Sunday, March 29, 2015


A prayer in progress.

O Holy Spirit of justice
How little my relationship
with you has cost me
I have spent my days
with you finding fault in others
But I did not want to hear
your words to me

O Holy Spirit
Is this why you have abandoned me
To confusion and uncertainty?
Which way are you blowing?
I cannot feel you on my face
The air is still.
I will be still too.
And listen for you.

O Holy Spirit of Justice
I am making my home
in a wrong place
There is blood on the land
that I have stolen
Your hot air dries the ground
about my feet
My garden withers
As it should
But I am listening

O Holy Spirit of Justice
I swear I can walk from this throne
in the land of my forefathers
into the unknown
where I am unprotected
that my life will be full of life
that my life will sustains others
In your faintness I will heed you
Only do not leave me entirely.

I'm posting this poem as an re-introduction to thinking about discernment. Discernment is most simply to "judge well", to tell a tonic from a poison, to gauge the wisdom of a course of action, the merit of a tool for a job, the relevance of advice for a situation.... that kind of thing. Also discernment can refer to distinguishing more abstracted notions such as right from wrong or just from unjust. Whether these abstracted concepts relate directly to pragmatic concerns or whether they are somehow separate to them is also a matter of discernment itself. 

We are all involved in discernment all the time. It is a mark of our age that we like to conceal the moral dimensions of our conversations with the language of science and its objectivity. Debates such as whether children should be "pushed" to "excel" (both loaded words) by their parents, really struggle to hide their assumptions of value. Still even here both sides like to cite statistics and data about long term outcomes. In ages past conversations like this may have depended more on notions of moral debt and duty such as our responsibility to use our "gifts".

This is a re-introduction to talking about discernment rather than introduction. A quick perusal of my old blogs will show a number of times that I have tried to articulate what I think are good general principles of discernment. Going right back to a post from the second month of this blog almost four years ago I proposed something I called Empathy-led ethics. I still hold to the general gist of what I argued then. The same reliance on empathy pops up again in the perception of the ideal which forms the basis of "good morality" in a later post.

One recurring theme of this blog is its concern with fundamentalist (or biblicist) readings of Christianity. Here too the question is about discernment. Does submission to the texts of Christianity divorce us from a more reliable oracle, namely the relationships with people via which we intuit what is good and healthy for them in particular? Is fundamentalisms generation of universal truths imposed upon people after being determined, exactly what morality should avoid? I think so.

Despite these firm views I have a huge question about my own discernment. I think Buddhism has a great insight when it recognises that enlightenment comes after practice. In my daily acts of selfishness and laziness I can't perceive what is truly fair or even possible ethically. My perceptions are distorted by my priveleges and self-indulgence. The more I try to live well however the more I stop magnifying my sufferings and minimising what I can give. The more good I do, the more I can perceive what good I can do. Likewise the more I look after myself first the more I normalise to myself that I am number one and the less giving seems reasonable. The discernment of what is right and just is therefore something quite vulnerable to my actions. In the poem above their discernment is almost lost through misuse. This is a real fear I have for myself.

Because I hold ethical philosophy to be the most important branch of philosophy I am also saying something genuinely revolutionary about philosophy here and potentially to theology as well.  I do believe frankly that a stint of volunteering with people in need will do more to improve your perception of moral truth (God's truth if you like) than either studying scriptures or improving ones rationality. (Once again I have mentioned this before in a blog on killing. ) Seeing and doing are interwoven and we truly risk our ability to see justice while we are involved in injustice.

Philosophy and theology however are not immune to the hierarchies of our world. The person who makes the tea is considered less worth consulting than the academic at their books learning a fourth language, even on matters of tea!  Likewise we make experts of moral philosophy, people who study a lot. We make course on ethics that don't involve any practice. We assume our perception of what is right and just and healthy can be made with our nose in a book, even the Good book. We accumulate ways to perform wisdom without kindness and we never seem to ask ourselves whether this method of discernment has ever worked before.

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