In order to understand this we must take a moment and consider the mystics' understanding of human nature. The mystics believe that we have both a lower nature and a higher nature; that we are both physical and spiritual beings. The lower (physical) nature operates through the ego. The higher (spiritual) nature manifest Divine virtues. This understanding of human nature is what accounts for the moral struggles we humans face in life. We feel an inherent tension between our lower (physical) nature and our higher (spiritual) nature, that is, we would like to manifest Divine virtues but our ego often overpowers our best intention. Thus the moral struggle, which the apostle Paul illustrates so well in his letter to the Romans:
...what I am doing I do not understand, for I am not practicing what I would like to do but I am doing the very thing I hate... I find then that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good, for a while I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin...
The mystics further teach that the spiritual journey is a journey of the transformation of being, from the dominance of lower (physical) nature to higher (spiritual) nature. Complete transformation of being is the state in which the ego, eventually free from the influence of the lower (physical) nature becomes the vehicle for the manifestation of Divine virtues. Then one acts with compassion, forgiveness, charity...unconditional love. This is what the prophet meant when he said that faith manifests itself through the ego, that faith is "the knowledge of the heart, the words of the tongue, and the actions of the body." It is also what Jesus meant when he said, "you will know them by their fruits." As for his part, Paul was still ripening at the time he wrote his letter to the Romans, as are we all, in this season of life...
There is a straw man run amuck in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, has proffered that one can be “good without God.” The book has received wide acclaim, more for the title, I suspect, than the reasoning contained therein. In fact, so popular is the book’s title that it has spawned a billboard war between believers and nonbelievers. But that is not why I throw my fellow Harvardite under the theological bus. Well then, pray tell?
The problem with Epstein’s book is not the title’s proposition, that nonbelievers can be morally good despite a lack of belief in a deity. Anyone not blinded by the right and who has the least bit of sociological savvy can observe that faith is not a prerequisite to living the moral life. Hence, Epstein’s argumentation toward this end amounts to a rather moot point (though his is an admittedly kinder, gentler Humanism than the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens). Rather, the problem with the book is that the title’s proposition itself rests upon a shaky proposition, namely, that the notion that one cannot be good without God has ever had traction beyond the minority Christian movement we call “the Christian right,” which happens to be wrong about most things theological (which in turn begs the question as to why intelligent Humanists with the public’s ear continually deplete their air time engaging that community).
If Humanists want to engage the religious world in a constructive way (of course continual publications attacking theological straw men does fascinate the public and so predictably sell books, which may be their ultimate goal, in lieu of genuine dialogue) a better point of contact begins with the following proposition: The aim of the religious life is the transformation of being toward the end of realizing one’s full human potential. And, it might be added, that that potential is hardly tapped by merely living the moral life.
It was Voltaire who said that “God made mankind in His image and mankind returned the favor.” But whether mankind is a construction of God’s or God is a construction of mankind’s, the notion of the imago dei (to be made in the image of God) speaks to my very point. In the imago dei we have the highest conception of human potential in that the imago dei represents an amalgamation of the highest virtues: compassion, forgiveness… unconditional love. In the end, this is that toward which the religious life calls us via the transformation of being.
In sum, merely to live the moral life, while laudable, is no remarkable achievement and certainly is not something that requires belief in God. Indeed, those who thusly view the religious life utterly fail to understand the religious life. The point of the religious life is the transformation of being; it is to hold out the invitation to become other than we already find ourselves to be - to be better than merely good.
Can we be good without God? Of course we can. But, we can be better with…