Last week (#2) we concluded that we call a thing “good” when we want to express the relation of being “good for” between it and something else. To say a particular hammer is good is to say that it is good for doing what hammers are meant to do. In analogy, to say a particular human being is “good” is to say that this human being is capable of doing and actually does what human beings are meant to do. In the same way, a particular human action is good if it does for human beings what human actions are meant to do for human beings.
Notice that hammers, human beings and human acts can be called “good” only if we know what they are meant to be and do. And the idea that human beings are meant to be and do certain things and not others implies that they possess natures and ends. Put as simply as I can, a nature (or essence) is the design plan or structure of a thing that makes it the kind of thing it is. Inherent in the idea of a design plan of a thing is its proper function and purpose. Just as a hammer’s design plan suits it for driving nails but not for threading needles, human nature directs human beings to certain ends and not others. And certain acts enable human nature to function properly to achieve its intended end and others do not.
The idea of the good is relevant to moral issues only if human beings possess natures that determine the conditions under which they can function properly to achieve the end at which their nature aims. Without the idea of human nature and its end, the “good” will always be reduced to the “pleasant”. And the pleasant is not a moral category. Whether you find a certain activity pleasant or not cannot by itself demonstrate whether or not it is good for you. As we will see in the course of this series, at the center of our contemporary moral crisis is the loss of faith or even the explicit rejection of the idea that human beings possess natures and ends. Human nature and its ends have been replaced by the arbitrary human will. (See the series on the God and the Modern Self for more on this shift.)
Philosophers from Aristotle onward attempted to describe the perennial and essential features of human nature and the ends toward which it is naturally directed. Aristotle’s work on this subject in Nicomachean Ethics exercised profound influence on western ethical thought, and it still commands respect today. Although I value such naturalistic ethics and I am happy that many thinkers engage in it, as a Christian theologian I cannot limit myself to examining human nature apart from my faith in God as the Creator of human nature, Jesus Christ as the perfect example of a good human being and union with God as the end of human nature.
For Christian moral thought, the idea that human beings possess natures and an ends is securely grounded in the confession of God as the maker of heaven and earth. God created human beings “in his image and likeness” (Genesis 1:26). Throughout the Bible God deals with human beings as if they were designed to function properly by doing certain things and not others. Certain individuals are set forth as examples of “good” human beings. Jesus Christ serves as the supreme example of a perfect human life. Certain commands direct us to engage in activities that show us the best of which human beings are capable, chiefly the commands to love God above all else and our neighbors as ourselves. The resurrection of Jesus Christ and our union with him in faith and baptism ground our hope of eternal life and union with God in the general resurrection.
In sum, the Christian understanding of the good is determined by the following convictions: (1) the most important characteristic of human nature is that it is the image and likeness of God, (2) human nature’s proper function is to image the perfect character of God in the world as informed by the example of Jesus Christ, and (3) human nature is directed by its Creator toward the end of eternal life and union with God. Nothing can be considered good or good for human beings that contradicts or inhibits these three principles.
These three foundational principles provide us with the lenses with which to read the Bible along with the church to fill out in greater detail the character of a good human being, that is, a picture of what the Creator intended human beings to do and become.
To be continued…