April 27, 2009
As I think further about the three novels of my previous entry, I realize that they all involve really murky and unclear questions of morality. In The Reader, the issues are the least murky. Hannah is illiterate but becomes a Nazi guard. She takes the fall for others because she does not want to reveal her secret. The others let her. In The Old School the issue is plagiarism, but we are not revolted by the act at the time as we are in the light of day. It changes everything, but in some sense could be said to be more honest than dishonest. In Those Who Save Us, Anna gives life and hope to concentration camp prisoners even as she is the consort of a German Officer and even as she refuses to talk about her wartime life with anyone, ever.
Most of the moral dilemmas that I came across are dilemmas precisely because they don’t’ seem to fit the easy certitudes. As St. Paul would have it, the law is indeed a mirror, but often what we do is see in that glass darkly. The insistence on moral clarity in a system of reward and punishment is rarely, if ever, something that could be described as after the model and pattern of Jesus and is also something that gives much of Christianity a bad name. Of course a decision to follow Jesus as Lord will have some effect on all our behaviors as we undergo that fundamental shift or reorientation that is being born anew in and by the Holy Spirit. At the same time, Christian Faith is not about getting us to behave well. Jesus did not, in the words of Mrs. Alexander’s hymn “die to make us good”, --at least not in the sense of bringing about moral rectitude.
I’m reminded of an early chapter in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics on ‘telling the truth’. The Ethics was published from class notes of students in the secret seminary in which he taught during WWII. I recall the situation being set up as to whether telling a German soldier where a Jew was hiding was ‘the truth’. If I’m remembering this correctly, the answer was that this is a time where what appeared to be truthful was actually participating in a greater lie. Moral ambiguity is part and parcel of life. Following Jesus gives us clues and signposts, --the law being perhaps chief among them,-- but not unambiguous, one-size-fits-all answers. How could it be otherwise for a God who made the infinite varieties of creation? We find our way forward with Augustine’s sage advice (not to be trivialized): “When you sin, sin boldly.” Make the best decision you know to make and then act with confidence not in your own rectitude or righteousness but in the assurance of God’s love.