“Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.” Henry David Thoreau, On Walden Pond.
“Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton
“At no point does the [Biblical] picture collapse into the simplistic one which so many skeptics assume must be what religious people believe, in which God is the omnicompetent managing director of a very large machine and ought to be able to keep it in proper working order. What we are offered instead is stranger and more mysterious: a narrative of God’s project of justice within a world of injustice.”N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God. (IVP Books, 2006), p. 71.
Twenty-first Century humanity is obsessed with the inequities and injustices, real and imagined, of its own society. Outrage is the tone of the age. When it comes to considering the claims of a Creator, or the mere existence of a Creator, the principal objection is the existence of evil in the universe. After all, don’t all the believers in and defenders of a Creator present this Being as infinitely good and loving, or at least benevolently neutral?
Even pantheists and panentheists come in for scorn and mockery as they try to explain their concept of divinity being inextricably entwined in the very fabric of the Cosmos, indeed as the very fabric itself. To achieve this, the Cosmos must be in proves of becoming a sort of living thing moving itself towards a sublime summation of all that is in a sort of infinite, amorphous, quasi-conscious bliss of ecstatic communion. It is amazing to watch how even the great icons of Cosmic science (e.g. Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking) seem to edge ever closer to this sort of “numinous universe “à la Teilhard de Chardin (The Phenomenon of Man)”. (Once more we run up against the restless human heart with its God-shaped vacuum at its center, as per Augustine and Pascal. . .)
According to the prevailing meta-story of our current culture, if we opt for a personal Creator, we are simpletons and moronic dupes relying on a phantasm because of our moral and intellectual weakness. Or, if we opt for an impersonal sort of idolization of the Cosmos moving itself towards numinescence and awakening, we are still fools because we can’t bear the weight of being mere burps of an amoral, meaningless, completely random explosion. In that case, isn’t “evil” really a meaningless concept? Things just are what they are—no morality involved. The “laws” of physics and evolution apply at all times and in all places—survival of the fittest, strongest, most adaptable, luckiest, etc., gyrating in the great quantum. How can the quantum mass of particles and energy have a moral outcome?
Nonetheless, in our more thoughtful moments when we can absent ourselves from surfing and tweeting, most of us still can’t avoid or evade a nagging sense of something being dreadfully amiss, out of order, off-center, wrong! There just shouldn’t be this (or any) degree of suffering and pain involved, especially inflicted on the innocent and defenceless—at least among ourselves and, by extension, other living, sentient beings. Pain as a survival mechanism, perhaps, but as a moral agent. . .? And, as our hearts and souls tell us as we lie abed a-night alone with our fragility and vulnerability, the greatest wrong, which we see when we watch those we love go through the hardness of life and unprovoked and unmerited strife, pain, and affliction, is death!
But we repress this horror. We scientifically rationalize: death is part of the natural order; it is the evolutionary order and rule. It is the agent for elimination of the weak and of renewal and change to make way for the stronger, faster, better which is ever-emerging. Life needs death – otherwise the planet could never support life if nothing ever died!
But we are still left with an insoluble paradox: why do we, the pinnacle of evolutionary consciousness and incarnation of cosmic self-awareness, have this agonizing, unshakeable sense of unfairness, inequity, injustice? And death is the “unkindest cut of all”! How is this innate capacity to conceive ineffable ideas like justice, good, and beauty, and their opposites, of any evolutionary benefit? How did we ever evolve such conceptions?
Perhaps they are a means to preserve our species by restraining us from indiscriminatingly slaughtering one another and other species. They subdue our innate aggressive and competitive instincts; they control our intellect’s capacity to create destructive instruments.
Until recently, these “controlling mechanisms in the human psyche” were almost universally accepted as instilled by humanity’s Creator (or creators in polytheistic societies). Remove the sanction of the Creator watching and reserving judgment and, it seems, the only sanction and restraint left is Mutual Assured Destruction (the 1970s MAD principle during the Cold War) which will result from excessive anti-social behaviour. As the question has been framed, “(How) Can we be good without God?” Nietzsche proposed that, honestly, we can’t because there is no motivation to be “moral and good” without a Judge waiting to pass sentence. It all boils down to social convention, not conscience.
Can we be good without God? Aristotle (see his masterpiece The Nichomachean Ethics)and modern secular philosophers answer “Yes!” But it still begs the anterior question: “How do we even have a concept of good to begin with?” And within that, “How do we have a global, almost universal understanding, across all cultures and times, of many elements of what ‘good’ means?”
Fundamentally, there are only two, diametrically opposite, answers: (1) evolution made it happen for reasons we can only dimly speculate about, or, (2) the universe’s Creator made us that way for His/Her own reasons. And the main argument against the second choice is that evil and wrong and pain and suffering exist. Surely an infinitely wise and good Creator would not make such a flawed Cosmos, one in which cruelty, deliberate evil, the infliction of pain and suffering abound. If the Cosmos is a reflection of the Creator’s nature, the Creator Him-/Herself must therefore be a cruel, unworthy being. And who would want to serve such a God?
Which brings us back to Kohelet, our ancient sage, once more. Solomon-Kohelet does not defend the Creator, even though he continually acknowledges Him/Her. Instead, he observes (very dispassionately, like a modern social scientist) the world as it is with all its apparently random outcomes. The “good and just” sometimes suffer evil and calamity in the same way as fools and criminals; the unjust and wicked too often seem to live easy, fat, comfortable lives while the innocent, the good, and the just suffer. He never facilely resorts to blaming God for this state of affairs, nor does he ever mention a ‘devil’, a demon, or any other supernatural entity as an instigator; such things just are. But he still has something to say as to why they are as they are, and his insights are right on target to this day.
In short, the perpetrators of most of the afflictions and injustice humans fall prey to are other humans. He does not deal with what we call “acts of God”. His concern is what he observes about the treatment of our fellow humans, one to another, one upon another. “I realized that all effort and achievement stem from one person’s envy of another. . . . something else under the sun that is pointless: the situation in which a solitary individual without a companion, with neither child nor brother, keeps on working endlessly but never has enough wealth. . . .” And, as to the zealous young person determined to prove him-/herself greater than any predecessors, attaining acclaim and power (royalty in his language) and all that: “Nevertheless, those who come afterwards will not regard him highly. This too is certainly pointless and feeding on wind.” (See Chapter 4 of the Biblical book Kohelet.)
Not doing life alone is always better: “Two are better than one, in that their cooperative efforts yield this advantage: if one of them falls, the other will help his partner up.” A wise, poor youth is better than an old, arrogant king who no longer listens to anyone’s advice—the corruption of power theme again, which he knew well firsthand.
Having observed these things, he puts them in perspective.
“Watch your step when you go to the house of God. Offering to listen is better than fools offering sacrifices, because they don’t discern whether they are doing evil. Don’t be impulsive, don’t be in a hurry to give voice to your words before God. For God is in heaven, and you are on earth; so let your words be few. For nightmares come from worrying too much; and a fool, when he speaks, chatters too much.” (4:17-5:2)
Thus, the Creator is not intervening to stop people from acting like fools and doing wrong to one another, but He/She is quite aware of it. We sail along in our ambitions, self-centered goals to “get to the top”, prove others wrong, accumulate what we covet and make our mark with little or no thought of what we’re doing and, more particularly, how we’re doing it. Perhaps there is some token gesture towards the Maker here and there—“fools offering sacrifices”. They are fools because there is no desire or attempt to “discern whether or not they are doing evil.”
Kohelet is not here discussing the “great evils”—natural disasters, plagues, famines, wars and slaughters—which everyone can see and abhor while condemning the human perpetrators when appropriate. That is another discussion. At this point he is concerned with the petty evils of everyday life, our habitual mindsets, attitudes, and self-centered behaviours that inevitably injure those around us. The “fool” is the one rushing and toiling along thoughtlessly, heedlessly as if there is no responsibility, no accountability, and no consequences.
If we live like this, we will spend our lives “chasing after wind” and never seeing it because we have never bothered to “go to the house of God”—turn towards the Creator. Some of us still pay lip-service in that direction in order to appease our consciences (or please someone else, or create a good impression as part of our public persona), but this is “fools offering sacrifices”.
The only way to escape this trap, this treadmill of “feeding the wind”, is to mindfully, deliberately, and humbly turn to the Creator and begin to listen, even more than you speak, “For God is in heaven, and you are on earth; so let your words be few.”
There is much more insight Kohelet offers. We will pick it up in the next session.