“Why do the evil characters always get the best songs?”
This question came from a friend who was playing Judas in an amateur musical theatre show I was producing. At first, I wanted to disagree, but as I ran through various shows I could think of, I realised that there was truth to what he was saying. In the Christian musicals I’ve worked in Judas always sings the show stopper. In Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas’ opening song Heaven On Their Minds is one of the most emotional and moving moments in the whole movie (although Jesus’ Gethsemane song matches it closely, and is, perhaps, the exception that proves the rule).
The list of fascinating villains in myths and movies is long. It often seems that evil is far more creative, interesting, and engaging than goodness. All too often the heroes of our stories are bland, boring, and holier than though. In recent times the lines between good and evil have often been blurred in the stories we tell. Our heroes are shown to have flaws and struggles, and our villains, like Darth Vader, can sometimes be redeemed. This makes our stories feel more realistic, but it doesn’t change the basic struggle we have with how goodness and badness are presented to us. It seems to me that goodness often has a PR problem.
STRUGGLING WITH GOODNESS
I suspect that for many people goodness feels restrictive. I remember a colleague who was working through how a major personal life decision would affect his family and the people to whom he was a minister. His daughter, who watched his wrestling, commented that his faith made life much more complicated.
It takes work to consider goodness, especially when we’re dealing with the common good. I suspect this is why Donald Trump’s blatant and public defiance of any standards of goodness was so attractive to so many people. His refusal to consider any kind of ‘political correctness’ seems to be the reason why many of his supporters claim that he “tells it like it is” despite his many lies. There seems to be a sense of liberation and possibility that we experience when we throw off the constraints of goodness. Perhaps this is why evil characters in our stories fascinate and attract us.
In the face of this distorted view of goodness we do well to remember the words of Simone Weil:
Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.
I find myself remembering Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s infectious laughter at himself as he struggled to walk to a podium at a funeral I attended to give a speech. I am reminded of the childlike playfulness and joy of Pope Frances and the seemingly permanent smile on the face of the Dalai Lama (in contrast to the Trump scowl). And who could resist the ‘Madiba shuffle’ of Nelson Mandela, or the gentle strength of Malala Yousafzai?
There is an unmistakable transcendence that accompanies genuine goodness. In the Platonic trinity of transcendents, goodness is defined in terms of beauty and truth. This means that goodness is not just beautiful; it beautifies. It is not just true in itself; it reveals truth. Such goodness is neither boring nor bland. It is creative, courageous, strong, and energising. True goodness connects us with ourselves, other people, the world, and with the Divine, and it brings wholeness wherever it is present.
THE QUEST FOR GOODNESS
The quest for goodness is an integral feature of any authentic spirituality. Unfortunately, there is a tendency in many religious traditions to look for goodness in the wrong places. Goodness is often associated with the ‘thou-shalt-nots’ of the Ten Commandments, with legalistic observance of certain religious rules, and with avoiding the seemingly obvious vices of smoking, drinking, swearing, and sex. No wonder goodness seems boring!
I can’t claim to be a model of goodness, but I do aspire to embody even a little of the goodness I see in the people I’ve mentioned above. And I have found it helpful to step outside of the usual religious frameworks in my attempts to learn more of goodness. That has led me to the sciences.
Read the other posts in this Science and Spirituality series.
While I recognise that science has often brought great destruction and suffering into our world, it has also been the source of much goodness. The motivation that drives most scientific discoveries is the desire to serve the common good of humanity, and of the planet and its creatures. The scientific community is built on peers pushing each other to find new solutions to practical problems or new insights into the nature of reality. And this means that the sciences are shaped by the quest for goodness—for better ways to live sustainably on the earth, care for the health of human and non-human persons, provide necessities for the most vulnerable and poor among us, and bring about liberation, acceptance, and understanding of our wonderful differences. In this sense, the sciences have a deeply spiritual quality.
A GOOD SPIRITUALITY
If we are to learn to embody goodness to any degree, then our spirituality will need to be scientific in its view of, and approach to, the world. When spirituality gets lost in otherworldly ideas and pursuits and loses its longing for wholeness and unity in this world, it becomes a meaningless fantasy. But when it allows the sciences to guide it, it becomes a profoundly transforming and healing practice that makes a very positive mark on the world. If our world needs anything right now it is this good spirituality and spiritual goodness.
WHAT’S GOOD FOR YOU?
Pause for a moment and think about what goodness means to you.
- How would you define goodness?
- What does authentic goodness look like to you?
- What can you do to bring more goodness into your own life and into your corner of the world?
Perhaps you’d like to commit to one or two small actions that you can do regularly to be a channel of goodness to those around you? It would be inspiring to hear what your thoughts are and to share what we are going to do to embody goodness for ourselves. Please leave your ideas in the comments and let’s spur one another on to real, creative, exciting goodness.
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