The Pope: on Meaning and Morality

Pope Benedict XVI has recently said that Western culture is

“unable to undertake a real dialogue with other cultures in which the religious dimension is strongly present. Nor is it able to respond to the fundamental questions about the meaning and direction of life,”

Pope Benedict states that meaning and morality are available only within religion. I respect the fact that most of those who are believers, do find meaning in their lives and act morally, inspired by their faiths.

But I think that religious claims to meaning and morality are as much looks backward, as attempts to understand these rapidly changing times: how to go about inspiring the present and future?

The Pope has much history, texts, philosophy, and prophecy on his “side.” The current rise in the import and power of religion signals a “return” to the past, as much as the desire to live in the present and future.

This tradition – Western thought – takes a narrow view of the human. Differences between our experience and historically informed descriptions and prescriptions for living are bound in ideas of the human, much less than in examining the human. It is now time to examine the human more thoroughly and thoughtfully, to see how we are and how we know.

Pope Benedict claims that only religion provides us with meaning and morality. This claim is an aspect of thinking that the human is a two-part “thing”: part body and part soul. It mostly neglects the body, and doesn’t pay any attention to the fact that we are bodies interacting with others. We live all alone, as it were, in a world in which the problems of knowing others and ourselves are removed from the human experience. Thence meaning and morality are available only through religion.

But this is not an accurate depiction of the human. We are body – and we “become” ourselves as we “emerge” from complex interactions with our m/others (the person who takes on the enormous responsibility for her infant). The born body is not the locus of the mind, soul, or self. Much happens to us: we are “transformed” in becoming our selves, the “I” who “has” a soul or mind.

Meaning develops in these relationships, leading to the further development of the self. Other persons are always “present” in our being and thoughts even as we are and grapple with the complexities of meaning in our ongoing lives.

Developmental psychologists (Alan Fogel: “Developing Through Relationships” and Alan Sroufe : “Emotional Development: The Organization of Emotional Life in the Early Years”) have recently understood that infants are “attached” to their m/others, and that the study of the infant “alone” is an error in illuminating our being: ideas derived from Behavioral Biology/Ethology of Konrad Lorenz – (“Bretherton: The Origins of Attachment Theory: Bowlby and Ainsworth” (PDF)– Developmental Psychology: 1992. 28. 759-775) joined with the insights of Pragmatist Philosopher, G. H. Mead (“Mind,
Self, and Society
”) whom I invoke in these elaborations of meaning, and morality.

Mother and child: photo by http://flickr.com/photos/tim166/

One of my works in progress, “A Meaningful Life”, attempts to frame our thinking in the widest terms, as an introduction to how “religious” or “prophetic” thinking enters many of our lives; or doesn’t. It attempts to frame the sorts of queries and questions which enter our thinking about deep and intense issues as reality, existence, ideas, change – all of which have risen in our thoughts in the past few decades.

The particularities of Western religion – including Christianity and Islam – take us into the thinking of change and permanence: an ancient and continuing battle. Why is this so powerful right now: because the world is changing so quickly that any earlier balance between change and permanence feels frantically like chaos. We seek permanence: and permanence is found in the forms of Platonic thinking which grants meaning only to the soul, only to the notions of the everlasting deity who presides outside of time and of life. Change? Life is but a dream, a chimera?

In this depiction, meaning is to be found primarily outside of our existence; from particular texts, prophets, histories, churchly organizations. And these are amazing histories, as they have become not only contemplative but also highly political in the recent battles for minds and for the concepts of meaning and morality.

What questions do we ask? About death, or about life: in which order? What directions, what solutions, whose authority will certify us; satisfy us; calm or excite us in our quests for meaning?

This will, in turn, take us into the issues surrounding morality. “The Genesis of Morality” is my attempt to note that our self, the “I” who I am, emerges from an attachment with the most moral of all persons in each of our lives: the m/other who dedicates herself to each next moment of our being.

And, as we move toward becoming more like independent selves,
m/other attempts to get us to take care of ourselves – as she would. These moments are the Genesis of Morality in each of our lives. And we move on from here and there to the present – complicated, questioning, especially in changing times, as we continue to grapple with meaning and morality.

The questions surrounding our human “agency” emerge as definitional of the present, and inspirational of the future. We shall embrace life, the present, moving and inspiring the future, even as many political and religious thinkers are looking for prophets, texts, and “truth” in the ideas and philosophers of the past.

  • Matt

    I think your over-simplification of Christian teaching on the relationship between the soul and the body is inadequate. Benedict does not simply start from the assumption of a disembodied individual soul and jump to the assumption that “only religion provides us with morality.” Rather, for Benedict (drawing from his predecessor John Paul II’s work), soul and body can never be so simply dichotomized, because they are both given in creation. Each person must, with soul and body, come to terms with questions of meaning and morality, and Benedict simply argues that (Christian) religion suggests the most complete answers to these questions–at least that’s my understanding!

    For an interesting discussion of Benedict’s predecessor’s theology of the body, you can read David Bentley Hart’s article The Anti-Theology of the Body (available online at http://www.thenewatlantis.com/archive/9/hart.htm), especially pertinent to questions of understanding present realities and future possibilities.

  • Matt

    I think your over-simplification of Christian teaching on the relationship between the soul and the body is inadequate. Benedict does not simply start from the assumption of a disembodied individual soul and jump to the assumption that “only religion provides us with morality.” Rather, for Benedict (drawing from his predecessor John Paul II’s work), soul and body can never be so simply dichotomized, because they are both given in creation. Each person must, with soul and body, come to terms with questions of meaning and morality, and Benedict simply argues that (Christian) religion suggests the most complete answers to these questions–at least that’s my understanding!

    For an interesting discussion of Benedict’s predecessor’s theology of the body, you can read David Bentley Hart’s article The Anti-Theology of the Body (available online at http://www.thenewatlantis.com/archive/9/hart.htm), especially pertinent to questions of understanding present realities and future possibilities.

  • Harvey

    Matt,
    Thanks for your response to my questioning Pope Benedict’s claims: only religion offers meaning and morality to our being. I think meaning and morality are aspects of the human condition, in terms of which each of us lives, loves life, and survives in the short and long. How this is, we shall explore.

    If an “oversimplification” on either my part – or possibly Benedict’s – I would like to offer various studies and ideas about human nature. The notion of body and soul, their derivation and destination, I take up in my “Language and Human Nature,” and will continue to probe on this website.

    Where does the divide in thinking derive? Much of the Pope’s “story” about the human, depends on an ancient (Aristotelian mostly) idea that human bodies and (other) animals bodies are essentially the same: and our minds or souls are where we are truly “at”. Language, rationality, and all make us human. Not the case! – say I.

    More: as an active observer and thinker about humans, I note that much of the dualistic soul-body distinction, flows particularly from Plato (Aristotle’s teacher) whose ideas underlie much, perhaps most, of Benedict’s interpretation of meaning and morality. How this is and “works” in our thinking, I shall try to portray. How to understand the human more accurately – “as we are” – will be ongoing. (My ideas flow particularly from the American Pragmatists, Dewey and G.H. Mead, extended from observations and experience.)

    How the body-soul distinction has been based on limited and incorrect observations are taken up in my “Manifesto” and “Talk on Meadian Pragmatism”, and the “Genesis of Morality.” The history of body-soul thinking is based on a narrow and particular description of the human which leaves out much of how we are, “actually”: the fact that each of us has “emerged” from our m/others’ long-term interactions with us, to become a self, a person, “I.” Human faces are central to our being, for example, and delight us in all our senses.

    The timing of this discussion is particularly interesting, as we are living in times of amazing change: technology, geography, culture, and the conceptual changes which flow from all of them. I take this up in “Nietzsche’s Prophecy: the Crisis in Meaning” – which actually quotes Pope Benedict (Joseph Ratzinger) saying that we are in a time of “nihilism,” the resulting crisis in meaning, and the attempt of the Church to solve or resolve. Meaning is in some crisis, as we move to describe, understand…

    I take up these issues in “A Meaningful Life” – in which we explore the ancient battles between Plato and Heraclitus, about the nature of change and permanence. How, I ask, do religious thinkers, think? What questions do they not ask? What is their being, reality?

    The Pope argues for the reality of permanence over change, thus Heaven and the Deity, and the currents arguments over abortion. The “soul” must “return” to Heaven, moving us into the brilliant thinking of St. Augustine who both thrills me, and cautions me to question this Pope.

    In this context, I note the powerful attempt to return us to ancient times, via texts, philosophers, and prophets. I wonder if we are abandoning the present and future, in which woman is the primary agent. The grace of being a teacher is that I, too, can touch and inspire the future: my dedication – in “Teaching as Dialogue.”