Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Is Puritanism immoral?

The Puritan movement had a reputation for rigidly, scrupulously upright morality -- that is, for strict and unwavering adherence to certain rules. The Puritan life was full of a certain kind of conscientious, deliberate discipline. The dress code from old artwork seems simple and plain to the point of austerity. Many forms of enjoyment were seen as too worldly. And lately I have found myself wondering if this bleak and rigid society was among the most immoral of all forms of godliness.

To be sure, the pendulum has swung too far the other direction these days. Rudeness and lewdness are commonplace. "Irreverent" is used as a compliment. Mockery and cynicism are seen as humorous, though the laughs are joyless. Patience, courtesy, and all kinds of decency are portrayed as old-fashioned. It is easy to recognize the excesses around us as immoral. That makes us just that much more susceptible to thinking of morality in Puritan terms.

But what is the basis for morality? What is the basis for thinking about right and wrong? If we start with a set of laws like the Ten Commandments, then the Puritans make sense. But what if the true foundation is much more basic than that? What if the foundation of morality is when God looked at creation and declared that it was good? What if a love of the good is the foundation of morality? What if the two greatest commandments -- love of God and love of neighbor -- are meant to remind us of that? In that light, the rigid, joyless austerity of Puritanism is an insult to the goodness of all that is. If morality is not, in its most basic form, strict and unwavering adherence to rules but rather a thankful celebration of goodness, then a joyless and loveless approach to life is an affront to goodness.

Unswerving rules have a rightful place: they keep us from trampling on the good. In our eagerness to enjoy a thing, they keep us from destroying it or ourselves. But the rules were never the point; they were always a means to preserve what is good so that it could be enjoyed.


PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

I've had a similar thought regarding certain types of courtesy that seem to have been codified into ridged rules. For example, should the man open the door for a woman? Well, yes, if the door is extremely heavy, or she is carrying the food or baby, etc. There are rules for introducing one person to another, based on seniority or rank. Yet the main point needs to be the importance of introduction, which if not done leaves people hanging in a social situation. [This introduction thing really sticks with me because in kindergarten (yes!) we were taught these rules regarding introduce who to whom. Even since then, when I try to do introductions, I go blank and can't accomplish the most important thing, the social grace of this.]

You can think of many types of things we have been taught through the years that are now rules in isolation, but most probably started out as something very practical for a certain time in history. If we look at these things from a standpoint of practicality, then whichever person can do something to help another person, that is the courteous thing to do.

I don't know the history of the Puritan morality, but it think it is safe to assume that it resulted from a reaction to immorality as they saw it.

Howard said...

"What if the true foundation is much more basic than that? What if the foundation of morality is when God looked at creation and declared that it was good?"

Certainly, this 'goodness' lies at the heart of the matter - care towards life through relationship. This approach under girds the principals of living provided by the Jerusalem council (avoiding 'immorality' that actually harms ourselves and others) - that's the essence of creational life, thereby living at 'peace' with one another.

Weekend Fisher said...

I think my favorite along those lines was from the King Arthur stories. In one version, the question you had to answer to get the Grail was, "For what does the Grail serve?" I think it was Galahad who answered right: "It's mad idolatry that makes the service greater than the God."

We are almost hardwired toward idolatry -- taking something else and making it God.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF