17. Spirituality and the moral life



Ted Grimsrud

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.  I have sworn an oath and confirmed it, to observe your righteous ordinances.  I am severely afflicted; give me life, O Lord, according to your word.  Accept my offerings of praise, O Lord, and teach me your ordinances.  I hold my life in my hand continually, but I do not forget your law. – Psalm 119: 105-109

            In the broad way that I am defining spirituality – that which gives us encouragement to live hopefully and creatively – it is not something separated from regular life.  It has everything to do with morality, with discipleship, with simply living as Christians.  What do my reflections on spirituality have to do with our values?  Our sense of right and wrong?  Our obligations and duties?  The rules we follow?  Our ethical decisions?  The way we treat others?  How we respond to issues and causes?

            The location of authentic spirituality, I believe, has to do with who we are in real life.  It’s location is in the concrete lives we live.  Spirituality and moral living are very closely intertwined.

            Vital spirituality prevents us from approaching morality as simply a dry list of rules.  Vital spirituality helps us to see that all of life, certainly – that is, especially – the moral realm, has to do with relationships, creativity, mutuality, and imagination.  Keeping morality central helps remind us that spirituality is not an escape from the hurly-burly of the real world.  Rather, spirituality is the means to remain in the world and not let the world overcome us.  A spiritually vital life is also a morally faithful life.

            However, to live morally, to live creatively and hopefully, to be spiritually alive in our world simply is not easy.  That it is so difficult is why it is good for us to keep these issues and themes before us.  The issues and themes of who we are, of who God is, of what gives us encouragement, of how we grieve, of how we find trust.  These issues I have touched on in this book will remain crucial issues as long as we live.

            I regularly read a periodical called Utne (formerly the Utne Reader).  The editorial perspective, if you want to call it such, is generally upbeat.  Often negative articles are printed – the world is a pretty negative place sometimes.  However, you get the sense that Utne has as one of its missions that of imparting a bit of hope.  So it always contains proposed solutions, viewpoints which might provide a basis for at least some positive feelings.

            However, the March/April 1993 issue left me pretty much completely depressed.  The title for the central theme is “American Fear:  Why We’re So Afraid.  Where to Turn to Hope.”  The focus is much more on why we’re afraid than on bases for hope.  Several articles deal with crime and violence in our society.  Part of what is so depressing is the grimness of picture, first of the plague of violence in big cities.  Two self-confessed politically liberal women write of their experiences in Detroit and Oakland respectively.  In the first case, the woman eventually feels forced to move away.  In the second case, the woman is only thinking about it.

            However, probably the most depressing article is one about a planned city in suburban Nevada called Green Valley.  This is a “high security suburb.”  It features high walls and security patrols.  The writer visits it and reports on people’s motivations for living there.  “It’s safe here,” one of the developers says.  “And clean.  And nice.  The schools are good and the crime rate low.  It’s what buyers are looking for.”[1]

            The picture in the article is of a sterile, fearful, lifeless environment.  Ironically, it is also actually anything but crime free.  “Last year a rapist ran loose in its neighborhoods; police suspect the man is a resident and responsible for three rapes and five robberies.  George Hennard, killer of 23 people in a Killeen, Texas cafeteria in October 1991, resided in Green Valley only months before his rampage and bought two of his murder weapons here.  Jospeh Weldon Smith, featured on the television series Unsolved Mysteries, strangeled to death his wife and two step-daughters in a posh Green Valley development called The Fountains.  Finally, in November 1991, two armed robbers took a handcuffed hostage and more than $100,000 from a Green Valley bank, then fled and fired military-assault-rifle rounds at officers in hot pursuit.  The same week, police arrested a suspected child molester who had been playing football with Green Valley children.”[2]

            The basic idea is that we really have no fully safe place.  For any of us, attempts to seal ourselves off perhaps likely will go the way of Green Valley.  One resident says, “you can run but you can’t hide.  People are coming here from all over the place and bringing their problems with them.”[3]

            So how do we live creatively and hopefully in such a culture?  Perhaps we don’t all have to fear for our safety.  Some of us do, most of us do at least a little.  However, we all have to live in a world growing increasingly fearful.  We call have to live in a world which appears, at least, to be growing less safe.  The World Trade Center in New York was bombed in March, 1993.  This led US media to worry about what it means for world terrorism to have crossed our borders.  These worries, of course, were profoundly deepened, September 11, 2001.  For many black people, women, children, gay people, and various others in different places in our country – terrorism has been a reality for a long time.

            Does talk about spirituality and the moral life say anything to this?  I believe so.  What we have most to fear is fear itself.  That’s not at all to say that we don’t have other things to fear.  Violence and the threat of violence are genuine realities.  A healthy sense of carefulness is appropriate, an awareness of the need to watch out, to avoid dangerous settings, to be able to take care of ourselves.  As well, we certainly should hope for the apprehension of violent offenders, the restraint of people who cause damage.

            Nonetheless, we have to live.  If we go through life overly fearful, that will leave us constrained and kept from creativity.  We will find ourselves increasingly in an It and not a Thou world.  We will become more like what we fear.

            On a mass scale, we certainly have seen in our society the costs of fearfulness during the Cold War.  We feared the Soviets, so we constructed this huge military-industrial complex which is bankrupting us.  It is also irreversibly fouling the environment, and keeping us living under the sword of Damocles as we hope the bombs are not used.  In our fear, we subverted democracy at home and abroad.  All out of fear of a paper tiger.

            I can remember as a child sometimes walking home by myself at night.  Now in those days, and in my rural home, what I felt most afraid of was bears or rabid dogs.  The streetlights were far apart, so shadows would get pretty big and move pretty fast.  More than once a sudden motion frightened me.  So, I’d walk faster, or run.  Then when I got closer to the next streetlight I’d realize that what scared me was my shadow.  Fortunately, I wasn’t carrying a gun, so I didn’t shoot anything.

            Our country hasn’t been so lucky.  In response to the moving shadows of the so-called Soviet threat, much damage has been done.  Maybe, underneath, in our society as a whole, what we were actually afraid of was our own shadow.

            I think a lot of fear works like that.  People who truly have a strong sense of who they are might still experience fear in appropriate settings, but fear does not dominate their lives.

            This is where our sense of spirituality becomes important.  What I am really talking about with spirituality is understanding.  Understanding ourselves, understanding life, understanding God.  The better we understand the way reality truly is, the more trust we will have in God.  The more we will see life as good.  The more we will see ourselves as loveable and capable of loving.

            That is, I assume that God is trustworthy.  I assume that life is good.  I assume that we are loveable and capable of love.  As the psalmist confesses, “God’s word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.…[God will] give me life, according to [God’s] word.” (119: 105, 107)

            I began this book by reflecting on how we understand ourselves and how we understand God.  In such understanding we face two huge hindrances – a hatred of humanness and a hierarchical view of God.  Both views, which obviously are two sides of a single coin, have strong roots in the Christian tradition.  We find even in the Bible some bases for both views – including what later became known as the doctrine of original sin.  This doctrine essentially asserts that human beings are born bad, born condemned, born with an overwhelming proclivity toward evil.  This has been one justification for harsh child-rearing practices.  We are bad, so we must be forcibly constrained.  Our wills must be broken.

            Alice Miller has persuasively shown the tragic costs of such an approach to child-rearing.

            Such discipline, such “breaking the child’s will” has serious consequences.  It, in effect, murders the child’s soul.  Parents should accept the child and encourage the child to grow in creativity and mutually loving give and take with the world.  To have its will broken leaves the child numbed to its own emotions.  This leaves the child fearful, angry deep inside, lacking in empathy and in potential for critical thought and emotional freedom.

            “Primary emphasis is placed upon raising children so that they are not aware of what is being done to them or what is being taken away from them, or what they are losing in the process.”  They are not aware of “who they otherwise would have been and who they actually are.”  What results then is “as adults, regardless of their intelligence, they will later look upon the will of another person as if it were their own.  How can they know that their own will was broken since they were never allowed to express it?  Yet something one is not aware of can still make one ill.”[4]

            The illness is repressed anger that comes up in unpredictable or arbitrary ways – especially later on with one’s own children.  This illness finds expression in lack of creativity, lack of empathy, lack of spiritual vitality.  The notion of a hierarchical God adds to this illness.  God is someone simply to obeyed – an all-powerful It, not a Thou.  This all-powerful God supports all-powerful religious and political institutions.

            So people do not question a Psalm such as Psalm 21, which so closely identifies God with the king.  This Psalm has encouraged people not to question their nation when it sends them to war.  Such people do not question the idea that God commands people to scapegoat other people.

            This style of scapegoating finds justification in the name of a hierarchical God.  This is the same kind of God who the psalm tells us will burn his enemies “like a fiery furnace” (v. 9).  Didi Herman has shown how this scapegoating drive has targeted sexual minorities.[5]  Good Christian people have repressed anger.  Only if they can find enemies of God can they feel justified in directing that anger at people.  Without God’s justice to vindicate it, scapegoating is difficult to justify.  However, when we have a need to vent our hostility, we will find scapegoats to do it toward.  we will do this even when we repress the hostility deeply enough that we do not recognize it for what it is.

            Of course, this is the dynamic at work in nationalism, where people scapegoat other nations.  The literature fanning the flames of patriotism during wartime makes it clear how important a hierarchical God is to the entire scheme.  Only this kind of God can provide the basis for the divine support nations find necessary for warfare.  Such warring madness takes place on the big scale of warfare.  We also find violence on a more local scale with homophobia or violence toward children.  Such violence is contrary to healing spirituality.

            We need to declare atheism over against such a hierarchical God.  We need to say that we no longer recognize such a God as God anymore.  The true God is different altogether.  We best perceive the true God as one who loves, one who we find as a healing presence amidst our various brokennesses and sufferings.  This God gently leads toward an acceptance of our actual world.  The God gently leads toward a realization that love and healing and growth toward wholeness are possible here and now.

            Unfortunately, people use biblical materials to support low views of humanness and to support a hierarchical notion of God.  However, when read most perceptively, the Bible points in the other direction.[6]

            The biblical God is one who unconditionally loves humanity in its entirety and each particular human being.  We see this in the affirmation of the creation story – “So God created humankind in God’s image,…male and female.…And God blessed them.…God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Gen. 1: 27-28, 31).  We see this in Psalm 8’s affirmation.  God has crowned human beings with “glory and honor” in making them only a “little lower than God” (v. 5).  Certainly, we see it in the New Testament portrayal of Jesus.

            We see this affirmation in the unfolding of the Bible’s story.  We discover the biblical God most profoundly in contexts of human brokenness and suffering.  God in the Bible is not so much some great hierarchical judge.  More so, God is one who suffers with, who cares, who sustains life and love, who affects healing.  This is care based on God’s unconditional love, not on some superiority of certain people over others, not on God separating the wheat from the chaff.

            God is the presence of suffering love, the sustainer of feeble yet persevering life.  The avenue to an encounter with such a God is grief.  God is met through giving up of power-over, of strivings for control and self-will.

            We see this in Jesus’ beautiful parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15.  The key moment for the wayward son is when he “comes to himself.”  He realizes who he is.  He wakes up.  He comes to an awareness that he is at the end of his rope.  He has come to point of needing help beyond the power of his own sheer will-power.  At this point of relinquishment, of giving up of self-control – this is where the prodigal finds himself.  In reality, he finds God there with him.

            In his grief over a wasted life, the son finds a glimmer of new life.  His head clears and he heads home.  He does so with few expectations, but he senses that this is where he will find what life he might be able to have.  At it turns out, he finds more than he ever expected.

            The response of the prodigal son’s father, reflecting God’s ways, when his son returned prostrate in shame was to pull him to his feet.  Let’s party!  Genuine self-understanding must also combine with deeper understanding of life and of God.  What results from such understanding is joy, a sense that life, God, and one’s self are trustworthy.  What results is an affirmation of self, God, other people, and life.  Jesus’ parable tells us, trust that God wants to party much more than rub our face in our shame and brokenness.

            Spirituality has to do with this kind of trust, this kind of awareness of mercy.  These two go together, inextricably – trust and mercy.  With trust, we will find mercy even in the deepest grief.  With mercy, we will realize that we can trust.

            So the moral life of people who experience vital spirituality evinces mercy and trust, not fearfulness.  It evinces open hands more than clenched fists.

            Such spiritual people will realize that life, salvation, and empowerment are gifts.  We do not earn them by our good deeds.  We need not struggle and strive for moral purity, polical correctness, the successful revolution.  Such goals are beyond us anyhow.  In striving for them, we move away from mercy.  In striving to achieve we lose our sense of listening, of receptivity.

            Such spiritual people will realize that to fight back against evil only adds to the spiral of violence.  Somehow this spiral has to be broken, through respect of ourselves and others.  Somehow this spiral has to be broken, through seeing reality as a Thou-world and not as an It-world.

            Once I heard a moving, perceptive presentation from a theologian talking about how the Bible can be the friend of oppressed people.  As powerful as his message was, though, I also came away troubled by how he objectified the oppressors.  He called them “evil,” “bad people,” “the enemy.”  As much as I sympathize with his critique, I can’t help feeling that if he somehow gained power, we might still have victims in his society.  As long as we see some others as Its, we will find it all too easy to ignore their humanity.  The spiral of violence will continue unless it is broken.

            Finally, spiritual people will realize that we can, we must, find life right here where we are.  Life is not to be found in some ideal world off in the future or up in heaven.  Spirituality, to be significant, is spirituality for who we are, spirituality for where we are – right here.  That is, it is spirituality which empowers us to live with hope even while we grieve.  It will provide encouragement even while we suffer, joy even while we muddle along, three steps up and two steps back.

[1]David Guterson, “Home, safe home” Utne Reader  #56 (March-April 1993), 63.

[2]Guterson, “Home, safe home,” 65-66.

[3]Guterson, “Home, safe home,” 66.

[4]Alice Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1984), 14.

[5] Didi Herman, The Anti-Gay Agenda: Orthodox Vision and the Christian Right (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

[6] See Ted Grimsrud, God’s Healing Strategy: An Introduction to the Main Themes of the Bible (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2000).

1 thought on “17. Spirituality and the moral life

  1. Pingback: Spiritual and moral | The Spirit of God

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