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Sunday, April 26, 2020

Doing Good–An Absolute Value Or A Colossal Waste Of Time?

Rob Mueller was a committed progressive and social activist.  He was engaged in movements for radical economic change, protection of the environment, and social justice for women and minorities.  He had been tireless since his twenties. He was also an atheist. He gave up organized religion shortly after college as he began his enlistment in the anti-war, peace movement of the Seventies.  Religion, he said, was an obstacle to social justice, the new world order, peace, international cooperation and the rights of man. It had always been manipulative, acquisitive, and spiritually neutering.  Far from ennobling man, it demeaned him, made him a chattel slave to a false God who made false promises and offered vain and false hopes.

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Yet if after death there is no spiritual eternity, and if, dying, both the deceased and the world left behind simply cease to exist, weren’t Rob’s efforts wasted? 

The idea of absolute good can only be considered within a religious context.  Without God there can be no such thing as universal, eternal goodness that exists beyond time innate in every society. Everything created by man is by nature relative, and the hope of a man-made absolute good is nothing less than the same religious balderdash that Rob had left behind. 

After his death the world would simply motor on, seduced by its own false promises of progress and goodness, having its ups and downs, peaceful phases and warring ones, Pax Romana and Genghis Khan.  A visitor in any time to come would find the same vain ambitions, the same idealistic promises, and the same tedious grinding of a familiar history.  Progressive idealism and Utopian ideals are impossible within a purely secular, human context. 

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Tolstoy and Sartre backed into ‘good’.  Konstantin Levin looked around him and wondered how a great, powerful, omniscient God could have created Man with intelligence, wit, creativity, insight, and talent, allowed him to live but a few decades, and then consigned him for all of eternity in the cold, hard ground of the steppes; and he, near death, concluded that at least doing good would be some solace in a meaningless life.  Sartre concluded much the same thing.  Neither philosopher was convinced that good actually existed, but it was worth a try.

As far as the metaphysical world and whether or not anything existed after one died, Bishop Berkeley only asked, "If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, does it exist?"  Of course not; and when a live, sentient being dies and there is nothing left of him to see, hear, or feel the world he left behind, then it doesn’t exist either.  Only Nietzsche made sense.  There was an existence beyond good and evil, he said; and the only validation of human experience was the pure, unalloyed, absolute expression of individual will.

Nowhere in the New Testament do Jesus or his disciples ever contend that there is absolute good in the world, only that there are forces of demonic evil – beings created by God who rejected him and were evermore determined to ruin the vision of his Creation. Milton’s Paradise Lost tells the epic tale of the heroic battle between God and Satan.  It is one not of ‘good’ or ‘evil’ but the forces of good and evil.

In Biblical terms, man is not asked to choose between good and evil but to choose Jesus Christ, the only one who can redeem his sins and raise him to ‘the right hand of the Father’  The gospels and the letters of Paul are all about faith, fidelity, grace, and hope – all centered uniquely and absolutely around Jesus Christ.   There is no such thing as absolute good, only an absolutely good being, Jesus Christ, and man’s only aspiration should be complete and utter love for and faithfulness to him.  The rewards would be infinite.  Right behavior was the only path to salvation, and such behavior meant the expression of absolute love for Christ. ‘Good’ was incidental to faith and grace.

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Jews believe that good is derived from God and only from God, citing the Old Testament verses in Genesis 1:31 – ‘And God saw everything he had made, and behold, it was very good…’  Rabbinical scholars, debate the difference between ‘good’ and ‘goodness’.  God might have been rightly pleased at his Creation – his idea, his concept, his vision – but realized that after all he had not created a world which was good.  In fact he was so convinced that it was not, that he saw fit to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and then the whole world in the Flood.

Islam, like Christianity and Judaism stresses right behavior – precepts set down in the Qur'an  fundamental to a correct spiritual life which will lead to eventual eternity with God.  There is no sense of ‘absolute good’, simply proper attitude and behavior focused on spiritual enlightenment and salvation. Like the Jews and Christians, Muslims believe that genuine repentance results in Allah's forgiveness and entrance into Paradise upon death.  In other words, the choice between right and improper behavior exists; men will often choose the wrong way, but atonement can rectify past wrongs.  The principles of right behavior never change, but they are means to an end, not ends in themselves.  They are permanent but not absolute.

Hinduism is even more explicit about the idea of an earthly absolute good – i.e. there is absolutely no such thing.  The world and all in it is maya, illusion.  Good and evil only appear to be so, but neither these values nor anything else in the secular world exist.  Only by rejecting the world of illusion and devoting one’s life to a realization of God, Brahman, can one achieve spiritual evolution.  Like Christianity, Hinduism places attention squarely on the divine, the nature of the divine, and the essence and soul of the divine.  Good and evil are relative terms, relative values. 

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So, if the major religions are clear on the question of the existence of a worldly absolute good - there is no such thing - then the most committed secularists have to wonder about the vanity of their pursuits to reach it; and atheists should stop in their tracks.

An atheist who believes that life ends unceremoniously at death, and who knows that his efforts while alive have only stirred the mix of temporal, secular concerns, dredged up and tossed out bits from the bottom, blended the oils, removed the sludge and grease, filtered the gruel, and shaken the soup, must wonder if it all was worth it.  Should he have taken a more Mediterranean and less Puritanical view of life, lived it to the fullest, enjoyed it, spent it on Rimini and St Bart’s, slept with starlets, cruised on yachts, and dressed in Armani?

Rob was fond of saying that an absolute, secular good does in fact exist only to be uncovered and nurtured, and it will prosper, perhaps not in our lifetime but in those to come.  Human beings indeed have the capacity to do better, if not good.  Only patience is required.

Of course God himself was very unhappy at the human race he created.  Not only did Adam and Eve betray him; and not only did one of their sons kill the other; but this mark of Cain, an indelible sign of man’s iniquity was to be passed down from generation to generation.  This divine reminder was not enough, and he felt it necessary to acknowledge his mistakes to wipe out the human race.  When that didn’t work, and when after the Earth was repopulated men returned to their old, bad ways, he decided to send his son, Jesus Christ, to see if he could sow goodness among them.  He failed, and the human race is as sinful, disrespectful, and ignorant as it ever was.

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Looked at only in secular terms, history has shown not a whit of progress.  Yes, we have bicycles and the telephone, but we still have perennial wars, corruption, venality, greed, and voracious self-interest.

This all should have been enough for Rob to cash in his annuities and move to the South of France, and yet he persisted. There should have been enough in the Bible, the Qur'an, the writings of Berkeley and Hume, the Upanishads, and the endless volumes of world history to have convinced him that progress to a better world was a fiction at best, a fairy tale; but he stuck to Eugene Victor Debs.

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Despite history, metaphysics, Biblical injunction, Darwinism, and good old common sense, progressives like Rob Mueller continue to bang away at social reform.  There must be good somewhere, they insist, unwilling to give up the very be-all and end-all of their lives, their purpose for being.  It is bad enough for a social reformer to have a secular epiphany – to see that history sadly repeats its mistakes over and over in endless cycles and to give up trying to change anything; at least he believes in God and a divine goodness.  That’s something.  An atheist like Rob is truly out in the cold.

All of which is to say that those who believe in an immutable human nature – a very imperfect nature created by a God disappointed with it but who let it be – and who believe that if there is absolute goodness it resides in the person/divinity of Jesus Christ, don’t need Rimini or St Bart’s.  Those who believe that such a nature is indeed perfectible and that a non-divine, secular, collective good does indeed exist, are whistlin’ Dixie.

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It is only surprising that Rob, an intelligent man with a storied pedigree, classical upbringing, and a premier education, would consistently and insistently refuse to look at the facts.  Which all goes to show that logical exegesis, rationality, and sober analysis are not what they’re cracked up to be.  Just as the Bible-thumpers of Mississippi cannot be budged from an absolute originalist Word-of-God fundamentalist faith, neither can the Eastern intellectuals such as Rob be dislodged from their own absolutist belief in social progress and human betterment.

I kept waiting for Rob’s epiphany.  Either he would wise up to history, give up on any ambitious notion of social progress, and hang up his spurs; or he would find Jesus, accept the world as it is, and relax.  Neither happened, and now, well past retirement, he keeps banging away at the glass ceiling, the plight of the poor, the warming climate, and injustices everywhere.

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