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The problem of goodness


Donal Duck angel and devilThe problem of evil has always been with us. The ills that befall us and the monstrous evil that people do are a problem because they challenge the belief that life has a higher meaning. They are particularly corrosive of belief in a loving God.

The problem of goodness is rarely spoken of. Yet it challenges the view that the only meaning we can find in the world is at the level of what can be perceived and measured.

Evil challenges large frameworks of meaning because random suffering and human brutality are experienced and imagined with such intensity. Explanations of how they are consistent with a loving and attentive God may be intellectually satisfying. But when people experience suffering and brutality in their own lives, they are often repelled by large arguments.

The explanations, which work at a level of abstraction and assume a large view of the world, may seem superficial to them in their deep loss and pain. Once they believe that the cost of accepting that their suffering has a higher meaning would be to deny its overwhelming reality and obscenity, they reject all large explanations.

Theories that deny any higher meaning may then be attractive. If we can say that there is no other human reality beyond the small causalities and interplay of chance at atomic, genetic and other levels, evil and suffering cease to be a problem. They can be explained in material and physiological terms, with no need for a larger reason, nor an intelligible purpose into which to fit. So people are relieved of the burden of meaning.

Then there is goodness. In this context I understand goodness as something concretely experienced and not as an abstraction.

Most of us have known people whom we could only describe as good and whose qualities have made an indelible impression on us. We experience them as generous, serene, selfless, and unfailing in their consideration and personal regard for others, even when this is costly to themselves and apparently not in their own interest. We see in them a great and remarkable inner freedom and consistency. We might describe our dealings with them as an experience of goodness.

Goodness is an encouraging an experience as evil is undermining. But it becomes a problem if our understanding of the world and of our own lives is confined to the interplay of material causality and chance. We might certainly expect to find evidence of genetic predispositions to friendly behaviour, the influence of habit in modifying brain paths in ways that incline us to altruism, and the role of nurture and environment in helping shape the ways in which we live.

But what we experience in people who are translucently free in their goodness is not adequately explained by these factors.

Just as the arguments for larger meaning can fail to meet the concrete experience of suffering and evil, so arguments that rely on chance and determinism may fail to do justice to the concrete experience of human goodness. The accounts are too piecemeal and reduce goodness to something much smaller than what is experienced.

Of course, problems do not always hole the ship of meaning. The extent to which the experience of overwhelming loss or evil will threaten someone's belief in a God who creates the world out of love, for example, depends largely on the strength of experience they associate with a caring God. It may also be that a similarly strong experience of the explanatory power of scientific thought will sustain others confronted with the opposite challenge.

The importance of experience suggests also why the proper initial response of churches to massive natural disasters such as tsunamis is one of solidarity with the victims and of providing symbolic space for people to experience and grieve the scale of suffering, and to pray. Responding to arguments that the disasters discredit Christian faith is best done later.

In arguing that goodness presents a problem for some accounts of the world, I am not trying to make a sneaky, back door argument for the existence of God. I am arguing simply that any account of the world must give full weight to the experiences that are problematic for it. It should not shrink the dimensions of the experience so that it fits into its theoretical framework.

The depth of the evils that people suffer and do and the transcendent quality of human freedom are the site on which explanations of the world must be built, not building materials to be cut to size. 

Andrew HamiltonAustralian Catholics How To Be GoodAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka StreetCheck out the latest edition of Australian Catholics magazine for more on the theme How to be good, including Andrew's article 'The importance of being good'.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, problem of evil



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Existing comments

Perhaps the key word in your description of the 'good' person, is "selfless" There are only two ultimate motivations for our actions: "God" and "self", though both of these are hazy concepts that need to be 'fleshed' out. Perhaps the best example is the way all the cells in our body, all of which have a 'life' of their own, but all combine for the good of the whole body.Similarly each person makes up a part of the Great Body of the Human Race. Each needs to play their part, no more, and no less, subordinating short term self interest to the overall good.

Robert Liddy | 02 February 2012  

Thanks for this article Andrew. A number of years ago I experienced an adverse event so traumatic that my whole life was turned upside down. I was in a place I describe as "the dead of winter" and even though, after a period of time, I was able to return to church there was a long period when all I did was sit and listen to the music. That's all I could take in. I had an inkling that God was there but I felt a wall between us. I (and God) literally had to rebuild my life from this very low point and I think we're still rebuilding. Every time I pray, every time I think about my faith it is in the light of this traumatic experience, that's just how it is for me.

Pam | 02 February 2012  

Fr. Frank Monaghan says"we all have enormous power. (Isn't it strange that we only realise that in our 70s)."

Michael Duck | 02 February 2012  

Thanks, Andy, for addressing a difficult topic that we all at times try to come to grips with, and an attempted understanding of which is important to a thoughtful life. I'm going to have to take some time to digest your reflections fully.

Peter Johnstone | 02 February 2012  

"The depth of the evils that people suffer and do and the transcendent quality of human freedom are the site on which explanations of the world must be built, not building materials to be cut to size." I was just searching for some words to assist some young people who are attempting to make sense of Jesus' words - "No one comes to the Father except through me." Jesus embodied human freedom like no other and he built for al of us an eternal explanation of life. Thank God for theologians who can come up with the right words for the old words!

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 02 February 2012  

"there is no other human reality beyond the small causalities and interplay of chance at atomic, genetic and other levels... Lately I have found it helpful to think of myself as one of the billions of 2 x 23s(assemblages of chromosomes) in the human family. I have been relatively lucky from birth with reasonable health into my 70s. But my good luck reminds me that being a winner by calling heads in a game of two-up is only possible because of the alternative call, tails, which accounts for the losers. I can only be fully human if I try to appreciate my "good fortune" by integrating my life with the "losers" to the best of my ability. So many do this in so many ways to the benefit of the human family.

Noel McMaster | 02 February 2012  

The "site" of which Andrew speaks is NOT the one that he presents. We know God, not in His essence but in His energies. Quoting St Basil the Great, sounds a bit pompous, but here goes, "We know God from his energies, but we do not claim that we can draw near to His essence. For His energies come down to us, but His essence remains inapproachable". Basil's commentator Gregory Palamas used this insight to explain God's transcendence in terms of His essence, and His IMMANENCE IN TERMS OF hIS ENERGIES which proposes that God's GRACE is not merely a gift, but GOD HISELF COMMUNICATING HIMSELF TO MEN IN HIS ENERGIES. The site on which the explanation of the world must be built is the awareness of GOD'S IMMAMENCE IN EVERY HUMAN BEING and its acknowledgement by every human being individually. I think that PAM'S response to Andrew's article depicts this accepted state of awareness beautifully. PAM IS DEFINITELY "ON SITE".

Claude Rigney | 02 February 2012  

"The problem of goodness" is the sort of topic G K Chesterton might have raised when confronted by those who claimed "the problem of evil" as a reason/basis for denying an all-powerful God, and certainly as a reason for denying that if there were such a being, he/she/it could not be all-loving. There one thing I'll say in defence of the atheists: they do not postulate an all-powerful evil god. In that regard I prefer them to the Manicheans. I think there's a whiff of Manicheanism in the church's teaching on the existence of the devil/Satan (a wicked powerful supernatural spirit) whereby he can cause grave injuries to people individually and to society in general only because the good God permits it. This would seem to indicate that the problem of goodness is why some people are gifted to reject the blanishments of the devil/Satan, while others succumb. Much as I'd like to join Andrew on a site where explanations of the world might be built I doubt that such a site exists in some of the doctrines put forward in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Uncle Pat | 02 February 2012  

What an elegant piece of thinking. Thanks Andy

Hugo Dillon | 02 February 2012  

Loved this article. Thank you so much.

Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 03 February 2012  

Great to read this article for personal reflection and also to consider how it might shape our pastoral care practice. I know some friends who have gone through traumatic experiences or are 'stuck' in the rut of things just not going well. The large explanations, which often border on disembodied platitudes, rarely help immediately. Sometimes it seems that the words are more about the pressure to provide some explanation instead of risking being alongside people in the discomfort and pain of that moment in life reality. Thanks Andrew.

Kim Baird | 29 May 2012