Freedom and the laws of life, Part 1

By understanding the law of gravity and working with it, we can make real progress toward accomplishing our purposes.

The modern world has confused the relationship between law and freedom because moderns have turned freedom into a fantasy of infinite choice. Anything that inhibits our free choice is felt as a limit on our freedom. To realize such a daydream, they have found it necessary that all facts give way their commands, that language has the power to dissolve everything that interferes with absolute choice.

This is why so many political and social conflicts today turn on the meanings of words. What is “marriage,” really? What does being “male” or “female” mean? Those who favor change often claim that what is true is what they say is true. Our power of choice, when we are fully empowered, is godlike in the way it recreates the world according to our desires, they believe.

Laws, in this understanding, have to limit freedom. Therefore, there are no laws but those we invent. Reality is personally- or socially-constructed.

The god of the philosophers is sometimes presented as an abstract and impersonal vastness, beyond human powers of comprehension, an unmoved mover. The God of the Bible is more familiar. He acts in the world with passion and purpose, seeking always to serve and redeem the people. He speaks of his love, of his wrath, and he creates and he judges what he has created. He responds constantly to the actions of free people. He always takes a next step. He is never passive or dispassionate. He is the Most High but he also in deep ways recognizably like us. We are those he made in his own image. We, too, are to act and to judge, constantly serving and seeking to redeem those we encounter.The Biblical God lives and works amid laws and principles that are as eternal as he is. Neither matter nor the laws of matter can be created or destroyed. Creation is a matter of organizing what has always existed

This understanding of Creation helps us see law as a force that guarantees freedom. This isn’t hard to see. Consider the way a water wheel harnesses gravity to our purposes. As we have come to better understand nature’s laws and sought to accomplish our work by using those laws, our freedom has increased in wondrous ways. In obedience to the laws of nature, we are now free to visit other continents with only a few hours of travel, to prevent or cure many once-dread diseases, to provide sufficient food for our needs with an ease and reliability that would be miraculous to hundreds of generations that went before us. We are rich beyond comprehension.

Laws also operate in the realm of human nature. These have been called the laws of life—or simply “morality.” Wendell Berry defined morality as “long-term practicality” because following traditional morality–don’t lie, don’t steal, be faithful–leads most reliably to enduring happiness and peace. It is the wicked who flee where no one pursues.

It is more practical to understand gravity and to work with it than it is to rebel against and try to fantasize it away. We can willfully leap off a cliff while holding the fantasy that we can fly, but as we recuperate from a broken leg we may conclude that it’s more useful and wise to understand laws honestly than to rebel against them.

While it was still on the bestseller lists, I read David Brooks’ The Road to Character with a class of senior AP students. Some of them couldn’t quite get their mind around the distinction between “moral realism” and “moral relativism” which lay at the heart of that book. Brooks argues in favor of moral realism and against moral relativism (both individual moral relativism, where each person creates his or her own morality and cultural moral relativism, where what is right and wrong is thought to depend on whatever culture one is in). In various ways, he makes the point that living well requires us to respond to what’s out there–that some ways of life work better than others because they are better fitted to reality–to things as they are.

Moral relativism claims that what’s most important is that a person “be true to the self,” that we find the right way to act by consulting our passions and feelings.  Being “authentic” replaces being “good.” Brooks claims that it’s important that we restrain and control our passions and feelings. In this he follows ancient traditions–most notably Aristotle.

Aristotle, a student of Plato’s, may be the most intelligent of all philosophers. Certainly, he’s the most respectful of common sense. He noted that it’s possible to judge some societies as better than others because it’s possible to grasp the principles by which societies can be judged. Aristotle posed such questions as: Does the government serve the common good or does it serve the interests of the powerful? Does power rest on the ruler’s whims and desires or does it rest on laws agreed to by those who are ruled? Does the government do the work of justice?

Such judgments make no sense if whatever a culture deems to be right is right, so that if Southerners thought slavery was moral, then it was okay “for them.” A preference for nonjudgmentalism is central to the modern world’s ongoing collapse into chaos. I think most sophisticated advocates of moral relativism know that it’s not true. It’s incoherence is too obvious and too near to the surface for a thoughtful person to take it seriously. But I think they find it a convenient fiction, hoping that if we agree there are no absolute truths then we needn’t fight about them. I think the “nonjudgementalism” is not intended as anything very true; it’s just a social convention meant to keep the peace.

But one generation’s polite fiction may be taken very seriously by young people who grow up hearing it so often it’s almost impossible to question. It’s also flattering and gives a false sense of power to be told that pursuing personal desire is the only genuine purpose in life, and one’s feelings is all we know of morality. But it isn’t true, and living by lies does not lead to enduring happiness not just for the self but for the community, which includes our loved ones.

Aristotle defined the pursuit of truth as the attempt to align one’s thinking and acting with what’s really “out there.” Morality is real, independent of people’s opinions. If everyone in a culture thinks it’s okay to abuse women and mistreat slaves, they are simply wrong. Their beliefs are not true. The world remains round even when everyone believes it is flat. Opinions can be true or false.

Someone can hold the opinion that lying to get what you want is okay, but reality dictates that if you keep doing that others will figure it out and stop trusting you, which will reduce your power–your ability to get what you want. So “honesty is the best policy” is not just something some societies teach. It’s a moral truth that nobody can change.

Some students kept drifting back to the idea that morality changes as society changes; therefore, there are no universals. So they didn’t really follow the points Brooks was making. It’s okay to disagree with him, of course, but an educated person should be able to understand what they disagree with and then to make reasonable arguments that address that understanding. Otherwise, the conversation takes the form of childhood disputes: “Yes it does.” “No it doesn’t.” “Yes it does.” And so on, ad infinitum.

The wisdom of moral realism can be glimpsed in the traditional insights encoded in proverbs and folk sayings around the world. They are time-tested insights into how things are, perceptions of what John Templeton called the “Laws of Life.” The “law of the harvest” is one example: you reap what you sow. This insight has also been expressed as “what goes around comes around,” and it was summarized by Jesus’s teaching that “as ye judge ye shall be judged.”

Humanity has collected thousands of such rules of living well:

  • It is better to love than to be loved.
  • Success is a journey, not a destination.
  • Enthusiasm is contagious (and nothing important is achieved without enthusiasm).
  • The borrower is a servant to the lender.
  • We find what we look for (good or evil).
  • Every ending is a beginning.
  • The way to fix bad things is to create good things.
  • Love is stronger than everything else.
  • You can’t solve a problem at the same level as the problem. You need to get above it.
  • The truth will make you free.
  • To find gold you need to search where the gold is.
  • Habit is the best servant, the worst master.
  • People are punished by their sins not for them.
  • Make yourself necessary and the world will feed you.
  • Luck favors the prepared.
  • Defeat isn’t bitter if you don’t swallow it.

Notice that they are simply descriptions of how things are rather than moral laws. This way of seeing things is familiar to people who have contemplated the Bible. That book makes little distinction between wisdom and righteousness.  As Theologican Frederick Buechner said,

…the Bible is not first of all a book of moral truth. I would call it instead a book of truth about the way life is. Those strange old scriptures present life as having been ordered in a certain way, with certain laws as inextricably built into it as the law of gravity is built into the physical universe. When Jesus says that whoever would save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life will save it, surely he is not making a statement about how, morally speaking, life ought to be. Rather, he is making a statement about how life is. [Quoted by Alvin Plantinga]

Moral realism suggests simply that nature, including human nature, is governed by patterns that the perceptive observer can discern. To discern these patterns and to live in accordance with them is wisdom, according to Brooks and Aristotle. The philosopher Alvin Plantinga said, “Wisdom is a reality-based phenomenon. To be wise is to know reality, to discern it. A discerning person notices things, attends to things, picks up on things. He notices the difference between tolerance and forgiveness, pleasure and joy, sentimentality and compassion.”

Such people “accommodate themselves to reality,” said Plantinga. “They go with the flow. They tear along the perforated line. They attempt their harvests in season.” Plantinga suggests we may pick up such truths from Proverbs or from paying attention to the world around us or possibly from a wise grandparent. Ordinary people proceed with such a program no matter “whether they have derived their wisdom from scripture or from more general revelation.” But, he says, wherever we get them, the wise do what Brooks is suggesting–they adjust to reality, changing their own character to be more effective in the world as it actually is. The trouble we encounter provides most of the curriculum on “the road to character.” The  historical characters whose life stories Brooks tells have learned to live by truths such as these:

  • The more you talk, the less people listen.
  • If your word is no good, people will not trust you and it is then useless to protest this fact.
  • Trying to cure distress with the same thing that caused it only makes matters worse.
  • If you refuse to work hard and take pains, you are unlikely to do much of any consequence.
  • Boasting of your accomplishments does not make people admire them. Boasting is vain in both senses of the word.
  • Envy of fat cats does not make them slimmer, and will anyhow rot your bones.
  • If you scratch certain itches, they just itch more.
  • Many valuable things, including happiness and deep sleep, come to us only if we do not try hard for them.

If you are fortunate, such wisdom was taught to you by parents and older members of your community. Such homey wisdom seems obvious, a second nature that is your blessing because you grew up in an intelligent culture. Unfortunately, not everyone has been so lucky, and misfortune becomes more common as more people, and even institutions such as schools, turn away from the wisdom of the ages to assert that the self and its feelings make up the only important morality. Lots of schools today rely on manipulation through rewards and punishments to get students to act reasonably well. It would be better if the emphasis were on showing by example and by teaching–direct instruction in the principles of wise living.

Our experiment with the new morality, which often has the same content as the old immorality, is now far enough advanced that we can easily see that it isn’t working very well. We sense this in the rising levels of unhappiness and loneliness, the increasing numbers of suicides, a growing reliance on counselors and pharmaceuticals that change brain chemistry help sad people make it through the week.  Though our lives have something of the enchanted about them–at the flick of a high-tech device  speakers body forth the best music ever made, exotic fruits from every clime are piled high in brightly lit markets, family members across the globe arrive in our chambers via Skype, the best words ever written can be summoned from online archives for free, and the most beautiful people on the planet compete for our approval from screens in every building–-we are not satisfied. We think we want more.

Probably we want something completely different.

Getting back to the garden

White clematis, red roses

White clematis, red roses

I believe the purpose of our life is to find our way back to the garden, where we began. Once we didn’t need to care for the garden–it was a gift. But we couldn’t stay there, except at the cost of never being fully human.

I’ve learned the way back to the garden. We merely have to create it around us. Then we will be able to keep it because we understand it.

What did God mean when he said it was good, after finishing Creation? I meet a lot of young people these days who do not have any very useful understanding of what “goodness” means, who are not even sure it is something they should want. They confuse “goodness” with obeying a list of rules. This is understandable, since teaching an understanding of goodness often includes teaching rules.

But goodness is something much larger and more important than a list of rules. Mainly, it is the vision beyond the rules. A vision of people living in all the little and big ways that support happiness. Fully realized, the vision is a vast and complex ecological order, quite beyond the comprehension of children.

And so we teach children little rules that preserve the good order and make visible its principles. Our rules are not meant to deprive children of freedom. Quite the opposite–they are the stepping stones that keep us out of the cold, swirling forces we traverse moment by moment and that lead us to freedom.

When Valerie’s and my children were small, exploring the world with hands and mouths, Valerie kept a philodendron on the coffee table. Often that poor plant got dumped on the floor or had its leaves torn off before we could intervene. Over and over we gently stopped little hands and said “No!” It would have been easier, no doubt, to simply to move the plant out of reach until the children were older, but that would be a controller’s strategy–to turn our home into a huge cocoon in which everything was either child-proof or out of reach.

Sure, we put cleaning solvents, prescription medicines, and other items that could cause genuine danger out of reach, but the philodendron was sacrificed to an ideal: it is better to awaken children than to pad the rooms where they are sleepwalking.

What we awaken them to is the order that surrounds them, which is the order of our living, which is our best approximation so far of our vision of goodness.

Sometimes we encountered a gleeful daughter wildly shredding the leaves of the forlorn philodendron. Such moments rightly understood are teaching opportunities. When I lightly slapped my daughter’s hand and said “No!” I only wanted her to learn.

I would have been disappointed if she had learned that plants are never to be touched, though from her child’s perspective that must at first have seemed a possibility. But in fact, I wanted her to learn things she could not then comprehend. “Thou shalt not touch the philodendron” was a little rule that didn’t express our final will but hinted at a deeper law that might be expressed “Thou shalt respect living things,” or “Thou shalt live in a house of order.” And beyond these laws was a higher reality: “Thou shalt love plants.”

We wanted our children to learn to live in a garden, which is to say we wanted them to understand the earth and the processes of life, and we wanted them to care for the world in wise ways. We wanted them to recognize and desire goodness, which is complex and requires us to live amid ordered loves.

That’s quite a bit to learn. So we start with simple things: don’t touch the philodendron. We knew our daughter would question the rule, and we also knew that as her questioning spirit became more powerful, our answers, both implicit and explicit, would lead her toward what we really hoped to teach.

It wasn’t long before we let her to help with such tasks as watering the plant. As she grew, we negotiated with her, gradually increasing her responsibilities and freedom to keep pace with her understanding.

In time the philodendron rule became irrelevant as she learned that plants not only could be touched, but they could be pruned, re-potted, fertilized and enjoyed. Beyond the philodendron rule lay profound principles, more difficult to understand but more liberating to live. Beyond the philodendron rule lay all the principles of wisdom, which are identical with the principles of goodness.

Wise traditions teach goodness by giving rules without making the rules absolute. Life is complicated in precisely the way ecosystems are complicated, and inexperienced people are likely to make decisions that damage or destroy their chances at happiness before they can see the long-term consequences of what they do. Good rules help keep young people safe while they are still learning how life works.

As Wendell Berry observed, the rules of morality are guidelines to long-term practicality. In many cases, they are summaries of centuries of experience about what sorts of actions tend toward misery, and of what sorts of actions contribute to happiness.

Goodness is almost a synonym for wisdom, since happiness in this world will be fleeting unless our thoughts and actions are in harmony with the way things really are.

“Truth” is our name for that harmony.

A happy life is a garden–a thing of beauty made out of the materials of this life, arranged in harmony with both the laws of science and the principles of beauty. It is an emblem of care, an embodiment of joy. It adheres to principles of selection which allow careful editing of what the world offers. It includes a long history of things learned and remembered, and a long future of things desired and hoped.

And always, it is here. It is now.

No end to work

grandkids in the garden

Bryce, Jenna and Daij experience the joys of earthly life, participating hands-on in the abundance that is ours to make. People need work.

People need to work if they are to feel contentment, argues James Bruce. They are made that way.This is true, but modern economic ideologies are so engrained in our thinking that we don’t see how to create enough jobs that people in need of work can do. We have trouble thinking about work except by thinking about jobs. Jobs, in fact, have been the way economic benefits get distributed. Corporate enterprises generate wealth from profits, and a portion of that wealth flows to the various workers employed by the enterprise.

This is true, but modern economic ideologies are so engrained in our thinking that we don’t see how to create enough jobs that people in need of work can do. We have trouble thinking about work except by thinking about jobs. Jobs, in fact, have been the way economic benefits get distributed. Corporate enterprises generate wealth from profits, and a portion of that wealth flows to the various workers employed by the enterprise.

That model has done more to increase general wealth and decrease poverty than any other system people have imagined. But it may be inadequate in the stage of history we have now entered, where technology drastically reduces the need for human workers while globalization great increases the wealth flowing into the largest corporate entities. Unimaginable sums of money accumulate in the hands of relatively few players.

Maybe we need to rethink how wealth is distributed. In recent decades we’ve implemented many schemes to make wealth available to people without  jobs. Modern welfare states provide food, housing, health care, education and cash to people on the dole. This has solved one problem–avoiding for most the worst forms of destitution, but the system has done a wretched job of providing the poor with the dignity and contentment that only come from giving to causes beyond the self and helping others. We have created masses of people who remain poorer than workers, in spite of food stamps, but who feel resentment rather than gratitude and envy rather than contentment and anger rather than gratitude.

A wiser welfare policy would not forget that people need work, real work, for reasons that go beyond acquiring purchasing power in the  marketplace. They need the sense of empowerment that comes from setting difficult goals and reaching them, step by step, over weeks and years.  They need to feel the security of self-reliance, of learning that periods of trouble and discomfort can be accepted as opportunities to learn strength and virtue. They need to know the courage one finds in the companionship of great souls of the present and past, who have labored and sacrificed to uplift neighbors and to make their portion of the world into a better place. They need to exult in the sweet peace that one finds only in helping others, in forgetting the self by giving gifts of service. They need work.

Modern states need welfare policies based on enduring principles of human nature. This means that those who can work must be expected to work. It means that personal judgments about both the need and the capacity of those seeking help need to be made, which means that most decisions must be made at a very local level. It means that local leaders need to sought and trained–people who understand the interdependence of good character and happiness, people who are willing to love and minister and teach as well as to disburse dollars.  Of course, platitudes and good intentions aren’t enough. We should be chastened and sobered by past failures, pondering them prayerfully.

Baltimore provides a case study of how far we are from a paradise that remains, still, within our reach--though not without God's help.

Baltimore provides a good case study of how far we are from a paradise that remains, still,, within our reach.

It also means that agencies that accumulate wealth in the markets need to look at communities as something more than markets. Every neighborhood in the world faces troubles, since the world around them is constantly changing calling forth new responses, and since the worlds within them are constantly changing as all individual members move constantly into new stages of life, their abilities and insights and desires changing. Much of the work that should be done in such places does not make sense to one looking at short, direct connection to profits. So we have neighborhoods where there are no gardens and gardeners, where buildings are unpainted and dirty, where garbage accumulates and vandalism goes unanswered. We have streets of apartments where few books are owned, far from the reach of libraries and bookmobiles. We have families where for generations nobody has had a job, learning what is learned by getting up each morning, brushing one’s teeth and catching an early bus.

Investing in such places would in the not-so-long term be much better business than allowing the envy and rage of the poor to fester and spread, leading to the sort of mass movements that caused breath-taking disasters in the last century. We have many people who would be willing to help and we have an endless supply of places that need help. We have plenty of work to do, and more awareness than we sometimes admit of how to start on that work. What we don’t have is a lot of time.

The way we were

Bucking bales was a central summer task for many rural people in that Montana that is already a part of the past.

Bucking bales was a central summer task for many rural people in that Montana that is already a part of the past.

I grew up in a small town on an Indian reservation in a one of the spectacular mountain valleys of western Montana. We had enough mass media in those post-World War II days for me to think my home was poor and rural, far from important people and significant events that seemed more real because television cameras broadcast them to the whole world. My earliest memory that could be called “political” was of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, when, for the first time in history, the media corporations patched together without satellites a haphazard nationwide network, bringing live coverage of the speeches and ceremonies that surrounded the state funeral of one of the early heroes of the television age. A global village had formed, though its presence was weak, in black and white, without much detail.

That media empire wasn’t my primary environment. I could buy balsa wood glider airplanes for a quarter at Gambles and spend entire afternoons wandering valley meadows, finding the best hills to launch. I bought a transistor radio about the size of baloney sandwich, one of the first purchases I made with money from my first job, driving a Massey-Ferguson pulling a harrow, changing sprinkler pipes, bucking bales of hay on a neighbor’s dairy ranch. The speakers were scratchy by current standards and the AM stations were sometimes elusive, but I could keep up with top 40 pop rock songs: “Midnight Confessions,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” and such. I tuned in occasionally, in the evenings, when real life slowed. After we got a television, my mother kept it on constantly, an endless drama of soap operas flowing from crisis to crisis as she ironed and cleaned, drinking long-necked bottles of Pepsi. By then I wasn’t spending much time at home. My life, outside school, was spent mostly with friends—riding horses on mountain trails, shooting shotguns at ducks, conspiring in nearly random acts of little vandalism that was more contemptible than criminal.

Always, I had a sense that these things were nearly unreal—not that I doubted they existed in some durable and consequential way—but just that I knew reality was mostly something else. The troubles and triumphs of my little life were the tangible edge of something I couldn’t penetrate, the deeply-spinning, spiraled magic of which the Milky Way was only a glittering garland. My friends cared little about this and mocked such things, so I kept a distance.

As soon as I learned to read, the weekly trips to the small library–started a generation before by the St. Ignatius Women’s Club, a handful of wives and mothers who got together to talk about culture and to serve the town—became the high point of my week. Reading reassured me that I wasn’t alone and wasn’t crazy. The words I heard reverberating in my head, thoughts from beyond that were mine but not just mine, connected me entire to entire kingdoms reaching both into heaven and hell, giving substance to impressions I had that more was at stake than people around me ever talked about.

My mother was insistent about getting me and my siblings to church every Sunday. I wasn’t rebellious, except in a superficial, adolescent way. I’ve always had the gift of belief. The great stories of a shepherd boy defeating a giant, of seas parting at the last moment and of a miraculous birth were all I had found that seemed true enough to make sense of a momentousness that I sensed but could not see in the unfolding daily events around me. I knew that like Frodo I was little and vulnerable but nonetheless at a center of an epic tale happening mostly in the great Beyond I discovered in my mind.

Some of what I found in the Bible didn’t resonate with me. The prophets spoke repeatedly to people who were wicked in ways I couldn’t fathom, urging them to stop doing things that I knew nothing about. I had never known anyone, or even imagined anyone, who delighted in bloodshed, for example. The prohibitions against various forms of sexual lust seemed pro forma. While I knew vaguely that people acted badly, I didn’t see or hear much more than rumor. The people I actually experienced were nice and respectable. They might keep the money if a clerk accidentally gave them too much change, and they routinely made “California” stops at stop signs on empty roads, and they often spoke rudely to others and occasionally got in physical fights, but I had no real idea what the deal was in Sodom. It was true that drunks lying passed out beside buildings or in the weeds along roads were not rare, and bullying was routine at school, but it still seemed that real bad guys existed mostly in Hollywood imaginations.

Though I couldn’t notice it then, the authorial voice I encountered in book after book interpreted reality with the same basic decency as the adults who ran my world. I now know that the point of view which I took as a foundation of life was a cultural construct, a human achievement centuries in the making. My decent and ordinary childhood was made possible by the intentional invention of a world where, to play with Auden’s great lines, promises were kept, and one could weep because another wept. We were a neighborly and a compassionate people, dropping off a venison roast and a brick of cheese to a family down on its luck, gathering at the houses of mourning, stopping to help a guy with a flat, feeling the honor of paying our bills and being honest with the people we met.

To a great extent, we are still that way, but it no longer seems a universal way of being and other ways are well established around us. There have been two murders within a block of my house within the past ten years, denizens of that underclass which the important people no longer deign to teach. One night in my work as a volunteer EMT I was dispatched to help a young man, thrashing and screaming unintelligibly on a gravel back road. His face had been stomped and his tongue had been cut out—a witness to the vibrant drug culture that passes mostly unseen by people with nice cars and jobs but which is really only inches or moments away.

The great scholar of antiquity, Hugh Nibley, once remarked, “Woe unto the generation that understands the Book of Mormon.” That book parallels the Bible in telling repeated histories of cultural and spiritual decay with people eventually finding themselves impotent, bound on every side by enemies and trouble. That was then. Now, here, terrorists compete with other terrorists to slaughter people in the most horrific ways they can imagine, capturing their atrocities in high definition video and broadcasting them to the world. Their delight in bloodshed defines them. Bloggers chronicle the daily death toll of murders in the tough neighborhoods of Chicago. Slave traffickers find business is properous, their wealth and power growing. The murder and mayhem of drug cartels on our border makes itself felt far north, in communities large and small.

An awareness has grown gradually that  old scriptures are now resonant and relevant in ways that were hard to see a short time ago. No text is more relevant to right now than the Bible.