Martin W. Bender
Jacob Needleman asks a timeless question in his book Why Can’t We Be Good? Namely, why do all people fail in doing good and avoiding evil. The problem of wickedness in the world is identified by everyone from the philosopher to the kindergartener. Every person sees in others and in themselves a fundamental flaw: we don’t live up to our moral standards (let alone God’s). Needleman attempts to explain this problem in light of philosophy and religion and offers up a response which on the surface seems plausible, but ultimately fails when applied.
Needleman’s answer to the ethical dilemma demonstrated daily in human living is that people have to potentiality to be good, but fail to do so because they are not yet fully human. He sees a difference between humanity as it is and what it is becoming. Man’s morality is, in essence, a glimpse of what we are in the process of becoming and tragically, part of that process is failing in the ideals that formulate our ethical standards. He traces this idea in history by linking it to values displayed in the Abrahamic religions. In doing so he demonstrates a fundamental flaw in his understanding of Christian anthropology.
Christianity’s view of mankind is that it is by nature evil. This is a result of Adam’s sin in the garden and as a consequence, the nature of man has fundamentally been changed from innocence to guilt. It is this gross misunderstanding of the Christian teaching on human nature that leads me to doubt his application of Jewish and Muslim thought as well. Needleman glosses over the concept of original sin completely, dismissing the explanations of Moses, Jesus, and Paul about human nature leaning instead upon humanistic optimism loosely tied to the traditions of Abraham, Jesus, and Mohammed.
Why Can’t We Be Good? Seeks to place the love an individual has for God, others, and themselves as the root of all moral behavior. Such a thought doesn’t seem terrible at face value, but fails to see that love, as a source for morality is rooted in God’s love for his people rather than the individual’s love for him. The Creator is primary in all things thus morality is rooted in the triune God rather than the perceived potentiality for goodness in man. Each individual is not on a path toward becoming good, rather some are proclaimed good on the basis of Jesus’ undeserved death.
The idea of love for the Other Needleman uses to argue for the eventual goodness of humanity did spur a thought I believe will be helpful in another area. In the soteriological argument between human free will and divine determinism (Arminianism and Calvinism, Pelagianism and Augustinianism, Monergism and Synergism, etc.) frequently the question of the individual’s love for God arises. The challenge being that love that isn’t freely given (from man to God) is meaningless. The problem with this objection is that it places the creature’s love for his Creator above the Creator’s love for his creature. Meaning that God’s love for his people is somehow secondary to their love for him. Such a thought seems ridiculous in light of passages like Galatians 2:20 and 1 John 4:19.
Back to the book, Needleman provokes deep thinking on the nature of man, the interaction of individuals within society, as well as what could prompt a person to endeavor to become this idealized person who is morally good. His misuse of Christian themes due to his gross misunderstanding of Christian anthropology is unsettling and could cause immature believers to adopt a humanistic understanding of morality. In light of this, I don’t recommend Why Can’t We Be Good? Unless one has a good understanding of the biblical teaching on the nature of man.
 Now, before you go all crazy on me understand that I am still thinking this argument through. It came to me last night while finishing the book.