Values clarification

In order to rationally address the subject of values, I need to first examine the notion of absolute values. When I was a boy, I believed in certain absolute values; but as  a young man,  I began to question the concept of moral absolutes. Raised a Christian, I’d been told that the truth is always simple and, early-on, I liked that idea. But moral absolutes reduce the range of human choices to black or white, eliminating any shades of gray. That’s not the world I live in. Moral choices are more complicated than some people would have you believe.

The Ten Commandments are a classic example of moral absolutes. “Thou shalt not kill” is a moral absolute, and yet many people who profess the Ten Commandments as the basis of their moral code think that killing by soldiers in wartime is acceptable. Some “pro-life” people who believe that abortion is murder believe in capital punishment.

As an idealistic teenager, I got involved in the Sing Out America/Up With People organization, organizing local Sing Out casts in Georgia and South Carolina. Sing Out America was a promotional effort for the Moral  Re-Armament (MRA) movement. MRA  claimed to have a Western ideology to counter Communism, and promoted the idea of “absolute” honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. While this appealed to me at the time, I gradually became disillusioned with the MRA philosophy and the whole concept of absolute values. I  got comfortable with relativity and ambiguity in the determination of moral values.

I believe that values are bound to culture and circumstance. In primitive “subsistence economies,” where everyone has to carry their own weight in order for the tribe to survive, it’s understandable why an elderly or disabled person might  be expected to leave the tribe and die of exposure in the wilderness. In an economy of wealth, where more is produced than is needed for tribal survival, this practice is unnecessary, and would understandably be seen as cruel or inhuman.

So, I’m a believer in moral relativity. I believe that circumstances often determine what is “right” and what  is “wrong.” This moral philosophy has been called situation ethics – a concept attacked by religious zealots as a Satanic war on morality. The Republican Party has presented itself as the “party of values,” as if its values were absolute. In fact, everybody has values, from the Pope to gangsters like Tony Soprano. They just value different things.

Values clarification rises above the notion of absolute values and simplifies the moral equation with its specificity. Every moral stand involves a choice – it involves this over that. You either value your vow of fidelity to your spouse, or you value having sex with somebody else. You either treat people the way you want to be treated, or you sometimes steal from other people. You either value staying high on your favorite drug all the time, or you value a life of moderation and responsibility to the people who depend on you.

There are professed values and lived values, and we’ve all known  hypocrites who don’t live by the rules they say they believe in. The Bible says pretty clearly that rich people don’t go to Heaven, and yet there are many rich Christian fundamentalists who apparently believe that a camel can  go through the eye of a needle. Jesus didn’t say it would be easy to love your enemy, and your neighbor as yourself; but  I’ve known a lot of Christians who  don’t even try, although they give lip service to Jesus’ prescriptions. Organized religion is a breeding ground for hypocrisy, and I feel sure that there are plenty of Muslim, Jewish and Hindu (etc.) hypocrites.

Religious or not, many people lay claim to have the “right” values; but only moral absolutists can do this. Some of them just don’t think or care about the gap between their professed and lived values; others rationalize and equivocate, as with the Christian belief that we’re all Sinners, but that our belief in and love of God will save us from paying for our sins.

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Voltaire said that doubt is a disagreeable state, but that certainty is a ridiculous one. Since I can’t make myself believe in the tenets of any particular religion – although most of my lived values are Judeo-Christian in origin – I remain a moral relativist. An existentialist at heart, I can live with ambiguity, uncertainty, shades of gray. Values clarification is a tool I can use to examine moral choices. My first marriage was polyamorous; but although I’ve been happily and monogamously married for thirty years to my wife Maria, I don’t necessarily view monogamy as morally superior to polyamory. The choice between the two is a matter of situational, lived values.

The Great Secret

In a previous post I mentioned the Great Secret. My fictional protagonist – a man on a quest for Meaning – found a book with the title The Great Secret, only to discover that the pages were blank. I actually have a book titled The Great Secret, written in 1922. Its Flemish author (who wrote in French), Maurice Maeterlinck, won a Nobel Prize in Literature for his poems, plays and essays. Despite its having been written almost a century ago, it’s well-researched and still provides a valuable guide to the tradition of the Great Secret. What attracts me to the notion of the Great Secret is my sense that we all live at the heart of a Mystery: what is life? what is consciousness? what does it all mean?

Maeterlinck studied the Vedic (Hindu) tradition of India, Egyptian religion, Zoroastrianism, Greek mystery schools, Buddhism, Jewish Cabalists, Gnostics, Neoplatonists, and alchemists. I don’t think modern scholars can add much to what Maeterlinck learned about  these ancient wisdom traditions. He was no starry-eyed True Believer, but a  thorough and objective scholar. It’s been said that “those who know don’t tell; those who tell don’t know.” Maeterlinck doesn’t offer a definitive answer to the question, “what is the Great Secret?” but shares what he’d learned from years of study – food for thought. His succinct conclusion is mysterious, not definitive – as you will see at the end of this post.

There were many mystery religions and cults in the ancient world. They often had an outer circle of adherents who were given one set of teachings (exoteric knowledge), and an inner circle of initiates to whom the Great Secret (esoteric knowledge) had been revealed. This knowledge challenged the conventions of the outer circle, often in a shocking way. Imagine growing up believing that God is a male, only to be told by the high priest at your initiation that God is actually female. Maeterlinck suggests that what was whispered in the ear of Egyptian initiates was, “Osiris is a dark god.”

One of the core tenets of the Vedic tradition is that all things are one thing: Brahman. Maya – the veil of illusion – keeps us from knowing our identity with all  things. (The greeting/blessing “namaste” is  an acknowledgement of the divinity of the person being greeted.) This idea of the unity of all things can also be found in other ancient mystical sects, as well as in some modern mystical philosophies. A common thread in various mystical teachings/traditions is that if all things are one thing, then you don’t have to go outside of yourself to discover The Truth. The macrocosm is contained in the microcosm.

Saint Francis of Assisi wrote, “What you are looking for is what’s looking.” Rudolph Steiner, founder of Anthroposophy, wrote “It is in the soul that the meaning of the universe is revealed.” Maurice Maeterlinck put it this way: “It is in you yourself that (God) is hidden and it is in you yourself that you must find him.” This echoes the beliefs of such Christian mystics as Meister Eckhart, as well as mystical Christian, Jewish and Muslim sects.

Another common thread in mystical traditions is that the Great Secret is something to be experienced, not understood. Mystics do not seek contact with, or  knowledge from, the Divine; they seek union. A common belief in mystical traditions is that “the vessel must be prepared” to hold the wine of revelation. Sometimes the preparation involves an ordeal of some kind. Other times it means practicing a discipline, such as  meditation or asceticism. But at the very least it means emptying  your cup of your old beliefs, so that new wine can replace the old. A Sufi saying has it that “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

In his novel Zorba the Greek Nikos Kazantzakis wrote, “Everything has two meanings, one manifest, one hidden. The common people comprehend only what is manifest.” Maeterlinck wrote, “Humanity has need of the infinite.” His best summation of his thesis is, “The Great Secret, the only secret, is that all things are secret.” Go figure.

Existentialism and psychotherapy

Although I studied a variety of therapies in my preparation for a career as a psychotherapist, I never identified exclusively with one approach – gestalt, client-centered, behavioral, psychodynamic – as a descriptor of my style of therapy. I was an eclectic practitioner, but have always considered my therapeutic orientation to be existential.

I respect that there are therapists whose work has a religious foundation, but mine was a secular practice. I validated faith in God and prayer as best I could, with clients who found meaning in their religious beliefs; but if clients asked me to pray with them, I declined. Although I was raised as a Christian, and most of my values are rooted in the Judeo-Christian ethic, I’m an agnostic of the kind that’s very comfortable with saying “I don’t know” when asked about specific religious beliefs. I think that it’s just as arrogant for an atheist to assert sure knowledge that there is no God as it is for a religious person to assert that I’m in error for not believing what they believe. Define God, then we can talk.

I don’t believe that I have the authority to definitively answer questions about religion and am tolerant of  those who claim to “know” that their beliefs are true, as long as they do no harm as a result of religious beliefs. Of course, there’s considerable room for debate about what constitutes harm. (I personally consider any form of indoctrination to be harmful.)  I consider myself an existentialist because existentialism directly addresses morality and personal responsibility, without the excess baggage of sin and redemption and pleasing God. I’ll briefly summarize some of the basic principles of existentialism, as I understand them.

First, existentialism asserts that there’s no universal Meaning “out there” that all right-thinking people can apprehend – as opposed to religions, which assert that there is, i.e. “God’s plan.” To existentialists, concepts like Sin and Redemption and Divine Intercession are constructs based on religious doctrine. They don’t exist in any objective sense. Meaning only exists in the eye of the beholder. Life is absurd, as illustrated by Albert Camus in “The Myth of Sisyphus.”  Sisyphus continues to push the boulder up the hill, despite knowing that it will just roll back down. He persists, despite the absurdity of his efforts, because the act has meaning for him.

Because there are no absolute rules, or Divine rewards or punishments in an afterlife, we are each free to do whatever we want. But the other side of the coin of freedom is responsibility. We’re absolutely responsible for whatever we choose to do, and can choose to behave morally even if we don’t believe in Heaven and Hell. We can choose to live in good faith with others, because of our moral responsibility for all of our actions. Although we can find joy and meaning in authentic relationships, we’re all essentially alone in our lives. (A song sung by Country singer Bill Monroe expresses this as well as anything I’ve read on the subject; “You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley,/ You’ve got to walk it by yourself,/ ‘Cause nobody else can walk it for you./ You’ve got to walk it by yourself.”) We each have to deal with Angst (anxiety) and dread that comes from the knowledge that we will someday cease to exist. Existentialists don’t rely on the comfort of religious promises of eternal life for the faithful, to come to terms with our mortality.

To say that there’s no objective Meaning to existence “out there” isn’t to say that meaning is unimportant. As an existentialist I’m free (like Sisyphus) to find, or create, my own meaning. One of the best-known existential therapists, Viktor Frankl, named his school of psychotherapy logotherapy – from the Greek “logos”: meaning, or reason. (I’ve written about Frankl in previous posts. I’ve recommended his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, to more clients over the years than any other book.) Although I didn’t practice logotherapy, per se, I’ve worked with many therapy clients to help them find or create meaning in their lives. It can be a life-or-death matter with people who are suicidal.

I initially saw existentialism as grim and forbidding: if there’s no extrinsic Meaning to existence, then all we can do is to sweat along with Sisyphus, acting as if there was meaning to our lives. But now I see the richness of choice, where I once saw austerity. Existentialism gave me a philosophical context for the I-Thou encounters of psychotherapy. We all have a need for our lives to mean something; but we needn’t rely on “God’s plan,” as taught by this or that religion, or on promises of eternal life, to find meaning in our lives.

If you want to learn more about existentialism and the colorful characters (Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, as well as Camus, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty) who formulated its principles, I recommend Sarah Bakewell’s highly-readable At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails. I’d never have guessed that phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty was good at dancing the Jitterbug.

At the Secretariat of Salvation

Here is Part Three (of Seven) of my Ministry Series:


Still stymied in my search for the Secret, I stumbled into the Secretariat of Salvation. I had been wandering along Church Street, without a clue; and there, where Church meets State Street, it was. I walked onto the grounds through the pearly gates and entered the temple, thinking “perhaps it’s salvation that I’ve been seeking, for I am surely lost.”

It was easy to tell who was on the staff and who was not: the clerks were all garbed in black robes, solemnly bustling about in the labyrinth of partitioned workspaces that filled the vast, high-ceilinged chamber. I walked over to the Information counter and  “ahem”ed to get the attention of the robed clerk, who  was reading from a massive black-bound tome. He looked up, annoyed at my interruption.

“Uh, good book you’re reading there?” I asked.

“The best book. How, pray, may I be of service?”

“Well – you see, I’m trying to find the Great Secret, and I wondered -”

“There is no Great Secret! It’s all in The Book, as you would already know, if your parents had raised you right.”

“Um, salvation, then. How do I find salvation?”

“Naturally, by doing every day, in every way, that which pleaseth God.”

“But how can I know what will please . . . Him? Or is it Her?”

“HIM, infidel! Look, it’s all in The Book. Haven’t you heard of the Many Musts?” He proceeded to recite some from memory. “Thou must, perforce, address God by His True and Proper Name, which is ‘I Yam What I Yam.’ Thou must, perforce, worship God through His designated representatives, and give them money. Thou must, perforce, love God, no matter what He does to you.”

“Ah, pardon me, but how do I know who I’m to trust as His designated representatives, to help me find salvation. . . and who  I’m to give the money to, of course?”

“By their robes of Holy Office shall ye know them.”

“Okay, I think I have the first two down;  but about that third Must . . . I don’t understand. How can anybody command love? It seems to me that love is . . . a spontaneous response. Or a gift. I mean, you either feel it or you don’t. You can’t make yourself love . . . right?”

The clerk’s face reddened. “Thou treadeth on the border of heresy, Bub. We are talking about GOD, not just some vile sinner like yourself! If it says in His Book that you’d better love him, or suffer eternal torment, you’d just better love Him!”

“Okay, okay, I hear you. But . . . but if I’m a sinner – and I’m not suggesting that I’m not – how am I to know what is a sin?”

The clerk sighed. “Verily thou art enough to try the patience of Mope, son of Rube, whom God didst sorely test. I tell you, it’s all in The Book! 100% of the Truth. Everything, all here!” The thumped his copy for emphasis.

“But I’m still confused. It seems to me that the only real truth we can know is in our direct experience of the world. Anything we say or write about it only reflects the truth, it doesn’t contain it. It can’t. Right?”

The clerk’s eyes narrowed to slits. His voice was gravelly with emotion. “Bubba, are you saying that you know more about the Truth than GOD? Now, why would He have gone to all the trouble of dictating The Book to his holy ghost writers if just any poor shlub, such as yourself, could figure out the Truth for his own damned self?!”

“I . . . guess I see your point,” I said, although I really didn’t. I was getting a headache, like you get from thinking too long about where the universe ends. “Thanks for all your help.”

I turned and walked away, the clerk’s reflexive “God bless you” echoing hollowly in the huge high holy hall.