Friday, April 1, 2011

Is "good without God" good enough?


I don't own the rights ... but here it is anyway ....
When I was a kid in the middle to late 1970s, the US Army was suffering from a lack of volunteer enlistments. Most of it was the aftermath of Vietnam … but part of it was also anemic advertising: “Today’s Army wants to join you.” “Join the people who have joined the Army.”

(To be upfront about it, I’m not wild about “An Army of One”, either. I can’t help thinking of George C. Scott’s speech at the beginning of Patton, taken from the general’s actual talks to his troops: “The Army is a team. It works, eats, sleeps, fights as a team. This ‘individuality’ stuff is a bunch of crap!”)

It got a little bit better after the US hockey team beat the USSR at the 1980 Winter Olympics, and Americans started to feel good about being American again. Then the Army pulled out its best campaign ever: “Be All That You Can Be”.

Not “Be Most of What You Can Be”; not “Be the Vast Majority of What You Can Be”. The new Army campaign tapped right into the psyche of the people who wanted to prove themselves, who wanted to bring out their fullest potential. Enlistments skyrocketed after that.


I reflected on this after reading about Atheist Pride week, about how some atheists were encouraging others to hold themselves out as “being good without God”.

The funny thing is, nobody in their right mind challenges the atheists’ assertion that, in the main, they’re good people. Oh, you may occasionally stray across one or two with ideas that are chillingly inhumane, or one or two whose hostility towards Christians is rather scary. (P.Z. Myers once remarked that he was unnerved by Christopher Hitchens, who he believed “wants to put a bullet in every God-haunted brain”.) But in the main, nobody thinks that atheists all beat their children, cheat on their spouses and rob every liquor store they pass: they’re good people.

They’re not saints, though. And they’ll tell you that themselves.

They’re not just good; they’re “good enough”. Since there’s no heaven to get into, there’s no point in working any harder than necessary. They love their families; they obey the laws; they often work at jobs which contribute something more to society than just another consumer product. As the Russians say, “perfect” is the enemy of “good enough”.

And I wonder: are they really content with being “good enough”? Are they truly satisfied with 85-90% of “all they can be”?

Probably. Certainly many Christians settle for being at less than 100% of capacity. If they can’t go toe-to-toe with Tiger Woods at TPC Sawgrass, screw it, they’ll stick with Putt Putt. The only difference is that, where reaching for the top is an option for the atheist, for the Christian it’s an obligation. As the parody poem “Butt-Prints” reminds us, the Lord helps us towards sanctity … but we still have to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12-13).

Another military story: In 1948, Jimmy Carter was interviewing for the submarine program with the father of the nuclear sub program, Adm. Hyman Rickover. During the grueling interview process, Rickover asked Carter, “How did you stand in your class in the academy [Annapolis]?” Carter responded proudly, “I stood fifty-ninth in a class of 820!” Rickover then asked, “Did you do your best?” Carter started to say “yes”, but then gulped and confessed, “No, sir, I didn’t always do my best.” Rickover, bringing the interview to an end, then challenged him: “Why not?”

While Carter made the program, he never forgot that moment, and made it the center of his work ethic. (He also made the question "Why not the best?" his campaign slogan and the title of his campaign biography.) And while most of us who lived through his presidency don’t remember it with fondness, if it was a failure, it wasn’t because he didn’t put himself wholly into it.

So here’s the question: if you’re not as good as you can be, then in what sense are you “good enough”? Where is the benchmark?

In fact, this is where Joe Schmuckatelli (whether he’s atheist or Christian) generally stops asking himself the tough questions: Good enough for what? Why must I be good at all, let alone “good enough”? Where am I falling short, and why do I let myself fall short? If I recognize that X is a fault, failing, sin, vice or what have you, then why do I persist in it? Do I persist because it isn’t really wrong or because I can’t be bothered with the effort needed to give it up? What does “good” really mean?

God judges us on what use we make of our capabilities—how we invest the talents He has given us (Mt 25:14-30; cf. Lk 19:12-28). In a way, it’s less important that we actually achieve sanctity in this life than that we continually strive to achieve it … realizing, of course, that we can’t get there without God’s help. We don’t really know how good we can be until we give it our fullest effort.

But the biggest obstacle to being all we can be—being saints—is ourselves. Sainthood requires a spirit of selflessness that can accept not only the red martyrdom of dying for others but also the white martyrdom of suffering for the sake of others. To people today, to whom self-interest is the motor of success, to whom suffering is not merely a mystery but an obscenity, this isn’t a hurdle but a brick wall.

Better to be less than we can be than to suffer, n’est-ce pas?

I submit that, even from a non-Christian perspective, "good enough" isn't. It's an excuse to slack off, to be "less than we can be", to hang on to vices and failings—not because we believe they're not really vices and failings but because we take pleasure in them, and to give them up would be to (ugh) suffer. Because there's no objective benchmark for "good enough", there's no justification for giving less than 100% ... even if you don't believe in sainthood.

And if you do ... well, as Patrick Coffin of Catholic Answers Live says in his sign-off: "What else is there?" Why not the best?

Be all that you can be. And let God and the Church decide later whether that makes you a saint or not.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I wish you could follow up on this topic!

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