Keeping God in the goodness debate

God and Goodness
October 6, 2000

According to Hugh Rice, to be good is to be willed by God. But why drag God language into ethics? There is a practical answer to that question, to which I shall return, but Rice never gives it.

What he offers is "an abstract conception of God", based on the identity of God's will with what is good. This avoids the difficulties of naive theism, but allows for a rich and largely familiar description of God.

It still makes sense to characterise God as knowing, acting, loving ("fairly straightforward") and promising ("a little trickier"), but not ("strictly speaking") as commanding. Despite this final lapse, Rice claims to have retained and defended "the central core of many people's belief in God".

There are two problems here. First, Rice freely admits that his abstract conception is functional and does not represent God as a person. This is not because God is something other than a person, but because "God is not a something at all". So language about God's "willing" and "knowing" is, at best, used by way of analogy with their human equivalents.

Rice rightly says that this is no great loss, since humans could have no access to the intrinsic nature of God's personhood or intentional states. But it does raise the question of God's independence: if there were no world, and no humans observing God's action in the world, would there be God? According to most people's "central core" understanding of God, the answer is "yes", but Rice's abstract conception implies "no".

The second problem is highlighted in the book's final sentence. The author insists it is good to believe in God, abstractly conceived, but that the really important thing is knowledge of God's will. He concludes: "To know God's will is to know what is good and what is bad. And nothing is more important than that." But he is wrong.

As the Book of Common Prayer reminds us, humans not only need to "perceive and know what things they ought to do", but also to "have grace and power faithfully to fulfil the same". Knowing about good is not the most important thing; doing good is.

It is the translation of moral knowledge into holy living that gives religion something extra to offer. That is why Rice's project to keep God language alive is more valuable than he realises.

The Revd Anthony Freeman is managing editor, Journal of Consciousness Studies .


God and Goodness

Author - Hugh Rice
ISBN - 0 19 825028 2
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £19.99
Pages - 147

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