Pursuing Morality Without Certainty - Kyle Hanawalt
In my last talk that I gave a few weeks ago I talked about uncertainty That through my exposure to the Eastern Christian tradition I learned the value of embracing uncertainty. That it is actually not something to run from, but rather something that can help us confront our limitations and recognize our need for something beyond ourselves, like God, in the first place. Uncertainty is freeing! If you want to hear more about that, I recommend checking out that talk from few weeks ago, which you can find on our website or in our Podcast feed. The reason I want to build off of that is because, as good for me as learning to embrace uncertainty has been, and learning to resist my urge to pretend that I understand all, It also begged a certain question for me. And I’m guessing it may have begged a similar question for many of us here...
How do I think about morality without certainty?
Americans tend to rely on certainty when it comes to morality
In general we have been taught that the best way to be a good person, to be moral is to have a list of behaviors that are either moral or immoral, right or wrong, then we make sure we can stay on the right side of the moral checklist.
And, what’s more, particularly for folks like me who have backgrounds full of attendance in churches, where morality isn’t just up to us, it belongs to God. we have had bred into us an anxiety that creating space for uncertainty waters down what God asks of us. We HAVE to be certain, otherwise we might fail to meet some responsibility of making “the hard truths” clear for people. In the end, isn’t there just what is good and bad, true and right, that people either need to accept or deny? Otherwise can’t someone argue anything to be permissible?
So, when I encourage that we embrace uncertainty, when I encourage you to acknowledge the limits of what you understand, when I encourage you to take a stance of humility that you might not have it all figured out.
And I do encourage all of those things, It would make total sense if that provokes a little anxiety
So How do we pursue morality without certainty?
The first thing that has really helped me is learning a different way to ask questions about morality I mentioned in my last talk a big Concept in the Eastern church called divinization. From the word Divine, as in God. Divinization is the task of humanity, to become more and more like God each day. In short, it is asking the question, How do I become more like Jesus today than yesterday? In this journey of life, how do I keep taking steps forward in maturity. It’s not about crossing some threshold of conversion. It’s not about clearly knowing the answer key to the moral exam. And the goal is not to reach some magic plateau of good or moral. No, it’s to keep moving forward each day. Towards being more like and with Jesus. This was super helpful because it gave me a different way to ask questions about morality. It wasn’t about filling out my check-list. It wasn’t about relying on certainty It was about a daily, moment-to-moment interactive pursuit. Not asking, what is good or moral in general, but what is good and moral for me today, right now, in this specific situation.
And around the same time I was exposed to this concept of divinization I was also introduced to a concept in psychology
It’s the concept of Adaptive and maladaptive behavior Adaptive behaviors are behaviors that aid us, they help us deal with life better, have a healthier experience of life, get more out of it, Like using exercise to manage your stress. That is an adaptive way to handle stress This is opposed to Maladaptive behaviors. These are behaviors, that get in the way of healthy life This would be like doing cocaine to deal with stress. That is a maladaptive way to handle stress. In short, they are the behaviors that make our lives more or less healthy or functional However, determining whether something is maladaptive or adaptive is quite dynamic. It is not an objective black and white. Not a checklist What is adaptive or maladaptive for a person depends on their age, the stage of life they are in, their personality type. It is unique to the person. So a behavior in itself is usually not inherently adaptive or maladaptive, it depends on how it is being used. THAT, right there, is a great starting point for morality without certainty. Now there would, be some behaviors like Cocaine use, that I think we’d be hard pressed to ever find a situation where it was anything but a maladaptive But, determining whether a behavior is adaptive or maladaptive is usually dynamic and contextual question Like for someone it might be and adaptive behavior to speak up more in conversation. However, that is absolutely not the case for me. As someone who usually talks too much - talking more would actually be maladaptive for me.
All to say I have found it helpful to connect this idea of adaptive vs. maladaptive to my daily efforts towards divinization.
So how does this play out for me?
Well, I now try as a part of morning routine, usually while in the car, To pray, God what do you have for me today? What adaptive thing should I make sure to do, or what maladaptive thing should I be working towards stopping?
And I find it such a helpful way to start my day. Sometimes I don’t really feel anything, but I do find it a helpful practice to be asking that questions. But Sometimes I feel like something is highlighted in my mind, Like someone will pop into my mind, and I will remember how I treated them poorly yesterday, and I feel an urge to apologies. Apologising sure seems adaptive I should probably do that Or, I will feel some draw towards compassion to the person that is currently experiencing homeless that I see, asking for money. I am not sure what is the correct moral checklist answer for. Should I give money to homeless people. However, in this dynamic - asking God in the moment approach - I find myself almost always prompted to give a homeless person money. In that moment it just almost always feels like the adaptive behavior choice.
You see this is leading me toward divinization or morality - toward health and maturity, toward a less self-centered life, toward compassion to others. But it so different than a moral checklist. It’s dynamic - It’s contextual.
And just to say, I think this aspect of how we as Americans think about morality in terms of certainty and checklists plays out profoundly with our relationship with the Bible. In fact, I would venture to say that if you grew up going to church, this relationship of morality and checklists most prominently revealed itself in how you were taught to read the Bible.
It was my experience that the primary use of the Bible was to help us create our moral checklists for living.
Oh, in this passage Jesus says not to lie
Ok, lying is now on the wrong side of my moral checklist.
I remember, being told that is what the Bible itself tells us it is meant for.
The reference being -
2 Timothy 3:16-17
16 Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work.
It says it right there, right?
So, I actually fully believe what that passage is saying, I fully believe the Bible is something that was inspired by God, I believe useful for reproof, correction, training and teaching - hey look, I’m using it for that right now
I believe all of that, but I don’t believe that means the Bible is a rule book or that should be used as as the source data for our checklist
If it were, it would be a pretty crappy one. It’s actually really hard to read the Bible that way because, because first off, it wasn’t written to be used that way
And secondly there are hundreds - I don’t say that as an exaggeration - I seen somewhere between 130 - 500 examples of places in the Bible where it seems to be contradicting itself -
As Vince talked about last week -
In one place Jesus is called the prince of peace, but in another he says he has not come for peace, but with a sword
Or earlier this summer, I talked about how in one place Paul says all rulers are put in place by God, and another place Hosea says that rulers were put in place against God’s will
Or we see that lying is prohibited, except we have Rehab in the book of Joshua who is praised for her good works in lying to protect Israel's spies.
We see oaths condemned and permitted.
Drinking condemned and permitted and so on
Now I say this, not to try destabilize anyone’s trust in the Bible. But rather to show how incredibly fraught it is to read the Bible looking for a moral checklist to feel certain about.
I have found that in each of these cases the seeming contradiction actually shows us how helpful the Bible is, as a collection of records and stories from various different authors spanning hundreds of years, experiencing different highs and lows of the human experience and looking to God in the midst of those experiences The Bible doesn’t contradict itself; it simply contains lots of different examples of different people in different cultures and different situations coming to God and asking: what is adaptive in this case? What is maladaptive in this case? And just how for one person in one situation - talking more would be adaptive, but for me it would maladaptive, we see diversity in counsel from God All of this doesn’t make the Bible untrustworthy. It makes it dynamic, so that it can stand up as a guide and inspiration, even in the midst of uncertainty. My hope for everyone here is that if we open a Bible we don’t try to find the moral absolute to add to our check liste, but rather see how trustworthy God is at leading people towards adaptive, full life.
And I think God's character is actually often revealed in those seeming contradictions. That he is the kind of God who would tell one group of people who are largely of low status that peacemakers are to be blessed, and then to a group that is going to go engage the powerful and the status quo that he comes with a sword. For - as fraught as it is to use the Bible as the source of our moral checklist - I don’t mean to say that is absent of reliable moral teaching. It is powerful - inspired - helpful for reproof, correction, training and teaching in understanding more about who God is, what his character looks like - so we are more readily able to discover him guiding us today
So, to close, I want to tell you about how profoundly pursuing morality without certainty has worked out in my life.
First off, I have found my attention being drawn to systemic injustice more than it ever was before.
The moral checklist from my churchgoing youth was 90% about my personal morality. (don’t have sex before you’re married, don’t go to parties, be nice to people in charge)
So that is where my attention was
However, since I started doing the daily divinization thing - I feel like God has drawn my attention more and more towards the brokenness of the world around me - not just the brokeness in me.
I would say over the last couple years, around half the time I do this prayer - I feel myself becoming more aware and open to just how much my privilege works to my advantage in this world.
I find myself driven see how my growth is tied to my care for others, how frequently what is adaptive for me - is getting outside myself and caring or advocating for others.
You know, Vince and I are frequently in pastors gatherings, and there is something we have heard older pastors say several times with an exasperated tone - “Millennials just don’t care about morality anymore”
And Vince and I keep speaking up to say, in our opinion, that is not true
It just that Morality for most millennials isn’t just about who you are having sex with. (Although, Millennials are waiting later in life to have sex and are getting divorced less than the previousgenerations)
The truth is that Millennials care a great deal about morality - the morality of how we consume, morality of inequality, the morality of power and privilege. It’s about your our social responsibility to world, to each other.
Ok, Millenial rant over - but just to say, that this prayer approach to morality has solidified my belief that God cares just as much about the morality of our society as he cares about your personal morality.
Secondly, I feel far less shame and obligation
There is something kind and empathetic in my morning prayer times in the car when I go to God and ask for his help today to pursue adaptive things and weed out maladaptive things
Opposed to feeling inadequate and full of shame for seeing where I fall short on the checklist.
It feels like a patient and loving God is meeting me each day with new grace and mercy for where I fell short the day before - and full of hope and care for where I can grow in that day.
There was a dispassionate and distant weight that the checklist left on me. It just felt like a bar I couldn’t quite reach. But this new approach put me in connection with the God of mercy - who I felt was more likely to treat me like a loving parent treats their child when their child fails - with a hug and loving reaffirmation that he still loves me and believes that I have so much potential for that day. I also have found is that I am far less concerned with judging others Simply put, when I go to God each day and each day I realize all that I need to work on, each day I realize how much more growth I need - I just don’t have the same time or energy to care about other people’s behavior.
When I used to get to these checklist plateaus - I would feel pretty good about where I was at morally - I would think - OK, now it’s time to pay attention to other people’s morality.
I just don’t get to those plateaus anymore. Also, this daily encounter with my need, this daily awareness of what I need to work on. I think it just makes me more empathetic to what other people might be working on.
Lastly, going back to that anxiety that pursuing morality without certainty means anything could be argued to be permissible? Well, I can tell you that in my experience - I have actually experienced this divinization approach to morality to feel far from overly permissive, in fact I have found it to be far more challenging than the checklist approach There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel like I am working on something Or God is challenging me in some way. In my old approach - I would get to like “good enough” status a lot.
Yes, there are a lot of moral issues in the Bible - but there really seemed to be a much smaller list that people going to church seemed to really care about - Don’t steal, don’t kill, and then pretty much everything else had to do with sex.
And so if was not doing any of those things I felt like I’m pretty good. Just something I have noticed - maybe you have too - the closer I got to living out the White, Middle Class, Straight, Married, Man ideal - the easier that checklist got. Interesting wouldn’t you say that the things that majority of what the church considered most important is easiest for white, middle class, straight, married, men to live out. Just saying. Well for me - I just don’t have a day where I feel like I am good - nothing to work on.
I feel challenged all the time. And I feel like I am growing all the time. Funny thing is, I am living out most of the things that used to be on my moral checklist, but not because it’s it’s in the list and I ought too But, rather because each day God has shown me that he wants good for me and wants adaptive and healthy life for me - and thus leads me in that direction And on the way he has also challenged me in so many ways that were absolutely not on my checklist but have been essential for me being a healthier and better person,
Now I dream about what it would like like if BLV, all of us as a community, were pursuing morality in the this way - each daily asking what we need to grow in today. It excites me because for one, I think we would all discover more of the growth, healing, change in or lives that I think we long for. Because I believe god is alive and active and pursuing him daily will bring all of that far more than a checklist
But it also excites me to think about what it looks like to have a community full of people who are pursuing morality incredibly courageously but without the garbage and cruelty that relying on certainty and checklists brings into the equation
I think it allows us to have the kind of diversity we have here, and not say - this is one size fits all, but rather that each one of us can come from where we come from, be who we are, and then trust that God is reliable to challenge, grow, and meet us all uniquely.
It excites me to think about how a community like that can advocate for justice, a community like that can be free of ugly religious shame and obligation, a community like that can exist without judgement of each other for we are all to aware of our own needs to mess with that ugliness. I dream of that for us.
And so if you would stand with me - I would love to pray for us