Dialogue and Depth: Exploring What Good Is God?

by Theresa Ladrigan-Whelpley |

“What Good is God?” This provocative question has long been a central concern of theology and philosophy. Medieval theologians such as Thomas Aquinas inquired: “Whether God is good?” and “Whether all things are good by the divine goodness?”1 However, this age-old question has taken on an added significance today. While many contemporary believers continue to inquire about what kind of “good” God is, many believers and nonbelievers press in on the question through another frame: “What is the use of God?” In a world in which humanity can create and destroy with wide-reaching agency, what utility or “good” does God, and belief in God, have for our lives and our communities?

Through a dynamic series of lectures and facilitated dialogues with scientists, philosophers, literary scholars, engineers, theologians, poets, artists, and educators, the 2013-2014 Bannan Institute of the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education at Santa Clara University sought to engage this challenging question. The current issue of explore highlights four of these lectures and invites further dialogue through the reflective responses of Santa Clara University faculty, staff, students, and alumni.

Poet and author Christian Wiman leads off the issue with an excerpt from his lecture, “My Bright Abyss: Thoughts on Modern Belief,” considering the modern phenomenon of unbelieving believers for whom the realities of doubt, alienation, and suffering ground the experience of faith. Reflecting on his own journey of faith and doubt, faculty member and celebrated author Tim Myers draws on Wiman’s contribution to consider the interwoven realities of death and life, and his experience of transformation within the simultaneity of divine paradox. Santa Clara junior Sabrina Barreto, who currently serves as poetry editor for Santa Clara’s student literary magazine, reflects on Wiman’s poetic vocation, suggesting that poetry, with its inimitable capacity to hold space for the unsaid within the said, provides an incarnational medium for the transcendent.

International literary scholar and prolific author Terry Eagleton opens the second chapter in this issue’s series of dialogues with an excerpt from his lecture, “Why Is God for Christians Good for Nothing?” Here Eagleton challenges functionalist notions of God with the claim that God is good for no reason, benefit, or instrumental end, but rather, for goodness’ sake itself. He urges Christians to be “good for nothing” too, arguing that humans most closely resemble God when we exercise our freedom seeking no self-advantage or return for our goodness. In her essay “Thinking Otherwise about God, Marx, and Eagleton,” Marilyn Edelstein, English professor and Women and Gender Studies faculty affiliate at Santa Clara, expands on Eagleton’s thesis to suggest that the social and political practices that arise from “good for nothing” goodness are central to the teaching of many religious traditions and are taken up by nonreligious believers as well. Santa Clara junior religious studies and classics major Jonathan Homrighausen presses Eagleton’s thesis further, arguing that while God may be “good for nothing,” what humans believe about God is actually good for everything.

Planetary scientist and curator of meteorites at the Vatican Observatory in Rome Br. Guy Consolmagno, S.J., launches our third series of dialogues on the question “What Good Is God?” with an excerpt from his lecture, “Why Science Needs God.” In this lecture, Consolmagno argues that scientific questions are imbued with religious significance and scientists’ notions about ultimate meaning supply the motivation for doing science itself. Professor Aleksandar Zecevic of Santa Clara’s School of Engineering offers a dynamic response to Consolmagno’s thesis. While Zecevic agrees with Consolmagno that the core beliefs of scientists and engineers do underlie their foundational reasons for conducting research, Zecevic also observes that recent developments in mathematics, physics, and systems theory advance the claim that there are fundamentally unknowable truths about reality, opening up increasingly complementary (rather than merely competing) potentialities within science and religion dialogues. In his essay “Science, God, Life,” Brian Green of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics enriches the conversation by considering the ways in which his own perspectives as a scientist, theologian, and ethicist have become more wholly integrated.

The fourth dialogue in this issue of explore opens with an excerpt from Michael C. McCarthy, S.J.’s lecture, “The Fragility of Faith: How Can a Thinking Person Still Believe in God?” In this inaugural Fr. Louis I. Bannan, S.J. Memorial Lecture, McCarthy argues for at least three necessary, though not sufficient, conditions for a thinking person to believe in God: imagine bigger, befriend intelligent believers, and take a risk. McCarthy suggests that these three practices may open up possibilities within ourselves and our universities where a more dynamic engagement with faith may become possible. Professor of Religion and Society at the Jesuit School of Theology Jerome Baggett considers McCarthy’s charge through the lens of his own research on everyday Americans who identify as atheists, pressing McCarthy to consider the ways in which believers and non-believers alike seek to imagine bigger, befriend intelligent believers, and take a risk. Finally, recent Santa Clara alumna, Sarah Attwood, now Campus Minister at Providence College, posits that the three conditions McCarthy names for a thinking person to believe in God are best understood as lifelong practices. 

In a world in which humanity can create and destroy with wide-reaching agency, what utility or “good” does God, and belief in God, have for our lives and our communities?

We conclude the issue with an excerpt from our 2014 Santa Clara Lecture, “Grace in Shakespeare,” offered by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson, as well as her reflections on writing, discernment, and modern faith from an interview with Santa Clara Magazine editor Steven Saum.

The dialogues we have hosted this year through the 2013-2014 Bannan Institute, and which continue here through this issue of explore, probe the depths of the question: What good is God? We hope that you will be challenged and engaged in reading this issue, as you consider the question of “What good is God?” within your own life, work, and communities, and within our larger world and cosmos.


  1. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q.6, a.1; I, q.6, a.3.
comments powered by Disqus

From the director