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Quodlibet 40 – ‘Being religious’ vs ‘doing good’

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Quodlibets | A famous actor recently said you do not have to be religious to be a good person; religion leads to conflict and violence, so we should take from it whatever moral principles are useful, but otherwise stay away from it. What matters is doing good to all living beings. What do we make of this reasoning?

A reader of our blog called Jim has asked us how we can respond to the following recent declarations by the actor John Abrahams, which summarise an increasingly common way of thinking:

'You don't have to go to a religious place to be a good person. You have to do good to be a good person. I'd probably be wrong and I don't want to create any controversy but I think the most religious people are the most dangerous people. It's better that you stay away from religion. Just use religious guidelines in your life correctly. It's good to follow certain practices but the most important practice that you can follow is being good to all living beings.'

It is fair to begin by saying that John Abrahams is right in one very important respect: you do not have to follow any religion to be a good person. Many people give no more thought to God than they stop to look up to the sun at midday, and yet they live good, virtuous lives as citizens, neighbours, parents or friends. Conversely, we must ask ourselves: do we follow a religion in order to be good people? The answer, I venture to say, is no. For us Christians, the goal is not to be good, but to become saints. It is important to notice the difference. Jesus’ maxim, ‘treat others as you would like to be treated’ (Matthew 7:12), did not probably struck his contemporaries as an utterly novel teaching or some revolutionary philosophical principle. Many cultures and religious traditions have in fact come up with similar ideas, which derive from applying a certain logic of ‘proportionality’ to our dealings with one another: giving to each their due.

What is revolutionary is the twist Jesus gives to this teaching. He says: follow me; for my sake, turn the other cheek when someone wrongs you, endure injustice, misunderstanding and persecutions (sometimes even from those who are supposed to uphold this world’s justice!). Love your enemies, forgive even those who do not deserve it, be merciful even when this may seem imprudent. Be generous, give of what you do not have, and you will begin to live under a new law: the law of freedom, the logic of grace and gratitude, of the gift freely given. It is not for nothing that the expression ‘to go the extra mile’ comes from the Gospel (Matthew 5:41).

So much of Jesus’ teaching seems counterintuitive, disproportionate. To one he says: if you have one talent, giving one talent back will not suffice (Matthew 25:14-30). To another: it is good for you to keep all the precepts of the Law; now sell everything you have and follow me (Matthew 19:16-22). There is always a sense of crescendo, of raising the stakes: “you have heard that it was said, ‘you shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment’. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22). “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” – “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22).

The crescendo reaches its climax when Jesus gives the disciples the ‘new commandment’: love one another, as I have loved you (John 13:34). Yes, we should treat one another as we would like to be treated, but in fact, what we ‘deserve’ is so much more than we could have ever expected – for we are precious in God’s eyes. What raises the stakes, what is totally out of proportion, is God’s love for us, a love that led Him to the extreme of dying on the Cross to save us. When we let ourselves be transformed by this, we do not become merely ‘good people’, we become saints.

Now this is not to say that there is no value in taking ‘doing good to all living beings’ as a principle of conduct. The Catholic tradition speaks of the natural law inscribed in every person’s heart, the voice of conscience if you wish, which enables us to have a general sense of what it means to be good to others. It is the foundation of our moral knowledge and it explains why some moral principles seem common to so many cultures (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1954-1960).

People who reason along John Abraham’s lines often defend this position on the grounds of some moral instinct or universal sympathy for all living creatures. The assumption is usually that religious traditions ‘obscure’ or distort this innate sense and lead to irrationality and violence. Let me spell out what I think is problematic with this reasoning by distinguishing what C. S. Lewis used to call the 'three parts of morality': (1) how we relate to one another, (2) how I relate to myself, and (3) how I (and others) relate to the totality of what exists, to the ultimate meaning or purpose of this universe we inhabit. Notice that when people speak of ‘morality’, they often refer to (1) to the exclusion of (2) and (3). Morality is reduced to ‘being good to others’, which in turn is often reduced to ‘what I do is morally irrelevant so long as I do not harm anyone’.

This tells me very little about (2), how I should live my life. What is good for me? How can I do good to myself? How can I be happy? These are important questions that we care about. Can mere ‘instinct’ give an answer? I do not think so. One only has to check the self-help or mindfulness section in any average-size bookshop to see the demand for informed guidance in this area. Similarly, there are many moral dilemmas that cannot simply be answered by appealing to some universal sympathy for all living beings. What should I do if what is good for me conflicts with what is good for another? Or, if what is good for everybody else conflicts with what is good for me? Should the individual good be sacrificed to the general good? To what kinds of living beings should I be good? Do I have the same obligations to all living beings, regardless of where they live or whether they are familiar to me? What does it actually mean to ‘do good’ to another living being?

To have answers to these questions is not to follow an impulse but to have done at least some thinking. John Abraham may perhaps reply: I do not want anyone to tell me how to live my life. Fair enough, but this he cannot maintain without some intellectual dishonesty. These questions are so fundamental to how society is organised, that if we have good answers, we will try to defend them before others and persuade them to do like us. Therefore it is nothing short of ironic that John Abraham’s quotation begins by proclaiming that every person should follow their own moral instinct and ‘simply’ be good to others, to conclude, almost in the same breath, that some people are dangerous and should not be allowed to follow their own moral instinct!

Hence a reasoning like John Abraham’s always involves well thought-out answers to the questions raised in all three parts of morality. Such thinking typically assumes that there is no overarching purpose or meaning to our existence and so we should forget about seeking valid answers for (2) and (3), relation with oneself and with the cosmos, and focus instead on (1), how we treat one another. But this is not an ‘instinct’, let alone a universal one: it is an intellectual position like any other, and as such, it needs to be argued for convincingly, and be open to criticism. This is why we should resist reducing Christianity to sense (1): Christians do not follow a set of rules, but a Person who has loved us first, and seeks our response. The Christian looks at the world and recognises in it God’s providence guiding the events of our existence for our good. So it is not like the atheist and the Christian agree about the universe, but disagree about one small detail called ‘God’. They rather disagree about what kind of thing this universe is that we live in. In other words: part (3) of morality is the foundation of (1) and (2).

Religious traditions other than Christianity also express this desire to enter into communion with the world around us, to give thanks for the gift of existence and to restore harmony when that relationship breaks, a longing often satisfied through rituals, prayers and other external practices. While it is true that a plurality of beliefs can lead to tensions and conflict, Christians are called to engage respectfully in dialogue with others, religious or not, and give the world witness of this love God has had for us. ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ (John 13:35). If we are then to combat fear and fundamentalism, we must be honest about our own assumptions and acknowledge that we are all engaged in a common search for answers to the big questions. This joint effort is what the best of each religious tradition represents. It is the duty of Christians to remind the world that there can be no conflict between the impulse to be good to all living beings and the search for the ultimate meaning of our existence, for listening to the voice of conscience means, in the first place, being open to something greater than ourselves.

Image by Roger A. Smith via Creative Commons

Br Pablo Rodríguez-Jordá O.P.

Br Pablo was born and grew up in Alicante, Spain. He first lived in the UK as a student of History and English at the University of Southampton, and after graduating worked as a language teacher in Oxford, where he met the Dominicans. He entered the novitiate in 2017. Reading the works of Thomas Merton was a particular catalyst for his calling to the religious life. Similarly, reading G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien and J. H. Newman led him to the practice of the faith earlier during his university years. He is interested in languages, 19th century literature and the history of English Catholicism. | pablo.rodriguez@english.op.org

It was customary in medieval universities twice a year to subject expert theologians to questions of the students’ choosing. The responses to these points of controversy were recorded in collections of so-called Quodlibetales – from the Latin, “ask what you like”. Following in that tradition, the student brothers invite you to put them to the test with your own questions, which you can submit here.



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