Jan 3 — Resolutions and the Moral Spirit

Readings

Joel 2:23-29
O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you. You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame. Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

Matthew 6:22-23
The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.

“Things to Come,” Amartya Sen
Breakthroughs are hard to predict. They are even harder to demand. But it is sensible enough to think of a shopping list of what we want. In fact, depending on our view of society, there is a connection between what we want and what we might end up getting. While Aristotle agreed with Agathon that even God could not change the past, he did think that the future was ours to make. In this sense, predictions cannot but link closely with what we intend to argue for, and ultimately, fight for.Breakthroughs are hard to predict. They are even harder to demand. But it is sensible enough to think of a shopping list of what we want. In fact, depending on our view of society, there is a connection between what we want and what we might end up getting. While Aristotle agreed with Agathon that even God could not change the past, he did think that the future was ours to make. In this sense, predictions cannot but link closely with what we intend to argue for, and ultimately, fight for.

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A resolution of mine for today, is to keep it short.

This is partly because I have been in the office less than usual and have not had the time I need to go create a “sermon.”  It is also because what time I have had, I have spent on the class I was supposed to have taught yesterday on ethics.

For this course, which has been offered through the Vermont Conf. of the UCC, I have had the students read a book about John Dewey’s ethics.  John Dewey, while he was raised in the First Congregatioal Church of Burlington, VT, did not write as a theologian, but rather as an educator and philosopher.  So his ethics are not “Christian.”

Nevertheless, I find that his ethics are more christian than other “Christian” ethicists I have read.  One of my students is struggling with this statement though.

An answer to this question of what distinguishes merely “Christian” ethics from christian ethics is really the question of what ethics is in the first place.  If ethics, in the first place, were to be less than a christian ethics, then it should want itself to improve it’s thinking by becoming more like Christian ethics.  Or if ethics, in the first place, were superior to christian ethics, then christian ethics would likewise seek to be more ethical.  In other words, what is good for the philosophical goose, has to be good for the christian gander because ethics is, by definition, that mode of living in which we live according to what we intend to argue for, and ultimately fight for, as Sen put it in his little essay on predictions.

For Dewey what is ethical cannot be given to a person, Christian or otherwise, like an employer gives an employer a policy manual on the first day of the job.   Ethical living that is about an attempt to balance the various policies  off of one another — say the rule that we are to love God as our self, with the rule that we are to love our neighbor — inevitably leads to a narrowing and  hardening life.  Life spent this way is not much alive to the beauties and intricacies and possibilities of each various moment presented to us.

If we were to ask ourselves whether the life really worth living, and the one worth fighting for and even dying, is a life that takes a narrow, hard-line view, or an open-minded one where sympathy and aesthetics and intelligence lead us to seek more light, to bring to bear in our worlds attitudes of peace, then we have to say that the later is only acceptable and the former not — even if that means rejecting the “Christian” policy manual.

It is easy to understand, however, why a “Christian” ethics that is not broadly ethical in the sense that I have been trying to indicate is never-the-less accepted as the end toward which “Christian” living should aim.  The bulk of Christian thinking has said about the tradition that because it is about God, and because God is mysterious beyond our capacity to understand — that we have not right, let alone the capacity, to make reasonable decisions about matters of ultimate concern.  God reveals; God provides an epiphany, to use the word we’ll hear much about this month, and we question that revelation only on the pain of betraying our Christianity.

I exaggerate the situation a little bit– but the general point stands — we pit revelation against reason because, so it is said, to reason about God is impossible.  The corollary to this point, therefore, is that Christian ethics and Christian Christian thinking is the pinnacle, no matter what, of all thinking about life and all living it.

Every-once in a while, I get an email about how awful Islam as a religion is.  The email, which is recorded in the online list of hoax emails, detailing which ones of the many we get telling stories in order to make a point or amaze, are factually incorrect.  But that is not relevant, because the point of the email is to bludgeon us with the old idea that Christianity is superior and all else are inferior.

Let me not bludgeon you anymore either with this line of thinking, except to note that Dewey and Jesus seem to agree.  Jesus says, that a healthy human is one who is by one’s own lights, is able to see the finer details, sensitive to the shades of meaning, and engaged with the world the light reveals.  An unhealthy one is not so engaged.  An unhealthy one stumbles in the dark, unable for him or herself, to live wholeheartedly in the moment.

Dewey writes thinks that “Individuals who come to appreciate the moral truths of their moral traditions as a result of their own critical inquiries appreciate and identify themselves with these very truths in a different way than those who just collect and repeat them.”

On the lip of the new year, as we think about our own futures, as we make resolutions, let us remember to do that resolving, not to predict and wrest the future into our control, not to force ourselves into the mold of this or that “virtue” but to develop further the moral spirit — that spirit that refuses to be trapped by one virtue or another, but actively engages in love, so that our conversations, our commitments, our lists of hopes and dreams, will be of a warp and woof of the great weaving of life to fullness and beauty.  Amen.

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