The Psychology of Christianity: Part 8, Alignment and the Christian Moral Experience

It is notoriously difficult to define religion. Most definitions suggest that religion is, at root, an experience or encounter with a sacred and spiritual dimension. In this, few definitions of religion have improved upon the simplicity of William James’ definition in The Varieties of Religious Experience: religion encompasses “the feelings, acts, and experiences” of persons as they “apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” The religious life, then, “consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” Broadly speaking, James’ definition fits the Christian religion: Christians believe in an “unseen order,” a spiritual realm they consider to be “divine.” Further, Christians strive to “adjust” themselves to live “harmoniously” with their notions of the divine.

A distinctive aspect of the Christian encounter with the divine is that it is an inherently moral experience. As noted in the Apostles’ Creed, Jesus is “Lord” and will “judge the living and the dead.” Thus, within the Christian experience James’ “adjustment to the divine” has a ethical and moral flavor. The encounter with the sacred has normative implications, it is an experience charged with notions of good and evil, sin and salvation, commandments and imperatives. Christians attempt to live on “earth” in a way that “aligns” with God’s “kingdom of heaven.” As it says in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

More, Christians believe they have moral obligations to both heaven and earth. These obligations are best summarized in the Greatest Commandments, the directives to love God and one’s neighbor (Mark 12:28-34; Matt. 22:34-40). The “love of God” speaks to moral obligations related to the transcendent, vertical dimension, the pursuit of holiness and personal piety before God. In contrast to these vertical obligations, the “love of neighbor” speaks to more “horizontal” imperatives, what we owe other human beings by way of care and justice.

Here is where the Christian moral experience gets interesting, and even glitchy.

Although Christians, as noted above, are broadly trying to bring affairs on earth into alignment with heaven (personally or socially), friction can occur between our “vertical” obligations (what we owe God) and our “horizontal” obligations (what we owe other human beings, and even the earth). That is, in the name of “loving God” Christians can ignore or harm their neighbors. In this, the vertical moral obligations are privileged and trump the horizontal moral obligations. This often occurs when issues of purity and holiness come to dominate the faith experience. That is, preserving personal purity and holiness before God can come at the expense of loving one’s neighbor. Consider the conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees regarding Jesus’ association with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. One way to look at the conflict is to note that the Pharisees were privileging the vertical concerns of holiness over the horizontal concerns of love and justice. Jesus was doing the opposite. As Jesus declares in Matthew 9 (echoing the prophet Hosea): God “desires mercy, not sacrifice.” Mercy (the horizontal imperative) was to trump sacrifice (the vertical, purity-based imperative).

These tensions continue to crackle through the Christian communion. Christians deploy the Greatest Commandments idiosyncratically, leading to sharp conflict on contentious issues where the vertical and horizontal obligations come into conflict. Consider, as one example, this assessment from the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann regarding how Christians approach the issue of homosexuality:

It is evident that the current and freighted dispute in the U.S. church concerning homosexual persons, especially their ordination, indicates the continuing felt cruciality of the tradition of holiness, even after we imagine we have moved beyond such “primitiveness.” It is my impression that the question of equal rights and privileges for homosexuals (in civil society as in the church) is a question that may be adjudicated on the grounds of justice. It is equally my impression, however, that the enormous hostility to homosexual persons (as to proposals of justice for them) does not concern issues of justice and injustice, but rather concerns the more elemental issues of purity—cleanness and uncleanness.
Note how, in Bruggemann’s summary, issues of “purity” and “holiness” come into conflict with “equal rights” and “justice.”

In short, Christians display great diversity in how they balance “vertical” concerns regarding holiness and piety with the “horizontal” and immanent concerns of justice and care.

(Picture Note:
The image above is Caravaggio's The Calling of Saint Matthew. Jesus, on the right, is pointing to Matthew. Matthew, carousing with this friends, looks a bit stunned to be singled out. His reaction has a "What? You're talking to me?" quality. This scene occurs in Matthew 9, setting up the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees in Matthew's house where Jesus proclaims: "Go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'")

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11 thoughts on “The Psychology of Christianity: Part 8, Alignment and the Christian Moral Experience”

  1. You're right about this, but I think the friction is the result of a misunderstanding. How can we do wrong to God by doing right to our fellow human beings? In fact, I'm much more inclined to try to do good for people than to do moral good, or good for God. God doesn't need anything from us, while fellow humans often do.

    I'm reminded of a Buddhist parable. A rich woman wants to show her piety and she buys a gold Buddha and expensive incense. When she takes it to the temple, she sees all of the other Buddhas arrayed and thinks to herself that she spent the most money on hers and that hers should be the only one to benefit from the expense. So she makes a funnel to direct the smoke from the burning incense towards her Buddha alone. When she returns the next day, her golden Buddha has been blackened by the smoke.

    People invent all kinds of opinions and feelings for God but it seems like it's usually all about them. Vengeful people know a vengeful God, forgiving people know a forgiving God.

  2. "Most definitions suggest that religion is, at root, an experience or encounter with a sacred and spiritual dimension. "

    This raises a question of what percentage of the "religious" community actually experience a personal encounter with a sacred or spiritual dimension BEFORE having been indoctrinated by those in their immediate environment during their very young formidable years?

    My guess is a majority have their "religious" expectations and perceptions set at a very young age by others vs. having their own personal experience. From that point on, it becomes a lifelong personal battle to reconcile conflicts or find validation of that religious presentation, especially with alleged extreme eternal consequences at stake.

    Gary Y.

  3. Richard,

    It seems to me that the verticle and horizontal axis you deliniate moves the discussion (even the research) away from the incarnational or, if you will, the embodied reality. We cannot get around it, we humans not only have bodies, we are mysterious bodies in a mysteriously embodied world even though we have wonderfully imaginative minds capable of out-of-body activities, including and especially Cartesian thinking. Even abstract, "disembodied" thinking is embodied thinking. Even double-blind studies are not blind: some body looks at them. We are, as John Donne puts it, "part of the main."


  4. Richard we are all products of our environment which means god help us all

  5. For some reason when reading your post, I kept thinking about the x and y axis on a graph and how they seemingly will never go in the same direction. Having grown up in the Stone-Campbell tradition, great attention is paid to personal responsibility and acts of righteousness, which other groups often (and sometimes rightly) call legalism. It seems when personal or organizational "rightness" is the main focus, the love and care of people is ignored. One thing I've noticed is that myself and many other Christians have a difficult time embracing is the fact that within us all lies the potential to commit violent, perverse, and selfish acts. And even if we do master our behavior, there is nothing we can do by ourselves to make our motives pure and correct. In moments when I truly understand this, there is nobody I am unable to love. It seems to me that the more we attend to the "vertical" of loving God, the more apparent our state should become, and therefore our "horizontal" capabilities to love others should increase. So both "vertical" and "horizontal" should increase together.

    Thanks for your posts...I look forward to being stimulated and challenged daily.

  6. If one allows for diverse values, or even diverse definitions of the 'spiritual", then what one does "in the body" can by another's definition of spirituality, be "bane".

    Virtue must be defined by one's value of choice....which is to be the first or primary focus in "serving God"? the environment, human rights/political dimension, social structures, etc. ...

    Since these all vary from individual to individual and community to community, then why is there discussion about "god"...shouldn't it be about whether we are phsically in allignment with everything that is, as in interdependece, or about stewardship and "control" of everything that is...One sees "what is" as a necessity, while the other makes a judgment regarding what "should be" and tries to solve the problem....

  7. Angie
    dang miss a day and Richard writes more and more i will come back at u on this on Angie although it is not about me it is all about a family learning to love and respect the diversity of each other and moving along the X/Y axes with transparency and understand we all need each others help as we humble ourselves in our in ability to be wholly one with god in this reality and the purpose of the diversity of the collective result of integration of the mission of the body of believers that a loving FATHER has ask us to accomplish.

  8. there is a freedom that is defined by characteristics in this diversity THAT is regulated by love as defined, of coarse never works that is why humility is the key .not power or control as orthodox or RELIGION FAILS...
    it is a loving relationship in an age of corporate distrust and divorce which models young people to model identification apart from the wonder of intimacy and looks to sex as a means to and end and not the height of the emotional intimate fulling experience that that rhe wonder of our mind and the love of our wife should bring us to .
    Angie we are for the most part riding a bicycle when have sex bet everyone wants to ride a bike it is so exciting isn't it althought it was when we were 4 years old. and then the car.
    the car at 16 woh
    now just a tool like the bike.
    what of sex as the highest form of intimacy. no ???? it is just a tool look what we have don the depth of emotion we have lost and the fulfillment product of the environment that will not realize what love and good good intended for each and every one of us

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