Ethics, Self Image, Family, and Foundations

Teaching ethics I am often confronted with the fact that I am a horrible person. This is not to say that I am completely without the traditional virtues. I have a modicum of wisdom (though I’m always amazed when people actually listen to me), some small measure of courage, a fair amount of patience, and a little self-control. However, I am not an excellent leader, nor am I a man of impeachable moral character, or incredible internal strength. I am certainly no sage, though I do always find myself drawn to the Chinese sages (…I suppose that’s pretty obvious by now). I’m not a particularly skillful leader, and all to often I allow exhaustion to impede my ability to live up to my responsibilities. I care about people, but far too often I don’t stop to help when I could. I try to do what’s right, except when it’s too hard and then I’m all too happy not to. I want to be a good person, but when not living up to that standard seems easier, more fun, or more profitable I’m not unlikely to chuck my morals out the window.

Scripture tells us to have a right view of ourselves, but it also tells us to view others as better/higher/more worthy than ourselves. I struggle with the latter. I want to be the best, to be the one who’s admired, chosen, looked up to, lauded… I want to be important, and I’m still struggling with the fact that I am, always will be, and always should be nothing. If I am to allow God to live in me, to work his will through my life, to act through me in the lives of others, then I desperately need to get over myself and step aside. I think that the man who’s funeral I attended yesterday was very good at this. He was good at being nothing, at getting out of the way and letting God work. I find that I am thoroughly not good at this. I am good at getting in God’s way. Forcing him to move me out of the way before he can do anything that he wants done. I am good at causing problems. I wish I was better at living for him.

This afternoon I messaged a friend of mine (actually the mother of my young friend at Church) to ask if I could take her children to a movie sometime. I love her kids, and I have always wanted a family. The older I get, the less likely that seems. Honestly, it might just be a result of some melancholy left over from the funeral yesterday, but at the moment I feel as though it will never happen. Even if I do someday find a wife, the chances that she’ll be young enough to easily have children is unlikely (though Sarah did have Isaac in her 90s). I wanted to cry out to this woman: ‘Let me borrow your family! Just every now and then! Please, help me to feel less crushingly lonely!’ Of course, I didn’t. I have a feeling that this would come across as creepy and desperate. Of course, her children aren’t the answer to my loneliness. That is, in itself, a ridiculous notion. I love both of her children, and I want to spend time with them, but time with them (or with anyone else) is a temporary fix for an emptiness that only God can fill.

And that is my foundation. Whether I have a family or not. Whether I am humble or not. Whether I am a good person or not. Whether I spend time with her kids or not. Regardless of any of this, it is God in which my joy lies. It is him who fills my emptiness. Him who dries my tears. Him who heals my pain. God is , and must be, the foundation of my life because there is nothing else that can serve that purpose. This doesn’t mean that I don’t desire, but in the midst of my desires, in the midst of loneliness, of despair, of emotional turmoil and pain, I can know that tomorrow will be a new day that will bring with it new joys and new treasures. God always provides, and this doesn’t simply mean that he provides for our physical necessities. God’s provision is ever sufficient for the whole being of man. In this too I know that he will provide.

Sanctimonious Christians?

For anyone who doesn’t know, the term Sanctimonious refers to someone who pretends moral superiority even though they don’t actually practice it. It’s a very negative version of what should be a positive word: Sanctity. Sanctity refers to something that is holy or sacred, and it can be used as a verb to refer to the act of making something holy or sacred (e.g. to sanctify). Honestly, I usually tell my students to skip the dictionary definitions in their papers, but here I want to interact directly with these words. Sanctity and Sanctimonious both rely on the notion of holiness, of which our culture (i.e. Christian Culture and Secular Culture) doesn’t really have a strong understanding.

In the Old Testament for something to be holy it meant that the thing was set aside for use in temple worship. It couldn’t be used for anything else. For instance, if a priest wore his priestly robes outside of the Temple the robes had to be burned and new robes had to be made. If one of the sacred implements (say a ladel) was used for something other than temple worship, it had to be melted down and remade. The same was true with priests: before the priests could offer sacrifices for the sins of the people, they had to offer their own sacrifices. They had to sanctify themselves. Holiness is not simply the idea of being set apart, or being separated from secular culture (which is often what we make it), but the idea of being entirely set aside for one singular purpose: the glorification of God. If I am to call myself holy (which I certainly don’t), then my every action, word, thought, desire, intention, etc must be focused on that one purpose, and only on that one purpose. This is the example of Christ… who ate with ‘tax collectors and prostitutes’, and chastised the faithful for their hypocrisy.

I bring this up because not too long ago I was called a ‘Sanctimonious Christian’ and used as an example of ‘Sanctimonious Christians’ everywhere. I am not going to argue that there are no Christians who are sanctimonious. However, I’m fairly confident that anyone who knows me, or who actually reads the things I write can quickly tell that I am not claiming any kind of holiness. I claim a desire for holiness… a desire at which I fail repeatedly. I claim to be forgiven, and I claim to be getting better… or at least that it is my goal to always be better from one day to the next. I claim to be in the lifelong process of being sanctified, and I often claim to not be nearly as far down that road as I’d like to be. In other words: I claim to be struggling. I claim to be failing. And I claim to be growing. I certainly don’t claim to be ‘there’.

However, the person who called me sanctimonious wasn’t really using the term correctly. He was not arguing that I was claiming to be something that I am not, but that I was purporting a moral law that was no longer relevant to the world. Here’s the thing though… there is no moral law that is no longer relevant to the world. He may not agree with the moral law that I see as absolute, but his disagreement does not make that moral law irrelevant. In the same way my disagreement with aspects of Sharia Law does not make Sharia Law irrelevant. Nor does a Muslim’s disagreement with the Bacchanalia make the Bacchanalia irrelevant. In fact, the only moral laws that are truly irrelevant to the modern world are the one’s that no-one practices anymore… for instance, the Code of Hammurabi is fairly irrelevant to modern ethical theory. Not completely irrelevant because we must still learn from the past and understand where our beliefs and ideas came from. However, it is fairly irrelevant.

We tend to like to dismiss things with which we disagree, and this is always a mistake. Simple dismissal does nothing to actually develop my own understanding of the world. It does nothing to challenge my own beliefs, or force me to grow in knowledge or in thought. Instead, it is easy, insulting, and ultimately foolish. Heh… it sounds very American doesn’t it :P.

Christianity and Ethics

I had the chance to run into a friend of mine today while I was out at a coffee shop grading papers. This was thoroughly enjoyable, and I continually find it amazing that some people are closer friends even though I don’t even have their phone numbers than other people whom I’ve known for years. Perhaps not closer friends… and I’m honestly hesitant to say better friends, but this guy and I have a connection that I don’t have with many of the people I’ve known for a very long time. I think this is born of a mutual understanding of some common concepts and trials, but I’m not entirely sure. I’ve mentioned before (I think) that sometimes I have a hard time connecting with people because I never know what they are going to be comfortable knowing, and what they will run away from. I think the connection I’m talking about is comfort. This particular person… we’ll call him Paul… Paul and I were pretty instantly comfortable with each other. No judgment, no anger, no misinterpreted attacks, we were just comfortable being ourselves. That is something very rare, and I’m going to miss that.

Anyway, while I was grading papers Paul was reading a book and would randomly ask me questions, and we got to talking about the importance of ethics in Christianity, and how scripture and tradition both play a part in this. However, the most important thing that we discussed, and something that I believe a lot of Americans (Christian or otherwise) either never realize or quickly forget. This is that Christianity is not a moral system. Obviously Christianity contains a moral system, but that moral system is not the core of the Christian faith.

Plato argued that ethical living is necessary for a fulfilling life. However, Christ pointed out that the ethical lives of the Pharisees, a group of people obsessed with ethics, were worthless. I find that Dante Alighieri makes this point extremely well in his epic poem Inferno. Dante’s pilgrim, who many scholars argue represents Dante himself, is guided through hell by Virgil, the Roman poet and one of Dante’s heroes. Through this journey Dante lifts Virgil to almost inhuman heights of virtue, and Virgil continually exhorts the importance of the classical virtues to Dante.

However, through the entirety of this, and especially at the end with Virgil’s last exhortation to courage, in the face of Satan himself, the poet expresses clearly that for all of his virtue, Virgil is still trapped in hell. This is not to say that Virgil’s virtue has no merit (I’ve made that claim before and been suitably chastised for it), but to say that Virgil’s near perfect virtue has not allowed him to escape from the place of torment. It may have brought him fulfillment in life, but it has not brought it in death.

This is the mistake that many people make. Morality is important. Virtue is important. However, these things are not the goal or the center of the Christian faith, they are tangential. The concept that a person must be morally perfect (or even ‘good’ whatever that means… I’m sure I’ll discuss the concept of natural sin on here sometime) before he can be saved is ridiculous. Even the concept that a Christian must be morally perfect is insane. This is why Christ was crucified in the first place, because we can’t live up to the standard, no matter what.

1st John tells us… well a lot of things, but one of those things is that those who claim to have no sin have no truth in them. John often (especially in chapters 1-3) sets forth very clear black and white distinctions. He who hates his brother cannot love God, and he who knows God will love his brother. He who sins does not know God, and he who knows God will not sin. Honestly, it’s fairly hard to read the first three chapters of 1st John and say with confidence “Yeah, yeah I’m a Christian”. However, after all of these black and white juxtapositions John then tells his readers that if we doubt, then we must simply trust God. This again returns to the concept that we are never capable of living up to the standards required, and if we think we are, then we’re missing the point entirely.

The goal of the Christian life is not moral perfection, it is to please God. Like making disciples, moral perfection is one of the ways that we do this, and it is certainly something that we should all strive for, but it is also a goal that we can never reach. So, does this mean that moral perfection isn’t important? No, of course not. Moral perfection is an important goal in the life of every Christian, and the fruits of the spirit generally show a greater striving towards that goal. Does this mean that we should all strive for moral perfection and beat ourselves up every time we sin? No, not at all. We will inevitably fail and this is what grace is for, while repentance is important, beating ourselves up over every sin is neither helpful nor realistic. Then what does this mean? It means that a strong moral character will be an inevitable outgrowth of our Christian walk, but that growth must be a natural process.

We don’t get to tell God which lessons we need to learn or when we need to learn them. God teaches us the lessons he wants us to learn when he wants us to learn them. Part of learning to trust God is learning to trust him with our failures, and this is often one of the hardest parts of trust to learn. We should be moral, but we will fail, and God will pick us up, dust us off, and tell us to try again. So, where do ethics fit in to Christianity? It is important, and we fail, always. When we fail… Grace.