Puritanically good

Published on 2024-01-25

My last few posts were more on the weirder side of things, so it's time to get back to good old checks notes God stuff.

I really like the phrase "puritanically good." I don't actually know much about the Puritans or what they believed, though through context I've understood that they were particularly annoying about what it means for something to be Good, although I feel like that describes most Christian traditions. I like to use it ironically--I'm extremely unconvinced of the idea that there exists "objective goodness" and to me it feels like the more time and energy you invest in defining it the more absurd your results seem. Calling something "puritanically good" invokes the idea that if we were to accept and share a definition of objective goodness, then that thing is it, and that carries a lot of weight. It's so good it provides evidence for objective goodness.

Probably one of the most important unresolved questions in theology is the problem of evil. If God is good, why would he create a world as evil as the one we live in today? Good people don't do evil things. A big part of the problem is that Christians generally accept that God is literally omnipotent, that is, there is absolutely nothing we could ever conceive of that he could not do. If you ask me--an amateur gemspace theologian--that's where the Christians are shooting themselves in the foot. As soon as you accept that your god is literally omnipotent everything falls apart. We can imagine a world that's good. We can imagine all kinds of worlds that are good. We have a whole genre of literature dedicated to it. And still, the world is filled with disease, war, and all forms of senseless suffering.

Christian theologians will often counter this by saying that we live in a world of compromises, that somehow suffering is necessary for there to be good. That's kind of a cop out answer, though, because remember, God is literally omnipotent. If anyone could, he could create a world with good that doesn't need suffering.

So obviously this doesn't make much sense. The Abrahamic God is known for having done all kinds of horrific acts of violence, including killing everyone on the planet except for one family. And still, all Christians seem to unequivocally accept that God is Good.

I think it does make a lot of sense, though. I think a big part of the problem is semantic.

If we're to take the Bible literally, as seems to be all the rage these days, then the Bible literally tells you what's good: what's good is what God does. Killing everyone except Noah and friends is a great thing to do. So are all the other atrocities it describes. They're good merely because they're the will of God, and until you accept that, none of this talk about goodness is going to make sense. From here, it's clear that the oft cited phrase "God is Good" is actually circular: God is good not because his actions correspond to what we conventionally understand as good, but rather because what is good is defined by his actions.

So, there's a meaningful and incredibly substantial difference between biblical goodness and what we might call ethical goodness.

One of the reasons why I tend to be be cautious about working with establishment Christians is because they often aren't upfront about this distinction. It feels dishonest. Having such a private definition of goodness can lead you to do all kinds of ethically bad things. This is probably best seen today in the American evangelical right. I find Christianity really fascinating when it isn't being used as a tool for colonial oppression but this is the sort of thing I feel like I need to constantly hold in the back of my mind when talking with Christians:

When we talk about building a better world, do we actually agree on what that looks like? Does your better world include me?

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