[This began as a comment to PastorDan’s excellent Word for the Week for Easter Sunday. It got so long that it put me in mind of the “community standard” that if your comment is really long, you probably need to post your own diary. So I am. With a “Thank you” to PastorDan for his many diaries and comments and sermons that offer so much food for thought for believers and non-believers alike.]
Let me begin by saying that I am not a believer, but I do spend some time thinking about what is the best way to live life, and in order to find the answers to my own questions about these things, from time to time I read the words of the great philosophers and teachers of history – or more often, I read someone else’s explanation of their thoughts and teachings, because I do this at a very superficial level.
For example, I am struck by this phrase from PastorDan’s text for the day from Colossians: “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).” It seems very similar to (my shallow understanding of) some of the teachings of Buddhism.
I find much that I value highly in the words of Jesus as reported by the writers of the gospels. I have not read the Jefferson Bible, but if I understand it correctly, I think I would like it very much.
I recently listened to Bob Solomon’s lectures on Nietzsche. Now to be clear, I have not read Nietzsche’s works, so my understanding of Nietzsche’s thought is my own interpretation of Solomon’s interpretation . . . and may bear little resemblance to what Nietzsche actually said. But I like my interpretation for giving me guidance in my own life. (Please don’t give me a hard time about this. I do own books by Nietzsche, and plan to do a “reality check” by reading the original as soon as I can.)
And this is my interpretation of the concept of going “beyond morality.” First, that it is most definitely not a suggestion that we should cease to be moral. But rather, that if we define morality as simply “following the rules” that is not enough. Being truly moral requires more. It requires that each person be the most moral person that they – in their own uniqueness – are capable of being.
For example, there is a near-universal “rule” – don’t steal. For one person, perhaps growing up in severe poverty and with a tendency to envy as part of their character (for whatever reason), simply not taking things that don’t belong to them may be the most moral that they are capable of being in this regard. Another person may go beyond that to resist being manipulative, because manipulation is a way of “stealing” other people’s time and energy. A business owner may choose to “not steal” his employees’ work by paying them fairly and treating them with respect. Yet another person may able to be their “most moral” by working tirelessly to fight against poverty and for social justice in a third-world country, seeing pathological maldistribution of wealth that gives rise to such poverty as stealing.
PastorDan seems to be saying much the same thing. The battle against the condition of the world has got to start right here, right now. Too many are hurting, too many are dying, to wait for pie in the sky.
Simply following the rules as laid out by one’s adopted religion, or any other ethical system if one is not religious, is not enough. We must do the best that each of us, given our own particular talents and limitations, is capable of. For some liberals or progressives, the best that they can do may be informing themselves, showing up, and voting. But for most of us here, we must go beyond that.