Each one of us contributes to the improvement or degradation of our culture. In order to decide which of our actions are positive and which are negative, we have to establish a basis for deciding what is good and what is evil. Without such a basis, how could we possibly decide whether our activities are making things better or worse. Even with such a basis, we may struggle to demonstrate that our actions are making a desirable contribution and are without unintended consequences that negate the good we strove for.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote: “Without God all things are permissible.” Let us consider some alternatives to Dostoyevsky’s proposition.
- There is no God, but some things are not permissible. We could say, “The universe as we perceive it was not created by anyone or anything. It came into being out of nothing with assistance from nothing. We see it change. So we may ask what is the desirable future state of the universe? We humans are sentient beings, and perhaps there are others. Each of us desires pleasure, and not pain. Yet, we see that maximizing our pleasure may require us to defer some immediate enjoyment and apply ourselves to uncomfortable tasks. Tilling a field and planting a crop may not be pleasurable, and yet having enough to eat presumes that it must be done. We can persuade or coerce someone else to do the necessary work and share the produce with us. We could also simply wait for others to decide that the work is necessary for their own welfare, and then steal all or some of their produce from them. We are aware that we do not wish to be coerced or stolen from, but we decide that it is no problem for us to treat others that way. We would be acting in accord with the natural world. The cat allows the mouse to forage for food and grow fat, then the cat can simple eat the mouse. A bear may wait for bees to collect plant nectar and turn it into honey, and then simply take the honey for the bears own sustenance. Generally, we do not see the cat as a murderer or the bear as a thief. Many civilizations adopted the idea that work was a necessary evil, and best done by slaves. Slavery is coercion. An elite could enjoy the fruits of the slave’s labor while leaving only enough to ensure survival of the slaves so that the work could continue. The decision as to who should be a slave and who should enjoy elite status is made arbitrarily, and is usually backed by force. These sorts of arrangements have been common enough over the centuries, and even in our present age, quite a bit of social structure seems to support a version of this. In the 21st century, in America and a number of other economically advanced countries, there is a strong sentiment that it is not permissible to force others into a form of slavery, nor is it acceptable to allow some to steal the fruits of others labors. Yet, there is also a strong belief that some provision be made for those who are unable to work to create their own produce. Yet slavery and stealing are far from rare even now, even in the rich countries.
One proposal is that the moral behavior is necessary to maximize happiness among the general populous. Yet, why should I care about anyone other than myself or those whom I choose to include in my inner circle? Why is maximizing happiness a worthy goal? Another idea is that the continued existence of any given group of us depends on all of us working according to certain principles. But again, what do I care whether our race continues to exist beyond my own life time. Perhaps if we presume that I care for my own children, we can make an argument for urging kinds of cooperation that will enable them to have a future. How many generations shall I give such consideration to? To the best of my knowledge, all will live and die, generation after generation until such time as some cataclysmic event beyond our control destroys the entire species. Whether it is an asteroid hitting the earth, the sun burning out, or some other unforeseeable catastrophe, it seems likely that only a finite number of generations will survive me. And even if only three of four generations survive me, it is likely that they will have forgotten me and my contribution to their survival. I’ll have no more meaning to them than the longstanding existence of sun and rain. I will simply be a primal force of the past that contributed to their future, anonymous and unheralded.
Logic, tradition, compassion. All may be ignored. If the one who ignores them is disapproved of by the majority of the human race, so what? Does the majority presume the right to enforce their ideas on the majority? Even if they presume that right, do they necessarily have the ability to coerce the minority into operating by principles that the minority eschew?
2. There is a God, creator of the universe, and all things are permissible. God has either no preference regarding morals or no ability to intervene if he does has a preference. It seems we are in the same predicament as the previous scenario. Why should we pay any attention to someone who attempts to coerce us into adopting the same code they choose to live by.
3. There is a God, creator of the universe, who intervenes in human affairs in order to make them suffer or not at his whim. He is all powerful. His moral law is non existent, or non-comprehensible, to those he has created. Well, now we may be blessed or cursed, but we are without recourse. Have a nice life!
4. There is a God, creator of the universe, who has designed that universe to operate according to moral principles that he has communicated to us. He punishes those who transgress those principles. Even assuming we have been diligent in understanding the principles he has communicated to us, can any of us really claim to never have violated those principles. Are there those among us who operate flawlessly and need fear no punishment?
5. There is a God, creator of the universe, who has communicated moral principles necessary for peace and joy to prevail in the universe. God ignores or forgives those who violate his principles. Pain and sorrow exist, and will continue as long as the universe does.
No doubt some of us will do our best to operate by his principles, but we are aware that we will fail. Some of us or all of us will fail to some degree. Perfection is never attained. In the face of perpetual pain and suffering, some choose to do whatever seems best to them to gain whatever momentary pleasure they may.
6. There is a God, creator of the universe, he has communicate moral principles that will enable us to live in peace and joy. He is aware that we fail to obey to principles. He arranges for a sacrifice at great cost to himself that will enable us to turn to him and accept forgiveness for our failures. Further, he arranges for his spirit to dwell in us and guides us if we are willing to accept that help. What is more, he has put a limit on the time that we will have to live in a world where we struggle and fail. He will make all things new, including those of us who have failed to obey, but have asked for his forgiveness and help to do better. This is the Christian universe. All things are not permissible. God has given us both forgiveness for failing to obey and means for doing better. It all depends on our being willing to live in relationship with him, acknowledging his as our Lord (Boss, King, Ultimate Leader, etc.) and as our Savior (friend, lover of our souls, who is able to make all things right).
I once saw an interview with Richard Dawkins, an atheist who scoffs at the idea that God exists or is necessary to the order of things. And yet, in that interview, he was asked if he would like to be granted eternal life. No, he said, probably 10,000 years or so would be more than enough. Even that may predicated on the idea that his pleasures will outweigh his pain and suffering as those 10,000 years pass. Why stop at 10,000? We may get 10 or 100, as things stand. Is a 1000 too little. 100,000 too much? Why? It seemed to me that at some level, Dawkins is aware that things are not right in this universe, and to exist in it eternally would be hellish if their were no hope to an end to it all.
It has been said that this life is the closest that those who reject Christ will come to experiencing heaven, and that it is the closest that those who accept Christ will come to experiencing hell. It is hope in an eternity where all is made right that can help us to endure this life where so much is wrong. May God have mercy on those who are blind to his existence and his plan for us. May those who are blind, make the necessary choices to enable them to see.
Our only hope for making a meaning contribution in this life is to understand God and his plan for us and to serve him as best we can, by his grace, using gifts that are all from him.