Thursday, October 2, 2008

A Theological Discussion

In one of my courses today, "Issues in Public Health Genetics," we had a guest lecturer (SBK-F) discuss the theological issues concerning public health genetics, or what are theological issues in general. Apparently, there's such a thing as a Doctorate in Ministry in Spirituality. Her discussion today was so inspirational that I thought to discuss it here.

First a few disclaimers. I apologize for writing her words in any way less precise than she had described them herself to us. I'm going off the imperfection of human memory (and her PowerPoint slides), so pardon my distilled and potentially diluted words. This following will be long, so be patient if you're going to read it all. Also, no attacking me!! Lastly, keep an open mind.
SBK-F puts forth an idea called soulful reasoning. It is a means through which we take a step back and look at the whole human being. It is a holistic approach that posits that we are all more than the sum of our parts, that we can sense something beyond what is tangible to our five senses. Soulful reasoning is also a means to connect spirituality and science as partners.

What is meant by spirituality? And what is meant by religion? The two are not synonymous though they are intimately linked such that it's difficult to separate them. Spirituality is the "beyond," the "more than" that we sense beyond our five senses. Different cultures give it different names. Religion is the means through which different groups of people understand and connect to spirituality, ultimately how we manifest spirituality.

SBK-F present this quote (from who I forget) that goes something like this: "There is a realm for which there are no words. There is then a realm for which there are no words yet we grasp for words. And then there's the realm for which there are no words and yet we settle on words because we need words." Spirituality is like that first realm, a place for which we have no words. Religion is like the last two realms, a place where though we may not have the words, we give it words because we need them.

What is faith and what is ideology? Both are meaning systems and must be developmental, dynamic, and always growing and essentially alive. Neither can become static or else they hazard becoming too rigid and ultimately obsolete. Faith deals with the final or ultimate questions, seeking understanding of the unknowable. Ideology is the practical means through which faith may be executed. Religions all contain both the elements of faith and ideology. The fundamental danger of both faith and ideology is to avoid dualism. Dualistic thought is where things are clearly divided into discrete categories. For example, good and bad, right and wrong. Both faith and ideology need shades of gray in which to operate. There cannot be only good or bad, only right or wrong.

Values are a set of principles, standards, or qualities considered worthwhile or desireable. They may be things, ideas or people that are important to us and give our lives meaning. They help us make decisions and choose paths in life, shaping our behavior and defining who we are. The stronger the value is to us, the less willing we are to change or compromise them - this in itself is dangerous. There are many different "kinds" of values ranging from personal to religious to institutional to societal to cultural to work. In many cases values may overlap in several categories. Core values are the set of values that we stand for, are the most important, and that we encourage.

Moral values (or simply morals) are the standards of good and bad that govern an individual's behavior and choices. An individual's morals may be derived from society, government, religion, or from oneself. A "set of morals" as a whole are not derived from a single source (such as society or religion) though "individual morals" may be derived from a particular source. Morals are a source of great power but also of great danger. Morals present the pitfall of becoming dualistic, of saying with "certainty" what is right or wrong, what is good or bad. We need to always be aware that there are gray spots that morals operate in.

When moral values are derived from society and government they will change as laws and the social mores change. An example given was impact of law changes on the moral values between marriage and "living together." Several decades ago it would've been appalling for people to simply "live together" without getting married. Today there are options and people are freer to choose. Morals derived from oneself is shaped by our experiences from childhood to adulthood and help us determine what's acceptable and what's forbidden, kind or cruel, generous or selfish. Going against these morals tends to elicit guilt. Lastly, most religions have built-in lists of morals that individuals of that religion follow. For example, the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, the Five Pillars of Islam, the Five Precepts of Buddhism, the Ten Dharma Embodiments of Hinduism.

Spiritual values and religious values are often used interchangeably though they may be used to distinguish between human values and doctrinal beliefs that become expressed as values. The two are not necessarily the same but often share a lot of overlap.

The following is what leads me to believe in the "more than" which has been called Enlightenment, the Oneness of the Tao, the Divine, Heaven, etc.

There are five human values that are found across ALL spiritual traditions: truth, righteousness, love, peace, and non-violence. Furthermore, there are very similar religious values that seem to apply to a universal ethic of human respect and dignity. (The following are copied from her PowerPoint slides, so I don't know for sure if they're quoted exactly from the sources.)

Buddhism: Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful (Udana-Varga 5:18).

Confucianism: Surely it is the maxim of loving-kindness: Do not do unto others what you would have them do unto you (Analects 15:23).

Taoism: Regard your neighbor's gain as your own gain and your neighbor's loss as your own loss (T'al Shang Kan Yin Pien).

Judaism: What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow human. That is the entire law; all the rest is commentary (Talmud, Shabbat 31a).

Christianity: In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets (Matthew 7:12).

Islam: No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself (Qu'ran, Sunnah).
So what are some "take away messages" from the discourse presented by SBK-F through me? What I got out of it is that it's dangerous to hold onto a value or moral in a very tight grip. If one holds on to it too tightly, they lose sight of its source, they lose sight that there may be alternatives that are just as good. We all operate in the gray area between two extremes and that if we were to ever eliminate this gray area, conflict results. Because if one person believes he/she is right "beyond any doubt," does that mean necessarily that everyone else is wrong? Also, morals (and by extension morality) does not solely stem from religion. It does, in part, but not entirely. Like many things in life, morals are complicated and are derived and synthesized from many influences, whether we recognize it or not.

Also the most powerful message is that, regardless of religion or non-religion, everyone seems to share the same basic spiritual and human values. SBK-F had us do an exercise in class where she dictated to us the public health values and assigned each group of three a set of personal values and a set of institutional/work values. And we had to come up with 2-3 spiritual values to reconcile or appeal to those disparate values. The most interesting thing is that everyone ended up choosing very similar spiritual values (sometimes with different terms, like charity and compassion, but ultimately similar) but used them in different ways to deal with the very different value systems laid before us.

So that which unites us, all of us - whether or not we're religious, whether or not we believe we're spiritual, whether or not we share the same values and/or morals - is somehow something fundamental to everyone. It is something "more than," something greater and beyond us, something we can't sense with our five senses and yet know is there, whether we recognize it or not.


Anonymous said...

I am ambivilant about what she would mean by saying something along the lines of: "The stronger the value is to us, the less willing we are to change or compromise them - this in itself is dangerous." But, that's not you, so no worries.

It seems to me that she's contradicting herself somewhat. She's saying, morality needs room to change and adapt...yet, there are some things that seemingly do not change and are even held as common across cultures. I'd be curious to have heard more about what she says on the matter, perhaps to clarify what I seen to be missing.

naturgesetz said...

I had the same reaction as James to the idea that holding values strongly is dangerous. It seems to me that if we don't think that our morals and values are "right," they aren't actually morals and values but simply ideas we are willing to consider, ideas which may be the most reasonable sounding hypotheses we've heard so far.

I agree that a certain humility is needed — one must realize that one is not divine and therefore could have made a mistake. But that doesn't mean one doesn't think one is right. And IMO respect for others is also a value.

And there is also the matter of authority. If one believes that there is a revelation God has made to us of values and morals which is authoritatively presented to us in sacred writings and/or through religious teachers, one will accept those values and morals as right.

IOW there is an underlying question about whether truth (in this case moral truth) is knowable, or whether all we can ever hope for is personal opinions.

Still, I agree that the "something more" cannot be completely comprehended by human thought, nor can it be fully expressed in human words.

Aek said...

Attempt at clarification 1:

"Values" is a broad term encompassing personal, work, institutional, societal, cultural, moral, and spiritual values. These are all distinct though particular values may overlap into more than one category. Read again her definition of "values."

Not all values are "right or wrong" necessarily. For example, a person could value his/her sleep. The value is "sleeping." There is no right or wrong in this value (although, to that person there might be). But if this person valued sleep "too much" and is unwilling to compromise, there may be situations where it might become detrimental to value "sleep" so tightly, such as needing to stay up longer to finish homework, or study, or hang out with friends.

Morals, like other values, stem from a variety of sources such as personal morals, societal morals, cultural morals, and spiritual morals. Some change with time, others do not. Some are specific, others are broad. The broad morals such as "truth, righteousness, love, peace, and non-violence" are recognizably spiritual and are very broad. The concept of, say, "love" can be interpreted very personally or very generally.

As she mentioned (and I wrote in the post), religions do have a set of morals and values that members of those religions adopt and accept as right, and it's up to the individual to determine if they're "right" or "wrong" for them. Religious morals can be authoritative by God or whatever that religion may hold to be the authority. According to her, this set of morals can be different from a personal set of morals.

[Comment: It's my interpretation that she believes that it's okay to feel one is right, but that it doesn't necessarily mean that everyone else who doesn't agree is wrong. She cautions that if one things one is SO right that that person become blind to all other thoughts on said subject. In reality, for a given issue there may be multiple "right" answers/values or there may be none, though for each person there is only one or a few "rights."]

She never posited about the nature of truth, as that's an entire issue altogether. She only said that religion is the means by which people endeavor to discover the "ultimate" or "final" truths - the spiritual truths. The issue at hand is what is the definition of "value," what are the different "kinds" of values, and what are the pitfalls when people think of values.

The most important point of all is that there are commonalities between all religions. There are common moral and spiritual values to all people. And when people are told to give words to a spiritual value under almost any condition, with any set of "personal" or "institutional" values, people will come up with a similar set of spiritual values. That in itself means something and indicates that everyone has some sense of the "more than."

Joshua said...

As much as I would want to leave an essay-long comment like the people above me did, I have work to do and I unfortunately cannot say everything that is on my mind.

So I'll summarize it.

1. My mom holds on to her morals dangerously. She refuses to alter her opinions, re-evaluate anything, or look at anything from a different perspective if it threatens her current point of view. She'll endorse those that endorse her perspective, usually citing "pastors of large churches" and "great spiritual leaders".

2. There is no such thing as black and white, except in a palette. There is no such thing as just a "grey" area, either. There are, however, a conglomeration of colors and spectra and light and dark that mix together to form a certain point of view on a certain subject, and a different light and dark and color and spectra to form another certain point of view on another certain subject. All those put together usually make someone "liberal" or "conservative", which I see as social stereotypes that de-individualizes people and sorts them according to general light/darkness.

3. There are some values that cannot be changed, and there are some people who cannot change their values. I think some values that cannot be changed are things like life and personal choice and stuff like that. But people who cannot change their values can be dangerous to themselves, but I don't think they can be dangerous to a society. I think they form the necessary extremes of a society that keep it anchored in a spectral structure. In the same way, I think there are people who go with the flow on everything and offer no personal insight to anything. I think that offers the other extreme, the frequently-changing-values extreme. I think these two things are crucial for a society to have "values". In the end, values are not determined by anything other than the individual, providing the values that cannot be changed are allowed. Those that choose to change their values but keep firm on certain ones make up the majority of society.

4. It is spiritually impossible to follow all spiritual values, assuming spiritual values are values that are imposed on followers of that certain religion and not up for debate. It is impossible to "do to others what they would have them do to you", such is a Communist-like state, which cannot exist. Humans, as biological animals, are designed to compete and be self-interested. If we can do something that benefits us, we will. Somehow, anything we do benefits us in a way or another. I think the idea behind spiritual values is to constantly re-evaluate the morals and values of the individual to make sure they are in check with the higher, supernatural spiritual gifts imposed by a religion. The value itself is crucial, but the method of attaining it is even more important.

Okay, so I posted a long thing. :D

Umm...feel free to invalidate anything I said up there. :)

savante said...

Wow. Exactly what are you studying?

Aek said...

Haha, right now I'm studying Hospital & Molecular Epidemiology. Next year I'm off to med school. So doctor after that, yay! :P

Landyn said...

i read the post, thinking 'this is a good length post!'

....then i read the comments, which are almost twice as long as he actual post!! hahah. not a bad thing, i just ned to take a nap now! ;)

this has excellent points made by everyone