Read an Excerpt
An Essential Guide
By Robin W. Lovin
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2000 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Everyone wants to have a good life. Aristotle (384–322 BC), the Greek philosopher who gave us Western civilization's first systematic treatise on ethics, thought that everything we do aims at some good. Ethics is the study of that human good in its most general terms and how we human beings pursue it. Because all of us are pursuing it, one way or another, ethics is a subject in which almost everyone is interested.
For many Christians living twenty-three centuries later, Aristotle's view still seems to fit our situation pretty well. Thinking about how to live a good life occupies a lot of our time and attention. We seek satisfying and enduring personal relationships with people who enjoy sharing the same activities we enjoy. We want to build comfortable homes and secure futures for our families. We try to do good work and advance in our careers. Because we know that a good life is not built on material things alone, we also think about improving our health and expanding our minds. We try to figure out whether the entertainment we watch and the products we buy belong in a good life. We worry about how the emotions we feel on the job and the things we sometimes have to do to get our jobs done relate to a good life. We think about people whose faces we see in the newspaper or on television, people whose lives have been shaken by war or violence or natural disasters, and we wonder how their needs relate to our lives.
As Christians, we learn much of what we know about the good life through participation in churches and through personal prayer and Bible study. We take many of our images and the language of our questions from the Bible, especially from Jesus' parables and lessons in the New Testament. We wonder whether we pay enough attention to people in need, whether they are around the corner or on the other side of the world, to live up to the ideal of compassion that we learn from the story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). We worry that we may become like the rich fool who built new barns to hold the abundance of his goods, but couldn't see the poverty in his relationship to God (Luke 12:13-21). We would rather be like Mary, who knew what was really important, than like Martha, who exhausted herself trying to do too many things at once (Luke 10:38-42). We try to sort out our obligations, and we wonder whether we are really giving Caesar what belongs to Caesar and giving God what belongs to God (Luke 20:20-26).
We think a lot about how to live good lives, and we worry a lot about the commitments and conflicts that get in the way of living well. Although our concerns are often voiced in specifically Christian language, we know that this search for inner peace, integrity in relationships, and genuine care for other people is widely shared by our neighbors, whether or not they share our Christian faith. Over coffee breaks at work, in parents' discussions at the public school, or just across the back fence on a weekend afternoon, we learn that the search for a good life is going on all around us. Increasingly, as travel, communication, and commerce shrink the globe and bring us into contact with people our grandparents never knew, we find that the questions that perplex us are being asked, perhaps in somewhat different ways, by people everywhere. Aristotle's ancient notion that seeking the good is something we all do seems to hold up well across the changes of history and the differences of culture.
Trying to live a good life is something that nearly everybody does. What they disagree about is what makes a life good.
What Is a Good Life?
For some, trying to live a good life means primarily seeking what popular culture would call "the good life," a life built around pleasant and interesting experiences, with enough money and leisure so that you can choose what to do for yourself. Perhaps, too, this good life includes access to places and events that are "exclusive," that many people want, but only a few can enjoy.
While many people daydream about such a life, those who actually pursue it learn very quickly that even a life of pleasure requires self-restraint and discipline. Some pleasures damage health and produce more pain over the long run, and even innocent amusements become unpleasant or boring when indulged to excess. Living a good life seems to require more than just seeking the next good experience.
More important, we quickly discover that even as we are trying to live a good life, there are many other people around us trying to do the same thing. Sometimes we limit our pursuit of things that are good for us in order to make the good life possible for them too. Parents often give up their own pleasures to make their children's lives richer, and spouses make sacrifices in their careers to enable their partner to pursue education or job possibilities. Consumers worry, appropriately, about whether the products they purchase are made by exploiting children or abusing animals, especially when those products are luxury items they could do without.
At first, this willingness to restrain pursuit of the good for oneself in order to make a good life possible for others may appear to be little more than a form of self-interest: helping others in the hope that they will help me, or at least ensuring that they will not actively oppose my aims. But it also rests on the recognition that helping others to live good lives is a part of what living the good life is. We would not think that we were living a good life if we had all the things and experiences we wanted, but were regarded by everyone around us as selfish and uncaring. Once we have achieved even a little security in our own lives, knowing that we have done things that made better lives for other people becomes an increasingly important part of living a good life.
Living a good life requires us to do some things to make our own lives good, but it also involves us in relationships that may require us to choose against what is most obviously good for ourselves. Striking the right balance here is no easy matter. If we follow a simple rule, like "Always think of other people first," we may do a lot of good for other people; but we may never develop the skills, wealth, and knowledge that would enable us to help them even more. We may even wear ourselves out in the effort, so that in the end we do not do as much for others by thinking about them all the time as we would if we thought a little more about ourselves. Appropriate self-concern is difficult to measure, however, and given the chance, we are apt to reward ourselves with more than we strictly need in order to sustain our efforts on behalf of others.
Living a good life is far more complex than either always choosing the things that advance our own interests or always putting other people first. What the good life requires of us probably cannot be reduced to a simple rule, but one thing is clear: Sometimes living a good life will mean giving up what is obviously and immediately good for us in order to do something that makes a good life possible for others.
The Good Life and the Christian Life
Few thoughtful people try to live a good life on entirely selfish terms, and most of our neighbors of other faiths or no faith would agree that the good life must include a concern for the good lives of others. For Christians, however, this general understanding is sharpened by the teachings and example of Jesus. Jesus often takes generally accepted obligations and pushes them a step further, so that our concern for others requires more of us than we originally thought:
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. (Luke 6:32-35)
Concern for the good of others is not confined to family and friends who are close to us nor even to those we admire and might consider worthy of our concern. We are not truly living a good life unless we care about the well-being of others indiscriminately, without regard for their worthiness. That, of course, vastly increases the number of claimants for whom we might have to set aside our own immediate good to attend to theirs.
Yet the risks in Jesus' teaching are not only that we might end up doing a lot more good for others than we bargained for. There is also the warning that we may find ourselves set in opposition to others at some cost to our own immediate good. Willingness to endure that kind of loss is not just facing up to an unpleasant possibility. It may be part of what it means to live a good life.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt 5:10-12)
Clearly, this business of living a good life is difficult! It can't be done simply by seeking what is obviously good for me. More than that, if the teachings of Jesus tell us anything about what makes a life good, it sometimes involves putting others' good ahead of our own. But caring about the good life of other people is not a simple matter of helping them get what they say they want. It may involve standing for truths that will arouse their hostility and misunderstanding, so that my safety is jeopardized and their peace is disturbed.
Living a Christian life sometimes leads us so far away from what we first think of as a good life that some Christians have argued that seeking a good life and living the Christian life are two very different things. Seeking a good life is a self-centered effort, they say, and even if we sometimes manage to expand the circle of self-concern to include a few other people whose welfare is closely bound up with ours, we are still at the center. In the Christian life, by contrast, God is at the center, and questions about my own good become irrelevant. Augustine (354–430 CE) imagined humanity divided between two allegiances, one to an earthly or human city and the other to the City of God. The choice between them is absolute, and there can be no middle ground: "We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self."
From this point of view, the delicate balance between the self and others and the tension between obedience to God and concern for self are swallowed up in one great determination that makes you a citizen either of the City of God or of the human city. After that, self-concern is either all-controlling or it counts for nothing.
From this point of view, too, ethics clearly belongs to the human city. Ethics, at least as Aristotle understood it, as the study of the good life for human beings, has no place in the city where everything is centered on the love of God.
To make that the last word, however, forgets that alongside the Christian's love for God, there is the biblical witness that God loves us. Jesus says that the purpose of his coming is freedom and abundant life (John 8:32; 10:10). The Bible as a whole bears witness to the goodness of creation (Gen 1:31) and its fitness for our habitation (Isa 45:18). Love for God is lived out in a world that is suited to human purposes.
Understanding in these biblical terms the world in which our life is lived gives us a way to think about our good that makes it more than something we have to set aside to serve others or something that we have to give up in order to love God. If this is a world created by God as a place for human life, then our search for a good life, difficult and confusing as it may sometimes be, is not something that we have to give up in order to be a part of God's people. But we do have to pursue the good life in the context of a world that is shaped by God's love for us. Belief in God as the creator of a good world is less a narrative of how the world came into being than it is a fundamental confidence that we can live our lives in harmony with the natural world around us rather than in vigilant resistance to its forces or determined efforts to subdue it by technology. The search for a good life is not a struggle to wrest peace and happiness from a hostile or indifferent universe. Belief that God has created us for life in this world suggests also that human good is not achieved by resistance to the claims of others, but by a common life in which we may achieve a greater good together than any of us controls alone.
Because the world is this way, living as though you could achieve a good life all by yourself, wresting control of things and events from other people and never asking any questions except "What do I want?" and "How can I get it?" is the greatest mistake of all. Though we may envy those who appear to live their lives on these terms and may sometimes try to act like them, the project is always less successful that it appears to be. Coworkers may quickly rise to the top by relentless self-promotion, but when we try it, the continuous tooting of our own horn turns out to be even more boring than listening to the sound of theirs. Celebrities may seem to enjoy gratifying their impulses for an appreciative media audience, but we find that even when we have the means to do exactly what we want, it is hard to know exactly what that is when we have no one to consult about it but ourselves. Attempts to achieve a good life by asking "What is good for me?" and then going out to get it are self-defeating. We may achieve our goal, but it will not be what we really wanted.
The inevitable failure of self-centered pursuits may drive us to the opposite extreme of despising ourselves, but that is not the real alternative. The real alternative is to live in harmony with nature and with other people, understanding that the limits they set on our self-chosen pursuits are not obstacles to a good life, but the framework on which it can be built. Acknowledging that we are not the center of the universe is not a choice against our good, but a recognition of what our good truly is.
To be sure, once we recognize this we will do many things that the purely self-centered person would never do. We give up vacations to put new roofs on houses for the rural poor or spend free afternoons in court with troubled adolescents. We live more modestly than our income would allow in order to give more to help people we most likely will never meet. We devote ourselves to projects whose conclusion we will never see, and we tie our happiness to the success of ventures that are not under our control. The successes will be limited, and perhaps they will become even more limited as our aspirations grow larger.
There are risks to all of this. Not everyone will cooperate with these efforts toward mutual improvement. Some will resent our efforts to help them, and we will resent some of the demands that others make on us. Occasionally, people will appropriate the results of our labors for their own purposes. And sometimes this diffuse mixture of risks will crystallize into what appears to be a genuine defeat: A stray bullet ends the life of a teacher who has devoted himself to stopping gang violence, or a doctor succumbs to a disease she contracted because she volunteered to treat it in others. There are no guarantees of temporal success when we seek a good life in harmony with nature and with other people. We may be defeated by circumstances or by the opposition of others. But even that is a better life than being defeated by ourselves.
So the Christian life, like the good life, is in one sense entirely natural. The Christian life is not a choice against the good life that other people obviously seek for themselves. The Christian life is this search for the good life in a world created by God. God's creation sets natural limits on our lives and sets us in relationships with other people, and our good must be found within those limits and relationships. But because the world is God's creation, we trust that our good is not in conflict with the fundamental conditions of our life. We will often be required to do things that run counter to our immediate wishes, and we may sometimes have to sacrifice a great deal. But the good life is not an accident that we fall into when nothing bad happens to us, nor is it a prize we must win by pushing aside other people and nature when they get in our way.
Excerpted from Christian Ethics by Robin W. Lovin. Copyright © 2000 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.