exist?

Most people struggle with the existence of God because of the evil in the world. In fact, this so-called “problem of evil” also makes many Christian theologians uneasy. There are surges of heated internal debate about how to reconcile the nature of evil with God’s proclaimed goodness and omnipotence. Either way, while some people try to deny the existence of evil, which is practically and logically refutable on most accounts, most people do at least recognize its manifestation in the world—that things are not always right, or feel unbalanced and brutish at times.

Still, I wonder if a conversation about God’s existence needs to be preceded with another question: Do evil and good exist?

If such a question is answered affirmatively then another nuanced one takes form: Is Man inherently good or evil? If Man is inherently evil, but good exists, where does good come from? Or if Man is inherently good, wheredoes evil comes from?

Either way, the tension between good and evil needs to be addressed.

For example, the premise of the so-called “problem of evil” is essentially, Why does evil befall good people? Or why do good people suffer? The problem becomes almost inseparable from a question of God’s existence, particularly His nature. God either exists, but is not good due to the evil He inflicts or allows. Or if He is good, He is passive or weak against another supernatural force that can be called or that stirs evil, therefore leaving God undeserving of worship.

To reconcile God’s goodness with the presence of evil inevitably steers the conversation to discussing the specific attributes of God, especially His will. There is a belief in some Christian communities that God controls all things that happen in this world—the so-called “will of God”—which suggests His active choice to inflict pain on someone or not, for example. I discern this to be a source of most peoples’ problem with God. It is the premise of the problem of evil. This premise, however, can be shown as misleading and overly problematic. There is another way of thinking.

Regardless, the point is that God’s nature, namely his influence in the world, is one of the greatest barriers to not only belief in His existence, but faith in His purpose and the worship of Him as a result.[3]

But what if the original follow-up question focuses not on the problem of evil, but instead on what I will call “the problem of good”[4]? For example, If God exists (or does not exist), then why is there any good in the world? This stresses the framework of the conversation in a different way than the problem of evil.

Without delving into the layers of answers to the question of God’s existence, or even the problem of good, I am here rather trying to focus solely on a way to frame a conversation about God with an unbeliever.

As I wrote in the beginning, it should not be done hastily or simply. It first requires an awareness of human stories and how they shape the purpose and values of human actions, individual or communal.

Concerning the original question of where to start the conversation—Should I first discuss God’s existence or the Gospel?—I suggest that it depends not only on the guidance of the aforementioned limitations, but on the direction taken in response to the aforementioned problems, which include the question of good.

From there, there are worlds of possibilities to explore: light shining down on an ever-expanding horizon of wonder and mystery.

[1] A.k.a. Christ-follower, a.k.a. Christian, a.k.a. Believer.
[2] Assuming that the subject has been welcomed to the conversation as opposed to being forced upon it belligerently.
[3] The Bible offers glimpses into that purpose, though the interpretation of the text unfortunately remains a divisive rather than diversifying factor between many churches (i.e. Christian communities).
[4] While I phrased “the problem of good” on my own, it unsurprisingly turns out that the concept is not new to intellectual discourse. A simple search online yields a number of articles, most of which apparently focus on questions of morality, one fascinating one of which can be found here. I am heartened, however, to realize that my concluding framework is not lessened by its late entry into the conversation.