What is good? How do we know? Those are the foundational questions of existence. They are right up there with “Who are we? What are we about?” You answer those four questions, and there is nothing but a long easy glide for you through the rest of time. You will, on the spiritual level at least, have it made.
What is good? How do we know? Where do we go for answers? Ah, The Bible! The Bible lays it all out, right? The Bible tells us so! There are those who would have us believe morality is grounded in the Bible, and that we cannot hope to be moral apart from the Bible, and that we have to do it the way the Bible says do it, because if we don’t, there will be hell to pay. So, no stem cell research, no abortions, no gay marriage, no gay rights, no teaching evolution, for a few examples, because the Bible says so. The Bible is the basis of our morality, and if it isn’t the basis of our morality, then our morality is tainted, and we are un-Christian, and out of favor with God, and we are going to hell when we die.
Not so fast. What right do the people who flaunt this point of view have to tell us that their view of the Bible and morality is the Right View? To tell us that their reading of the Bible is the Right Way to read the Bible? How many of the people who say these things are divorced, for instance, and why do they highlight in pink highlighter those passages in the Bible that decry homosexuality, yet neatly leave unmarked those that condemn divorce? If you are going to throw the Bible at me, throw the whole thing at me! But, that’s not my real problem with viewing the Bible as the source of morality.
My real problem is this: What made slavery wrong? It wasn’t the Bible. The Bible was used (by the Religious Right of the day) to justify slavery, support slavery, excuse slavery. The Christian churches of the Confederate States of America preached the Bible as surely as any church anywhere has ever preached the Bible, and they found the Bible saying, “Slaves, obey your masters!”
Slavery was an institution throughout biblical times. Jesus never once condemned slavery. It was assumed to be a natural part of how things were. Conquering armies made slaves of vanquished nations. That’s how the world worked. The Bible is a product of the world and the way the world works. It reflects who the people were who wrote the Bible, and what they thought was good and nothing more. But that’s a radical, heretical, blasphemous, obscene, sacrilegious thought that desecrates all that we hold dear. I’m just getting warmed up.
The Bible never says that slavery is wrong. The Bible simply assumes slavery is a way of life, and does not even hint at an incompatibility between believing in Jesus and holding slaves. “Let everyone remain in the state in which he (sic) was called!” is the sage advice of the Bible. Nothing about turning upside-down the cultural trends of the day. “Let everyone be subject to governing authorities!” says the Bible. Nothing about opposing the Emperor, and holding abolition rallies. So, how did slavery get to be wrong, with the Bible, that bastion of morality, so supportive of the practice?
People began to have problems with loving their neighbor as themselves, and treating their neighbor as a slave—as less than human. People began to use the Bible against the Bible to change the way the Bible was interpreted and understood. “Scripture interprets Scripture,” is an old Reformed position, but it is rarely brought forward today. It means that if you insist on squaring new statements of faith, or modern ways of thinking, as pertaining to homosexuality for example, up with what the Bible says, by the same logic, you have to square the Bible up with what the Bible says. How many new statements of faith were issued throughout the scriptures? How many new ways of thinking about God, and what God would have us do, are reflected there, where one view of God was at work in opposing and supplanting a previous view of God?
Jesus is a perfect example of an idea of God being opposed and supplanted by a new idea of God. Abraham’s refusal to sacrifice Isaac is another example of an idea about God being replaced by a new, never-before-imagined way of thinking about God. Square the Bible up with the Bible. See where that gets you. Square the book of Revelation up with Jesus’ command to love your enemies, and do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or, stop worrying about squaring anything with the Bible, and tell the Bible to wake up to the fact that slavery is wrong, and homosexuality, for example, is right.
Let’s say, for the sake of the argument, that the Bible condemns homosexuality outright, across the board. The question is: Should it? Is it right for the Bible to condemn homosexuals and homosexual practice? Same exact question as: Is it right for the Bible to condone and support slavery? And same exact answer: No indeed! The Bible simply doesn’t know what it’s talking about with either slavery or homosexuality—or divorce, for that matter. Is the Bible right in its position on divorce? No indeed! We’ve said, “No, indeed!” in our treatment of divorce and divorced people, refusing to be bound to the practices of a 2,000 year old culture, and rightly so, because the context of that culture has practically nothing in common with the context of this culture.
The church was before the Bible, remember. The church wrote the Bible, and the church can—and if the church refuses, we can—rewrite the Bible to say what it should have said all along! For instance, we cannot very well expect that Jesus would say, “The last will be first,” and then say, “But that doesn’t apply to gay people. They are last, and will always be last, and will never be first ever, so help me God.” Nope. The saying, “The last will be first,” means “Those least likely to be counted among the favorites of God will be the favorites of God—including gays, lesbians and transgender individuals.”
Jesus communicates the same thing when he says, “In as much as you have done it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done it unto me.” Jesus sees an established connection between God and those whom the world cites as having no value, as being in last place, as being at the bottom of the pile, as being the very least and inconsequential of all human beings—even gays, lesbians, and transgender individuals.
Each age has its list of least likely ones. Gay people head the list in our age. If the Bible is to be trusted to show us anything about the ways and heart of God, we have to know that gay people are God’s favorites, and we have to start treating them as though they are. And, if that means we have to re-interpret, re-understand, and even rewrite, certain portions of the Bible, that is no different from what we had to do with regard to slaves and divorced men and women. And it’s high time we took up the project.
What was it that made witch hunts wrong? Here’s a hint for you: it wasn’t the Bible. The Bible was used to make witch hunts possible and popular. What was it that made denying women the right to vote wrong? Here’s a hint for you: it wasn’t the Bible. Suffrage suffered mightily at the hands of those who wielded the Bible to keep women in their place. What was it that made Jim Crow laws wrong? Here’s a hint for you (I’ll bet you know what’s coming): It wasn’t the Bible! What made relegating the handicapped and special needs population to the backrooms, and to the status of second-class citizens of society wrong? Here’s a hint for you: It wasn’t the Bible!
The Bible, that wonderful source of morality, goodness, and truth, without which the world would fall into degradation and ruin, has been invoked to oppose every social advance—one might say every good new thing—throughout the ages. Don’t take my word for it. Do your own research. Conduct your own interviews. Draw your own conclusions. But don’t let the Religious Right catch you doing it. Drawing your own conclusions is strictly forbidden by those who flaunt the Bible—never mind that Jesus asked, in the Bible, “Who do you say that I am?”(Luke 9:20), and “Why don’t you decide for yourselves what is right?” (Luke 12:57). If you are caught thinking for yourself, it’s all over for you. You’ll be consigned to the depths of the fiery pits of hell forever, starting right now.
However, until you take your life in your hands and do your own research, you’ll have to take my word for it that the Bible is not the ground of morality, not the source of all that is good, that we have been told it is. But if we take the Bible out of the picture, what is left? What is good then? How do we know?
Let’s cut to the chase. We don’t know. Jesus said, “Wisdom is justified/vindicated/made known by her children” (or words to that effect). In other words, time will tell. What is good will be validated as good in time by the majority of those who weigh in on the matter. It will be recognized as good by practically all people everywhere. Of course, slavery is evil. Of course, women are human beings. Of course, homosexuals are to be granted all the rights and privileges heterosexuals enjoy. But in the moment of decision, in the situation as it arises, all we have to go on is instinct, intuition and the best guess we are capable of making at the time.
When it comes to knowing what is good, we alone decide, but we aren’t just making blind stabs in the dark. When it comes to how do we know, we have no problem knowing. I know immediately when you treat me in ways that are good, and when you treat me in ways that are not good. I only have to have reached the level of emotional development that allows me to empathetically identify with others—to put myself imaginatively in their place—in order to know what is good for them. Once I reach the point of being able to take myself entirely out of consideration, so that I am not impacted by concerns that what is good for others might be bad for me, I am able to see clearly what is good for them. Then, I can, along with them, work out the implications that their good has for my bad, and come to some kind of compromise solution so that our over-all good is served.
This, however, is the kink in all moral systems. I can serve your good only to the extent that it doesn’t raise—too much for me to tolerate—the level of my bad. If there is only one waterhole, and if there is only enough water in the hole for me and mine, and, if it is my waterhole, then you and yours are going to have to win the fight to get the water. I may have no problem seeing that it would be good to share the water with you, but if there isn’t enough water for me to comfortably share, you aren’t going to get any water.
My survival, and the survival of my family, and my tribe, is the highest good. I will serve your good as long as mine is not jeopardized by that service. Yet, the spiritual journey is getting to the place of seeing that “mine” and “yours” is one good, Our Good. The spiritual journey is expanding what is “mine” to include what is “yours,” not in the sense that “you belong to me,” but in the sense of “Thou art that.” In the sense that you and I are One, and we serve the good of the other to the exact same extent that we serve the good of the self, and so comes to pass the directive, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Until we reach that place in our spiritual development, we will only be so good. Until then, the good that we know to be good will be the good we know to be good for us. The more generous we can be in making that good available to all others, the better, the more moral, and the more spiritual we will be. The more narrow and restrictive we are in offering good to all others, the worse, the more immoral, and less spiritual we will be.
Empathy and compassion are the rock solid foundations of moral/spiritual development. We will be moral and spiritual to the extent that we can be empathetic and compassionate—to the extent that we can connect ourselves with all those who share the world with us, put ourselves in their place, imagine what it is like to be treated as they are treated, and adjust our treatment of them to reflect how we would like to be treated ourselves. In wondering what is good and how do we know, we can do no better than the Golden Rule. If you are going to throw anything at me, let it be that. If you need to wonder how moral you are, ask yourself who is safe in your presence, and who is not, and how unsafe are they? The more people you can tuck under the banner of your safe, protective, compassionate presence, the more moral you are, and the better the world will be.