Sunday, 17 October 2010

Compartmentalising Ethics & Morals.

"Hear O Israel, The Lord our God, The Lord is One. You shall love The Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and will all your strength (resources). And these matters that I command you today shall be upon your heart, You shall teach them thoroughly to your children and you shall speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise." Deuteronomy 6:4-8

There is a particular prayer in James Martineau's "Home Prayers with Two Services for Public Worship" 1891, that always stirs my emotions:

"Eternal God, who committest to us the swift and solemn trust of life; since we know not what a day may bring forth, but only that the hour for serving thee is always present, may we wake to the instant claims of Thy Holy will; not waiting for to-morrow but yielding to-day. Lay to rest, by the persuasion of thy Spirit, the resistance of our passion, indolence or fear. Consecrate with thy presence the way our feet may go; and the humblest work will shine, and the roughest places be made plain. Lift us above unrighteous anger and mistrust into faith and hope and charity, by a simple and steadfast reliance on thy sure will: and so may we be modest in our time of wealth , patient under disappointment, ready for danger, serene in death. "

This prayer speaks to me of the need to see our religious life as completely part of, and wholly intertwined with, the whole of our life. It speaks against the tendency to compartmentalise our religious duties. To limit our duties of faith to both God and man, to a box marked "religion" to be opened one day in seven whilst inside a Church.

This attitude, which I think must be a product of a modern society which feels that it has to make appointments for everything, undermines what I think is the entire purpose of religion, to elevate and sanctify the human person and society, through connection with, and obedience to, God.

I came across an example of this while watching a debate on Youtube entitled "Is Islam a Religion of Peace". One of the supporters of that motion Zeba Khan argued that the many moderate Muslims in the world who were completely opposed to both extremism and terrorism, were just as "pious" as those in extremist organisations as demonstrated by the fact that they prayed the same number of prayers, attended the same number of services. Now while I accept that the majority moderate Muslims are indeed as pious as the minority of extremists, I took issue with her suggestion that in Islam religiosity can me measured specifically by ritual observances. This is generally speaking not the case. Islam like Judaism measure piety and religiosity primarily by submission to an entire body of religious law that encompasses all of life. One may find it hard to call oneself a practising Jew or Muslim if one observes the ritual food laws but neglects to give charity to the poor. Or if one fasts at the appropriate times but does not refrain from lending money on interest. One can see a criticism of this in the words of Jesus to some of the Pharisaic scholars of his day, who were meticulous in their devotion to the commandments between man and God, but were negligent of the equally sacred duty to their neighbours.

Can the same be said of Christianity? And Unitarian Christianity specifically? Is a Christian's piety to be measured by how often he or she goes to church? I think not. I don't think that I am exaggerating when I say that some of the most decent, Godly Christians I have known are not regular church goers, and sadly some of the meanest Christians I have known, were never to be found missing from the pews of their place of worship. And for Unitarians specifically, who's devotion to God comes primarily from living correctly, and not correct belief, a life in which faith is lived holistically is of central importance.

James Martineau saw it as the duty of every person from the highest in the land to the lowest, to live their faith. To have their duties to man and God define the purpose of their lives. In a prayer for the monarch of his day he summed up his view in the following way:

"The world and its fullness are thine: our portion thereof may we hold, not in wanton self-will, but reverently, as of thee; making it the strong-hold of right, the refuge of the oppressed, and the moderator of lawless ambition. Crown thy servant Victoria, our Queen, with every personal and princely blessing. Higher than the eminence of her station raise her by the braces of Thy Spirit: and may the glory of her rule be in the simplicity of her obedience, Enrich the members of her house with inward and outward good. Make all who speak or act for this nation true organs of thine equity. that through their wisdom and faithfulness thou mayest be our Lawgiver and Judge. And let it be that, as with the people so with the chiefs, as with the servant so with the master as with the buyer so with the seller, all may know thee as weighing the path of the just; that righteousness may be the girdle of our power.

In our day our own Queen is defined by what she sees is her solemn duty, promised before God, to lead our nation righteously. Can our politicians say the same? I hope so.

A realm of life were people of faith sometimes feel permitted to set aside or adapt their moral principles is the workplace. There is a common beleif in this area, that ends justify the means. Dishonest or crafty measures are seen as acceptable, even by people who would never consider such an attitude in any other walk of life. They seem to follow the maxim expressed by Mr Thornton to Mr Hale in Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South;

"Sound business sense Mr Hale, and I can't operate under any other moral law. I am not running a charitable institution".

I myself have witnessed this attitude first hand. The University I have worked in for the past 14 years has recently decided that it must save money. To do this it contracted the cleaning to a company that offered the lowest tender. Sadly despite going for the cheap solution the university still demands the highest standards of cleaning, and as a result the company is putting unbearable pressure on the cleaning staff, making threats and taking away their breaks and using disciplinaries instead of making any necessary redundancies. The staff, many of them Polish, are united together in fighting these abuses despite being paid no more than the minimum wage. And yet the university which prides itself on having a Christian ethos, seemingly turns a blind eye to the exploitation of the poorest and most vulnerable staff in its orbit. No doubt like Mr Thornton they only care about "sound business sense".

Another area where moral values often become neglected in the pursuit of potentially valuable ends is science. It is often assumed that if the ends are usefull, then we should all turn a blind eye to the wrong that is done to achieve it. The same can sadly be said to be a common philosophy in the world of politics.

But other than knowing that we are obeying our Father in heaven, what advantage is there in living our faith in every area of our life? Is their a, I hesitate to use the word, practical benefit to doing so? I think that there is. When we live our lives with the constant awareness that each moment provides us an opportunity to serve the Lord of the Universe, we gain two prime advantages.

1) We suffuse our daily lives with purpose and meaning.
2) We experience the exhilaration and satisfaction of constant challenge and potential for growth.

The first is beautifully expressed in the words of the hymn, "Teach me my God and King"

"Teach me my God and King
In all things thee to see.
And what I do in anything
to do it as for Thee.

A servant with this clause
makes drudgery divine.
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws
Makes that and the action fine.

This is the famous stone
that turneth all to gold
For that which God does touch and own
Cannot for less be told"

So next time one is ironing a pile of laundry for the family, include God! Thank Him for having a family for whom to iron, and reflect his love by ironing with the intent to bring the pleasure of freshly pressed clothes to your loved ones. Ironing can be an act of worship and not an unpleasant chore. Of course while one will without doubt feel a great happiness and satisfaction by constantly serving God one must not fall into the trap of pride but instead follow the teaching of our master Jesus when he taught:

"So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded say "we are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do" Luke 17:10

The advantage of constant challenge, means that in every moment of every day, at home or at play, we can make a free willed choice to do what is right, what our conscience tells us is right. If you failed in the morning, you have more opportunities in the afternoon. It is possible that at the end of each day, you can look back and feel a warmth of satisfaction knowing that you "passed" many of the tests that came your way during the day. And what ever happens in your life this ability to grow is not taken away from you.

I for one will try and take these lessons away with me for this coming week. I shall try and make my faith a seamless garment to accompany me in the privacy of my home, on the street and the workplace. At times I will fail, but I relish the challenge.

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