If one leaves aside for the moment the question of the existence of God and his right (and responsibility) to intervene in the affairs of men, much of what has been said is quite enlightening.
Our experience seems to bear out much of the discussion thus far.
The Double Standard of Morality
We all struggle with the needs and wants of the “self” (many of which are legitimate) and our sense of obligation to others.
It seems to be self-evident that our needs take a priority over the needs of others in an unfriendly and sometimes dangerous world.
At the same time, we would not want someone else to do the same thing to us and prioritize their needs over ours. At least, not when it matters. Not when it is us or them. Not when our needs are left wanting while their needs are more than satisfied. Not when it is about survival and much of life is precisely about that very thing.
Instinctively, we know that it is a double standard but we don’t know what to do about it. We may try to find win-win solutions but it simply isn’t always possible.
The Mystery of Motivation
It is also interesting to note that the entire discussion about the social contract (or naturalistic forms of “morality”) and even about religion is based on our need to be motivated to act a certain way.
Why do we need to be motivated to act in the best interests of others even at our own expense?
Arguments abound from both sides of the debate around the fact that morality is, ultimately, in our own best interest. We are social and corporate creatures and we need each other, so much so, that we could not survive emotionally, psychologically or even physically (in the long run) without “others”.
For the thinking man or woman, that seems rather obvious, but our actual human experience, most often goes in the other direction.
The ground for most behavior is based on the expediency of perceived self-interest focused on our felt needs. This seems to be the default position of most people in the real world.
People do what they perceive as meeting their own self-interest. The entire economy is based on it. Many times there is no harm done to the “other” but many times there is.
Sometimes the “other” is unprotected or unable to complain or fight back. Sometimes the “other” engages in a battle of retaliation or quietly subverts, interferes or otherwise hinders the pursuit of our self-interest. Scenarios abound. Pride and ego are often rampant. Physical, emotional and psychological wars wage constantly. Bitterness, backbiting, accusations, lies, stealing, pain and suffering are often the result.
It is the “expediency” of the perceived self-interest that is often at fault. It is simply easier. It takes moral effort to find solutions that are good for both parties – and there is no guarantee that a solution will be found.
What is of even deeper concern is that the perceived self-interest is focused on “felt needs” which may or may not be the real needs of the “self.” That is a key point to consider.
The Paradox of Self-Interest
That awareness, that the “self” is often its own worst enemy, is the paradox of self-interest. Deep within, we know ourselves and our propensity towards evil – even against ourselves.
How often do we do what we want to do, even though we know it isn’t good for us? The world is full of people, for example, who smoke, drink, or take drugs. Many people have a lack of “respect and care” (i.e. love) for themselves.
Many people fall into the opposite extreme of denying their own personhood (in terms of their own interests, opinions and personal development) and submit themselves in unhealthy ways to the will of others.
The “self” has real needs that must be met, but, paradoxically, the “real needs” are often met only as the perceived “felt needs” are denied.
We often don’t even love ourselves enough to do what is in our own best interest (even when we are aware of what that is).
We are addicted to the expediency of perceived self-interest focused on our felt needs even to our detriment.
Enter guilt and shame. The distinction is often made between “real” guilt and “perceived” guilt, while others would deny the validity of guilt in the first place. When one feels guilty, he or she may react with violence, denial or complacency.
In addition, he or she may have feelings of shame, which is a preliminary confession that some agreed upon moral obligation has not been met.
This guilt and shame in the emotional-psychological realm may be similar in function to suffering and pain in the physical realm. The purpose may be to indicate that something is wrong that needs to be put right.
There is also a primordial sense of guilt that lies behind all of our moral effort. There seems to be a basic sense of guilt about the fact that we all prioritize non-moral issues (self-interest) above moral ones (relationships with others). Or, more basically, that we value ourselves above others while at the same time resenting the fact that others do the same to us (the double standard of personal value).
Our relationships are always a complex, moral engagement of negotiated interests and preferences with occasional forays into the transcendental world of “love” (personal sacrifice for the good of others).
I say the “transcendental” world of love because, ultimately, there is no adequate naturalistic explanation for this experience. Certainly, there are attempts to relate it back to our own self-interest in the long run (the good of society is good for all of us) and certainly there are forms of “love” that are tainted with personal desire and self-interest (more interested in the benefits than the intrinsic value of the other as a worthy object of sacrifice).
But true sacrificial love values the “other” above the “self” whether or not it is so loved in return (parents, at least, get this).
When we are loved our self-value is reflected in the sacrifice of the other who loves us. There are still many isolated cases of self-sacrificing love (even to the point of death) that are clearly grounded in something beyond morality, perhaps even beyond religion.
This primordial guilt that permeates our human experience is reaffirmed continually as we daily face the choice of self-interest over and against the interests of others.
This guilt is such a constant part of our human experience and make up that many people find it hard to isolate and identify as the source of the problem. We have “hardened our hearts” with rationalizations and excuses and justifications. We want to explain the guilt away, to explain why the double standard of personal value is a necessary (or unavoidable) evil. Who else will take care of us if not ourselves? Who else loves us and values us enough to take care of our real needs (if not always our felt needs)?
It is a legitimate question to wonder how both needs can be met – the need to be prudent in taking care of ourselves and the moral need to take care of others. Can we really prioritize the one over the other? Is it necessary? What would be our motivation to sacrifice self-interest for the sake of others? Isn’t there a balance between the two? Shouldn’t we look for a win-win solution? What if there isn’t one?
Relationships are the context for moral effort.
Prudence (which prioritizes self-interest) is not the main focus of morality. Morality is focused on the intrinsic value of a relationship with others (rooted in the intrinsic value of the other) rather than on the benefits of the relationship (or the benefits of the moral effort) to us.
And so we feel guilty and (hopefully) even shameful because a standard to which we have agreed implicitly (if we value ourselves we must recognize the same value in others) has been broken and continues to be broken. Something is not right and it needs to be fixed, but we find ourselves addicted to the priority of self-interest.
Perhaps the standard can simply be denied (others are not as valuable as I am). Perhaps the guilt can be repressed (I can’t help others if I don’t take care of myself first). Perhaps good arguments can be made why the priority of “appropriate” self-interest can be justified in a world that is not friendly to our needs.
After all, who is to say that “others” are as important as, or more important than, I?
Who is to say that morality should be preferred over self-interest?
Who sets the standard for human relationships?
Perhaps this is just another form of religious manipulation and guilt mongering.
Perhaps. Perhaps not.
The Primal Relationship
The interesting question is whether or not there is a “who” – a more basic, more primal relationship lying behind it all which is the source of this primordial guilt. If relationships are the context for moral effort, is it not possible (maybe even probable) that there is a primal relationship behind it all that can make sense of our “cruel dilemma”?
After all, if our experience of a moral standard (however defined) is universal, and if the experience of our failure to live up to the moral standard is also universal, then the standard itself cannot be merely a question of personal preference or social agreement. It must be a standard that exists independently of us.
But more importantly, it is a standard that reveals our true natures.
If the universal standard is fundamentally a question of integrity – our actions matching our beliefs and statements, whatever the content of that morality – who can claim that we always, or even consistently, do what we, ourselves, believe to be right and avoid, or fight, what we, ourselves, believe to be wrong.
We all fall short of the integrity test. That is the truth that is revealed in this cruel dilemma of life. We all subscribe to the double standard of morality, mostly without shame and without guilt. We excuse ourselves by stating that we are doing our best, that we need to be prudent about our needs as well, that we do help others somewhat and to some degree, sometimes. And that´s all that can be expected of any of us. We have redefined the standard of the intrinsic value of others (all others) as equal to ourselves to something more realistic. And this standard of the equal intrinsic value of all others rather than the expediency of our own percieved felt needs is the essential ingredient to solve the secular problem of evil in a dangerous world.
Furthermore, we are aware of this standard of intrinsic value for all because of the structure and form of our existence – basically our self-value at odds with a dangerous world. Since we have intrinsic value and that value is challenged, others also have intrinsic value and we should not challenge it but rather respect it and care for others as we would respect and care for ourselves.
The very structure of our existence and our self-awareness demands that we “believe” that our continued existence is good and that our suffering, pain and death is bad. Why should that be the case if the “bad” is a normal part of life?
Is it not reasonable to assume that suffering, pain and death do not belong, they are not welcome, they “ought not” to be?
But since suffering, pain and death do exist, may we not assume that something is not right, something has been lost, some fundamental “flaw” has entered into human existence?
The Two Flaws of Existence
Perhaps we should talk about two flaws, or the two faces of evil in this world.
The first in nature itself and the second in the nature of man.
The first appears to be amoral. Earthquakes are not personal. Disease isn’t directed at you, per se. We all experience the seemingly arbitrary limits to our pursuit of happiness. The flaw in nature is dangerous, even fatal, but it is amoral. In fact, it is the very amorality of nature that so concerns us. It is an unthinking, implacable attack on our value and there is nothing we can do about it ultimately (we try to mitigate its effects with science and technology but death will always be the final victor).
The second flaw appears to be moral. It is the flaw within human nature. We have the ability to choose, to decide our response to the other. We are not unthinking, implacable enemies of love. We can be reasoned with, encouraged, negotiated with, loved. Still, the flaw in human nature goes beyond occasional choices. The need is for consistent, sacrificial acts of love (in spite of the attitudes and actions of the other) based on the intrinsic value of each person. That seems to be beyond our ability even though we know we are responsible for that flaw. We cannot simply blame it on some genetic problem. It is a moral issue first and last. Even if we can’t express that love perfectly, we can certainly do more and sacrifice more than we do presently. Many people do. Many more don’t.
We understand that it is a question of basic commitments, a question of the will. We understand that love is a choice and that we do have the ability to choose love more often than we do.
It may be true that pursuing excellence through the virtues, especially love, is the solution to much of the evil of life but we are not committed to that solution rather, we are addicted to the expediency of perceived self-interest focused on our felt needs.
So, there is the amoral evil of nature and the moral evil of the human heart.
Even without reference to God, we all recognize our role in the double standard of moral expectation and failure (we value ourselves more than others but don’t want others to do the same to us). Why are we so reluctant to do right by each other? We blame a dangerous world full of dangerous people. Granted.
But perhaps there is more to it than that.
The argument goes like this:
First, there is a universal standard of morality (personal value based on self-awareness and intrinsic to human nature and existence).
Secondly, the standard has been, and continues to be, broken (the double standard of self-value taking precedence over the value of others). This leads to an absurd and abnormal existence.
Thirdly, the standard is broken by us towards others and even towards ourselves.
We are the standard breakers whenever we prioritize the expediency of perceived self interest focused on our felt needs over and against the excellence of love as an expression of virtue rooted in our character/nature in the context of our personality.
The problem is within. It is rooted in the fact that our character/natures are not committed to love as a virtue based on the intrinsic value of the other.
Finally, comes the realization that we are addicted to the expediency of perceived self interest focused on our felt needs. We cannot change our natures.
Individual acts and isolated choices can be made but our natures are compromised by a commitment to self-preservation in a dangerous world.
One can hardly be faulted for that but, on the other hand, we feel guilty (and shameful) about it because we know it isn’t right (and certainly not helpful). On the one hand, it is a natural, prudent, response to a dangerous world but, on the other, it is the source of most evil in the world. Our natures are not fixed, uncompromising, determiners of our actions. We still have choice even if it goes against our automatic, natural response. Even if it goes against what we want, against what we think is prudent, against what is wise or considered normal, we can still choose. Still, it is difficult. Especially when we don´t really want to in the first place.
We are tossed about like a ship on the waves from despair to optimism in the middle of a storm that will not let us forget that our very lives are on the line. And maybe even our souls.
The Two Faces of Reality
If this dangerous existence is not “normal,” what would normal look like?
The world would, presumably, not be dangerous. Suffering, pain and death would not exist. People would love each other, look out for each other, care for each other while their own needs are being met by the community, enabled and directed by God. Enter Utopia. Yes. But the fact that we can imagine it is one thing; to understand why it doesn’t exist (and won’t exist so long as human nature/predisposition is the problem and remains unchanged) is another.
At the very least, we cannot deny that the structure and form of our present reality seems to be out of sync with our self-awareness and self-value. This is the secular problem of evil. This is a world fit only for animals who are not aware of their own existence and therefore do not suffer the “knowing” (or the anticipation) of suffering, pain and, ultimately, death.
On the other hand, there is much that is beautiful and worthy of human appreciation and enjoyment in the world.
That is also a truth based on our self-awareness. Much of what we call beauty and joy is in the eye of the beholder, precisely because the beholder is self-aware. But beauty and joy must also be part of the structure of reality beyond human perception, otherwise there would be nothing for us to perceive. We do not create beauty and joy but rather recognize it. Almost as if mankind was made for creation and creation for mankind. An interesting thought.
But still, how can these two truths coexist? The awareness of suffering, pain and death and, at the same time, the awareness of beauty and joy?
Are they two sides of the same coin? Evil as necessary as good? But then we deny morality and there is no standard for good and evil, no distinction between the one and the other. Intellectually, the problem might then go away but our self-awareness and the reality of suffering, pain and death will not allow that conclusion.
What else can it be? Paradise lost? Perhaps, but that would presuppose the existence of a personal God. If love is the solution to most of our problems, and if we are incapable of the constant virtue of love unless we are loved unconditionally (and, therefore, constantly protected and provided for eternally if not always temporally), how can this be accomplished without a personal God? A personal God who loves us and cares for us seems to be the only hope for mankind.
Many people seem to have a sense of another, a “who” that may have answers for us, a “who” that may be the basis for the intrinsic value of others (and therefore of ourselves), a value not based simply on our own self-awareness (and self-value) but on a primal relationship fundamentally characterized by this transcendent experience of love extended to us by this “who”.
What if our “self-value” is merely the tip of the iceberg? Is our self-value sufficient grounds to establish the intrinsic value of all human beings (many who do not value themselves very highly due to their immoral actions towards others or the abusive actions of others toward them)?
In the real world, is self-love sustainable or does it corrode itself with its own egoism (and resulting guilt and shame)?
On the other hand, can self-love (respect and care) grow under the sacrificial love of others such as parents, friends, and even, (or mostly) God?
Is sacrificial love a recognition of intrinsic value in the other (even in the face of their “evil” natures and hurtful behavior)? Or is sacrificial love an ability within ourselves, within our natures, to love regardless of intrinsic value (if, in fact, we have that kind of nature)? Or is sacrificial love an obedience to (and imitation of) the divine love and will? Or is it all three? Yes. That must be it.
In the end, sacrificial love must recognize the intrinsic value of others as created by God (even if they are dangerous and prone to evil and part of a dangerous world) out of obedience to the divine love and will and, at the same time, find the power (or ability) within, in our own natures, to demonstrate that recognition of value with personal sacrifice.
Recognition (even based on obedience) without the power (and motivation) to act is insufficient. It is not sacrificial and it is not love. Ability (or power) to act is the issue.
The essential problem is that we do not have natures that are willing and able to love sacrificially as a constant expression (rather than an isolated act) of who we are (virtue rooted in our nature). In fact, quite the opposite.
There is even a question as to whether or not we want to or can love sacrificially on an ongoing basis without some regard for our own well-being, our own basic needs and desires.
We all have the ability to love and to “sacrifice” when our own interests are not in danger but that is not the idea. The issue is not that our own needs are not legitimate but rather that we prioritize them over the needs of others (whether that person is worthy or not in terms of their behavior and choices). So long as our survival (however we perceive it or define it) is in doubt, we hold back.
The Protection of Divine Love
What if we were meant (in the original, perfect world) to be protected and provided for by our Creator and Father?
What if that is the normal state of affairs which would free us up to love others?
What if we were created to have a constant and secure relationship with our Creator and Father that allows Him to exercise His loving authority in our lives and to which we respond willingly with our loving obedience?
In a perfect world we would have perfect faith and there would be clear and constant evidence of God’s protection and providence in our lives.
In this dangerous world, we would expect, at best, to have an imperfect faith in the process of becoming perfect, a faith that needs to grow and become stronger in the context of danger, with a healthy bit of courage thrown in for good measure. Since it is a lack of faith in God that created the problem of alienation from the divine relationship, and the divine protection and providence, it is in learning to live by faith that we can express our commitment to that new relationship with God.
There are other dynamics at work in this dangerous world. We need to be reminded that this world is peopled with “wills” that exclude God or ignore Him or, alternatively, even fight against Him for authority over their lives to protect their ill-advised human autonomy at all costs.
What if there was a great rescue operation underway in which God needed our help to demonstrate what faith in Him was really like?
What if God withheld His protection and providence to an extent for this worthy purpose of rescuing others?
What if we agreed to cooperate (and thereby show our sacrificial love for Him) so that we could demonstrate to the world the “value” our relationship with God has to us?
What if we were even willing to forego a significant degree of his protection and providence in order to live like everyone else and demonstrate “faith” in God in the context of our shared suffering, evil and death but also in the context of our faith in our ultimate destiny, with a view towards eternity?
These are the dynamics of a real faith in a real God in the real world.
Ultimately, sacrificial love (both the giving and the receiving of it) is the only source of value that can sustain (or re-create on a new foundation) self-love (which produces in its turn more sacrificial love).
What if we were to receive a new nature, one that is vitally connected with the divine nature while still maintaining our own personhood (a whisper of the holy trinity, the very nature of God, three persons in one divine nature)? We do not become divine but we are reconnected to the divine in a secure and constant relationship of sacrificial love.
And true self-love, confident and sure, rooted in a new nature becomes the source of our ability to recognize the intrinsic value of (and give sacrificial love to) another.
Faith, Hope and Love
It isn’t automatic. We are still our own person with the ability to choose.
Our natures may have a new source of power in the presence of the divine but at the same time, we have had a lot of practice at human autonomy and self-interest and old habits, forms of thinking and commitments to values and dispositions and behaviors that will have to be unlearned, denied, even fought against (the Bible calls it “crucifying the flesh”).
Faith is a choice, an act of the will, based on a new divine perspective on our existence and a new source of power.
Faith can only exist in the context of love and, at least in this world, it is nurtured on the hope for a better life, in this world and the next, together with our heavenly Father.
Faith, hope and love (three elements of one relationship) in the context of a new nature and a new relationship with our Father Creator, is the only antidote to correct our addiction to egoism and to overcome the suffering, pain and death we find in this dangerous world.
The power of our parents sacrificial love is important. Strong families, strong marriages and strong friendships are essential to dealing with most moral and ethical issues in life (as well as addictions, trauma and neurosis). But that relational power is not secure, constant or complete. It is not enough to overcome egoism, suffering, pain and death.
It is a whisper of something deeper and richer that is the ground of all value (or significance), all purpose and all meaning in life.
But there, exactly there, is the problem.
If it’s true that “he” loves us sacrificially and loves others as well and expects us to do the same, then we have to admit that we have lost our divine connection, we have not lived up to this primal expectation, this primal obligation.
This relationship with the divine is intrinsic to our natures and we need it as surely as we need air to breathe and lungs to breathe it with.
Betrayal, Addiction and the Divine Agenda
This primal relationship is one that we betrayed and continue to betray with our addiction to self interest and our corresponding lack of trust in our Creator to protect us and provide for us as we dedicate ourselves to the interests of others.
Note this point carefully. If we are vitally connected in our very natures to a God who sacrificially loves us and who promises to protect us and provide for us in a dangerous world (with a view to eternity), we are then free to dedicate our moral efforts to the interests of others.
Our problem is that we do not trust Him to do what He promises. We do not trust His protection and providence.
And, at first glance, we seem to have good evidence for our lack of trust. From our point of view there is no correlation between goodness and reward or evil and punishment. There are whispers of God’s presence, whispers of his intervention in our lives, but nothing that we can put our finger on. We do not “see” his obvious protection and providence but rather the opposite. He allows us to get hurt. He allows us to go hungry, get sick, and even die.
What goes on here?
Apparently, we are not on the same wavelength.
God seems to have a different agenda, a different purpose. We are concerned first and foremost with our own protection and providence but He is more concerned with our salvation and the salvation of others through a new relationship with Him. His “creation” promise to protect and provide for us even in a dangerous world has been subsumed under a more important consideration – a “redemptive” consideration.
Just as a crisis takes precedent over all normal activity, so God, as a good and loving Father, has made a loving decision to prioritize eternity (real needs) over our temporal needs (felt needs) when they are in conflict. Our protection is still complete (whether we live or die) in the light of eternity and His providence is still a daily demonstration of His love and care for us while we are on this earth, but there is more at stake than our comfort and convenience and He is calling us into a greater adventure and purpose than we ever thought possible.
The Primal Truth
Still we have to decide. That is the whole point. That is what love and faith are all about – desire, decision and destiny and, ultimately, the paradox of divine authority and human autonomy.
We must die to our own self-interest in order to become alive to the power of God in our lives. And a relationship is at the heart of it all.
The problem is that we still want to be in charge. We still want to make the decisions about what is good or evil for us. We want to decide our destiny, to determine our purpose, meaning and significance on our own. We lack the faith to follow Him, to accept his priorities, his agenda and his purposes as our own. We lack faith – practical, day in, day out, “real world” faith. And that lack of faith in God’s protection and providence according to His priorities, passions, agenda and purpose within the context of eternity is the surest indication that our relationship with Him is broken.
That is the primal truth that makes sense of all the guilt and the need for moral motivation and our difficulty with moral relationships in the first place.
Perhaps the secular problem of evil leads us back to a relationship (or lack thereof) at the heart of the human experience that makes sense of it all.
“What are you doing here? How did you get past the guards?” The high priest was tall and gaunt, a purple robe around his shoulders, an ornate hat upon his head and a scowl on his face.
“We have come to speak with you, to know your intentions and to decide what is to be done,” said the old man. He had left his donkey and its burden in the hands of two street boys, confident that they had already taken the goods for themselves and sold the donkey to the highest bidder. Then, he and his two companions had made the ascent to the shrine being built at the top of the tower, a doorway to heaven.
Before the high priest could reply, a voice spoke from a shadowy corner of the room and Sargon, firstborn of Nimrod, moved into the light.
“Tobias, take care. Things are not as they seem.” His arm was outstretched toward the high priest as if to protect him. He was a large man, with thick arms and stout legs, a warrior no doubt, but also a leader of men.
“Wise advice, Sargon,” the old man said. His two companions had spread out behind him, their staffs ready, their eyes sharp.
“What do you want?” Sargon said, taking another step forward as the high priest scurried backward, behind him. “What is your business here? Why do you interfere?”
“Are you surprised?” said the old man.
Sargon looked at him for a long moment and then at his two companions. Finally he came to a decision.
“What is it you want to know?”