I’m not sure how I got on the mailing list of the newsletter from the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at USC, but many of the brief articles reporting on the Institute’s activities and research are quite interesting.
Take the one-page “Good Without God?” for example. The Institute’s director, Fr. James Heft, SM, has a conversation with the USC chaplain, former Evangelical minister and now secular humanist, Bart Campolo. The two discuss the nature of morality for people of faith and people of no faith. Of course, the discussion depended on one’s definition of “goodness.” Campolo said that being good meant “how we treat our fellow men and women” Fr. Heft agreed but said that belief in Christ helped him to be a better person.
Most Christians with any self-honesty at all, sooner or later, confront the fact that Christians have no franchise on goodness. People of other faiths far surpass Christians in goodness very often; likewise, people of no faith at all, people with just a belief in goodness, whether they call it “secular humanism” or not. The notion that there are Christians and then there are “bad people” is not only naïve and childish but downright destructive, even sinfully so.
Scripture references abound: the Pharisee praying next to the breast-beating tax collector in the temple is not just an admonition against self-righteousness or a lesson in the virtue of humility; it’s also a profound caution against comparing oneself with others. And that’s a much harder lesson to learn in a culture that constantly compares (read: competes in) just about everything—including goodness.
Father Heft seems to think that being “in love … forms the deepest foundation for moral behavior.” Perhaps. But one can be in love with humanity, or even with goodness itself, thereby creating a false god. Many saints have been in love with God and not exhibited goodness in any particular way. Not all saints are replications of Mother Teresa; some live their whole lives in strict enclosure.
It may be that goodness is simply, in secular language, an innate trait of some people, varying in degree and having nothing in particular to do with religion of any kind. In Christian language, perhaps goodness is a grace, a gift from God, who reserves for himself the right to choose those on whom he will bestow it. Rather like rain—another Scriptural reference given by our Lord himself, or the healing of a Syrian from leprosy while many Jews were left unhealed.
I think, for Christians, the notion of comparing is far more deserving of our attention. When we compare one thing with another thing, what is our purpose? That’s a more serious question and far more worthy of meditation: Why are you comparing? Is there some kind of contest going on? Who is the judge?