Monday, September 23, 2013

Are we Moral Beings?

That time of the year

A friend and I were sharing opinions on the condition of the world recently when we hit upon a surprising polar-difference on our perceptions of the general state of morality. His view is that we are sliding ever further in the wrong direction, i.e. we are becoming less and less governed by solid and time-proven moral stances. My view is that the trajectory is upward, that since the renaissance and the rise of more humanistic ways of thinking we are becoming ever more conscious of the need to teach and practice fundamentally moral behaviours in our day-to-day lives. I gave as examples the emancipation of women and sanctions against beating children. (I should add here that the “we” is given tentatively; I myself am not sure where the borders of this generalization begin and end.)

I guess no such discussion can get off on the right track unless morality is defined first. And there are plenty of books and websites that would be happy to define it for us. Christ in YouMinistries, for instance, insists that the very concept of morality is anti-Christian, and they pose an alternative view: Jesus did not come to give us a standardized moral code to which all should conform, but to give us His life whereby the divine character might be expressed through our behaviour. The implication is that the person who is regenerated by Christ has no need of a code—he/she acts out of the impulses of that regeneration and no longer acts in any other way than Christ would act. The person becomes, then, an “expression of the divine character.”

That's good on paper, as we say, but the questions about morality—particularly behaviour in the sexual sphere—have almost universally brought Christian denominations to the brinks of “holy wars.” There are only two possibilities, given the above: either the combatants have never been truly regenerated, or else the view of Christ in You Ministries is oversimplified to the point of uselessness.

Take the question of gay marriage: moral or immoral, should-be-banned or should-be-seen-as-legitimate. Former Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, described his metamorphoses on the question of same-sex marriage more-or-less as follows: when after considerable study and prayerful contemplation he arrived at the conclusion that sexual orientation was not a chosen but a natural state, he could not in good conscience discriminate any longer against intimacy and marriage for gays and lesbians. This is seen as the liberal stance by many and when challenged scripturally on his position, he responded that the Biblical references to the homosexual act must be interpreted in the light of new knowledge, much as we have recognized women's equality in the church and home and have decided that slavery is immoral despite Paul's rejection of the first and his tolerance for the second.

Christ in You Ministries is decidedly right on one point: codified morality seldom resolves ethical questions satisfactorily. Take the following passage from Deuteronomic code 5:12ff:

“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day."

Was this directed at the Children of Israel for a certain time and for a certain reason, or is it a commandment for all people for all time? What is work and what isn't? Is lighting the lamp work? Is milking a cow work? Can one morally cook a meal for a travelling stranger on the sabbath? Despite the commandments apparent clarity, applying it in each generation over thousands of years still taxes our interpretive muscles. The problem with our Sunday-shopping, worker-abusing economic culture is not that we defy the Sabbath outright, but that we have not reinterpreted it for the time: the need for rest and reflection has not gone away.

A code can't be written in enough detail to prevent debate over interpretation; the world just isn't orderly enough for that. There is, however, good reason—both Biblically and historically—to refresh our look at morality, particularly in the light of our ongoing confusion about sexual-sphere issues. Christ in You Ministries is probably onto something, even though we may not agree with their bottom line: moral people behave morally, end of sentence.

There's an interesting display in the public area of St. Paul's Hospital in Saskatoon. Posted on the wall are different versions of the same proverb as expressed by a variety of cultures and religions. It's the very simple: Do unto others as you would be done by. It's an almost-universal guide to behaviour that pretty much covers the content of any code one would care to promulgate. But are our imaginations up to the task? If you are a woman in love with another woman, for instance, can you expect to be treated as you would be if you were a woman in love with a man?

We have traditionally expected a number of moral behaviours of committed couples. They include fidelity, honesty, loyalty and faithfulness. I see no good reason to expect less of same-sex couples who wish to be partners in the adventure we call life. These broad attributes of moral behaviour as regards commitment between human partners—eroded and disregarded though they may be from time to time—can act as bulwark against the erosion of family while expressing the most universal of moral standards—don't disappoint your partner; treat him/her according to his/her human needs, which you recognize by examining your own.

That's why many support same-sex marriage.

I believe that position is consistent with the moral foundation so admirably depicted on the wall of St. Paul's: Be to others what you hope they would be to you.

Are we doing better at living in faith, hope and charity, or are we on the slippery slope down the hill? Either way, whether we are Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, atheist, agnostic or Christian, we will always fail to reach what we aspire to by attempting to codify our way to the peaceable Kingdom.

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