Lured by the Spirit to an Ethical Life. (Spirituality)

By Callahan, Sidney | National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 2002 | Go to article overview

Lured by the Spirit to an Ethical Life. (Spirituality)


Callahan, Sidney, National Catholic Reporter


We can be absolutely certain that God is good and wants humankind to be morally upright. The divine mandate for human beings comes through loud and clear in the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, and the rest of the scriptures and creeds taught by the church But Christians may not be so sure of exactly how spirituality and morality relate to each other.

At least we know how scandalous it is when there is a radical disconnect between worship and ethical behavior. Who hasn't been horrified to read of priests sexually abusing children, or nuns abetting genocide, or Catholics taking part in torture or death squads? Clearly in cases of ethical atrocities, religious Practice has become separated from the fundamental command to do good and avoid evil.

Yet among ordinary Catholics who are trying to be good, the effort to integrate faith and moral behavior can be a persistent challenge. The faithful recognize that Christians must be doers of the word and not hearers only and that they have an obligation to walk the walk. But how can they live out the gospel in everyday moral living?

An adequate moral or ethical life requires persons to have good hearts, wise heads and virtuous habits of action. Happily, there is little doubt that human beings start out wanting to become good. Always and everywhere children become attached to those who nurture and care for them, and want to gain their approval. Guilt and shame appear very early in human development because children grasp the prevailing standards of morality and achievement and want to meet them.

A social species

Human beings are a social species with big brains and the ability to choose between alternative courses of action. Humans can imagine and think about things that are not concretely present. Persons seek meaning as well as love. Evolution innately equips us to seek realities beyond what can be seen.

The innate capacity for the operation of conscience comes from the ability to freely choose between behaviors and the possession of enough intelligence to adopt standards of worth that transcend the self. Wherever humans exist they produce art, music, religion, morality and cultural group norms. All non-impaired adult members of the human species possess a conscience, but Christians identify this powerful ethical pull with the work of the Holy Spirit. God as Spirit may be anonymous and work in hidden ways in the universe, but Christians recognize the One who lures them toward holiness.

Of course, people also possess a selfish drive toward survival that includes competitiveness and the desire for dominance. Hence the universal experience of every individual that they can choose between good and bad deeds. Humankind is basically good but also flawed by being subject to selfish and aggressive desires.

Psychologists now consider that we have been prepared through evolution to have an instantaneous response to events that then can be followed by a more reflective secondary response. The first spontaneous reactions will come from past learning and built-in biological urges for survival; the second response can be guided by new thinking and chosen aspirations or plans for the future.

This perceived duality and inner conflict has been the origin of morality and ethics. Their purpose is to help persons to think through choices and resist wrong decisions. Different cultures and different religions will operate in different ways to encourage cooperative moral behavior and discourage actions that destroy human flourishing.

Every known human group possesses moral standards and some form of ethics and some kind of religion. In some instances, members of a social group may not have connected their moral obligations to their kith and kin with their religious beliefs. Religions can exist that are mostly devoted to appeasing supernatural spirits and gaining magic control over nature.

However, in every highly developed universal religion, individual moral behavior is directly related to religious faith and practice. …

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