Sunday, July 08, 2007

Sermon on the Blog: Virtue and Religion


One aspect of chess that has always intrigued me is the embedded moral dilemma, the conflict of virtues. When is it right to occupy the center and develop your pieces? When is it right to use the King to fight for himself as a piece? What is the intrinsic value of each piece or pawn?

In an age of individualism, many of us come to accept this as a virtue: one should plan one’s own life, develop one’s skills and self-expression, and venture out before committing oneself to a marriage or marriage-like relationship. One should become independent, self-sufficient, not cling to other people. We have come to embraces ideals like individual sovereignty or personal autonomy.

Compared even to what past generations experienced, our legal culture does indeed express personal responsibility for one’s own acts. It is supposed to be base on the libertarian idea of non-aggression and harmlessness, of not imposing on another competent person’s will, of fulfilling voluntarily entered contracts, of respecting property rights, and of supporting and raising children one has voluntarily sired. There are, of course, still today some troubling exceptions (like drug laws).

At the same time, independence and interdependence are misleading, sometimes interchangeable concepts. Some of us function autonomously, as sovereign individuals, because we have a reasonably reliable technological infrastructure, which could break down.

Every society and culture has to deal with entropy, instability, external threats, inequality among groups of people, and inequality among individual people in any particular group (or family). In the secular and legal world, it has been increasingly difficult to deal with these issues even with language that communicates the scope of the problems. That is indeed somewhat a libertarian ideal, that moral problems of a familial or interpersonal or spiritual nature should remain outside of the law. Yet we sometimes lose sight of these. Perhaps the main element of our lives that deals with these issues today is “organized” religion. Religion nearly always takes as a given the “unfairness” and unpredictability of the outside world and the need of most individuals to find some source of support in their families and groups because they can fail as individuals despite their best efforts. That’s the “Man shall not live by bread alone” idea.

One virtue that runs throughout monotheistic tradition or “shia” is obedience to the Will of God or surrender to God. In today’s rhetoric, this sometimes sounds more apparent in Islam (including radical Islam). Indeed the radical strain of Islam bears some intellectual roots in the writings about godly “virtue” in the writings of Egyptian Sayyid Qutb.

Christianity, of course, traditionally emphasizes surrender to Jesus and the acceptance of salvation through Grace, something that cannot be earned with personal “merit,” only belief and faith. Early Christian society was, in fact, quite “socialistic” and cohesive, very much a matter of “we” rather than “I”. (Or, as Eick Warren writes in "The Purpose-Driven Life", "it's not about you".) And it is curious that, with these roots and some rather paradoxical concepts, Judeo-Christian society today is what leads in technological progress and individualism. Despite the ethical lapses of the Catholic Church over centuries, it was the Vatican that secretly helped Ronald Reagan bring down the Soviet empire in the 1980s. Whatever its track record and theological basis, the teachings of the Vatican do make an unusual attempt to reconcile personal freedom with unfairness in distribution of wealth and abilities at both societal and personal levels.

At the heart of the matter of morality are the teachings on marriage and family, and at least incidentally, homosexuality. Traditional Christian (and especially Catholic) moral teaching makes much of the institution of marriage and the reservation of the experience of sexuality in any form to those who are committed to lifelong monogamous (heterosexual) marriage. This notion incorporates all the pampering of brides and mothers, the gender-based complementarity, the notion of the father as “protector” and gender roles, and moreover, the ideas of abstinence outside of marriage (as in “Seventh Heaven”, “Sex is for married people”) and the notion that sex should always involve "performance" and be open to procreation. The notion denies the use of sexuality for adolescent self-discovery or expression.

The implementation of these teachings, when carried out, seem to have two major groups of effects. One is obvious: they demand subservience and loss of freedom of those outside of marriage and especially, because of emotional temperament (and even, as the Church half admits, because of biological factors beyond one’s choice) disinclined to procreate. Turn this around, and it is apparent that the teachings leave the impression that marriage and parenthood give one some rights, not only to raise one’s own children, but do demand some deference from other adults who are not married. In a sense, this is a “perk” of marriage.

But what this amounts to is an insulation of the moral and psychological world for the married couple with an institutional system of social supports. For all the moral teachings about moral behavior and marriage (and fidelity), given that one presumption (fidelity) the couple is sheltered somewhat from the competitive assessment of the outside world. That sheltering extends not only to children but to other members of the extended family who may not themselves be economically independent.

The Church (as do most other denominations) knows that not all men (or women) are “competitive” enough to feel comfortable getting into this arrangement. So the Catholic Church has a priesthood, and a convent system, based on the ideal of abstinence. (Yes, well all know that the priesthood has real problems.) Other churches handle this differently. Some conservative churches like LDS go out of their way to make less competitive males feel comfortable with the idea of marriage and family anyway, a turnabout from boyhood emphasis on manly competition. When more radical religious groups break away from monogamy (as does some of Islam), one winds up with a patriarchal structure that shamelessly throws away many males, who cannot find wives.

Again, the Church generally has no objection, and would encourage, someone who is “different” to use his or her particular artistic or intellectual gifts. By requiring abstinence (or, in the case of other denominations, coercing marriage and children anyway), a church believes that it is supporting the ability of post-adolescent “average Joe” men with families to remain committed and active in their marriages and raise kids without undo and possibly humiliating competitive scrutiny from the outside world.

But the emotional sheltering of the “family” does have its benefits. If everyone goes along, then everyone, besides being "taken care of," is guaranteed some sort of meaning in life, even if one has become less capable of individual sovereignty. This is a kind of emotional or psychological socialism. But to work, it has to exert considerable coercion and pressure (as to political socialized systems) on everyone to go along. Ironically, in the interests of providing for "everyone" such ideology still has to pit one person's needs and gifts, based on innate differences sometimes, against someone else's, a process that libertarianism and individualism resist. The Church sometimes explains its position on homosexuality as "some people need God more than others"!

The Catholic Church makes a lot of unconditional openness to “transmission of new life,” in the past to the point of opposing contraception and masturbation. When a couple procreates a child, it could bear the next Beethoven or Willie Mays, or it could bear someone profoundly disabled. The couple takes a real chance and throw the genetic die. Avoiding procreation seems like playing God (a derivation of the abortion debate). The circular and convoluted teachings of the Church on homosexuality (the stuff about “objective disorder” etc) seem to reflect a resentment of the “narcissism” and judgmentalism apparent in homosexuality, and the idea that one can deliberately avoid such a risk in choosing a love commitment. The concept of openness to creating new life without prejudgment arguably comports with resistance to totalitarian ideologies that favor one "kind" of person over another, developed, ironically, throughout history where families had to "look out for their own kind" first and even needed to believe in an innate "superiority" of their own kind.

The Church (and conservative religion in general) however, does, with the family and fellowship and practically compulsory participation, create a system that can “take care” of everyone. For it to work, everyone needs to be engaged in the emotional life of the family, and be willing an interested in such participation before daring to participate in the outside global world. This expectation of "loyalty payback" is particularly relevant for "spoiled" kids who may have needed more than the usual amount of parental attention to "succeed". Coerced socialization by church and family becomes the heart of their idea of Virtue. The idea may seem buttressed by more recent demographic concerns about aging populations and lower birth rates.

It’s easy to see what a moral double edge this is. Family is not always right. When people believe that they must be married to be valuable adults, they can do horrible things. (Watch any soap opera.) In our present legal system, the individual may be held responsible for wrongdoing despite loyalty to the family. Of course, families are unequal on a larger scale. Generally, coercive social systems (compared to those that encourage personal freedom and accept personal inequality) tend to break down and become corrupt. The worst become cults (the extreme case being Jonestown in 1978). But the best can do a lot of good, and there are exceptions to this history or corruption. The LDS Church may have been more helpful after Hurricane Katrina than any other group. Singapore has a coercive, pro-natal family-oriented society (though secular) with relatively little corruption.

The Vatican, as would other large socially conservative religions, may be able to demonstrate political theories that remedy social inequality among groups. (In the Pope’s infamous speech on Islam, he at least recognized the need for “rationality”.) In general, in history, with many protestant denominations, the role as provider of a family has tended to excuse behavior that on a larger scale has proved socially and morally objectionable (such as slavery and then segregation).

In the 1970s, when I started my working career as an “independent” young man, I quickly became aware of the indignation of many groups over social inequality. Often the advocated solutions (as with the “Peoples Party of New Jersey”) involved government programs, taxes, and forced redistribution of wealth or even expropriations. Of course, we had seen all that decades before with “Reds.” But another element of this indignation was becoming apparent, that many people individually did not “deserve” what they had. The extreme extraction of this idea (of externally forced moral "purification") would the Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s, where intellectuals were forced to become peasants (and often executed). Perhaps today North Korean society provides a similar example. The outrage of radical Islam also recalls this contempt, although it is complicated by old historical grievances. It’s understandable, then, that a pro-family moral philosophy would try to place people in a morally appropriate family setting given their needs and means.

What does all of this mean? There is one buzzword for it, “public morality,” which purports to balance off against personal autonomy. There used to be an unwritten and unspoken understanding that this is what sodomy laws (however unenforceable and poorly conceived) were for, and Justice Scalia seemed to say so in his dissent in the 2003 decision Lawrence v. Texas. It is, to be sure, “irrational” and that is what was wrong with this kind of use of the law. It may be wrong today in many other areas, like in laws banning medical marijuana.

Public morality was a concept that coerced the less willing into familial and often procreative relationships. Today, it is objectionable, and yet we deal with the fact that, partly because of demographics, many individual people may become stranded by hyper-individualism -- which can morph into a "secular Calvinism" (as in the line in the spoken text of Leonard Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony, "Lord, your bargain is tin!"). It seems that we need some new sense of personal morality, and we don’t even have a specific word to encapsulate it. There are some words that suggest it. Solidarity, connectedness, emotional responsiveness, credibility. Whereas it has become accepted as a virtue to leave people alone, it is becoming a virtue again to be responsive to people. Maybe one could call the emerging paradigm "Pay your dues," or "be your brother's keeper". The debate on returning to the draft, or more likely national service, reflects this concern. There could be considerable demographic and social pressure to enhance and enforce filial responsibility laws, and that could make having children ("transmitting life" to the next generation for its own sake) sound like a real obligation again. It's noteworthy that both Oprah and CNN (relative to Katrina (link)) have broadcast recent stories of teenagers forced to become "parents" of their siblings, a kind of "unfunded mandate for family responsibility" which does not wait for the begetting of one's own kids; it seems that family responsibility is most inequitably shared. That could certainly change the direction of today's debate on gay marriage, which for conservatives has become so fixated on the social meaning of sexual intercourse "for its own sake".

It does seem, after all of these musings, that there is no way to construct, intellectually at least, a moral "utopia" that has no deferential sacrifices. That would invoke "the knowledge of good and evil."

There are some postings on filial responsibility at this blog, July 5 and 7 (more will follow).

Picture: controversial Queen sacrifice by White in a Bird’s Opening position.

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