Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Our Innate Moral Sense, Part II

My understanding of the secular view of human nature is that in it we are essentially animals that have somehow mysteriously evolved a frontal lobe that permits higher reasoning functions. Our bodies are us, are all that is us. Our bodies are our sole source of feeling, reason and even what we would call spirituality.

Most religious perspectives (though different religions have different takes on this) view human nature as having at least two, but sometimes considerably more components. In the Lakota view, for example, all living things have four spirits. Regardless of the religious perspective, the point is that man is both physical and spiritual. But before discounting religious perspectives that see man's spirit as a composite of several spirits, we should remember that in the LDS perspective, human beings began as eternal intelligences, which were subsequently endowed by God with spirit bodies. We are currently endowed with mortal physical bodies, but anticipate union with immortal physical bodies. LDS scripture explains that the "spirit" and "soul" are two separate concepts, that "soul" is the spirit united with the body. Furthermore, LDS scripture reminds us that we are endowed with something called the Light of Christ, "the light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed" (D&C 88:13). I count at least four components to our spiritual natures here: intelligence, spirit, soul, and the light of Christ.

Since God is endowed with a body, and our eternal selves will be too, it seems to me that our physical nature should be seen as a component of our ultimate spiritual natures, though in mortality, we are still working on that aspect of ourselves. I have a tendency to view the purpose of mortality as the process of incorporating our physical selves into our spiritual natures, of teaching our flesh to harmonize with our spiritual natures.

OK, but my point is, we have several different ways of feeling, of perceiving, of understanding. We have physical eyes and physical senses, but we have spiritual eyes and spiritual senses. We have/are "intelligences" which I assume to be different from brain synapses firing, though I believe we have a kind of intelligence that results from the connections between our brain cells. And we have that aspect which grants us access to the divine, the Light of Christ -- that aspect which, I dare say is most important. Is this not conscience? That's not a rhetorical question... Tell me if you think conscience is something different from the Light of Christ. But all of us have the Light of Christ; it is our built-in homing device. If we did not have it we would have no way of returning to God.

To reduce all feeling to mere carnality is, in my mind, the secular perspective. It fails to understand the full complexity of human nature.

My original point here was that C.S. Lewis spoke of this innate moral sense, which we cannot knowingly violate without becoming, in some sense demonic. I don't think this is out of harmony with the LDS perspective either, see for instance 2 Nephi 9:9 ("and our spirits must have become like [Satan], and we become devils..." etc.). This is built into us. We know at some level when we are going that route, without anyone having to teach us.

Now unless you are going to suggest that all homosexuals are demons (and some conservative Christians have kind of gone that route) and that our innate moral sense is so spoiled and rotten and ruined that we are incapable of judging right from wrong or knowing whether we are approaching Christ or wandering away from him, unless we are willing to take that extreme position, then shouldn't we be willing to consider as valid data the fact that so few of us feel our homosexual natures or same-sex relationships to be wrong?

I'm not speaking merely of "physical desire" or physical "feeling." I am speaking of our moral natures, our moral and spiritual feeling as well. And I'm also not speaking of the guilt or fear we might feel because we've violated an externally imposed rule that might bring upon us public or familial shame. Many gay folks struggle with that kind of guilt their whole lives. I'm speaking of the deep-down sense that comes from deep within that makes me know something is wrong. Like the feeling I got as a kid once after an afternoon of incinerating ants with a magnifying glass -- something I never did again after having that gut-wrenching feeling I had done something horrible.

I have wrestled again, again, again, and again with the question of whether the right and the moral thing for me to do would be to leave my partner. I have thought it out rationally, I have consulted my feelings, I have searched my moral sense (my conscience), I have prayed and sought spiritual guidance from God. And I know the Spirit, I know what the Spirit feels like. I feel it guiding me every day. And I can say that at every level, not only do I get no sense that my relationship with my partner is wrong in any way, but I get a very deep, very powerful sense that to leave him would be morally wrong in every way imaginable.

Now perhaps I am a ruined soul. But in my life I have known spiritual despair, I have known guilt. I have known unhappiness -- not mere physical unhappiness but the worst most desolate kind of unhappiness, the spiritual kind. And I can say that my decision to listen to the voice of reason guiding me into faithfulness in my relationship with Göran has not left me in that state. It has delivered me from it. If that is what it is to be a ruined soul, then there is no hope for me to know anything spiritually valid or meaningful. Which makes no sense for me to believe, because it would mean that the homing device God gave me doesn't work.

Again, from a secular perspective you can say, there is no Light of Christ, except what we imagine. It's all nerves and electrical impulses and hormones and whatnot. That kind of denial makes sense from a secular perspective, but not -- to me -- from a religious perspective.


Grasshopper said...


I think you make some good points here. I wonder how you would respond to the reaction of someone who tells you that their innate moral sense tells them that homosexual feelings and actions are wrong? Is their sense of morality somehow messed up? What kinds of things fall outside this innate sense? Are there things that we have to learn the rightness and wrongness of?

J G-W said...

Is this merely a hypothetical question, or are you speaking of a real individual or individuals?

I believe it's very important, when discussing spirituality and ethics, to deal in real-life circumstances, and not in hypothetical scenarios.

It's my observation that once gay folks deal with externally imposed shame about being sexually different, they do not generally feel anything inherently wrong with being gay or entering into gay relationships. This observation is based on my own experience, and on reading the stories of many other gay people -- both in and out of the church, heterosexually married, celibate, and same-sex partnered. My observation is that even those who insist it is wrong do so on the basis of external teaching authority. They stress the importance of trusting what someone else has taught them about homosexuality. The whole point of this essay is that this is important data. Change the data, change the conclusions.

Nevertheless, the basic principle guiding me here is that you can't disobey conscience. If you do, what do you have left? If someone told me that their conscience is telling them it is wrong to be in a same-sex relationship, then I would say there are few things more dangerous to their souls than to disregard that.

Also, we may feel very strongly that something is OK, but our conscience may tell us that the principle of obedience to an external authority is more important, that it needs to override how we feel about something. That seems to me to be the (valid) position of most married and or celibate gay men and lesbians who choose to preserve their membership in the Church.

Grasshopper said...

I was thinking of a class of people I know intimately (for example, my wife and my brother-in-law), who accept the teachings of LDS Church authorities on homosexuality not merely because of their authority (they do not accept all the teachings of these authorities), but because they have some sort of innate feeling that homosexuality is wrong.

Your response makes me think that I misread some of your post. You speak of the conscience of the person contemplating a homosexual relationship, and whether that particular relationship is right or wrong. I was thinking of people outside that relationship who believe that homosexual relationships are universally wrong.

Do you think that our innate moral sense only applies to our own actions and beliefs, or can it apply to the actions and beliefs of others? For example, my innate moral sense that murder is wrong seems to apply equally to other people as it does to myself. I think many people would make a similar claim about their sense regarding homosexual relationships. On the other hand, most people accept that some moral judgments may differ depending on circumstance. This seems to be closer to what you are talking about. But it seems to complicate the issue of conscience somewhat.

J G-W said...

That's actually a really cool question...

My take on it is that one's innate moral sense applies by definition only to one's own behavior. My conscience can only govern my own actions.

Your sister saying she knows what you ought to do with your life and your relationships is tantamount to me telling President Monson that God has revealed to me how he ought to run the Church.

It's not that we can't extrapolate from our own moral sense to a broader sense of how our families and communities and nations ought to behave. But then it begins to leave the realm of innate moral sense, and enter the realm of moral reason and social ethics, where morality becomes a kind of social contract.

Ideally, these things all line up. My personal abhorrence at the thought of murdering a defenseless person would line up with social reasoning and ethics that say if everyone murdered there would be social chaos, which line up with the revelation Moses received on Mount Sinai saying "Thou Shalt Not Kill." (Though as we know from the story of Nephi and Laban, specific moral imperatives of specific, unique situations can override all of these things.)

But suppose I lived in a society that did not value life, that thought murder was justifiable, and where religious authorities taught that God encourages killing of unbelievers? Suppose my innate moral sense still told me murder was wrong? What I am saying is, you have no choice but to go with what you know, or risk violating the most sacred part of yourself.

I don't know your sister and your brother-in-law, but I know a lot of straight people think in terms of, "What would be the social effects if everyone was gay? Our species would be extinct in one generation!" I have to agree. But that's not what anyone I know who is gay is suggesting. The question is, "What would be the social effects if everyone enters into a relationship only with someone they love and are attracted to?"

Or what are the social effects of coercing people into involuntary celibacy?