He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Fulfillment of the Law: A Transcendent Morality

In this third post about Christ's claim to be the fulfillment of the law, it will be good to remember previous posts and the themes of those posts.

In the first post, I examined how the law meets our needs for moral development at each of Kohlberg's six stages.  In this post, we saw how a child at stages 1 and 2 gradually transforms into a mature adult, a moral agent capable of operating at stage 5 and 6.  In understanding this process, we understand why a child needs to have the external constraints of a law in order for them to learn a genuine regard for other persons that will be necessary to reaching a moral maturity that allows them to operate at stage 5 and 6.  The law gradually transforms their pure egotistical behavior as children into the beautiful altruistic behavior demonstrated by those who have reached moral maturity.

In the second post, I examined how this lesson of regard for other persons as being of intrinsic value is something we learn in relationship with other persons, and that a large part of human moral development is learning how to properly order our behaviors so that they are directed toward the benefit of persons rather than the harm of persons so common to the behavior of the careless child.  This moral growth we experience as we develop as human beings simply does not make sense if we try to understand it as impersonal; our encounter with persons in light of the law gradually transforms us into new persons of moral maturity.

All of this leads us to understanding that what we are doing by living according to the law is an act of transcendence; from the depths of the worst sort of mewling egocentric hedonism we rise up to a new life as moral agents capable of the most pure altruism.  The law is the ladder we climb on our way up, a structure which can support us as we take our lengthy moral journey through all the many stages of human morality.  This journey toward transcendence is a fulfillment of the law's purpose by gradual transformation, a journey in which the law meets our need for support at every stage of that morality.

What good would this ladder do us if it only had one rung, and that at the sixth stage of morality?  How many of us would find a way to reach that sixth rung without the intermediate steps?  How many of us would give up because it is too difficult and remain complacent, operating on a makeshift stepping stone we've constructed?  If the evidence of contemporary Western culture is any indication of how this plays out, the vast majority of us choose the latter option when only the highest, most pure ideals are available for us to strive toward.  When the two available options are either a socially acceptable perfection or a socially acceptable egotistical hedonism, it's perfectly understandable that many would choose the latter despite the fact that they might otherwise aspire to the former.

We need the law, the whole of it, in order to transcend our state of existence as childish amoral agents and become mature moral agents through a process of gradual transformation.  This process of gradual transformation is in the end a complete one, fulfilling all the purposes of the law as I have described them so far, which are:

1.  To teach us the need for sacrifice as a means of maintaining healthy relationships.
2.  To orient our moral behavior toward the good of other persons.
3.  To preserve the health of the community.
4.  To lead us to encounter God fully as a person.
5.  To transform the social contract (covenant) between God and his people.
6.  To move us toward moral perfection as individuals of high principle.
7.  To heal us by way of sacrifice so that all these things could be accomplished in mutual love.

Christ taught us by visceral example in his life and especially on the cross he accepted willingly that sacrifice was necessary for the maintenance of healthy relationships.  In Christ, we are taught that the whole of the law is oriented toward the good of other persons, specifically God and neighbor, the concept of neighbor including our enemy.  In Christ, the community is preserved by being incorporated into His body through baptism.  In Christ, we encounter God as a person, fully human and fully divine.

In Christ, the law of the covenant of a particular people, culture, and time is transformed into a law of a covenant for all people and all times.  The law is incarnate in the Church, who as a living community of persons is the Body of Christ, providing us with the law in perpetuity.  This living community is in a constant state of transformation as it moves toward more fully living out the universal principles articulated by Christ.

In Christ, our universal principles are transformed into shared principles; our morality not only takes place in the context of our human experience, but also as a participation in the divine life of love.  This sharing in the divine life does not dissolve our individual life, but rather transforms our individuality so that our individual gifts shine all the more brightly; our individuality is fundamentally preserved.

In Christ, the need for sacrifice to reconcile us to God and to each other was fulfilled on the cross when he bore the weight of our sins unto death.  In Christ, the time of sacrifice at the temple for the reconciliation of the individual Jew to God was transformed into a singular, time-pervading sacrifice for the reconciliation of all people to God.

In all these ways, the radical transformation we experience in Christ is transcendent, offering us the opportunity to rise up from imperfection and live fully in the perfection He assured us was possible in the Gospel, that we be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.  All in all, a perfect way to fulfill the law.

A Holistic Morality - A Personal Morality - A Transcendent Morality

Note: The above is an image of an icon I purchased from legacyicons.com, and it is a replica of an icon at Mount Sinai where Abba John Climacus lived and worked with his fellow monks to ascend the ladder to Heaven.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Fair Questions: Can we send other people to Hell by not teaching them well?

As a follow-up to a previous question I was asked, I wanted to address the following additional question that was posed to me.

"I have heard it said that if parents, etc. do not raise their children, teach their students correctly, then many children, students will end up in Hell.  I don't believe this.  I think that because of our free will that each of us will have the opportunity to decide where we want to go."

There are many incorrect beliefs about the Catholic teaching on Hell, and many of them circulate even among fairly well-educated Catholics.  One of them is articulated and repudiated above, specifically the belief that we are held eternally responsible for the sins of others.

It is true that in our free will we each have the opportunity to decide where we want to go, and even to decide where we will actually end up.  The Catechism makes this clear in more than one place, just as Jesus did in the Gospels.

What does the Catechism tell us, based on Jesus' teachings in the Gospel, about how we will be judged?

"1039 In the presence of Christ, who is Truth itself, the truth of each man's relationship with God will be laid bare. The Last Judgment will reveal even to its furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life:

All that the wicked do is recorded, and they do not know. When 'our God comes, he does not keep silence.'. . . he will turn towards those at his left hand: . . . 'I placed my poor little ones on earth for you. I as their head was seated in heaven at the right hand of my Father - but on earth my members were suffering, my members on earth were in need. If you gave anything to my members, what you gave would reach their Head. Would that you had known that my little ones were in need when I placed them on earth for you and appointed them your stewards to bring your good works into my treasury. But you have placed nothing in their hands; therefore you have found nothing in my presence.' "

The Catechism quotes St. Augustine's paraphrase of the Gospel here, and we can draw something important out of it to answer the question posed initially.  Notice that Augustine's paraphrase of the Gospel ends by emphasizing that when we place nothing in the hands of those to whom we have a responsibility for loving Christian kindness, we find nothing in the presence of God.

In principle, this points to the fact that if we fail to do our part to draw people to receive Christ who is the Bread of Life, the most important and substantial something we can place in their hands, then we will be held responsible for our failure to do so.  In the same way, parents and catechists and religious brothers and religious sisters and priests and bishops and the Pope will be held responsible if they fail to draw people to receive Jesus, if they fail to help them encounter the greatest gift of all.

Because "man does not live on bread alone", the command to "feed my lambs" is not merely a command to multiply the loaves and fishes so that the poor and vulnerable can have full stomachs; it is also a command to help them to find the Bread of Life provided to us by God.  Of course, if we love Jesus, then we will keep His commandments as he said that we would, and part of that is to go and make disciples of all the nations.

We would be best served to do this not because we are afraid that others will go to Hell because of our negligence, or even because we are afraid that we will send ourselves to Hell because of our negligence (which is a real possibility), but because we sincerely want to keep the commandments of the one who loved us unto death so that we need not be afraid of that death any longer, the one who showed us the path to Heaven so that we need not be afraid of Hell.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Fair Questions: Is Christian conversion an emotional reality?

I would like to preface my answer to this question by pointing out that I am only 30 years old and that my life experience may not be up to the task of answering this question adequately.  The conversion from our state of existence as an unruly ego-driven child to truly imitating Christ as a son of God is generally a long process and I'm not even close to the end of that process.  That said, I may be able to see the end correctly in light of the Gospels and the Saints, and if so, then I may be able to give some useful insight into the answer to this question.

"[We] are listening to a CD by Steve Wood.  He is a convert to the Catholic Church and is a major influence in present Catholic philosophy.  Well, one of the things he says is that the religious education and the parent education and the Catholic University education is based on the wrong philosophy as proved by how many people leave the church even with a good Catholic education.  (two out of three) The students and children are being taught the history, rules, etc. of the Catholic Church and he feels that this is important, but they are missing a very important ingredient.  They are not being taught the love of God, Christ.

Only if the parent, teacher that has a conversion of the heart and by this a great love for God can teach this love of God.  Teaching prayers and going to Mass is not enough.

A second thing that he says is that this conversion of the heart is not an emotional thing, but a deep love for God.  I have a question about this part and would like your opinion on this and also the first part.

Here is where I am coming from.  The God of the whole Universe has wanted each of us to be here from the beginning of time.  This is the God that has created this universe (and possibly many universes) with its billions of galaxies and countless stars and planets.  He loves each of us more than we can understand and is always at our side and always listens to us and always does what is best for us.  This is the God I love with all my heart and with my life.  He is a giving God that has saved me even though I am not really worthy of being saved and certainly do not merit any of His love.  Then, my question is, how can this not be emotional??  I am overwhelmed by this love that the God of the universe gives such an insignificant person and undeserving person such as me!  He has been there every time that I have needed Him and has never failed me or let me down.

So, I think the conversion of the heart is an emotional thing and I am not really understanding where Steve Wood is coming from."

The position taken by some that the conversion of the heart is not emotional is, in my view, not quite correct.  It is, however, somewhat understandable as a response to the popular view that our emotions are what are most true, right, or good.  There is a mentality of "Do whatever makes you feel good!" inherited from influential parts of the culture of the West from the 1960s and 1970s that is deeply unhealthy, and this mentality has been very problematic for many people when it has been applied to spirituality.  It has tended to lead people to mistake mere pleasurable sensation due to aesthetic experience or chemical influence for a genuine spirituality.  Spirituality in their view is a reductive spirituality, a spirituality without a spirit, in which the spirit is a symbol that reduces to biochemistry and/or neurology.  This is a view the Christian should rightly oppose, but we should also avoid the temptation to make the opposite mistake and claim that emotion is totally excluded from our conversion process.

And Steve Wood is right that simply learning the history, the canons, and the doctrines of the Church are not enough to keep someone in it.  The history of Christianity has proven that already.  We do need something deeper than a knowing about the Church.  We also need something deeper than a feeling about the Church, even if those feelings are strongly positive emotions.  Those emotions are not necessarily bad, and they may be both good and necessary, but they are certainly not sufficient.  We do indeed need a great love of God that transcends mere emotion, mere exertion of the will, mere performance of rituals with the body, mere groanings of the spirit, or mere exercises of the intellect.

We are integrated beings, and as such the conversion process can and should impact all of the components of our being.  Our will, our intellect, our emotions, and our body are all functioning as one integrated system.  Conversion is a turning of the entire integrated system of our being toward Christ so that we can follow him as an unblemished model of full human participation in the Kingdom of God.

As we become more like Christ through sincere imitation of Him and communion with Him, this entire integrated system that is our being is transformed so that we can begin to participate more fully in the divine life of love.  This process of radical transformation can only take place after our conversion, and this is the process known as sanctification.  This sanctifying process transforms the entire integrated system of our being, including our emotions which we tend to understand as being seated in the heart.

The radical transformation of our hearts is shown in how our disordered emotions become ordered toward the highest good. Our fear of being alone is transformed into a fearless love of the community and a fearless delight in solitude. Our fear of death is transformed into a fearless commitment to caring for others at the most vulnerable stages of life and a fearless delight in the joys of our own lives. Thus we are instructed by Christ in the Gospels: "Be not afraid." It is a call to transform our hearts from the one who showed us how to live with radically transformed hearts, hearts turned from stone into hearts that experience love alone, a love that completely reorders our being (soul, will, intellect, emotions, and body) toward God as our beloved.

For the person who is currently operating on a purely emotional level in their conversion process (and I really don't think that the person asking this question is doing that at all), I would encourage them to go deeper and discover that the love of God is so much greater than an emotional experience alone, that like a holy human relationship of profound love (as we find in the married or celibate life) it re-forms us as an entire being by reordering our will, our intellect, our emotions, the acts of our bodies, and ultimately our souls toward the highest good.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Fair Questions: How Do You Perceive Abortion?

I was previously asked by a friend to explain how I perceived abortion.  This is the same friend who asked me to explain how I perceive homosexuality.

This explanation is a bit more difficult for me than the previous one.  My position on homosexuality has remained essentially the same for the past ten years.  My position on abortion, however, has changed significantly.  At 20 years of age, I took a fairly typical Pro-choice position with regard to the legality of abortion in the United States.  In my mid-to-late twenties, I had arrived at a fairly typical Pro-life position with regard to the legality of abortion.

When I say that I had a fairly typical position, what I mean is that I utilized common philosophical arguments for those positions, not that I was spouting the shrill nonsense so common to both camps.  I have consistently avoided using the labels of Pro-choice and Pro-life for myself because they are labels of political convenience and don't accurately convey the nature of the dilemma posed by the legality of abortion.  I also have no desire to associate myself with the terrible arguments made by many of the members of both camps or the slurs they sling at each other.

In light of this background, I will answer the question of how I perceive abortion in several ways.

1.  As a human being, I have always perceived abortion as a tragedy regardless of my position on its legality.  Like a miscarriage, it is saddening and I feel a sense of loss, though with an added kick to that sense of loss because it wasn't really a loss of life so much as a taking of life.

And it's not just tragic for the child; abortion is often a heart-wrenching tragedy for the mother (or at least it seems so to me from my conversations about it with women who have had an abortion).  It is also often caused by something tragic for the mother; a lack of support from the father of the child or from the family of the mother can leave her in a place with no good options.  Either her quality of life drops dramatically and her child will have a difficult life full of suffering, or she can seek to kill the child and end its suffering while restoring her quality of life.  I don't think that those are truly the only two options or that it's the only way to understand the two options, but it does seem to be the dilemma as a mother in that situation often faces it.  It's an extremely difficult situation to deal with even under the best of circumstances, and the circumstances are typically far from the best.

While it is not always the case that poverty is present where abortion is, there is a very high correlation between poverty and abortion rates.  And while there are men who step up and support the mother of their child (which is a very good thing), there are also plenty of men who are happy to leave women to their choice.  As I've heard a number of men tell it, "What's the big deal?  She can just get an abortion."  I'll admit that I was tempted to exercise my freedom of choice by smashing their faces in with my elbow after they said it.  Of course, some women also seem to think that it's not a big deal to get an abortion and the father of the child is the one who wants to keep the child and care for it.  This too is a tragic situation.

Regardless of the situation, we should start from a place of compassion for the child and the parents; the child is powerless and the parents are often profoundly broken from addiction, unhealthy family dynamics, a culture of narcissism, and/or poverty.  We should reach out to them and offer a helping hand, both because it is the best chance to save the child and because it is the most virtuous way to treat the parents.

2.  As a moral philosopher, I have long perceived abortion as a genuine moral dilemma, a conflict between two moral imperatives I value very highly: personal liberty and the protection of human life.  I am very suspicious of people who claim that the morality of procuring an abortion is an easy thing to decide, whether they are claiming that is obviously a morally good or morally evil act.

For more detail on my moral position on abortion, you can read this article I previously wrote on the subject related to a philosopher's critique of Pope Francis' position on abortion.

3.  As a political philosopher, my position has changed on the issue of the legality of abortion for two basic reasons. 

The first is that in talking to women who have either had an abortion or seriously considered it, I found that an assumption I was making was simply incorrect.  I had believed that the broad legalization of abortion was something that was helping women, that it was the best way of supporting them.  But what I learned from women in the situation was that it really wasn't helping them to accomplish what they wanted.  Most of them wanted very much to keep their child.

Thus, it would seem that the more important thing we can do for women is what Feminists for Life and Project Gabriel try to do, which is provide the financial and emotional support lacking in the lives of the women who are in these difficult situations so that they can do what they want to do:  choose life.  Also, we need to advocate for social structures that make it more likely that women can have the family life that is fulfilling while keeping their children.

The second is that in learning more about law, I have become convinced that our legal standard needs to be more rational, not less rational.  And when our legal system insists that we can press charges against someone for killing a child in a mother's womb and that it can be prosecuted as murder, but that it is totally not murder to kill a child when it's the mother who signs the form for their death sentence because of a right to privacy that was magically concocted by Supreme Court justices to get the result that they wanted, what we have is not a rational legal standard.

There are various kinds of rational legal standards under which we could make abortion legal in every case in which a woman wanted to procure one.  They're just all horrifying in their implications for human rights.  Whether we make the argument based on the ability to feel pain, the viability of survival outside the womb, the ownership of the body, or cognitive ability, the consequences we invoke in using those standards irreparably creates different kinds of injustice.  Rather than solving a problem, we would merely be trading one tragedy for another.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Fair Questions: Why am I not a Buddhist?

For folks who either know me in person or through my writing, it's probably obvious that I have a certain knowledge of and affinity for Buddhism.  I occasionally update my Facebook status with quotes from the Buddha's discourses, discuss the Buddha's teaching in philosophical circles, and share insights from Buddhism in conversations with friends where I think it might help them.  My stoic demeanor is well known, and I have been told by a friend that I was the most Buddhist Catholic he had ever known.

And in my writing, I have examined various kinds of Western misunderstandings about Buddhism (and will continue to do so).  I have addressed those who believe the Buddha to be an agnostic or atheist and explained why this is absolutely not true based on the evidence of Buddha's discourses.  In that same piece, I addressed a claim made by some who obviously haven't read that Pali canon that Buddhism does not have a Hell as monotheistic religions do.  I have addressed those who believe that Buddhism is more compatible with contemporary egalitarian ideals in the West, specifically contemporary feminist ideals.

I have addressed Nietzsche's misunderstanding of Buddhism in the Genealogy of Morals.  I have suggested that Buddhism is not superstition.  I used the Buddha's teachings as an example of why Valerie Tarico's critique of religion failed miserably to understand religion prior to critiquing it.  I even used a definition of liturgy provided by a Zen Buddhist priest to help others understand what liturgy is in a Christian context.

Given all this, I can see why people might wonder why I never became a Buddhist.  I will try to answer that question today.  Hopefully this will explain to those who find it interesting why I will never be a Buddhist.  I could provide a list of points of my agreement with Buddhism and points of my disagreement with Buddhism, but I think in this case that simply telling my story would be more useful.

I started taking an interest in Buddhism because of my study of martial arts, specifically Japanese martial arts.  That lead to an interest in Zen Buddhism, specifically as expressed in the writings of Takuan Sōhō and Dōgen.  I found the practice of meditation particularly helpful, both in my practice of martial arts and the development of a more peaceful acceptance of the struggles of my life.

Out of this interest in Buddhism, I began reading some of the Buddha's discourses online while I worked nights as I was getting my first degree.  I also began studying Buddhism as a tradition, seeking to understand its history and relationship with politics.  I looked at the early Buddhist councils and tried to gain some understanding of the differences between the Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana traditions within Buddhism.

As I studied Buddhism and compared it with Christianity, I kept finding that everything I found valuable in Buddhism was already present in the ancient Christian tradition when I did my research (mysticism, a deep wisdom tradition, a comprehensive cosmology, etc.)  So I needed some new way of deciding between the two.

I decided to go back to a fundamental question: what's the highest purpose of a religion as it relates the person practicing it? I decided that the highest purpose of religion for the practitioner is not to find a worldview and moral path that fits who we are, but instead to find a worldview and moral path that fits who we want to become by challenging us on every level so that we are constantly growing in moral practice.

The difference between Buddhism and Christianity for me was that Buddhism fit the person I was, but not the person I wanted to become. Which is not to say that Buddhist ethics would not prompt me to grow and change, but that it would not do so in such a way as to radically transform my core ethos into something greater.  My core ethos as a 21 year old was the same as the core ethos of Buddhism: transcend suffering by accepting it and gradually detaching from it through the liberating power of the mind. This was an ethos I had developed as a coping mechanism for the traumas of my life, small as they were in many ways. Buddhism couldn't transform my core ethos because I already shared it. 

Christianity on the other hand had a core ethos of suffering as a loving gift offered in service to others, and also an informative process that helps us to understand ourselves while developing morally. This was a core ethos I did not share at all. It would force me to step outside of my deepest coping mechanisms and become an entirely new person. And I'm very glad that is has in fact done that for me over the past few years. I'm a much better person for it.

It probably seems odd that I could honestly say that Buddhism fit me better than Christianity despite growing up within the Christian tradition,
but it's not surprising when I consider the case of many of my atheist friends. They didn't sit down under a tree one day and reason out the truth of everything. What I found from my discussions with them is that by and large they became atheists because they realized that their existing philosophical views and moral intuitions lead to a worldview without room for any sort of God they could conceptualize. 

 I think that's how many of us think through an issue. We generally leave our core assumptions unexamined and just overturn one of our conclusions because we realize that it's incoherent with those core assumptions. I would go so far as to say that many people in the U.S. hold assumptions that should lead them to atheism, but they nonetheless cling to theism and/or Christianity. They are atheists who don't know it yet. And in much the same way, I was once a Buddhist who didn't know it yet.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Fulfillment of the Law: A Personal Morality

Some time ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine about why God would choose to send his son to the Jews at a particular historical moment, about why the law of the Torah preceded the Messiah.  My response to the question was essentially that (as he phrased it later) they needed to "marinate in the law" before they could even begin to understand their need for a Messiah.

This is the second part of my answer to the question, and it would be very helpful to read the first part before reading this post.  In the first part, I examined how the Tanakh provides a developmental path for morality that responds to how we humans grow into sometimes altruistic adults from mostly amoral children.  Specifically, I examined how an external standard such as the Law of the Mosaic age teaches us that the world outside of our internal experience as persons has rules that must be considered when we act and that there are consequences for action that impinge on other persons as well as our relationships with other persons.

Obedience to the law forces us to remember that there are external constraints on our behavior and that there are consequences for our decisions.  This is a valuable and necessary lesson for children who do not yet have an adult awareness of ethical obligations to others. If this was all the law was intended to teach us, then any set of laws would suffice to help us develop into altruistic adults.  But obedience to a law comprised of a mere random assortment of capricious rules has limited utility; while it does teach us to remember that there are external constraints on our behavior, it does not lead us to a principled way of keeping to those rules.

As adults, we often want a principled way of understanding why we obey the rules, but we do not often want an abstract rational moral standard like that of the utilitarianism provided by Mill.  This is not because abstract rational standards have no appeal, but because we are concrete human beings who are inherently personal.  We are whole persons who have rational faculties; we are not rational minds with clumsy bodies attached to them who merely need a rational standard and caloric intake to function as moral agents.

It may help to consider how we first learn morality, as well as to consider why so many of Kohlberg's stages of moral development center around our relationships with other persons (stages 2, 3, 4, and 5).  And by the time we reach the sixth stage, our regard for other persons is a fundamental part of our universal principles.  Even in Mill's abstract and rational utilitarian morality, the harm principle exists to keep our desire for happiness in balance with our regard for the autonomy of other persons.  Even the most extreme example of abstract rational hedonism, the ethics of the Cyrenaic school, have some limited regard for what is necessary to maintain our relationship with other persons, albeit out of a childish aversion to pain.  The personal dimension of morality seems inescapable, even for those who have tried to use the tools of philosophy to make it impersonal.

Our first encounter with the notion that there are constraints on our behavior beyond the mere sensations of pleasure and pain is fundamentally an encounter with other persons.  This may begin with a loving mother, a loving father, or a loving guardian who adopted us.  They taught us to respect moral boundaries in how we treated them and others.  If we have survived and been integrated into a community of persons, as most of us have, that very survival and integration required us to first learn moral behavior from a person and then a group of persons.  Most of us have never known a morality not learned directly from a person, and those of us who have learned of other moral frameworks have learned about them because other persons have introduced us to those ideas.

For us human persons, morality is inseparable from our experience of other persons.  Being persons, we need a moral law which is coherent with our nature as persons, a law which is directed toward our treatment of  persons and reveals to us the path for personal development, a law which responds to our need for personal growth by providing us with ways to habituate ourselves to behaving toward others as persons rather than as mere objects for our utility, and a law which strives to help us build and protect personal relationships between members of the community of persons.

The ideal way for us to learn that the law exists for the benefit of forming us in such a way that we can treat other persons as persons rather than objects is to recognize that the law is ordered toward the personal, specifically to the benefit of our relationship to a person.  In the case of the Tanakh, the law is explicitly ultimately ordered toward the benefit of our relationship to the divine person, the God who lead the people Israel out of Egypt.

In this way, the Tanakh leads us to a fully personal morality; it is a morality directed toward building a relationship with a divine person that requires of us a personal commitment to stepping outside of our personal experience so that we can treat other human persons as whole persons of the kind we know ourselves to be.

For Christians who view the Tanakh as the Old Testament, it makes a great deal of sense that we understand the Law as modeling for us and leading us to a personal encounter and relationship with God.  The Law of the Tanakh is not a random assortment of culturally-specific rules that no longer make sense (though there are certainly culturally-specific rules within it); it is a holistic morality that shows us how grow into fully developed moral persons and live as persons in relationship with other persons while requiring a high personal commitment from us.

In my next piece, I will examine how we might understand Christ's claim that he came to fulfill the Law.

A Holistic Morality - A Personal Morality - A Transcendent Morality

Note: The above is a picture of an icon I purchased from bostonmonks.com, the online store for the Holy Transfiguration Monastery.

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Fulfillment of the Law: A Holistic Morality

Some time ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine about why God would choose to send his son to the Jews at a particular historical moment, about why the law of the Torah preceded the Messiah.  My response to the question was essentially that (as he phrased it later) they needed to "marinate in the law" before they could even begin to understand their need for a Messiah.

This might seem like an obtuse and highly unusual claim, so I will offer an explanation from my studies in developmental psychology that may help to clarify my thought process.  When we raise children, babysit children, or even reflect on our own childhood behaviors, we can see a developmental path in morality.  That path is very short for some people.  It is much longer for others.  Some people circle back several times and their path appears quite convoluted.  Nonetheless, it is a path.  When we look at Kohlberg's stages of moral development, we can see that the path traveled under healthy circumstances has some common stages through which a person passes.

The first stage is the moral perspective of Obedience and Punishment.  This stage is important for children because they do not yet have an internalized moral framework; a young child is all ego. A child will seek whatever is pleasurable without understanding the costs, avoid whatever is painful without understanding the benefits, and they lack the life experience to discern which actions are worth the pain involved or which actions are temporarily pleasurable while causing long-term damage.  In the Tanakh, we might associate this stage with the proverb that a spared rod results in a spoiled child or the commandments to punish people who break the law.

The second stage is the moral perspective of Individualism and Exchange.  At this stage, a person has begun to understand that actions have consequences, that taking something has a cost.  Controlled punishments from the previous stage may have helped teach them this reality.  A child may offer a trade of doing chores for a reward of a new toy.  An adult may do the same thing, though the nature of the chores will probably be more difficult and the toys will probably be more expensive.  In the Tanakh, we might associate this stage with the laws regarding the treatment of the property of others, such as paying for damages we have caused to the property of other people.

The third stage is the moral perspective of Interpersonal Relationships.  People at this stage have started to understand that not only do we pay a price for acquiring things, but we also incur a cost of existing in relationship with other people.  Children begin to understand on an intuitive level that they need the help of their parents and seek to please their parents and make amends when they do something hurtful to them.  Adults do the same thing, but are generally more conscious of it and intentional about it.  In the Tanakh, we might associate this stage with the requirements to sacrifice in the temple; the sacrifice is a way of making amends and pleasing God so as to maintain the relationship with God.

The fourth stage is the moral perspective of Maintaining Social Order.  People who have come to this stage have realized a sense of the needs of a harmonious community that transcends to some extent the wants of the individual.  Children begin insisting on fair or equitable treatment for themselves and others according to agreed-upon rules.  Adults do the same, though they may have a less simplistic understanding of fairness than a child.  In the Tanakh, we might associate this stage with the commandment to love our parents and the regulations regarding the treatment of slaves and outsiders.

The fifth stage is the moral perspective of Social Contract and Individual Rights.  People who have entered into this stage understand that mutually agreed-upon contracts should be upheld by both parties even when the cost is very high to one party or to both of them.  They also understand that individuals may choose to not be party to an agreement with them and do not have to maintain interpersonal relationships with them.  In the Tanakh, we might associate this stage with the covenant with Noah and the covenant with Abraham.

The sixth stage is the moral perspective of Universal Principles.  People who operate at this stage of development have an internalized moral code and they understand that adherence to their code may come at a high price, a price they are willing to pay.  Their moral code often has abstract or transcendental elements that call them beyond what normal social conventions would require.  In the Tanakh, we might associate this with the prophets who criticized injustice and called people back to their covenant with God, knowing that they might be killed or tortured for their trouble.

What is interesting is that that the Tanakh, which we Christians refer to as the Old Testament, contains components which correspond to the stages of morality through which each of us journey to one degree or another.  The Tanakh responds to all of the stages of human moral development, offering something to draw us away from ephemeral pleasures and toward eternal unity with the divine no matter where we are on our journey in life.

Its value is in its presentation of a holistic moral landscape, in how thoroughly it responds to us as human beings in a constant developmental process rather than in a static state of moral perfection.  All the pieces of human morality are there, available for us to utilize in making our way to living a holistic morality which takes into account our own personal development as moral agents and enabling us to respond to others where they are in that process of moral development.

The Tanakh leads us to what many of my contemporaries would understand as a higher morality, and it does so by meeting us where we are as we traverse the realms of what they would understand as a lower morality.  It shows us how to live at each stage of morality as Kohlberg classified them; it shows us the great good and great difficulty of living at each of those stages.  And it shows that moral development is a recursive process in which we must continually be called back to a higher morality of transcendent unity and universal principle as we sometimes move back toward a lower morality of fear of punishment and lust for reward.

In my next piece, I will examine how we might understand Christian thought in light of the moral landscape shown to us in the Tanakh.

Note: The above is an icon of the prophet Samuel which I purchased from orthodoxmonasteryicons.com, the online store for the Paracletos Monastery.