God is here, but not a part of the world. That is a conviction of the Abrahamic faiths. The traditional placing of God at a distance from the world is a way of insisting on God’s separateness, or holiness: the physical distance is a metaphor of spiritual difference. Jesus taught that God is near in order to make a difference; specifically the difference that occurs when human beings turn their lives around and trust in God’s goodness.
But before I can trust in God’s goodness, I have to have some experience of good. Most, but not all human babies will have known the attention of their mother in providing food, comfort and love, as good; that is, it meets and sometimes surpasses their need. At the start of our lives we learn to demand good and are outraged if we don’t receive it speedily.
This sense of ourselves as entitled to goodness is a result of parental love, and is fundamental to our identity. Those who are deprived of that love may never develop the self-respect that demands to be treated well. Simone Weill, the French thinker on fundamental human matters, says that we have an expectation of good from others, which in turn constitutes an obligation to treat others well.
The medieval German theologian Meister Eckhart wrote:
“Good is neither created nor made nor begotten, but it is generative and gives birth to a good person. Goodness reproduces itself and all that it is in a good person.”
That is to say, the experience of good from others is what enables us to respect ourselves and others. If we have not received this good as babies or young children, the experience is still necessary for our health. For example, the history of the special unit at Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow shows that the treatment of violent prisoners as valued human beings can be transformative.
We may hear the message of God’s goodness and we may even want it to be true, but if we have not experienced goodness in our lives, it will remain an idea. The idea is one of the the most important in the history of thought, but its credibility is affected by a person’s experience of goodness. The grandeur of the idea is shown by the fact that those who have experienced goodness and trust that the idea is true, are able to withstand great evils without losing that trust.
Even if we are firm believers in God, our experience of goodness will affect our imagination of God. If that experience is inextricably bound up with judgementalism or cruelty, we may imagine a God who is judgemental or cruel.
Jesus, out of his experience of good, was able to interpret the traditions of his people in such a way as to exclude any judgementalism or cruelty from the character of God. He insisted that God’s goodness included the sick, the insane, the poor, and the sinner. He directed people to the ‘kingdom’ as the true source of goodness in the world. He was impatient with anything or anyone that substituted itself for that source. He told a pious wealthy man who called him ‘ good teacher’ that only God was good. Then he advised him to get rid of his wealth which had become a substitute for the true source of goodness.
Meister Eckhart also says that goodness always ‘overflows’: God’s goodness overflows in his creation of the universe, so that he/she ‘sees that it is good’. This is one of the most intriguing statements in scripture. How can it be good with its hurricanes, famines, volcanoes and ice-ages? Eckhart suggests that what we call ‘not good’ in the natural world is only our inability to accept suffering. I say that this is the sort of nonsense that only a sheltered scholar could invent. The imperfections of the natural world are obvious enough; rebelling against them is a sign of our belief in goodness. So I take God’s attribution of goodness to the creation as a pointer to creative intent rather than fully – achieved reality: it is the ultimate aim for God’s creation as God continues to create.
Goodness, then is an ‘eschatological’ (referring to ultimate outcomes) term which points to the ‘not yet’ as well as the ‘already.’ Our experience of it in events, words and actions, allows us to have faith in the present time and hope for the future because it is the substance of God’s creative love.