Heaven & Earth
Support of the life around us is the greatest, most sacred good
By Paul Plasencia
Years ago, in an ethics class, I was asked to define morality in a single sentence. It was a difficult task; the subject seemed complex.
I tend to stay away from proscriptive morality, preferring principals that guide choices instead of determining a correct action in all circumstances. I have never been warm to apodictic pronouncements that serve as dicta for the ages. Instead, I believe I have to ask how I can affirm the beauty of life and the need to live it well.
From there, the answer occurred to me: morality is the art of living in community. As the individual stands in the context of the community, and the community is comprised of individuals, morality is that which makes life together possible. Ethics are the practical expression of moral choice.
Some of you will undoubtedly hear moral relativism in this. You might say, "If moral pronouncements do not carry with them an expression of absolute good, then morality is not possible." I respond that indeed there is no absolute good: the idea of an absolute is paradoxical. Insofar as a thing or idea is absolute it can only reference itself, and its being supersedes all else. It may be the ground of all being, and the source of all life. All expressions of this good, however, are penultimate and not absolute. The only absolute is God. Morality need not be predicated upon divine guidance; it is a balance of perceived need or expressed desire and restraint.
As much as I hate to hear myself saying it, all morality is relative to context and can only exist as an expression of what the community has determined to be the greatest good.
The Greatest Good
What, then, is the greatest good? Far be it from me to claim the ethical warrant to pronounce an answer. As part of a culture that values life, places importance on the uniqueness of the individual, sees beauty and practicality as complementary virtues, and is committed to the betterment of the whole, I would humbly submit that the good is defined thus: "That which affirms life is good."
This places no small amount of responsibility on the individual. By making that statement, "I" become the moral arbiter of choices made. I ask what I do and do not do. I ask how my choices affect life in general and what effect they have on those about me as well as upon me. It is not a question of affirming what I want or feel that I need, but what affirms life itself that is the good. I am involved in humankind. I am involved in the life of this small planet, our spaceship Earth.
It is my opinion that we on the left have missed this point. We have allowed ourselves to become part of a debate that has been defined by the right. It is no wonder, then, that in using their terms and definitions we cannot make progress in the dialog. We need to redefine the terms.
Consider the term family values. What constitutes a family, if not bonds of love and affection? Nobody will argue that point, for to do so is to argue against adoption, foster-placement, the "right to life," and so on. Why have we not seized this high ground and asked if this is what defines a family, then could not a family consist of a same-sex couple, committed to the welfare of a child adopted into their home? There is love and affection, a commitment to the wellbeing of the child, and – most importantly – no burden to the public welfare system. This affirms life and, to my eyes, appears to pass the litmus test of morality.
So much of the moral debate is handed to the right to define; the left has thus lost the moral high ground in the debate. This isn't to say that we on the left are not moral people, quite the contrary. It is to say that we value a morality of personal freedom and choice, while affirming the community's needs in this and subsequent generations. We are moral insofar as we see that life extends beyond the limitations of our economic grasp and our avaricious wants.
As an activist on the left I am very much in favor of a right to life: thus I am opposed to the death-penalty, to military interventionism that satisfies only corporate greed, to the destruction of the environment, and to abortion as cheap birth control. As an activist on the left, I am very much in favor of family values: I firmly support gay marriage, provision of health-care and housing as rights, and free and appropriate public education for all persons in this country.
The Sacred Good
That which affirms life is good. If I need to mythologize this, then I only need look as far as Genesis, the first book of the bible, chapters one and two. God comes like a child playing in the dirt. God then becomes a sculptor, forming a body – a nephish – from the dust of the ground. God embraces the body like a mother giving birth, inspiring the body with God's own spirit, God's ruach.
All life shares that one spirit, that divine breath that made the dust of the ground live. All life is of God and an expression of the divine face of love and compassion. That which affirms life is not only good, it is holy.
Paul H. G. Plasencia (firstname.lastname@example.org) was educated at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, in Columbus, Ohio and the Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, California. He served the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as a pastor for 15 years. Following a crisis of faith, he left ministry and the church and now teaches high school history in Ventura, California.
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