Personal Life Inspired by the Spirit: Redefining Virtue

by Robert Kane

Robert Kane is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas

The following is a transcript from the 1996 Center for Progressive Christianity National Forum. Information and resources from the Center for Progressive Christianity are available at


Kane summarizes his book, Through the Moral Maze: Searching for Absolute Values in a Pluralistic World, M. E. Sharpe Publishers, Armonk N.Y., 1994. (A North Castle Paperback), calling for a stage of consciousness that requires us to develop new kinds of spirituality and new understandings of religion and of ethics and values as well.

I should say at the beginning that when I was asked to do this, I asked Jim Adams what the subject matter of my remarks should be, given the title of this session, and he couldn't tell me. We all have our own ideas on this subject he said and he didn't want to constrain me. So I can only say that these are my own ideas about "rethinking religion and redefining virtue in the modern world." I don't claim more for them than that, but I hope they will be stimulating enough to generate some good discussion. My background is I think very different from most people here, although I have run into a number of academics, so I don't feel totally alone. First, I am a professor of philosophy and a professional philosopher, I guess you could say, privy to the philosophical movements of the twentieth century, many of which, for better or worse, have had an influence on theology and thinking about religion. Second, because I teach at a very large secular state university, one of the largest in the nation in one of the largest states, with a growing multicultural population, I am constantly required to think about religion (and what my own Christian faith means) in a pluralistic setting. With the influx of a tremendous number of Asians moving into Texas of all varieties, we have added to the usual mix of Protestants (of all denominations), Catholics and Jews at the university, many Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs and so on. The surprising thing is that, despite the religious differences, they are all, or most of them, Texans and Americans. They grew up in Texas and are part of Texan and American culture now, which tells us how rapidly the world is changing.

In any case, I know from this experience something about the young and their confusions, and the dangers of drifting away from organized religion. Doubts of these kinds seem to be a common problem these days, no matter what the religious persuasion. A couple of months ago, for example, I saw several different students successively one afternoon, one Jewish, several Christian, but also a Muslim student, whose parents immigrated to this country from the Middle East, and a Hindu student whose parents came here from India. All felt the threat of secular culture. And it is funny how the pattern is always the same. My parents remain religious. They hold to their traditions, but I find myself drifting away in modern American culture. It's not just a problem for Christians, but for believers in general. What I tell them in almost every case is to go back and take another look at their own tradition and give it another chance, if they still retain their religious aspirations.

As Gandhi said, it is hard to be religious in general. You have to be so in some tradition or other. If you are not totally disenchanted with it, why not give your own another look. After all, your knowledge of it when you drifted was probably of a twelve or thirteen-year old level. There are more sophisticated versions you need to explore as an adult. If good people leave because of a few doubts here and there, traditional religion may be left to the fanatics, the bomb-throwers and those who cannot communicate with the secular world we all must live in. The truth is that values have a hold on us only in so far as they are the continuation of the people we learned them from, some other cherished persons, somebody we love or care about, or some groups we love or care about. The search for meaning, like spirituality itself, when it loses its roots, tends to either wither away or become self-indulgent.

The main theme I want to communicate to you today (related to all of the above) is that reactions to the modern secular world are of two kinds: on the one side are those people who slowly but inexorably drift away from religion, becoming indifferent to it. Let's refer to that as secular drift. We know how prevalent this reaction is and we have heard about it from many other discussions and talks since last night. The other reaction, which we've heard something about as well is what I call fundamentalist retrenchment. One takes a look at the modern world, finds it alien and hostile to one's beliefs, and retrenches into one's own tradition, claiming on authority that it is the one true faith and all other beliefs misguided and perverted. What I'd like to say about this split between secular drift and fundamentalist retrenchment is that it is not merely a temporary or a local phenomenon in the modern world.

First, it is worldwide; you can find it throughout the world where modern secular culture has penetrated. The recent Israeli elections are a good example of polarization into these two groups—secular Jews and orthodox retrenchers—the latter wanting to prohibit driving on the main streets of Jerusalem on the Sabbath, the latter wanting to conduct their business any day they please. Nor I think is the split temporary either. It's going to be with us for a long time—at the center of things in the twenty-first century. For not only is this split between secular drift and fundamentalist retrenchment not local or temporary, it's also not superficial, but very deep. I think it is symptomatic of a new stage of human consciousness that we are reaching at the end of the twentieth century--a stage of consciousness that is calling for us to develop new kinds of spirituality and new understandings of religion and, indeed, of ethics and values as well.

There have been other periods like this in human history. In the first chapter of my book Through the Moral Maze,* I talk about the most significant of those periods of great intellectual change in human history, the so-called "Axial Period" about 2,5OO years ago, also sometimes called the period of "The Great Awakening." All over the world at that time, simultaneously in different cultures, there sprang into existence many of the religious and spiritual ideas that have guided the human race ever since. It was the age of Confucius in China, of the Buddha in India, and of Mahavira, founder of Jainism, the period also when the principal Hindu Upanishads were written, of Lao-tzu and the flourishing of Taoism in China, of the prophet Zoroaster in the Middle East, of the great transformative prophets Ezekiel, Jeremiah and second-Isaiah in Israel, and finally this was the period of the birth of philosophy and science and what we call Western culture in Greece, all these developments at the same time arising independently in different cultures for reasons not yet fully understood—a kind of quickening of human consciousness all over the globe.

I think this sort of transformation does, in fact, happen, and I think it is happening today. In fact, it has been happening for about four centuries, in the West at least. We call it "modernity." And the reactions of secular drift and fundamentalist retrenchment are the two most natural reactions to this change of consciousness we are experiencing in the modern era. I think we need to see these reactions in this broader context to see them aright and to know how to address them.

The two features of modernity that give rise to the two opposed reactions of secular drift and fundamentalist retrenchment I refer to in my book as pluralism and uncertainty. Pluralism is just the fact that there are many different religions and conflicting points of view about important matters out there in one's cultural environment—the recognition if you will of a modern Tower of Babel. Such pluralism when it becomes pervasive is a very corrosive thing. If there are other views besides my own, and they are taken seriously by other people, that has to erode or at least threaten my own convictions. In a pluralist world, what may be called moral innocence tends to be lost, that is, the innocence we have as children growing up that our own religion and the views about right and wrong we were taught are the only ones, unchallengeable and unambiguous. When we confront others with different views about how to live, we are tempted to ask: "If others can do it, why can't I?" C. S. Lewis suggested that a modern version of the Fall in the Garden of An Eden (coming to "know good and evil") might be interpreted this way—coming to know that one's own view of good and evil is not the only one and may not be the correct one.

But pluralism alone need not lead to doubt and secular drift. There is something else playing a role—namely uncertainty. Pluralism would be no problem if we had the assurance and certainty that our own view was the absolutely right one and all others wrong. But many other trends of modernity have conspired to undermine that certainty. Indeed, in a world of many points of view, there is a deep philosophical problem involved in trying to defend the claim that one point of view is right and all others wrong when fundamental beliefs and values are involved. To argue that one view--your own, for example--is objectively right and others wrong, you have to present evidence. But the evidence must be gathered and interpreted from one's own point of view. If the dispute is about values, some of the evidence will include beliefs about good and evil that are not going to be accepted by those who have fundamental disagreements with your values in the first place. Values must be defended by appealing to other more fundamental values and beliefs that are also yours (perhaps you will refer to the Bible or the Qur'an or some other sacred text) which are not going to be accepted by those who have basic disagreements with your point of view in the first place. (Even those who share your sacred text may not interpret it as you do).

There is a troubling circularity involved in such debates--the circularity of defending your own point of view from your own point of view, of defending your values in terms of other values you also hold, but others may not. The problem arises because, as finite creatures, we inevitably see the world from some particular point of view limited by culture and history. How can we climb out of our historically and culturally conditioned perspectives to find an objective standpoint above all the competing points of view? This problem haunts the modern intellectual landscape. One sees variations of it in many fields of study (for example, in trendy new movements like postmodernism) and everywhere it produces doubts among reflective people about the possibility of justifying belief in objective intellectual, cultural and moral standards.

It is this combination of pluralism and uncertainty that does in the attempt to solve the modern problematic by fundamentalist retrenchment. The fundamentalist retrenches to his own particular fortress and claims that it is the correct one and everyone else is wrong, which can only be done by ignoring the real problems of pluralism and uncertainty. If there is anything that must define a progressive Christianity in the modern age, it is that you simply can't retrench to your own position, appeal on authority to your given text and let it go at that as far as seeking the truth of your own view is concerned. But if secular drift is not to be the only other option, we must rethink the meaning of being religious—and Christian—in an age of pluralism and uncertainty.

To do this, I suggest we must start with an idea of what I call aspiration. This is an interesting term, insofar as it signifies an "out-flowing of the spirit"—a flowing outward beyond our own selfish interests and limited perspectives. Aspiration is more than hope in the ordinary sense which Cicero defines as expectatio boni (expectation of the good), insofar as one can hope for something while sitting around in an armchair doing nothing to bring it about. Aspiration, by contrast--as outflowing of the spirit--is an entire form of life involving a patient spiritual or intellectual search for what is hoped for. (In that respect it is far closer to the Christian virtue of hope than to the ordinary meaning of the term "hope.") But my particular take on aspiration is to view it also as a search for the truth of what one believes in a pluralistic and uncertain world. Let us grant to the modern spirits of the times that, as finite creatures, our view of the world is necessarily limited. (This finiteness of point of view is after all a traditional religious idea, not just a modern one.) Aspiration would then involve a search beyond one's own selfish concerns and limited perspectives to find out what is true from every point of view (objectively true)—an "outflowing of our spirit" beyond oneself.

What does this mean in practice? It means first acknowledging that we can hold to our religious belief with all the conviction we can muster, believing it is true, but cannot claim certainty for it, because our perspective is limited and only one among many. (Another Christian virtue suggests itself here, namely humility.) The truth of our religion is not something we have, whole and complete here and now, but something that will reveal itself gradually over time to a patient a-spirational search—a search in which our spirit flows "out from" ourselves to see what is true from all points of view (objectively true), not just from our own. What kind of search? Well, taking a clue from outflowing beyond one's own point of view, the first step would be to practice a certain openness to other points of view besides your own. "If you want to know what's true from every point of view (not just your own), then you have to open your mind to every point of view." I recall Gail Harris's talk to us last night in which she spoke of seeing God's presence in those who are most different from us.

That's the basic idea here. It means among other things respecting other religions as well as other people and trying to learn from them, without giving up conviction in one's own. This is the opposite, be it noted, of fundamentalist retrenchment. Instead of holing up in one's own limited point of view and claiming objective truth for it, one has to be willing to let one's spirit expand--flow outward with genuine understanding--to find the objective truth. What I am suggesting is not merely being charitable and tolerant to others who are different, but rather that this respect for difference, openness, is an indispensable part of the search for the objective truth of one's own beliefs. (In short, charity, yet another fundamental Christian virtue, viewed not merely as a commandment or a disposition of the heart, but as a way of showing that one's view is true from every point of view.)

The modern fear is that such openness and tolerance practiced without restriction will lead to relativism--the belief that no view about right and wrong and no religion is any better or more correct than any other. Relativism in this form is the scourge of the times, everywhere creating indifference to objective intellectual, cultural and moral standards. But this is where things get really interesting. What I show in my Through the Moral Maze is that starting with such openness as part of an aspirational search for the truth (rather than merely an indifference to what is true or right), one does not arrive at a relativism about fundamental values and beliefs, but at the result that some ways of life and systems of belief are objectively more worthy of respect, or more true, than others and some less worthy. And one also arrives (surprisingly) in the same way at certain universal principles of right and wrong. And it is of special interest for Christians that these principles of right and wrong at which one arrives include the Golden Rule (which is stated by Jesus in the gospel of Matthew, as well as in most other major world religions) and the middle ethical requirements of the Ten Commandments (thou shalt not kill, lie, steal, cheat, etc.).

The claim that one can get all this by starting with such an openness to other points of view may seem surprising, and perhaps altogether incredible. But I think it can be made. The important point is that openness not be viewed merely as tolerance or indifference, but as part of an aspirational search for the truth from every point of view--as a genuine outflowing of the spirit toward others, including those who are different. (When you think about it that way it may not seem so surprising that such a search should lead to the Golden Rule and universal principles of right and wrong applying to everyone, like the Commandments--though the steps involved in getting to these results are by no means trivial.)

This is one kind of openness that I think aspiration requires—openness to other points of view. But there is another kind of openness that is also crucial, it seems to me, to the future of spirituality and religious belief-openness to the future. This is another kind of "outflowing" of the spirit, in this case in a temporal direction. It implies a new view of religious "revelation" that is "future directed" rather than entirely "past-directed." Past-directed views of revelation are familiar and traditional. The revealed truth is set down once and for all in a book or revealed through prophets or otherwise handed down from the past; all the truth we need is already there; we preserve it, interpret it and see that it is not debased or corrupted. The future directed view, by contrast, is that revelation about God and religious truth is a continuing thing and, in fact, a lot more of it is ahead of us than is behind us. Being part of a religion or a community of faith is being part of an aspirational search for that truth, a search that is guided and constrained by past revelation to be sure, but still unfolding. As Gotthold Lessing said at the height of the Enlightenment, "no religion has the whole truth, only God has the whole truth." We might add, it will only be slowly revealed to us. As openness to other points of view allows one to reconcile faith with pluralism, so openness to the future in the form of future directed revelation allows one to reconcile faith with uncertainty. The whole and complete truth is not something we can claim to have with certainty at any time, but it reveals itself to us slowly in a community of faith.

This point takes me to a broader theme that I have been working on for years about values in general with implications for religion. Return for a moment to modernity—that great sea-change of human consciousness of the past several centuries (characterized by pluralism and uncertainty) that is leading us to a new Axial period. Thoughtful, reflective persons are on the near side of this great modern divide, and I don't think they can go back to premodern ways of thinking, about values as well as religion (any more than they can go back to thinking that the world is flat or lies at the center of the universe). Now one of the things we all know has characterized this great divide between the ancient and the modern world-views is the importance of science. The endless strife between science and religion has been characteristic of the modern era, from Copernicus to Darwin. Indeed, the tendency of modernity has been to gradually substitute science for religion as the last court of appeal on controversial matters—though religious people have resisted this tendency every step of the way.

Now my purpose in mentioning this is not to get into these familiar modern disputes between science and religion such as that between creation and evolution. Rather I want to suggest that we look at science in more positive ways and ask, "what is its secret?" Why has science come to be regarded as the proper method for seeking the objective truth in the modern age? And what might that tell us about religion and values? What science says—its secret so to speak—is that all knowing is a very patient process of learning through experience that is never complete. We call this process experimental, which basically means that we don't know the answer with certainty at the beginning (nor can we simply accept an answer on authority without testing it), but only when the experiment is over. You will note that this is very much like what we were calling earlier "future-directed" revelation. The whole truth is not given to us in advance on authority, but must be teased out over time through patient searching. But now I want to relate this experimental idea more broadly to the idea of value. We also test values in experience, by living them. So it is appropriate to speak (as I have done in the past) about "value experiments."

Some people think one can only have genuine "experiments" in science. You can't experiment with values. That's why, they believe, we can have objectivity in science, but none about values. But that's absolute nonsense. We are performing value experiments all the time. The two most fundamental ones I can think of (which have a captivating effect on my students because of the stage of their lives) are a marriage and a career. Both of these are value experiments and we know they can fail miserably for many persons over against their aspirations and expectations. Karl Popper, the great twentieth century philosopher of science, insisted that what makes experiments genuinely scientific is that the experiments can falsify the theories being tested as well as support them (his famous "criterion of falsifiability").

In short, they can fail or turn out badly. So genuine theories take a risk of failure. But this is eminently true of value experiments as well. Some marriages and careers succeed, some fail. Social and economic policies put into practice are also value experiments; some fail and some succeed. We can experiment with political ideologies (e.g., Marxism) and expose them to failure in practice. At more mundane levels, a vacation, a party or a date are value experiments and we have all had experiences of success and failure with all three.

Value experiments, of course, are not exactly like scientific experiments. (We are talking about an analogy here, but a powerful and suggestive one.) They have to be lived and then tested over against our expectations, our needs, our goals and purposes. But, like scientific experiments, when you go into them you don't expect certainty before you start. What can you reply to someone who says "I am not going to get married until you prove to me with absolute certainty that this is the right woman for me!" Sometimes a student will sit in my office and say, "Unless you can show me that being a doctor is what I should do, I just can't bring myself to do it. " Well, no one can give you that kind of certainty. Everything worthwhile in life is a risk. We try to become wise in order to select value experiments that are worth trying, but they all involve to some degree or another (in direct proportion to their significance) a leap of faith.

Which brings us back to religion. Since religions are not just abstracttheories about the world, but ways of life, it is enlightening to view them also as value experiments. Their truth is in the living and cannot be known with certainty in advance. "You demonstrate to me that this is true. Otherwise, I'm not joining up! "—doesn't make any more sense for religion than for marriage or career. The demonstrating is in the living, and it's not over 'til it's over. And the thing about religious value experiments, why they are different from others is, of course, that the payoff isn't even in this life. That's all the more reason why it should be a considerable amount of uncertainty connected with it.

So if we look at modern science—not as an enemy of religion here—but as telling us something about seeking the objective truth, then we ought to look at it as teaching us that the truth is something you work out patiently in practice, by experimenting. It is an object of aspiration, not of certain knowledge. And the experimenting is done by living, since we must ultimately test values by living in accord with them (or imaging doing so in our minds so as to judge what's worth testing) and religion is a way of life, not just a theory. Note how in many of the world's major religions, the idea that religion is a "Way" is crucial. Christ said, "I am The Way, The Life and the Truth" an interesting juxtaposition of words in the light of what was just said about value experiments and ways of life. The truth is demonstrated by living a certain way. Buddhism has its "Eightfold Way" and the Chinese word that captures the notion of the highest reality and also defines the way of life that is the most revered in the Chinese tradition is the Tao, (the "T" pronounced as a "D," of course) which means literally, "the Way." It is represented by a Chinese character with the bottom part of it meaning moving or going, and the top part meaning thinking or reflecting. The truth of the religion is in the thoughtful living of it. "See those Christians, how they love one another." There would be evidence for the truth of the religion, not in the theories and the beliefs alone, but in the lives.

Thinking about religion in such value experimental terms is therefore far from being eccentric, if we think of the prevalence of expressions like the "way," the "truth" and the "life." But I think this is also how you must deal with values in general. The value of anything is in the living of it and in the fruits as we like to say, of the experiment. In my book, I quote William Butler Yeats, one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century who, in his book A Vision, asked after all of his studies and everything he learned, what was the one great truth he had discovered. "It's this," he said. "Human beings can embody the truth but cannot know it." I think you can see how this fits what I've been saying. We embody the truth when we live the right kind of life, but we should not claim to know it with certainty because it is still work in progress--an object of aspiration--and we will not know till the end. (The virtue of humility once again.) Yeats I think was right. His is a great truth, a profound truth.

I conclude with two final ideas that I think we will also need to revision faith in a new Axial period. First, what we ultimately seek in value experimenting I believe is objective meaning and significance in our lives. I define this in my book in terms of a notion of objective worth. The loss of belief in such a notion is characteristic of secular drift. So getting people to think about this notion is the first step in getting them to think again about religion. You can take persons who have lost their religion and have drifted into secularism and drag them back by asking them whether they think that things they do in life should or should not have objective worth.

One example I use in Through the Moral Maze to test the matter is about a fellow named Alan, the painter. Alan is deeply into painting and wants to be a great artist, but he isn't having much success. A friend, who runs an art gallery, seeing Alan's depression and fearing suicide, buys Alan's paintings and pretends to be selling them for $10,000 leading Alan to believe that he is becoming a famous painter. Alan comes out of his depression, and sometime later he dies happily.

I pose to the reader, or any person, the following dilemma: Imagine Alan in two possible worlds: one world like the one just described in which he thought he was a great painter and felt completely happy about this, and died, but was deceived and another world in which he really was a good painter and his paintings sold for a high price because he was being recognized as such and was not deceived, and again dies happily. Which world would you rather live in? Alan opts for the second world where he really is a great artist and is not deceived because his painting is important to him. And so would most of us. We would find it demeaning to be told: "oh, you know, your paintings (or whatever we think we're doing that's important) aren't worth a hoot, but you're having a good time doing them and that's all that matters."

Now notice what is at issue here. In both worlds Alan dies happily. His subjective happiness is exactly the same in both worlds. So if someone says, like Alan, that he would rather live in the second, non-deceived world (as most of us would) he is committing himself to saying that something beyond subjective happiness is important to him, namely the "objective worth" of his life and whatever he accomplishes in it. And most people tend to answer in the same way. Even those who have drifted far from religion and into secularism find it hard to sincerely answer that it wouldn't matter to them which world they lived in. They find it hard to lose touch with objective worth and the desire for it in their lives. But this is a hook it seems to me to bring them back to revisioning religion, for reflecting on objective worth and what is required to attain it will lead one back to a deeper and more profound understanding of religion. But this is another story that I try to tell in my book and is too long to tell here.

The second and (I promise) the final idea I want to discuss this afternoon that we will need to revision religion in a new Axial period is the idea of a mosaic of truth and value. When we think in future about the truth of religion, I think we must think in terms of this idea also. When we want to know the truth, we want to know the way the world really is. But there is no single way that the world really is--but many ways. Take New York City. You can describe it in an endless number of ways from different points of view. You get one picture of New York City during a given day from the weather man, another from the society columnist, another from the head of subways and sewers, another from the economist who covers Wall Street, and so on and on indefinitely. Now if someone were to say "I don't want all these different partial descriptions of New York City, I want the real New York City," the proper answer would be the real New York City is in all the different partial descriptions put together, like a mosaic--an inlay of different colored stones (the different perspectives of the weatherman, the society columnist, etc.) that make a total picture when put together. Since each perspective is partial and limited, we think that none gets the real or objective picture of New York. But the real New York is not something over and above the partial perspectives, but the summation of them. No perspective gets the whole truth yet each is an indispensable part of the whole truth. I think we are going to have to think about religious truth also in this way in the future, not insisting that "I have the whole spiritual truth" but rather that "I have an indispensable part of that truth, so you'd better listen." It seems to me that it should be enough to be indispensable (LAUGHTER) without having to have the whole truth. We Christians have something essential to tell the world, and that's good enough for evangelizing, I think. If I'm carrying a torch in a dark world, I'm going to be glad down the road that some Hindu or Buddhist who is also carrying a torch, because all that does is add a little more light to a very dark world. If they don't fully understand me and I don't fully understand them, well we both need time. In the meanwhile, be glad they are carrying another torch. It's the darkness that is the enemy.

To sum up, I have suggested a few ideas—aspiration (understood as an "outflowing" of the spirit), openness, future-directed revelation, value experiments, objective worth, the mosaic of truth—that I think will be needed to revision Christianity and religious faith in a new axial period and perhaps may also help us find a way between secular drift and fundamentalist retrenchment. Thank you for listening.

* Robert Kane, Through the Moral Maze: Searching for Absolute Values in a Pluralistic World, M. E. Sharpe Publishers, Armonk N.Y., 1994. (A North Castle Paperback)