Right from wrong – Should we try to tell?

Spiritual Questions & Answers

Discovering inner health and transformation

right from wrongTabloid newspapers are popular. They love to be judgmental and cast blame. Yet we disapprove and adopt a very different ethos where telling right from wrong is seen to smack of being judgmental. In post-modern Britain, discrimination is out and tolerance is in. Anything goes these days as long as it doesn’t cause harm.

Corporate ethics telling right from wrong

On the other hand, over the last ten years or so there has been a big growth of corporate ethical statements and codes of practice. This may be all about gaining customer confidence. But is it not also a genuine attempt at seeking guidance for telling right from wrong in tricky commercial and professional decision making?

Distinguishing right from wrong in personal choices

In your private life, you are faced with numerous dilemmas – emotional, financial, domestic – and it can be hard to know what is the right thing to do. Some of these decisions have profound implications for the quality of one’s own as well as other people’s lives. To allow a sexual relationship to start, to communicate private information about a friend, to prioritise career over family or the other way around, not to mention the tricky issues of telling right from wrong in relation to abortion, divorce and voting at elections.

Many people do not think in terms of morality yet they feel that decisions should be made on the basis of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Those, who deny there are any personal rights and wrongs, nevertheless, emphasise the ideals of love, holism, and self-improvement. And even criminals usually acknowledge their crime is wrong deserving punishment if they are caught.

So the question remains just how does one know what really is right and wrong?

Do values determine the way we tell right from wrong?

Although some people might think that a moral or ethical code is simple, it is often a complex definition based upon underlying values. What is right or wrong in a specific situation is one thing, but one’s values identify what should be judged as good or bad. These personal and cultural ethics may reflect religious doctrines, political ideologies, aesthetic theories, or just social norms. They guide what is good, beneficial, important, useful, beautiful, desirable, and constructive.

Some dress-codes may simply be conforming to social etiquette but yet reflect something that is valued. Wearing the colours of your sports team alongside your fellow supporters is what one’s mates do to express raw tribalism but it is also expressing the value of communal belonging.

Is telling right from wrong just a matter of social convention

Some social scientists argue that what is convention / custom /social fashion can be the determining factor in deciding what is right. They say there is no correct definition of right behaviour, and that what is morally right or wrong can only be judged with respect to particular socio-historical contexts. Doing one’s duty, and fulfilling one’s obligations may reflect a higher value but it might just be conforming to the notion that it is right if in your culture, society says it is right.

Yet some values appear to run deeper than others and have a more universal meaning and thus can be seen as spiritual. Wearing dark clothes at a funeral in many cultures expresses the value of respect for the emotional needs of the bereaved and the dignity and solemnity of the occasion.

Can spiritual values guide right from wrong

Another example of a spiritual value is the ‘golden rule’ that one should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. This ethic of reciprocity was present in certain forms across the ancient world and can be found in all the world’s major religious traditions. For example the Buddha made this principle one of the cornerstones of his ethics and loving the neighbour is central to Christ’s message.

Strangely this principle of reciprocity is also seen as the cornerstone of a scientific theory that denies any moral truth. Many evolutionary biologists say its function is typically to ensure a reliable supply of essential resources, especially for animals living in a habitat where food quantity or quality fluctuates unpredictably. Reciprocity is shared, for example by all mammals living in complex social groups (e.g., wolves, coyotes, elephants, dolphins, rats, chimpanzees).

Learning right from wrong in  childhood

A particular moral code may be fallacious but everyone has to start somewhere in the growth of understanding about how to live life. People can believe in the moral precepts associated with their religious upbringing. They may believe it is right if God says it is right. After all the kind of moral rules contained in religion prohibit murder, adultery, theft and false witness. These precepts are incorporated into the civil law-code in all the countries of the world because without them no society could hold together. Other people take their lead from the views of respected political leaders, parents and friends.

However usually, after absorbing the views of those whom are admired, the individual begins to consider and reflect for him or herself about right and wrong. And this means choosing what underlying things about life are the most important. What should rule one’s decisions – lifestyle considerations that represent one’s idea of the good life?, aesthetic values?, social standards?, economic ethics?, political ideals? or spiritual principles? Where do you get your own moral judgments from?

Enlightened understanding and telling right from wrong

Often words limit the perception of truth, which is beyond words. It is entirely possible for an individual to be a genuine seeker after truth, gradually building up his or her own spiritual philosophy with enlightenment from within. This means perceiving what is right inwardly from the light of the spirit of truth that is with them and not just taking on board the views of others.

According to Swedenborg, enlightenment comes to those who have a love of what is really true wherever that leads them. We need to use our rational faculties and the knowledge we gain from others but most of all we need to sense and learn to rely on the divine spirit of truth within the human soul.

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

http://www.spiritualquestions.org.uk/

Posted on17th June 2011CategoriesEthics, Private EthicsTags,, , , , , , , , , , ,, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,  Leave a comment

Temptation – Giving in to it – So what?

Spiritual Questions & Answers

Discovering inner health and transformation

temptationWho hasn’t at one time or another felt cross with him or herself for acting on some urge of the moment, giving in to temptation to do something which was enjoyed at the time but which later causes regret?

Perhaps it was overeating and now you are fearful of looking fat and becoming unhealthy: or maybe it was spending money you could not afford on a whim buying something not really needed and now you are concerned about paying off the credit card: or perhaps it was verbally lashing out at someone who angered you at the time and now you fear losing the benefits of the relationship.

Actions like these may bother you but the chances are you will be quick to forget all about such things. and any sense of embarrassment and even guilt will be short lived. Many people are probably like this. It is not that they are bad or stupid. It is simply that they saw they had been tempted to behave against their own interests. They do not consider that succumbing to the impulse of the moment would lead to any long-term serious consequences.

And perhaps they are right. So what is so bad about giving way to temptation? Why should anyone feel guilty about going against the social rules that are expected to be followed?

Temptation and social conformity

You might be tempted to harm the person who bothers you, but a society in which everyone gave in to the temptation to hurt those who made them angry, would quickly devolve into chaos. Therefore social roles are developed.

Psychologists have tested how people behave with and without being watched. It is clear that when they think they can get away with it, many will succumb to temptation to pinch things they fancy (for example from hotels), exaggerate their expenses claims, and even fabricate the contents of their CV’s.

Some people thus only follow rules because it seems to be in their interests to do so. If they believe other people are not following the rules or that other people won’t know if they break them, then they are also likely to break rules. Their conscience is one of social conformity rather than high principle.

Temptation and genuine conscience

Many spiritual writers have written that human problems can arise when one lacks a firm foundation of values. Without ethical principles you may be tempted to live a life in which “anything goes,” or be unable to discern what is right and wrong in any given situation.

A well-known moral principle is the golden rule that one should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself — that is with patience, tolerance, trust, and respect. This is not just for the sake of getting back what you give but rather as a spiritual principle in itself. Another example is that of conserving nature and protecting it from unsustainable exploitation not just as a way of protecting our resources but also as a way of recognising something which is valued for itself.

Let us return to the examples given at the beginning about eating, spending money and lashing out. The impulse to eat too much tests one’s inner contentment with the inflow of the spirit rather than attachment to bodily pleasure.

“The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”   (Jesus Christ)

Likewise attractive advertising of luxury goods also tests a commitment to prioritising money for what is useful: and being provoked to anger tests the ethic of forgiveness.

Consequences of spiritual temptation

A moral consciousness gives you the option of deliberately doing wrong. Having the power of rational and ethical discrimination gives you the responsibility to make the right choices.

Who doesn’t give in to temptation sometimes? Doing so can leave you feeling dissatisfied, guilty or empty because it might be suggested that you have distanced yourself a little from the spirit of goodness that had been inspiring and uplifting your life. I suspect even people of faith who have had a deep trust in their Lord, can find themselves losing confidence when circumstances are tough, becoming anxious about the future or the past, and being tempted with negative attitudes or selfish thoughts. Their faith is indeed being tested.

One idea of religion I like is that of a forgiving God who is always willing to give us another chance.

Victory in temptation

My view of spiritual growth is that it is a gradual process and that for a long time perhaps to a lessening extent your worldly orientated and self-centred habits of thought still attract you. See here for what John Odhner has written about what the new Testament describes as a conflict between the “old man” and the “new man.”  The spiritual teaching is that the more you turn away from what in your heart you know is wrong, then the more you will be transformed into a better character.

“Every trial endured and weathered in the right spirit makes a soul nobler and stronger than it was before.” (William Butler Yeats)

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

http://www.spiritualquestions.org.uk/

Posted on6th November 2013CategoriesEthics, Private Ethics Leave a comment

Alone we cannot do good

God is Love

All religions and indeed non-religious ways of living involve the idea that it is important to do good for others. This is best exemplified in the ‘Golden Rule’, expressed by Jesus as: So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets  [Matthew 7:12 ESV]. This Golden Rule is also to be found for example, in Buddhism – Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful  [Udana-Varga 5:18] and in Hinduism – This is the sum of duty; do not do to others what you would not have them do unto you [Mahabharata 5:1517]. And Emanuel Swedenborg commences one of his books [Doctrine of Life] with the words: All Religion has relation to life, and the life of religion is to do good.

So, true ways of living involve doing good for others. But can we really do good?

Matthew, Mark and Luke all include an account of a rich man coming to Jesus and asking him a question as here in Mark’s gospel:

And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus said to him, Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.
[Mark 10:17-18 ESV]

In these few words Jesus makes it abundantly clear that God alone is Good. But we might also ask the question “What is Jesus saying about himself”? Is it perhaps that he wants the rich man to make the connection that Jesus is Good because Jesus is “Immanuel, God with us”. In John’s gospel we find these words of Jesus: For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself  [John 5:26]. We could easily replace the word life with good to emphasise that God in Jesus alone is good.

But where does that leave us?

Emanuel Swedenborg brings clarity to this situation in his opening words of Divine Love and Wisdom paragraph 4: God alone – the Lord – is love itself, because he is life itself. Both we on earth and angels are life-receivers.

Fundamentally we are receivers of love, life and goodness from God. We have no love, life or goodness in ourselves and yet it appears that we can use what we receive as if it were ours alone. And in particular we can try to do good for others from our own resources, motives and desires.

One of the dangers, of course, is that our motives and desires will be selfish and we will try to use our resources to do good for others in a way which seeks to benefit us and make us look good. Such a self-serving approach to doing good may have the external effect and benefit intended for others but internally it is anything but good and certainly does not have God’s goodness at its heart. When we put ourselves first in any situation and concentrate on our needs above the needs of others we are in a sense standing alone. Our world view is then dominated by I, me, mine and we appear alone and totally separated from others and indeed from God. It is in this context that Alone, we cannot do good.

But what of all the good done for other people every day through simple acts of kindness, love and caring, not from some selfish motive but from a feeling that it is the right thing to do? Surely the answer is that, no matter what race, colour or religion we are, when we have someone else’s needs in view the good we do for them is from God whether we acknowledge it or not. What really makes the difference is that we have rejected the error of a life dominated by I, me, mine and moved to one in which you and yours have become more important. We have stopped being alone.

We may still imagine that we are the ones doing good but what we do now has God’s goodness at its heart.

But can we go a stage further in not acting alone?

God gives us life and the sense and awareness that we live from ourselves whereas the reality is that we live only from God. But if we maintain and strengthen the appearance that we live from ourselves by the I, me, mine approach to life then we remain apart, separated and alone from God.

This is clearly not what God wants. In John’s gospel Jesus says the following:

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
[John 15:4-5]

God leaves us free to do what we want with the life he gives us and to feel that it is our own. But he wishes that we would link or abide with him in the same way that he can link or abide with us. He wants us to be linked or connected together, to form a union with him, and not remain separated, apart and alone.

And what is the fundamental thing we need to do to make the link and start the process of union?

It is to do good for others as if the love, life and goodness we have is ours but believing, knowing and acknowledging that they are really only from God.

http://www.god-is-love.org.uk/

Religious education – What should children learn?

religious educationAsk parents what is deeply important for their children to learn in life and they will often say things like being a decent human being, having meaningful relationships, leaving the world a better place, and being freed from personal hang-ups. How can children be helped to form their own personal and spiritual goals? Religious education is seen as an opportunity to provoke challenging questions about the ultimate meaning and purpose of life, beliefs about God, the self and the nature of reality, issues of right and wrong, and what it means to be human.

Religious fundamentalism

The rise of prejudice, discrimination and violence associated with religious fundamentalism has led more people to question the certainties of any religion, and there is growing doubt concerning even the need for any kind of system of spiritual belief. Given the decline in belief of the traditional Christian version of God — particularly in north-west Europe — there is a tendency for thinking adults not to see ultimate reality as fixed into any certainty: it being likely to change with different experiences. Thus religious education tends to be sidelined.

The question is sometimes asked about the individual who knows love and does good works that grow out of that love and is content with the richness of the life that love brings. What need have they of any sacred writings or of any belief system?

Religious education and history of spiritual ideas

Clearly, some humanists and agnostics live a better life than some of those who are affiliated with a religion. Nevertheless, I would claim that religious education can reflect the historical source of spiritual concepts: not just concepts that can help one to see through the illusions of the natural world to a deeper reality within, but also that are essential to bring about the good life for all.

These days, the aim of teachers in religious education is to provide information about a range of faith traditions — especially now in multicultural Britain where pupils in one classroom often come from a range of ethnic backgrounds. In its latest report into religious education in British schools, the Government agency Offsted concludes

“There is uncertainty among many teachers of RE (religious education) about what they are trying to achieve in the subject.”

Need for religious education despite non-religious language

In our increasing secular society, there is a growing trend to use non-religious language. We use such terms as getting in touch with one’s higher self, becoming calm through meditation, gaining a better understanding of one’s attachments and cravings, recognising the life force all around. In other words spiritual ideas are seen as potentially useful and important even if they are usually not explicitly linked to traditional religious teachings.

I would say what we appreciate as the ‘Good’ in life is difficult to get a handle on and  communicate without ideas taught in religious education. Don’t you need an awareness of ethical ideas and spiritual teachings to guide your actions? For example the golden rule ‘Do unto others as you would wish them to do unto you’ is an idea in the mind about the `Truth’. This is something which puts into words your appreciation of the importance of where other people are coming from when you are dealing with them i.e. what can be ‘Good’ about your relationship with other people. Knowledge about what is ‘True’ tying in with awareness of what is ‘Good’.

Here are a few other spiritual ideas:

  • We should take care of the earth and protect the environment.
  • Rules defining right and wrong should not be based on enlightened self-interest but on the needs of all.
  • Learn from your mistakes and move on.
  • Something must have started the universe.
  • Your life does not cease at bodily death.

Don’t you need such worthy ideas to guide your thoughts and intentions? From such ideas come systems of belief that can give you hope especially when you get discouraged by the set-backs in life. In other words I feel it does matter what you think, as your understanding about things guides your actions — what you do, how you do it and how confident you can be you are on the right track.

According to Emanuel Swedenborg an awareness of deeper ideas concerning what is ‘Good’ and ‘True’ is essential. Without a religious education and thus knowledge about such things, how could there be a channel for deeper understanding: arguably without understanding, you cannot find a system of spiritual belief that will give you hope and confidence in the good life.

I would say unless they first learn about deeper ideas children are not protected from the illusions of life. Teachers in religious education however can only go so far in helping the young. They can impart information, but isn’t it up to the learner what to do with it?

Limits of religious education

According to Swedenborg’s theory, religious education has its limits: an awareness of ethical and spiritual ideas by itself is merely something in the head: personal choice and heart-felt desire are also important. So he asserts that an inner thirst for what is really ‘True’ and ‘Good’, based on a memory of ethical and spiritual ideas, when put into practice will result in enlightened understanding. In other words a heart of good intent coupled with a head full of good ideas will lead to an inspired system of belief that not only provides meaning, but can lead to the hope and confidence needed for personal transformation and commitment to some worthy goal in life.

“It’s what you choose to believe that makes you the person you are.” (Karen Marie Moning, Darkfever)

What should religious education teach

So what should religious education teach children?

Government has identified a difficulty in structuring and defining a clear process of learning in religious education. I believe this difficulty reflects an emphasis on religious diversity in practice and belief across different faith traditions, at the expense of offering clarity regarding beliefs that different faiths have in common. Are pupils being expected to work all this out for themselves without being offered spiritual ideas about what is universally “Good” and “True”?

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems