4. The Moral Interpretation of Religion

It would seem at first glance that the form and content of morality would lead us back to the existence of a personal God.  We might be tempted to take a leap of faith off the tower of human interpretations of reality into the arms of a loving Creator.

It makes sense, but the high priest of human experience cautions us against such recklessness.  Prudence is required.  There are other arguments to be made before such a rash decision can be taken.

What right does God have to interfere in the affairs of men?  The right of love?  The right of Fatherhood?  The right of a Creator?  How romantic, as if we needed to be saved from ourselves, as if we needed protection in this world or a provider to take care of our needs while we focused on the needs of others.

That is far too simplistic and unrealistic an explanation.  It is an “illusion” created by our own need for answers.

Perhaps.  Perhaps not.

The Practicality of Modern Morality

There is a movement, embodied by the philosopher Immanuel Kant and his followers, that attempts, on the basis of reason alone, to justify morality as a necessary ground for religion.

The moral interpretation of religion (as it is called), clearly, and surprisingly, denies the naturalistic interpretation of reality which claims that mankind needs no transcendent explanations.

The secular humanist, armed with his naturalistic view of life, recognizes that there is a moral gap between value and fact but takes a more utilitarian approach to the problem by bringing morality ultimately back to self-interest.

That is explanation enough for now (they say) and it is enough to form the basis for a social contract, though a system of rewards and punishments, enforced by the government through a penal system, will be necessary for those who are not convinced that societal goods are ultimately good for the individual as well.

In the worst case scenario, under that kind of thinking, certain individuals may gain positions of power and may decide for themselves (based on the expediency of their perceptions of their self-interest based on their felt needs) what is good for society and therefore, the individual in society.

In the best case, well-educated citizens will develop a social contract that is truly unbiased by ignoring their own needs and self-interest and only agreeing to that which “the impartial self” would agree to.

In either case, religion is not necessary.  The highest good of society (and therefore the individual) has been agreed to and can be amended by the majority at any time (although the minority may not be in agreement).

Even though the social contract is more than just a collection of laws and policies of a group of people, there is much human interaction that is not covered by this contract.  That is left up to the individual discretion of each person.  There is a moral gap between our value and the way the world is, but that’s the way the world is.  Accept it as such (they say).  There is no ultimate appeal to a just universe.  Ultimately, the need for morality to have a ‘grounding’ outside itself (so the argument goes) does not reflect reality.  There is no sense to this world where good is not always rewarded and evil is not always punished.  There is only the sense that you give it yourself.  Morality is relative and existential.  Make your own morality within the social contract and the laws of society.  Value the ones closest to you and hope for the best.  Apparently random acts of love exist anyway (even if they are irrational) and that is the best you can expect from an unfriendly and dangerous existence.

Harsh, perhaps, even cruel.  But practical and somewhat true to experience.  Yet not the last word.  There are others who want to go beyond those basic tenets of the practicality of modern morality.

Moral despair is often the result of a naturalistic interpretation of morality (and meaning) for the man of good will living in the context of evil.  There must be something more.  Enter religion.

Moral Faith in the Illusion of Religion

Peter Byrne states that “religion is concerned with overcoming the gap between self and reality through the grounding of values in a transcendent and sacred reality.”  That sounds promising.  Immanuel Kant even bases this favorable concept of religion on “practical reason.”

Peter Byrne explains that “moral reason demands commitment to an active, whole-hearted faith in there being an appropriately grounded moral order in things.”  Sounds even better.

Rather than being moral skeptics or falling into moral despair in the face of our obvious moral failure to respect and care for others (especially when it requires self-sacrifice), one must have “moral faith” that the world ultimately makes sense and has a moral order despite appearances.

Simply put, religion, among other things, helps us to believe that the world makes sense, that we live in a just universe and that moral effort will ultimately be rewarded or punished as the case may be.

We are now at the pinnacle of the tower and we are about to open the gates of heaven.  We believe that reality ultimately makes sense and that morality must be good and right in and of itself and not only necessary and useful (as the naturalists would say).

But we have a problem.

The Priority of Moral Autonomy

Our first instinct was, naturally, to understand this moral ground of religion as meaning that we believe in a personal God.  But no.  Apparently, that is not the case.  In fact, there are other grounds for a moral order in other religions such as the concepts of karma and reincarnation.  And these are concepts with universal application.  A personal God is too restrictive (as relationships generally are) and therefore he is not necessary (or wanted).

In fact, as Peter Byrne points out, a “belief in God, old style, is morally corrupt and corrupting.”  Strong words.  But in a weird, left-handed way, it makes sense.  After all, if we were truly moral people, we would not need God to tell us what is right and what is wrong.  We should not love each other because He commands us to do so but because love is a virtue that we value for it´s own sake and want to make a part of our character.  We must value love because love is valuable, not because we are commanded to love.  And that’s true.

We must put the interests and needs of others ahead of our own and love them without conditions and without expectation of reward, simply because the “other” has intrinsic value and because we have made sacrificial love a part of our natures.

We must pursue “excellence through virtue” and we must value virtue for its own sake.  We are moral agents that should be able to make our own judgments and decisions in the context of a dangerous and unfriendly world (so the argument goes) and do so on behalf of others and often at great risk to ourselves.  We must create a just and ethical society of people who, together with other men of good will, will enable and support each other in our moral transformation.

I think I can hear the creaking of the gateway to heaven as the high priest begins to open it while he explains his vision for mankind.  It all sounds so wonderful.  We are only a step away from true happiness, from accomplishing the highest human good – and we can do it all without God.

There is one last argument that the high priest wants to make.  Be still and know the wonder of this final revelation.  It is self-evident that a personal God makes no sense and is not necessary as a ground for our moral efforts.

“Why is it self-evident?”  I asked.

“Because if our moral development is based on some outside moral agency coming to our rescue,” said the High Priest, “it’s no longer our moral development.  Morality must respond internally to the problem of evil.  Yes, we are faced with the uncertainty of human existence, with the amoral forces of nature and the “destructiveness in human motivation – which give rise to human tragedy.”

But if we cannot overcome by ourselves, what happens to our moral autonomy?  In what sense can we say that we, ourselves, have developed morally or have become better persons or have gained a higher moral awareness resulting in real, practical acts of love if a personal God must interfere in our affairs and command us to be good or enable us to be good?  Moral autonomy is our sacred right and responsibility.  Without that, we are nothing, we are less than nothing.  We would be dependent on this God in the deepest parts of our nature and our independent personhood would be at risk and that is not acceptable.”

The high priest swung open the gate to heaven, the final ascent to godhood, the ultimate goal of mankind, the highest good of a moral society.  We already are like God, knowing good and evil, but evil does not have to dominate us, as it has up until now (the high priest says). We can choose the good over the evil, and together we humans can vanquish evil and create a moral society for the good of all.

It sounded right.  The arguments were lucid.  The goal was transcendent but, in the end, it all had a hollow ring to it.  Looking down from the high tower of academic and moral knowledge to the teeming throngs of real people below involved in the activities of everyday life, I realized two things at the same time.

First, that I did not have the power to live that kind of moral life of self-sacrificing love for everyone (including my enemies) no matter how good it sounded.  I had to acknowledge that there was an evil within me that I couldn’t control.   I needed help.

And secondly, that I wanted to believe in a personal God, not only as a source of protection and providence (even on His terms) in a dangerous world but because He, himself, was fascinating to me and I yearned for a relationship with the source of all beauty and joy in the world.  It wasn’t just about morality.  It was about something, someone, beyond morality.  I yearned for a relationship with the one who loves me completely just the way I am and enables me to become all that I can be in virtue and character and potential.  But always with him.  Otherwise, what was the point of all the moral striving?  It all sounded so useless, unless He was involved, unless He liked me.  It wasn´t just about morality but about a relationship.  A primal relationship that I yearned for with all my heart.

Somehow I knew that he was worth the risk and, without a word, I turned and leapt off the tower into the darkness, into the arms of my Father, the loving Creator God.

It was a leap of faith that was to change everything.

*****

Gabriel watched as Sargon confronted the old man.  He looked over at Michael and recognized the fierce look in his eye.  His brother was ready for battle.  It wouldn’t come to that but Michael was a warrior and he was always ready.  This was a significant moment and Gabriel was thankful to be a part of it, to witness it firsthand.

This was not the first time his Master had interfered in the affairs of men.  He remembered that terrible day when he had been commanded to take the man and woman by the arm and throw them out of Paradise.

He had stood there, with a grim and forbidding countenance, his glory unveiled and his flaming sword unsheathed.  The message was clear.  Stay away.  You are no longer to enter the presence of the Holy One.

How could they know that this, too, was grace even as it was judgment?  If they remained in the garden, eating from the tree of Life, feeding on the strength of His Presence, their evil would never be exposed and overcome – it would only grow stronger, unhindered.

God would not, could not support evil any more than necessary to accomplish his plan.  It would be tolerated for a time – that already was anamazing thing – but it would be kept in check and yet not kept in check.  It would be hindered when necessary and exposed when necessary.  It would be stamped out and it would be allowed to flourish, but only when and if necessary to accomplish the plan.

Another way back into the garden was being prepared.  But first blood would flow, the purchase price would be paid, the punishment of death would be transferred, and the way would be opened once more.

First it would be foreshadowed in the Temple on the Day of Atonement when the high priest would enter the holy of holies and sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice upon the altar and then it would come to pass in the fullness of time.

This was simply another interference of grace, another attempt to control unbridled ambition and manipulation and, ultimately, evil.  It was not only mankind, but the evil one, who was behind the building of empires, the grasping for dominance of the world he had been confined to.  There was an unholy alliance between the two, and mankind was not innocent in the matter.  Evil must be checked and the domination of man by other, stronger men must be slowed, even as they are all dominated by the evil one himself.

Of course his Master would interfere.  He had plans of his own.  This was his world after all.  He also wanted paradise restored but there was only one way for that to happen.  Whether they liked it or not, as sad as it might be, paradise was lost to them and there was nothing they could do about it.

The memories of that terrible day outside the garden still grieved him, as did his memories of a more holy Lucifer, but it would not affect his firm and immediate obedience to his Master.  If he, Gabriel, grieved in that moment, how much more must be the grief of the One who loved his children so much that he was willing to lay down his life for them?  He is a God filled with grief for his children.

A God who weeps.

Although mankind doubted it every time evil or pain or death touched their lives, Gabriel knew it to be so.  He had witnessed it over and over again.  The Almighty God is a God who weeps with those who weep. There was no shame in it, only love.

If man only knew the healing that could be found in those tears, under those wings, weeping together with the Almighty God, their Father.

Truth in Flip Flops

“Could I have a word?”

Every head in the room turned toward the sound of the voice.

“How did you get in here?”  someone said. “Somebody call the police.”

But no one moved and I’m not sure any of us really knew why.  He was an old man, obviously off the street.  His hair was a white bush of unmanageable proportions, matching his beard and his size.  He was a large man with a round face.  He had the look of a has-been Santa Clause that had seen better times.  He stank and his hair was smelly and his old, ragged coat hung on his frame like a tent.  I looked down at his feet, which were bare except for an old pair of flip flops protecting them from the cold floor.

Was he hungry?  Did he want a handout?  Why was he here?  I was about to find out.

“I’ve been listening to your conversation,” he began.

Really?  How?  His speech sounded educated.  Did he have an opinion?

“And I would like to make a contribution.”

“A contribution?” said the delegate of Secular Humanism.  “Who are you?  What are your credentials?  Why should we listen to you?”

“Leave him alone,” said the Buddhist delegate.  “Every life is precious and every opinion has truth.”

“Truth?”  said the Secular Humanist.  “What is truth?”

“Good question,” the old man said.  Then he was silent.

One of the delegates closest to the old man got up and indicated for him to sit at his place.  The old man shuffled forward and sat down heavily.  He leaned forward and placed his bare, meaty arms on the table clasping his hands together and looked around at the delegates for a moment.

“Well,” he said finally.  “Do you have any food?  I’m starved.”

Delegates looked at each other bewildered.  Questions started to fly.  Doubts and frustration grew and I could see that the old man was already losing the room.  But then I saw a young delegate seated against the wall stand up and walk over to the old man and give him a sandwich and an apple.  There was a glass of water in front of him already so he had his meal.  The room quieted again in expectation of the old man’s contribution.

“Peanut butter and jelly,” he said.  “I love peanut butter and jelly.”  He looked at the young delegate and said “Thank you, young man.”  Then he turned his attention to his sandwich and began to eat.  He savored every bite and the room was completely quiet.  He took a drink of water and then began on his apple, every crunch clearly heard by all the delegates in the room.  When he was done, he put the core of the apple into his empty water glass and then wiped his hands on the front of his coat.

“How was your lunch?”  said the Secular Humanist.

“Fine, thank you,” the old man said.  But I could see that the sarcasm was not lost on our guest.

“Can we get started now?  I would love to hear your contribution.”  The Secular Humanist tapped his fingers on the table.

“Certainly,” the old man said.  “Actually, I have a few questions for you and then a suggestion.”

“Go ahead,” said the Jewish delegate.

He was sitting right beside the old man who turned toward him and said, “Yohann, it’s so good to see you here.  How are Martha and the girls?”

“Do I know you?” Yohann Schiebert asked.

“No, unfortunately not.  But I know you.”

The old man turned toward the delegates and swept them all with his eyes.  “Let me ask you a question,” he said.  “What would it take for you to resolve your differences and live at peace?”

Delegates looked at each other, thought about it.  One or two pushed away from the table and got more comfortable, crossing one leg over the other but no one dared answer the question.

The old man was silent.

Finally, the Secular Humanist cleared his throat and said, “Well, that is the question, isn’t it?  What would it take?”

“It would take an act of God,” said the Islamic delegate.

“Who’s God, yours or mine?” someone said.

“What if you don’t believe in God,” someone else said.

The old man raised both his hands for silence and the room gave it to him, albeit a bit reluctantly.  “You claim that happiness is the highest good for individuals and society,” the old man said.

“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” said the Secular Humanist.

“Yes, inalienable rights according to some,” the old man said.  “But what would it take for all of you to be happy, then?”

Silence reigned for a long moment but then a philosopher said, “Power.  Power is the issue for me.  The ability to control my world and the people around me so that I can achieve what I want to achieve and do what I want to do.”

“Ok, power,” said the old man.  “What else?”

“Knowledge,” said another delegate.  “I would want to know everything I need to know to make good decisions.  Especially the future.  I would want to know what the future holds each time I am faced with a choice.”

“Power, knowledge,” said the old man.  “Anything else?”

“Resources,” said the Christian delegate.  “Maybe that’s part of power but I would want enough resources so that everyone in the world could live dignified lives and fulfill their God-given potential.”

“Power, knowledge, resources,” said the old man.  “That’s a good start.  Now who should I give that power, knowledge and resources to?”

Did he just say “I”?  What was he playing at?

The room was quiet.  Finally, the Pope spoke up and said, “Well, if we were all honest, most of us would like a chance to be that person.  But the truth be told, I don’t think any one of us could handle it.”

“Why not?” the old man asked quietly.

No one wanted to answer that question.

“Because absolute power corrupts absolutely.”[26]   It was the young delegate who had given the old man his peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

The old man looked at him and smiled, then turned back to the delegates around the table and asked, “Is that true?”

Heads nodded and shoulders shrugged.  “We might all explain it a bit differently, but, at heart, it’s true.”  The Taoist delegate was speaking.  “There’s something wrong with us, deep within our natures, that we simply can’t control.  Call it desire, call it evil, call it sin.  Whatever it is, it’s dangerous.  Your kind of power would destroy us.”

“And yet you need it in order to be happy, to resolve your differences, to be at peace.  Don’t you find that strange?”

I couldn’t put my finger on what was going on.  The old man seemed to grow in strength, his presence radiating out into the room.  There was a growing certainty that this was no ordinary man.  The reality of something extra-ordinary, something supernatural was in the air.  That sense of divine reality was gentle, not overwhelming, but just enough to make honesty more important than self-interest, just enough to make each delegate search their hearts and speak frankly with each other.  It was a strange but glorious moment.

“Let me sum up for you then,” said the old man.  “You find yourselves in a world which is not always friendly.  You have needs and desires but you don’t always get what you want or need.  Both nature and other people often interfere in your pursuit of what you think is good for you.  You need each other but you are at odds with each other and this world that I have made.”

There was that “I” word again.  What was this?

“What was that phrase you like to use?  Oh, yes, “estrangement-dependency.”  A good word,” the old man said.  “But I think there is more to it than meets the eye.  The question is “Who” are you dependent on and “Who” are you estranged from?”

“Well,” one of the delegates said (I couldn’t see who it was), “we are dependent on nature and estranged from each other.”

“And what of the One who created the nature you are dependent on and the others you are estranged from?”

“God?  Which God?” someone asked.

“There is no God,” another added.

“We are all gods; creation itself is an expression of the divine.”

The old man glared around the room and spoke with authority.  “It is the truth that will set you free.  You need power to control your surroundings, you need knowledge to use that power wisely, especially the knowledge of the future consequences of your actions, you need resources to fulfill all your needs and bring happiness to this world, to resolve your differences and to bring you peace.  You either need to become divine or you need a new relationship with the divine.  Those are your choices.”

“To become divine,” said the Christian delegate, “we would need to become good – really, completely “good” in the deepest parts of our nature.  That’s the only way to handle the divine power, knowledge and resources that we need.”

The old man turned toward him and said, “Do you think that you are up to the task?”  He looked around at all of the delegates.  “Does anyone here believe that they can handle the task of becoming divine?  How would you do it?  What would it look like?  Will science and technology accomplish it?  Will a centralized, world government give you the power and resources to make a real difference?  Who will make you “good” enough to handle the responsibility?  What Messiah will you choose to lead you?  How soon before his benevolence becomes dictatorship and his “goodness” is revealed as nothing more than a dirty coat to be cast aside when it is no longer useful?”

The old man looked at them with blazing eyes.  “You have been playing God for centuries now and you have learnt nothing.  What you need is a new relationship with your Creator.”

“But how can we get him to do what we need him to do?”  asked the Hindu delegate.  “I don’t know much about this God of yours but he hasn’t done much for mankind that I can see.”

The old man smiled slowly.  “Yes, by all means, blame God,” he said.  “That will solve all your problems.”  Then he was silent.

The room was quiet for a long moment.

“Well, if we can’t blame God, then who is responsible for this mess?”  asked another delegate.

The old man remained quiet.

“Well, if God is good and we are not,” said Yohann, the Jewish delegate, “then I suppose we must take responsibility for our own mess.”

“Well spoken, Yohann,” said the old man.  Then he turned to face the room again.  “I heard one of you earlier say that the solution was love.  How did you put it?”  He looked up and started to quote from memory.

“To achieve the highest good, we must become good, deep in our natures.  We must learn the intrinsic beauty of love and give it freely to all without thought of return but solely because every human being has inherent value and deserves our respect and care.  Love must come from within.  It must become a virtue before it can become a solution.”

He looked around the room.  “I liked that very much.”  Then he shrugged his shoulders and said, “The only problem is that little word “become” – such a small word really, but with such an impossible dilemma behind it.”

You could have heard a pin drop.

“I have news for you,” he said.  “You might have caused all the problems of this world, but you cannot fix it on your own.  Evil cannot become good.  Morality does not create a relationship with the divine.  A relationship with the divine creates morality.  You will need help.”

“Help?” said the Shinto delegate.  “From whom?”

“I have put my son in charge and he can explain everything to you.  Remember, the truth can set you free but only if you embrace it.  You need a new relationship with your Creator.  He will teach you the ways of love and give you the power to pursue it.”

“What if we don’t want a new relationship with this Creator of yours?”  The words shot across the table with the force of a hurricane.  I had almost forgotten about the delegate of Secular Humanism.  He had been biding his time, listening to the conversation and, apparently, he didn’t like the direction things were going.

“Your personal decisions will always be respected,” said the old man quietly.  “If you don’t want a new relationship with your Creator, you won’t get one.  But be warned – you won’t always have the benefits and blessings of the Creator either.”

“What does that mean?  What’s he talking about?”

The old man said, “You must choose a delegate from among you and he will speak to my son and will report back to you everything that you must do.  He must be a seeker after the truth and he must be a seeker after the Giver of the truth.  It is a dangerous journey for only the pure in heart will see God and live.”[27]

The old man turned in his chair and looked straight at me.  I thought I was invisible in my corner of the room as I listened to the conversation.  I trembled when I saw his eyes and he indicated that I should step forward.  With one step, I went from shadow into light and every eye in the room riveted on me.  I had nothing to say.

“This man will be your delegate.  Listen to him.”

A shiver ran through my body, my knees became weak and I fainted dead away.

*****

 

 

 

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