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There is a popular joke which circulates in various formats, the punchline of which is that one would rather hang out with the kind of people who go to hell than who go to heaven. This is typically understood to be the inversion of Christian teaching, based on an understanding of good and evil as a list of things one should and should not do. Of course, all the fun things in life are on the naughty list, so we’d rather join such ranks. To be honest, so defined, I would too.

What this joke highlights to me is how badly Christianity has failed to understand or model, much less preach, what “goodness” really is. In this respect the “secular” philosophical ethicists and the Jewish tradition have much to remind and to (re)teach Christianity. The former, besides their rigor, have strong messages of actions needing to be based on their effects on others, of noting power implications, and of respecting individual autonomy even while trying to help them. These are all theologically important too, but the Church has often forgotten them too easily. The Jewish tradition has a much fuller understanding of goodness in this life than the church often has. Among other things, the notion of Tikkun ‘Olam–improving the world–has as its base the idea of goodness being world-affirming rather than world rejecting. This leads to an understanding whereby goodness is something positive rather a list of negatives (things to do rather than things not to do).

The latter point brings to mind the ever-present undercurrent of Gnosticism that has haunted Christianity despite being officially condemned as heresy: it has lived on in a fear of the body and the material, leading to asceticism and ethics based on solely on moral/ethical criteria but on fear of materiality. It is this sort of mentality that leads to the Protestant “no cards, no booze, no women who do” tradition which has created the above jokes.

Jesus said he came to bring life, and that more abundantly. If goodness is (and I think it has to be) that which is ultimately the best for us, then it needs to be understood as truly living–living in a way which is moral and ethical, yes, but in a way which causes the individual and the community to thrive. Understood as such, and good people are the ones everyone would want to hang out with.

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