Return to issue contents

Two A.M. in the Garden of Good and Evil

How to Order by Jay Kinney

Most of the preachers' and pundits' self-righteous posturing is an exercise in blowing up others' faults, the better to ignore their own.
Good and evil as widely accepted concepts have fallen on hard times -- or at least evil has, good being perennially popular as the term for what we happen to like. Perhaps this is a side effect of the modern reign of science, which has moved the moral compass of Western civilization towards a kind of utilitarianism where what works is good and everything else is a failed experiment. It may also derive from the shrinking of the world, which has shattered the illusion once held by many that their society's morality could claim universal allegiance.

Not that this has stopped people from still making the attempt. The more morality has become a muddle, the more we have had self-appointed arbiters, such as the Taliban or Christian Coalition or Animal Liberation Front (to name just three unlikely bedfellows), endeavoring to reinstate a clear-cut code of conduct for everyone to follow . . . or else.

Small wonder, then, that morality has become a curse word in the mouths of many. We may deplore the moral vacuum we perceive around us, but we also shy away from using the M-word. I'm reminded of a "progressive" activist who was recently fielding calls on a phone-in program about the Starr Report on a local radio station. Her program cohost raised the question of morality and triggered her scathing rejoinder: "Morality? I don't think that's a useful term. We should speak of 'social justice!'"

Maybe so, but whatever we may wish to call it, most people are likely to agree that an ethical life is desirable and that there are standards of conduct whose rules we violate only at considerable risk of harming ourselves and others. What is less clear is how we can identify the elements of such a morality.

Traditionally, religions have offered their moral codes as the path to salvation and social harmony. In crudest terms their description of the human challenge has gone something like this: God draws us towards the good, and Satan pulls us towards evil. A series of wrong choices or a lack of willpower can lead to eternal damnation (or to further incarnations, in the slightly less drastic Eastern version).

Say what you will about such a belief system, there is no denying that its widespread adoption by societies in the past provided a moral anchor. Individuals were held accountable for their behavior precisely because such behavior was seen as the result of moral choice. ("The Devil made me do it!" didn't cut it as an excuse.) Even if a wrongdoer were to avoid punishment by society, it was assumed that God would balance the scales of justice come Judgment Day. There was no escape for the wicked.

Admittedly, by focusing on individual sins, this approach to morality was often blind to injustices embedded within society's customs and institutions (the "social justice" that the activist spoke of). Yet it seems we have come at present to the opposite extreme, where the culture at large stands accused of all sorts of sweeping wrongs such as racism and sexism, but translating these into cases of individual responsibility has been remarkably slippery. This "ism"-ing of morality has its roots in the '60s, with its breakdown of consensus morality fueled by a war that many considered immoral, urban riots, so-called sexual liberation, and the widespread use of psychoactive drugs.

In the '70s this turmoil produced a transitional morality that was roughly based on the ideals of "natural" and "organic." Artificial ingredients, additives, synthetics, ecological pollutants all became demonized as symbols of a culture out of balance with nature. If we would just listen to Mother Nature or to the wisdom of the body, things would be set aright.

Unfortunately, before long this view fell prey to the limitations and contradictions of using biology as an ideological model. Casting McDonald's as a villain for its packaging and rainforest beef was one thing, but the sacredness of the natural could also be used by the pope in his stand against "artificial birth control" and abortion or in the traditional definition of homosexuality as a "crime against nature." As feminism grew in influence, it became clear that many women's desire to be free of the biological imperative made it hard to sustain the "natural" as a moral principle. Those who sought solace in going back to the land were often assimilated into rural culture and lost their voice in the larger national culture. "Natural" took its place in the supermarket as a marketing niche, spinning off the fitness and safety manias as residual value systems. Meanwhile the rectifying of power "imbalances" and the empowerment of the powerless developed as the liberal moral standards for the '80s and '90s.

Thus we've arrived at an unsatisfactory juncture where the acquisition or relinquishment of power and wealth occupies the cultural discourse and many moral struggles are played out in courtrooms by lawyers who use the proceedings to maximize their own wealth and power. What's wrong with this picture?

It is ironic that in a century that has seen millions felled by World Wars, Holocaust, and Gulag, evil has been leached of its power to shock by its sheer repetitive enormity. In comparison to the deeds of Hitler or Pol Pot, our petty transgressions seem hardly worth a raised eyebrow. Yet it is on the microterrain of ordinary life that most of us spend our days, and, as any psychologist can testify, the sum total of little incidents can wreak surprising havoc on people's psyches and on the world at large.

Given the focus of this journal, it is worth our while to consider whether the mystical and esoteric traditions have a particular contribution to make in identifying a reasonable morality for our present time. Several pieces in this issue contribute to this task. Stephan Hoeller explores a Gnostic approach, while Tom Cowan investigates the moral perspective of the early Celts and its relevance for us today. Don Webb of the Temple of Set offers a "satanic" take on the subject which turns many of our usual assumptions upside down. Even author Robert Anton Wilson joins the fray in this issue's interview. Still, I'd like to share a preliminary observation or two before you move on to the main entrees.

*   *   *
To God, all things are good and fair and just. It is men who suppose that some things are just, others unjust. -- Heraclitus

As I've read accounts of the greatest mystics over the years, and through my own halting forays into their realm, I've come to conclude that to approach mystical knowledge is to court severe upheaval. Changes that occur in one's subtle centers and one's physical body can unleash previously repressed emotions and desires, and the deeper one goes into inner realms, the greater the gulf that can open up between one's own perceptions and those of the average man on the street. The Christian Desert Fathers portrayed this upheaval as a battle with demons, but I think the struggle is more one of psychological assimilation, one that calls for a withholding of judgment while the accumulated traumas, toxins, and complexes are sorted out.

If one pushes on, the expansion of consciousness that marks gnosis adds a new twist, for it carries with it an awareness of the relativity of individual identity and, by extension, of morality itself. If, from God's point of view, good and evil are human judgments applied to occurrences which from the divine vantage point merely "are," then raising one's awareness to a cosmic level heightens the risk of embracing a cosmic amorality "beyond good and evil." Most esoteric paths emphasize right behavior and ethical discipline not because these necessarily lead to mystical union but because the personality needs grounding in morality lest it be overwhelmed by cosmic relativity.

There is a paradox here. The consciousness that resides in the body -- and which the ego claims as its own -- is also a facet of the Jeweled Splendor or a sensory organ of the Absolute. Thus as our consciousness grows, we are obliged to simultaneously identify with both the ridiculous and the sublime, the bound and the unbound, the All and the Nothing. This embracing of both poles calls for a moral strategy capable of handling both the relative and the absolute. Our fear of death may decline as we become certain that consciousness is independent of the body, but it doesn't follow that we can therefore ignore traffic signals or embark on a shooting spree.

In light of this, the New Age emphasis on nonjudgment would appear to be half-correct. Yes, one needn't lay moral judgments on one's inner states or lose sight of the essential holiness of others. But too often nonjudgment ends up as a premature aping of cosmic "amorality," which may be appropriate on a galactic level but is fraught with danger in daily life. God may love the wise and the ignorant alike, but given the choice, I'd prefer that any surgery I must undergo be performed by a surgeon rather than a pickpocket. And don't even get me started on the ability of pathological liars to wreak havoc in people's lives.

On the other hand, to focus only on others' sins or to render judgments on every person and situation one encounters is to miss the point as well. It doesn't take much of a cosmic perspective to realize that most of the preachers' and pundits' self-righteous posturing is an exercise in blowing up others' faults, the better to ignore their own.

If, as the mystics say, we are in essence all part of the same whole, then intentional harm or cruelty to another becomes a form of self-injury. The more one becomes self-aware, the more one intimately experiences the effects of treating others poorly. Perhaps it is this integral truth about our being that is reflected in the Golden Rule, which may explain why this teaching is so ubiquitous in world religions. While it can be interpreted both as an formula of rational self-interest and as a rule for modest altruism, it may also serve as a description of how things function at a deep level. (Compare the corollary saying "What goes around comes around.")

After weeks (if not years) of pondering the question of morality, I've had to ask myself if there is no better starting-point than a well-worn ethical aphorism. Then I came upon some advice of Rumi's, which seemed to take the Golden Rule one step further with the suggestion to combine experimentation with observation of the results:

Make trial of yourself as to weeping and laughter, fasting and prayer, solitude and company, and the rest, which of these is more profitable to you. Whichever state brings you straighter on the road and secures your greater advancement, choose that task. "Take counsel of your heart, even if the counselors counsel you" [according to a hadith of the Prophet]. The truth is within you: compare with it the counsel of the counselors and where it accords with that, follow that counsel.1

Despite the translator's choice of words like "profitable" and "advancement," which make this passage sound like advice for the aspiring businessman, what is being discussed here is spiritual growth and a method of discernment that can form the heart of the search for a practical morality. It suggests that you see what actions draw you closest to God and life, and do those. The advice of others is not worth much if it doesn't accord with your own deepest intuitions.

Sound too much like situational ethics? Perhaps. But it may be worth trying, especially if the alternative is the chronic moral indigestion brought on by reading the morning paper.

1. A.J. Arberry, trans., Discourses of Rumi (York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1972), p. 61.

© copyright 1998 by Jay Kinney and GNOSIS Magazine
All rights reserved. Reproduction in any form requires permission from copyright holders.

GNOSIS #50 is available for $10 U.S. postpaid from: GNOSIS Magazine, P.O. Box 14217, San Francisco, CA 94114-0217.

Top of page