The stumbling block of morality on Self-Deprecation Day

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 06, 2015

I proclaim today Self-Deprecation Day.

I like ideas. God knows the reader must look hard to find commentary on concrete and newsworthy circumstances in my collected works. Even when I write about current events, I often manage to evade the responsibility of specific knowledge. Take last week’s brief commentary on Ukraine, for example. I know next to nothing about the situation there, and I am deeply suspicious that the same is true of most people who talk about it. So why not make a spiritual point?

This makes some people angry. For many, the admission of ignorance lets the party down. It is necessary to stake out a moral position. It is necessary to seize the moral high ground.

But to quote a famous man, who am I to judge? I am acutely interested in how much trouble we get ourselves into by claiming knowledge that we don’t have, especially when it comes to judging the conscience and motives of others. It is another one of my little ideas.

So when Pope Francis began warning against reducing Christianity to a series of moral propositions, I had very little interest in finding out how many people actually do this. After all, it is unlikely that any real person reduces Christianity completely to any one thing, all of the time. But this too is an idea with a spiritual point. And so I ramped up the intensity of my puzzling over the problem of the New Evangelization, and the relationships with others this entails.

I usually refer to “puzzling” as “thinking” or “analysis” or even as “meditation”. But not on Self-Deprecation Day. Anyway, one piece of this “puzzling” is the series I’ve begun on the need to help our contemporaries recover “meaning” and “purpose” before we can say much about morality. (At the risk of betraying my own self-deprecation, let me note that the series begins with Evangelization and the Gift of Meaning.)

But one puzzle leads to another, and even I can see that some of my puzzling thoughts ought not to make the cut for a full-fledged essay in a dynamic new series. Thus we arrive at some reflections on how Old Testament wisdom literature touches on this question of morality, with respect to how we approach our decidedly dodgy neighbors.

With respect to evangelization in particular, it is one thing to attempt always to do God’s will, but it is another thing entirely to present Godliness as “living like me”. With our own puzzlement in mind, then, let’s look at a snippet from Proverbs (24:16-20), with commentary:

…for a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again; but the wicked are overthrown by calamity. [In this passage, the difference between the righteous and the wicked is not that the righteous do not sin, but that they respond to moral failure differently.] Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles; [At times, at least, our insistence on the Church’s moral teachings may carry just a hint of this.] lest the LORD see it, and be displeased, and turn away his anger from him. [We could write a spiritual book probing into the meaning of the last seven words.] Fret not yourself because of evildoers, and be not envious of the wicked; [Is our proclamation of the right path ever untainted by both of these?] for the evil man has no future; the lamp of the wicked will be put out. [And the righteous fall seven times a day. Ouch.]

Or perhaps we should ask the advice of the Preacher, as given in his book, Ecclesiastes. I’ll extract verses 10, 14, and 20-22 from chapter 7:

Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this. [Yet we ask it constantly.] In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him. [Our moral sky is always falling, despite the fact that we don’t know the future at all.] Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins. [Oops, back to this again; and one proof of it comes next.] Do not give heed to all the things that men say, lest you hear your servant cursing you; your heart knows that many times you have yourself cursed others.

Now I admit that one must be careful with the OT Wisdom literature. The point is not always clear, and we can easily find alternate passages which tend to undermine our perception of any given lesson. But so often our own perceptions are vain and self-serving, anyway. We identify with the righteous. “Vanity of vanities”, saith the Preacher.

Once again, it is one thing—an extraordinarily good and important thing—to try always to do God’s will. But for those of us who have a tendency to reduce Christianity to a series of moral propositions according to which we must judge all others, well, today is Self-Deprecation Day.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Mar. 06, 2015 10:10 PM ET USA

    I miss the Old Testament from Catholic life. There, I said it; Protestants seem to be much better acquainted than we are with it. And it is a source of much wisdom, and it is wholly our loss when we think that we can only do it with the Gospel (I'm not saying there is anything either-or here).