Thursday, April 30, 2009

Can you be Good without God?

Let’s say that an unnamed Miss California contestant suffers a heart attack and is taken to the hospital. While on the operating table, she has a near death experience. Seeing God, she asks,
'Is my time up?'

God says, 'No, you have another 43 years, 2 months and 8 days to live.'

Upon recovery, the woman decides to stay in the hospital and celebrate her survival. She has a face-lift, lip enhancement, boob job, lipo-suction, and tummy tuck.

After her last operation, she is released from the hospital. While crossing the street on her way home, she is hit and killed by a car.

Arriving in front of God, she demands, 'I thought you said I had another 40 years? Why didn't you pull me out of the path of the car?'

God replies,

'I’m sorry, but I didn't even recognize you!'

In this new era of spiritual freedom, people in and out of church are doing free form surgery on their beliefs. You might call them faith lifts. When I was in Melbourne last year, a church displayed a sign out front that said, “The Ten Commandments- One of the Most Negative Documents Ever Written.”

This raises some questions about what happens to morality, if it’s not anchored in specific, unchanging religious commandments. Are people doing their own morality enhancements?

The classic question asked is, “Can you be good without God?” It’s a meaningless question because there are as many definitions of good and God as there are people. Maybe a more fruitful question is, “Is God recognizable in your life and actions?”

Maybe that would avoid a lot of the religious rivalry that takes place over whose God is more powerful. More importantly, it might offer a motivation for morality that is intrinsic and impassioned. A person’s morality would not be measured by her interpretation of ancient revelations of God, such as whether God ordained marriage to be exclusively between a man and a woman. Rather, a person’s morality would be measured by the quality of his life and character.

Is society less moral without religion?
There is no evidence for a loss of morality in an increasingly spiritual but not religious world. On the contrary, there are some extraordinary examples of non religious morality. Who would question the philanthropy of well known agnostics like Bill Gates, George Soros and Warren Buffet? It’s hard to fault the morality of well known non religious leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Bono. The integrity of significant spiritual but not religious teachers such as Marianne Williamson and Deepak Chopra is unquestioned.

When I think of these leaders, I see in them what I aspire to as divine qualities. I recognize God in their service and generosity.

Can You be Good With God?

There are some problems with grounding morality in an ancient, fixed understanding of God.

1. Which God are you talking about?
For example, the God portrayed in the Old Testament seems quite amoral. Richard Dawkins wrote about this God in The God Delusion- “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

2. Morality is rarely black and white.
“God said it. I believe it. That settles it” is a bumper sticker mantra for those who find absolute moral standards in the Bible. If the Bible clashes with your own common sense, you are still required to follow its commandments by faith. The problem is that the Bible has contradictory moral statements. If you have time and interest compare Exodus 3;21-22 where robbery is commanded, and Leviticus 19;13 where robbery is forbidden. There are many such examples; lying, slavery and killing to name a few.

Life isn’t a Garden of Eden, and life’s choices are rarely signposted like the tree of good and evil. The genius of the Bible is not an absolute moral code, but the situational ethic of the Sermon on the Mount, where you are encouraged to act in a way that is most loving in your context.

Belief or Experience?

Recently I spoke to a group of College students about belief in God. The focus of their syllabus had been morality, so that was where the conversation veered. Many in the group felt that belief in God was a necessity for moral grounding. I stated my case that the choice as to whether you believe in God or not may be a philosophical cul-de-sac. The more fruitful conversation might be around experience rather than belief.

Consider the example of a red rose. On one extreme, someone might believe a red rose is literally love. On the other extreme, someone might believe a red rose is not love, and therefore love does not exist! The massive grey zone in between evokes an experience of the red rose as part of the artistry of love. The experience of beauty fills you with wonder, and it draws out of you a powerful urge to share love with others. This is what many people speak of as an experience of God.

Where is Morality Grounded?

The church has often tried to scare the hell out of people. The focus doesn’t have to be fear based. It can be grounded in love and service. Maybe this is why many religious traditions measure morality by how you treat you “neighbor”. The neighbor is intentionally undefined. It is whoever enters your consciousness in a given moment. Images such as neighbor and red rose offer a grounding for morality as they draw your attention away from self and onto a beauty that passes complete rational understanding. You might even say that you recognize what many call God in your neighbor or a red rose.

I heard a story that captures beautifully the notion of grounding morality in a common focus. On a beach in the Galapagos Islands there is a barrel which has been used as a mailbox for over a century, originally by sailors and now by tourists. Many who visit the beach leave an addressed post card or letter in the barrel, and then take mail out of the barrel to send on a gradual journey to its destination.

The mail system has its own unwritten code of decency. There are no rules posted on the barrel, no mail box commandments. There are no punishments for non participation and no material rewards for participation. Most tourists will never return to the mailbox, and no one is checking anyway. The mailbox survives, decade after decade, and almost every visitor leaves a letter and forwards another one. The mailbox succeeds because it appeals to people’s sense of global community. People WANT to participate in the process and feel a part of it. It is the idea of the mailbox which creates the desire for cooperation.

Maybe that’s part of what it means to recognize God; whether in neighbor or mailbox, red rose or philanthropic foundation. You recognize within yourself a desire to be part of something larger than yourself. You recognize in something outside of yourself a wonderful connection.

So as you continue on your own process of cosmetic belief surgery, how will you measure your new look? Is God recognizable in your life and actions? As Mary Oliver said, “You don’t have to be good. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” May you know the incredible joy of loving and serving your neighbor, and may your life be one of the ways that the world becomes a more decent place.

1 comment:

Zuri said...

That beach in Galapagos is post Office Bay in Florena Island. It is incredible to know that it has been working for more that 200 years.