Thursday 2 April 2015

Morality, Humanist and Spiritual

I saw an article the other day which claimed that as intelligence had increased (which the article stated it had over the course of the 20th century, though based principally, it seems, on IQ tests which I thought had long been exposed as efficient at examining only one type of intelligence), so we had also become more moral. Setting aside whether intelligence has really increased or whether our brains and thought patterns have simply been educated into the modern technological way of thinking, good in some respects, poor in others, this assertion must surely depend on what kind of morality one espouses. For me and, I would have thought, for anyone acknowledging a spiritual reality, morality is first and foremost about loving truth and attempting to coordinate oneself to that. And this means knowing, to some degree at least, what truth is. Hence the humanist morality (the one referred to in the article), which is largely atheistic as it either denies or ignores the spiritual reality, is almost the least moral attitude one can take. This implies that much of the perceived improvement is merely a matter of greater conformity to the prejudices and ideologies of the day.

Every society or culture must have some kind of morality or else it will collapse. Its morality will be based on its formational mythology, and in the case of contemporary Western (and really nowadays global) culture that mythology is rooted in the ideals of the 18th century Enlightenment, on the one hand, and the theory of evolution on the other. Both of these, if they don't actually dismiss a Creator, certainly pave the way for that dismissal. So you could say that our modern morality is based entirely on the assumption that there is only humanity, and human obligations and duties and responsibilities are only to other humans. Of course, that's not completely true because many of the moral ideas that fed into and shaped this belief system were actually inherited from Christianity* (even if this is frequently unacknowledged today), but it is the way modern morality tends to perceive itself.

Now, this basing of morality, and how we approach life, ourselves and others, on a purely humanistic level may seem to have much to recommend it, but if it arises from an incorrect or even downright wrong view of the world, then it is insufficient, to say the least. It may even be, in some respects, immoral.

A proper morality has two strands, a vertical one and a horizontal one, and these are plainly identified by Jesus in his two commandments. To love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and to love your neighbour as yourself. These sum up the essence of any morality based on truth, but here's the interesting point. It is no accident that the commandments were given in that order because if the second is to be in any sense real then it must grow out of the first. That is to say that the love of man, to be true, can only really derive from the love of God, and that is because what you are loving is not man in and for himself but God in man. For God is both the source of love and its end. There is no other. If He is not present then, whatever feeling you might think you have, it is not love, not in its true, spiritual sense. And love is spiritual in origin. Anything that is not spiritually derived is not love.

So you can only really love your neighbour if first you love God. Without that you can have good will or even empathy towards your neighbour but not love, and, in the long run, only love can overcome the ego and so bring about a morality that is true and innate rather than a mainly intellectual or ideologically derived thing which can, and will, crack under pressure.

What this means is that our modern morality, which only acknowledges the horizontal, cannot be properly effective even on that level. The first moral requirement is to love God. Everything else springs from that, from the vertical, and if that love is not present then any morality is flawed and ultimately, dare I say it, will prove useless. I am not disputing that the modern approach to morality has improved on the past in some respects. For one thing it has done so because the past failed to live up to its ideals. People can be worse than their beliefs and they can also be better than their beliefs (which is not to say that beliefs don't matter!). But there is also the fact that exclusive focus on the horizontal will necessarily bring advancements in that particular area.  However these improvements take on much less significance once you realise that this approach has lost sight of the essential for it is founded on a falsehood, namely the primacy of man.

In the past we have emphasised the vertical axis and neglected the horizontal. Now we have the opposite problem. What we need is an understanding that both are required for a correct approach to morality. But that does not mean that both are equal. The vertical must take priority, since it is the source of everything else, and the horizontal be seen to derive from that. It has no validity on its own. All it has, it has by virtue of its relationship to the vertical. If you approach it on its own level and see it in its own light, you do not see it properly and, in fact, seen only in that way it doesn’t even have any real existence. 

Some people think that vertical and horizontal axes can be seen as the motivating forces behind conservative and liberal ideologies, with each set of beliefs originating from a focus on one or the other axis. I agree there is a connection to be made, but there are too many other tributaries feeding these streams for this connection to be in any way exact. So while it may be true that, ultimately, the conservative looks to the vertical and the liberal to the horizontal, it is too simplistic to make a direct analogy between them.

I have said that a true morality must have a vertical and a horizontal component, and that the latter must derive from the former. The atheist may well dispute this and say he can have a perfectly good morality without bringing God into the equation. Perhaps that is so but without an absolute reference point what do we base our morality on? For when God is banished from reality there can be no morality resting on something true or real but only one that depends on opinion and preference.  If there is not something that stands above us and unites us by virtue of its transcendence and its absoluteness then there is no unchanging right or wrong. There is only custom, convention and what is deemed to suit a particular society at any given moment.  If we are just the product of a directionless, purposeless, meaningless evolution, as the atheist and materialist believe, then nothing really matters, nothing is true and nothing is better than anything else. A human being is not the crown of creation and the means through which incarnate life may transcend itself but just one material form among many. As for the individual human being, each one is isolated and locked in itself with no real connection to any other human being. Morality is just a theoretical thing with no relationship to any kind of universal truth because there is none.

In the end, however, one must say that moralities are in the eye of the beholder. They shift with perspective but spirituality is what truly matters and that never changes, assuming of course that it is based on the real and not just as subjective as man-made morality systems.

*We could even be said to be living off the moral capital in Christianity in many respects, and it will be interesting to see how much real morality survives as Christianity becomes more marginalised and less and less of a cultural influence on future generations.


Robert said...

"Of course, that's not completely true because many of the moral ideas that fed into and shaped this belief system were actually inherited from Christianity* (even if this is frequently unacknowledged today)"
I think that statement is only partially true. Many, Many greater and lessor Prophets have walked the earth and they all contributed to this sense of behaving properly towards people in a good way. Prophets 10,000 years ago were laying a foundation which would support Christianity's contribution.
"That is to say that the love of man, to be true, can only really derive from the love of God"
Yep, I agree.
"Perhaps that is so but without an absolute reference point what do we base our morality on?"
This is a key point. Do we base morality on what evolution has taught us? Well we humans do plenty against what evolution taught us. Do we have 7 billion versions of morality? Does a 3.51 billion person view of morality get to dictate to what a 3.49 billion person view of morality is? Without God, all morality become nonsensical.

William Wildblood said...

I was talking about contemporary Western culture which is surely largely Christian, or Judaeo-Christian, in origin even if there have certainly been other influences, principally classical. But the main point was that even if we think our current morality is mostly humanistically based it is actually just a pygmy standing on the shoulder of a giant which is the Christian moral conception.
Yes, you're absolutely right all morality without an absolute to pin it to has no foundation and is therefore really only a matter of choice. In which case, so what?