Moral Emphasis and the Christian Life


After watching the film Brideshead Revisited and reading comments on Cardinal O’Malley’s blog regarding the withdrawal from parochial school of a student who is being raised by two women, I was prompted to reflect on the unbalanced emphasis morality — or rather, certain aspects of morality — plays in forming the perception of what Catholicism is today, particularly in its public role.  This isn’t a reflection on the decision to disenroll the student; that decision may well have been made with an eye to questions the student might raise at a later date.   I suppose another post examining the asking of difficult questions should be added, but for now, I am more concerned with the reduction of Christianity to hollow moral forms, and the continued emphasis, since the Counter Reformation at least, of certain authority figures (including not simply clergy, but parents as well) to forcing individuals into narrowly and shallowly understood, compulsory morality.

Christianity, however, is more than morality.  Catholicism is more than a simple moral code held together by liturgical rubrics.  Indeed, morality may be the least part of it — and this, I believe, may be what sets my views so far apart from my more vocal contemporaries in the world of religion and public life.

Although to be sure, “spirituality” — that popular and resultingly anomalous term — is in some regards religion and religious experience apart form its derivative (some may say its sustaining) morality, I am not proposing that we focus on the “spirituality” of Christianity at the expense of moral theology per se.    From the point of view of “spirituals”, morality is seen as external, imposed from without in order to compel and control individuals under the authority of others:  compel those who are thirsty for divine experience within the context of their religions, control those who are not.

This idea is not without its merits, and the evidence must certainly be acknowledged by those within the Church (which means parents and teachers, and not necessarily clergy).  However, the idea that morality can be internally derivative of religious or spiritual experience is rarely broached, and is perhaps one of the more profound oversights of both this position or philosophical lifestyle (that is, of the “I’m spiritual, but not religious” outlook), and the more conventional “outer forms only” order.

What for me is essential or central in Christianity — that ancient and medieval Mediterranean Christianity, both western and eastern, in which I am steeped, concerns revelation: the (mystical) contemplation of dogma, if you will, the experience of contemplation and prayer, the inculcation of an interior life, more than any morality derived from the decontextualised rabbinic debates in which Jesus participated or the literal and selective application of Pauline (itself part of Rabbinic debate) or Petrine argumentation and instruction.  It is, in a word, morality derived from internal experience.  The inculcation and internalisation of morality need not go hand in hand with externally imposed forms, with hawkish oversight, well meaning but guilt-inducing instruction and reflection (which, in reality, often results more in confusion-inducing alienation).  Such actions betray trust, no matter whether they preserve respect or outward, public conformity.  And without trust, where is faith?  Without trust, what love can be borne?  And without love, and without faith, how can one dare be called or assume the name of Christian?

Yet perhaps I now fall into the same trap — speaking of love while condemning zeal?  I cannot condemn the zealous.  What I can do, however, is frankly declare it to be misplaced, misoriginated, uncentred.  Zeal must spring from the interior life and must express itself in personal reflection, silent or spoken, as one is called — but not so subjectively one fails to realise the unique lives others experience within divinity.  This sort of zeal asks others what they perceive — or don’t perceive — what they choose to do — or not — in order to cultivate a subjective, uniquely personal life.  It seeks nothing from the other person and in not seeking perhaps raises them to a wisdom borne of presence when present, and reflection when reflective — a state formerly called self-recollection.   In short, it allows others to take the chance of making difficult moral choices and living interiorly with the consequences.

This state of recollection transcends any existentialist dichotomy postulated between engagement in lived experience and melancholy introspection, for it moves fluidly, with an integrity rooted in confidence and developed (or even attenuated) by refined perception.  It is a palpable and moving silence, a speech imbued with power because it seeks to control none; the body is not made a prison for divine life.

Of course, if one sees Christianity as salvation form sin — which I do not — this moral emphasis makes the utmost sense.  What do I see Christianity as promising?  What is the life question is answers?  If Christianity isn’t about salvation from sin, what does Christianity save us from?

Theologically, I think one can make the case that Christianity’s appeal in the ancient world was that it promised salvation from death.  This is why the Resurrection is such an important even in the life of Christianity.  “By death you trampled on death and bestowed life to those in the tombs” runs the Paschal anthem.  Without death, Adam, humanity, is returned to its primordial state, and provides a path to silence and stillness, to wonder and peace.  Without fear of death, union with the divine life, integrity, firmness, and action result.  And action characterises the works of mercy which, incidentally, are posited as the social criteria by which nations — not individuals in themselves — will be judged.

But action also entails risk.  If you believe that risk to be the possibility of making a moral mistake and running afoul of a hard and severe taskmaster, you have become the third servant who was ultimately thrown out of the master’s house, the money with which he was entrusted distributed to those servants who, in silent union with and wonder at their master, risked the money they had been given, because they knew their master had entrusted them with such gifts for just that purpose.  The parable about talents is a parable about how one sees God, just as much as it is about how one takes up the challenge of making difficult choices.

This isn’t to deny the importance of morality, nor to disparage the practice of those precepts contained in the Scriptures.  Divine experience can certainly come from the study of God’s law.  But that experience of the divine is derived exactly from immersing oneself in the study of Torah, derived from asking the difficult questions about how a law is to be prescribed, what is its extent, what are the mysteries enfolded within its grammatical particles.  Such study seeks to discover what is unsaid but contained within the verse.  Through this probing of the hidden depths of God’s ineffable name, this sort of study, we enter into the Divine life.

True, we live the moral insights which come from this reflection, and through the practice of that life we arrive at yet new depths of communion from our lived experience of moral precepts.  But this is not morality for morality’s sake.  It is morality for the sake of ongoing communion with Divinity — which is a religious experience born form the interior life, not a hollow compulsion potentially, and ultimately, filled with bitterness and regret.

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