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

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.