After perusing the latest issue of the Ichthus, I had some reflections on Nick Nowalk’s latest feature “On Not Being Narrow-Minded.” Nick focuses heavily on the writings of Jonathan Edwards, a preacher from the first Great Awakening who was quite influential despite the fact that he graduated from Yale. Edwards resisted the Enlightenment thinkers who increasingly strove to separate ethics from Christianity. Instead, as Nick put it, “he insisted upon a teleological ethic grounded in God’s purpose in creating the universe.”
Yet Nick points out that “Edwards is also keenly aware of this objection: the moral conduct of those who ignore or reject God’s design for their existence often seems less than evil and sometimes even praiseworthy.” He then describes three of Edwards’ examples (I’ve heard Edwards was a huge Bono fan) of people whose actions seem praiseworthy at first, but turn out to be evil. Yet this strikes me as a bit of a straw man. The goal of the examples is to refute the idea that godless people could be good, but I don’t think anyone defending that proposition would necessarily lift up any of those three people as great moral examples. The examples only appear compelling because of the way in which the behavior is revealed: we catch a glimpse of the person’s good attributes before their truly ugly side comes into view. In the case of the adulterous wife, her good attributes are simply a ruse to cover up her sin. This is not what most people think of when they imagine the good godless person.
Instead, I’d like to offer a more personal example of the godless good person which I think most people would find significantly more compelling: my mother. (I promise to not take any criticisms too personally, so long as the conversation does not degrade into “your mom” jokes.) My mother is an atheist and has been for the greater portion of her life. She just celebrated her 20th wedding anniversary with my father and has stayed faithful (as far as I’m aware) the whole time. She works in an office and does her job very well. A few years after starting this job, she decided to take charge of the community outreach for her company (the Gap) and organizes community service events for all of the employees in Orange County and sometimes even Los Angeles. She has built houses with Habitat for Humanity and regularly helps low-income kids in LA apply to colleges. She doesn’t do it to elevate her position in the company. She doesn’t do it to cover up the fact that she committed some grievous sin. She hasn’t ruined a beautiful peace of music by adding cacophony. She simply cares about other people deeply.
So when I look at my mother, how do I square my experience with her genuinely good-heart and the passages (Genesis 6:5, 8:21, Psalm 14:1-3, 53:1-3, 58:3, 143:2, Proverbs 20:9, Ecclesiastes 7:20, 9:3, Isaiah 64:6, Matthew 19:17, Romans 3:9-20) listed by Nick? I cannot take the easy way out by attributing some horrible sin to her as Edwards does, but I can imitate him by altering the way in which I think of morality.
First, I recall Romans 3:23 – for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. The glory of God is our standard. Perfection is our standard. That is both terrifying – we can never live up to the standard – and comforting – no one can ever live up to that standard. As good as my mother may be, she is not perfect. There are still crooked corners of her soul, just as there are for everyone else.
Second, I have to reorient my thinking about what goodness actually is. Having grown up in the household of a philosopher fond of John Locke, I have been bombarded with Enlightenment-era thinking since my youth. My own intuitions about goodness would never make me guess that it is some tragic or horrible sin to deny God or Christ as His Son. I have too many nice non-Christian friends to come to that conclusion on my own. But in this area, I must re-evaluate my notions about goodness and come to a better definition to understand the Scriptures. I must read the old books, as Nick urged, to get past my limited and narrow-minded perspective.
Augustine described sin as inordinate desire; that is, there is a natural ordering of how much we should want things with the eternal being more valuable than the transient and sin consists of reversing these values. Every sin can be reduced to valuing a temporal thing (money, fame, members of the opposite gender) more than the eternal (God). It is not bad to want certain things in this world, so long as we do not desire them more than we desire communion with God. If one denies God, one denies the eternal and can never desire the true source of all goodness in this world. One will always have inordinate desire because there can be no longing for the only inherently valuable entity.
As C.S Lewis puts it in The Weight of Glory: “These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
So long as my mother is an atheist, she may be good, but she can never desire the ultimate good. She can never know the beauty and perfection that is the eternal and Almighty God. This is the only way I can come to agree with “Jonathan Edwards’ essential contention…: whatever ‘secondary beauty’ may exist among those who have chosen to rupture the harmony of God’s creation song by singing their own tune in a different key, the best of this fallen human conduct apart from Christ will turn out to be, upon closer inspection, mere honor among thieves.”
This is not an easy idea to swallow, particularly since many of us are surrounded by good non-Christian friends, but such a conclusion is not condescending so long as we realize that we, too, are mere thieves without redemption through Christ.