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George Floyd and the Problem of Goodness
Since last week’s ‘worthless cockroach’ post, I’ve been thinking more about goodness and evil, and what a problem they are for our world.
The Problem of Evil we know very well. He often pops up and starts making a noise after a particularly catastrophic event: “How can you believe in a so-called good and powerful God”, he asks accusingly, “when this kind of thing happens?” (where ‘this’ can be a global pandemic, or a child’s cancer, or the senseless, unjust death of George Floyd).
Sometimes the Problem of Evil has a smug, self-satisfied demeanour about him—as if he is the clever and righteous person for having noticed how bad evil is, whereas Christians are dumb and monstrous for perpetuating their belief in a good creator God.
Exhibit A in this respect is Stephen Fry (once described by Julie Birchill as “a stupid person’s idea of a clever person”). In a 2015 television interview, Fry famously excoriated God for being “a capricious, mean-minded, stupid” deity, for having created a world with so much suffering and injustice. “It’s perfectly apparent that he is monstrous. Utterly monstrous and deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish him, life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living in my opinion.”
However, what Fry and most mouthpieces for the Problem of Evil don’t seem to realise is that whenever the Problem of Evil comes trip-trapping over the bridge, his bigger and more difficult elder brother, the Problem of Goodness, is not far behind. And the Problem of Goodness is not one that we think about very often. In some ways, that’s what my post last week was about—the fact that even as Christians we sometimes struggle with the idea of goodness within our world, or within ourselves.
Goodness is particular problem for the modern God-banishing world, of which Stephen Fry is just one particularly articulate example.
Evil can only be said to exist (and thus be a problem) if it describes the absence or destruction of some ‘good’. That’s what evil is. It’s when the good thing that is the life of George Floyd is cruelly and senselessly snuffed out. Floyd’s death is only really evil (and surely it is) if Floyd’s continued life is something really good that should not have been cut off. The ‘should not’ in that last sentence is very important. It demonstrates something that we, and all the protesters in their outrage, know to be true—that the goodness of George Floyd being alive is something real that imposes an obligation on those around him.
But if the goodness of people and things in our world is real, that presents a huge problem for Stephen Fry, and every modern God-banishing person.
The English ethicist Oliver O’Donovan put his finger on this issue when he wryly observed that everyone who starts to think about morality and goodness and evil finds themselves pretty early on with a momentous decision to make. Is moral goodness and evil an objective thing that exists in the world—or not? When we sense or experience anything good or evil in the world, are we perceiving something real that is ‘out there’, beyond ourselves? Or are we merely projecting a set of personal preferences or feelings onto the blank screen of the world—preferences or feelings that we choose to call ‘good’ or ‘evil’, but which are only expressions of our minds?
If we say the latter, we find ourselves on a path to nihilism, banality and despair. There is no objective good that we can rejoice in together, nor evil that we can protest together. There are only my sensations and preferences, which I arbitrarily label ‘good’ or ‘evil’.
But if someone wishes to acknowledge that moral goodness and evil has a reality beyond our perceptions and thoughts—that it actually exists and is worth having or arguing about—then that person has stepped “despite himself, on to theological ground”, says O’Donovan.
This is the Problem of Goodness. If goodness doesn’t really exist, then neither does evil, and our outrage against injustice or suffering is a vacuous tantrum. But if goodness does actually exist, where on earth did it come from—if not from the hand of a good Creator? And if you banish that Creator, then you have also banished the possibility of anything being actually, really, objectively good.
And so the third, and biggest, billy goat gruff comes tramping over the bridge. The Problem of Evil is followed by its elder brother, the Problem of Goodness, who is followed in turn by the biggest brother of all, the Doctrine of the Good Creator.
For all the density and complexity of his writing, this is the simple truth that O’Donovan has been worrying away at in most of his work—that the world we inhabit really does have a moral order to it, a good-though-fallen order of kinds and purposes woven into its fabric and history by its Creator; an order that is misunderstood and misconstrued by humanity in our sinful rejection of the Creator; an order that Christ came to fulfil and redeem and renew by his death and resurrection. O’Donovan insists, quite rightly, that if you deny the reality of a good created order, nothing of moral importance makes much sense, including the gospel.
Which brings me, via the unlikely trio of George Floyd, Stephen Fry and Oliver O’Donovan, to Two ways to live (2wtl)—which is the main writing project I am working on at the moment (a fairly thorough review and revision of the whole 2wtl suite of resources).
I’ve been struck afresh over the past two weeks by how important it is to anchor the gospel in the doctrine of creation (as 2wtl does). Because what the death and resurrection of Christ means and achieves rests on the goodness of God as creator—in his loving good creation of us and all the world, on our sinful rebellion against him as the good creator and Lord of all, and on all the consequences that follow under God’s judgement, for us and the whole creation.
In some of my circles, 2wtl is not really flavour of the month any more. Which in one sense is fine—even the best resources might have a shelf life. But the reason that I’m keen to refresh and relaunch 2wtl is that it starts at the vital place where no other gospel outline that I know of starts—with the foundational doctrine of creation that explains the goodness and evil of the world, and of us. And in so doing, it explains why the death and resurrection of Jesus is such thoroughly good news.
Expect more in the coming weeks and months about Two ways to live! Working on it is forcing me to think afresh not only about the nature of the gospel itself and how we proclaim it (still a contested question, as it always has been), but also about the kind of equipping and training that Christians today need.
The O’Donovan reference is from Resurrection and Moral Order: An outline for evangelical ethics (Leicester: Apollos, 1994), p. 35.
I mentioned last week that I’d be launching a paid version of The Payneful Truth in the near future. You don’t have to do anything about it just yet, but when the time comes (I’ll be announcing the launch date soon), you’ll need to choose whether to become a ‘paying partner’ of The Payneful Truth, or stay on the free list. ‘Paying partners’ will get the journal every week (as both text and podcast/audio), as well as regular ‘Payneful extras’ (interviews, extra articles, advance excerpts from things I’m working on, and so on). And they will have the joy (and I’m not being ironic for once) of supporting my broader writing and training ministry. I’m thinking that the perfect Christian number for a ‘paying partnership’ might be $7 per month. What do you think?
If you’re not up for partnership, don’t worry. I’ll still be putting out a free post for everyone every three weeks or so—i.e. every third Payneful Truth will be for everyone; the rest for partners. Anyway, I’ll say more about all this in the coming weeks. (And in the meantime, if you haven’t yet signed up …)
So many images to choose from this week—but having gotten stuck into Stephen Fry, perhaps it is only fair to reference him at his brilliant and hilarious best. This snap is from one of my favourite ‘Fry and Laurie’ sketches on the ‘flexibility of language’.