17 November 2010

See What I Mean? A Timely Example of Moral Distortion

     Within hours of writing yesterday's blog posting ("The Juice is Worth the Squeeze"), I learned of a manipulative, legal trick play used by a middle school football team to score a touchdown.  First, watch the Youtube.com playback.  It will be necessary to view it a few times.  First, pay attention to the lower middle of the picture.  The coach is standing next to an official and calls out a foul for five yards against his own team.  The official ignores the call.  Then watch it again and see what happens on the team.  You will see the center hand the ball over his shoulder to the quarterback, who nonchalantly walks into the opposing line as if to step off his own five yard penalty.  The other team is stunned, obviously.  The quarterback then breaks into a sprint to score a touchdown.   Please watch.  See you on the other side.


On first look, this is a hoot!  Imagine, a) this being legal (it is); b) pulling it off; c) actually having the other team believe it.   Now for the question that will bring us all down to earth?  Is this a morally sound value that has created this behavior?    Darn!  Testy priest!

So happens that I have heard two persons speak of this.  One is a psychologist and the other an NPR sports analyst.  Amazingly enough, both have nearly identical "takes" on the event.   If this were attempted by a group of adult, professional players, much of what is observed here would not have happened.  The choices would have been framed with fully formed moral consciences.  The quarterback would have made the decision to act or not on the coach's call.  Guaranteed:  the opposing team would not have been taken off-guard.  The quarterback would have been flattened by either a lineman or the nearest backfield hulk....not pretty.

In terms of moral development and the formation of conscience, young people do not have completely developed capacity for making such choices independently until near adulthood (ca. 20 years of age).  One can see the change in most young people, as they engage their environment more responsibly and make sounder, wiser decisions. 

Both commentators noted above cite that the Driscoll Middle School coach makes this decision to manipulate the playing field and directs his team to engage the play.  This eighth grader is doing what young people do on teams:  exactly what the allegedly responsible adult tells him/her to do.  The other team hears a foul call, sees the official and does what young people are taught to do....obey....in this case stand still and wait. 

My point here is that both the psychologist and NPR sports analyst agree that this is a form of child abuse.  It is teaching children to deceive and, in reality, cheat the other team in irresponsible and unsportsmanlike actions.  What has happened here is that a filter has been put in place for these kids by two seemingly responsible adults through which the actions of moral conscience will have to pass to create ethical behavior.  They have been behaviorially modified by their mentors.

A glass is filled with water and a straw placed in the glass.  Seen from the side, the straw looks fractured as it goes from air to water.  That is not a true picture but a distortion created by density and specific gravity.  It is similar between the conscience and the events of life that become filters. 

This is serious stuff and will create the kinds of dysfunction we currently see in government, business and on Wall Street.  It's part of our mess.

In Christ's Love,

Fr. Fred+

16 November 2010

"The Juice is Worth the Squeeze"

 This article is originally published under the title "Rector's Reflections" in our parish weekly newsletter.  It is rendered in its entirety here.

    Recently, I was watching a movie in which the title phrase was used to describe what a person’s experience of living a moral life might be like. I decided immediately that it would be a good epitaph for a tombstone….AND a great way to define moral integrity.
     Our current Sunday Night Dialogue is a three-part series of reflections on our understanding of Church and State. Can it, or should it, be separate? I began the series on 7 November with a presentation on “Christ and Culture.” This is the title of a book written by H. Richard Niebuhr in 1956 and still in print. It remains required reading in the Ethics and Moral Theology classes of most of our seminaries.
     In the above noted presentation, I shared a working definition of ethics and morals. These two terms are much confused in our common parlance and representation of relational integrity. Most all of our contemporary culture has relegated “morals” to the behaviors surround sexual conduct, marital relationships, various addictions, etc. “Ethics” has been determined as being largely those actions and behaviors that reflect business and social interactions. This last definition is probably a bit closer to accurate. However, our definition of “morals” is astoundingly far from its original meaning.

     The classic definition of moral – both in Aristotelian philosophy and Judeo-Christian Tradition – is “the fundamental, ontological character within an individual which reflects both created and assimilated values.” Some explanation is in order. The term “ontological” is a theological base word that describes the essence of one’s being. It is more comprehensive than the terms, “spirit” or “soul.” It is life-force that drives what is termed “conscience” – our ability to know right from wrong/good from evil. In most infants, this is an innate quality. It often is either shadowed or lost by life factors that include experiences, trauma, neuro-pathological episodes or social conditioning (e.g. if a child grows up in a highly bigoted home, the nature of good in others is very diminished over time).
     Being moral, therefore incorporates all aspects of one’s character…only a small portion of which is human sexuality or other patterns of behavior normally given to that name. Another way to describe moral character is “passion.” Again, this has nothing to do with our current usage of the word. “Passion” is the energy that drives our character to accomplish the highest possible good and is a reflection of our character. Passion is what creates the conscience….that sometimes small voice that will indicate what we really need to believe about our environment or our relationships. Conscience is how moral character emerges into conscious levels of our lives.

     The classic definition of ethic – again in both the Aristotelian Nicomacean system and Judeo-Christian Tradition – is “the doing of our morals…values.” Once we have a conscience that is informed by our moral character, we need to apply the elements of that character to our interaction with our outside world and relationships. The behaviors that emerge are described as our ethics. Unlike our current, and very limited definition, ethics incorporates all behaviors that define us in the world. Yes, this can make us truly sit back and take stock of what we are all about.
     Ethics can be either well-informed or ill-informed. If our moral character is sound and largely undistorted by life events cited above, our behaviors will be well-informed and bring stability and harmony to our external environment. To the extent that distortion bends our character or skews it, our behaviors will bring instability or disharmony to the external environment. Another way to determine ethical behaviors is by their relative altruism. If behaviors are largely couched in self-serving, ego-driven motivations, there is a good chance that we have some distortion (or “baggage” in the current linguistics) at work as filters through which our conscience must travel.

     I have mentioned Aristotle a couple of times in this presentation. He is considered the “father” of systematic thought regarding morals and ethics. Aristotle’s writings in this area were titled (by him) as “Ethica Nicomacea.” Another writer that developed a systematic philosophical approach to moral and ethical life was Plato. These two Greek philosophers were the platforms used by Christians from the first century onward to develop our theological framework that we call Moral and Ethical Theology.
Oddly enough, seminaries most often teach Ethical Theology first. Reason: It is the easiest to identify and “dissect.” While doing that, professors are teaching basic biblical principles and basic theological language to apply to our spiritual essence. Once that process is underway, the task of exploring Moral Theology begins. These studies really never end. I have been constantly investing time of prayer, reflection and reading in these areas over the decades. We are constantly learning more about ourselves, our environment, our relationships and the global implications of both our character and our actions. The Zen master says, “A butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the world, and that creates a windstorm on the other side of the world.” More appropriate within our Christian Tradition, “An action done by me today will have an affect far, far beyond my capacity to realize.” This is not an exaggeration in the least. Ponder it.

     This is obviously an oversimplified presentation of ethical and moral theology. It is a truly fundamental part of who we are and must have reflective study and prayer. It is the foundation of prayer, in fact. Back to the title of this article. God requires of us to constantly make the choice of either listening to and tapping into our moral essence or simply going on our “gut” and tapping our emotional and ego-driven motivations. It is a hard choice we must make. I regularly find myself rebounding from distorted and filtered values (a moment of anger, judgment, rage, anxiety or fear). However, when I take the time and effort to let go of my pre-conceptions and dig into my place of essential character, I can squeeze out the good juice of God’s Love that defines me as a human person and recasts my behavior as I engage my surroundings. Thus: The juice is worth the squeeze!

     Advent is a good time to slow down enough to see Divine Love at work. God wants so much for our characters to inform our actions that God gave us the ultimate expression of that desire: Jesus. That birth and His life provide us with a completely open and deep view of what it means to express God’s Love and engage the world with the power of that Love. If it is anything less, we need to make serious adjustments. I am not a Christian soldier marching as if there is war. I am a disciple of Jesus Christ seeking the fullest expression of God’s Love in all that is around me….friend and foe alike. That is the actual Gospel Imperative. Advent defines the journey!

In the Love of Christ Jesus,

Fr. Fred+