The Good Place

March 4th, 2020

It’s not like me. Honestly. But I confess that I binge-watched the entire first season of The Good Place. Friends have been assuring me that I would love it. One of the main characters is an ethicist, and I too was once a philosophy professor.

As it turns out, the series did draw me in. But Dr. Chidi Anagonye’s brief lectures on Kant, Aristotle, and Utilitarianism were not what kept me glued to my iPad. Instead, I realized that the show poses two foundational spiritual questions:

Who or what is your God?

Who are you?

As it turns out, these are the very questions that Jesus faces as he wanders in the desert and wrestles with temptation. But I’m getting ahead of myself. You may not have seen The Good Place or your take on the show may be very different from mine. So here’s a synopsis of the show’s premise from my perspective.

The main character—Eleanor Shellstrop—has died and finds herself in a waiting room. An official named Michael greets her and welcomes her to the Good Place, ostensibly Heaven. It’s a place where everyone will have a soulmate, everyone has their dream home, and every conceivable pleasure is available just for the asking.

Only the very best people gain admission to the Good Place. Michael beams as he reads aloud the list of Eleanor’s humanitarian achievements and describes her selfless lifestyle. There’s just one problem: He’s reading the life-record of a different Eleanor. The Eleanor sitting in front of Michael was a self-absorbed, mean-spirited jerk. A mistake has been made. This Eleanor belongs in the Bad Place.

So, Eleanor has to hide her true identity and, since the ethics prof turns out to be her soulmate, she scrambles to make herself good enough to stay in the Good Place before the authorities discover their mistake and ship her off to Hell.

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The series raises lots of questions about grace and judgment, good and evil, heaven and hell. But all of these questions turn, it seems to me, on the two questions I’ve already posed:

Who or what is your God?

Who are you?

You see, Eleanor recognizes immediately that Michael has the wrong, well, Eleanor in his office. As the episodes unfold, Eleanor struggles to face who she was during her earthly life, but she also begins to undergo a transformation from selfishness to selflessness. We humans learn who we should love and how to love over time, even if it turns out to be a slow, uneven process.

And you have to begin to wonder about the goodness of the Good Place. Soulmates take more work than you might have thought. Having a dream house seems empty. And having a million flavors of frozen yogurt to choose from without worrying about gaining weight stops being a thrill pretty fast. Maybe Paradise isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

For that matter, maybe a God whose primary role in human existence is judging your worth and deciding your eternal fate is not a God worth worshipping. I mean, it seems to me that if your God is worth worshipping, loving that God would make life worth living. And living just to score eternal pleasure and to avoid eternal misery sounds like a self-centered, anxiety-filled existence to me.

You’re probably thinking, what on earth does any of this have to do with Jesus wandering in the desert?

Well, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness immediately after John had baptized him in the Jordan. In other words, Jesus went on a forty-day retreat to get his Messianic head straight. To discern his calling with depth and clarity. The foundational questions for any sense of vocation are these:

Who or what is your God?

Who are you?

Satan designed his temptations to pose precisely these questions to Jesus. As it turns out, these questions are so interconnected that they have to be answered in concert.

Our God is the person or the thing that philosophers like Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas would call our highest good. Our greatest love. The love that orders all other wants and desires. Which serve to bring us nearer to our love? Which should be sacrificed for that sake of that love?

Who or what we love makes us who we are. Our fidelity to that love—or our betrayal of it— shapes our lives and determines what we stand for.

Satan tempted Jesus to make lesser loves his highest love: pleasure, power, and status. Devoting his life to any of these loves might make Jesus the fun guy at the party, the menacing autocrat who always gets his way, or the celebrity with huge adoring crowds. But worshipping such minor gods would also make him petty, destructive, and ultimately miserable.

Jesus recognized that only the source of all Love—the creator and sustainer of all things—is worthy of complete devotion. And by giving himself to Love, he would resemble the beloved.

Jesus recognized that his calling was to be the power of love on this planet. Only love can make this shattered world whole again. Only love can make this a good place where each person knows themselves as, and celebrate everyone they meet as, the beloved child of God.

As followers of Jesus we have received that same calling. To be the healing, liberating, nurturing power of love. And to lean into our calling, each and every one of us must face the same questions that Jesus came to terms with:

Who or what is your God?

Who are you?

The Good Place originally appeared at Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission.

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