In most religions, stories abound of gods and goddesses doing things that thoughtful believers and inquirers find morally repugnant and ethically indefensible.
What kinds of things? Well, for one, demanding peoples’ loyalty while remaining indifferent to their suffering. Or inflicting punishments all out of proportion to offenses. Or regarding human beings’ bodies, possessions, relationships, and hopes theirs for the taking.
It gets worse. In many religious scriptures, behaviors like these are expressly condemned by the very laws handed down by the deities who so flagrantly disregard them.
Even this isn’t the end of the matter. Along with images of divine profligacy, religious traditions proffer theological rationalizations even more problematic than the stories which contain them.
The most offensive of these rationalizations is the teaching that divine beings’ holiness puts them above the obligations that their rules impose on everyone else. Otherwise expressed: human beings answer to God, but God answers to no one and to no rule, not even a rule of His own making.
What is wrong with this teaching is that it confuses divine holiness with divine power. It is the religious version of the ancient moral dictum reiterated by Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic that “Might makes right.”
For many people, the idea of God is all about power, and only a God who has and/or controls all of it is worth glorifying. Instead of heightening a sense of God’s gloriousness, however, this idea weakens it.
It weakens it even to the point of bringing suffering people to stop believing in God altogether. How? By forcing them to conclude that though the God they thought they knew has the power to eliminate their suffering, God clearly refuses to use it in their case. Better no God than a God like this.
But power is not the defining character of divinity. Goodness is. A goodness sufficient to warrant trust that the “counsels” of truly divine beings are truly righteous. A goodness so central to the very essence of God as to bind God to the same rules which bind others.
The idea of divine holiness is not rooted in some vague sense of an incomprehensible Otherness beyond all ethical principles and human visions of a truly moral order. It expresses, rather, very concrete experiences of the possibility of being perfected by a Goodness which may be even greater than Being itself.