Monday, October 15, 2012

Moose Tracks -- The Highest Good

Where we've been...where we are...where we're headed

Today we are going to talk about ethics & morality. A busload of politicians were driving down a country road when the bus suddenly ran off the road and crashed into an old farmer's field. The old farmer heard the tragic crash so he rushed over to investigate. He then began digging a large grave to bury the politicians. A few hours later, the local sheriff was driving past the farmer's field and noticed the bus wreck. He approached the old farmer and asked where all the politicians had gone. The old farmer explained that he'd gone ahead and buried all of them. "Were they ALL dead?" asked the puzzled sheriff. "Well, some of them said they weren't," said the old farmer, "but you know how them politicians lie."
Mark Twain once remarked, "Always do what is right. It will gratify half of mankind and astound the other.” Today's Gospel invites us to think about morality, about choosing what is right. Moral philosophy, developing a moral compass is a lot like navigating at sea. It can take time & much effort to develop the necessary wisdom & skills to live a life that is good, spiritually rich & emo- tionally satisfying. The first seafarers began by keeping land in sight. That was the first trick of navigation—follow the coast. To find an old fishing ground or the way through a shoal, one could line up landmarks, such as a near rock against a distant point on land. But what if land were no- where nearby? The Phoenicians looked to the heavens. The sun moving across the commonly cloudless Mediterranean sky gave them their direction. The Phoenicians knew the East as Asu (sun- rise) and the West as Ereb (sunset). At night, they steered by the stars. The philosopher Thales of Miletos taught Ionian sailors to navigate by the Little Bear constellation fully 600 years before the birth of Christ. Before the invention of the compass, watch, and the sextant, the mariner's main guide was latitude. To obtain their latitude, Arabs measured the altitude above the horizon to a known star, and then deduced from this the altitude of the Pole Star, (since the Pole Star was the one star that did not move in the sky).
Is there anything equivalent to the Pole Star in the area of morality; is there anything like a perma- nently fixed point in the sky by which we can navigate during our journey in life? Aristotle, who lived about 300 years before Jesus, said yes. The Pole Star of moral decision-making is that which is desired for itself & for nothing else. Aristotle noticed that all human action was rooted in desire; everything we do we do because we are wanting something. He then noticed that most of the time, we want one thing in order to acquire another thing. We want a new coat because we desire to stay warm. We want an All-Wheel SUV because we want to be able to get around when the snow gets deep. Aristotle then asked what I think is one of the most important questions anyone has ever asked; is there something that all of us desire, not to get something else, but just for itself? If there is, could it serve as our moral Pole Star, our fixed point in relation to which all our moral decision- making can be guided & directed?
To answer this important question, he used the same technique very familiar to most 4 year olds; he asked a series of why-questions. You say you want a new coast....why? Because you do not want to be cold....why? Because you want to be comfortable....why? Because you want to be happy in life; you want a life that is characterized by happiness, by a profound sense of satisfaction. Happiness, Aristotle suggested, is the highest good; "happiness then is something complete & self-sufficient, since it is the end of the things pursued in action."
But what is true happiness for Aristotle? Is it just a feeling? Is happiness simply an emotional state of well-being; it is just the absence of pain or suffering? No, happiness goes far beyond a tempo- rary, transitory good feeling. Happiness is the state of living in harmony with one's highest self, in accord with one's essence, core, or being. The essential quality of our humanity that separates us from the animal world is our capacity for reason; for an intelligence that allows us to think crea- tively, rationally, critically & self-consciously. As far as we know, we are the only creatures on earth who can be aware of & reflect upon our own passions, emotions, desires & actions. This means we can use our reason & intelligence to choose, to choose to live in a manner that expresses our ability to transcend our lesser desires & passions in the service of living in harmony with the kinds of thoughts, desires & actions that will bring health, satisfaction & goodness to ourselves & others. Because we are in our essence beings capable of rationality & self-awareness, we can choose to avoid extremes & excesses by living our lives with moderation & balance. The life of rationality is the life of happiness, the "good life." Tana French in her book, In the Woods, puts it this way, "It's not that you do the right thing and hope it pays off; the morally right thing is by defi- nition the thing that gives the biggest payoff.”
I think most of us would agree that it would not be too difficult for us to develop a list of examples of how our nation & culture seem to be in trouble. And while we all tend to think in terms of taxes, deficits & debts, I suspect the more profound problem is a moral & spiritual one. For example, one morning this week I watched a panel discussion on C-SPAN. The panel of business leaders was discussing the sense of anxiety & dis-ease that seems pervasive these days. One of the panelists spoke about a turn that occurred in the business community decades ago that has led to a kind of moral impoverishment & lack of vision for the future. He noted that several decades ago, the busi- ness schools along with the intelligentsia within the business community began to think & talk almost exclusively about profit as the mission of corporations; increasing the profit margins of the company became more & more the sole target & the underlying justification for all the company & its employees did. The aggressive pursuit of efficiency & profit eclipsed every other moral & spiri- tual concern, every other human value within corporate culture. Lost in this movement was any sense of the company's potential & responsibility to make their community or the world a better place to live; any vision of a Highest Good, a Transcendent Value, a moral Pole Star that could not only motivate people to want to do well, but could infuse them with meaning & purpose. A lesser vision eclipsed a greater one & in the process, we lost our way. We lost our connection with who we are in our essence.
Put simply, such reductionism kills the human soul & suffocates the human spirit. This is the warn- ing of Aristotle & Jesus; do not place the lesser in the place of the superior, do not replace a deep appreciation of who we are created to be with an inhumane, objectified vision of our humanity; do not make gods out of pleasure, wealth & status and thereby neglect the Highest Good, the Ultimate Love that is able to give our lives the moral direction & wisdom required for true freedom, happi- ness & richness in life. Both Aristotle & Jesus teach that the life we are all looking for, the life of profound happiness & deep satisfaction can only be found as we commitment ourselves to a life of loving & pursuing the Highest Good, a life of loving God. Open your heart, make the Sacred the central concern of your life, let the love of God inform all of your decisions & see what happens. AMEN.
October 14, 2012


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