Author’s Note: This article represents an “apologetic” (a “reasoned argument and defense”) for “good deeds” as a point of common ground for evangelism and discipleship. For a more in-depth examination of the New Testament teaching concerning the importance of good deeds in the life of the believer, see my book, The Least of These: The Role of Good Deeds In A Jesus-Shaped Spirituality, available on Amazon.com.
“Don’t Do It!”
Perhaps you remember the story. In March of 1987 John Shad, former Chairman of the Securities And Exchange Commission, pledged $20 million to endow a chair of business ethics at Harvard University. After several years of Wall Street scandals, it seemed clear that schools of business like Harvard’s certainly needed a refresher course in business ethics. Before making the announcement, Shad called his long-time friend, Chuck Colson, to ask his opinion. “Don’t do it,” Colson counseled his friend. “It’s a waste of money. They have no idea how to teach ethics.” Shad went ahead with the generous gift and the announcement. Colson’s counsel proved prophetic. Five years later, in 1992, Harvard University was forced to reluctantly admit that they had no idea how to teach ethics, business or otherwise. Harvard Associate Dean Thomas R. Piper, admitted, “I sometimes woke up at two or three in the morning and said: ‘Boy, I wish we didn’t get that gift.’ We got the gift at a time when we didn’t know what in the world to do about ethics. People were expecting an answer, and we didn’t have it.” Rather than return the money, which some might say would be the “ethical” thing to do, Harvard chose to keep the money (with Shad’s consent, of course) and to name it’s new $18 million physical-fitness center for Shad (none of whose money was used for the center). I suppose that, in lieu of ethical behavior, Harvard MBA students could always go to the gym and work out their ethical frustrations.
Ethics and “Good Deeds” share a common philosophical (and ultimately theological) problem. It is one of those problems which keep philosophers and ethicists up at night, even at Harvard. The problem can be summarized with a simple, one-word question: “Why?” Why be “ethical” rather than “unethical,” especially if being unethical pays better? Why engage in “good deeds” toward others (as opposed to exploiting them), especially if it involves personal risk, expense or even sacrifice? But it gets worse, at least for the philosophers among us. Once you engage the “Why?” question, it inevitably leads to the “What?” question: “What is your standard for ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’? For ‘ethical’ versus ‘unethical’? For a ‘good deed’ versus a ‘bad deed’?” In simple terms, whose “value system” do you use to answer such questions? In a very real sense, these were the two questions (“Who?” and “What?”) which eventually torpedoed and sank Harvard University and John Shad. They had no answers, although they did appoint a commission to study “the problem.” But “the problem” they wanted to study was already well known among philosophers and historians of philosophy, even if the guys over at the Business School were late in getting the memo. There was a well-documented reason why Harvard couldn’t teach ethics. And that requires a BRIEF explanation.
Naturalism, Nietzsche, And Nihilism
Roughly 300 years ago (depending upon who does the counting), Western Civilization began to separate itself from its Judeo-Christian heritage in an intellectual movement commonly referred to as “The Enlightenment.” Among its many intellectual threads was a shared belief that whatever “truths” Christianity might have taught could be found in nature by means of rationalism and empiricism, without appeal to God or revelation. The study of Nature, as opposed to the study of God, would produce “Natural Law,” and “Natural Law” discoverable by men would replace God’s law given by way of revelation (i.e., the Bible). For the next 250 years or so western philosophers labored to produce these “natural” and “shared” values. But the search didn’t go particularly well. The philosophy of “Naturalism,” whether treated by the rationalist (i.e., “think it through”) or the empiricist (i.e., “look for the evidence”) produced no such shared values. And the rise of naturalistic, evolutionary theory under men such as Charles Darwin in the mid-1800s demonstrated that, if “Naturalism” is true, Nature and its process of natural selection was unforgiving on a good day and down-right brutal on all other days. Only the strong survived, and “compassion” was a nonsensical word in Nature’s vocabulary. There was no “good” or “bad,” not “ethical” or “unethical.” There was simply Nature.
This brutal reality and the contrast it presented with biblical faith, were best summed up in the mid-1800s by the British Poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who referred to man as one,
“Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed.”
(Canto 56 of “In Memoriam A. H. H., 1850″)
Here Tennyson, in poetic fashion, highlights the conflict between the callousness of the Naturalistic worldview, which is “red in tooth and claw,” and the biblical worldview founded upon God’s love, particularly His love for His fallen creation. It would be a mistake to conclude that this harsh view of nature was somehow unique to the 19th century. No. It is ongoing, to this day. In his 1976 book on evolution entitled The Selfish Gene, enthusiastic Darwinist and militant atheist Richard Dawkins used Tennyson’s phrase “red in tooth and claw” to summarize the behavior of all living things which flows from the survival of the fittest doctrine, a “doctrine” taught in every public school and University in America.
By the close of the 19th Century, Naturalistic philosophers had exhausted themselves and run out of meaningful arguments for such things as God, Natural Law or shared values. In such a schema, there was no room for God, for revelation, for values or for ethics. More recently, the late Carl Sagan summed up the reality of this Naturalistic worldview in his 1980s video series “Cosmos” when he declared, “The Cosmos (i.e., the natural world) is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.” This declaration was repeated by Neil deGrasse Tyson in his 2014 remake of the original series. In Naturalism the “eternal Cosmos” has replaced the “eternal God.” In Naturalism there is no room or basis for “God.” But neither is there any basis for ethics, good deeds or even human dignity for that matter. One can wax eloquently and romantically (as Sagan and Tyson do) about men being made of “stardust,” but at the end of the “cosmic day” that’s just a romanticized way of saying that natural man is nothing more than cosmic dirt, a random assembly of complex atoms and molecules derived from hydrogen. And we all know how spiritually and ethically meaningful hydrogen can be! Feel free to dim the lights and fire up some candles if doing so makes you feel more romantic about being cosmic dirt.
The task of bringing Naturalism to its logical conclusion fell to the German Philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) who declared that God is dead. The world, he declared, is without inherent meaning, laws or values. The technical term for this school of thought is “Nihilism,” defined as “the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless.” Man must bravely embrace the reality of life in this meaningless and valueless world in which Naturalism has placed him without any hope in a world beyond. He must become an “Ubermensch” or “super-man.” He must become the ideal man of the future, able to rise above conventional Christian morality in order to create and impose his own values (originally described by Nietzsche in Thus Spake Zarathustra, published 1883–85).
Responses And Reactions
The responses to Nietzsche were profound and varied, and we only have time to mention a few of the most lasting which impact our lives today. Meaninglessness is a tough pill to swallow. How is one to live in a meaningless world? The German nihilists took Nietzsche, re-interpreted by his sister who was married to a well-known anti-Semite and applied it to their belief in a superior “master race,” culminating in Nazism and the Holocaust (or “Shoah,” a Hebrew word meaning “catastrophe” or “devastation”). Others responded by turning to the east, as epitomized by the enthusiastic welcome to the United States of Swami Vivekananda at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in1893. Even the late “Cosmos” proponent, Carl Sagan, toyed with Eastern Pantheism as a way of escaping the meaninglessness of his own Naturalism. On a more philosophical level, Nietzsche and his fellow Nihilists gave birth to the school of Existentialism. Simply put, Existentialism is the philosophy of “living for the moment,” emphasizing “authenticity” in choices and personal decision-making. There is no “right” or “wrong,” no “ethical” or “unethical.” There is only the situation and my personal choice as to how to act or respond (which gave rise to the school of “Situation Ethics” under men such as Joseph Fletcher). “I have to do what’s right for me,” and “If it feels right, it is right” are the action mantras of Existentialism. The fourth major response (if you’re counting) to the meaninglessness of Naturalism, Nietzsche and Nihilism was the post-Christian “Death of God” movement in theology. Nietzsche’s declaration in the late 19th Century that “God is dead” found expression after World War 2 in the “Death of God” movement in theology, pioneered by such men as Gabriel Vahanian (Syracuse University), Paul Ramsey (Princeton), Thomas Altizer (Emory) and others. Gabriel Vahanian summarized this school of thought best when he declared, “This does not mean, obviously, that God Himself no longer is but that, regardless of whether he is or not, his reality, as the Christian tradition has presented it, has become culturally irrelevant . . . .” In other words, if God existed at all, His existence was now irrelevant for any meaningful purpose, such as providing a basis for values, morals, and ethics.
All of these competing responses to the philosophical catastrophe of “Naturalism, Nietzsche and Nihilism” burst upon the cultural scene in the “Counterculture Movement” of the 1960s. Fueled by an unpopular war in Southeast Asia, and a domestic struggle over civil rights (centered around racial inequality in the South), the “Counterculture Movement” rejected prevailing cultural values (loosely founded upon a Judeo-Christian foundation). College campuses across America erupted in counterculture protests against war, social injustice, and prevailing morality, summarized by such mottos as “Make love, not war.” Drugs flooded college campuses, such as Harvard University (yes, Harvard; and no, you just can’t make this stuff up), where psychologist Timothy Leary encouraged students to “turn on, tune in, drop out” (a phrase given to Leary by Marshall McLuhan). And legions of saffron-robed Buddhist monks descended on unsuspecting colleges, offering eastern alternatives to bankrupt western values among questioning college students. In music, avant guard musicians such as John Cage gave expression to the despair of Nihilism and the “live for the moment” philosophy of Existentialism. Cage emphasized the meaninglessness of music, describing it both as “a purposeless play” and “an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living” (note the “purposelessness” of Nihilism and the “affirmation of life” of Existentialism together in this quote). Woodstock, the legendary music festival in upstate New York in August 1969, came to embody the philosophy of John Cage writ large for the Countercultural masses. There was no “greater meaning.” There was only music and the moment and “an affirmation of life.”
And THAT is why the Harvard School of Business, forty years later, can’t teach ethics. The faculty of Harvard embodies the philosophical children of Woodstock and the Counterculture Movement, and the grand-children of “Naturalism, Nietzsche, and Nihilism.” In the place of inherited cultural values (feel free to insert the word “ethics” at this point), or any other outside source or standard for values, (including biblical Christianity) the Counterculture Movement created its own values, namely, the values of Woodstock. There is no greater meaning or value outside of the individual. There is only the person and the moment and the decision: “I did what was right for me.” Try teaching that in a class on ethics as your basis for ethical decision making. It can’t be done, even at Harvard. Welcome to the dilemma of ethics, morals, and values in our Post-Christian, Postmodern Culture. Having fun yet?
Dim Reflections Of An Unknown God
But wait just a moment. Houston, we have a problem. In spite of the exhaustive and valiant efforts (combined with a complete inability) of secular philosophers to explain it or to provide any foundation, human beings, whether Christian or non-Christian, seem to have an innate sense of good versus evil, of right versus wrong; a sense that there is a difference between kindness and cruelty. Stealing is wrong, whether at home on your street or at the office on Wall Street. If Naturalism, Nietzsche and Nihilism (and Existentialism) are true, not only should there be no difference between an act of kindness and an act of cruelty, but we shouldn’t even be AWARE of any difference. And yet we are. Why?
Historic Christian theology, rooted and grounded in the revelation of the Bible, has consistently taught that men (by which I mean “mankind,” embracing both men and women) were created in the image of God. As His creatures, they bear the image and reflect the likeness of their Creator. I use the past tense “were created” for a reason. Although originally created in God’s image, the moral and spiritual catastrophe of mankind’s fall into sin (recorded in Genesis Chapter 3 and so eloquently re-stated with its consequences by the Apostle Paul in the Epistle to the Romans) has deeply marred that image, sometimes beyond recognition. Men are capable of great good because they were created in the image of a God who is the embodiment of good. Men are capable of great love because the God Whose image they bear IS love. Men are capable of appreciating and performing good deeds of great compassion because the God who created them and whose image they bear is the epitome of compassion and loving-kindness. But left to their own devices, fallen men are also capable of great evil, as witnessed on a worldwide basis in the 20th Century. According to former Secretary of Defense (under Kennedy and Johnson) Robert McNamara, the 20th Century witnessed the death of some 170 million people in various national and international wars, more than all of the previous centuries of human history combined. The late British journalist and critic Malcolm Muggeridge (who came to Christian faith late in his life) summed up man’s condition best when he observed, “The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.” The Old Testament Prophet, Jeremiah, would agree, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)
Whether Christian or non-Christian, men desire and are able to “do good” because, even in their fallen condition, they reflect the image and the goodness of the God who created them. This should not come as surprise to the student of Scripture, which declares in James 1:17 that, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
There is, of course, a danger of confusion at this point. To bear God’s image and to reflect His likeness is NOT the same as having a relationship with Him. Simply put, Reflection Is Not Relationship. The reflection has been marred and the relationship has been broken beyond any human efforts to repair it. Even when doing great “good,” fallen men remain captives of that domain of darkness created by sin and the Fall. They stand in need of that redemption from sin and death which ONLY comes through faith in Jesus Christ.
Like the Athenian philosophers on Mars Hill who worshiped at an altar to an unknown God (Acts 17:22-23), people today frequently engage in good deeds for reasons they can’t fully articulate. Like Harvard ethicists groping for something to say to the John Shadd’s of the world, they fill their philosophical void with statements like, “It’s just the right thing to do,” or “It makes me feel good about myself to help others,” or “I want to make a difference and better the human condition.” Declarations of a nebulous desire to “do good”; dim reflections of “an unknown God.”
The Opportunity of “Common Ground” And Good Deeds
But the ability of non-Christians to recognize good deeds, along with their desire to “do good,” offers every disciple of the Kingdom a place of “common ground” on which to be salt and light, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) It offers us an opportunity to manifest the “goodness” of the Kingdom of God in terms people can understand, and to engage in a meaningful discussion concerning the ultimate reason and basis for all good deeds, namely, the God Who is good, and whose image they reflect. We have all been created in the image of the God Who embodies “goodness” and Who invites us to enter into a relationship with Him through His Son, Jesus Christ. We can share with them that, in the Kingdom of God, every disciple of the Kingdom engages in good deeds for multiple, meaningful reasons which go far beyond “It makes me feel good about myself,” including the following:
1. Because, like them, we too reflect the image of the God Who made us.
2. Because, in addition to reflecting God’s image, we have a new-found relationship with God through faith in Christ, a relationship which confronts us with the dual commands to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:27).
3. Because Jesus “did good” throughout His ministry on earth, and He is our model of what genuine faith and spirituality should look like (Acts 10:38).
4. Because our good deeds represent the tangible fruit of our faith; what it means for us to be “salt and light” in this world (Matthew 5:13-16).
5. Because the God Who has saved us FROM sin, death, and despair has also saved us FOR good deeds which He has prepared for us to walk in as disciples of His Kingdom (Ephesians 2:8-10).
6. Because Jesus will personally hold each of us accountable for our good deeds on the Day of Judgment, particularly as those good deeds relate to serving “the least of these” (Matthew 25:31ff).
As the church of our generation seeks to meaningfully connect with our Postmodern culture, to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to make disciples of the Kingdom, it is quite possible that we have overlooked one of the most important opportunities which Scripture itself provides. Our good deeds. I have said it before (see my book, The Least of These) and I will repeat it here:
“Our Postmodern culture has concluded that it can manifest ‘good deeds’ without Jesus. The Church has concluded that it can manifest Jesus without ‘good deeds.’ Our Postmodern culture’s plan appears to be working. The Church’s plan is a disaster.”