By Brett Berger
Faculty, College of Theology
How many times in a day do you use the word good? Countless! Have you ever tried to define it? Chances are you have not!
In my last Theology Thursday post, I attempted to define another frequently used but rarely defined word: love. Rather than common notions of attraction, acceptance or affection, the biblical commands to love others (even our enemies) as we love ourselves should be understood as the commitment to one’s good. That is, we are commanded to seek what is good for others (even our enemies).
Defining love this way, leaves us with another question. What is good? If love is the commitment to what is good for someone, I must seek clarity on what is good in order to love.
Good—like love—is a word frequently used but rarely given any concentrated reflection. Therefore, when you ask someone to define it, you do not find much clarity. If you ask this question in our culture, you will typically hear answers associated with feelings. Good is often associated with pleasure, comfort or happiness. Something is good if it makes someone happy. Societally, something is good if it maximizes the happiness for more people. Some define it minimally as causing no pain. The problem is that by using these definitions of good, we find ourselves mired in subjectivity.
So what? Perhaps this is an interesting conversation, but what does it matter whether we have a clear definition of the good? Well, as a society, all of our current debates—whether we realize it or not—center on the question. When we ask what needs to be done about immigration, we are asking a question about what is the good for the nation, its citizens or for immigrants. Our societal debates about marriage, gender, sexuality, civil rights, healthcare, military action and so on are concerned with what is good. Personally, when I have questions about how to love my wife and kids, how I should perform at work or what I should say to a friend in trouble, I am concerned with what is good.
Currently, we lament our inability to reach answers on such matters. The ability to have productive conversations on these debates continues to deteriorate because we are attempting to make decisions about what is good while denying any objective notion of the good beyond our feelings. As a culture, we have embraced a definition of good that is subjective and different for everyone. Thus, we are left only with our feelings and who can yell the loudest.
Good is a word that demands context. We can only know the good in relationship to nature and purpose. By nature, I mean we judge something good or bad in relationship to its essence. For example, how would we judge a hand-drawn circle to be good? Or, how would we judge better or worse between a series of such circles? We can only make such a judgment by comparing them with what we know of the perfect circle. One must know the essence of the circle in order to know what is good in any given example.
Tied to nature or essence is function or purpose. In order to know the good, we must know purpose. For example, how does one judge a soldier, a teacher or a stapler to be good? In these cases, we understand the good in terms of their function or purpose. A good soldier fulfills the function of a soldier well. A good teacher teaches well. A good stapler staples well.
While secular worldviews cannot offer any objective sense of shared human nature or purpose (leaving us only with our feelings), the Christian worldview defines human nature in terms of the image of God. There is a shared human nature and function, and thus a shared good. Humankind is created to reflect the nature and knowledge of God in the world in every sphere of life. It is through the lens of this nature and purpose that we must approach the difficult questions we face as individuals and as a society.
Grace and Peace,
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