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Saturday, July 28, 2012

That's Good

By Dan

Someone proved recently that cats have nine tails. This is how he did it:
Imagine before you two boxes. In one box is nothing and in the other a cat. The primary premise is posed that “no cat has 8 tails”. Everyone agrees that no cat has 8 tails. The second premise is that a cat has 1 tail. Since no cat is in the first box and we agree that no cat has 8 tails, and since 1 cat is in the second box, and we agree that a cat has one tail, then we are left with a simple math problem: 8 + 1 = 9. So, cats have nine tails.
We can see here that the words used, while not changing in their meaning, nevertheless become twisted so that they convey absurdity. While the absurdity is easy to see in this example, it isn’t always quite so easy to discern. Words convey realities. But as the meanings of common words twist and meander absurdity can sometimes overtake reality and even begin to seem plausible... if you don't look too close. It is for this reason that I have identified a handful of words for myself as “neon words”. They appear in my thinking like the neon "open" signs we see in storefronts. When I hear or read them I pay special attention so that my discernment may be sharp.

The word “good” has earned this distinction because when it is used, at least in certain discussions, it reveals a deception along the order of nine-tailed cats. The source of the problem it seems is twofold.

First, the word “good”, when you think about it, is appealing to a standard of some kind. No confusion there just yet. The problem enters when we consider the source of the standard, whether it is a subjective or an objective standard. For example, if someone says: “Chocolate ice cream is good” the word appeals to a subjective standard. It does not imply that the goodness of chocolate ice cream is, or ought to be, universally accepted by all people. But imagine if it did, or if the speaker, or hearer, or even thinker wasn’t sure. When we’re talking about ice cream such is easy to discern. But it’s not always quite so clear.

How about the sentence: “I am a good person”. Unlike the goodness of ice cream, this sentence appeals to an objective standard. While ice cream is subject to personal tastes, whether or not I am a good person is dependent on another standard completely; a standard that is independent of, and outside of, myself.

With a little thought we can see here how, if we confuse the source of the standard, not only will our communication suffer but so will our thinking. Consider for a moment the statement: “Mr. Smith is a good teacher”. What is most likely heard is that Mr. Smith conforms to some objective standard of good as it applies to the discipline of teaching. But the person saying this might well be communicating that Mr. Smith makes him feel good about himself while in Mr. Smith's class. Mr. Smith may well not be a good teacher at all but rather good in the art of personal relations. There’s no way the hearer can know without exercising a little curiosity by asking questions like "Why do you say that?” Or maybe you’ve heard something this: “If he’s a good teacher then what does a bad teacher look like?” Such questions are seeking to understand the standard being used.

We’ve all probably heard the phrase “God is good”? Does this statement appeal to a subjective or objective standard? Is He “good” because His character aligns with a definition of good derived from my personal desires? For the reality that these words represent to be successfully conveyed these questions must have answers. Does it perhaps appeal to a higher standard than even God? If so what standard does one appeal to in order that God might be judged as having measured up to it? Our own personal standard? What if, as I believe to be true, “God” is the standard? In that case we can rightly say with Job “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him”1, and it would make sense? But if God’s goodness is subject to our own personal preferences, then not only is God diminished, but so is the word "good". In such a case we can only say “God is good” when we get the promotion. But we can’t then also say “God is good” when we are subsequently fired for incompetence; that is unless God is unable to prevent it, which would not only mean that he is not sovereign, but also brings into question his ability to have orchestrated the promotion in the first place. It only stands to reason that if He was not able to cause the promotion He couldn’t very well be judged good for bringing it about could he? But that’s a different post. Suffice it to say for the sake of this one that if we believe that God can’t stop bad things from happening then it only follows logically that he can't cause good things to happen, and so therefore he can't really be good, at least not in the sense that we've generally understood "God is good".

Second, it doesn’t help that we live in a time in which all standards are relative. The idea that an objective standard exists has been rejected because it is believed that there isn’t one, or if there were one there might as well not be for we can never know what it is. With this view we need not examine our own lives according to any standard other than the one we create for ourselves… which would of course be subjective. Using this sort of reasoning a mother, having just been convicted of abusing her children, could still proclaim loudly to the court that she is a good person, as happened a few years back here in Arizona. Why shouldn't she say it? To what objective standard would anyone appeal to argue differently? We are all, after all, little cocoons wherein our own self-created reality, and its standards, aligns with our own desires. We can see why any suggestion that there is a "good" not subject to our personal tastes is met with fierce reaction, for it threatens our cocoonish little alternate realities.

But it gets more confusing yet. We are told that it is not good to impose our own standards onto others, and we are not to judge others either, as if the world outside our cocoon is now somehow subject to the subjective standards that exist on the inside. The fact that we feel better about ourselves because we are living up to a standard we create ourselves, for the purpose of making ourselves feel better about ourselves, hides the fact that we are now twisting ourselves into logical pretzels and are in reality functioning in the absurd world of 9-tailed cats.

In in such a world the very word “good” is obliterated and in many cases -- according to any given person's subjective framework -- it is no longer distinguishable from "bad" so that good for some becomes evil for others2. Yet in the cognitive dissonance of the contemporary mindset its destruction is not realized. The word lingers in our language as if there still were a standard from which its meaning could be derived, while at the same time that standard’s existence is denied. The language therefore becomes confused and communication between souls breaks down so that we live in a modern-day kind of Babel3.

In such a world it is then pondered, why are people these days so isolated? Why can’t we all just get along? Why is there such division and loneliness? One reason is that we have killed and dismembered a key and core concept. We have treated a foundational thing like "good" as if it were a pre-born child and ripped it from the womb of thought, and having thrown it into the trash bin, we celebrated the freedom to do so. But such freedoms are not free. They come at a price that apparently very few even realize we are paying.

1 Job 13:15.
2 "Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes And clever in their own sight!" (Isa 5:20-21).
3 "Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth" (Gen 11:9).

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