There is something hopeful about the optimism of those who believe that a pattern of goodness can be found in the lives of most people. Generosity, love, kindness, and empathy are all human traits, after all. It has been said, most famously by Abraham Maslow, that humans primarily and fundamentally seek their survival and self interest. Sociologists will tell us the same. But if you look at the world around you, I think you will see plenty of people who place the needs of others before their own for reasons which do not entirely match a clear personal interest.
Say what you will, but I believe that there is something basic in humanity which desires justice and The Good. Many times, we are confused about how to accomplish this. But most people desire this; most people put some effort into this. And when you see things this way, to judge the world seems a bit callous and unsympathetic.
There's a problem. It's possible to use the exact same methods to arrive at the opposite conclusion.
If you look at most people's lives, you can find a pattern of mistakes as easily as a pattern of positive acts. So many times, we seek immediate pleasure/gain instead of a wise, long-term choice that benefits others. We degrade our bodies with overeating, chemical dependencies, and STDs. We smudge our personalities with little lies, with pride, and with jealousy. Does this sort of thing happen all the time in our lives? Maybe not. But if we look for patterns of consistency and find generosity, love, and kindness, we will probably also find things that we regret.
But we don't want to be bad people. After all, we are in a tough world. We struggle just to make sense of life; things sometimes happen which make our life very hard. On the pothole-riddled road of life, it's not surprising that we get a little bent. Life is a bit like a boxing match. If you're going to survive, you sometimes have to hit back.
Ok. It's possible to see a pattern of good intentions and deeds in most people's lives. It's also to see a pattern of rather regrettable things in a person's life.
Hmm. Maybe this whole "looking for patterns" isn't such a great thing after all. Because if you want to measure how good a person is, how do you do it? How do you measure? Motives? Net good? We have a hard enough time sorting out our own motives, and we can't really know what "would have happened otherwise."
What do we do then? Most people just try to make the best we can of life. Is that enough?
We live in pluralistic times, and this is a good thing. People are much less certain about what they believe. At its worst, pluralism paralyzes people and keeps them from making any decisions. But at its best, it makes us more wise; we research, consider, and weigh the issues before making a choice. We can understand complexity.
I am a pluralist in most areas because I know my limitations. I understand that I cannot fully understand. This is why I try to learn from others as much as possible; their ideas and perspectives are as valuable to me as the finest gem. And yet, there is one absolute I am not willing to equivocate: the ideal of perfection. Otherwise, how could I claim to see the existence of wrong and injustice in the world?
I don't care if there is an ideal chair somewhere in an imaginary dimension. But I know there is an ideal person. And I know that this person is most definitely not me.
The thought that there is a best choice keeps me up at night, mostly because I know I can't make it. I'm just some guy. As Shakespeare put it in "As You Like It,"
This wide and universal theatre
Presents more woful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play in.[...]
All the world's a stage,
and all the men and women merely players
They have their entrances and their exits,
And one man in his time plays many parts[....],
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
How can I, a little chunk of biological material in the ecology of the universe, know what to do?
Religions often tell us that they have the answer, that they have a way to survive a destiny "sans everything." Often, it's something about being a good person or living a "righteous" life.
But when we look at the religions, it's not hard to see that they often do more harm than good. It looks like people all over, even the ones who organize and try very hard to do the right thing, can make very bad mistakes.
Christianity claims to have the answer.
This is why Christianity is so scary. The Bible doesn't talk about living a good life and trying your best. It talks about holiness. This is an entirely different concept.
What is holiness? It's something that can't be easily described in words. Here's what the prophet Isaiah said about the time he met someone who was holy...
"Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory."
At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
"Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty."
What would it be like to meet a perfect being, one who has absolute power but for whom power is not a corrupting force? What would it be like to know someone who was mocked, beaten, and killed, even though he held the lives of his accusers in the palm of his hand?
Is there something in this universe that is so pure, so amazingly perfect that the mere sight of it -- or him -- would induce this reaction?
If so, how could we survive? If this is our destiny, is not oblivion a better end?
The other part of Isaiah's story is haunting. This is what he says:
Is it really possible that the Divine has the power to absolve, and make people holy? Christianity claims it. Do Christians believe it? Can they really live it?
Do religious people really think of the stakes in this holiness business?
Christianity is pretty impudent to assert that holiness is possible.
What if they're right?