Wednesday, December 23, 2015

An exchange on morality

Christmas Tree
Metropolitan Museum of Art

A remark from a discussion thread I am involved with:

"Moral relativism will be the death of our civilization but the only sure foundation for absolute morality is religious."

My own comment:

 As to the question of absolute morality. It is a difficult one. I think we can agree that morality is, in general, subjective — that is, different individuals and societies invent their own versions of it. For example, marrying a 12-year-old to a 30-year-old was morally acceptable in traditional societies of the Middle Ages; now, of course, it isn't. Child labor would be another good example. It was nearly ubiquitous until the end of the 19th century.

An objective morality would be a morality that withstood the test of all times in all societies. It would have to, by default, occupy a very high moral ground. By consensus — at least among religious authorities of many different flavors — the great spiritual avatars of various societies, which would include Christ, Buddha, Mohammed, etc. — set the bar very high. Their followers progressively lowered it until all kinds of depravity became permissible. 

Nonetheless, I think that we intuit, both as individuals, societies, and even as a collective (if brutally dysfunctional) civilization, that there is an objective morality, just as Socrates and Plato argued that there is an objective good.

I myself intuit, nay, affirm, that there is an objective good — but that I am (we are) separated from that objective good because of a lack of inner unity, which is the theme of all the great traditions. It's the search for that objective good, I think, that ought to preoccupy us. It is no simple matter, as centuries of history have proven.

 Traditionally, one of the root origins of the word religion has been held to mean re-connecting (=re, again, and religare,  to bind fast.) So an attempt to reconnect with these higher ideals creates the foundation for an absolute morality, that is, a morality that does not emanate from man, but from some higher place.  I have heard it argued (and, I think, successfully) many times that the search is more important than what we find, since a willingness to question and the possession of a critical mind — which challenges itself as much as, or even (preferably) more than, anyone else — is more likely to stay the hand of immorality than any presumed certainty will.

Meister Eckhart, who I think was the last living master for the highest forms of Christian thinking, was quite certain that such a higher morality (he discussed it in terms of the good) emanated from beyond our material and temporal considerations. I agree in both theory and practice with his assessment of the situation. His Complete Mystical Works, while unusually expensive, is an investment the thinking Christian will never regret. 

This leaves us in rather swampy ground, because we are forever attempting to impose temporal and material solutions on metaphysical and spiritual questions. This always leaves us in conflict: and that is the nature of life and society, that it stands between the higher and the lower, always attempting to create a positive middle ground where human value can be honorably discovered and recognized. 

 This position of man between heaven and hell is an equally deep traditional one. Dante's hierarchy is a linear one; but the exchange between heaven and hell, even when it is a horizontal one (i.e., on this level) is a circulatory mechanism.

 I'm working on the central panel of Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, which contains just such a circulatory mechanism. His cautionary tale, which is far more disturbing, lies in the right hand panel. That is where we are headed if we do not take heed.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

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