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,