God became man so that men might become gods, which goes far beyond just doing the right thing
By Sister Anna Marie McGuan, RSM
One objection to Christianity (and it seems religion in general) is the statement: “I don’t need religion to be a good person.” The implication in such a statement is that religion does not really add anything to developing character, let alone supernatural virtue and holiness.
It would be helpful, however, to clarify what exactly is meant by the this “good person” statement. Being a “good person” is a vague notion. Perhaps it means that the speaker is not a perpetrator of violent crimes, or any crimes at all. He may be a volunteer at a local homeless shelter or soup kitchen. He may simply mean that he is not hurting anyone else by his actions.
Those are acceptable qualities, even admirable ones. It is unconvincing, however, as a definition of a good person. The real meaning of what a good person is made of is more profound and much more challenging than that.
Boethius wrote that a person is an individual substance of a rational nature. This means that personhood is not reducible to the body alone, nor to the soul alone, nor simply to consciousness. Whether one is awake or asleep, he is a person. Nor is personhood equated with cognitive function. A child is just as much a person as an adult. A mentally handicapped adult is just as much a person as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
If personhood is reduced to consciousness or cognition, the complexity of being human is reduced to one facet of the human reality. Ask a mother if her infant is a person. It is doubtful that she will say no, even though he can’t speak yet. What will be a man is a man already—this is intuited by a mother, and it is correct.
Adding “good” to that understanding of person also teaches something. The “good” is a perfection of being, something that makes it desirable. Health, for example, is a desired good by most people. A healthy animal is more perfect and more desirable than a sick animal. A good person is more desirable and more perfect than a bad one.
Not only that, the good person communicates the good he possesses to others. Knowledge, for example, is communicated to others through the art of teaching. A good teacher communicates effectively in order to share knowledge with his students. Goodness, in the context of human people, is what makes a person take what is good in the self and use it to will the good of the other.
Parenting is a great example of this—how often does the parent have to rise above selfishness in order to do good to the child, even when the child is incapable of understanding the sacrifice? If the parent does not learn this self-giving love, the child is hurt, and the relationship suffers. The motive for such selfless actions is pure; the parents love the child and do things simply for the child’s well-being.
There is no ulterior motive, no self-aggrandizement, no payback.
Theoretically, “good people,” i.e. generous, self-giving, virtuous people, could exist without Christianity. They might have self-mastery, all the while understanding personhood and living according to right reason in action.
However, there is more to religion than churning out nice people.
Here is what C. S. Lewis had to say about it: “And what the first bit of good [Christianity] will do to you is to hammer into your head (you won’t enjoy that!) the fact that what you have hitherto called ‘good’—all that about ‘leading a decent life’ and ‘being kind’—isn’t quite the magnificent and all-important affair you supposed.
It will teach you that in fact you can’t be ‘good’ (not for 24 hours) on your own moral efforts. And then it will teach you that even if you were, you still wouldn’t have achieved the purpose for which you were created. Mere morality is not the end of life. You were made for something quite different from that…”
In other words, a man may, by becoming a Christian, become a good person; and he may not. Making good people in a vague, generic way, however, is not the purpose of Christianity. Christianity is about saints. The fathers of the Church would ask: Why did God become man? That is, what was the purpose of the Incarnation, the fact that Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, was born a man in time?
The answer they gave was full of depth and transforming power: God became man so that men might become gods. He “leapt down” to dwell among us and teach us to live and be like Himself. What they were talking about was and is the deification of the human person—God shows us and empowers us to live like He does, and so to live with meaning, integrity, and profound peace. As St. Peter wrote, “we become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).
That goes far beyond being a “good person.” The life of faith and grace bursts open the definition of “good person” into what it is meant to be: godlike, holy, and truth lived out through charity.
Sister Anna Marie McGuan, RSM, is the director of the Office of Christian Formation for the Diocese of Knoxville. She also writes for SimplyCatholic.com, a ministry of Our Sunday Visitor. This column originally appeared at SimplyCatholic.com.