Wednesday, June 1, 2011

It's All About Me, My and Mine

In Western cultures, and especially the United States, we live at a time when the individual believes or she reigns supreme. It’s all about “my rights,” “my needs,” “my success,” and “my happiness.” (I could also talk about “my Medicare,” my “Social Security” and “my tax deduction,” but that’s another, and smaller, story.) We’ve atomized and individualized our notions of what constitutes community.

When we think of community, we might include our family, if they live in the same community, a few immediate neighbors, possibly the people we know at church (I didn’t say “the church”), the colleagues at work we interact with, and, these days, the people we interact with online. But if someone asked me who I considered my day-to-day community, the list will likely be fairly small and fairly diverse geographically. And at the center of the list would be – me.

I know my rights. Someone does something that I think treads upon those rights, and I know the phone number of my attorney. Don’t mess with me.

When I hear of the decline of “public morality,” I nod my head in agreement. Interestingly enough, we may have different definitions of exactly what it is, but we would likely agree that public morality is a mess and getting messier. But do we really understand what we’re saying?

Morality, C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, is concerned with three things: “Firstly, with fair play and harmony between individuals. Secondly, with what might be called tidying up or harmonizing the things inside each individual. Thirdly, with the general purpose of human life as a whole: what man was made for: what course the whole fleet ought to be on: what tune the conductor of the band wants it to play.”

There is an integrated logic here, as Lewis points out. Virtually all of us would be comfortable in considering “morality” as something to guide relationships between people – we should be fair to each other; we should treat each other with dignity and respect; we shouldn’t go around shooting each other. This is the area we’re most comfortable with planting the discussion of morality.

And yet, we can’t really do that unless the discussion also includes applying “morality” to our own individual selves, because treating people fairly and with respect (not to mention not shooting them) starts first within our own understanding as to how we as individuals are to live in the world. The discussion almost always stops there with a comment like “you’re trying to impose your own notions of morality on me,” usually by people who are going to feel very uncomfortable if there is a discussion about morality of the self.

And there’s no understanding of the self unless we understand that “general purpose of human life as a whole.” There, we suddenly confront – horrors! – the possibility of talking about – dare I mention it? – God. Evolutionary sociologists can talk all they want about how social behavior evolved along with species, but it all ultimately rings hollow. We know – we can’t help but know because its image is contained within us – that there is a standard for behavior that exists outside of our individual and collective human experience.

That standard is source of our public and individual morality. And that’s also closer to the real reason why we don’t like talking about God and faith publicly – we don’t like to be embarrassed or made uncomfortable.

We’re discussing Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, hosted by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter. This week’s discussion is on “The Three Parts of Morality.” To see other posts on this chapter, please visit Sarah Salter at Living Between the Lines.


Louise Gallagher said...

All things are connected.

Great post Glynn!

Maureen said...

Thoughtful, well-expressed post, Glynn.

Dusty Rayburn said...

God is the basis and source of our morality. Apart from Him, it all falls apart.

H. Gillham said...

Wow. You speaketh the truth. As always...

I used to try to talk about morality, to a certain degree, when my students and I discussed literature. It was always difficult to listen to some of their stances -- I concluded that we have moved from absolute right and absolute wrong to all gray.

Good post.

David Rupert said...

I do tire of rights. There are god-given rights, but even those are really not deserved. I would rather be worthy of nothing from GOd or the state -- and then everything else is a blessing.

It's easier that way.