Wednesday, 28 January 2009

8. Walking In God’s Ways

WWJD. The solution to all your religious quandaries: What Would Jesus Do? Abbreviated W.W.J.D. and emblazoned on bracelets, bumper stickers, backpacks, mugs, etc., it’s a small reminder—like a string around the finger—to help Christians during the dark moments of confusion. Not sure of the right thing to do? Just do what the alleged son of God would do.

The joke is: who exactly are you asking? This little, objective Jesus that lives in your head?

For example, imagine that you pass a hungry person begging for food. You’re half-a-block away and you stop to consider your actions. Should you go back and give the person something to eat? Well: “What would Jesus do?”

Are you asking for an objective ruling? In other words, are you reaching outside of yourself for direction? Or are you asking for a personal ruling, reaching into yourself to identify your own sense of right and wrong?

The difference is significant yet how often are we consciously aware of which question we’re asking? ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ attempts objectivity: “Jesus would go back and give the guy some food.” But how do you know?

Recently I was having a conversation with someone discussing the issue of abortion. I could cite varying opinions from a Halachic perspective but when asked for my personal opinion I had to admit that I didn’t have a response. My chavruta complimented me, suggesting that this showed a level of devotion to the Halacha. I disagreed. I had allowed the Halacha to act as a surrogate for my own morality.

Belief in God means that we believe in an objective system of right and wrong—whether or not we have a clear view of this system is a different matter. The belief in objective morality can cloud the fact that our senses provide us with subjective information and we are incapable of definitively disassociating our thoughts from our imperfect brains. Essentially, any attempt at objectivity must come from a starting point of subjectivity and there’s no escaping that. We may be able to know an objective morality but any sincere person must admit that we can’t objectively know that it is objective.

If the Halacha, as you understand it, obligates you to return to give food to the hungry, what choice do you have? But having our eyes on God does not absolve us from our responsibility to conduct an investigation faced inward as well.

If it is found that there is a conflict between the Halacha and your personal morality, what will you do? Will you take it as a sign that your morality is flawed? Or will you see it as an indication that you’ve misunderstood the Halacha? Will you try to manipulate the Halacha to bend to your personal beliefs? Or will you sublimate your feelings and defer to God?

On the other hand, it may be discovered that there is no conflict between the Halacha and your personal morality. That’s certainly convenient, but can you trust this symbiosis? How do you know that you haven’t self-regulated your ethical system to conform to Halacha? How do you know that you haven’t coloured your understanding of Halacha to match your morality?

This is why asking questions such as ‘What would Jesus do?’ can be self-deceptive. (Naturally, there may be Christians who understand the question on a more complex level; I’m looking at it colloquially.) These questions are in the business of objectifying the inherently subjective. ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ asks you to objectively answer a hypothetical question. Hidden in the background, directing the path, is your personal morality, camouflaged by religious devotion. There are two questions; WWJD asks only one. And, like most two-in-one devices, it really doesn’t satisfy either of its goals very effectively.

I doubt there is a simple way to rectify the conflict between God and Self. But I don’t think we’re called upon to erase ourselves. How often do we see someone taught to discount his/her personal morality in light of Halacha eventually abandon orthodoxy entirely? How long can we tell the feminist, the homosexual, the pacifist, the vegetarian, the egalitarian, the artist that any morality that is inconsistent with Halacha must be suppressed? How long can that last before the Self fights back? But if Halacha represents Truth, what good could it do to let the Self take God by the leash? Dialogue is the only solution. Personal morality is sharpened when challenged by Halacha and Halacha grows and develops in the hands of worthy individuals.

The search for an objective morality has its best shot at validity when we each have a voice of our own to bring to the table. Otherwise, who knows what lurking beliefs pull strings beneath the surface? “You will walk in His ways (Devarim 28:9).” The subject, as with all the commandments, is you.


Anonymous said...

According to philosopher Kenneth Dauber, when reading "we must not be misled by a habit of what we take to be disinterested investigation." It is easy to delude ourselves, to act "as if disinterest would not affect observation with interests of its own." It is crucial to be aware that, inevitably, it does.

This insight applies equally to the way we view any situation or dilemma. The pretense to objectivity can be only that--a pretense. An attempt to erase the self results merely in the replacement of natural, intrinsic biases with inorganic ones. In order to grow, to be affected, to learn, you must approach an issue as yourself, so that the new information revealed reflects back onto you, not onto some fictitious, impartial observer.

Chai Hecht said...

For the most part, I agree with you Anon. (Can I call you Anon.?) But I think, oddly enough, this extreme acceptance of subjectivity leaves us open to a variation of over-confidence opposite-but-equal to the kind we fear in dogmatists. It is not that the impartial observer is fictitious but just that he/she is unidentifiable. Some (or all) of us may have the tools (developed or innate) to observe this world with a disinterest (although I think it is the wrong word) that does not have 'interests of its own.' But there is no way to know when the lens is distorted or the window is clear. I think this form of humility is too important to discount.