Basic Moral Courage: The Religious Assertion, Love as the Highest Virtue, Day Two

   "No man," Kant told us, "can be the means by which another man reaches his own ends (desired goals). All men are equals inasmuch as they are ends (in their own right) and never simply means to the ends of another man."

   We start to make the religious argument, not when we contrast religion with the verifiable sciences, but when we make the moral assertion. The Religious Ethicist accepts Justice as a high achievement but not as the highest virtue. Love, the Religious Ethicist insists, is the highest virtue. Justice is remedial. Love is preemptive. Justice can balance accounts, justice for injustice but no form of justice can rehabilitate a broken body or restore a lost life. Love, even taken in the form of conscience and remorse, bathed in empathy, can stay the hand of the body breaker or the life taker.

   The Talmud has it,"Whosoever saves a single life is as if he had saved the whole world; whosoever destroys a single life it is as if he had destroyed the whole world."

   The Christ reiterated forcefully the ancient rabbinic standard of living, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Men read that rule and called it golden (valuable).

   Both these statements invoke collective and individual empathy, as though the least life available is equal to the most socially esteemed life. No rule of law or act of affection can make men equal in talents or abilities, any more than an external force can make a worker out of a malingerer. There is a way that love, deeply felt and broadly applied, can open the door of opportunity to every person.

   Love allows us to treat every man equally without treating every man the same. Modernity has a stultifying effect on the differences in humankind. Differences threaten. Love, unlike Justice, can accept differences, even those differences that seem potentially divisive.

   The mechanization of modern society (every man a cog in the machine; l'ame n'a pas de sexe) is particularly destructive to the (quiescent) religious imagination, which is in danger of settling for Justice as over against love. The modern fear of difference can be seen in the communal response to terrorist attacks; nationalistic, patriotic, militaristic responses annihilated individual rights, to the lasting detriment of America's global standing. Justice, as remedial, can as easily morph into revenge, wherein the balance Justice intends is lost in a later day Lamech's Pronouncement (Genesis 4:19-24).

   The Hebrew Bible, what gentiles call the Old Testament, by length that series of books which contains most of what we believe God wishes to say to us, offers Justice as appropriate balance but promises love in the form of redemption at every step. Adam and Eve are put out of their Place of Shame but not without hope. Noah sees a Flood but the race is preserved. An eye can be taken for an eye but not the other eye. The rabbis accepted the edict of capital punishment but immediately set such strictures about the ultimate punishment so as to make it virtually unacceptable.

   The Religious Moral Assertion assumes Justice but subsumes the bare principle of Justice to the overarching application of love as the highest virtue. Man starves for love. He invents it where he can, experiences it when he may, is embarrassed to be alone and so obviously without love (at least for the moment) and is disappointed when he fails to love and so fails love.

   The Religious Imagination is at its most helpful when it is considering love's applications. There really is no substitute for love. At least, there is no substitute that satisfies.


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