Michael Menedikt, God is the Good We Do: theology of theopraxis (Botting Books, 2007)
Reviewed by Peter Fensham
(Reviewed February 2012)
This book is of interest to all those, including my Christian friends, who find the word “God” difficult because people use it in so many different ways and with such contradictory meanings. The author says, “The book is an exploration of Theopraxy, a certain kind of belief in God. We can experience God and we can think of God not as something or someone remote, not as the Creator of the universe, nor as the spirit or principle behind everything, but as something or someone we bring to life, when and as we do good.”
Michael Benedikt is an American architect, “Jewish by birth but not very observant”. He is very familiar with Christianity and both parts of the Bible. There are some wonderful and surprising reinterpretations of a number of central Biblical passages, such as the creation story in Genesis and the Incarnation story. Like so many of us, he is challenged by the perennial problem that evil poses for belief in God (in his case, a Holocaust family background), and his book is part of his reponse to this challenge.
The book is in four distinct parts, making it easy to read in bits or as a whole. It beings with some beautiful Declarations of Theopraxy in poetic form:
If God starts in a whisper we hear,
If God starts in a suggestion we take,
If God warms us like a flame,
It is because we know the whisper, the suggestion, the flame to be good.
How do we know it is good? Benedikt answers with the following from St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 4:8–9:
Whatever is true, whatever is just, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious,
If there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise,
Think about these things,
What you have learnt and received and heard and seen in me,
And the God of peace will be with you.
An ‘Explanations’ section follows, in which the author makes the case for his thesis that “God is the good we do”. In the ‘Arguments’ section he takes his thesis into debate with some theologians, scientists and philosophers, some of whom will be familiar to readers; and it is in this part that he returns to the challenge of evil. Finally, in ‘Reflections’, he offers a deeper discussion of theopraxy, its usefulness and for whom it may be a way forward.
Benedikt discusses the tension in the Abrahamic religions between “faith” and “works”. Not surprisingly, given his title and thesis, he elevates the Epistle of James from Luther’s derogatory “straw” estimation to be closest to theopraxy, although it finds many other biblical passages of support.
As a scientist, I was particularly struck by the twist Benedikt uses to add merit to the Genesis creation chapters. His attraction to them is not as scientific nor as historical, but as a truly human story of work, rest, days, nights and a sense of being good. By comparison the current scientific account of the universe’s history is “so boring”, with none of these human touches to engage most human beings with it.
A shortcoming of the book’s thesis is that the good we receive is insufficiently acknowledged as also being God. The author seems to want to contain a God within as our source of goodness, but when we receive good from others (outside of ourselves) the goodness that is part of us as human beings is a shared quality and the God of goodness becomes something or someone we can share together.
Many years ago in the suburb where we lived in Melbourne, an elderly woman was selling land for subdivision. She wanted to put a road through it and call it “God Governs Road”. The council baulked at this, and the compromise was “Good Governs Road”. I expect Michael Benedikt would be pleased to know this.