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Drop The Stone

Since I quit my job, I have found it increasingly harder to judge anybody.  I’ve been on this trajectory for a long time, but the extra time for prayer and spiritual exercise since walking away from teaching last spring has accelerated the process.  As I’ve grown older, I have become more compassionate.

Anyone who knew me when I was younger knows that this was not always the case; as a callow youth I was inordinately self-righteous, quick to judge and to take sides, incredibly slow to repent, always ready to find an excuse for anything I did.   I wince when I think of those days, and thank God for allowing me to get over myself to some extent in recent years.

I think it’s normal to grow in tolerance for human frailty as one gains experience; the more we see of life, the harder it becomes to assume we know the whole story.   But I wonder what faculties are actually altered by exposure to life—what about us changes as we develop a broader perspective? If we conceive of the moral universe in a charts-and-tables way based on abstractions about “right” and “wrong,” surely that system would remain untouched by the passage of time.  But what if increasing maturity reframes the subject, bringing different faculties to bear?  What if, while believing we are trying to do the “right” thing, we are actually trying to do something else—and the process of growing up brings us in touch with that?

I believe that most of our decisions are, at bottom, aesthetic decisions—including those we might ordinarily categorize as moral.  In his Ethics, Aristotle makes the startling but compelling claim that no one can be called truly virtuous who does not take pleasure in virtuous actions.  Doing good things grudgingly or under compulsion doesn’t make you good.  So perhaps our aesthetic responses—the way we react to things emotionally according to our ideas of beauty–can be an index of moral character, to the extent that they correlate our actions with our pleasures.  For instance, if someone does something of which we disapprove, our tendency to also disapprove of the doer will be tempered if we believe that the action pained that person.  Conversely, we will more readily hate the sinner along with the sin if we believe the sinner took pleasure in the sinful act.  The statement, “This hurts me more than it hurts you” is an attempt to deflect moral culpability by linking the speaker’s actions to pain rather than pleasure for the speaker.

Three and a half centuries after Aristotle, Jesus implied a similar thing in his Sermon on the Mount.  Over against his hearer’s received wisdom about righteous behavior, he set a far more stringent requirement of an inwardly righteous disposition.

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment…You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart…You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven…Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t say the Law is wrong—simply that it isn’t enough, that a deeper conversion is required that goes beyond conventional moral codes.

The Greeks set “noble and beautiful,” against “ugly and base,” more than they did “right” against “wrong.”  (The ancient Hebrews were similarly preoccupied with “honor” vs. “shame.”)  One can argue that moral decision-making has more to do with concrete aesthetic responses to certain courses of action than with abstractions about “right” and “wrong.”  We do or refrain from doing, not because deeds are “right” or “wrong,” but because they are attractive or repellant.

Consider the well-known story from the Gospel of John:

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, said to (Jesus,) “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act.  Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do you say?”  They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him…(Jesus) said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”… When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the eldest, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court…Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”  (John 8:3-11)

I have heard this passage ever since I can remember, but I cannot recall ever having heard a sermon mention what to me is a very salient point:  the eldest present were the first to leave.  The Law made the woman’s adultery and her death-by-stoning morally equivalent, and Jesus did not contradict the Law.  Nevertheless the accusers, convicted by Jesus’ words, were unable to fulfill the Law’s requirements.  Why?  I submit that, through the lens of their own sinfulness, they saw that although stoning the woman was right in the eyes of the Law, at the hands of the sinful self-righteous it would be an ugly act–and the mature onlookers, because of their longer experience of struggling humanity, were the first to realize it.

There is a kind of moral rigidity that is the province of youth.  The less experience one has of the slings and arrows, the easier it is to see the world in primary colors; a sense of moral nuance, like an eye for tints and shades, takes time and experience to develop.  As Aristotle warned,

…the young man is not a fit student of Moral Philosophy, for he has no experience in the actions of life, while all that is said presupposes and is concerned with these: and in the next place, since he is apt to follow the impulses of his passions, he will hear as though he heard not, and to no profit, the end in view being practice and not mere knowledge.[i][i]

 This is the reason, I believe, that the mature are often patronizing at best and dismissive at worst toward the moral certainties of the young. Yes, some of us grown-ups have become cynical, and some are too invested in the status quo to be supportive of the reforming zeal of youth. Many of us are just tired. But most of us also have as keen a sense of justice as in our youth–but, like old warriors, we know better how to apply ourselves. My old dog doesn’t bother to bark at the mailman any more, but the puppy barks at everybody.  The dog is as zealous for our safety as the pup—he just knows what’s worth getting excited about and what isn’t.

I am all in favor of hope and change; I voted for hope and change, and I still believe in them.  I write letters for Amnesty, and participate in local relief projects.  But I am no longer under any illusion about how my moral energies are best spent, or toward what ends I am really directing them.  I realize now that the world will get along fine without me[ii][ii], and that my good works, such as they are, are for the benefit, not of the world, but of myself.  And I cringe when I hear how the young and zealous talk about “those people” who, in their ignorance and ill-will, stand in the way of the perfect world they would otherwise have built by now.  They may or may not be right, but their contempt is ignoble and their thoughts ugly–as mine have often been.  Excess of certainty is still excess.

Aristotle defined virtue as the mean between excess and deficiency. One isn’t good because one has a surfeit of some virtuous quality, but because one knows how to walk the thin line between too little of it and too much.  Locating that tipping point and maintaining the balance is an aesthetic process, a skill-set one acquires over time, like knowing when to stop adding paint to a picture, notes to a score, words to a story or pepper to a broth.  It would take very little exaggeration of the most desirable features in a beautiful face to render the face ugly.   The secret of beauty is knowing when enough is enough.

The onlookers who walked away had had enough, and Jesus awakened their aesthetic sense to find the balance between deficiency and excess of justice.  In my own moral strivings I have been trying to cultivate the same outlook. It is easy to talk oneself into believing that what one does is just, but it is harder to snow oneself about what is beautiful.  I may think it right to scream at a representative during a town hall meeting, but can I really regard it as noble?  It may seem right to do unto others as they have done unto us, but can any amount of blather make it seem honorable? I can talk myself into the right forever, but when I try to talk myself into the beautiful, repentance comes.

“When I was a child,” wrote Paul, “I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.”[iii][iii]  In America today, we too often mock nuance, on-the-other-hand indecisiveness, and the willingness to change, and we reward those who scorn repentance as weakness.  I believe this is because, although we are actually looking for the noble and beautiful, we tell ourselves that we are looking for the right.  If we were to know ourselves better and consciously pursue balance, harmony and proportion, we might drop the stones and grow into moral adults.


[iv][i] Aristotle, Ethics

[v][ii] See Vivekananda, Karma Yoga

[vi][iii] 1 Conrinthians 13:11




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