Yeats’ Rough Beast Comes Out
While the Endless Moral Dialogue Endlessly Continues…
Jay B. Gaskill
The radical Islamist challenge has laid bare the weakened moral underpinnings of the post-modern social order. In Manhattan, Madrid, London and a hundred other places in the world, evil in the form of armed, suicidal ideologues bent on mayhem have slashed away at the very heart of modern civilization, killing thousands and threatening to kill millions more.
This unholy jihad was eerily presaged in a vision of William Butler Yeats, (1865-1939) who was a poet, a Celtic Mystic, and (as is now painfully apparent) also a prophet. As he wrote in his poem “The Second Coming”:
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
… somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
… what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Surely all morally alert members of a civil society have an absolute duty to protect the peaceful, the civil, the innocent and the creative ones among us from those who would harm them. The capacity of any civil society to sustain itself against the atavistic challenges of fervent fanatics depends on the robust character of its own underlying moral infrastructure, the deeper taproots of the supporting ethical beliefs on which civilization is founded.
Among many of the elite intelligentsia, the initial reaction to the horrors of jihad was a call for “healing”. But the therapeutic model presupposes a protected zone of peace where healing can be administered. The arrival of suicide killers was designed specifically to deny us that zone.
Make no mistake, we are at war. [For a brilliant exposition of the current conflict in its larger historical context, I recommend the definitive Norman Podhoretz essay, “World War IV: How It Started, What It Means, and Why We Have to Win” in the September 2004, Commentary]
The war caught Western civilization in the middle of a 150 year long dialogue between those who see morality primarily as a category of problems in psychological adjustment and group dynamics, and those who see it as a set of application problems emanating from an established moral philosophy.
The therapeutic model is singularly inappropriate when civilization itself faces a mortal struggle with an atavistic form of evil.
The professional perspective of a therapist is to heal. Those whom civilization trusts with uniforms and weapons are called to protect the innocent. Each function is difficult to do without an underlying moral perspective, but the “healers” seem better able to function in a morally neutral environment.
The pursuit of healing is often seen as the resolution of internal conflicts in a non-judgmental (i.e., in a morally neutral or moral relativistic context). But all conflict resolution takes place against the backdrop of hidden assumptions, the kind that remain unexamined in any depth because they are purely “philosophical.”
It matters hugely whether a particular norm or moral precept is understood to be a discovered aspect of the underlying moral infrastructure of the human condition, or whether is it simply seen as part of a moral construct that is the product of “psychology.”
Our civilization’s ultimate survival depends on the will to defend it. This raises questions for philosophy and theology, not psychology or sociology.
Where all human moral questions are concerned — philosophy is always critical. All human action – other than the merely reflexive – is based on a philosophy, whether explicit or implicit, conscious or unconscious. Where the ultimate motivations of belief are encountered, the kinds of issues to which members of a civilization are willing to commit blood, sweat and tears, to risk their very lives, it is hard to escape the claims of Ultimate Morality. For most of us, these claims take us over the threshold into theology
For an excellent précis of our species’ ongoing moral dialogue, and the essential friction points, I recommend reading “The Question of God, C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud debate God, Love, Sex and the Meaning of Life” by Dr. Armund Nicholi, especially Chapter, “Is There a moral Law?” at pp 57-75.
A disclosure: I am on the C. S. Lewis side of that dialogue and recommend his lectures collected in “The Abolition of Man” and “Mere Christianity” as well as his famous parable, “The Screwtape Letters.” But one does not need to be a Judeo Christian to reject the un-rooted relativism of those for whom morality is a set of questions resolved by mere psychology or anthropology.
The contributions of Freud and Darwin were joined by those of other intellectuals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to powerfully shape the modern and post-modern discussion about the nature and origins of morality. As that discussion evolved, a form of arch-materialism emerged as a tacit consensus within the secular, intellectual elites (a view that incorporates purposeless accidentalism as the origin of humanity). Stripped of its humanist pretensions, this is a bleak view of the human condition in which all that is really important in life can be reduced to the outcome of accidental rearrangements of physical objects and forces, atoms, photons, chemical and electrical reactions.
For those under the spell of arch-materialism, morality becomes a highly plastic construct, the consequence of cultural formation, and is frequently discounted as the illegitimate means by which the powerful maintain control over the masses. The most naïve among the intelligentsia failed to grasp that, once unleashed, such a fundamental challenge to authority would inevitably have a “blow-back” effect, disarming the forces of civility and liberty against brutally atavistic forms of authoritarianism.
Before the dominance of arch-materialism, the Enlightenment intellectuals of the 18th century had made great progress in initiating the reform of human institutions along more modern lines, replacing tribal and royalist regimes with law driven institutions founded on reason and common consent. This formed a fragile firewall against tyranny. But the arch-materialist mindset has begun to undermine the rational Enlightenment consensus, by “deconstructing” the very basis to believe in a natural moral law on which all legitimate governing institutions could be founded.
As a thread of cultural criticism, arch-materialism took root in the “Post-Modern” movement (really code for “Post-Enlightenment”). The doors to neo-tribalism were opened wide.
There remains some confusion about The Enlightenment (especially now that the subject is overlooked in much of secondary education). At its most general level, the Enlightenment was the intellectual triumph of our species over tribalism. This development was made possible by the discovery (not invention) of moral universals that transcend nation and tribal affiliations, including the body of natural moral law.
Some of the confusion results from the fact that there were two distinct versions of the Enlightenment: the French version in which the natural order discovered by reason was to be imposed in an authoritarian hierarchical model, and the American/English version, the bottom-up version of rational social organization. The French version directly led to authoritarian Marxism.
Especially as expressed by the deist-Unitarian, Thomas Jefferson, the American model was founded in the universal moral law (natural law) and designed to create liberty-friendly polity: a protective milieu (via an impartial, class-free legal and justice system) that equally governs subjects and rulers with the ultimate object of protecting human dignity (defined as the fundamental right to pursue one’s happiness in the context of a set of norms that requires one to respect similar rights of others).
Thus the natural law on which the American-English branch of the Enlightenment was founded contains and validates a number of precepts and proscriptions common to most working civilizations, such as the rules against assault, murder, theft, and fraud. These norms are seen as rational and universal and therefore as pan-tribal, pan-class and – ultimately –as pan-gender and pan-racial as well.
The post-modern/post-enlightenment movement has invited an atavistic return to tribalism because of its appeal to subjectivism and multiculturalism as if they could ever serve as valid and secure moral foundations. Post-modernism disarms otherwise enlightened civilizations against the invasion of cultural atavism into their polity under the cover of multi-cultural tolerance. Thus the Islamic sub-cultures that promote female subjugation and genital mutilation (in the name of chastity), child molestation and slavery (in the name of arranged marriage), and murder (in the name of “honor killings”) become difficult to denounce, and the victims whose human dignity is violated by these practices, become more difficult to protect.
What is needed, instead, is a neo-enlightenment that sheds the baggage of arch-materialism and recaptures the essential authority and universal reach of natural law. This requires greater clarity and depth of thinking among those religionists and humanists who understand the critical function of universal moral principles as part of the “normative infrastructure” of civilization.
As an exercise in illustrating the process by which modern religious thought achieves greater and greater scope of universalization, I’ve described how this process of development decodes the universals embedded in the Decalogue. Here is a brief review:
The Decalogue as an Encoded Universal Progression
All religious and moral insight has followed a process of development characterized by gradual universalization.
Moral relationship begins at home in the form of the norms, explicit and implicit rules of conduct that we learn to use in our intimate relationships. Over time the most durable and robust of these norms travel from family to clan, from clan to tribe, even to “nation” (which is tribe writ large). This is part of an ongoing process in which values and norms are universalized.
We learn to extract the underlying principles embedded in our received “we don’t do thats”, and to connect the underlying principles to implementing rules. “Don’t hit your sister!” may become “don’t initiate uninvited violence, except when playing”.
But family, clan and tribal centered thinking has a stubborn hold on the human psyche. We tend to think in “us and them” terms where our norms are concerned. “Don’t hit your sister” might become “don’t hit any members of the family.” We tend to develop two sets of norms, those that apply within and those that apply outside the “loyalty regimes” defined by our ethical cohorts. Folklore has long recognized the notion of “honor among thieves”. We can all think of examples in which our sense of moral obligation seems weakened or less complete when applied to a total stranger. Some of this is an entirely rational extension of the sage advice to children, “Don’t go anywhere with strangers.” Some of it is a form of bigotry.
Religion, at its best, teaches us to extend the reach of our moral impulses, and to avoid the trap of marginalizing or dehumanizing those who are outside our immediate loyalty regimes. But too often religion as been co-opted as a thinly disguised tribal ideology, lending moral sanction to the “us-them” divide. This, of course, is the atavistic feature of militant Islam. But across many cultures, slavery is another ugly legacy of human tribal thinking at its worst. After all, our real tribe is Homo Sapiens.
As a devout, practicing first century Jew, Jesus was steeped in Torah law and the oral traditions that gave it life. His ministry and the decades that immediately followed his execution by the Roman procurator, Pilate, represented an acceleration of the moral universalization process. This process is vividly captured in the post resurrection accounts of the Pentecost, the seminal event when a handful of Jesus’ apostles canvassed thousands of their fellow Jews gathered in Jerusalem. The apostles carried a message that somehow transcended language barriers. Later, the unconverted Jew, Saul, became Paul, the apostle, carried the message to the gentile communities of the region. It is a defining characteristic of universal ideas that they quickly escape the culture in which they were gestated.
In a very real sense, Jesus incarnated the core moral message of Judaism and inaugurated the processes of its dissemination to the world. In this sense, Christianity began as pan-tribal Judaism. Far more about his parables and other teachings has been written with far more insight than I can attempt. But among his most memorable and central aphorisms is an answer to a questioner who asked “What is the greatest law?” Jesus’ answer was to love God with one’s entire being and to love one’s neighbors as one’s self. On this alone, Jesus told his inquirer “hangs all the law and all the teachings of the prophets.”
This is a paradigm example of the dialectic process of ethical universalization. Rules implement ethical principles. Ethical principles are extensions of core universal moral injunctions.
Many Christians are under the misimpression that Jesus’ teachings were a radical departure from the Jewish ethical sensibility of the time. But the Great Law, as stated by Jesus, represented a restatement of the Shema, the prayer at the very heart of Jewish worship, and the Golden Rule corollary.
Here is the core message of the Shema:
“And you shall love the lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and all your might.” [V-ahavta et Adonai Elohecha b-chol l’vavcha u-v-chol m’odecha.]
The Golden Rule is captured in various forms and iterations in several major world religions, including Judaism. This is powerful evidence, if any is needed, of the universal character of this precept. Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph, would have been a poor shepherd teenager when Jesus was executed. Akiba is known for asserting that one commandment in Leviticus 19:18 “is the great principle of the Tora ”. The commandment? “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Rabbi Hillel, possibly the most revered and famous of rabbis within the Jewish tradition, lived about one generation before Jesus. Whether Hillel’s life overlapped that of Jesus, his core teachings as a sage of great ethical wisdom, most certainly reached Jesus’ ears. Among Hillel’s aphorisms (which are generally recorded in Pirkei Avot – Ethics of the Fathers, captured in written form in the Mishnah) was: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”
One day, a gentile seeking to know the Torah (apparently he wanted the first century Cliff Notes version) approached Hillel, after his request had been harshly rejected by another Rabbi. The gentile impertinently asked Hillel whether he could recite the entire Torah while standing on one leg. Hillel gracefully complied. “Do not do to your neighbor that which is hateful if done to you. This is the whole of the Torah. All the rest is commentary. Go and study. ” According to the legend, the gentile did enter a course of Torah study and was converted.
The process of universalization involves a more penetrating understanding of the core, underlying principles that underlie given moral precepts, a process that sometimes results in restrictive assumptions being transcended. Trivially, this means the understanding that a given precept applies outside the tribe. Less trivially, it means that the precept applies to the governed and those who govern with equal force. At the most general level, it may mean that the same principle may underlie more than one precept and that there are unexpected implications: for example the discovery that slavery is incompatible with the Decalogue by necessary implication.
As an exercise, I invite you to take a moment to look more closely at the Ten Commandments, as a testament of universal moral insight whose remarkable endurance and vitality have kept them relevant to civilization for millennia.
There is an implicit normative hierarchy in the Torah’s creation story necessary for a full understanding the universal ethical contents of the Decalogue. For this analysis, there are three essential normative elements in Genesis. [In this discussion, I see classic theism as fully compatible with the conception of God as the supreme organizing principle of nature, the ur-source of creation, and the active center of ultimate morality.]
G-d is the creator of all life.
The human creation was the supreme act of the life creation phase, third in the following creation hierarchy-
light over darkness;
life over death; and
humanity over the other life on Earth.
The human species was created in G-d’s own image. [As 21st Century humans, we recognize that with hierarchy goes obligation.]
That said, the Decalogue begins with a significant preamble, that—
I am G-d (Creator)
AND your liberator
AND I now reveal myself to you as ultimate law-giver (here, ultimate source of moral law).
Note that this is an historically original statement of the implications of the human dignity interest, liberation from oppression. God, as the supreme source of moral law, is liberator.
The Commandments, Summary Iteration 1
I am with you,
1 Honor me, the one G-d, the creator, the source.
2 Do not worship false gods or idols.
3 Do not make a false oath in my name.
4 Keep one seventh part of your time for me.
5 Honor those who gave you life in this world.
6 Do not murder.
7 Do not breach the marital covenants of trust by committing adultery.
8 Do not steal.
9 Do not lie against another.
10 Do not covet or envy that which is not yours.
Note that, after the crucial introduction, the first three law elements all affirm the unity, validity, integrity, and primacy of God-given law and the God-authority, and inter alia, its non-appropriatable nature (i.e., #1 – supremacy & unity; #2 – no false gods; #3 no misappropriation of G-d’s authority).
The next three elements all require one to honor the creation of life: the ultimate creator of life, those who gave one’s own life, and the life of others (i.e., # 4 the creator through honoring the Sabbath; #5 honoring parents; # 6 avoiding murder)
The next three all require that trust relationships be valued / honored / respected in their various forms – fidelity, truthfulness-honesty, and theft-honesty (i.e., #7 no adultery; #8 no false witness; #9 no theft).
The tenth commandment (no envy) echoes the first three elements, but as the individual obligations of one made in God’s image. Inherent in the no-envy injunction are the virtues of self-sufficiency, honor, and integrity. These are reflections of deity’s integrity, primacy, and unity. Seen as integrated in the ethical context of one conscious, sentient being created in God’s image, and dealing with others so created, the tenth commandment is an implied recapitulation of the deity’s nature, sanctioning and reinforcing all the prior values and injunctions. Increasing the reach of the underlying universal elements, we arrive at-
1 I am creator. I am one.
2 Serve me, and no other deity-pretender or image.
3 Do not misuse my authority or my name.
4 Guard a regular portion of your time for the holy.
5 Honor those who gave you life in this world.
6 Do not commit life threatening aggression.
7 Do not breach intimate covenants of trust.
8 Do not steal.
9 Do not lie against another.
10 Do not covet or envy that which is not yours.
I am perfect unity and integrity, source of universal law, and your liberation.
Honor me and my law, rejecting pretenders, abjuring misuse of my authority.
Honor me, creator of life, your life-givers in this world, and the life of others.
Honor trust relationships, by keeping commitments, avoiding theft and mendacity.
Honor in yourself and other sentient beings, self-unity, integrity, value-integration
And finally, Iteration 4:
In this iteration, we have progressed from first stage monotheism (God as supreme among the other gods), through second stage monotheism (God as unique and unchallenged, but extrinsic to the world), to third stage monotheism in which God is understood (at minimum) as the supreme integration of material and non-material reality, as the ultimate integration of moral and physical order, and as the ultimate integration of local conscious, intelligent being with its non-local origin, Ultimate Being.
Honor and love me, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul and all your might. And love your neighbors as you love yourself.”
September 11th 2001 and the Flare Effect
I was with some of my family in Manhattan on September 11th 2001 and for a number of transformative days thereafter. At the time, I captured the essence of that experience in the following lines:
“Evil is real. It came to this city, near the Manhattan apartment where we are staying, announcing itself in a succession of grotesquely surreal images of a monumental murder.
“Yet Good is real. The last few days here have recharged my belief in the human capacity for heroism and virtue under duress. It is an honor to be among the New Yorkers. I now understand that evil is like a descending night flare on a battlefield, exposing the configuration of forces below. Its terrible light clarifies the essence of things. In that actinic glare, all our differences melt into insignificance because, after all, they are just different versions of the good.”
Later I added these observations:
“The essential reason that our modern, post-modern culture is disabled is that it lacks a moral context wide and deep enough to accommodate evil as an active force in the world. My 9-11 borne insight that our “evil epiphany” (that moment when we achieve the gut recognition of a major instance of evil) has an important beneficial side effect: it reveals the good. This is another way of saying that the recognition of evil can illuminate the large scale moral context. Or reveal its absence.
“Are there a few, simple organizing principles for the essential good that is threatened by evil? Is there an overarching moral context for human action?”
I now believe that the moral context of human action is framed in a few, basic affirmations and related precepts, and that the mutual interrelationships of these precepts and core values reveal what evil really threatens. In effect, any confrontation with authentic, large scale evil enables to “reverse engineer” the deepest aspects of the good.
In this, we can all share the conviction of those humanists and religionists alike who believe that a universal good always transcends our sectarian perspectives. There actually is an organizing set of affirmations from which the universal good can always be derived. I believe that this represents a potential convergence of secular and religious ethical thought.
On reflection, we can all recognize the three universals that form the root affirmations for authentic ethics: life affirmation (especially human life), respect for the integrity, nature and value of conscious, feeling intelligent being (which for us is human intelligent being), and reverence for creation (especially for the creative endeavors of humanity that have served to protect and enhance human life). Do you detect the natural progression here? It begins with our life affirmation, leads to our affirmation of conscious being, and proceeds to our affirmation of the value all creation, including our own creative potential.
Starting with life affirmation, our species has proceeded to honor the value of consciousness itself, because it is an inextricably bound affirmation; conscious intelligence serves life; were it otherwise we wouldn’t be here. The recorded human experience is a chronicle of the value of conscious, creative intelligence to the human enterprise.
All conscious being starts out by serving the life interests of an individual organism within the context of exchange relationships with other organisms. Think of a fire: animals flee; plants burn. And humans learn to actually control fire.
After a period of development, human conscious intelligence arose to serves the interests of human life by developing social and engineering technologies, the arts and ethics. The latter were indispensable to supporting stable forms of social exchange leading to humanity’s greatest social technology, civilization itself.
The form of evil represented by militant, unbalanced Islamist extremism is an attack on life affirming and creation engendering civilization.
At its most developed stage, conscious intelligent being (again, I’m speaking of the human variety, while leaving the door open a crack for the discovery of other instances) achieves the capacity for value universalization. I may begin as a child, for example, supporting the value of my one life, my own security, my own freedom, but eventually I (we, most of us, at least) learn to value these things on an increasingly universal level. This is the process I outlined above with the Decalogue.
Thus we can see evil is a rogue process attached to an active human consciousness, much like an infection attaches to an organism. It is the psychological conversion of the pursuit of pleasure or the amelioration of despair to the pursuit of the abyss, and self-immolation. Projected on the stage of human history, it is like a fire in a dry forest or a plague in a nursery.
Again, from my personal journal following my Manhattan 9-11 experiences:
“The last four days here have renewed my belief in the human capacity for heroism and virtue under duress. It is an honor to be among the New Yorkers. I wouldn’t be anywhere else right now.
“Any moral system that fails to recognize the existence of evil and the imperative for its defeat is like a child with a compromised immune system in a plague. Evil is a recurrent pathogen, an ineradicable feature of the human condition that every age must identify and conquer anew.
“In this culture, evil has too often been excused or ignored or defined away. Yet it returns. It comes like a night flare on a battlefield, illuminating the configuration of forces. Evil clarifies everything. In its looming presence, all the differences among the good melt into insignificance.
“The recognition of evil is the beginning of moral obligation. To do less than to recognize and oppose evil with passion, resourcefulness, intelligence and steadfast persistence, is to succumb to it, to participate in it, to allow it to capture the very soul.”
“The immediate problem is the encounter with fixed evil mind in the context of a huge technological amplification of the capacity to do permanent harm. Until almost all the people in the world are enlightened, the world will be full of grievances. But justified grievances can – in a fixed mind – become immune to logic, exerting a fierce and tenacious hold on the mind and spirit. Those in the grip of these grievances are drawn to hate, self destructive, apocalyptic world views, and suicidal violence.
“Suicidal violence is a massive challenge for the modern sensibility, which rejects out of hand the possibility of any post-life justice, as is the challenge presented by problem of evil, itself.”
“In Judeo-Christian biblical terms, sometimes evil is seen as the product of a single evil being, a negative meta-consciousness, the anti-god, the “evil one.” I believe that the biblical view of evil is partially accurate in that it is within consciousness itself, not in the pre-conscious aspects of nature, that evil can manifest. No purely natural disaster, however horrific, can properly be identified as ‘evil.’ But such disasters do present opportunities for heroism, venality, and evil alike.”
My main appeal here is to our shared common sense, our innate reasonableness, and our fundamental understandings as fellow humans. Those of us who have experienced the flare effect, the powerful illumination of the good in the threatening light of evil, have already glimpsed something viscerally real. We have been allowed to see the fundamentals in peril.
Among other reasons, this is why I must reject the use of the title Fundamentalists as applied to the religious ultra-traditionalists. The return to “fundamentals” from their perspective means adherence to specific traditions based on an understanding of written documents, originally penned in one language, often translated and retranslated, and sometime stripped of the original context.
Few religious “fundamentalists” are what that title claims them to be. Most are really literalists whose primary truth authority lies in selected scripture of ancient provenance, usually read with an unconscious spin or agenda framed by contemporary issues of concern. Of course, many of these literalists are on the right track on specific moral issues. After all, their sources are richly endowed with nuggets of enduring moral wisdom. But we should never concede to them the unique legitimacy of sole, privileged access to the fundamental principles that govern ethics and other universal truths. That notion belongs in the same category as medieval medicine. I grant to most of them all sincerity and decency, not credit for an exclusive pipeline to the true fundamentals.
As 21st century reasoning minds we are entitled to assert with confidence that all true moral fundamentals are embedded in the warp and woof of reality, awaiting our discovery and rediscovery. I am personally persuaded that, if every human memory were wiped of the inherited ethical and spiritual wisdom that is the legacy of the last ten millennia, and we were set down in a new world, the great fundamental truths would eventually be rediscovered. Having said this, I readily grant that much valuable ancient tradition is captured in scripture, and that much of ancient scripture has accurately recorded the core wisdom embedded in that tradition. We need not reinvent the wheel.
On Not Unilaterally Disarming Ourselves
We don’t have to endorse or practice the detailed purity laws of Leviticus to see that universal moral principles are captured in the Decalogue.
I still enjoy the old joke about Moses, who made repeated trips to the mountaintop, returning to the gathered crowds with the Law, only to be told, “But that’s just too many rules. Can’t you do better?” In the story, Moses whittles the law down to 50 injunctions then goes back up the mountain for one last try. He returns, smiling.
“I have good news and bad news,” Moses says. “The good news is I got it down to Ten Commandments.” Cheers followed. “The bad news is that adultery is still in there!”
We find ourselves in the crosshairs of a 12th century, repressive ideology, chosen targets of a deadly jihad aimed at the Enlightenment, Western Civilization and our very existence.
But behind all the literalism and the careful attention to various revered scripture of ancient provenance, there really are fundamentals. These are the universal values that form the root affirmations for all authentic human ethics.
In the beginning of the human awakening, there were these three affirmations:
· Life affirmation
· Respect for the integrity, nature and value of conscious being
· Reverence for creation
These three affirmations dwell at the very heart of all ethics because they are at seated at the very core motivations of the human enterprise. Their presence or absence is the litmus test of any ethical system. They are the true fundamentals because it is impossible to imagine a fundamentally good ethical system based on their negation in whole or part. We might recall the notorious suicidal leaders, like Jim Jones of the 20th century, who ordered his rapt cult followers, mothers, fathers and children in his New Guinea compound, to drink lethal punch. Babies and little children trusted deluded parents. All died. For them it was the end of participation in creation, the extinguishment of conscious being, and negation of life affirmation. Abomination. If your guru, priest, or teacher suggests a moral imperative that is obviously contrary to any part of this triad, you have reason to desert the spiritual leadership post haste.
These three core affirmations are mutually reinforcing and must therefore be considered together. They are not arbitrarily chosen, unless you entertain the absurd notion that we humans are an arbitrary accident. There is a natural progression here. It begins with creation, then life affirmation and leads to affirmation of conscious being, itself a venue for creative action.
And there are three capacities of faculties of human consciousness most useful to life:
This triad suggests the moral purpose of conscious being as well as its provenance. Conscious being is the venue of significance, without which the question of value would be incoherent. In this way, consciousness and life affirmation necessarily lead to creation affirmation, though the deep understanding of the universality of the processes of creation, of the roots of life and consciousness in those processes, and of the incarnation of ongoing creation in the human mind. Creation as a universal value is the link between the creative capacities of the individual living being with the ultimate creative processes that have given rise to life and rational consciousness in the first instance.
Thus, these three core affirmations, life, conscious being, and creation, mutually reinforcing and interconnected, have become well imbedded in various ways in all world religious ethical systems. Life affirmation, respect for conscious being and reverence for creation are the innate affirmations of the enlightened being. For the theistic religions, they are at the heart of the human – deity relationship. And for ethical humanists, this value triad makes up (or should make up) the foundation stones of the core human agenda.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize that Homo Sapiens’ most valuable tool of all is the social technology we call civilization, and that there are differences in civilizations, measured in terms of their dedication to the protection of these core values.
Why We Need To Defend the Obvious
The fundamental importance and ultimate value of consciousness, life and creation, and the necessity of a working civilization dedicated to their promotion and protection should be self evident to any person of reasonable intelligence. So why do we need to defend the obvious? For reasons that appeal primarily to the post-modern intellectuals who dominate much of the “modern” academic community, little if anything can be considered “self evident” these days. Even the claim that the value choices in favor of life, consciousness, creation, reason and reality grounding are so fundamental to the situation of rational, conscious beings that they represent moral universals – yes, even this — is subject to dispute among certain intellectuals. Their negative arguments and refutations are now exposed, not only as hollow but as specifically dangerous to the prospect of the survival of creative civilization.
In the popular culture, the trickle down effect of the academy’s expressed doubts about questions of spiritual and ethical knowledge has fed cultural relativism, which has mutated into moral relativism and sustained nihilism. More practical minds, sensing the essential hollowness of a philosophical mindset that seems to tell us “we can’t really know anything about that,” have (improvidently) called into question the validity of the whole enterprise of philosophy. This is trickle down ambivalence. The moral hollowness prevalent in much of the present culture is a consequence of the temporary inability of the dominant secular intelligentsia to provide a credible undergirding for a system of objective ethics, and therefore for civilization itself.
All ideas have consequences. The idea that our core values are mere inventions has the worst consequences of all. To be distracted and confused by the 150 year old dialogue about the nature of moral law is folly. To ban the Decalogue from public display is a form of unilateral disarmament. To allow our moral foundations to weaken still further is cultural suicide.
We face a jihad aimed at our very civilization. The corollary to the expanded Shema posed in Iteration 4 above should be obvious: Given that evil is (at the very minimum) the conscious, purposeful attempt to kill the innocent and to destroy the civilization designed to protect them, we (who are not paralyzed by post-modern ambivalence) should be able to affirm the following without hesitation:
Oppose evil with all your heart and mind and protect your neighbors as yourself.
Copyright © 2005 by Jay B. Gaskill
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