Pulled by Values

Last week ended with a consideration of how much poorer the world would be if the United States were no longer a going concern. I’d like to offer one way in which that might be so as a way of introducing this week’s discussion of values. I suggest that what the United States has represented in the world above all else is a set of values. Arguably the foundation of the Untied States was the greatest lasting legacy of the Masonic and fraternal brotherhoods. Masonry was a child of the Age of Reason and its founders were determined to do what they could to stomp out the religious wars which had been raging on the European continent for centuries. In at least some forms of their teaching they elevate the reality of brotherhood above the religious and philosophical abstractions which divide us. This led them to seek something new in the world: the separation of church and state. America’s first amendment is the embodiment of that ideal, that commitment to take armies and politics out of the hands of the church. Current headlines show this is still a very lively debate.

The time has come to talk of how beliefs are expressions of values and try to convey the importance of values both for understanding ourselves as a species and for leading a meaningful life. The religious traditions we have been surveying have each provided countless millions of our fellow human beings with community and moral direction. I even know atheists and agnostics who have sent their children to church for their education in morality and values, recognizing that one of their key roles is in supporting young families and shaping young minds.

It is here, where real lives interface with the mythic symbols, that the truth of a belief system is to be found. At any rate there is a psychological truth here that undoubtedly has real effects in the real world, regardless of the veracity of any dogmatic content we might consider. Put simply, these great symbol systems do not need to be true in a scientific sense, in fact they cannot all be since they contradict one another, to ring true in a psychological sense for some people, some of the time.

“The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.” Pascal

It seems that if we are to understand anything about ourselves this widespread phenomenon of religious belief, self identified among believers as the most important part of their lives, must be included. It was a mistake of the Age of Reason to expect that rational argument and scientific demonstration alone would dislodge what they called the superstitions of man. They failed to appreciate that aspect of symbols that are able to reach into depths of direct emotional and perceptual experience, all that is not so much irrational as supra-rational. They capture apperceptions, which are accompanied by a sense of penetrating deeply into reality with a profoundly meaningful insight and that do not use formal logic at all.

When our cognitive apparatus confronts the numinous aspect of the symbol it has a tendency to take flight on the wings of abstraction. It flies into the aethers of unquestionable certainty buoyed up by experiences of consciousness confronting emotions and perceptions in a particularly raw and direct fashion. Faith feels right.

That feeling is involved is just the clue we need. That feeling is involved in all faith is not a dirty little secret to be hushed into a corner by apologetics. Feelings are how we encounter, express, and embody our personal and cultural values. The myths and stories, symbols and rituals of religion are the vehicles by which these values take on form among us. They confront us with a choice about how we will live.

This is an important point Viktor Frankl makes in Man’s Search for Meaning. Values pull man, they do not drive him as an instinct does. They pull because there is always a choice involved; to accept or reject what is being offered. “Man is never driven to moral behavior; in each instance he decides to behave morally. Man does not do so in order to satisfy a moral drive and to have a good conscience; he does so for the sake of a cause to which he commits himself, or for a person whom he loves, or for the sake of his God.”

He does so for the sake of a cause. This is how the ego is removed from the driver’s seat. Something bigger than just your own appetites becomes a part of your experience. But we have to be careful here since the ego can easily hide its agendas behind the most righteous garbs. It is a sad fact that arrogance and clericalism can describe all too much of what passes for Christianity, for example, these days. Christians, of course, do not have a corner on the market of arrogance, many a true believer fails the test of humility. When individuals encounter the psychic force built up around these collective symbol systems they are initially swept away. It takes time to develop the critical faculties required to take a step back and consider that one’s own symbolic inheritances are in many ways fundamentally equivalent to others. People of good will the world over, in any century or country you care to name, have been inspired by the same good heart you and your kin have known. Though our values express our individuality more than any other aspect of our character, we share most of their fundamental characteristics with all the members of Homo Sapiens, in fact most likely with all mammals. We mature by examining our inherited and epigenetically formed values in light of our own individual experience and choosing which ones we will strengthen and lend support to at the expense of others.

With all the killing in the name of religion from inquisitions to crusades it is easy to overlook the rather quieter role of religious stories in our lives. They are there to transmit values from one generation to the next. A mother tells her children the story of Moses to communicate the types of values she believes constitutes good character. As an example, consider the story of Abraham willing to sacrifice Isaac which we looked at earlier in the context of child sacrifice. Here the value being transmitted is clearly that we must be willing to sacrifice what is most dear to us if the ultimate truth requires it. It is getting at what we said above about how a cause larger than ourselves can give us the strength to transcend our selfishness. The hard part is in choosing the right cause and being made a tool of the perverse ever ready to take advantage of the naive.

The value of the Christian story is non-violence as Gandhi, Martin Luther King and countless, nameless others have understood for centuries. Non-violence is not pacifist at all costs as its critics contend. Its simple message has been slandered and obfuscated since the beginning since it is awfully inconvenient for those who profit from war. Still it is hard to miss in the Christian story. The whole point about this person being the Son of God and not just any person like you and me is that they had the miraculous ability to call down the whole host of heaven, literally the armies of heaven, yet chose not to – even under torture. Do unto others is, in fact, found throughout the world. In Asia the Buddha taught a similar insight into our moral reality:

“Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.”

It is more than just a little ironic that the United States which prided itself on being a Christian nation became the country with the largest military in the history of the earth. Oh, and the largest arms dealer on earth as well, with a large percentage of the sales going to the poorest countries where their populations still suffer from starvation and a lack of medicine and education but somehow find the funds to buy these wares.

This bond between religious stories, symbols and rites and our systems of values is inseparable. Our cultural and personal identity is shaped and formed through the epigenetic process of development throughout our long childhoods, as previously discussed, and that process includes exposure to cultural religious traditions. Consumerism taught by the mass media in just another religion in this sense, bearing its own set of values. This developmental role of values may help explain how values are the source of the strongest differences among us; as we say, one man’s heaven is another man’s hell. When push comes to shove at this level of our deepest values, we find it trivial to justify the demonization and destruction of the other – the blasphemer and heretics who dare to value things in ways unlike ourselves.

We are not unwise when we recognize it is a world in which it is best to allow different strokes for different folks, different scenes for different genes. We are less wise when we forget values can only pull us forward. Then we are sorely tempted to force our values on others through conversion and confrontation at the end of a gun and by means of bomb vests.

Here’s the thing. The values chosen will in no small part determine the emotional reaction you will have to the various events of your life and times. This emotional reaction will in turn determine the overall level of satisfaction you will have with your life, and conversely how much you will suffer. No wonder our most heated arguments are around conflicting values; we instinctively recognize how much is at stake.

Our values are not reached through wholly rational analysis but by a combination of reason and emotion harvesting the fruits of perceptual experience. One person has every benefit a life in a first world country can offer yet only ever complains, while another with crushing physical handicaps and haunted by uncertainty around their next meal greets every event with a cheerful heart. What makes such profoundly fundamental differences among us but the values by which we view our lives and experiences? What is more, the values we hold will color the motives we attribute to others to explain their actions. Was that rudeness just typical of that person’s perverse and cursed nature or a simple slip under pressure of a person most likely to be friendly and helpful to most people, most of the time?

Need it be pointed out that our attitude about the earth and its bounty, or stinginess, will also arise from the same types of dynamics within our psyches?

As a culture we are learning to appreciate that the opportunity costs that accompany choosing a value are enormous. Choose to value consumer goods, for example, and a whole collection of alternative values goes by the wayside. Equally, choose to value a thriving and healthy biosphere and a different set of alternative values are going to be left unexplored. See how values pull us, tug on us, tempting us to offer them our loyalty?

It is difficult to remember in the arena of values that our rational, logical arguments will only carry us so far. A sort of pseudo-rationalism is put to work justifying positions with warring rhetoric and symbolism. The environmental movement has been trying to present the facts of the ecological crisis in the mistaken conviction that a clear presentation of those alone would lead people to change their choice of values. Revolutionaries from across the political spectrum have made the same short-sighted mistake; they believed a rational presentation of a better way would lead the people to adopt it forthwith. As we have learned dearly, the totalitarian persuasions are never far behind the true believers that fail the humility test. So what of environmentalism? Is there a green jack-boot in its future? Perhaps. As the wheels continue to fall off the bus of fossil fueled industrial civilization much will depend on the values we choose.