Why Do We Call Him Good?

Today is Good Friday, outwardly the most counterintuitively-named holy day of the year but ultimately the most appropriately so. There is in fact no more aptly denominated day in the Gregorian calendar; nothing comes close to the rightness of this day, neither practically nor emblematically. We are apt to forget how odd this day’s observance must have seemed within the society in which it first arose: a bunch of weird zealots marking the brutal execution of a convicted criminal, Who they claim rose from the dead and who they insisted—absurdity piled on top of outrage—was God Himself and deserving of supreme worship. Enough time has passed, of course, that many of us are more or less used to it, falling victim to the siren song of anodyne familiarity. But we must not let it become not weird—we should not neuter the Sacrifice of Calvary to become just another Friday—we must not forget the inestimable goodness of what Christ accomplished. “If what Christians say about Good Friday is true,” wrote Fr. Neuhaus, “then it is quite simply the truth about everything.”

For nonbelievers I want to make note of Fr. Neuhaus’s point by drawing your attention to what is often called Lewis’s Trilemma. We live in a squirmy and equivocal age, one in which fundamental truth is eschewed in favor of bland and homogenized squish rhetoric, and nowhere is this more clear than in a pervasive and persistent treatment of Christianity, one that has been around for centuries but has never been more prominent than it is today. This approach to Christian doctrine—practiced de facto even by some self-professed Christians—holds that Christ Himself was not actually Christ Himself, so to speak: that instead of being the Son of God and the Second Person of the Trinity, He was instead simply a “great moral teacher,” one Who was post mortem deified by His followers but Who never Himself claimed any deified status and who never in fact sought that status for Himself to begin with. This strain of thought asserts that, rather than claim to be God, Christ only claimed to be good, like a friendly fellow on a street corner, and He should thus be understood, interpreted and followed in precisely that manner.

Not so, says Lewis: there are really only three options, and Jesus the Hallmark Card isn’t one of them. Either Christ was God, as He claimed to be, or else He was a liar (claiming to be God when He knew He really wasn’t) or else He was a lunatic (claiming to be God as a manifestation of mental illness). There is no fourth option, certainly no Nice Guy Christ option, unless of course we’re assuming a priori that the divinized Christ of the Gospels is a corruption of some earlier undeified friendly rabbi—but this would render the Gospels themselves wholly unreliable testimonies to the life of Jesus, in which case the Great Moral Teacher argument itself collapses for lack of evidence, making the Gospels a queer kind of artifact, an historical document that apparently came from nowhere and means nothing at all.

We must, as a result, be prepared to call Jesus what He really is, whatever that may be: “I AM,” in His own words, or a fraud who died an ignominious fraud’s death, or a crazy man who perished under a delusion. We must also be prepared to call his followers what they are: either disciples of God, or snookered idiots of a huckster peasant, or else disciples of an insane first-century Jewish criminal.

The Moral Teacher argument seeks to subvert all three of these conclusions, so far as I can tell for three principle reasons: out of sensitivity (people do not want to insult or hurt the followers of Christ by calling them dupes), cowardice (people do not want to risk embarrassing themselves by having to defend the indefensible latter two prongs of the trilemma), and a third reason that is somehow more insidious: opportunism. For surely there are a great many people who yearn to weaponize the Christian religion as a partisan political tool, overwhelmingly in the direction of progressive policy concerns. It would do liberalism a great service to see the great mass of Christians stop worshiping Christ as Lord (which puts Him above all earthly powers and concerns) and instead start following Him as a state-level Democratic PR flak (which would put Him beneath even Nancy Pelosi).

I, for one, believe that Christ was and is Who He said He was and is—the evidence for this is too compelling, and the evidence against it is too shaky and unsubstantiated, to believe otherwise. Thus I celebrate Good Friday as genuinely good, as a good thing accomplished singularly by the One who is Good. Do not trouble yourself with the apparent contradiction between the somber, fearful tenor of Good Friday and the earthquake majesty and blessed salvation it begets; consider instead these words, again from Fr. Neuhaus: “Today, here at the cross, our eyes are fixed on the dying derelict who is the Lord of life. We look at the one who is everything that we are and everything that we are not, the one who is true man and true God. In him we, God and man, are perfectly one. At-one-ment. Here, through the cross, we have come home. Home to the truth about ourselves. Home to the truth about what God has done about what we have done. And now we know, or begin to know, why this awful, awe-filled Friday is called good.”

13 comments

  1. Joy

    I just literally laughed out loud at this sentence: “It would do liberalism a great service to see the great mass of Christians stop worshiping Christ as Lord (which puts Him above all earthly powers and concerns) and instead start following Him as a state-level Democratic PR flak (which would put Him beneath even Nancy Pelosi)”–and then I cried all through the following paragraph, for its truth, its astonishing meaning, its powerful understanding of this day. Good, Good Friday!

  2. David

    Actually, it would be a disservice to liberalism as a great many of the liberal traditions had roots in Christian belief. It is unfortunate that too many people of both liberal & conservative bents continue to make caricatures of their political opponents, focusing on the most extreme expressions of either position in order to attempt to impose their wills on the citizenry.

    That being said, you neglect a 4th possibility (although it is arguably a subset of the argument for Jesus’ divinity) which is that Jesus is divine but then, so are we all.

    He that believes on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do

    This suggests that Jesus is not claiming to be fundamentally different from his followers or, by extension, from the rest of humanity. The only difference he claims is one of perspective.

    I know it probably seems by now that I like to argue a lot, a position that is not without merit. However, I would suggest to you that we learn more through discernment of how we are different than through staring at mirrors reflecting back our egoic perspectives. God created it all & nothing can occur that is against God’s will regardless of how “religious” leaders claim that they are the arbiters of what is & isn’t in line with God’s will. Intelligence is sometimes a useful tool but wisdom is more valuable & the core of wisdom lies in recognizing our essential ignorance about the true nature of things. Philosophy 101: Your assumptions determine your reality. The key lies in determining how to measure assumptions that we probably don’t even know we are making.

    • Daniel Payne

      No. Jesus did not claim to be merely one spoke in a divine wheel. He claimed to be “I AM,” God Himself, something He affirms numerous times, particularly in the Johannine discourse from which you plucked that quote. No first-century Jew would ever confuse God on the one hand and vaguely divine shaman-teacher on the other.

      If Christ had simply asserted a general human divinity, He would not have been put to death. His words were scandalous and bizarre and clear, not squishy and vague based in “perspective.” Oh, and He rose from the dead—something it would be a bit difficult for Him to do if He were not “fundamentally different from His followers!”

      • David

        I agree, Jesus did not claim to be a “spoke,” he claimed to be the wheel. The fact that many of us may insist on thinking that we are mere spokes does not make our self concept true.

        I would suggest that Jesus was fundamentally different from his followers in his comprehension of reality rather than in fundamental abilities. The concept “I AM THAT I AM” has been available in spiritual literature long before Jesus proclaimed it. It has been expressed in Hinduism for thousands of years. The underlying meaning of the common Hindu greeting “namaste” is a recognition of the divine within all beings (at least sentient ones).

        For your consideration: if God created the universe from a state where nothing besides God existed. What were the raw materials used in God’s creation? Conservation of all universal quantities is basic law of physics. There is no basis for violating this observation nor is there a need to violate it to allow for any understanding of existence.

        • Daniel Payne

          But Jesus wasn’t a Hindu. He was a first-century Jew. When he referred to God he did not mean “the divine within all beings.” He meant God, Yahweh, I AM, the Creator—a specific being (in reality Being itself), not a dilute concept of vaguely divine attributes.

          It is odd: St. Peter, St. Paul, Polycarp, Clement, Origen, Ignatius, Augustine, John Chrysostom, the Council of Nicea, St. Thomas More—in your view all of them got it wrong, all of them were wildly, comically off-base, and their personal and spiritual experiences with Jesus all led the (and consequently billions of others) in the absolute wrong direction regarding the divine nature of Christ. Yet somehow, after twenty centuries of its resting on a foundation that you claim is fraudulent and grossly misinterpreted, you have incredibly cracked the code and figured out the origin and true meaning of the Christian faith. I would really like to know how you figured this out, and from what sources you draw your conclusions!

          • David

            Firstly, I wish you a happy & joyous Easter celebration. Although we may differ in our interpretations & my heritage is Jewish, not Catholic. I freely acknowledge the power & importance of this anniversary.

            to continue our discussion:

            First of all, I agree with everything you say in your first paragraph & disagree with virtually everything you say in your 2nd paragraph.

            As an important aside, prior to continuing a discussion; I take it that you are Catholic? I believe that most Catholic’s accept the scientific finding that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. Do you accept this finding? All of modern science relies on the principles that are at the base of this finding & if you believe in a “young” Earth it will be hard for us to continue a rational discussion.

            Jesus wasn’t a Hindu but to think he wouldn’t have been aware of important Hindu concepts is disingenuous isn’t it? Any well-traveled person of intellect in Jesus’ time would have had much more access to such information than did the Europeans of the Catholic/Muslim era. While the Muslim world did accomplish much for Europe by preserving & then transmitting many early Greek & Roman writings, the barrier between the two cultures greatly increased the difficulties for Europeans who might have been interested in learning of more distant cultures. This was exacerbated by the tyranny of the pre-reformation/pre-renaissance church which greatly restricted access to information that was contrary to the church’s desire to control all aspects of human life.

            Furthermore, I am not disputing the divine nature of Christ. I am disputing the base nature of humanity. IMHO “original sin” refers to humanity’s choice to remain ignorant of our true nature rather than any state of knowledge. Perhaps it is useful to describe it in terms of: humanity’s choice to live within a perception of the Universe as duality (i.e. good & evil). If all things come from God & God is fundamentally good, how can God create evil? If God created humanity, how is it that humanity creates evil? Would this not be a logical contradiction? The same would apply to any concept of a devil since God would have created that too. I suggest to you that the problem is with our conceptualization of reality, not with the true nature of reality.

            I do not originate the generalities of my opinions. These opinions are common among mystics from both Eastern & Christian culture. What I am describing falls under the label of non-dualism. My schooling is in the sciences, specifically physics. My personal study since has been dominated by philosophy, metaphysics & history. My opinions regarding the fundamental nature of reality are drawn from my study of the aforementioned arenas of thought. Here is a basic truth from physics: Your perception of reality is a mental construct based on experience & indoctrination. Although many modern physicists will say the universe is nothing but information I prefer, for conceptual reasons to state that the fundamental core all of reality is most accurately described as different states of energy, some of which we perceive as matter, others as energy & yet others we can only dimly detect through indirect means (perhaps you’ve heard of “dark” matter & energy). The amount of information estimated to exist in the universe is on the order of 10123. This is a number that is so huge as to be meaningless in any practical context. We only have the ability to directly experience such a small fraction of this information as to render our collective knowledge as generally irrelevant in the scheme of things. It isn’t so much that we are not capable of knowing anything as it is a basic fact that the information that we actually do know is so dwarfed by our ignorance as to render any human with significant wisdom to take a position of abject humility in the face of our ignorance. As a young man of 27, you are faced with significant social pressures to be “knowledgeable.” In many modern milieu admitting ignorance is not widely admired even if it is the most truly sane position to take. Hence the generalization that most men around your age have a hard time admitting how little they know. While I always reserve the right to be wrong, I hope that you are capable of doing the same because without our admitting our ignorance, how is it possible to obtain knowledge?

            As far as my knowledge is concerned; while I could make a good argument that my intellect lies comfortably beyond 3 standard deviations from the mean for the general population, that doesn’t make me exceptional, only a minority. Combine this with, (may I paraphrase “conservatives” discussing poverty in the modern day?) the fact that (thanks to the internet among other tools) I have access to more information about history & the world in general than any of the early church fathers had. I would also dare say, that to some extent, the early church fathers you cite might be more properly considered politicians – interested in creating social structures to perpetuate their understanding of truth, rather searchers for the deepest spiritual truths. Furthermore, I might not be so much disputing the understanding of those individuals as I am disputing your understanding. I am not interested in the thinking of politicians so much as I am interested in the thinking of saints (& in my thinking, some individuals who were declared saints were designated as such for political reasons rather than for reasons of their spiritual awareness). After all, the Catholic hierarchy is also responsible for the immolation of Giordano Bruno & would have done the same for Galileo had he been more stubborn about publically adhering to what he knew to be truth. Seriously though, let’s not debate St. Augustine or the others you cite. My issue is not with their understanding as I am confident that they all had a deep & abiding faith to the extent of their awareness. My issue is with your understanding. Just because you have read their words or words written about them doesn’t mean that you can accurately know their belief or their experience.

          • Daniel Payne

            Look, I really do appreciate your comments, and these discussions are always interesting. But in all seriousness, you’re going to have to learn how to pare down your responses or I’m just going to have to stop responding to them. I simply don’t have the time to engage all of your points, many of which often go wildly off-topic from what we were originally discussing.

            Briefly: your assertion that Christ had somehow tapped into a vein of Hindu mysticism is not supported by any evidence, at all, Biblical or traditional, past or present, heuristic or deductive, inferred or exposited. It makes no sense. Christ was a first-century Jew, almost certainly a carpenter, probably illiterate, whose own public ministry took place within a small geographical area that was, by the geopolitical reckoning of the day, an irrelevant backwater. The idea that He could have been some wise, enlightened Dharma sage, somehow “aware of important Hindu concepts,” stretches credulity beyond the breaking point; you have passed out of respectable Biblical scholarship and into fantasy fan fiction. Moreover—and this bears repeating—Jesus claimed to be God, not in a vague Eastern holistic sense but in a concrete, historically and culturally unique and significant Jewish manner. There is simply no disputing this: both the Gospels and the Epistles affirm Him as not merely “divine” but Lord, I AM, conquerer of sin and death.

            Again, if you’ve discovered some treasure trove of evidence that suggests otherwise, I’d urge you to send it to the Curia post haste. But if you’re just advancing this theory because, I don’t know, it sounds good, then I’m afraid you’re going to have a whole lot of trouble convincing anyone, me least of all!

    • David

      Daniel, While Jesus’ ministry was geographically small, there is much of his life for which his activities were unaccounted. Regardless, Jesus being I AM would hardly need to tap in to some vein of Hindu mysticism. Universal truths are universal. Being the I AM, he would certainly understand these things.

      I also suspect that your knowledge of Eastern concepts might be a bit thin. If you are going to persist in the belief that the world consists of “Christianity” & “everything that is not Christianity” your understanding of most of humanity will be persistently narrow.

      Jesus’ claim to be God, it should be noted, is not claim to be God in God’s entirety but part of a triune God. In other words an aspect of God: “the son.” The Hindus also believe in a triune God, whose attributes are remarkably similar to the Christian triune God. Once again, universal truths are universal. Educated Hindus also understand that the multiple Gods of Hinduism exist as aspects of one universal God, somewhat akin to the Christian concepts of angelic beings. If you are curious, I just discovered this link which I will share without any assessment of the school which posted it. It seems to give a reasonable yet concise description of the Hindu concept of God: https://www.himalayanacademy.com/readlearn/basics/fourteen-questions/fourteenq_1
      What would make you think that people in all places would use the same label for the same truth? “A rose by any other name….”

      I trust that you do not fall in to this category, but here’s a consistent problem I have when in discussion with ideologues. The persistent belief that, not only do they have the truth but that their particular variant of understanding the truth is the only valid understanding. This is the sort of thinking that produces the likes of the idiots running the so-called “Islamic State.” Part of what I am trying to communicate here, perhaps poorly, is that the universal truths presented by Christianity are often repeated in the other great faiths. I also hold the position that Christianity has some particular truths that it emphasizes more effectively than do other faiths, primarily in my opinion, the concept of Grace. It is not absent from other faiths but none present it as effectively as does Christianity.

      For what it is worth, my wife & I were discussing my tendency to ramble & digress in discussion. I do this because it is truly difficult to consider important concepts in isolation. Perhaps it is a combination of my physics background in conjunction with my understanding of history where I try to create context for what I am discussing. In that regards, the geographical region where Jesus’ ministry took place may not have been Rome but it was certainly not a backwater. Those regions have throughout history been a crossroads between Europe, Africa & southwestern Asia. Besides which, as the I AM, do you not think that Jesus would have access to any & all information?

      Rather than encouraging you to focus on secondary issues, let me try this question: according to your understanding of reality; is the universe contained within God or does it exist independently from God?

      • David

        Out of concern that I may have gone overlong with my last post, I’d like to simplify it to my final question:

        According to your understanding of reality; is the universe contained within God or does it exist independently from God?

        This question is a fundamental question regarding your personal philosophy. Given that it really isn’t directly connected to your original post, you may prefer to carry this on as a private discussion. Logic relies on initial assumptions. I’d like to more fully understand yours. I believe you have my e-mail from my registration on your blog.

        • Daniel Payne

          Well, this conversation has veered sharply from its original purpose, which was a simple debate as to what Jesus Christ claimed to be; now, somehow, we’ve stumbled into fundamental theological cosmology! Goodness, this is silly. Please let us just stick with what we were originally discussing. I would love to talk further about a wide range of subjects, but I’m afraid I really just don’t have that much time—I do appreciate the offer.

          In any case, you are 100% wrong about the nature of Christ’s claims of divinity: He did not claim to be merely “an aspect of God,” but rather, as the Council of Nicea put it, “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God…consubstantial with the Father.” This is absolute base-level, entry-level, ground-level, first-day-of-school Christianity 101. Christian theology from its absolute earliest roots, i.e. the declarations of Christ Himself, have affirmed this with unequivocal force. There is no debating it.

          I do not quite know how to argue with you about this; it seems like you just keep saying things—things that sound good to you but that do not really have any bearing in the real-world foundations and applications of Christian history and theology. I’m not saying you’re not smart—you are clearly both learned and thoughtful—but you do not really seem to have much of an idea what you are talking about when it comes to Christianity. That’s not a capital crime, of course. But it makes for a poor debate in this context. I would encourage you to read more about it. And I really do thank you for commenting and reading.

          • David

            I do apologize for my poor communication. I’m not actually arguing about Christ’s divinity. I am arguing about something, as you point out, more fundamental but I do believe that it is what Christ was pointing at. It is as if we are all molecules in God’s 2nd toe & Christ comes along & says, “I am not just the individual molecule you see before you, I am the entire body!”

            Our current understanding of cosmology & physics actually points to this very truth even though those sciences are just starting to delve in to the “material” nature of consciousness. All that we perceive as separate is all part of a contiguous whole. Christ was different from you & I because Christ was consciously aware of his wholeness & therefore his unity with God. This awareness is not beyond our individual capabilities, it is just rare & this is largely because we are trained to look away from it rather than to seek it. Others, including many Christian saints, have had the same or similar experience. I cite Hinduism only because it, more explicitly than other religions, deals with the duality of separation vs unity. However, even though we may not, as individuals approach this level of consciousness, acknowledging it can inform our daily interactions. The phrase: “we are all brothers in Christ” or the Hindu greeting: “namaste” are both concepts that further this conceptualization. Hence you may have noticed I have repeated the complaint that we make caricatures of those with whom we disagree. something which you have done in your presentation of “liberals” & “progressives” & which many individuals claiming to speak on behalf of the left have similarly done when talking about “conservatives.” While such presentation may be manna for the “base” do we really want to focus our conversations on stoking peoples anger & fear? Wouldn’t it be more useful to assist people in thinking more deeply about the many important issues facing our society rather than just turning those with whom we disagree in to cartoon characters?

  3. David

    Hopefully I have provided you with some food for thought but I agree that we should move on. I hope that in the future you will attempt to broach this subject with me, either publicly or privately. As I said on my very 1st post to your blog, I value good conversation.

Post a comment