J. Bruce Evans
Moses, like many of us, wanted to see God. "I beseech thee," he pleaded, "show me Your glory." But, according to the writer of Exodus (Chapter 33), God told him: "You cannot see my face..." Then, in what I find to be one of the most revealing and delightful examples of Almighty humor, God is said to have continued: but "I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by. Then I will take away my hand and thou shalt see my back parts; but my face shall not be seen."
God's "back parts," the hind side of the Almighty--that's our best and only view. Whatever else the story may imply, Moses' experience in trying to see God's face seems to be a prototype of all our later such efforts. Try as we may, good, as well as God its personification, does not lend itself to face to face looking. When we approach the face of God the rule seems to be: "No pictures allowed; turn all cameras and tape recorders off."
I take the story to mean what I have also found to be true: when we come to look for good, to define goodness, to say what it is, we are out of luck. Not that God can't be known, or even is hard to get to know--Moses seems to have known him well, just as we too may know what is good; but that such knowing does not translate well into language. God is easy to meet, but not so easy to picture. At best, we may glimpse his backside after we put all our mental cameras away. God, we might say (as Moses did), moons us often, yet allows no pictures of his (her?) face.
Which doesn't mean that we can profitably talk about good, or God; but that such talk will always fall outside the realm of verbal definition. We simply can't capture what's good in mental word pictures. We may point-with-words, talk about what good is like, describe our experiences with good, even make guidelines for approaching good, but all this outside of definition. Any guidelines we may give, which I shall attempt next, remain just that: "guidelines"--rules-of-thumb, not literal "rules."
So far as I know, Moses found out what we all may discover for ourselves. We may, with excitement and candor, talk about our good experiences, even making suggestions to others, giving guidelines, about how-we-have-found-it-to-be; still, after all is said and done, good, and God its personification, has a mind of its own; glimpsing it going away, after it has already happened, is our best--and only--shot.
Which is what I shall now try to do: give some possibly useful guidelines for looking for good. Fully aware that definition--literal rules, are finally impossible, what can we say about approaching the face of God?
First, some things about language itself, our only vehicle for communicating at a distance, through paper and symbols; two observations: 1) a problem inherent in using the English language itself, and 2) a problem with the way we have all been trained to use our given language. The first problem is that the English language, before any particular subject is considered (note that word subject), is designed around the notion of things, entities in time and space, subjects and objects. Whenever we use the English language, our only choice here, we begin with this particular limitation. Whatever we talk about, we do so with language geared for things.
And the problem is, for openers, that spiritual good is not a thing to begin (or end) with. Literally speaking, there is no such thing as good, or God, for that matter. Good is no more a thing than God is. Certainly good, like God is; but not as a definable entity--a thing. This, of course, just boggles the mind--the one rooted in English, that is.
Things, of course, all exist in time and space. "Everything's gotta be somewhere," and, in space, things are also subject to being timed. Human things include actions or deeds, which further complicate the issue of using the English language for talking about spiritual good. Our time/space/deed language turns out to be excellent for talking about things in time and space; the only problem, which is a huge one, is that good, not being a thing to begin with, does not turn out to be measurable with either time, space or deed rulers. Regrettably, in so far as the English language is concerned, spiritual good simply does not submit to our accepted English questions, namely: when, where, what, why, which, how, how much, how long, etc.
Naturally, thinking in English, we want to ask, trying to pin good down: When and where is it at? How do we go about doing it? Which, of all the deeds we may do, are the good deeds? And, conversely, which are the bad deeds? All perfectly logical and natural and predictable questions when we begin and do all our asking in English; the "only thing is," colloquially speaking (which I will say something about momentarily), our subject won't submit to our English questions. We are stuck with asking them, but it (we can't even think without such thing words as it) can't answer in the way we ask. Not that our curiosity, or wondering, is wrong or inappropriate; only that our way of asking is limited by our language. Our wondering may be good, but our questions, regrettably, are bad.
Nevertheless, we are stuck with this problem whenever we use the English language. We must talk about good as though it were a thing--the language pre-decides this for us, when in reality, good is not a thing. And we can only approach this non-thing through questions rooted in concepts about things, including deeds, in time and space. Believe me, this can become quite a challenge.
The second major problem is that we must also use the English language in context, in the midst of our present society--where we live. We do not have the luxury of objective speech, outside the places we live and breathe. Context places limits on our talk, as surely as does the language we use. The relevant issue here is that context and society are the same; and all societies are naturally concerned with social good, not spiritual good. Society looks out for what is good for itself primarily. This means, in regard to our subject here, that most of our social thought patterns, the contextual party lines we grow up with, are about what is good for society. Not much, if any, is said at home, school, church, and community about being good in the spiritual sense; only about doing (acting) good--which is to say, about how we perform in society.
We don't think much about this contextual problem because, like fish in water, we take it for granted. It goes, we might say, without thinking. In fact, it more often goes against party line thinking. As noted previously, good-for-society and good-for-self have no inherent connection. Although self is nearly always in the context of a society, still they are of distinctly different orders. What is good for the one is not necessarily good for the other. Not that they are inherently at odds, but like body and mind (elements of self), they often are. And since society owns the language, only passing it on to us as individuals, it tends to keep control of what is said, protecting its own interests first.
The point is, when we try to use our social language, with its previously designated categories and judgments about what is grammatically and socially "proper," we are faced with the fact that society, with its particular prejudices about what is good for itself, always comes first. Society's prime duty with us as new members is to "civilize" us first; and its private language, in our case English, is its primary vehicle. So, understandably, we all learn the established rules of our particular version of society before anything else, at least this is what we learn from others (the established members of the establishment, such as, our parents).
Maybe this second problem will become clearer once we get into playing with guidelines for spiritual good; for now, note that all established rules for grammar, "polite" social talk--which excludes both "bad" grammar as well as "dirty" (threatening to the social system) words, and accepted notions (any groups party line: doctrines and beliefs), are in the service of society itself. When we must use their tools and play by their rules, we are at a distinct disadvantage; which is where we are when we try to talk about spiritual good.
What I have found so far is that colloquial talk, the language of ordinary folk, not yet so restricted by rules of grammar and society, is best for speaking about spiritual good. Even though the notions conveyed through colloquial phrases may be socially subversive, they don't exactly sound like it; therefore, they more easily slip through the social censors. The problem with them, however, is just this: they are, of necessity, slippery. Colloquialisms may say much, but they can't be pinned down--which is both their beauty and their danger. We may use them, but we can't go to the dictionary for definitions; because, by their nature, they remain slippery and essentially undefinable when placed under the restrictions of grammatical and social rules.
Even so, with their dangers included, they seem best for approaching our terribly important but impossible to picture subject: namely, the face of God. Through colloquialisms, if we are fortunate, perhaps we can catch some glimpses of good's backside--at least look after God has passed by.
With these language problems in mind, we may now begin to look for some possibly useful guidelines for spiritual good, at least for talking about the nature of this wondrous way of being ourselves. Before suggesting six colloquialisms for pointers, I note two perfectly good English words, defined in all our dictionaries, which come closer than any others I have yet discovered for speaking about spiritual good. They are quality and excellence. Distinguishing quality and quantity, spiritual good is more like the first than the second. It is not simply a quality, in the sense of a particular attribute of some thing, but is rather about quality itself. "Good spiritual living is quality living," is an example of this use of the word. Conversely, none of the words related to quantity, as distinguished from quality, seem to apply usefully to spiritual good. "How big?," "How long?," "How far?," for instance, simply don't apply well.
Or, quality's companion word, excellence, seems to work quite often in speaking about good. Spiritual good, though unmeasurable with time, space, and acting rulers, may regularly be recognized as excellent. For example, a spiritually good prostitute might be described as "excellent at her work," even though her deeds are socially bad.
Beyond these two, however--quality and excellence, most other English words quickly run into trouble when invited for use in pointing toward the nature of spiritual good. Hence, I turn toward colloquialisms which most everyone understands, even if Mr. Webster does not. My premise is that God and spiritual good, though difficult for the English language, are readily available for every person's experience, even if not our speech. We have an absence-of-language problem, but not an absence-of-God problem. Good, I believe, like quality and excellence, is readily recognizable by everyone not blinded to it, even if description in English is difficult.
In theological language, one of the most widespread of all doctrines about God is: God is omnipresent; that is, God is everywhere. When we don't see God, logically assuming that he is therefore absent, we are tricked not by God, but by our own language--and absence. It is never, I believe, that God is absent--the doctrine seems accurate: God is everywhere present; but that we are. Or, if not absent, we are at least fooled by our own language and thought patterns. Knowing good, we are simply unable to say it in English. The point is, good, at least its possibility, it always at hand, and knowable by anyone who has the nerve to know--even when its hard to say in English.
But enough prefaces; here are six colloquialisms which often seem to point clearly to the presence of good. Playfully, I may call them guidelines for good, pretending that they are rules. For sake of clarification, like the earlier commandments for not being bad, I will present them as "rules"--tongue-in-cheek. Literally, they are "guides" or "scales"--that is, rulers that may often be used in measuring good.
Before explanations, note that each "pointing phrase" is in quotes to indicate that it is a colloquial expression. I plunge into common language in quest of "definitions"--that is, common knowledge which is yet to make it into our "proper" dictionaries. Though literal, dictionary-defined, words--feel and good, in number one, are used, the quotes are intended to imply a non-literal sense of the words. Don't go to a dictionary for understanding; listen to your common human knowledge, which probably knows all too well about quality, excellence, or what is "really good."
Most primally we are embodied. Our "body knowledge" far outweighs the knowing of both heart and head--emotion and reason. Our cells, we might say (the stuff of bodies), know more than our later-evolved hearts and minds (lower brain and cerebral cortex). Whenever we are spiritually good-as-embodied, whenever cells have been themselves, for example, had a good breath of air or digestible meal, they (we) "feel good."
After a good meal--not too much, not too little, tasty and just right, we are likely to know, even if we don't say: "I feel good." This is a prototype expression for what it is like to be our embodied selves. When our cells are collected, for example into babies, a baby will probably "know"--even before language emerges as an option, that it "feels good" to be held, cuddled, nursed, touched, and tended--all the experiences which lie within the "good," pleasing range of the baby's sensual capacities.
Not enough or too much of either of these experiences lying within the baby's range of limited potential probably "feel bad"--if a baby could report on same. No matter how developed or complex we may become after babyhood, including the addition of language, this primal knowledge of what "feels good" remains one of the best tests of what is spiritually good for us as individuals. Being our physical selves, whole-in-body, "feels good." It's a "pleasure" to be embodied (within the range of body's limitations).
Perhaps want or desire is the best single noun for representing this part of who-we-are. Our clearest conscious access to the activation of this primal bodily element of self is through the knowledge of desire. "I want...," when honestly and spontaneously expressed, probably springs, most often, from the earthy, body knowledge which the greatest part of human wisdom.
On a scale which measures "feels good" at one end, and "feels bad" at the other, spiritual good nearly always "feels good" rather than "feels bad." The quotes, implying the colloquial expression, also indicate that something more than physical-pleasure-only is included. A baby, for example, may get adequate milk from a bottle for its stomach capacity, but without sufficient cuddling or feeling the breast along with getting the physical nutrients, yet still not "feel good." Perhaps it will cry, indicating "feeling bad," even while there is plenty of milk left in the bottle.
For analysis sake, we may break down genetic knowledge into two major categories: "instincts" toward "self-survival" and "species survival,"--that is, ingrained "drives" to stay alive as individual members of our species, and to keep our species alive also. The first are seen in a deep-seated "will to live," to stay alive at all costs and in spite of even the worst of circumstances. An "anti-die" drive, we might name it; an "I don't want to die, no matter what" urge which lies below all feeling and thought.
Specifically, this "selfish," self-survival instinct focuses first on air, next on food, and then on other appropriate stimuli--resources for satisfying the senses (bodily capacities evolved to support cellular life).
The second major category, species survival, includes all those genetic drives which we have labeled "gender" and sub-divided into "male" and "female." The best overall word is "sex," but "species survival" is more clearly seen when "sex" is related to "male," and "security" to "female." The male part of species survival is "sperm-spreading;" the female part, "baby-making." For these two major roles, the most descriptive words, though both are about "sex" in an overall sense, are "sex" for the male role, and "security" for the female part of the Drama of Species Survival.
I estimate that at least 80% of all human motivation--the powers that drive and sustain our actions, beyond self-survival, are from this instinct toward species survival. For men, it is about "sex;" for women, about "security." "Feels good," for males is largely related to "sex"--activities related to "sperm-spreading." "Feels good," for females is primarily about "security," things supportive of their "baby-making" role in the species survival instinct.
The point is, "feels good" is rooted in bodily satisfactions, but, as everyone knows without ever reading a book, this first guideline for good means more than "just" physical pleasure alone. Genetic (bodily) pleasure, satisfying cells, getting "what we want when we want it," is the root of this first guideline, but not the whole tree. "Feels good" begins with bodily satisfactions, yet includes much more.
Perhaps the word whole may help clarify: "Feels good" seems to be an inherent quality of being whole. It simply "feels good" to "be whole" or, as colloquially expressed, to "just be ourselves." The more whole we are, the better we feel; the more divided or less whole, the worse we feel. This first guideline for spiritual good is about "getting ourselves (literally) together"--that is, becoming/being whole--"whol-ing," we might coin to signify this experience of unification.
For example, as noted elsewhere, body and mind are two elements of one's whole self. We "feel bad" when they are split; we "feel good" when they become united. When we are whole, that is, when body and mind are connected, in harmony, rather than at odds with each other, then we "feel good." The more harmonious they are, the better we feel; when body and mind are one, then we "really feel good."
"Heart" or emotions are another part of self. When body and mind and heart are in sync, then we "feel" even better. The wholing of these three major elements of self naturally results in "feeling good." We might say then, "it's good to be whole" or to "wholly be" who-we-are, ourselves, that is. Our human elements united, in cooperation, harmoniously joined, "whol-ed," just "feels good."
Whenever an experience "feels good," we have our first major clue about spiritual goodness. In all likelihood, if it is good, spiritually speaking, it feels good. The equation: is good = feels good, cannot, however, be properly reversed. Although being good "feels good," just because something "feels good" doesn't necessarily mean that it is good. Is good = feels good, but feels good may not = is good. The guideline remains a guide only, not an inevitable rule.
There seems to be an inherent connection between being and feeling--that is, between "being good" and "feeling good." Probably they are the same. But, to confuse the issue, we cannot begin at the second half of the equation ("feeling good") and predictably conclude a certain connection with "being good." Many other human options, far afield from being ourselves, may also "feel good;" for example, ego satisfaction may also "feel good." Establishing a complementary relationship, as in romantic "love"--owning someone who provides one's missing half, will likely "feel good," even while providing an escape from becoming oneself.
The point is, "feels good" is a guideline, one of the best, for determining spiritual good; but it is no guarantee. Sometimes, the worst of spiritual evil may also "feel good," temporarily.
Affirmation of body knowledge "feels good;" affirmation of heart knowledge "seems right." The second major category of the "stuff of who-we-are" (see "Stuff of Self") is that knowledge which falls somewhere between body and mind, genes and cortex--what our cells know and what our brains know. If we think of body knowledge being in our loins, and conscious knowledge in our heads, then, physically speaking, this second "space of knowing" may be thought of as "in our hearts." We "know things" in our loins (genetic knowledge), in our heads (sensible data), but also in our hearts.
Who-we-are, using body as a metaphor, includes loins, heart, and head--"below the belt" (Chinese call this "hora"), "above the belt and below the neck" (often called "heart"), and "above the neck" ("head" or conscious thinking). Just as "being embodied"--whole "below the belt" ("sexy" for men, and "secure" for women) "feels good," so does "being hearted." Activating this second part of who-we-all-are, is, however, more often experienced as "seems right" than as "feels good."
Whenever we are our hearted selves, things "seem right." The expression, "in your heart, you know it's right," may refer to an experience of spiritual goodness. Even when an act contradicts social values or "reasonable" behavior, it may still "seem right." A woman who dared walk away from her own wedding ceremony explained: "I knew he was rich and could take care of me, and that our families wanted us to get married. I went along with them; but walking down that aisle, it hit me: the whole thing just didn't seem right. Somehow I knew I shouldn't marry him."
Perhaps she dared listen to her heart-knowledge, that part of ourselves which, when heeded "seems right."
On analysis, this source of spiritual goodness is probably rooted in lower or "right brained" knowledge--that accumulated body of sub-conscious learning-from-experience which is yet to be made conscious (transferred to the "left brain"). It would include the wealth of human experience too vast to be computed reasonably (made conscious in the left brain), such as, a "mean look" in someone's eyes which a child properly identifies with harmful behavior, but "doesn't know why"--that is, "doesn't think about" (consciously), but does know sub-consciously, "in her heart."
Most commonly, "heart knowledge" is referred to as "feeling" ("I just feel like he is mean," or, "I have this feeling in my bones...". Sometimes it may be called "intuition" or a "sixth sense." Females seem to more often access this part of human potential than do most males--at least to admit that they do. They may refer to "heart activation" as "going by what I feel." Although feeling-related words are used, the reference is to something greater than or different from literal emotions such as, anger, fear, etc.
"Seems right," as a colloquial way of expressing the activation or becoming of this part of ourselves, includes body knowledge ("feels good"), but is more. In fact, heart-knowing--reflected in "seems right," is often in contradiction to body knowledge, the first guideline. A good spiritual choice, for example, may be uncomfortable, even painful--it may "feel bad" rather than "good," and yet "seem right." The woman who left the altar, noted above, probably "felt bad" about what she was doing, but still it "seemed right." This is often the case when this second guideline is added to the first.
"Feels good," is the best and most primary guide to spiritual goodness, but "seems right" is often an advance over the first, leading to greater good than "feeling" alone can affirm.
"Seems right" often includes a sense of justice or fairness that goes beyond the data available from genetic instincts for self or species survival--what is "selfish," "sexy," or "security" related. It may "seem right" to act fairly, for instance, to share one's food or wealth, even when it goes against a natural instinct to keep all that one has for oneself. This larger sense of heart knowledge, reflected in "seems right," probably comes from the fact that humanity does include more than genetic knowledge only. That is, in "becoming whole" or being our fuller selves, is more than body only. We do all have sub-conscious knowledge, intuitive data, education "in the School of Hard Knocks," learning from experience beyond what our inherited genes give us. To become our larger selves, more of who-we-are, we embrace this heartedness also.
We do have, potentially, the capacity to "feel for others" as well as "feel good" ourselves. Probably this evidence of "seems right" emerges from the enlarging of who-we-are, of "heart" being added to "loin." We become more ourselves when we both "feel good" bodily, and, activating our hearts, "feel for others" also.
Although the word right is also used in a literal sense for social virtues and legal justice, here it is a colloquialism only. "Seems right" has no connection with social judgment about what is "right." For this guideline, right is more about what the heart knows than about what society or the law says.
Added to "feels good," "seems right" can be a second useful guideline for pointing toward spiritual goodness.
Continuing our use of body as metaphor for self, head represents the third major part of who-we-are: loin, heart, and head--that is, "I want...," "I feel...," and "I think..." In summary analysis, when we be ourselves, we are a combination, a "wholing," of desire, intuition, and thought. To the wealth of body and heart knowledge, we are also evolved capable of "head knowledge"--"thinking," "being reasonable," "making sense."
This later colloquial expression, "makes sense," is perhaps the clearest and most common way of voicing the activation of "mind," the third major part of who-we-are. Note first that the phrase is meant as in the colloquial expression, not in the formal sense of "logical thought." "Makes sense" is more about "common sense," or "horse sense," than about formal education or "intellectualism."
"Makes sense," this third guideline for spiritual good, means that the experience is "reasonable," that it takes into account all information available at the time. In addition to desire (loin or body knowledge) and "feeling" (heart or intuitive knowledge,) thinking is now added. Thoughts or ideas are discrete bits of data held in mind space. An honest thought is a conscious summary of someone's previous perception or experience of reality. The function of reason--weighing, comparing, "adding up," or synthesizing a mixture of separate thoughts, is brought into play. This is "thinking" in the colloquial sense of the word.
For example: Thought number one = "I want these new shoes." Thought number two = "They cost $100." Thought number three = "I have only $50." When reason or sense-making is applied to these three miscellaneous thoughts, the Thought number four, reasonable conclusion may be = "I had better wait till later to purchase them."
Although this same word sense or idea of reason is also used in formal logic as well as in psychological rationalization (creating "reasons" to support a choice already made), the meaning in the colloquial expression is essentially different. In this third guideline for spiritual good, "makes sense" represents the experience of reasonably melding all the data one has at hand at the time a decision is called for. It is not about formal education; often small children or "uneducated" adults are far more "sensible" in what they do than are those who have college degrees and cleverly ply logic to justify their actions.
Nor is any sense of ultimate "right" or certainty implied in this colloquial expression. "Makes sense" only means that all one's present data, all he "knows" at the time, is taken into account in a summary conclusion. It may, in fact, turn out to be completely "wrong" when insufficient data is available. Even so, spiritually good moves are made with full understanding of the limitations of all human information; "makes sense" only means "in the light of what I now know."
Spiritual good is not only "hearted," but also light-hearted. While being good, we "have a good time;" we "have fun." The "good times" we have, reflected in this fourth guideline, are, of course, in the colloquial sense of the phrase. Literally there is no inherent connection with what is labeled "good" by society or religion, nor is the "time" referred to measurable by any clock or calendar. For example, the familiar social virtue--"It is good to be on time," is unrelated to this colloquial sense of the expression "having a good time." One may, in fact, while "having such fun" as this guideline points toward to, be breaking social rules and also be late for the event.
"Is fun" refers to pleasure which goes beyond the satisfaction of bodily desires only (guideline Number One), though physical enjoyment may also be a prime part of the fun. More often it is a culmination of body, heart, and mind harmoniously interacting with the outside world. Other colloquial expressions, like "turned on," may refer to this light-hearted state of personal excitement that is also indicative of spiritual good.
Although "fun" is more commonly identified with "frivolous" and understood as the mere opposite of "serious"--as though one is either having fun or serious, the sense of fun implied in this guideline is much deeper and more profound. In fact, it may occur in either casual or inconsequential situations or in those commonly considered to be "deadly serious"--such as, funerals or religious services.
When one is experiencing the wholeness that is at the heart of spiritual good, even funerals, along with the sorrows of losing loved ones, may "be fun." In fact, when one is spiritually good, all of life is "a good time," including hard times. When one is aware of the Cosmic Joke--the paradoxes of life, nothing is "deadly serious" as social religions commonly portray reality.
In social understanding, religion is almost synonymous with deadly serious, the very opposite of having fun. The psychological word compulsive might be an even clearer synonym. To, for instance, "take one's medicine religiously," means to be compulsive about the act--to be deadly serious, letting nothing interfere.
On the other hand fun is correctly seen as a threat to compulsive religion and much of what is good in society. Although both religion and society try to make some room for occasional, carefully controlled and chaperoned pleasure, pure rollicking fun is understandably "suspect" by each. The deeply felt suspicion reflected in such common notions as: "This is so much fun it must be sinful," or, "My mother would turn over in her grave if she saw how much fun we were having," testify to the familiar opposition between social good and personal pleasure.
Although parents and other social authorities often say "Have fun" to children, every child quickly learns that the unstated context of the message is: "But, be good," meaning socially good. Fun is okay, but the major injunctions, stated or silent, are focused on correct behavior (social good). In other words, the fun that is inherent in spiritual goodness is a dangerous extra in society, certainly not to be taken as any sign of goodness.
Attentive to this guideline for spiritual good, no matter what activity a person is engaged in, the relevant question will be: "Yes, but are you having any fun?" True, for example, you may be keeping all laws, serving many others, even becoming rich and famous, but, when spiritual good matters, "are you having any fun?" Something you do may be good for others, but if you are "not having any fun," it is not likely good for you.
In the light-hearted acceptance of all life's viscitudes and injustices, including poverty, disease, and death, the spiritually good person still has fun. The bumper sticker: "Why take life so seriously? You'll never get out of it alive anyway," which can express extreme cynicism about reality, may also reflect the fun-loving nature of one who is being himself.
"...is having fun" may also be understood as "having a sense of
humor." I know of no other trait so consistently identified with spiritual goodness
as a healthy, ever-present "sense of humor." A smile, if not a belly laugh, if
never far away when one is goodly being himself, even when circumstances are awesome and
consequences are massive. This good, light-hearted yet responsible attitude toward all of
life, is pointed toward in Kipling's poem entitled If:
....If you can make one heap of all your winnings
....If you can make one heap of all your winnings
Although fun and hedonism--the reckless pursuit of selfish pleasure only, are often popularly identified as the same, the pleasure and excitement implied in this guideline is certainly more than hedonistic. Nor is it frivolous in the sense of irresponsible. The fun that reflects spiritual goodness includes a deep sense of personal responsibility--plus more.
"...is fun" is also a state of personal wholeness which is beyond all social "shoulds and oughts." When one is good in the spiritual sense, there is no "have to." Even when such an one is "seriously" engaged in performing within the social "shoulds,"--doing all the proper things a "good social person should," still he himself is freed from such personal constrictions. He "does what he should" for practical, social reasons, but is himself free from such compulsions which always sap the juice out of fun.
No matter what the event or the nature of the time, afterward one who was spiritually good may look back and note: "You know, I really had a good time." Guideline Number four: Being spiritually good "is fun."
As ourselves we may make many things; inherently we are creative creatures. But we cannot make goodness, at least of the spiritual variety. Always it "is given"--that is, experienced as though it "comes to us." The Biblical way of saying this is that salvation is "by grace, not by works...(Ephesians 2:8). This means that finally, after all is said and done in our diligent attempts to discover good, to save ourselves, it "is given"--or is not at all.
Even when we have labored diligently, sought it with our whole hearts, and done everything we can to find good--when it comes, it "is given." Again the phrase is in quotes to indicate its colloquial meaning. Literally, it seems like it "is given"; the actual givenness is metaphorical. Like fun, spiritual good seems to "come to us." We may, for example, work hard to plan a party, invite the right people, prepare good food and games, and do everything we can to have a good time; still, if we "have fun" it seems to "appear" on its own. We may give it our best shot and still not "have fun," or prepare sloppily and "find it" anyway. Whichever, fun--and spiritual good, seems to have a mind of its own. It shows up whenever it will. Often our most diligent efforts fail; then, when we least expect to "find it," fun shows up.
So, with spiritual good. Always it is "by grace,"--that is, "it" comes, or does not, in spite of what we may or may not do. We cannot control "it." Either it comes or it does not. Whenever it does, somehow we sense that is "from beyond" ourselves. We cannot but, when we are honest, feel gratitude for that which is spiritually good. In secular language, we "feel lucky."
This sense of the givenness of good probably arises from the fact that we tend to identify ourselves with lessor parts of who-we-are, especially with our own egos. Our sense of "me" rarely includes our wholeness, from which spiritual goodness arises. I may think of "myself," for example, as "not creative;" then, when I experience the pleasure of "just happening" to create something, I can only conclude (at least logically) that it "came to me (the non-creative one)." Perhaps "the muses" or the gods "gave it" or "sent it" to me. Wherever it "came from," we, when honest, feel gratitude, even if frustrated that we cannot control "it."
The literal fact, I think, is that goodness is synonymous with wholeness. The more whole-ly we become ourselves (holy?), the more goodness we experience. We naturally feel good when we are being ourselves, because good and whole go together. The sense of givenness must be more related to our partialness, our limited existence as ourselves on the way toward wholeness, than to any literal external source. Probably it is not "out there," as it seems, but only appears to come "to us" because of our limited sense of who-we-are, based on our real lack of selfhood.
However it happens, and for whatever reasons, spiritual good always seems to be "a given" rather than a personal creation. Even if "it" doesn't literally "come to us," it seems like it does. Our personal perception is as though it were a gift. Gratitude, thankfulness, is the only honest reaction. We "are lucky" whenever we experience spiritual good, no matter how hard we have worked in preparation for "its coming."
The perpetual givenness of good also means that it is not subject to capture and possession. We can never pin it down and make it our own. We may speak of "having goodness" in the same way we speak of "having fun;" the language is colloquial or metaphorical, never literal. We are never able to "have" goodness in any literal sense. We may get ready to "meet it coming" and miss it after "it is gone," but human possession of goodness never seems to be possible. We may, as I do here, talk about what it is like, speculate on where to find it, struggle to somehow make it stay, but love or fun, goodness is its own master; it "comes" and "goes" as "it" will. Never as we will it.
Like love, we have the human possibility of being loving and being good. But how do make love stay? remains an unanswered question. And so with goodness. We may love its presence and reasonably try to keep it, but the harder we strive to hold fun, love, or goodness, the more elusive it becomes. Finally, and always, spiritual goodness "is given," and, unfortunately, more often "is not" than "is."
Remembering this guideline, at best we may strive to "be open" to receive the graceful wonder whenever "it comes." And then, if we are wise, to be grateful for whatever time "it stays." At worst, we will be so closed that we are never able to receive this the greatest of all gifts, should it come at all.
Because reality is constantly evolving, and one who is being himself is being real--is in reality, that one is also evolving; in colloquial language, he "is changing." To "be real" is to be in reality is to be evolving, as reality is.
For society, permanence is the virtue and change is inherently threatening. Systems, including human societies, thrive on rigidly established, non-changing structures. Frozen traditions, the "way it was," consistent laws and "ways of doing things" are all functional elements of on-going social groups. When individuals identify themselves with their social groups, they also seek permanence and view change as bad.
Unfortunately for such persons, permanence is not written into the human script any more than it is into reality in the long run. Apparent permanencies are always illusionary; things may look permanent, temporarily, but a wider look usually reveals that evolution is always in process, changes are occurring, even when not see or when the rate of change is too slow to be recognized. Like it or not, both societies and individual members of societies are constantly in a state of change.
A Biblical teaching speaks clearly to this fact about spirited individuals: "If any person is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has passed away. Behold, the new is continually coming (II Corinthians 5:17)." Continual newness is the nature of one who is being good. Such a person is so in contact with reality, the continually changing, ever evolving real world, that he or she is always in the process of experiencing newness also.
Although permanence is a prime social value, change is at the heart of spiritual values. One who is spirited will "be changing," continually. Such changing is not a rebellion against the structures of society, not simply a fear of walls and rules, not just "changing for the sake of change," but rather a faithful participation in the on-going process of world and human evolution. It emerges from recognition of the "facts of life," namely, the illusionary nature of permanence--no matter how socially practical it may be, and the inherence of change in reality.
Even though societies and social religions choose a "Rock of Gibraltar" as their ideal, reality is more like the sea than a rock--ever in process, shifting, changing, rising and falling. Even the blowing wind is a better metaphor for life-as-it-is than is a "solid rock." Jesus noted: "The wind blows where it will; and though you hear its sound, yet you neither know where it comes from nor where it goes. So it is with everyone one who is born of the spirit (John 3:8)."
A paralyzing fear of changing is actually a fear of being spirited--whose very nature is freedom, that is, the continual possibility of moving, like the wind, in some new direction. Such a state of freedom is more than a fear of being trapped, which would simply be the flip side of the coin of fearing "letting go." It is rather a courageous commitment to the process of evolution that includes temporary stabilities (rock-like forms and structures), but is primarily characterized by continual change, "all things becoming new."
This guideline for spiritual good is simply about recognizing and daring to participate in reality-as-it-is. Not that change-itself is good, rather than permanence-itself (the social value), but that change is real and one who would really be himself has no other real option but to "be changing" also. Spiritual good "is changing."
In practice this guideline takes into account the fact that reality can never "be pinned down," except temporarily or in our mind's eye. Permanence is always an illusion in the long run. We may observe this fact on two levels: language (words and thoughts), and structures. First, language:
"The thing is" there is no thing--so far as we know. Things (substances), literally, are only "a way of looking at things,"--our particular human way, that is. There is "no such thing" as a thing (no ultimate substance (god or quark, depending on whether you are religious or secular) beyond our perceptions, so far as we know.
When we think of things, we are using the human capacity for consciousness, for mentally pushing the pause button on the on-going movie of reality. Then, through the magic of mind, we may "see-while-seeing," that is, be conscious of our being conscious, or look at what we are looking at. Actually we are only fast-freezing repeatable patterns of our own perceptions.
The "things" we name, as though they were permanent entities "out there," separate and apart from our perceptions, are, in fact, but mental symbols for our particular modes of discerning reality--the patterns which we, through our limited senses, perceive. When we think we are naming "it," we are actually only naming our personal perceptions. Names, in reality, are mental fictions.
This doesn't mean that things don't exist, even so called "ultimate" or irreducible things. Perhaps there truly are things "out there." But, even so, we as humans are limited to patterns of perceptions that fall within the fairly narrow range of our six or seven senses. For example, were our eyes sharper, say, like a microscope, we would see that a drop of water is not literally a thing, but rather a huge collection of tiny organisms in a matrix of hydrogen and oxygen molecules. We could also see "through" what we call a "solid tree," etc. With eyes as strong as an electron microscope we could even "see" that atoms are not "the final word."
The point is, seeing (and therefore knowing) is a product of our particular, wonderful perceive-abilities. We see repeatedly the pulsating patterns that our seeing is able to "grasp." Naturally, with the gift of consciousness, we name such repeating patterns, for instance "water" and "tree." We make nouns for what, in reality remains verbal only.
Dangerously, though, once we name, we easily fall for the illusion that we are talking about objective reality, rather then limited human subjective experience. So far as we humans are concerned, there is no "this is it," only "this is how I now see (perceive) it." All out "things" are but our perceptions. Grasping ultimate reality is beyond us. At best, we may encounter reality honestly.
The second issue concerns our establishing structures of mind (ideas, beliefs, philosophies, theologies, etc.) and hand (objects, institutions, societies, etc.). Once we accept our language--the "things" we have named, plus the information collected concerning "them," we may then "make things out of them." We may create mental and physical structures, such as, belief systems, houses, and social systems. After any of these "things," mental or physical, "are made," we may naturally and practically strive to keep, protect, and "make them last,"--even forever.
But alas! "Nothing lasts," as we all know on some deep level, "forever"--that is, even when we are able to preserve some of our creations for extended periods of time, any sense of permanence is finally illusionary. "Things" are intended to be useful; where would we be without our "stuff"? Holding and using our beliefs and objects as long as they practically serve and can be maintained is a reasonable human endeavor. However, the "facts of life" are not altered by our utilitarian efforts; still "things change," including our structures of thought and hand--or they die.
This spiritual guideline for good is about cooperating with these "facts of life," rather than needlessly and hopelessly beating our heads against the stone walls which inevitably, like everything else, "are changing." Smartly, we strive for temporal "permanence" for practical and necessary reasons; but wisely, we let go of any "thing," mental or physical, as soon as "its time to go" has come.
In practice this means that there are no permanent "things" or decisions, when we remain spirited; only deciding. Nor are there any permanent, perpetually "right" beliefs, doctrines, or philosophies of life. To continually "be changing," following this fifth guideline, means to be constantly thinking and re-thinking about established thoughts and beliefs. Not that old notions are bad or wrong, but that staying lively in spirit involves the continual process of re-evaluation--"keeping the baby," but "throwing out the bath water."
And so with physical "things,"--old clothes, shoes, and closeted items, as well as modes of behavior and relationships. Being "continually new" means exactly that; literally, "all things" are, for one who is spiritually good, continually being re-newed, evolved into ever new shapes and forms which are temporarily respected and honored while practical, but also subject to the wonder of being renewed themselves.
The nature of humanity--of us when we are being ourselves, is to activate and experience all of who-we-are. When any aspect of self is denied, repressed, or simply left inactivated, that part "calls out." It seeks the type of experience of which it is capable. Often we call this "seeking" curiosity. It is human to "look for" what is missing. Inactivated, or kept in circumstances which leave our capacities unexpressed, we soon get bored. The meaning of "familiarity breeds contempt" is that our inclination for ever-new experience is curtailed when we get trapped in the old and therefore "familiar."
Although the "greener grass" on the "other side of the fence" may also be used as an escape from the challenges of responsible presence, human nature is more often attracted to what-is-new because of our deeper awareness of the ever-changing nature of reality and of ourselves as apart of it.
To note that good "is changing" is also to affirm that it is seldom the same; it changes from place to place, time to time, and person to person. What is spiritually good in one place may bad in another; good times vary from time to time: what is good on Saturday night may not be on Sunday morning. And certainly there is little correlation of spiritual good between persons. What is good for me may at the same time be bad for you; and vice versa. Attempts to return to old vacation spots or the "good ole days" in search for the good times previously experienced there are notably disappointing; reason: good "is changing." We erroneously believe it to be connected with a particular place and time. Further, even if we succeed in reproducing places and times, we are never the same person now that we were then. What is good for us as evolving persons is also changing. We may return to the old home place, but never to the old "home" because we as persons have changed, even if it has not.
Another way to say this is that being good spiritually is always present tense. "It"--good life, is always "in the event," the immediate happening, what-is-going-on-just-now. Planning for a possible future and redeeming a fertile past are, of course, included in present-tense events; yet never used to escape the delightfully wonderful, ever-present, eternal now--which, as noted (and ever child knows without being told) "is changing."
Naturally, spiritual good "is changing."
Six guidelines for goodness are: Spiritual good "feels good," "seems right," "makes sense," "is fun," "is given", and "is changing," --or at least seems as though it were.
Overall, note first that all of these spiritual clues--"values" we may call them, are generally at odds with social values. Even when socially tolerated, they are rarely valued in society. For instance "feels good" is irrelevant in any socially virtuous activity. It may also be accepted as a bonus: it is okay if we also "feel good," but good behavior is the real value. It is also all right if we "have fun" at work; but hard work is the virtue, not "is fun."
Certainly society values permanence over "is changing," and prefers to "have things" and "be in control" rather than risk what "is given." But even when spiritual "values" and social values are not at odds with one another, their essential difference exists. As noted earlier, that which is good for society and that which is good for spirit, may or may not be the same. More often they conflict; but even when compatible--as having fun (the spiritual value) at work (the social value), still they are essentially different. There is no inherent connection between social and spiritual good. They are of completely different orders. To take just one example: fame, as the ultimate in "what they think of me," is supremely important in any society; it is "almost everything." But when we come to spiritual good, "what they think" is not only irrelevant, but also more than often contrary to what is spiritually good for me.
Secondly, in applying any of the guidelines the distinction between rules-of-thumb, which these guidelines are, and recipes (formulas, rules) should be kept in mind. Although social good can be defined and achieved by following rules, spiritual good cannot. These guidelines may accurately point toward spiritual good, but they in no way define it. When good is present then one or more, often all, of these guidelines will be true; still, there are no guarantees. All may be present while good is yet absent, or, I suppose, good may be present when there are no clues whatsoever.
Thirdly, the order of the guidelines as given seems to be the order of their most common relevance--that is, number one, "feels good," will be the best of all six, the one more often perceived than all others. If only one of the six is remembered, the first will likely be the most applicable.
Which doesn't mean, however, that it is a guarantee. Sometimes "feels good"--for instance when going to the dentist, is temporarily inapplicable; then guidelines two through six may supercede number one. Still, all are relevant; the greater the good, the more likely all six are to be present.
Perhaps another major distinction between social and spiritual good may be grasped through grammar: the word good, the same for both types, has a primary grammatical difference when applied in each area. With social good, good is most often used as an adjective; with spiritual good, good is a noun. Adjectives describe things; with social good, we may properly speak of "a good thing," such as "a good deed," with the word good as an adjective describing the deed.
Conversely, with spiritual good, good is a noun rather than an adjective. Spiritual good is a phenomenon within itself, not merely an attribute of other things. There are no "good things," spiritually speaking; in fact, spiritual good is about transcending the illusion of subjects and objects which is the basis of the English language and which therefore underlies our American way of thinking. Whereas social good "is about something"--a literal phrase, spiritual good "is something"--a figurative phrase.
Spiritual good, as a noun rather than an adjective, is about a way-of-being, not about things we can do. As noted earlier, our language that is based on the concept of things in time and space is notoriously ineffective in speaking about spiritual good which does not easily fit these categories. Quality, I noted then, is a better category than quantity for thinking about this type of good. This good is about quality of being, rather than quantities of doing.
Within the context of the English language, the main "measuring devices" are related to the concepts of time and space--plus objects or activities (deeds) in time and space. Each object or activity is recognized as a discrete "thing"--the first, a static "thing," (such as, a chair), the second, a moving "thing," (such as, picking up a chair). Because social good is all about things in time and space, static "things," plus moving "things," like deeds, the language works well. We may literally speak of "good things" (such as medicine for the sick) and "good deeds," (such as "helping other people").
Unfortunately, because spiritual good is a quality of being rather than a thing or thing-to-do, our language falls woefully short in its effective application to our subject here. Hence, as noted, our use of figurative or colloquial language. This trek into the nature of our language has been made to note this single point: Whereas there are, literally, good times, good spaces, and good deeds, socially speaking, there are no such times, places, or deeds when we approach spiritual good. We must use the same language, yet we are limited to its figurative or colloquial usage. For example, no deed, such as "helping others," is inherently good in the spiritual sense. This highest of social virtues may even be destructive when we come to consider spiritual good.
Other languages, such as Greek, have separate words that may be used in making these distinctions. For instance, Greek has kairos and chronos, both translated as time in English. The first, however, is not literally about measurable clock-time; it is used for experiences-in-time, rather than timeable-experiences. They also have zoa and bios (plus pneuma), which are both translated as life in English. The first, however, zoe "life," is not literally about body and breathing; bios and pneuma are for these subjects. When Jesus speaks of "eternal life," the word used is zoe--related to quality of living, not bios--related to bodily existence. When Paul speaks of "redeeming the time," the word is kairos (about quality-of-experience), not chronos (moment of the day). Consequently, the Biblical sense of "everlasting life" (English translation) has nothing to do with "endless existence in chronological time;" it is about a certain quality of living which cannot be measured by the clock (zoa in kairos, not bios in chronos).
To point toward these relevant distinctions in English we may best use figurative and colloquial language. For instance, in this sentence: "We had the time of our lives," understood figuratively, we come closer to the Biblical sense of "eternal life." If we spoke ancient Greek, our time of our lives would be worded as kairos of our zoe, not chronos of our bios.
The point is, we do better when we speak colloquially than when we attempt to translate spiritual good into literal English. Our guidelines numbered one and four--"feels good" and "is fun" might be expressed as "I had the time of my life," meaning "I felt good and really had fun." Although time and life words are used, the reference to a certain quality-of-experience, not to physical existence, say, "breathing at 8 o'clock on Friday night"--even if that was literally when "it" was, for instance when a boy "gets his first kiss."
Finally, turning again to colloquial speech for clues, spontaneous expressions--thought in silence, or vocalized, such as "That's good," when no ethical, moral, or social virtue is intended, are perhaps the clearest possible testimonies to spiritual good. For example: "That was a good burp," or, "I had a really good time," or, after laughing uproariously, "That was a good joke," or, languishing in each other's arms in the aftermath of love, "That was good sex." Everyone knows, at least deep down, what such expressions mean; they are not at all about social values. In fact, they often are completely at odds with social values: a good burp (spiritually speaking) is always impolite ("bad," socially speaking); good jokes may be "dirty" in society, and good sex may be illegal or immoral.
The deep personal satisfaction revealed in any of our spontaneous "That's good..." expressions testifies to our common knowledge of spiritual good, even when society fails to understand.