April 16, 2012
By William McKenzie
panelist Cindy Rigby suggested after she read this column by Gary Gutting, a Notre Dame philosophy professor. The essay hits on several major questions, but the one for this week deals with this issue:
If you believe in God, do you believe God is good? If so, why?
If you don't believe God is good, please explain.
We promised to break out of political and cultural questions from time to time, and this one definitely leaves our panelists room to get at some central religious/philosophical/theological points....
MATTHEW WILSON, Associate Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University
This is, for me and for my Catholic religious tradition, not a difficult question. God is self-evidently good, as He is the creator and sustainer of all things, and the author of the very faculties that allow us to comprehend and wrestle with concepts like "good" and "evil."
To hold that God is anything other than good implies a code of morality existing apart from God, by which He and His actions might be judged and conceivably found wanting -- assuming, that is, that "goodness" is a normative standard for behavior (and if it's not, then the word has ceased to have any intelligible meaning).
For a Christian, or indeed for the follower of any religion that holds God to be the omnipotent creator of all things, it should be impossible to conceive of even the idea of goodness apart from God. All of our notions of what constitutes goodness are derived either from reason (the gift of God), Scripture (the word of God), or the teaching of the Church (instituted by God).
How, then, could God not be good, in any sense of the term that we would recognize? To be sure, some religions have posited gods that were not good, but they have all been polytheistic and/or have not seen their god(s) as the prime motive creators of all that is (this was the case with the ancient Greeks, whose morally suspect deities were themselves held to be creations).
While I am certainly aware of the long history of theological and philosophical struggle with the problem of evil, and am sensitive to the eternal struggle to understand "why bad things happen to good people," questioning the basic goodness of God seems both incredibly presumptuous and, indeed, logically impossible. Everything else that informs our life and practice as believers would unravel if we did not believe in a benevolent deity....
WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University
I believe in God and I believe that God is good. Of course, a lot hinges on what one means by the term "good" in reference to God. And that has been the subject among theologians ever since people first asserted a belief in God. Ancient stories like the Passover account concerning the plague of death, the murders of the male children following the birth of Jesus, and the poetry of the book of Job all demonstrate that the question of belief in a good God are persistent. But we need not rely solely on ancient sources. Current ones will do.
Last weekend, the people of North Texas saw news reports about a boy who died of starvation which allegedly was inflicted upon him to punish him for some allegedly inappropriate behavior. How could a good God allow this thing to occur?
What helps is to understand the relationship between a good God and a liberating God. The Creation story is about the gift of a liberating God who freed the face of the deep from its darkness and brought into being light and life. The Exodus story is about the gift of a liberating God who freed a people from slavery. The Gospel of Jesus is about the gift of a liberating God who freed us from sin and death.
But the same God who grants the gift of freedom honors the nature of freedom. God grants us the freedom to exercise our freedom. Liberated from slavery, God's people are still at liberty to deny the very One who delivered them. Liberated from sin, God's people are still free to make the immoral choices that are sinful. In other words, as the text says, for freedom Christ has set us free. What we do with our freedom is at the very core of our faith and trust in God.
The terrible truth is that when some of us exercise our freedom egregiously, others among us suffer. That is certainly the basis upon which believers in God can freely act to bring justice to God's people in the world. If it happens to be an individual child in north Texas who is allowed to starve or a hundred thousand children in poor places around the world that are allowed to starve, we have the God-given freedom to change that situation. For freedom, Christians believe, God has set us free....