Thursday, 24 January 2019

Don't Replace "God" With "Good"

An image of the statue of "God the Father" at Saint Saviour's Cathedral, Bruges, fading from the top right to the bottom left into an off-white background with an image of yellow "smiley" with a "thumbs up" gesture.
This might seem a strange title for me. After all, I rarely use the word “God” in reference to my own beliefs – surely I should be happy to see it used less? Well, yes and no.
Let's start by setting some context. I don't want to see Quakers stop using the word God, let's get that clear. I do think sometimes we should think about whether it's the right word to use in any given situation, especially in corporate statements, but I'm all about using the full range of language in our collective writing. I think there's lots of other words and phrases we can use, and they should more or less all get a look in.
Except “good”. Especially when people are trying to make the classic quote, “that of God in every one” less theistic. I've written before about the problems with that most well-loved phrase, especially our use of it out of context, but even setting that aside, “that of God (or good) in every one” twists it even further. It can't help but do so – even if we can construct a non-theist understanding of “that of God” (which we can, of course), “that of good” isn't it. Isn't within a mile of it.
If we're going to try to express the concept in a way which makes clear that it can be conceived of under wildly different theological bases, let's do it in a way that tries to capture as much of the meaning as possible. “There's some good in everyone” is a very different idea than “there is some divine essence in everyone”, and pretending otherwise only perpetuates most egregious misunderstandings of the phrase.
Even taking “that of God” in a way that is divorced from its original context, it's not about there being some goodness in everyone. It is certainly not, as some seem to suppose, suggesting that everyone is in some way expressing either goodness or godliness, even if it is dwarfed by some selfishness or evil. People sometimes say, and I've heard and read many variations on this, “I struggle to see that of God in Hitler”, and I have to say that reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the idea. For starters, the original quote does not call on us to look for “that of God” in every one, much less to see it. It calls on us to speak to it, which is not the same – but if I continue down that path, I'll regurgitate my previous post in a different tone, which would be of little value.
That of God” isn't part of us, ourselves, at least not in the usual sense. It's not part of our personality, our emotional make-up, or our behaviour. It's not our knowledge or our conduct, our inclinations or aversions. Some Quakers might see that it's fundamentally “us” rather than fundamentally “not-us”, and some will say very much the opposite, and I won't call one right and the other wrong. I will say that, whichever might be right (and it might be neither), to whatever extent it is “us” it's a very deep, deep part of us that we don't have conscious ownership of, and that we can usually ignore if we choose. For that matter, that choice can be quite unconscious.
Was there good in Hitler? I don't know. Probably was once, at least. Frankly, there were far worse villains in the Third Reich; Hitler was just a good figurehead, more than anything else. I rather think that, misguided as he was, old Adolf did think he was doing good for “his people”, skewed as his understanding of that term might be. There was mostly certainly something of God in him, though, no doubt buried deep where he could best ignore it.
By any conventional understanding, there was far more good in Martin Luther King Jr than in Hitler, or Augusto Pinochet, or any number of villains – always bearing in mind that many villains don't see themselves as such. There was no more of God in him, though. The presence and essence of the Divine is not reflected in our acts or demeanour; those, rather, reflect (among other things) the degree to which we have allowed it to guide us, consciously or unconsciously. Our goodness is diluted or sullied by the wrong things we do, and we all do some things wrong (it's not hard to find explanations of the sullied nature of such lauded figures as Mohandas Gandhi or Mary Teresa Bojaxhiu, even though they be called “great-souled” or “saint” by their communities). Our godliness cannot be sullied.
Even from the simple, almost crass standpoint of rhetoric, of choosing language to communicate powerfully – to move people – so much is lost by saying good rather than God. God is, fundamentally, a great mystery, a mystical concept. Whatever words or conception we have for the idea, it is intuitively felt to be beyond our grasp. It is far easier to think about, to have a feeling that one understands, what it is to be good. It is even a matter we feel capable of judging in others. God, though, is a matter of Divine mystery.
Most importantly, I feel, when someone said or wrote something, let's quote it – if we quote it at all – faithfully, and not put words in their mouth that they never said, not add words that were never there. “That of God in every one” is a much-loved phrase, and most of us nontheists don't want to get rid of it. We shouldn't try to twist it into something that suits our experience better. It came from the experience of a certain person, in a certain time and place, and we should let it be faithful to that. Let each of us find our own way to say it, and not try to replace anyone else's. We can all be true to our own experience of the Divine without treading on anyone else's experience. Let us live our lives faithfully, and let that Divine essence in each of us reach up and out and be expressed in our own ways, and see how it flowers in others, and celebrate it all.
The Light comes in many shades, and is made more beautiful by the myriad changes it experiences as it shines through one surface, and reflects off another. Let us love and value all of them, and learn all we can learn, understand all we can understand, experience all we can, witness all we can. Then we can be friends to one another, as well as Friends of the Truth – and perhaps, ultimately, Friends of the whole World.
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