Borrowing the Words

We sat last night in a bar watching a pool tournament.  Neither of us were playing – he because he didn’t qualify, myself because I ended the season near the top of my division and therefore will be playing in an all-stars tournament next week.  We were there to watch, to relax, to cheer on friends and team mates.  He’s a good ol’ boy from Oklahoma and Georgia, with some additional stops  around the world courtesy a decade in the Army.  He talked a lot about that decade last night.

But as things sometimes do, the conversation took a right turn into theology.  He’s in upper management for a major national retail chain and he knows what I do.  But as part of his sharing of his story, we suddenly had the covers pulled of the theology that underpins everything we do and who we are.  I’m not religious, he began, I just believe in being a good person.

Theological conversations with an intoxicated person are always a landmine.  They’re often very fruitful in the moment, but if the person remembers it later, they might be upset about something or other.  The honesty that alcohol can lead some people to is sometimes a difficult thing to handle after the fact.

And if you tell me that if I don’t believe in God then I’m going to hell, then f*** you.  Said more as a general statement than directly to me.  But still.

I’m just going to be a good person and that’s it.  Some people need to be afraid of hell to be a good person.  Others don’t.

It sounds like a compelling argument.  Until you try to start figuring out what terms like good mean.  Clearly, when he was telling me about a younger sister’s abusive boyfriend years ago, he felt what that guy did to her was badEvilWicked.  As opposed to how my buddy attempts to live his life.  GoodUpstanding.

But outside of some transcendent center, some unchanging baseline, those words are pointless.  At best, they can attempt to capture some general level of consensus in the moment about what is appropriate or inappropriate.  At worst, they’re purely subjective labels  without any inherent meaning beyond what I choose to give to them.  So abusing a girlfriend is good to one person, but not to me.  Who is right?  Who gets to decide?  Me?  The abuser?  On what basis?  Majority opinion?  Which majority?

I pointed out to my buddy that when he starts tossing around words like good and evil, he’s borrowing the vocabulary of religion.  He was willing to acknowledge that.  But it’s a pretty important point.  People like the idea of relative morality on the one hand, but not on the other.  Relative morality says that 200 years  ago, slavery was just fine.  Yet there are still people trying to get reparations for the  slavery of their ancestors way back then.  On what basis, though, if not a transcendent definition of good and bad that can be applied in a unilateral fashion across time and geography?

The conversation ended shortly after.   I doubt he’ll remember any of it, and that’s fine.  I learned a little more about him and where he comes from, and maybe the Holy Spirit will use that knowledge at some point in the future in our interactions.  Or maybe he’ll remember the point he conceded last night, and it will nag at him and maybe spawn another conversation down the road.  Time will tell, but I hope  so.

 

 

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