Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Theology and Morality

A few months ago, I came across an article about a speech which Mitt Romney gave at Liberty University. Although it was about his campaign, in large part the article wasn't about politics. It was about the intersection of theology and morality. It makes some good points.

The author, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik argues that discussions of theology tend to divide us:

During the heady days of Vatican II, Jews of less traditional denominations were eager to engage in dialogue about theological doctrines with the church, optimistic that new religious commonalities could be discovered. Rabbi [Joseph] Soloveitchik, in contrast, discouraged such engagement. Matters of theology, he stressed, “are personal and bespeak an intimate relationship which must not be debated with others whose relationship with God has been molded by different historical events and in different terms.” Working to find substantive common ground on these theological matters, he argued, is ultimately unproductive because Jews and Christians “will employ different categories and move within incommensurate frames of reference and evaluation.”

I don't agree with the conclusion - that we should avoid talking theology with those from different theological traditions. But, the underlying point is a good one, and an important one. When we talk theology, we're often talking about very different things. Even when we think we're talking the same language, we aren't. For instance, as a Jewish non-dualist, I can tell you that the statement "I believe in God" means something radically different from when, say, an Evangelical would say it. I know that the words "believe" and "God" are used entirely, fundamentally differently. I'm pretty sure that, as a non-dualist, I don't even really mean the same thing by "I." Seriously.

I think that, if we're all aware of how differently we believe and, maybe more relevantly, how differently we talk about belief, then we can still talk. And, we can learn from each other. But, there will be limits to how well we can understand each other. No matter how many times I hear the phrase "my life in Christ" used and explained, I'm never going to understand it, because I don't believe it, and I don't experience it. Trying to explain it to me is like trying to explain to someone who is totally color-blind what color looks like. Our language is always just an echo of our experience; without that experience, the language is lacking.

But, Soloveichick argues (as does Soloveitchick), there is a way in which people can meaningfully engage, even if they have radically different theologies.:

Even as he discouraged public dialogue on doctrinal matters, Joseph Soloveitchik stressed that when Jews and Christians “move from the private world of faith to the public world of humanitarian and cultural endeavors, communication among the various faith communities is desirable and even essential.” ... He then added that in engaging these matters, people of different faiths can discover a profound commonality:

I once heard Dennis Prager say that Jewish and Christians have very different theology and philosophy, but very similar values. I think that's the same idea here. Our conception of God may be very different, but the basic moral impulse is the same.

It has to be said - there's an important, huge caveat to this. Of course there are differences in morality. How to treat LGBT people is an obvious division. How to apply these moral impulses in the political world is another. But, as important as those are, there are probably more areas in which we do agree than in which we don't. And, the underlying, fundamental impulse - to help those who are in need - is shared. And, even when we don't agree, we're still using mostly the same terms, and the categories. We're playing the same game, even if we're playing it a bit differently.

Just one additional thought from me on this. A lot of philosophers (Kant and the Rambam, just to name two) have taught that there is an overlap, maybe even 100% of one, between that which is universal and that which is true. In other words, that which is ultimately true must be true for everyone. I haven't studied or thought about that enough to say if I think that's true, but it's at least awfully close, I'd wager.

So, if theology is not universal, but morality is, then what does that say about their truth? I certainly believe my theology, and to be frank, I believe it more than yours. But, that's the point. If, as Larry Kushner taught us, there are always at least as many theologies in the room as there are people, then that should make us awfully cautious about believing that any of them, our own especially, are true.

But, helping those in need? That seems to be a truth greater than the rest. Sometimes it feels like the only truth about which we can really be sure. And, the only truth which we really need.

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