We can be very generous and altruistic when we are sure there is enough to go round, but the moment we think we might have to do without, it shows that we are nowhere near as generous as we thought – the consuming thought is, “It has to be mine!”
Times of plague and pestilence have shown this again and again. A recent article by David Brooks in The New York Times looks at the history of pandemics and warns us, “You may not like who you are about to become.” He speaks about how people get hardened during such times and basic compassion is lost. (We see confirmation of this in the fact that people are stealing hand sanitisers from hospitals!)
Many atheists say that we ought to live our lives in a way which contributes to the greatest good for the greatest number. But if the atheist is right, and God doesn’t exist, then why not adjust your morality (since it isn’t an objective, fixed reality anyway) to doing that which contributes to the greatest good for me?
Timothy Keller writes about Langdon Gilkey, an American teacher of English at a university in China during the Second World War.1 When the Japanese took the region he was in, he was sent to an internment compound in Shandong Province. Gilkey believed religion was “merely a matter of personal taste” and adhered to “secular humanism”. He believed that rational human beings would behave in a kind and generous way without the need for a deity imposing His will. His time of internment thoroughly dismantled that view. There was a dispute that arose over living space. There were nine men living in one room, and eleven in another room of exactly the same size. The answer seemed so clear and rational – move one of the eleven into the room with the nine to make it fair. All he needed to do was appeal to their rationality and self-interest (because if the nine acted with fairness, they could count on being treated fairly in the future). But no – the nine wouldn’t accept it. Gilkey went back to his quarters utterly defeated, and then a thought struck him, “Why should a man wish to be reasonable or moral if he thereby lost precious space?” If you say the nine should be reasonable and moral because it’s ultimately in their best interests, then you are appealing to the very thing that caused them to make the decision they did – selfishness. We need something higher than self-interest to motivate us. Gilkey came to believe that only a genuine faith in God could do this. He said:
"[Human beings] need God because their precarious and contingent lives can find final significance only in His almighty and eternal purposes, and because their fragmentary selves must find their ultimate center only in His transcendent love. If the meaning of men’s lives is centered solely in their own achievements, these too are vulnerable to the twists and turns of history, and their lives will always teeter on the abyss of pointlessness and inertia. And if men’s ultimate loyalty is centered in themselves, then the effect of their lives on others around them will be destructive of that community on which we all depend. Only in God is there an ultimate loyalty that does not breed injustice and cruelty, and a meaning from which nothing on heaven and earth can separate us."2
Gilkey saw this loyalty lived out in the compound in the life of one man, Eric Liddell, the Scottish Olympic gold medal winner whose story was told in the movie Chariots of Fire. Liddell was a Christian and became a missionary to China. He was imprisoned in the compound and died there. Gilkey said, “It is rare indeed when a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known.”
If the greatest good in our lives is our comfort, then we won’t sacrifice our comfort for anyone else. If the greatest good in our lives is God’s glory, then it will enable us to sacrifice our comforts for the good of others. Easy to say, but not so easy to do. This crisis exposes the idolatry of the human heart and causes us to face the question – who occupies the throne in my life, God or me?
- Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God, An Invitation to the Sceptical, Hodder & Stoughton, 2016, pp. 247-254.
- Langdon Gilkey, Shantung Compound: The Story of Men and Women Under Pressure, Harper and Row, 1966, p. 242, cited in Keller, Making Sense of God, pp. 252-253.