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Friday, April 06, 2007

Good for goodness sake???

John left this comment over at the post on Ethical Egotism:

The non-Christians are self-centered, as are many of the self-proclaimed Christians. So does the circle of the elect gets smaller? Alternatively, if the non-Christian follows a Christian ethic without expecting to receive any of the promised benefits (eternal life being the big one, no doubt about it), then is this non-Christian less self-centered than the Christian? I know, I know, it's pride and the desire to achieve righteousness on your own. So say this non-Christian isn't even laying any claims to righteousness -- just doing the right thing because it's right.

Here's my response. I'm making it a new post because we are entering the territory where theology and sanctification intersect:

Interestingly enough, John, I think we are now entering Derridean territory. Specifically, I'm thinking of his philosophy of the Gift and Forgiveness (something we recently blogged on a bit here.)

Derrida claims the impossibility of purely giving a gift or of pure forgiveness. Pure forgiveness would only be possible for something that is truly unforgivable. With the Gift (and correct me if you see things otherwise) you always have some kind of economy of exchange at work whereby you always receive something in return in some way.

If we apply this to the Good do we have a similar philosophy?

Like you I initially think it is possible for someone to do a good thing simply for the sake of doing good. But is there something like an economy of goodness at work? Is doing a good thing similar to giving a gift? Often the two are synonymous, particularly when the good thing we are doing is an act of goodness for someone else.

Is there a "pure good work" that can be done? Is there something good we can do without engaging in some sort of economy of goodness? Can I really give money to someone or care for the poor/sick or selflessly do a good thing? This seems to me to be very closely related to the gift because "doing good" is so often a giving of ourselves in some way. In fact, can we conceive of good deeds that do not involve some sort of giving of.

Now, if we are going this direction it completely blows open Christian theology. Because on this construction the believer would probably be even more susceptible to being involved in an economy of goodness than would be the non-believer. Why? Because for the believer there is a much higher expectation of goodness. We build many sanctification theologies around the theory that as believers we should be better than we were before. But what if life doesn’t pan out that way? In Christian communities (particularly conservatives – believe me I know these kinds of circles like the back of my hand) there are also areas of sin and temptation that are unspeakable. In other words, there are “sins” and then there are “really bad sins.” No one may actually use this terminology, but it is present in the culture of the church.


Melody said...

I sort of have a problem with the idea that it is only in theory that christians should be better than before.

If there's no change, what was the point? The idea of christianity as a fire escape is discouraged throughout the bible (Shall we continue in sin that grace may about? Certainly not! How shall we who have died to sin live any longer in it? - Romans 6, Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works - James 2:18).

Jonathan Erdman said...

Ouch! You're using my favorite verse against me!! ---->>>here's me taking arrows in my heart<<<----

I love James 2! It's the verses that tell us that faith is actually faithfulness. Faith must be something that happens - it is something we do.

But, let me ask you this: How many Christians have you met (besides me!) that have mastered pure faithfulness???

Melody said...

If you're going to be so easily impaled you might bring up different topics on your blog. Like bunnies or flowers.

No, I've never met anyone who has mastered pure faithfulness...and the bible never gives us any hope that we are capable of such an act.

That doesn't change the fact that we are to be more faithful when we believe than when we did not.

We are held to a higher standard when we are christians than when we were not.

Contrary to popular the popular abuse of 2:10, all actions are not merely labled "right" and "wrong".

There are degrees. If the burner on your stove is merely set to warm rather than high heat you wouldn't look at it and say "Well there's no heat at all!" neither does God look at us and say "Well there's no faith at all!"

Contrary to the ideas that Derrida puts forth, that something must be pure before it counts, Jesus frequently told parable where people had varying levels of faith (the story of the talents) and in which there were varying levels of forgiveness (the person who owed 10 and the one who owed 1000 and they both were forgiven). Jesus makes note of the difference, but he never says one doesn't get to use that term because it isn't pure.

Sorry, rambling. I'm not even sure where you're going with all of what you posted. I just think it sounds like you're saying there's black and there's white when there's nothing to make us think that.

samlcarr said...

Jonathan, perhaps Matt 25 would be applicable to your question. Jesus defines righteousness purely on the basis of righteous action and that ties in with some other things He said about good trees producing good fruit...

ktismatics said...

It's amazing that when push comes to shove anyone ever sets aside self-interest for some higher good. Do you have to become disinterested and abstract to transcend your self-interest? Maybe instead you have to have really broad empathic abilities, so that you really can see things from other people's perspectives. Here doing the right thing becomes personal, but from the other's perspective instead of your own.

You could imagine a version of Christian ethics that defines the good as what really is in your own best interests. Let's say that God is the only one who really knows what's good for you, and that He wants only the best for you. Let's also say that people make mistakes in trying to figure out what's good for them. To do the right thing,then, is to trust that what God wants you to do really will result in the best possible outcome for you: love, joy, peace, etc.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Good thoughts....I'll have to ruminate for a while and do some serious cogitation whilst I ponder the ramifications.....

ktismatics said...


I agree with your placing this discussion in the context of Derrida's "gift." A pure motive is like the horizon: you keep approaching it but you never get any closer to it. You never reach the definitive line where earth ends and heaven begins. You can never get off the ground. You keep walking in a straight line but you're really walking in a circle.

samlcarr said...

"I know, I know, it's pride and the desire to achieve righteousness on your own"

Funny, but Romans has a different take on this: 2:13 "ou gar hoi akroatai nomou dikaioi para to theo, all' hoi poietai nomou dikaiotheesontai".

So, the motivation of obedience to the law does not matter, only the motivation and the act of righteousness.

Accumulating 'treasure in heaven' is often used in a transactional-economic sense but I think Jesus exclusively used that analogy for seeking God's kingdom.

Jonathan Erdman said...

So, Melody, you want us to keep pressing on and making ground and becoming more and more faithful, even if we can't ever quite get there.


Sam, you're citing passages where motivations are not really in view: Just do it. Do good and good follows. From a good tree comes good fruit. And in Romans there is certainly a legal aspect to doing good. We are judged on good works, etc. Again, it is the act that counts and not so much the motives behind the act.


But that brings me back around to questioning whether or not Christians are more susceptible to falling into an economy of goodness and having motivations that are actually less pure than a non-believer. We should be making progress. We are expected to be gaining ground. If we don't there is something wrong with us. So, we easily get trapped in a show-and-tell Christianity whereby we do good things in order to prove to ourselves and others around us that we are Christians. When the jack-ass in traffic cuts us off we don't give them the finger because, after all, we've got a "Honk if you love Jesus" bumper sticker. Should we give people the finger just to show the world that we are human and that we get pissed off just like everybody else?

All this is not to take away from the point that we should be getting better, bearing good fruit, living out the faith, etc., etc. I am just pointing out that it is precisely because of this expectation of progress that makes us susceptible to falling into impure motivations. We do these things so that people will know that we are Christians. Or we don't do certain other things (give that idiot the bird) because Christians don't do those things. But then we are falling into an economy of impure motivations. It's a quid pro quo. We do good so that people will think good about us or about the Christian faith. It's a give and take. An exchange. But somewhere along the way we lose sight of the purity of doing good.....

Maybe we should keep trying to have good motives, but is it a pointless exercise? And if we are trying to have good motives it begs the question of why we are trying to have good motives. The motives for the motives. Geez, maybe John is right and it's a great big, crazy circle....

samlcarr said...

I was asking from a slightly different perspective without being properly explicit about it and that's causing some confusion.

Good doing = righteousness.
Good doers are righteous.

The definition of a righteous person depends on their 'natural' action, i.e. it is implicit that as God is the judge, God knows the heart/motivation etc. and these aspects are an inclusive part of the action itself - out of what is really inside springs our action.

Jonathan Erdman said...

"What really inside springs our action"

So, then that begs John's question about whether an unbeliever can do anything out of their 'natural' action that is pure. You referenced Romans 2, which would imply you are leaning towards saying that a non-believer can do something as "righteous" and as a "good doer". Is that where you are going???

Traditionally, theologians would go to Romans 3 and say that everyone does things from wrong motives....but then once you become a believer and are regenerated you can start doing things from pure motivations. This second part is what I am questioning, and I'm going so far as to say that believer's motivations might be even more impure and tainted simply because we have mposed upon ourselves (rightly or wrongly) the pressure to perform.

samlcarr said...

Yes, Paul builds an intricate argument. I'm not really disagreeing with John, in fact I think he's got to the essence of what Jesus demands of his disciples, to lose their own selves by placing His concerns first - thus taking up their crosses to follow Him. One could call that overidingly empathic!