Wellintended tyrannies

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Exaggerations react against each other, making overstatement hard to eliminate. The liberal oversimplification which assimilates relationships, permissively, is reacting against a traditional oversimplification which distinguishes relationships, prohibitively. Liberals make the pair important at the expense of the bond, indignant at the tyranny of making the bond important at the expense of the pair.

Traditionalists reasonably deny that the rigorism they commend ignores human happiness. They can quote Wordsworth: 'the weight of too much liberty'. Human beings may be happiest living their lives within a firm framework. To want to be good and to have to work out for oneself all the way what goodness means is a kind of freedom which looks much like nightmare. What is fair? What is loyal? What is prudent? How far can we go? What can I expect? Should I leave him? Situation ethics is like Alice's croquet with flamingoes for mallets.

Whereas liberal optimism expects faithfulness to operate in a vacuum, traditionalist logic ties up faithfulness in formality. Firm moral frameworks become unyielding legal frameworks. When Christians relish the idea of the law of Christ and forget how dangerously antinomian the ethics of the kingdom must have looked, there is shrinkage and distortion. The breaking of Christian marriage vows, unlike monastic vows, is made into a metaphysical impossibility rather than a tragic fact. Can this divorcee marry again, not because her sin has been forgiven, but because she was baptized after she was first married? Are these young people 'living in sin', not because they refuse to commit themselves, but because they do not see the paraphernalia of getting married as relevant to their circumstances? The idea that what counts is the ring on one's finger is a taunt of Faust's Mephistopheles, not a command of Christ. With good intentions traditionalism has given support to various kinds of legalistic over-emphasis.

A high view of marriage can slip into cruelty: not only to sinners penitent and less penitent, but to people who through no particular fault of their own do not fit into the natural categories which make for an uneventful moral life. Sexual ethics becomes tyrannical when blessings, especially heterosexual marriage and the procreation of children, come to look like conditions for acceptability. When the norm of family life is taken for granted, single people, childless people and people whose marriages are in trouble have to bear the loneliness and indignity of being odd ones out, as well as the sadness of missing ordinary human happiness. 'Norm' ought to be a useful neutral word establishing a good firm base from which constructive variations would be possible and unhappy variations would be manageable. It can become a device for damning nonconformity by definition.

Lack of imagination can look like disapproval. Actual disapproval, hiding behind attempts to 'hate the sin but love the sinner', shows itself as reprobation. Would-be tolerance can fall into such well-meaning insensitivities as the expectation that celibacy will surely be the Christian solution to other people's problems. Though the recommendation of celibacy to divorced people is less in fashion than it used to be, Christian moralists have by no means given up the idea that such renunciation must be expected of homosexual people. So it comes to look like a positive suggestion, still in the name of tolerance, that same-sex lovers should be exhorted, not to faithfulness, but to secrecy. It is not surprising when they angrily repudiate the norm in whose name this advice is given, and reject the notion that homosexuality constitutes a 'problem' at all (Oppenheimer 1990:105).

These matters are not now being neglected in the Christian Churches. A good deal of work is going on, some of it dogged by prejudices, harsh or sentimental, much of it inconclusive: but much of it determined to look loyally and constructively at the meaning of the Christian Gospel. Theologians and pastors are taking into account the experience of individuals and the real needs of our times. Commissions meet and wrestle and report, congregations consider, and although nothing happens immediately as a result attitudes begin to change and progress is made.

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