Any person can aspire to Goodness. Any Christian, Any Buddhist. Any Atheist. God, or a belief in God, is not necessary. What is necessary to aspire to Goodness is religion. What is necessary to define Goodness, is love.
The desire to be good or to do good: that is morality. The intentional and dedicated pursuit of Goodness as a guiding principle in our lives: that is religion. It is important to note in that definition that the principle “guides” us, it does not determine for us what is Good. How we define what is Good is cultural, it is elusive and changeable, and ultimately it is emotional.
Take the example of an Eco-Friendly acquaintance of mine. Environmentalism informs every aspect of her life: how she dresses, what she eats, how she votes, who she marries, etc. That sounds like a religion. She avidly pursues the Good without ever considering God.
But what if her “religion” excludes on moral grounds testing that might save human lives? What of my religion, which permits medical testing but pollutes the planet irrevocably? If either of us gets our way, the other is trampled, surely such a thing cannot be Good.
Surely the Good is a compromise between what I believe and what she believes, what I am willing to surrender to her and what she is willing to surrender to me. Goodness exists in a space between us, we define it communally and since we are both avidly pursuing it, we can hope to achieve it together. We do this with humility, with compassion, with a desire to please and to be pleased. We do this with love.
And when we reach a loving compromise in this way, it means that we have experienced Goodness without either of us achieving that elusive Good we desired.
When we speak of Christianity as a religion, we acknowledge that the ideal of Christ, his life and works, infuses what we do. Christ does not TELL us what to do, but an intentional determination to lead a Christ-like life guides us. But in every action we take toward that goal of Christ-like living, we must know that He would never want us to trample those in our path. That would not be Christ-like, it would not be Good. We believe we are created in the image of God and that our moral fiber s a reflection of that “drop of perfection” in our souls. I believe that. I just don’t think it’s necessary to believe it to aspire to Goodness.
Nothing I have said here is new. Plato, Kant, Keats, Eckhart all have explored it more thoroughly and intelligently. None, perhaps, so well as Iris Murdoch, the British philosopher and author of many brilliant novels and essays including “The Sovereignty of Good” in which she argues every nuance with elegant simplicity. That books ends with the conclusion that we should not try to define Goodness, or Love, for that matter, but be aware that humility is the road to both.