Monday, March 29, 2010


We live in an age of ambiguity. We have discovered so many things that we just didn’t know before, so could ignore in our ignorant bliss. Even our hoary old institutions, like church and state, are of little use, running along behind our need to know right actions (when is a fertilized ovum a human being? when is it permissible to withdraw life support? what does marriage really MEAN?) or (how is it best to manage our resources to support ourselves? what IS a good investment? is there really any such thing as insurance when you come right down to it? or can someone totally unlike me -- different color, different education, different economic status -- make laws that will protect and support me? if not, what do I do?) or (what do we do when the institutions themselves become corrupt and predatory so that neither our children nor our livelihoods are safe with them?)

How can a person make moral decisions without even knowing what’s happening -- maybe because they are secret (we don’t even know they’re there -- what do YOU know about “shadow banking”?) and maybe because we can’t interpret what we’re looking at. It was a real comfort when we could say “God knows!” but who knows anything about God anymore? Christopher Hitchens, that know-it-all, has turned Christian in his quest for self-improvement (which I hope was less painful and more permanent than having his family jewels waxed to render them hairless). Now he shares with us the mostly unknown information that there are more than one sets of Ten Commandments. In the Old Testament: Exodus 20, Exodus 34, Deuteronomy 5. They are different. Look ‘em up yourself.

I’m going to ignore those outdated tribal injunctions in favor of the ten “injunctions” of the Code of the West, evidently not inscribed on stone but recorded in a book by James Owen. He’s an author and retired Wall Street investor. Take that into account. Here’s the list:
1. Live courageously.
2. Take pride in your work.
3. Finish what you start.
4. Do what’s necessary.
5. Be tough but fair.
6. Keep promises.
7. Ride for the brand.
8. Talk less and say more.
9. Remember that some things aren’t for sale.
10. Know where to draw the line.

I had thought these were the Rules of Lucy. (That’s my mom.) But I’ve internalized them well. The problems come with applying them, same as those Biblical commandments. How do you know what’s necessary? What if your work is dubious but you’re proud of it? Like, um, you’re a Wall Street investor? When do you decide the brand is corrupt and doesn’t deserve to be ridden for? The Rule of Combat is “do something.” Because if you don’t, things happen to you.

So what I deduce from that is you’d better be prepared to take some damage in life and devote some time and energy to recovery. You might need some help. You might end up with scar tissue or amputations that keep you from following your original goal, so you need to have a backup plan. Maybe several. And since presumably your life will constantly bring you new information, skills and so on; and since certainly the world changes every minute -- more than we know or might want to know -- it’s a matter of adapting to whatever plan is at hand. Forget stone.

Hitchens comes up with a list of no-nos (but throws in some moral imperatives):

1. Do not condemn people on the basis of their ethnicity or color.
2. Do not ever use people as private property.
3. Despise those who use violence or the threat of it in sexual relations.
4. Hide your face and weep if you dare to harm a child.
5. Do not condemn people for their inborn nature. Why would God create so many homosexuals only in order to torture and destroy them.
6. Be aware that you too are an animal and dependent on the web of nature and think and act accordingly.
7. Do not imagine that you can escape judgment if you rob people with a false prospectus rather than with a knife.
8. Turn off that fucking cell phone -- you have no idea how UNimportant your call is to us.
9. Denounce all jihadists and crusaders for what they are: psychopathic criminals with ugly delusions.
10. Be willing to renounce any god or any religion if any holy commandments should contradict any of the above.
IN SHORT: Do now swallow your moral code in tablet form. (Vanity Fair, April 2010)

If you make a list of ten, the very fact of pre-determining the number means that there will be some weak inclusions and the most important principles might not stand out. This is a weakness of all rule-ethic strategies. We all know the game of finding exceptions to the Ten Commandments. “Thou shalt not kill.” Well, then why are those Old Testament tribes, even the obedient ones, constantly involved in turf warfare?

I recall a Benedictine monk, a friend and classmate, whom I knew well enough to ask questions. “How do you handle those vows?” I asked. “You know, chastity, poverty, and obedience?” His answer was: “Chastity is HOW you do something, not whether; poverty is a pre-existing condition; and obedience? Well, we’re into creative obedience.” And the Pope never saw that memo go over his desk either.

Bob used to say, “All you can do is the best you can do.” By definition. And his watch-word was “An Honest Try.” But that put a lot of emphasis on effort -- you know, “A for effort,” and not much on the end achievement or the consequences of focussing everything on trying to reach a goal while not asking whether it’s worthy or what to do once you get there. I think that’s one of the political questions of our country right now. Our goals are all admirable: good educations, universal health care, happy marriages, a comfortable home, good nutrition. Peace in the world. Ending pollution. Protecting wolves. The questions are mostly about effectiveness and what means we have used or are willing to use in the future.

The ambiguity is just rearranged. Does it make decisions easier or not? NOT.


Richard S. Wheeler said...

Both versions of the Golden Rule I find most useful. The Old Testament version is negative. Don't do anything to others that you would not like done to yourself. The New Testament version is the injunction to treat others as you would like to be treated. There is a deep fairness in both of these. Both are particularly valuable in winding through life peacefully, and I haven't found any secular injunction more helpful than these.

Vagabonde said...

I think you bring an interesting argument. “Ethical Ambiguity” so true. Last week I was reading a report on preachers who are no longer believers. The article explained that these people have studied religion so much that they have seen all the facts which do not add up and finally realized that they just could not believe anymore. However, they would preach anyway what they no longer believed. Is this ethical? Also years ago I read a very difficult report written by religious academics who explained that many translations in the Bible were erroneous. For example that the word “cross” was not accurate, and that it should have been “post” or “pole.” That this mis-translation had been done very early in time and just now because of computer, etc., they had realized the mistake. Now they decided that nothing could be done because the “faithful” would not want to hear of it. How would women wear “poles” on their necks instead of crosses? They had other words like this which were wrongly translated. I wonder, is it ethical for them not to divulge what they have found? Should not people know now that we have better tools to translate? Isn’t it like saying doctors should keep taking your blood out to cure a fever instead of giving you an antibiotic because people have believed that it was the cure for too many years? I am not a religious person so I am asking you – is it ethical to let people believe what is false? Is it ethical for non believing preachers to preach what they consider lies?

prairie mary said...

What every learned minister knows is an old joke: if you want to lose your faith, go to a seminary. Certainly all the taken-for-granted things people "believe" get challenged. What has to happen for a successful ministry is for that person to go THROUGH the loss of faith and find what's somewhere beyond. It might very well take the minister out of the ministry. The good ones will end up something like George Harper in Helena, a veteran, who will simply say, "God is love, and that's all you need to know." If you press him, he can defend that concept.

I myself do not believe that. I feel that the idea of "God" as an entity is dangerous. I say, "God is that than which nothing can be greater." The minister here in Valier when I moved back said that he could simply not believe in anything that didn't allow him a personal relationship with "God."

What I think is alarming is that ministers (I'm talking learned ministers, who do theology and ethics) do NOT bring that back to their congregations. (Inspired ministers go for emotion and have no obligation to do academic stuff.)

But the truth is that most people don't go to church to be challenged. They go to be reassured. If you challenge them a little too much, you'll be out of a job.

Vagabonde said...

Prairie Mary I agree with you. Your last paragraph is so true that I’m copying it down. You know what scares me a lot though, it is the Christian Fundamentalists here (or anywhere else for that matter) who think they, and only they, know the truth and want everyone else to think like them. Did you hear about the Texas Board of Education which just passed the new textbooks contents for all kid in Texas (and also 48 more states since the publishers use Texas as the model) and decided to take out Jefferson and include Newt Gingrich? And want to include more items consistent with their Conservative Christian Right views in public schools? That is very scary to me because they are trying to change this country.

prairie mary said...

Not to worry. First, the right wing (not just religious Fundamentalists but also economic paralyzers) think they are keeping the country the same way it was, because it suited their interests. But they are too late. The country is already radically changed by demographics and economics and even more by technology.

No longer can a publishing company be controlled by Texas and California. In only a few years those big fifty dollar texts will be discarded in favor of some version of the iPad. Maybe that's MORE scary, because then the versions of the text can be tailored to any group and inconvenient facts can be dropped. But kids are as resourceful as the citizens of China. They will save us. In fact, they might even be Chinese. Or Mexican. Or Navajo.

Prairie Mary