I want to thank all of you who have followed my last few months of political commentary. We have especially explored the differences between those who are uncomfortable with change and those who can face it with hope as an opportunity to improve matters – those who fear the risk of losing what they have and those who have the faith to work with strangers to achieve what they cannot do by themselves.
Values and virtues underlie our private and public choices. And, I want to move on to thinking about what makes us decide that something is good or bad and then choose what we will or won’t do. This column is about to make a shift. I thought a little fair warning was in order. Here we go…
As we grow up, we are taught to conform to our families’ and communities’ standards of belief and conduct. We gradually develop a sense of right and wrong as we are taught what is good and what is bad. Yes, there are some values, such as not stealing or not committing murder, that seem “natural” because they are shared by so many different societies. And yes, we can see for ourselves, over time, how different choices tend to result in different consequences.
At the same time, even things considered sinful may otherwise be considered virtuous depending on circumstances. Take stealing and murder for instance. We rarely blink at stories of the God of Israel commanding His people to plunder their enemies and commit genocide as they came into their promised land. We routinely justify many of the atrocities of war when they are committed by “us.”
Values are the opinions we hold and the judgments we make about what is good and bad. However, we sometimes do things contrary to our values. Further, our values may actually sometimes conflict with each other. But, even the most wonderful values are empty if they do not direct our choices and our actions.
Virtues and vices translate our values into our actions. There is no virtue or vice until we actually do (or choose to not do) something. Only after we make a choice and act can what we have done be judged (against those principles and values that we hold dear) as virtuous or not.
Sin is essentially falling short of the mark – failing to meet the expectations or model set for us by an established authority. Most often, sin is used in the context of failing to keep the commandments of one’s particular God. Please remember that we live in a large, diverse and dynamic world where many different people worship their own God(s) with similar obedience, faith and devotion.
We should hesitate before expecting everybody else to conform to our personal values as the only possible acceptable values. This is especially evident when we consider that our personal values (or understanding of our God’s values) will predictably change over time as we develop and mature.
Finally, we need to keep in mind that even non-religious people hold family, community and societal values. One way or another, we all have some basis for making choices; we all make personal judgments about what is good and bad. We should make the effort to understand our own thinking and to be aware of the values of others.