Sunday, February 21, 2010

Lent, Spirituality, and Ethics

I mentioned last post that Willow and I were forgoing meat for this Lenten season, something that we felt was an environmentally responsible choice first, with other considerations following.

That is true for that specific set of choices, but I also feel like I want to note that the spiritual element (although I do dislike that word) is a real component. Over the last three or four years, Willow and I have been attending an Episcopal church here, in part for a kind of education for the children, but also for our own impulses.

For me, I've struggled with this choice mightily: I was raised in an increasingly fundamentalist/evangelical home, and after I left for college, spent about a decade drifting between agnosticism and atheism. Importantly, I think I still have not rejected those positions, but I've also stopped rejecting the Christian theology that I had been for so long. We started with this parish about three years ago, when close friends visited and wanted to attend an Episcopal church. I joined them, and since that time, we have tentatively but steadily become more involved.

Even so, I approach religion from a position of doubt, but one open to possibility. I still shudder at the language of sin, authority, and hierarchy, and yet embedded in much Christian theology is the set of ethical principals that I still, and have always, tried to hold close.

Estranging ethics from the language of sin and virtue is, as I am finding, no mean feat, and so you can imagine the semantic gymnastics required to negotiate a season such as Lent. And yet from the sermon today, i find myself meditating on--of all things--the seven deadly sins. Not as sins, per se, but as behaviors and practices that provide the language for a more proactively ethical life.

Wrath: That I might avoid looking at other people as obstacles to my own desires without first considering their needs.

Greed: That I might evaluate my worth and that of others on actions and not on markers of material wealth or privilege.

Sloth: That I might be motivate to work to better the lives of those most in need to mitigate suffering.

Pride: That I remember that I am not the center of any moral universe but (perhaps) my own, and that no one owes me that position of privilege.

Lust: That I remain as interested in my partner's pleasure as much as my own.

Envy: That I admire in others their talents and achievements without resenting them.

Gluttony: That I make the best use of my resources for the health of my body, my family, and my environment.

In general, I find that this set of principals is much easier for me to sign on to, even if (or perhaps because) it skews from ecclesiastical definitions of these ideas. What remains true within all of them, however, as an attempt to ethically engage those around me with as much consideration as possible, and to weigh the good of my family, my community, and the world as highly or even more highly than I weigh my own surplus pleasure.

I am not blind to all the ways that the discourse surrounding these 'sins' has been used for all kinds of social control and institutional empowerment, and so I am trying to be both very careful with how I imagine them (not all desire is lust; not all eating is gluttony, etc.), and how I talk about them, if at all. But if this is in fact a season for self reflection, then using the lens of ethics, the one that incites the fewest misgivings for me, seems the way to do it.


klatu said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rosemary said...

I really like your reframing of the seven deadlies, Horace. It reminds us that organized religion isn't necessarily antithetical to reason, but just provides a different template for ethical behavior.

My siblings and I (all non-religious) were amazed and tremendously moved by how much my parents' church network kicked in when my dad died last fall. We all agreed that we loved the "community" aspect of church--if only it weren't for the theology.

But your post suggests that even the theology can be made more palatable with a little adaptation.