Goodness is in the Eye of the Beholder

Most of us understand that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. One person’s idea of splendor is another person’s notion of revolting, but could the same be true of goodness? Robert Wright says it is, particularly when it comes to religion and sacred texts.  He also proposes a solution to our perpetual holy wars. His fix is intriguing, but I worry that he’s going to be ignored. After all, he could be proposing nothing less than unilateral cultural disarmament. Details after the jump.

The problem with sacred texts like The Koran or The Bible is that they are both violent and loving, Wright argues. If believers focus on certain verses, they will engage in a religion of peace and love. If they pick other verses, they’ll practice violence and hatred. Therefore, the nature of each religion is not determined by its texts, but by the bits and pieces its believers cherry pick out of those texts. In writing about The Koran, Wright says:

After all, the adherents of a given religion, like everyone else, focus on things that confirm their attitudes and ignore things that don’t. And they carry that tunnel vision into their own scripture; if there is hatred in their hearts, they’ll fasten onto the hateful parts of scripture, but if there’s not, they won’t…. So too with people who see in the Bible a loving and infinitely good God. They can maintain that view only by ignoring or downplaying parts of their scripture.

So far so good and not terribly surprising, but here’s where Wright makes an interesting contribution to our perpetual debates:

So whenever we do things that influence the attitudes of believers, we shape the living meaning of their scriptures. In this sense, it’s actually within the power of non-Muslim Americans to help determine the meaning of the Koran. If we want its meaning to be as benign as possible, I recommend that we not talk about burning it. And if we want imams to fill mosques with messages of brotherly love, I recommend that we not tell them where they can and can’t build their mosques.

Of course, the street runs both ways. Muslims can influence the attitudes of Christians and Jews and hence the meanings of their texts. The less threatening that Muslims seem, the more welcoming Christians and Jews will be, and the more benign Christianity and Judaism will be.

Wright imagines a “virtuous circle” that would eventually lead to peace between the world religions. He worries that our current “vicious circle” is leading us in the opposite direction, and I have to admit that I sorrowfully agree with him.

My gut sense is that the less threatening we are to others, the less they will be afraid and the more they will be able to access their own feelings of love and understanding. If all those “theys” can do that, then they can see the love in their own scripture and ignore the hate.

I think that applies to every “we” and “they” on the planet, yet few seem willing to act out of this principle. This is a way of living — and a way of engaging in politics — that many (most?) people either ignore or denigrate. (The response is usually: “Great idea, but darn impractical”. I hear that all the time from both liberals and conservatives.)

It’s as if all the different brands of “us” are standing in a circle pointing guns at each other, and each one of us is too afraid to be the first to disarm. If no one is willing to go first, then won’t we all die?


By the way, this is why civility in politics — a frequent theme of Goodness Project visitor Darrell Icenogle — is so important. If we can’t be civil to each other, we can’t climb onto Wright’s “virtuous circle.” Viciousness only perpetuates viciousness, and these days vicious seems to define politics.

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6 Responses to Goodness is in the Eye of the Beholder

  1. Darrell Icenogle says:

    You (and Wright) hit all the right themes. We need to develop a trust reflex. Civility is the rock bottom minimal condition for trust, and trust is the rock bottom minimum for looking across that circle and being willing to lower your weapons.

  2. dianesilver says:

    Obviously I agree, Darrell, but this must be my night to be cynical. Even when I talk to other touchie feelie too-nice liberals, they’re not willing to lower their guns. There is no trust. How do we get folks to do this? And should we? The other side seems to have no concern for trust or even kindness, but then I suspect that I’m being influenced by the fact that this has not been a good night for me. By the way, I love your idea of a trust reflex.

  3. Darrell Icenogle says:

    Group trust begins with a couple of courageous individuals bridging the divide with a personal relationship. If those individuals are respected, their relationship can develop into a contagion. I think we all have the trust reflex, and most of us ultimately want to trust (absent other agendas,) but sometimes need an excuse to do so.

    There was a relevant story on the MSNBC site this morning:

    Ted Kennedy was famous for this kind of logjam breaking.

  4. dianesilver says:

    Good point and I love the link. Many thanks!

  5. Pingback: The Problem with the Enlightenment | In Search of Goodness

  6. Pingback: The Will of God | In Search of Goodness

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