The rise of the ‘New Atheists’ several years ago with published works by Sam Harris, Victor Stenger, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins was a critique of the goodness of religion. Religion, according to these particular skeptics, is poisonous, insane, dangerous, and should maybe be illegal. In large part, their critique was the ‘goodness’ of religious belief as opposed to truth or beauty.
This debate over the goodness of religion interests me very little (I’ll explain why in a minute). The narrower debate concerning the goodness of Jesus, or Christianity, evokes much interest. Chrisopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson have a helpful dialogue on this topic. (Their DVD debate, Collision, is also a fun watch.)
Interestingly, our postmodern, 21st century, post-9/11 world seems more interested in the question of goodness than either truth or beauty. What is fascinating about this is that our age is supposed to be relativistic, therapeutic, and postmodern. We shouldn’t be ethical and virtuous as that was for the pre 1960s Judeo-Christian culture. Yet, my generation is perhaps the most moralistic generation in American history. We care about global issues, equal rights, environmental stewardship, poverty, etc.
So, can a millennial like me, but who is skeptical of religion, find goodness embodied in the person of Jesus? I believe the answer is yes.
Before examining Jesus himself, what about religion? Did the New Atheists have a point? I think they, in part, did touch on something important. Religion as exemplified in fundamentalist (and even liberal) forms has caused much pain and violence in the 21st century. While this may convince someone to embrace irreligion, the fact is that irreligion caused the 20th century to be the bloodiest century in human history.
Aside from the genetical fallacy being committed, neither religion nor irreligion has the high ground. Religion might claim that the American founding, with its strong religious impulse, was significantly more successful and virtuous than the French Revolution with its irreligious presuppositions. Still, both religion and irreligion have dirty histories.
So, why think Christianity is any different? I offer three thoughts.
First, Christian intellectuals have successfully employed the moral argument to demonstrate that Christianity provides any meaningful basis or account for moral obligation. The idea here is that while both religious and irreligious people do moral things, only Christianity gives a rational basis as to why it is proper to be moral. While many irreligious thinkers such as Jean Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, Patricia Churchland, Michael Ruse, E.O. Wilson, and (at one point) Richard Dawkins have admitted that irreligion cannot give a rational basis for moral obligation or human rights, Sam Harris recent attempt to give a neuroscientific basis for ethics has caught the attention of many. Most professional reviewers gave The Moral Landscape a negative review. Harris isn’t as novel as some think as he is rehashing a utilitarian ethical theory with a neuroscientific twist. He fails to do the philosophical heavy lifting required to overcome David Hume’s problem of “is not implying ought”. In the end, belief in moral obligation, free will, human rights, etc. presupposes a Christian basis or else we have no intellectual reason to be moral or to distinguish right from wrong.
Second, the historical Jesus embodied goodness in his life and ministry. Many people try to compare the greatest religious leaders to see who embodies goodness to the fullest extent. No one is as radical or demanding as Jesus in terms of altering our culturally biased views of money, sex, and power so that instead of lording over others we are to be the servant of all, even to the least of these. One may read the Beattitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ teaching on caring for the poor, etc. and find a goodness that is hard to match. In addition, Jesus’ life and teaching liberated women, ethnic minorities, and other social outcasts of his day. As a graduate school professor told me, “I challenge anyone to find a leader in history that matches the moral aptitude and virtue of the historical Jesus.” Indeed, what a challenge.
Finally, the message and mission of Jesus embodies a higher goodness. In the debate between religion and irreligion, I believe a third way is needed. Our culture wars and partisan country has a tough time embracing a true pluralism and tolerance. While true tolerance is the ability to accept other people and love them as neighbors even if you don’t accept their viewpoint, today we see what some term the ‘intolerance of tolerance‘.
How come both irreligious and religious people have a hard time being loving and charitable when they disagree with others? How come both groups are quick to demonize the other side? That is a nuanced question that has a nuanced, complex answer. But, the gospel of Jesus offers a third way.
We see Jesus embodying goodness at Calvary, being executed as a truly innocent person. He looks down at those who have mocked and murdered him and cries out, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” While humanity was making a case for its condemnation, Jesus cried out for their justification. Indeed, Jesus is the better Abel whose blood speaks a better word! (Heb 12:24).
If the gospel can make us not demonize but actually sympathize with our greatest enemy, then the gospel of Jesus must embody goodness. In a culture that longs for peace but only knows strife ideological warfare perhaps the goodness of Jesus displayed on the cross is the medicine we need to flourish as a society.
And, if one feels they need to embody goodness but don’t know where to look, the goodness of Jesus is even better news. Jesus doesn’t simply tell us, “Hey, try to keep up with me, people.” Rather, before we even follow him, Jesus gives us his goodness, counting it as our own, giving us the standing, peace, and security we all long for before the God of the universe.
Jesus embodies goodness, and he embodies our goodness since we are often ‘no good’. What better goodness is there to cling to?