Friday, June 15, 2007

Morality and religion

I readily admit that this post is a bit of a reaction, but I just have to write that true religion is not first and foremost about morality and it is never moralistic. I cannot adequately convey how vexing I find it when religion is reduced to mere morality. Is that to write that faith has no moral component? No! I tried to flesh the role of obedience out in my post A perspective. A bizarre form of hyper-Calvinism flows from such an reduction of faith and religion. It takes the form, God blesses you when you are good and punishes you when you are bad. How puerile! I think we should all strive not to be one of Job's friends. If you don't know to what it is I am referring, please read the Book of Job. I also take issue with what many Christians think constitutes "being good". In other words, many are mistaken about what is moral and what is not. Chesterton scoffed at American puritanism, which tends to prevail, sadly, even among Catholics in this country. So, in honor of Gilbert Keith, pour yourself a drink smoke a cigar and contemplate the mystery of the pine tree in your backyard! I don't recommend getting drunk and carrying on an extended conversation with said pine tree, however. In my experience, the pine tree usually gets the better of the exchange (kidding!- I win sometimes).

"America is sometimes offered to us, even by Americans (who ought to know better), as a moral example. There are indeed very real American virtues; but this virtuous attitude is hardly one of them. And if anyone wants to know what a welter of weakness and inconsequence the moral mind of America can sometimes be, he may be advised to look, not so much to the Crime Wave or the Charleston, as to the serious idealistic essays by highbrows and cultural critics, such as one by Miss Avis D. Carlson on "Wanted: A Substitute for Righteousness." By righteousness she means, of course, the narrow New England taboos; but she does not know it. For the inference she draws is that we should recognize frankly that 'the standard abstract right and wrong is moribund.' This statement will seem less insane if we consider, somewhat curiously, what the standard abstract right and wrong seems to mean--at least in her section of the States. It is a glimpse of an incredible world.

"She takes the case of a young man brought up 'in a home where there was an attempt to make dogmatic cleavage of right and wrong.' And what was the dogmatic cleavage? Ah, what indeed! His elders told him that some things were right and some wrong; and for some time he accepted this strange assertion. But when he leaves home he finds that, 'apparently perfectly nice people do the things he has been taught to think evil.' Then follows a revelation. 'The flowerlike girl he envelops in a mist of romantic idealization smokes like an imp from the lower regions and pets like a movie vamp. The chum his heart yearns towards cultivates a hip-flask, etc.' And this is what the writer calls a dogmatic cleavage between right and wrong!

"The standard of abstract right and wrong apparently is this. That a girl by smoking a cigarette makes herself one of the company of the fiends of hell. That such an action is much the same as that of a sexual vampire. That a young man who continues to drink fermented liquor must necessarily be 'evil' and must deny the very existence of any difference between right and wrong. That is the 'standard of abstract right and wrong' that is apparently taught in the American home. And it is perfectly obvious, on the face of it, that it is not a standard of abstract right or wrong at all. That is exactly what it is not. That is the very last thing any clear-headed person would call it. It is not a standard; it is not abstract; it has not the vaguest notion of what is meant by right and wrong. It is a chaos of social and sentimental accidents and associations, some of them snobbish, all of them provincial, but, above all, nearly all of them concrete and connected with a materialistic prejudice against particular materials. To have a horror of tobacco is not to have an abstract standard of right; but exactly the opposite. It is to have no standard of right whatever; and to make certain local likes and dislikes as a substitute. We need not be very surprised if the young man repudiates these meaningless vetoes as soon as he can; but if he thinks he is repudiating morality, he must be almost as muddle-headed as his father. And yet the writer in question calmly proposes that we should abolish all ideas of right and wrong, and abandon the whole human conception of a standard of abstract justice, because a boy in Boston cannot be induced to think that a nice girl is a devil when she smokes a cigarette."
(G.K. Chesterton, On American Morals


  1. Scott Dodge, how did you not get a single comment on the theme of this blog – be it ever so timely geographically and otherwise? I am not a good Catholic but I am consciously striving towards the light of the Gospel’s Word and teachings… at least I try to be in between my hard failings / fallings / and binges in the backyard with the tree of life. In the end I am as human as I hated I was… prejudices, paradigms and all. Thanks for offering a challenge of ideas to me – if not virtually – on a breezy Saturday afternoon.

  2. There is nothing to hate about being human. God does not save us despite our humanity but through it. After all in Christ Jesus, God became one of us in order to make us more like God. I am not a good Catholic either. That is why I am glad that the Church is God's People and the hallmark of God's People has always been that we are a pilgrim people. In other words, we're not there yet. I am comforted by the fact I don't walk alone.

    Yes, we need to continue to eliminate our prejudices, to expand our paradigms, to look at God, the world, and ourselves through a bigger, more powerful lense. You know what? We can't force it either. Here I will employ two cliches:

    1) We are where we are. We have to acknowledge our context, be honest with ourselves, with others, and with God
    2) Therefore, as those in recovery learn, we have to let go and let God. We cooperate to the extent we are able. We tend a lot of times to overestimate our ability.

    So, thanks for your encouragement.


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