When you come from a religious background, ethics are always a significant issue. My background is in Christianity, specifically Protestant, evangelical Christianity, so questions about ethics most often began and ended with scripture. For a Christian the ultimate example of what one must do is found in the person of Jesus. Among the teachings of Jesus found in the New Testament the Beatitudes are arguably the most important, influential, and relevant.
The Beatitudes come from the famous Sermon on the Mount found in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 5 verses 3-12, and are comprised of eight separate statements about eight separate human categories: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for their righteousness. For each of these Jesus promised a reward, a spiritual vindication. I continue to find the ideology of the the Beatitudes to be both intriguing and inviting. Reward is most often promised to the assertive, the strong-willed, the confident, the aggressive. Jesus promised reward to the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, the persecuted. In our capitalist, materialistic society the Beatitudes are wholly counterintuitive.
But does this message make any sense in the modern world? Obviously the meek do not inherit the Earth. The discreet and self-effacing do not succeed in a world where selling yourself is the most important part of gaining affluence. Those who mourn are not always comforted. Millions of human beings around the world die alone from a slow, painful death of hunger or disease every day. Was Jesus simply lying to give the less fortunate of the world false hope?
The words of Jesus were a promise that earthly gratification has no connection to lasting gratification in eternity, and for a Christian that promise can bring great comfort. But can the Beatitudes offer anything for a humanist? Can the essentially irreligious glean truth and direction from the theology of Jesus, a man millions consider to be divine?
I do not believe that any attempt made at meekness, mercy, purity, or peace will result in some sort of spiritual reward. I do not believe we will be remembered by a personal deity if we mourn, are persecuted, or hunger and thirst for righteousness. However I do believe that if we try to make peace, if we try to show mercy, if we try to be pure (in a physical, that is dietary, context), if we try to be meeker, then we may make life better for ourselves and those around us. There is a time for bold, assertive discourse, but I feel Americans too often choose the course of loudmouthed, belligerent quarreling. We seem to value our personal needs so highly that any change from the social norm is either resisted or assaulted.
I believe the Beatitudes can serve as an enduring reminder to the religious, undecided, and irreligious alike that our cultural mores are not universal, transcendent truths. We in the free, predominately Christian Occident should be reminded that our culture’s focus on individuality and personal happiness is just that, a cultural focus.
As others have done before me I have taken the words of Jesus and made them my own. Unlike many of them, I have chosen to omit their theological aspects. Can humanists learn useful, informative ethical principles from religion? I believe they can. Religion, as an element of human culture, has both its merits and its faults. If anything I hope the humanists, secularists, irreligious, or those who have disowned their faith background do not reject all the teachings of religion on principle. For myself, the Beatitudes are a superlative example of how many religious teachings can be continually effectual even if fundamental belief has been disavowed.