This week I had a very encouraging talk with a literary agent about my book project. He likes the idea, at least; at the time of our talk he hadn’t seen the actual written proposal yet. Today I got a couple invitations to write, and I finished off an article someone else had asked me to do. It’s enough to go to one’s head. It’s threatening to get me so self-absorbed it makes me sick.
But that (getting sick) has been taken care of for me anyway, since this week I’ve been down with a one-two punch, two different bugs (I suppose) that hit me hard in both the gut and the lungs. Dealing with that, and especially being unable to be a helping family member around the house, will really turn you in toward yourself.
So tonight I was wondering, why not? Why not be puffed up over my successes? Why not focus on myself when I’m sick and I genuinely need care? Is there any compelling reason to rise above myself?
And I realized I couldn’t answer that question without backing up a step to, what kind of question is that? The answer must be that it’s a moral question, and nothing other than that. It’s uniquely moral in that it can also be phrased, “Why should I put my interests aside for the sake of others? It might be the moral question; for all other behavioral questions besides this one resolve down to, how do I know and accomplish x, which will get me some y that I consider good for me? This one is, how do I know and do x that is good, whether or not it gets me some y that I think is good for me?
I’ve never seen a secular ethic that could answer this. Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative comes closest, perhaps, yet it still doesn’t clearly answer why, and he wasn’t as thoroughly secular as today’s secularists can be. Luke Muehlhauser posted an article today by “the atheist ethicist,” Alonzo Fyfe, that demonstrates the point in contemporary secularism nicely. It’s all about self-interest. What gets me where I want to be, what I desire. That’s not rising above myself, that’s just complexly argued, highly nuanced self-indulgence. It’s not even morality, it’s how to manipulate the world to get the best you can get out of it for yourself. I’ll grant, however, that for an atheist ethic, it may be as close as one could hope to approach something like morality.
So what about Christianity? Isn’t there self-interest there, too? Well, sure. The Bible makes no bones about rewards for those who by faith please God and do well. But that’s not the whole story. If it were, I doubt it would move me much, especially on a night like this.
Christianity teaches that to put others ahead of self is simply right. It’s right because it’s love, and love is completely wrapped around in the foundational nature of reality. It’s bigger than the cosmos and it’s older than time. I mean that literally, not figuratively.* I’m not speaking love-song language: “I’ll love you longer than the stars shine, ooh, ooh, ooh.” I’m not talking about romanticism but about reality that ruled before the stars shone, before there was any place for them to shine, and beyond where their light could ever reach.
Yet this reality is neither long ago nor far away. It pervades. It is fully present with you and with me, right here and right now. Reality says love is right. Its rightness is in its being true of God, who is the all-creating, all-sustaining, all-pervading truth himself.
He is the truth who loves, and who showed his love personally through Jesus Christ. Jesus is my other strong reason to rise above myself. He demonstrated genuine selflessness in the most pure, perfect, admirable, worthy-to-be-imitated life in all history. It is his love expressed through that life, and my love for him today, that impels me to follow him, even in ways that run counter to my own service of self. While living that exemplary life he also taught it in a way that supported its truth. His was not just an exceptionally good life; it was a good life explained, so that we might not only give him our admiration but also our assent. He preached what he practiced. Genuine love co-exists only with truth.
On a night like tonight when I’m all wrapped up with my own good and bad, I see how very far I fall short of his standard. This is not with a sense of despair, though, for I know that God loves me even in this. I can smile over it, even laugh at myself about it.
For I know there is reason to rise above, and something—Someone—very wonderful to rise toward. It’s a long journey I’ve only begun, but it’s a good one.
*I trust you’ll grant me room for imprecision on the language I’m using for beyond space and time. Precision and brevity do not often co-exist as successfully as truth and love.