Friday, July 27, 2007

"Life put to the test"

"Morality is not a subject; it is life put to the test in dozens of moments." (Paul Tillich)

What comes to your mind when "morality" is mentioned? Do you think of the Ten Commandments? Does morality evoke a sense of sin or "fear of the Lord" (in the person of Yahweh, Jesus or Allah? Do you think of right and wrong actions? Do you think of good and bad results of your actions? Are you worried about rules to be followed and broken? Do you focus on scandal, sexual or otherwise? Are you moved to shame? Hell bent on confession? Craving forgiveness?

Is morality a singular event or a plural one? Does it involve the actions of an atomistic individual careening under or out of control in a world we create by the way that we act? Or is morality a systematic representation of the relations between us?

Who decides?

Christian theologian Paul Tillich calls into question even the questions we ask about morality with the statement at the head of this post. If morality is "life put to the test," then how are our religious beliefs, social conventions and interpersonal interactions implicated in this? Put more simply, who's going to tell me what to do????

I think this good Christian and superlative theologian is telling us that nobody can tell us what "ought" to be done. It is my life that is put to the test, tested with reference to what I value, what I believe about the meaning of my life, who I love (in all the various sense of love), who I understand and express myself to be. And where does the test come from? From everywhere!!! In "dozens of moments" as Tillich puts it, dozens of moments every day.

Morality isn't primarily about scandalous behavior (consider Michael Vick's dog-fighting woes or Lindsay Lohan's addictive behavior or a garden variety extramarital affair). Scandals (micro-sized or macro-sized) occur when we have strayed far outside the frame of social convention. Sometimes we stray so far that the only things others can do is pitt us. However, the morality of particular actions cannot – and I would argue should not -- be judged from a distance.

Morality – life put to the test – is about how we respond to the driver who just cut us off, or how we answer the teacher who asks if we did our homework, or whether we provide our employer value (neither too little nor too much!) for wages through our "work ethic." It's a matter of "what's worth doing" in the context of how I make meaning out of my life. So yes, my religious faith and my political commitments and my understanding about the nature of the world will all impact my enacted and expressed morality. No surprise there.

But what do we do when "what's worth doing" is contested? That's the "everywhere" that the test is coming from. And every one of those tests is an opportunity – to be and become "moral."

Hmmm, but is that too circular? Is there no Archimedean point at which to anchor what is of value, or what is meaningful, or who should and should not be loved? Maybe not. Doesn't that complicate the process of moral education for children? Sure. But maybe it also provides the opening for moral education in a public school setting. And maybe it also supports the value of diversity within schools. And maybe it captures something important about democratic culture that we rarely experience.

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