Thursday, August 12, 2010

It's all on you

It's all on you... 

I had a memorable conversation with a friend the other day—a truly decent guy, someone who makes me feel comfortable and who listens well. He's newer in my life than many people and so he wanted the back story on me. Basically, he asked, "What's a business woman like you doing with a missionary past?"

The conversation quickly evolved into shared story lines—he was in a fraternity (Lamba Chi) and I was in a sorority (Kappa Kappa Gamma). I was a little sister at the Lambda Chi house at UCLA, in fact. We both "got saved" through campus ministries (Navigators for him, Campus Crusade for Christ for me). That shared background is a bit like knowing a secret handshake. We talked easily about stuff like discipleship, evangelism, relationship versus religion, moral authority, and the possibility that the world may end in our generation!

It was more difficult to talk about the changes in my faith. My friend was respectful, kind, interested. That's always nice. He did ask one question, though, that I'm still thinking about. His primary concern in all these years since college is that his kids know what he discovered: that there is a moral absolute that is separate from what he, their dad, tells them; distinct from what the culture expresses; superior to their own judgments.

This is where it falls apart for me. It would be nice if such a thing existed. And certainly the case has been made in many faiths that that "thing" does in fact exist and will eternally! But it seems to me that there is a critical oversight in that assertion—that a superior, binding, moral absolute exists apart from our participation in it. The oversight is this: in order forany set of beliefs, principles, to be considered absolutes, we must deem them so (we reason, assign values, determine why we accept them as outside ourselves by consulting our reason, experiences and thoughts). Not only that, but for these morals we've assigned supreme authority to have a binding effect on us, we must empower them with our consent.

The interpretation of what these principles mean in our lives must be arrived at in a context (culture, generation, gender, intelligence, geography, education). We hear stuff said to us by those in power and we adopt their point of view and seek reinforcements.

The "static" absolutes of the past have evolved; the Christian God is no longer thought to endorse slavery, despite Paul's admonition to slaves to obey their masters. Women have rights and are no longer property of their husbands.

One of the benefits of a life that falls apart spectacularly is that you get to see just how much you were in control of the moral compass you adopted for your life. Even the need to label the items as "separate" from self, as binding from beyond can only occur if you say "yes" to that way of knowing, believing and receiving.

Our kids sometimes flummox us because we can see so clearly what they "ought" to see and don't (smoking is harmful, drinking while driving is dangerous, marijuana is illegal, unprotected sex is risky, texting while driving is reckless, not saying "thank you" to those who give to you is impolite). So we invoke larger "backing" for our clearer moral vision (the Surgeon General, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the laws of our state, the Bible, Oprah, and Emily Post). Yet no matter how large we make the authorities behind  our morally superior positions, we are powerless to do anything to create conformity to the principles we iterate.

The only way that anyone or any list or any book or any code or any law has power in our lives is by consent. Not only that, the laws themselves have no power! They have never prevented a crime. The choice to act or not is entirely on the individual choosing or not choosing the action.

Moreover, ethics do turn out to be situational. The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is filled with practices we would find horrific today. LIkewise, church history is littered with acts deemed moral in their time that today's believers regret.

My favorite professor (Dr. Dewey) once explained to me the genius of Paul's primary insight released to the New Testament churches. Paul articulates that the shift in understanding about God has to do with how God-followers cultivate a spiritual life. The Holy Spirit lives within and we are cultivating an attentiveness to the depths of our experience when we make moral and ethical judgments. But we can't do it alone... none of us is free enough of our own baggage to make those judgments without harming others. So we do it in community. Each community, in each era, with their own language, experiences and limitations seeks the "good" or the "true" or the "compassionate"  as best they can together. The conclusions they draw are "drafts," not published "once-for-all" documents. Each generation revises the previous generations insights to conform to their time.

If you doubt what I'm saying, think about the move to end slavery in America. To run an underground railroad, to work toward abolition meant embracing contemporary revelation that flew in the face of Scripture as it had always been understood. We don't shift postures lightly or easily (no whims), but our faith must be responsive to the promptings of the Spirit in community. If the code is already written, there is no need for Spirit. That's what Paul taught us. It's what I believe.


Rick said...

That "absolute" is not subjective. If Jesus is "The Truth", then it's a Person. And if Truth is a Person, then there's relationship. What occurs within that framework, with Truth and with those who are joining in with - that's Truth. Good call, processing as always. :)

Rick said...

Crap :) meant to say it's not Objective, that Jesus is the relational Subject... dang it.

julieunplugged said...

Ha! That changes things a tad. ;-)

I like the idea of "absolute subjectivity." Very pomo... can't get a handle on either word without tying your brain in knots.

Ed G. said...

Hi Julie. I think of this topic in perhaps simpler terms. I guess for much of my life, I followed what Colbert would call "truthiness". But since coming to know God, that has changed. I believe that God has a point of view, and you can call that a 'moral absolutele'.

I would imaging the God has different expectations for different people (the same way I have different rules for my three kids); and I certainly wouldn't put it past God to 'move the bar' for everyone (the same way he has raised the bar for me personally). And yet that all seems consistent with the idea of a 'moral absolute'.

Mike said...

I am interested in this idea of "consent" as I have been having conversations with conservative evanagelicals about moral authority and absolutes.

It seems to me whether you say "I have some determination in accepting what I think is morally right by my own ideas, experience, culture, etc." or "I abdicate my responsibility to think that I can make morally right choices to a higher authority" (i.e. scripture) you are still in the morality-determining driver's seat. If one believes that scripture is divinely inspired (or inerrant) it does not reslove the issue of who decides...i.e. consent.

When I present this idea to conservative christians sometimes the response I get is that while they agree with me they may be making the right choice for the wrong reasons (which may be true)...but that cannot be argued against since the basis is not reason but rather luck of the draw.

interesting thoughts.

julieunplugged said...

Good thoughts Ed and Mike.

I think part of what I'm arguing for is an awareness of our radical subjectivity. There's been a kind of emphasis on "objective moral absolutes" in the version of faith I come from. But to recognize that even that assertion relies on the subjective evaluation of the one choosing to assign that label to morality reveals that we consent, that we empower our belief system (it doesn't empower us).

Objective reality is measurable and inescapable... gravity impacts us all. Leave the earth and get out of our atmosphere and we have no control over floating. These are the kinds of absolutes that impact us beyond our control.

I do understand, though, that it is possible to yield to a set of beliefs as though they come from a higher source of authority... It's just that in that yielding is an unwitting superiority over the thing to which one yields because one can choose what level of authority to assign it.