On the divergence between religion and morality

Tomasz Gil 2001

Man is an animal endowed with self-consciousness. This means that in his mind he can grasp the whole world and put himself in it or outside of it. At doing this he essentially puts himself in the position of God, discovers the concept of God, and also becomes convinced that he is not God. Looking at the world from the outside he also discovers the void, the non-being, the nothingness. This is God's vantage point. God has the ability to move freely between the world and outside of it, between being and nothingness, time and eternity, profane and sacred. For man being in that position is both delightful and horrific - delight of being god-like struggles with horror of losing oneself in the void of eternity. God reconciles in himself these impossible opposites because he is beyond them, being the ground of all being.

A religious man is concerned with the ultimate necessity of facing the ground of being. In this he bears the anxiety of harboring the divine awareness while faced with the finitude of his existence in the world. This is generally termed in religious language as the pain of being separated from God. Some thinkers have been able to be more specific. For example theologian Paul Tillich has identified three areas of anxiety resulting from finitude: anxiety of fate and death, of guilt and condemnation, and of doubt and meaninglessness. These describe our weaknesses of physical existence, uncertainty about the effects of our actions, and uncertainty about our ability to truly know what we seem to be destined to know. Man undertakes various endeavors in order to counteract his separation from God. There is work that leads to production and consumption that make physical life easier and safer. There is medicine and government, and other organization of society. There is art and culture, religion and science.

Many of those activities are futile, from the point of view of the ultimate religious concern, as their result is erection of additional boundaries within this world. One such basic activity is work - the generation and consumption of products. Work is designed to bring good things such as security and comfort to individuals and groups. The purpose of work is thus a certain good - alas defined totally within the scale of this world. The criterion of good and bad is constructed on the basis of work which is only commensurable with the profane world and with the finite goals of some individual's existence within it. Thus morality, the knowledge of good and evil, is confined to this world, and originates in the realm of human work.

An objection can be raised that certain actions are judged good even though the do not have any practical effect on an individual's worldly existence. An example would be sacrament like baptism. The difference between a baptism and a purchase of a retirement annuity is that the former is a sacred ritual, significant for a religious man concerned about his finitude facing God, while the latter is a product that brings better life to an individual or perhaps his descendants. Yet a sacred ritual will be considered good replicating the valuation of activities known in the realm of work into the work of religious concern. The realm of work, within which the concept of good and evil is truly defined, casts a corrupting shadow over the spheres of endeavor trying to approach the sacred.

Religious persons interact supporting each other in facing the anxiety and terror of the divine. Historically there were religious movements that gave rise to institutions devoted to religion - churches, congregations. Most often than not they monopolize the access to sacred rituals and create various new barriers between man and the divine, such as doctrines, which a member of a religious organization is expected to endorse. Institutions are by necessity immersed in the profane finite world and tend to take cue from the realm of work and its system of moral principles. They seem to have an inexorable propensity toward becoming producers of sacred goods.

Another direction of activity designed to cope with the religious anxiety is art. It is related in its goal to the religious organizations but different in that art produces beauty, that is provokes invasions of the divine into this time and space, whereas churches typically claim to be a road from here to eternity. The fact that those two directions are rarely reconciled within a group of people (the church faithful are rarely artists, and vice versa) is further testimony to the fragmentation of this world that creates alienating enclaves, deepening the condition of entrapment in the profane.

To recapitulate: man is self-conscious and thus has to cope with the ultimate concern of being in transition between the profane and the sacred. Man tries to deal with the situation in 3 ways:

Work is the main activity that confines man to the profane world. Moreover, work is the source of morality, whose valuation gain footing outside their sphere of validity, because of the immense dominance and authority of work. The moral valuations of good and evil derived from work, corrupt the religious and artistic valuations of sacred and profane. The overwhelming effect of work is to turn everything into products. Religion becomes administration of progress toward the "afterlife", art becomes entertainment.

True religion wants no part of conventional morality. Religion reflects man in his ultimate concern: facing the divine in his finitude. In that ultimate situation man leaves conventional morality behind - like Abraham preparing to slaughter his son.

written September 8-9, 2001