Monday, January 18, 2016

What is good?

January of last year I resolved to attend Mass once a month, something I didn’t do. So this year I didn’t make that resolution, but it doesn’t mean I don’t want to find a church.

It seems to me that with respect to our view on life, we fall into one of two categories. Either we believe we are here by accident or we believe we’re part of a designed creation. That is to say we’re either atheists or believers in some religion.

In the past, I’ve said I was an agnostic, but that’s not a third alternative. Agnostics can’t make up their mind about which of the two alternatives to go with. Perhaps I could edge (despondently) into the atheists’ camp if science could nail down a theory to explain the origin of the universe (even if another universe preceded the Big Bang, where did it come from?). Whatever the science, I would have trouble believing that life, whether that of an individual, nation, world, or universe, exists as coincidence.

Since I believe life evolved deliberately, it behooves me to try to live according to a purpose beyond my understanding. Where will I get worthwhile values and judgments? Where can I look for help to decide what is right and what is wrong? I might say, “They got it wrong,” about ISIS adherents who commit suicide in service to their belief. But if a suicide advances a “right” belief, is it “wrong”? Was it “wrong” for an Allied soldier to kill a Nazi?

I’ve tried to set a standard for right, or good, as whatever improves the plight of myself and/or my fellow person. Or conversely, wrong, or bad, is whatever is damaging. But that standard is undermined by the vagaries of improve and damage, and this is not just semantics.

I might think it is “right” to support building a new hospital or homeless shelter, but what if it forces other people out of their homes? Is it “wrong” to go on a shopping spree instead of volunteering at the local school? Or to throw away good food when children in other places are starving? Or drive a car and destroy the ozone? What about owning oil stocks? How can I recognize when I am being materialistic or self-obsessed when those attributes are characteristic of my culture?

This is going a long way to say that I want ethical guidance, despite my abiding distrust of being guided by a religion. Any religion that is confident it knows the mind of God is frightening. And holy writ, such as the Bible, Torah, or Koran, is not the final authority on God. Even inspired interpretation of these texts can lead to antiquated dogma.

My husband says there are two sides to every argument. Which can be understood to mean that in every dispute, both sides are right and wrong. What is right and what is wrong hangs in an inscrutable balance. Given the limitations of my knowledge of the world, I can’t depend on myself alone to make “right” decisions.

Perhaps I’ll attend Mass again—with a view to taking to heart what I can and leaving on the altar what I can’t. At that, I’ll have to trust my conscience to decide what to take and what to leave.


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