The following sample comes from How to Be Unlucky: Reflection on the Pursuit of Virtue, which is now available.
There are few issues about which American Christians are more confused and less consistent than the matter of goodness. I was embarrassingly old by the time I first heard a robust answer to the question, “Why be good?” A man wants his little son to grow up and become a good man. He wants his son to get a good job and marry a good woman. He wants to attend a good church and to believe the doctrines his church espouses. He wants friends, and even if his friends do not attend the same church he does, he wants to say of a certain friend, “He believes different things than I do about God, but he is still a good man. He loves God, takes care of his wife, and loves his children.” On the occasion of his tenth wedding anniversary, a man enjoys taking his wife out for a good dinner, and when his little daughter begins to cry at having a babysitter and an early bedtime, a man says, “Be a good girl and run along.” We do not like bad men, bad movies, or bad milk. Neither are we uncertain about what makes aman bad, for bad men cheat on their wives, lie to their bosses, steal from the tithe plate, and get drunk on Good Friday, while good men are honest about their faults, courageous in the face of death, courteous to women, and capable of profound generosity. So long as an American Christian is discussing the world casually with his friends, he talks sense on the subject of goodness.
However, if there is an open Bible nearby, one should not expect a man to speak lucidly of goodness, for an open Bible will remind the man that “all have sinned” and “none is righteous,” and his discussion of goodness will turn to gibberish. He will tell you that all sin is the same, all sin is absolute, and that serial killers and saints are no different in the eyes of God. He will set aside all the passages of Scripture which declare that Noah was “blameless,” or that Abraham was “justified by works,” or that Lot was “just,” or that Job was “perfect” and “upright,” or that numerous kings of Israel “did that which was right in the sight of God,” or that St. John the Baptist was “just and holy,” or that Jesus Christ Himself spoke of “the righteous” on many occasions. Rather, he will claim with some pride that so far as God is concerned, our good works are nothing more than “filthy rags,” and that every act of generosity or charity in human history has been tainted by secretly selfish motives. He will tell you “only God is good” and that God refuses to “share His glory with another,” and then he will prove to you just how holy God is by describing the kind of eternal and excruciating torture a man deserves for committing the most trivial of sins. In fact, God’s goodness is more or less incomprehensible apart from fantasies wherein elaborate pain is dreamed up for the most benign of sinners, as though the louder such suffering is declared “deserved,” the more clearly God’s goodness is seen. The wickedness of man is so complete and so total that God is either incapable or unwilling to enable man to do good. Any passage in Scripture which seems to suggest that what a man does with his life actually matters is written off by the atoning work of Christ, for we do not believe Christianity is a religion which helps a man fight temptation, but a religion which helps man get away with evil. We are apt to say these things when studying the Atonement or the Fall, and then turn around and expect our sons and daughters to wash the dishes, study hard, refrain from drugs, read their Bibles, abstain from pornography, and keep dignified opinions on art and music. We castigate “man pleasers,” condemn selfishness, tell our children that God cannot be pleased, but then tell our children to not behave like animals. For whom?
Our problem stems not from an ignorance or disinterest in goodness, for so long as he is not pretending to be a theologian, the average Christian speaks of Goodness with genuine common sense. So far as the moral instruction of our children is concerned, then, every time we step into a church nave we take back everything we have said in our homes. Our children come to see virtue not as a necessity, but as the preference of adults, for the vices of teenagers tend to complicate the lives of their parents. Having proven to our children with theology and Scripture that good works do not ultimately matter, or that good works are impossible, we instruct them not to cheat, lie, steal, or curse. Telling our children that Christ has commanded us not to do these things does not so much dignify the law as it makes Christ’s commands seem arbitrary. When I have made this complaint in the past, I have often heard it said there must be two kinds of morality, two kinds of Goodness, and that when we tell a child to “be good,” such goodness has nothing to do with what Scripture means when it speaks of Goodness. However, if the Goodness spoken of in Scripture has nothing to do with telling a child to “be good,” what passages in Scripture are actually about our lives? When Solomon writes of trees, rivers, the wicked, the king, the seasons, and the heart of a child, we take him at face value, and yet when he writes about “the righteous man,” he is speaking in mere abstractions? This strikes me as profoundly arbitrary, although perhaps arbitrariness is simply an ingrained habit of modern religiosity.
The goal of education is to grow the student in virtue, and Christians of different ecclesiastical traditions already agree on what the virtues are: faith, hope, love, wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. But why seek after the virtues? This is the divisive question.
While “I made dinner tonight for my family” may not strike you as an impious statement, we are living in strange days, and from time to time I make some benign claim about a good thing I have done and find those around me taking up theological arms. In the last twenty years, significant changes have struck the grammar and vocabulary of American homiletics. If I am not mistaken, many Christians now want to hear “I made dinner for my family tonight with the help of the Holy Spirit.” We are not always insistent on that pious little postscript, although, once again, an open Bible nearby will spook us. We are sometimes willing to overlook a purely secular claim of having made dinner, but if a man finally beats an addiction to liquor, or stays faithful to his wife in the midst of a separation, or even if he makes a focused effort to not curse and enjoys a modicum of success, we insist God be openly, directly, and singly named as the source of that success. We are dismissive of the methods, programs, prayers, habits, and ascetic practices a man uses to overcome temptation because we believe any attention given to such things takes attention away from God, Who is entirely, directly, and simply responsible for the success. The Holy Spirit is not a co-laborer, but a direct cause. Similarly, if a former drunk describes the day in which he “came to his senses” and realized his life and liver were ending one bottle at a time, many Christians are offended that he has quit liquor “for himself, and not for God.”
Most Christians draw a heavy line between doing something “for yourself ” and doing something “for God,” and with good cause. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ teaches that those who do their good works before men “have received their reward” (Matt. 6:2), but those who do their good works in secret will be rewarded by their Father in Heaven. We have a choice, then, between being repaid for our good works by men or God. The choice is entirely our own to make. Rewards are pleasant, and so we may either enjoy a life full of rewards now, or else perform our good works in such a way as to defer payment until a later point. Christ confirms that it is better to wait in pain and hope. We should note that Christ simply assumes human beings are interested in doing good works, even while their motivations for doing good are diverse. However, the righteous man does not perform his good works with an ignorance or disinterest in their outcome. Neither does the righteous man lack a motivation to do good, for in the Sermon on the Mount, Christ lays out simple, forthright strategies for His disciples to follow that they might pray, fast, and give alms unto eternal rewards, and not be robbed of lasting rewards by cheap earthly imitations.
Christian conversations about good works have become sadly entangled with secular notions of altruism. Many Christians now assume that a good work is only genuinely good if the man who performs it has no thought of any good it might ultimately bring him, even if that good is union with God in Heaven. We are worried by the idea that there is any advantage in doing good works, because if there is, then we shall have to feel bad about not doing them.
Nihilism has become so ingrained in American Christian ethics that the idea we should do good works “for God” is interchangeable with the idea we should do good works “for no reason at all.” Within such a framework, even the idea that putting your faith in God offers some benefit becomes questionable. If we should not think of the rewards God will give for acts of love, why should we think of there being any benefit to faith—confident, though we are, that we are saved by faith alone? The idea that we should do our good works “for God” is desperately in need of investigation, then. When I do the dishes “for my wife,” I mean that my wife will benefit from my doing work that she would otherwise be doing. Because I am doing the dishes, my wife Paula can read a book, and given that reading a book is a leisurely activity and doing the dishes is mere labor, my willingness to do something low allows my wife to do something lofty. But what does it mean to do something “for God”? If Paula is benefitted by the things done “for Paula,” is God similarly benefitted by the things done “for God”? And yet, Paula enjoys things done “for her” because she is a finite person, with limited resources of time and energy. When I do the dishes for her, I have saved her time, energy, and hassle. The omnipresent God cannot benefit from saved time, though, for God is beyond time. Neither can an omnipotent being enjoy saved energy, nor can an omnibenevolent being enjoy a reduction of hassle. Who then is benefitted by good works performed “for God”?
When we are not performing our good works “for God,” we occasionally perform them “for God’s glory,” though it is difficult to say which of these expressions is the more under-explored. Too often, claims of doing this or that “for God’s glory” liken God to a massive orb of light somewhere in outer space which glows just a little brighter whenever we pray or give to the poor. The selfless nature of a good work is thus proved by its ultimate irrelevance, given that no human being will ever see the divine orb of light glow brighter. Granted, such a suggestion sounds absurd, but does the average American Christian know any better what exactly happens to God when we glorify Him? Is there some deficiency in God’s glory that human beings must add to it? This does not sound proper, but if man cannot add to the glory of an infinite God, what does it mean to act “for the glory of God”? What exactly is glory, and if we cannot add to the glory of God’s being, where exactly does the glorification of God occur?
Human separation from God is further confirmed in our desolate, lonely understanding of what it means that Christ “died on our behalf.” While nothing in human history could establish deeper bonds of unity between man and God, our fear of good works has led us to reimagine the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as God’s supreme act of alienation. Christ did what we cannot do, and the perfection of Christ reveals all our good works as filthy rags in the sight of God. Christ has not empowered us to do good works, or to enjoy divine love. Rather, Christ has done all the good works and the Cross is little more than a divine optical illusion whereby the Father looks at the Son but sees Man. There is no theosis, but an intentional bureaucratic error on God’s part, of which we are the witless beneficiaries. No real transformation occurs, no real rebirth, and no change, merely the appearance of all three. Christ dies “on our behalf,” but He nonetheless commands His followers to take up their crosses and follow Him. When we treat the Lordship of Jesus Christ as a fact to be proved, a conclusion, and a telos, the Christian life is not a race to be zealously run in pursuit of a prize, but a run-down-the-clock situation wherein we have only to make our stay on planet Earth as pleasant as possible. And yet, the greatest saints and artists in Christian history have had little interest in proving Christ is Lord. Rather, the Lordship of Christ is a given, and they live and move in that belief. The Lordship of Christ is not the sum total of an equation, but the first line of a sprawling, unpredictable novel of spiritual liberty.
Whether or not we believe imitating the selfless works of Christ will do us any good, most American Christians approve of selflessness principally as it benefits the community. Recent broad cultural shifts away from corporate aesthetics and toward DIY aesthetics and localism have trickled down into American churches, and we now speak of “Church” and “church community” interchangeably. That which “fosters community,” “builds community,” and “furthers community” is sought for its own sake. “Community” is just insular enough to confer identity, but also democratic, fraternal, and sufficiently penetrable to be welcoming. The principal value of the Church is thus that of creating enclaves of likeminded individuals who weep and mourn together, and who are willing to bring soup to one another in the event of illness or bereavement. Likewise, any dogma which threatens the breadth of the community is viewed with suspicion or hostility. Giving offense is the greatest blasphemy, then, for nothing corrupts community like “a brother offended.” The greatest ethereal blessing of the Resurrection is life eternal, but the greatest earthly boon of the Resurrection is simply the creation of an implausible fact, which, once accepted, graduates believers into a club of persons who aid one another economically and emotionally. However, the Christian stuck in solitary confinement or marooned alone on an island is bereft of any chance to help his friends, share the Gospel, or weep with those who weep. Neither are there any more icons to kiss, any more priests to hear confession, any more sacraments to receive in faith. He must confront God the way we all shall one day. He must meet God in his heart, in his very being.