Moral Issues and Ethics

Column by Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox on 27 September 2018 7 Comments

A number of years ago a rabbi approached me and said to me: “You Christians should let the ten commandments go. These were given to us at a particular period in our existence and they belong to us. Instead, we Jews and millions of other people around the world are waiting to hear what those two commandments are all about that Jesus supposedly taught you.”

And of course we Christians know that those two commandments are the sixth and ninth (i.e. all about sex).

Joking aside, those two still little known commandments go something like this: “You should love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.” And, “you must love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt 22.37-39) I think it would behoove us to take the rabbi at his word. How do we love God with our whole heart and soul and mind and also love our neighbor as ourselves? And how are we doing at it? Love of God is about loving life in all its expressions and occasions, and love of self is essential for love of others.

To love self then surely requires that we know ourselves and that means certainly our true self and our deepest self as opposed to our false self or outer self, the masks we wear to please others or to fit in or to avoid knowing our true self. Thomas Merton wrote extensively about our “true self.” He said we are “at liberty to be real or unreal…be true or false, the choice is ours.” If we fail at this we live under a mask and develop an “itch with discomfort” that we must eventually pay “a psychiatrist to scratch.”(1) It is down deep that we find our capacity for love because “if the deepest ground of my being is love, then in that very love itself and nowhere else will I find myself, and the world, and my brother and Christ. It is not a question of either-or but of all-in-one.” In this unity we encounter an equality of being and we learn “Meister Eckhart’s Gleichheit (equality) which finds the same ground of love in everything.”(2) It is in this “ground of our soul or of our being, a ‘ground’ which is …enlightened and aware, because it is in immediate contact with God” that we find what the Buddhist D. T. Suzuki called the “True Self” or the “original mind.”(3) I call this “original blessing.”

To love oneself truly is also to love others—not only because we are societal animals and need community to serve, laugh, offer criticism, assist, but also because we literally can’t survive without others. And by others I don’t mean just other two-legged ones but the others who are of different species—the plants and the animals, the sun and the moon, the waters and the winged ones and the insects and the planets and the supernovas that burst and spread the elements that render our existence possible, etc. etc. Who is our neighbor? Well, all these beings are.

Consider the air that we breathe—what is more intimate than air that we breathe in with every breath? That means the air is our neighbor—are we loving it–or are we taking it for granted? Are we protecting it for our own health and that of our neighbors and our children to come—or are we ravaging it with pollutions and polluters? If we are in denial about climate change (which half of our political machinery is at this time in the US), then we are not loving our neighbors—or our descendants–and their need for healthy land and soil and food and well-nourished bodies and minds.

Love in the Biblical tradition is not sentimental. It is not soap opera love—it is about justice. Therefore balance; therefore sustainability. “Love means justice” said Meister Eckhart in the fourteenth century working out of the Jewish tradition about justice. The word “maat” in African languages means something very similar, our capacity to bring balance back, homeostasis in today’s scientific language (along with “sustainability”). Such love requires strength and perseverance and co-operation and solidarity and standing up to injustice which is its opposite.

Bishop Spong stresses that rules will not save us and are not the last word when it comes to ethics. He is correct. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century chose deliberately not to build his ethics on rules or commandments but on virtues (as did Aristotle, his mentor). Virtues are good habits that allow one to respond to the moral exigencies of one’s time when one cannot rely on rules and rule books and rule enforcers. Courage is such a virtue; and ingenuity; and creativity.

Civil disobedience, which is the method for love and justice that Gandhi and Martin Luther King employed so successfully, is about developing a virtue of non-violence or non-retaliation, not returning violence for violence but rather returning love for violence and being willing to pay the price for doing so (King went to jail 39 times for his disobedience and Gandhi also went to jail often for his).

It is notable I think that it took a Hindu to put Jesus’ teachings of love as non-violence into an ethical practice that was effective. Gandhi was standing up to a so-called “Christian nation,” namely the British empire, to wage a crusade of love and not war and retaliation. Then a generation later a Christian came along, King, who learned the practice from Gandhi and implemented it to oppose the racism, segregation and hate in the USA, also eager to label itself a “Christian nation.”

Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25 that when you “do it to the least you do it to me” is another way of grasping compassion, justice and love as norms to live by. “Compassion is where peace and justice kiss” remarks Meister Eckhart. When one sees suffering one sees the Christ, one sees the crucifixion all over again whether one is talking about the victims of police violence or women who are abused in work places or children growing up needlessly without health care and basic food, or the homeless, or the ravishing of the rainforests that are needed not only for the purifying of the air they accomplish for us and all living species on the planet, but also for their own unique selfhood. Do humans make rainforests? No. They are a once in a lifetime event. They too are our neighbors.

To speak of love and justice is also to speak of darkness and immorality and evil. We, especially Americans, can wrap ourselves so snugly in our life blankets of rhetoric and militarism and national anthems and materialism and consumerism and the gods of comfort that we shield (or imagine we shield) ourselves from the mayhem of evil. The kind of wars that have been unleashed in the Middle East beginning with America’s invasion of Iraq need to be meditated on for the lessons to be learned. One lesson is that the reptilian brain—and an “eye for eye” mentality—does not solve human conflicts. As Gandhi warned, those who follow an eye for eye and tooth for tooth doctrine may well end up both blind and toothless. We can do better and this is what Jesus taught. Forgiveness matters; letting go is possible; moving on can happen.

There is a powerful true story of a mother in LA whose 17 year old son was murdered in a drive-by killing and when they found his killer who was a 19 year old and put him in prison she visited the young man who killed her son; then she visited him again; and again. He had had no mother. They became friends. Love is possible and forgiveness is possible. Redemption is possible.

Thomas Aquinas teaches that when a critical moral issue arises you cannot just turn to a book or a list of rules for the answers. Rather, he advises, take counsel from a person of conscience and then do your own soul-searching and let your conscience decide.

Today is a time when conscience must wake up and speak up and stand up. Whether we are talking of treating immigrants as “the least among us” and therefore “other Christs” or the oceans or the rainforests or the animals, so many of which are going extinct, or women or gay people or people of a different race or religion or ethnicity from ourselves, it is time to see all as “other Christs.” Not as other. It is time to stand up and fight; to get in touch with the capacity that we all have within us of moral outrage (to be found in the third chakra) and tap into that anger using it as energy to make love and justice happen.

This is what the prophets did—they tapped into moral outrage and then spoke up and acted up and did what Rabbi Heschel says all prophets do: They interfered. True love needs to interfere. And who are the prophets today? You are; I am; we all are. Heschel says “there lies in the recesses of every human existence a prophet.” We must plummet our recesses—seek for our true self—and operate out of there. I believe the Four Paths of Creation Spirituality name the recesses vividly for us: Our awe, wonder, joy and gratitude (Path One: The Via Positiva); Our silence and our suffering and grief (Path Two: The Via Negativa); Our Creativity (Path Three: The Via Creativa); and Our powers of Compassion, Justice Making and Healing (Path Four: The Via Transformativa). These constitute our deepest resources; they are the birthplace of the mystic/prophet in all of us.

An ethical person therefore is both a lover (a mystic) and a warrior or prophet (one who interferes with injustice). If it is true, as William Hocking says, that “the prophet is the mystic in action”, then it is very clear that we must all tap into our mystical depths to find the loving self which is our true self (Paths One and Two are the mystical self). Out of that mystic self there derives the prophetic self (Paths Three and Four). New Testament scholar Dominic Crossan observes that for Paul you cannot be a Christian without being a mystic.

This is the path of love that Jesus called us to: The love of the mystic and the love of the prophet, the love of our true selves that reach out organically to love all the other creatures we share life with and with whom we share a love of life. Isn’t that just about everyone and every creature? Aren’t all creatures striving to love life in their own way? And therefore God?

~ Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox

(1.) Cited in Matthew Fox, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey (Novato, Ca: New World Library, 2016), 185.
(2.) Ibid., 44.
(3.) Ibid., 34.



Can this (Christian) faith create a new institutional form that fosters a truth-seeking, universal community?


Dear Reader,

I don’t believe that any one spiritual tool, practice or teaching will satisfy the needs of everyone on the planet. A universal community under the umbrella of one religion is a Utopian ideal.

Pluralism and religious diversity increasingly allows for the inclusion of many voices and has shown us the promise of a world where those voices live side-by-side. Conversely, the corruption and abuse of power within the ranks of Catholicism (universal church) has shown this and future generations the dangers of gathering too tightly under one umbrella and ceding our values to a powerful few – something Jesus himself warned against.

Secondly, if by “truth” we mean the domain of the empirical and verifiable facts, then we have miles to go. We have now entered the era of “post-truth,” where all opinions are valid and all perspectives may be politicized. Seeking the “truth“ means that we must agree the truth exists – that we can both look up at the sky and agree that it is blue based on testable data. The post-truth era has already caused seismic change in things like science, media, ecology, climate, social justice, race/gender studies, women’s rights and religion.

The “enlightenment” of the 17th century allowed us to separate and integrate the value spheres of beautiful, good and true. It allowed us to speak three different languages, from three distinct perspectives (I, We and It). It protected and preserved the realms of spirituality, law and science. It has kept people like Robert Mapplethorpe and Rob Bell from being burned at the stake and it has allowed things like natural science, astronomy and philosophy to flourish.

But, seeking a personal “Truth” is a dangerous proposition in post-modern times. White Christian males (those who have long held political and religious power) are being threatened by diversity and are crying out that they are the ones being victimized.

If Christianity – the full spectrum of religious experience and expression, its institutions, teachings, writings, sacraments, icons, saints, symbols, etc. – expects to survive postmodernism, it must let go of the “universal” idea and embrace the pain and discomfort of transformation.

~ Joran Slane Oppelt




7 thoughts on “Moral Issues and Ethics

  1. Joran, I agree with this idea of a ‘post-truth’ era, but I also think the idea of ‘institution’, particularly in reference to faith, is a dangerous proposition we must also move away from if Christianity is to survive postmodernism.

    Institution implies concrete stability, a sense of continuing tradition and timeless actuality. More than ‘truth’, religion seems compelled to embed the spiritual within the material in an attempt at stability, as if our faith depends on a ‘proven’, objective existence of spiritual experience over time.

    Bricks and mortar, laws and rituals, words and meanings – none of these are eternal or timeless in themselves, but subject to the influences of environmental change. To embed our sense of the spiritual in these material aspects is to limit our awareness of spirituality itself. When we revere or fight for the survival of these ‘sacred’ institutions as if they are the foundation of our spirituality or faith we are repeating the mistakes of our ancestors – tantamount to worshipping idols.

    I think part of embracing ‘the pain and discomfort of transformation’ is to loosen our grip on these material aspects of our faith, and find spiritual experience in the intangibility of our relationships with every aspect of the universe.

    • Carmel, I agree wholeheartedly. We must look at every model of religious innovation (Wild Church, Her Church, Tabor Space, Church of St. John Coltrane, etc.) for what the potential of spiritual community can be. #wheretwoormorearegathered

  2. Dear Matthew:
    You had quoted: “Let your ‘conscience decide’ when a critical moral issue arises.” I will tell a true story which had happened to my Great-Great-Grandfather. [Mr. Wei Jing-Zhong(魏敬中), born 1778 CE, died in 1860 CE] I want to make it clear that it was during the Qing Dynasty and was before people in China had heard the story of Jesus or his teaching of “love your neighbor as yourself”. My Great 4th Grandpa Wei had attempted to take all the examinations from the county to the city, to the Fujian province, (south China) to Beijing (north China, about 1000 Kilometers) , qualifying the national exam only once every three years, such that it was in his sixth attempt he was already 38 years old(1816 CE). Grandpa Wei walked with another candidate (Mr. Lee) for the national exam from his county in Ningde, Fujian province toward Beijing, and stayed in a small hotel about halfway from their destiny. Mr. Lee, however, came down with an unknown illness at that hotel. So my Grandpa stayed and helped him with the local doctor and tending him with the medicines. But Me. Lee’s illness became worse, and he finally died there. At that time my Grandpa faced with a “critical moral issue” for which he had to “Let his ‘conscience decide’” as to whether he should just leave the dead man there and continue his journey to Beijing for his 6th national exam, or to give up that trip and his own meager amount of cash, but to take care of Mr. Lee. My Grandpa made his moral decision to use his own money to buy a coffin and to carry Me. Lee all the way back to the village in Ningde County, in Fujian Province. Thus, my Grandpa ended up studying for three more years, and traveled again to Beijing on his 7th attempt for the national exam. Grandpa finally succeeded to pass that exam, and was allowed to take the highest exam in front of the Emperor in the Palace. Grandpa got into the second rank and was awarded a position as an Imperial Historian. When he retired from Beijing my Grandpa taught in schools and worked as the Chief Historian Editor of the Province of Fujian. A copy of the final edition of it was kept in the Chicago University Library. Eugene, from Suzhou, China

  3. Dear Matthew:
    Q1. How about John the disciple of Jesus who was exiled to the Island of Patmos for many years before he was released? Where was his community?
    Q2: Can we love the Cock Roaches? Deadly Mosquitoes (Tens of Thousands Die in Africa every year)? And love the Poison Ivies? Can we love all the cancer-causing diseases?
    (Forgiveness is a good virtue; but that 17-year-old son cannot be brought back again.) Allowing young people or anyone who has mental problems or no proof of self control to own a gun in the USA is a potential hazard for others around him or her, as this 19-year-old man/boy has shown. Another example was that woman driver (an Adult) who had driven her car into another car from a 19-year-old student and simply took her car out and killed that younger woman in front due to “Road Rage”. The offender was later ruled by the court to serve 25 years in prison. That young student who was killed, however, could never be brought back again! (Such a problem does not exist in China today because only the army soldiers and special police forces can have guns or rifles for control and protection in the streets.)Gun control revolution is needed in the USA today! I t might be the time now for
    Civil disobedience, which is the method for love and justice that Gandhi and Martin Luther King employed so successfully; how about letting all the parents of the victims of mass-killing guns at the schools ? Starting with that mass murder which had taken place in Colorado?
    Along with all those parents in all the school-killings,
    Including 2018 in Florida by the young ex-student who had killed so many people with the machine gun and a huge amount of bullets? We definitely need Civil disobedience to convince the Highest Court in the USA to curtail the easy allowance of guns in this country we so love?
    Eugene, from Suzhou, China (I am also a citizen of USA)

  4. Dear Matthew: …or the animals?… let your conscience decide… On Feb 8th , 2018, I saw a small dog walking on the side of the road, not too far from the entrance of the Subway train station about 300 meters south of my community zone. This small dog was walking with only three legs! I felt sorry for it, but I had to run for the train to fetch my granddaughter at that time. When we both came back later, however, that small dog was still wondering on the side of that street as we went by. So with the agreement of my granddaughter, I picked it up and brought it to the nearest animal hospital (I had to take a taxi). The result was: letting that dog be given an X-ray on its right-rear leg (280 Yuan RMB), and let the animal doctor to operate on its leg the next morning, and to keep it there for 5 days (3000 Yuan RMB),including bringing it back for suture removal, Rabies shots, etc. (500 more Yuan RMB) before keeping it in our home. We bought it a smaller cage which it out-grew very quickly. We bought dog food for the dog, and I have been walking it three or four times every day. It has turned out to be a genuine Grey Hound dog! And it will be one year old in November this year.
    We have named it “Kimmy” in remembrance to my little dog from 70 years ago when I was a child. Kimmy has grown into a strong and tall dog that can out run anyone around this area. I can hardly hold its leach back any more. But everyone now loves it! (My wife did not used to like dogs at all; but she loves it now.) Our daughter and granddaughter all love it!
    Eugene, from Suzhou, China

  5. Matthew: I have Compassion for animals, especially for a “Two Leffed” dog.
    Suzhou city is one of the best environmentally vared for cities in the world.
    Our community has trees and shrubbs all over, and is green. But this city
    has 15 million inhabitants.
    Eugene, from Suzhou

  6. Dear Matthew: I want to tell a modern story about courage from a young lady who was born in 1991 in village out of Maasai Mara, Kenya. Her name is Nice Nailantei Leng’ete. Ms. Leng’ete had lost both of her parents at a very young age, and her grandfather sent her and her elder sister to a boarding school when she was 7 years old. Both of them learned the horror of the harmful practices of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in their community that every girl must go through as a necessary rite in the tradition. One morning when Ms. Leng’ete was 8 years old, she persuaded her sister (two-years older) to run away and hid on top of a big tree until the FGM ceremony was over. When they got back to their village they received a terrible beating, and were warned not to escape again. One year later however, Ms. Leng’ete tried to talk her sister into running away and hide from the FGM ceremony, but her sister shook her head. She said, “If I offer myself to them, perhaps they would let you go free in exchange for me.” And they went to their grandfather who was the village chief at that time to persuade him to let Ms. Leng’ete be free to continue her dream to go to school. Their grandfather made the decision to let her go to school instead of going through it to become another child bride in marriage. She succeeded her education through college and studied for human health sciences with her BS degree. Ms. Leng’ete went to villages to talk people into abolition the barbaric and horrible tradition. But it was a male-dominated Maasai Mara community. At first she was forbidden in the villages. But she never gave up. Her winning technique was not to discuss FGM, but to talk about the development in the improvement of life and health with those leaders of the villages. Then she would change the subject into the damages brought on by the horrible act in the FGM tradition. Gradually people began to agree with her, and the villages were converted by her unending speeches. Today she has gone to hundreds of villages in the Maasai Mara community, and has saved more than 15,000 women from FGM. She is well respected by all those leaders and elders of every village in her community. In April 2018, she was named to the TIME 100 list of the most influential people in the world. Nice Nailantei Leng’ete is 27 now, but she says her job is not yet finished. According to the UN Children’s Fund Foundation, out of 30 nations in the world there are 200,000,000 women being given the FGM!
    Eugene, from Suzhou, China

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