Simon Barrow

What on earth do do we mean by 'good'?

By Simon Barrow
August 19, 2013

The issue of what constitutes 'the good', in persons, in relationships and in society is an interesting one. It is far less straightforward than many assume.

That thought was provoked by my involvement in promoting a conversation about 'the good society' at Just Festival 2013, among other things.

Our ideas of what is 'good' are not simple, universal and consensual. In human terms, 'the good' is constructed. In theological terms it is given... not as a divine fiat (I hasten to add), but as an unfolding understanding about God's purposes in an evolving world understood biblically as created and as redeemed: in other words, intended for shalom / salaam (a fully-integrated peaceableness) and for concomitant delivery from all that would mar and destroy the vision of a world constituted by right relations.

From a Christian viewpoint, the universe is finally, and in spite of its tendency to fall and fail, 'God's good creation'. Believing this can, literally, make "all the difference in the world".

Consequently, what is 'good' is neither the lowest common denominator nor the highest common factor in human affairs. Nor is it the imposition of one group or ideology on everyone else. It is about learning to share, to let go, to forgive, to remake and to peacebuild in the midst of brokenness. It is, in other words, a set of practices that we develop out of communal assent and transmission, character building and ritual.

As belief communities (Christian, humanist, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu and more), we therefore need to ask what our understanding of the good is, how it is funded intellectually, spiritually and practically, and how it interacts with other understandings.

Also, crucially, how do we build creative conversations across different visions of goodness: ones that enable us to share of our best, and receive the challenge we all need to face? (Hint: we do this, as Nick Adams suggests in his book Theology and Habermas, not by pre-theorising engagement with 'the other', but by simply, but reflexively, engaging.)

In these terms, I have become a great advocate of virtue ethics, as distinct from the primarily deontological (law based) or utilitarian varieties.

Virtue ethics - earthed in the gospels from my perspective, not primarily in elitist Aristotelian philosophy - is an approach that emphasizes the character of the moral agent, rather than rules or consequences, as the key element in generating and sustaining ethical thinking. Morally proper actions result from having the proper character traits or habits (virtues), such as courage, moderation, wisdom, justice, and truthfulness. A person will consistently act in the right manner only if they have developed these virtues, which requires discipline and, in turn, membership of a community of character.

This is what the church is supposed to be. As pacifist theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it, rightly understood the church does not 'have' a social ethic, it IS a social ethic (or, I would add, fails to be one).

Likewise, it is the Christian doctrine of God (the grammatical account that identifies God as loving creator, word and spirit) which gives Christians the possibility of encountering 'the good', accounting for it and embodying it.

The largest problem the church faces these days is the failure to understand this, such that the Christian apprehension of the divine is regarded as some optional extra, and the Christian community is seen as primarily concerned with 'religion', rather than with a new way of living. I have written about this extensively elsewhere, including in my piece 'Three ways to make sense of one God' (

Ultimately, my conviction is that a thoroughgoing account of the good can only be reasonably maintained if the God we worship is reality - if God is, and is the wholly non-competitive 'other' in whom complete gratuity resides and is made available 'beyond our means'. Short of that, 'good' is what we say it is, and what we say is manufactured.

That most definitely does not mean that god-sayers and religious persons have a monopoly on true goodness. On the contrary, the manipulation of God is not not only the greatest imaginable manipulation, but the greatest evil - what in the gospels is denoted "the sin against the Holy Spirit". And it is one that only religious people can commit.

No, the possibility of goodness opened up in and through God (specifically, the God we meet in Jesus, enabled by the Spirit) is not a possession, and if it is taken as such it is fundamentally misunderstood and destroyed. However, rightly approached, the realisation that goodness is given and received, not claimed and manufactured, makes the biggest possible difference to our ethics and to our approach to developing 'a good society'. It bars the way to greed, killing and disregard as mimetically transmitted, distorted desires (the three sources of earthly most harm), and it creates the new heart among us which alone will sustain a different, hopeful way of living together. That is what the Christian message, in loving dialogue and disputation with others, is all about.

There is, to be sure, be plenty of goodwill around in the world. The question is, how can that be preserved and developed in a habitas of mass violence, environmental devastation, anomie and consumer-based self destruction?

Ethics tough enough to survive and flourish in such an environment require something greater than standard liberalism and something less fearful than standard conservatism.

What the Christian message proposes is that we need to be rescued from ourselves, turned inside out and sent in a new direction. That is what the terms 'deliverance from sin', 'salvation' and 'conversion' mean. They remain, despite their frequent misuse by abusive forms of Christianity, indispensable.

* Details of the 'good society' conversation:

* For more information on Just Festival, visit and

* Ekklesia is a sponsor of Just Festival. Our news, reporting and comment is aggregated at:


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia and has been a media adviser for Just Festival. He is a theologian, writer and consultant.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.