Weaponized Morality

Within the modern framing of the world, morality is understood as a human construct – a construct that is held in a perpetuated tension between pragmatism and sentimentality. And within this existential tension, a constant state of interpretation is taking place, following the transient curve of cultural ethos. So in short – morality is whatever we say it is, and can be shaped into whatever we need it to be at any given moment . . . as long as an existentially pronounced ideal is driving the perception of necessity, moving the needle of our collective moral compass. So is it any wonder that such an amorphous understanding of morality would inevitably become weaponized?

The principle is simple – in the absence of a morality held as immutably transcendent, a vacuum is created, where invariably, competing moral narratives struggle for supremacy. It’s a struggle of imposed wills, often driven by unlikely faith beliefs – as the faith of the irreligious can be just as devout as that of the religious . . . and can be just as perversely unyielding. Which is why the smug sanctimony found in secular dogma can feel as dispassionately cruel and oppressive as any religious order is capable of exhibiting.

This is why Nietzsche was so convinced that morality was an essential battlefield in the struggle of imposed wills. But Nietzsche recognized that first there would have to be a new ontological premise at the heart of this new moral narrative – so he declared God was dead. Notice, he didn’t declare God never existed, which was something he clearly believed, but rather — that the God we all thought was alive, was now dead. This is because he wasn’t really making an academic point about God’s existence, he was making a practical point about necessity. He was convinced that modern man no longer needed his teleological convictions found in the moral transcendence of God. Believing that modern man could now untether himself from such contrived moral constraints . . . if he only had the will to do so.

So this is where we find ourselves, having crossed the post-Christian cultural tipping point, where our transcendent appreciation of morality is being dragged off to the edge of town, to be thrown on the trash heap, with all of the other deconstructed socially unacceptable artifacts. Because they have already crossed the Rubicon with bridges burning behind them –so that now, like the Caesar before them, they have chosen to march on their own people, intent on displacing the old order of moral presuppositions with the bloodless pragmatism of the new order. Canceling one culture, so that a new culture can take its place. All hail the new order . . . or else.

This is what morality viewed as a power struggle invariably produces. Everything becomes a calculation, attempting to maintain the illusion that drives the perception of necessity that holds sway over the culture. And because such an authority must be absolute, forgiveness and redemption have no place in this new world . . . and the disenfranchised will either live in silent conformity or be socially reprogrammed. But you gotta hand it to Nietzsche, he was right after all – this is exactly what a godless morality looks like . . . even if it looks like a ring of hell that not even Dante could have imagined.

The Vagabond Poet

The couple of years before I met and married my wife of 35 years, are the years I fondly refer to as my vagabond days. Given that I was never one for defining myself in terms of possessions — I never really acquired many of them to speak of . . . of which the ancillary benefit was, I didn’t really require a fixed location for keeping all of that extraneous stuff I didn’t really need. So I ended up living between four or five different cities, working odd jobs, while refining my skills as a singer/ songwriter. And if anyone asked me back in those days, what it was that I did for a living – I would say without hesitation “Why yes, I’m a vagabond poet . . . and what is it that you do?”

This behavior was considered just as eccentric and esoteric to my friends back then as it is to my friends now. But to their credit, they smile and accept me for the unusual friend that I am. Perhaps, because they themselves, on some level, are drawn to that side door of reality, that I seem to be able to step through from time to time – beyond the semantics of what often defines normative behavior. As I have long contended – normal is the word we use to describe what happens when we’ve long forgotten why we keep doing the same thing.

I suppose that’s why there’s a restlessness simmering beneath the veneer of our conformity, reminding us that something essential to our understanding of ourselves has been obscured – while we allow things of lesser value to preoccupy us. Even our faith practices tend to lose their luster in the presence of the impermanent things that captivate our daily desires – until even those faith practices have been brought into submission, having conformed to some new iteration of normalcy we’ve contrived.

When the Old Testament prophets spoke, it was with a wildly unconstrained and nakedly provocative voice, well outside of the conventional thinking of the cultural and religious expectations of their day. Their words were both terrifying and beautiful, filled with an urgency for remembering how something valuable was lost back in the garden. So like an echo from the past barreling its way through the present, on its way to an explanation of what’s to come — their words, imbued with God’s authority, transcend time. But today we reductively homogenize their voices in order to suit our own religious narrative de jour.

imagesThen Jesus appears, entering a world of established cultural norms and religious conformity, where he begins to disassemble the conventional paradigm of his day. The outsiders were invited in, while those who thought they were already in, were invited to rethink what that means . . . what it means to be in a right relationship with God. For this is the very Kingdom of God that he offers – a relationship inaugurated by his life and defined by his death, burial, and resurrection.

I guess this is why I like to think of Jesus as also being a vagabond poet — as a prophet declaring a kingdom come, while simultaneously having no place to lay his head (Luke 9:58); as one who speaks directly to the heart of the matter regardless of cultural and religious conventions — while simultaneously spending time with those conspicuously on the fringes of acceptable society . . . including, provocatively elevating the social status of women, and making a child’s lack of pretense, our primary example.

He says both the hard thing and the loving thing, speaking in parables, winnowing away the passively curious, from those desperate enough to be forever changed by his life giving words. Many have attempted to co-opt Jesus, with an expectation of somehow conforming him to their political or religious agendas — but such hubris can only portend destruction . . . for only the humble can fully appreciate what it means to be conformed to his image, to walk in his way, and proclaim his kingdom.

I believe this song written and performed by my brother
Jeff exemplifies the vagabond poet perspective.

Life at Market Value

Economically speaking, a good or service only has the value someone is willing to pay for it — this is the driving principle behind the economic law of supply and demand. This is likely because identifying the value of anything, economic or otherwise, is an evaluative process, one that on some level, requires a philosophical assessment of what constitutes value. So even if you’re the type of person to trust all of those serious people, wearing lab coats, to tell you if something has value or not – in truth, you’re only allowing them, by proxy, to do your philosophic assessments for you . . . because science is incapable of assessing value.

But this isn’t to suggest that science doesn’t play an important role in informing our philosophical assessments. For example: If they were to exhume your body a thousand years from now, not only would they be able to correctly identify your species and gender – but they would also be able to identify it as your body, because DNA is that specific an identifier. So scientifically speaking, DNA is inextricably tied to personhood. Begging the question – exactly when does this DNA distinctive first occur for each of us?

Turns out, our distinctive DNA occurs at conception. So whatever philosophical assessment process you employ for determining the value of human life, you will likely have to accommodate the specific personhood of the unborn – that is, if you’re actually interested in acknowledging the personhood of every human. And you’d think that would be the default philosophy of most people – but you’d be wrong . . . if history is any indicator. Because pronouncing certain people groups as sub-human is precisely how genocide and slavery have always been justified.

When asked if human life is valuable, most folks without hesitation will answer – yes. If asked – what makes it valuable? Most will offer an answer that is either based in pragmatism, or in sentimentality – which makes for a very interesting threshold. Because to this way of thinking, as long as a sub-group is viewed as pragmatically or sentimentally valuable, they have nothing to fear – but if the tide of cultural ethos and opinion should shift . . . then all bets are off. And given that the whole of morality is predicated on how we esteem the value of human life – it’s no wonder that a culture mired in the moral ambiguity of existential relativism, would end up balkanizing into identity group factions, arguing why their faction should be validated and valued as being specifically significant, compared with others.

imagesThis is what human life at market value looks like – each sub-group making its case for why it matters . . . which invariably leads to the de-valuing of some other sub-group, by comparison. But here’s the thing – if we’re to believe that all human life has an innate value, then it’s value must be a transcendently sourced assessment. Apart from such an assessment, human value is left to the vagaries of imposed will, each sub-group seeking to assume the role of arbiter . . . believing that you’re either the one calling the shots – or you’re the one being shot at.

It is the profession of the Christian gospel that “God so loved the world . . .” (John 3:16). And it is the bloodless conclusion of Nietzsche that humanity is locked in a struggle of “will to power”. One pronouncing us all as the beloved of God – an immeasurable value. The other believing we’re all hopelessly caught in a perpetual struggle, intent on determining who among us is worthy enough to evolve. I know this makes for a rather stark comparison – but apparently, until we’re willing to really embrace this contrast, then we’ll be tempted to believe we’re the ones who get to determine the value of human life.

. . . and just in case you’ve forgotten — God believes in you.

Learning To Recognize Mammon (8 of 8)

Godzilla decided to vacation this year in Tokyo, hoping to do a little shopping and to take in a few of the exotic sights and points of interest. He had even worked up the courage to be adventurous enough to taste some of the local cuisine. So you can only imagine his chagrin at the media’s portrayal of his arrival as being catastrophic – I mean how was he to know that all of that running around and screaming wasn’t just an elaborate welcoming ceremony . . . after all that’s how he’s greeted everywhere else he goes. I guess the Japanese are just not much for tourism.

Like Godzilla, everyone assumes that their actions comport with socially acceptable norms, completely unaware that they are only referencing their own interpretation of what those socially acceptable norms are. In this way, we all take our turn being Godzilla, until someone is kind and thoughtful enough to point out to us the actual net-effect that our actions are having. But being blind to what our own actions say about us has many permutations – for instance, you’re likely unaware of just how tempted to worship the Chaldean god, Mammon, you’ve been.

Ancient cultures worshipped many variations of Mammon — seeking prosperity, a bountiful harvest, and fertility. Given that mere survival in the ancient world wasn’t really a given, concerns about harvest and fertility were matters of life and death. So the idea of appeasing these gods was not taken lightly – as they were seen as the very realities of life, itself. But for us today, prosperity represents getting more of what we want, than it does about having what we need. Of course, this all begs the question: what actually constitutes worship of Mammon?

imagesJesus clearly states “You cannot serve God and Mammon” (Matthew 6:24). Some translations interpret mammon as “money” – but this strikes me as transparently reductive, given the context of the passage (Matthew 6:19-34). And I think we can also assume from that same context that Jesus’ point isn’t to literally juxtapose the God of Israel with a pagan god. So what does the context tell us? Is Jesus only warning us of how greed and avarice are innately in competition for God’s sovereignty? . . . or is he challenging a much larger paradigm?

If I were to ask you: where is your heart? Would that be at variance from where your treasure is (19-21)? If so – then could it be that your perception about what’s really important has been darkened (22, 23)? So to whom does your heart belong (24)? What does your anxiety tell you? Has it made you a servant of your personal security? If so – is that because you doubt God’s assessment of your value to him (25-32)? Why do you think that is true? Are you afraid he has forgotten you . . . left you to your own devices?

I think mammon sneaks into our lifestyle well before we even recognize its presence. It comes in under the guise of taking care of our day-to-day needs – but this is precisely what Jesus says are the concerns we are to entrust to him . . . and that our concern should be for his kingdom (33). What does your eye see (22, 23)? Does it see a future that belongs to God, under the sovereignty of his loving care, where his kingdom comes? Or are you filled with doubt, where you have to hedge your bets against an unknown future . . . just like the pagans of old? So I guess it’s really a question of who owns your future, God or mammon? A little advice – don’t be so quick to answer that . . . because the last thing you want to be is Godzilla, trying to rationalize why your recent visit to Japan was such a bust.

No matter how much — it’s never enough

A Disembodied Sense of Self

Believing that morality is nothing more than a human construct, Jean Paul Sartre in his book Existentialism and Human Emotions, places emphasis on the importance of being self-actualized – which is predicated on the idea that the act of choosing is of paramount value. Such a view finds no moral significance between the young man who assists an old lady across the street, and the one who pushes her into traffic – the only important thing is that they make their choice.

But within his existential framework Sartre offers this caveat – the choice of an individual must always be made with the full awareness of its impact on the collective. So even Sartre, given his atheistic relativism, understood that the identity of self is inextricably linked to its sense of community. This, of course, has long been an axiom of anthropology . . . and theology – that as the individuals shape the culture, the culture in turn, shapes the individuals. It is an unavoidable symbiosis.

Technological advancements have had a profound effect on how our sense of community has changed — making the world smaller, by making travel faster, and multiplying for us various avenues of communication. My father was born at a time when radio was the principle window on the world, until television came along and largely displaced the impact of radio. In the same way, television was my baseline context – so for me the impact of personal computers wouldn’t become a factor until after I was married. Like my father, I had enough time to anthropologically adjust to the curve of technology’s influence on culture, and in turn its influence on me – shifting at a pace that could be assimilated and adjusted to reasonably.

But my children inherit quite a different context. For my oldest son, Ryan the world begins with a PC as a prominent fixture of the home, but barely into his adulthood, his brother Benjamin, my youngest, inherits a world where computers are in everyone’s pocket. So the time for assimilation and adjustment to the rapidly shifting cultural influences of technology has collapsed. Where there was once a generational time span to respond, it now occurs within a single generation. At this pace technology is beginning to outstrip our ability to anthropologically absorb its impact.

shutterstock_163173239-270x180Therefore, it is my suspicion that this has led to a fragmented understanding of community, which in turn, has led to an ambiguous sense of self. In many ways our sense of self has been virtualized – as we are glued to back-lit screens. Rooms full of people texting one another, present together yet isolated, allowing a reductive superficiality to replace real human contact. On social media, we’ve become increasingly uninhibited, but not as a means of genuine vulnerability, but as a self-possessed spectacle, hiding behind our calculated anonymity, spoiling for a fight.

My point here isn’t to denounce technology – my point is that we have, in many ways, become culturally adrift in very dark waters. The technological influence on how we understand our place in the world is pervasive . . . and we don’t even know to what extent — our mores and ethics are beginning to reflect our disembodied sense of self. We seem so eager to carelessly pitch out many of our long established anthropological moorings without a moments pause — as we begin to inhabit Sartre’s existential relativism . . . where what’s real is diminished daily.

As a follower of Christ, all of this is so antithetical to the sense of self and community that is native to my faith confession. Because for the Christian, imago dei is the primer code for calibrating our comprehension of reality, and not merely as a religious abstraction. But in such a disembodiment of the self, I fear there is a wholesale form of forgetting taking place, where the irreducible value of human life is being eroded by all of these vain attempts to deconstruct reality and remake it in our own image. Invariably this leads to disillusionment and despair — because either we embrace existence, as created by God, or we disappear back into the non-existence from which he spoke us out of to begin with . . .

It’s a disembodied emptiness — like a hole in the heart