Chapter 5: Moral Implications

The Lure of Divine Love: Human Experience and Christian Faith in a Process Perspective
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 5: Moral Implications

Not long ago, a "Humanist Manifesto" was published and signed by more than a hundred leaders in various fields coming from English-speaking countries around the world. The signatories declared their conviction that "no God will save us; we must save ourselves" as we face the problems for which humanity must find a solution if human existence is to continue on this planet. Much of the manifesto was directed against "God" although it was addressed to a specific concept of God -- and about this we shall speak in Chapter 7. But there was one statement that is of special interest to us as in our consideration of the moral implications of process thought. "We affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience," the humanist statement ran. "Ethics is autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction." And the manifesto denounced any morality that is supposed to be founded on "promises of immortal salvation or fear of eternal damnation."

In all this we have a frank and total rejection of an ethic whose source and validation is in some power or person entirely external to humankind. The popular notion that moral behavior is possible only when it is backed by a calculus of divinely granted rewards and punishments was refuted. If there is to be any sound ethic, we were told by the people who issued the manifesto, it must be derived from human experience, related to the situations in which people find themselves, and given what was called "autonomy" -- by which was meant a denial of a standard imposed from outside, or apart from, the human experience with which we are all familiar.

When we consider the enormous amount of suffering that various traditional ethical systems have inflicted on men, women, and children, we may well sympathize with the attitude of the signers of that manifesto. Human societies, both civil and ecclesiastical, have been responsible for appalling damage to human personality in requiring obedience to rules or codes that violate freedom by putting people into moral straitjackets and by trying to make people good by legal sanctions. But we may well ask if it is really possible to have an ethic that is entirely autonomous and that is derived solely from human experience, for while supranaturalistic sanctions, and promises of reward or fear of punishment, can never produce genuine goodness, the general sense of humankind has been plain enough: that in some fashion or other goodness is in accordance with the structure of things, in some relationship with the grain of the universe, or what Whitehead once called the "rightness" that runs through everything.

The question frequently being asked in our day is whether there are any moral absolutes or whether everything is relative. Many would say that absolutes are not for finite humanity to know; but many would say that if everything is relative, then there can be no morality at all. The Humanist Manifesto itself appeals to sympathy, compassion, and understanding as being in some undefined fashion absolute in nature. It does not commend an ethic of dog eat dog, nor does it urge that each person should be for himself or herself, and the devil take the hindmost. On the contrary, it asks for cooperation, social awareness and concern, and above all a chance for men and women to realize fully their potential personhood. These are taken as having what may properly be styled a permanent character, although they are not given that character because some deus ex machina has established them.

We have seen that process thought is particularly insistent upon human existence as organic to the world of nature, so that an awareness of that existence is important for our grasp of what the world is like. Human life emerged from the wider cosmic order, it belongs to it, and it depends on it. Hence, it is not unreasonable to conclude that human existence discloses something about it. We have also seen another emphasis in the process perspective: that human experience takes persuasion to be better than force, and that somehow the history of the human race’s development is in fact the story of the victory of persuasion over force. Might it not then be the case that human experience in this deeper sense, with its conviction about the centrality of persuasion (call it love, if you wish), does indeed provide a grounding for morality? Since men and women live one with another in common human situations, in an interrelationship through common sharing in their existence, might it not be the case that a consideration of the meaning of this common life will give us some clue to an ethic that will certainly be autonomous yet be most profoundly associated with the cosmic structure and the cosmic dynamic?

This is a sound way of reasoning. While there is plenty of evil in the natural order, and a great deal of evil in humankind’s selfish willing and acting, the insight of the ages (in all developing cultures and as people deepen their sensitivity) tells us that despite the evil, and even in conflict with it, there is a movement toward sharing, toward participation, toward community, toward love. It is not absurd to put this in the language of Teilhard de Chardin, the French paleontologist, and speak of "amorization" -- a development in love and in loving -- as the one thing upon which we may rely and in which we may put our ultimate trust.

If we accept such a view, there is surely one absolute amidst all the relativities of human experience. That absolute is nothing other than love itself, with its corollary in the imperative that we should live in, grow in, express, and share love. This is the starting point for our consideration of the moral implications of process thought. But it does not stand alone, for there is the dynamic or "becoming" aspect of human existence, as men and women either move toward or move away from the fulfillment or actualization of their potentialities. When we bring together the imperative of love and the fact of human "becoming," and also remember that we are social creatures who necessarily live in community with our human brothers and sisters, the fundamental ethical question becomes plain: Am I, are you, moving in the direction of deeper and more inclusive love of our neighbors, or am I, are you, moving in the opposite direction?

Love in this sense can then be taken as absolute, with its associated imperative to loving relationships. Everything else can be regarded as relative, including conventional moral codes, rules, and regulations, however much the latter may have been thought to be divinely revealed, as many have described the Ten Commandments, or to be divinely implanted in the human nature we share, like the "natural law" about which traditional ethical theory has often spoken. This ordering of priorities with love as supreme and laws as secondary is no new invention. Jesus enunciated it in saying that love of God and of our neighbors "sums up" or "fulfills" the older Jewish law. Paul said the same: love is the fulfilling of the law. Gautama Buddha taught it, although with a more passive emphasis in his way of phrasing it. Confucius and Lao-Tze in China accepted a similar ethic. The classical Christian theological tradition has explicitly recognized this ordering, as when, for example, Thomas Aquinas said that the nova lex, "the new law" that he spoke of as being "in our hearts," is the "charity" that comprehends all the other virtues.

The discussion between humanists of goodwill (like the signers of the Humanist Manifesto) and those of us who wish to urge some cosmic grounding for moral values has been bedeviled by the way in which so much of our inherited ethical teaching has invoked sanctions that are not really moral at all but essentially external impositions whose result is to turn people into robots. Yet religious people at their best have seen more deeply than that. They have glimpsed but not always been able to state properly the point I made above, namely, that there is in the cosmos a movement toward moral goodness, summed up in love and in action-in-love, which seeks for human cooperation and human expression. Conversely, we may well believe that the humanist urge for sharing in the common life as the only viable basis for true fulfillment of human potentiality is itself a reflection of and an instrument for a greater love among humans because of a cosmic sharing together. What matters most of all, then, is awareness of the absolute nature of love, sharing, participation, and commonality. At this point both the humanist and the religious man or woman can come together in concrete and practical ways.

According to the process way of thinking, love is indeed the absolute. This is because the purpose of creation is the development of possibilities in relationship at every level -- in a dim and inarticulate fashion below the human and in more fully conscious fashion as we rise in the creative process to the human level where we find ourselves. This is not to imply that there need be no guidelines or intimations about how love may best be put to work. We need not throw away the moral heritage that has come to us through the centuries, but neither need we give its dictates absolute status. We can learn from our ancestors, and if process thinking is right, we must do this since the past has provided us with the materials in terms of which present decisions may be made, and has also made us what we now are. Our moral slant, our recognition of the centrality of love, and our concern for sharing are part of that inheritance. But to learn from the past does not mean that one must be tied to it. In many areas we have new knowledge that may seriously modify earlier positions, and this new knowledge cannot be dismissed out of hand.

I mention two examples of necessary moral change among the many that might be cited. Consider how what we have learned about human sexuality, with respect both to its origins and to its sociological aspects, has altered the general attitude toward sexual desire and expression. The next chapter will discuss this in detail. Or consider how our recent experience has brought home to us vividly the imperatives of ecological responsibility. No longer can we regard ourselves as rulers of the whole earth, with no concern for the consequences of what we do with natural resources, the environment, and the relationship that exists between the human and the natural.

We urgently need also to attend to the difference that is made in moral judgment once we take seriously the developmental or "becoming" nature of human existence. In a day when it was assumed that this existence was a finished product, "an individual substance of a rational nature" created much as it now is, judgment could be given with respect to this or that specific act which was or was not "according to human nature." But when we see that each of us is a self-conscious "routing" in which the past is used as an occasion for decisions in the present and toward goals that lure us from a nondeterminated future, moral judgment must be in terms of precisely that routing or direction. Am I "becoming" more fully an actualized human being? Am I deciding to use my potentialities in the most fruitful manner? Am I on my way to realizing myself as a lover in company with my neighbors? Am I making decisions or choices, am I acting or speaking, so that more widely shared good is established? In other words, the moral question for each of us has to do with where we are going, how we are getting there, and the way in which our own particular routing is contributing to the wider social good -- a social good that is part of the cosmic movement toward amorization.

Of course, this means that the situational aspect of ethical issues, to which the Humanist Manifesto quite rightly made reference, must be seen as of the greatest importance. We exist with our neighbors in particular conditions and under particular circumstances, not in moral abstraction. Moral judgments therefore cannot be made abstractly, as if each person might be looked at in isolation. On the contrary, the old sayings which tell us that circumstances alter cases and that context largely determines content have to be taken seriously. Where I am, with whom I live, my past life, where I may be going -- everything that has gone to make me up and everything that now affects me -- all this must be taken into account just as much as the somewhat artificial question "Who am I?" asked (as so often it has been) in abstraction from everything else.

A presupposition basic to all ethical discussion is freedom of choice. This need not be complete freedom; in any event, complete freedom does not exist. But the process position maintains, and has gone a long way toward demonstrating, that there is indeed a genuine freedom running straight through the world. At the human level, of course, that freedom is distinctive in its being consciously and responsibly exercised. I find it difficult to see how Buckminster Fuller, one of the signers of the Manifesto, could join with his cosigners in a call for ethical decision when he has published extensively with the aim of showing that there is no freedom to decide. Perhaps one might apply to him and to others like him Whitehead’s comment that people whose purpose is to show that there is no purpose constitute an interesting subject for study! Plainly they do have a purpose. Plainly they are appealing to others to decide freely that what they are proposing is valid and right. Freedom is so much an assumption of all human effort that only a very clever person would waste time trying to show that it does not exist!

In what sense can one speak of a self that is both free and responsible? The problem of human identity has always been a difficult one. There have been almost as many definitions on the subject as there have been writers. But the conventional definition has perhaps been that identity is established by a soul or mind or spirit introduced into, but separable from, the body in which it dwells. This position has been taken by most traditional Christian theologians; its influence has pervaded Western culture. In the Far East, however, there has been a long tradition, chiefly among Buddhists, that there is no identifiable soul in addition to the body but rather a series of experiences held in some sort of genuine and experienced unity by memory and by the necessity (in the present) of making decisions toward future goals. That view resembles the process way of seeing the matter. A process conceptuality cannot talk of a soul in the conventional sense, since it sees every entity or event in the world as essentially a unity with one pole in the material world of hard fact and the other in the realm of possible fulfillment. At the human level, there is a conscious capacity to envision the realizing of new possibility. In other words, process thought is through and through psychosomatic with respect to human existence. Each of us is a complex patterning of the physical and the mental, just as each of us is both this self, as being this particular "routing," and also a specific instance of a wider social belonging.

So we might say that human identity is established by the three tenses: by the past, which is remembered and used; by the present, in which decisions are made; and by the future aim of fulfillment, through the achievement of goals either positively or negatively. Thus, I am who and what I am because of the past that is distinctively mine and nobody else’s, because of the present influences I feel and the present decisions I make, and because of the purpose I have before me, however vaguely I may perceive it. At the human level, this identity has the added quality of self-awareness or self-consciousness. Somewhere and somehow in the evolutionary process there emerged a specifically human kind of routing -- a series of successive moments of experience -- whose characteristic quality is the capacity to know that routing and to grasp what is going on in it.

Primarily, this selfhood is given in human memory, both conscious and subconscious and also visceral. Human memory is peculiar in that it makes possible the kind of introspective knowledge that enables me to speak of my routing as "myself" and to distinguish that self from other selves which are each in a similar case. But this must not be pushed too far, since there is also a sense in which I can have a conscious awareness and something like an introspective knowledge of other selves too. This sympathetic identification with others, so that I live in them and they in me, is given in varying degrees of intimacy. Such identification reaches its fullest expression when I am "in love" with another and by my loving understanding can get aboard the other’s life or at least share to a considerable degree with the other in his or her series of experiences.

Such continuity of experiences, which make me a self because I am aware of them but also make me a self with others because I can enter into their ongoing movement, is the basis for responsibility. In specific instances, I assume the obligations that follow from my decisions and their results. But in another way I am also being created anew with each succeeding experience, so that judgment must always be in terms of directions taken rather than in terms of supposedly isolated moments that stand by themselves. This perspective gives us hope for change and the expectation that novelty may occur in any self’s continuing experience. That is why judgment should always be tempered by mercy; there is always the chance that change for the better (that is, for a decision toward a fulfillment shared with others) will take place.

An ethic built upon the process conceptuality will be very different from a static and legalistic law ethic; it will be personalized and socialized. By personalized I mean that it will be relevant to the person or self, in that person’s concrete situation, where and how and as that person is. By socialized I mean that it will see that the person does not and cannot exist in separation from other persons or from the society of which both are part.

There is here an interesting convergence of the existentialist analysis of what it feels like to be human, and the world view with respect to the whole cosmos enunciated in process thought. Teilhard de Chardin once suggested, although in a quite different context, that the former can provide the "inside," the latter the "outside," of our understanding of the total human condition in the world. We can put it another way and say that the existentialist description of human existence in its deepest self-awareness has to do with what Whitehead called "emotional intensity," while the process view gives a description of the "energetic activity" that characterizes the world as we observe it. The two fit together in giving us a comprehensive picture.

In sum, each human life is a body-mind complex in which both material and mental aspects have their part to play. Each of us is a person or self because we are consciously aware of the continuity of the experiences that take place along our specific routing. Each is free to make relevant decisions that are limited in scope but that nevertheless largely determine how things will go in the future. Each is responsible for such decisions because each is thus aware of what is going on and what is being done about that going on. And the criterion by which we may judge the rightness of decisions with their consequent actions is love, which is sharing, mutuality, giving-and-receiving, openness, sympathy, self-identification, concern for the good of others, and readiness even to suffer for that shared good.

How this will work itself out in social, economic, political, racial, and other areas of human experience is dependent upon the goodwill of men and women. It is also dependent upon the intelligence they apply to the problems they must face. But justice is not alien to love; it is the way in which love works and is effective in circumstances that include large numbers of people -- classes, races, nations, parties. The adaptation of love to varying situations will be different in this place and that, in this age and that, for this need and with this demand. Workability is one of the tests here. Yet all the time, the one "absolute" to which appeal can be made and which will provide the necessary motivation for action is love -- not sentimentality or superficial emotion, of course, but genuine love in the sense noted above.

Process thought would say that when human decisions and human actions are responsive to such love, they are right. It would claim that they are then cosmically grounded and validated. We can put this in specifically Christian moral-religious language. Since God is love, human loving is the only possible interpretation of, meaning in, and imperative for genuinely moral life. To state it in that way makes clear that each man and woman is constantly challenged to be a cocreator of good, and a co-worker in good, with the cosmic thrust toward good that religious people name God, thus participating in the enormously demanding effort to overcome evil, injustice, oppression, suffering, and whatever else in the creation works against that good.