Front St. Arts
Preface & Reader Response
The natural order is at the center of the inclusive moral order.
A THEOLOGY OF HOPE 
by Jerry Murley (March 2007 - August 2009)
(The Fewer Details the Better)
The Introductory Companion Essay: An Answer to Anselm
I write not because I know, but because I seek to understand. Writing assists my thinking about a problem, chiefly by helping me recall from day to day and week to week what I have thus far thought worthy of rethinking.
In what follows, guided by an ethical standard and through a love of life, humanity, the planet and the universe, I embark on an audacious attempt to address a fundamental question of our age: How, without a conventional concept of God, can individuals join in the greatest conversation of human existence? This compound question is at the center of the conversation: Is God, what is God, and what is our relationship to God?
Related issues will accompany this exploration: The existence of suffering, the experience of personal spiritual communion, the process of learning, and the foundation of ethical conduct are among the most important. Degrees of suffering, isolation, ignorance, mistake, anger, and bad behavior are the accidental by-products of a free, moving, incomplete, and error-prone universe. It is a universe that has certain life forms consuming other life forms and other limited resources for sustenance. Conflict and pain are inherent to the system as a whole. From the viewpoint of the individual, the viewpoint that most matters, all of this is very personal, with an indisputable impact on daily life and peace of mind.
"Seeing is believing" might best describe how we attain greater certainty in the material realm. "Seeking is believing" best describes how we achieve a growing sense and confirmation of possibilities, and an understanding in the ethical and spiritual realms.
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God is the inclusive moral order of our universe.  Inclusiveness is a requisite quality of this theology, because our concept of God cannot be less than the whole of creation in all its manifestations. To think otherwise would diminish God. But we can never fully conceive of God. Rather, we can only hope to perpetually enlarge our concept to better approximate God and enlarge our ethics to live by the inclusive moral order as we are given to understand it by our best lights.
A notable and insistent absence of inclusivity is the hallmark of the theology or religion, moral code, religious leader, pious observer or prig, that diminishes God and creation. Such confinement belongs to the classification of deep and fundamental moral error, which too often leads to harm of self and others. Though atheism can be both a lamentable and an overly simple view of human existence and aspirations, the condemning belligerence of over-specific and overly certain theologies and moral viewpoints is antithetical to and destructive of a concept of a supreme moral order and human hope. The presumption of certainty regarding the nature of God surpasses all arrogance and is the very epicenter of thoughts and actions that do harm and inhibit growth in the spiritual and moral dimensions of human existence.
First and foremost, moral order is something of the heart – of human feelings for the other. But the heart, though a pre-requisite of moral understanding, is not the only or necessarily the primary faculty given to us to comprehend and best follow God. The scientist is as much a modern-day seer, equipped with natural and man-crafted gifts, as the prophet and scribe of old or the poet, artist, craftsman and other models, teachers, missionaries, evangelists and philosophers.
Since none of us can ever know God fully but only from a perspective, God and worship and hope for us becomes essentially the lifelong search for the inclusive moral order which is God. Furthermore, though much can be learned by feeling, thinking, and meditating as individuals, we can only know more of God in sharing the findings and methods of our search in the company of others, learning from past and present. And elaborating on the imperative to seek and share, we are obligated to insure a legacy of our seeking for future use and modification for our descendants whoever and wherever they may be.
We are each reflections of God as is everything. Far from a simple pantheistic approach in which all are God, in this theology none can ever be God. Though one and most everything can be, and I think logically are, of God.
I come to this view schooled in Protestantism. My experience was perhaps an unintended variant of Protestantism, with a Southern Baptist edifice – superficial as that can be – and a revival-tent and sawdust-floor sincerity – dangerously volatile as that can be – that imbued at least some of its representatives with hope and a sense of inner light. But most of all, it filled them with the sense that love, encompassing an ever-expanding range of humanity, other beings and natural things, guides personal responsibility and is the chief saving grace of the exercise of moral effort during a lifetime on earth. Furthermore, there is the implicit demand that the exercise of moral effort must not be arrogant and must recognize that it can learn from all life lessons, whether personally experienced or not, yet it must not accept or give over the searcher-self to any spiritual guide as an infallible mediator between the searcher and God.
Explaining hurt, privation, catastrophe, loss, sadness, despair of life's conditions, and the abundance of cruelty, is a most difficult problem when searching for the most inclusive moral order. No doubt, many well developed views of moral order have led to much harm and pain. Should these facts dissuade us from searching? I think not, for to seek is to live to the fullest and to attain the most complete balance, accord, and benefit from the inclusive moral order. Acknowledgement of disparity, and a consequent feeling of humility, in the continued quest of an inclusive moral order is both a powerful motivator to devise adjustments and an exquisite emotion marking one as human, alive and hopelessly incomplete.
So what is a moral order? The modifier "inclusive" applied to the concept "moral" as the two apply to the noun "order" represents a clear conviction – and fervent hope – that God is good and that all is not chaos but rather connected with meaning that is imbued with degrees of right and wrong. They are right and wrong in terms of us personally as individual beings and as groups in so far as our thoughts and actions affect ourselves and the universe beyond us. God is the author of meaning through our conception of relationship. God is the author of moral order through our conception of right and wrong. Our conception is the only way that we comprehend moral order, though our conception is incomplete or inattentive. God being the same yet larger than our feeble conceptions is therefore the inclusive moral order.
Without certainty, how can man conduct his life with any peace of mind? We could and have debated loudly, uncivilly and bloodily about what kind of God we don't believe in. That is an endless discussion in which even the certain atheist and the static or vacillating agnostic can participant equally. Were we to truly believe in an omnipotence out to punish us constantly or at the end of our days, none would sleep at night or experience joy again. Were there no proper purposeful order but rather only randomness and coincidence, no feeling of joy would have any significance except as a relief from the tedium of waiting for the next collision. Plans and effort would be for naught and we know what happens to those who make little effort to plan or plan badly. Common sense daily informs most of us that best intentions and effort exceed their opposite in bringing more lasting pleasure and uplift to life, though determining the best intention and executing the most efficacious effort are rare and uncertain feats indeed. That is not to say that joy in life lacks any significance apart from a theology or a strong humanistic, even hedonistic, ethic. But a personal ethic is a concept of relationships and a system of behavioral guidelines and calculations that assumes an order, a value, a predictability and the possibility of relative freedom of action and a better result due to better effort. If God is the inclusive moral order, God includes such systems - or rather such systems reflect a part of God. It could be argued, therefore, that joy is in actuality the recognition of the inclusive moral order – God – in any number of the simplicities and complexities of life - even without certainty.
God is incomprehensibly large – all inclusive. Thus, the very concept of God IS God in that what the concept holds is all that we as individual human beings and as a collective in time and over time can conceive. Yet God, we know from knowing our own unknowing, is much more. Our seeking and piecing together the concept itself creates the closest approximation we have of God – and of finding guidance in how to live according to the inclusive moral order. By this definition the concept can grow – through seeking, through prayer, through reasoning, through acting, through experiencing, through remembering, through feeling, through loving, through social participation, through awareness – though it remains ever incomplete and we know that.
At the personal, familial, tribal and societal levels, our concept of God is our God. Each of us, each one and each group, wants and needs for God to be big, so our concept must be big. As argued thus far, this concept of God by definition is and can only be a partial reflection of the whole of God, the whole of the inclusive moral order. Therefore, from the personal perspective comes a powerful and significant argument for prayer, contemplation, systematic seeking, open-minded religious study, and spiritual association with others.
The need for these acts to enlarge the concept of God is why the avowed atheist is misguided and risks being bereft of spiritual growth and of the consolation and guidance of spiritual harmony – though most assuredly even the most assertively non-believing individual has a concept of God in a positive and a negative sense. The avid atheist is in danger of inhibiting spiritual search and growth., not only in terms of personal experience but also in terms of what is shared, and not, with associates. Nonetheless, the inclusive moral order has a harmonic and consoling place for the expression of doubt – even of extreme and persistent doubt – and for those whose hubris senses no doubt.
Given the validity of these propositions, there is no doubt about it: There is salvation in seeking and expanding one's concept of God. That salvation is in this life by degrees, and it has an impact beyond the individual life. Other than that, we cannot as mortals ever know despite our hopes and theories – and despite the intensity and rightness of our good intentions and acts.
When good is asserted, no claim is made as to what is good, though for certain, all sentient beings with the full compliment of faculties know at least in comparison the feeling of what is more or less good than another thing, feeling, thought, action or outcome. That doesn't imply that goodness is relative. The inherent problem as asserted already is that we can never know what is good for a certain person or family or group except with the wisdom of hindsight and then only conditionally. This knowing or hypothesizing is conditional because we are not omniscient and do not ever know what things meant, mean or would have been or will be.
To think or to do other than what one's best judgment deems likely to be good, or a better alterative, can be innocuous, foolish, unethical, criminal, or immoral. But the essence of the predicament remains that there is a sense of good and that humans can and have developed systems to help guide and assess the degree of their adherence to or departure from an inclusive moral order. The faculty exists and it recognizes error and rightness, even if only in partial fullness. It naturally seeks the moral order. And it evolves due to the fruits of seeking over time.
What about a personal relationship with God? Some fortunate individuals experience a personal communion with God – perhaps more from circumstance, inclination, practice and exposure to models than from special dispensation. The phenomenon can no more be denied than the fact that countless children of the inclusion moral order do not and never will experience a similar personal closeness with God. They are no different except in the degree of earthy benefit and peace of mind. To not develop such a communion is not deficiency or sin, though according to this theology it is loss. To do so is no indication of divine preferment and superior rectitude. All are saved by grace or none are. The degree of earthly salvation in the eternal present is by degree of joyful seeking. The burden of incompleteness is shared by all. In terms of humans, to experience a personal relationship with God is humanism. To feel the burden of incompleteness is humanism. To be numb to the burden of incompleteness and the joy of connection in oneself and others is a primitive detachment - an extreme of innocence and seclusion - that has no name.
Whether God is a personal being or not is beside the point. God is a personal connection and yet penetrating of every thing, being and process for all time. One seeks personal reassurance and guidance and one will receive it by virtue of the will and act to pursue that which is deemed good or better in accordance with the inclusive moral order. In prayer, for example, one is conversing with an essence, a concept, which can fairly be said to be beyond oneself and of superior power and comprehension, and of highest respect. The will and the act of acknowledging and seeking to live in accord with this inclusive moral order has tremendous personal advantages and results, as the entire of human history reveals. Not a single person of greatness or moderate happiness lacked this benefit. Not a single joyful individual or moment lacks this influence.
But why infamy and why lives of great suffering? We do not and cannot know why. We are and ever will be incomplete and were never assured otherwise. But the fact that we see and feel and desire to act to amend these afflictions and pains of others and in our own lives – even while sometimes forgiving the great transgressions of others – attests to our recognition of the greater moral order. The exquisitely saddening and hurtful nature of these contrasts tells us that the moral order requires human attention and corrective action though often feeble. The recognition of these contrasts tells us in our personal lives when we, perhaps unknown in all particulars by us, have been affected by discordant currents in the order. We don't know why, but the seeking individual usually at least considers alteration in life pattern or action and senses the desire to have better results. That does not mean that we all can succeed or that any one of us is fortunate enough to succeed most of the time. But most still sense when a corrective should be attempted. Few if any can judge to what degree any one of us has fallen due to personal failure or the inability to have been elsewhere or to have done otherwise than what was. We can seek accord in this life for ourselves and others, but we must recognize that we will never achieve it at any one time because of our individual and collective incompleteness and the massive, changing conditions of the life and forces around us.
Does this theology imply or require moral relativism? That would instantly condemn it. It does not. At this juncture it may not be a system of ethics, but well might be the basis of one. Whereas a moral consideration and impetus may direct one's thinking, will and action, it does not, without an ethical system, excellent psychological skills, and a heap of good fortune, mean that results will align with the intentions. Even if they do, they will not necessarily produce the best outcomes in terms of human or divine standards. But as humans we have standards; we witness and exercise them daily. Those standards are founded on our concept of the inclusive moral order. The fact of a personal and social moral order implies a divine standard that does not permit the seeker to not pursue a higher standard of thought and action - a more inclusive and accurate conception and reflection of the inclusive moral order.
There are degrees of moral rightness as there are degrees of moral seeking. So one might well exceed others in both with better or poorer results. This, however, further implies that no one human or group of humans is or can be the ultimate moral judge of another's life or worth. Nor can one cede the effort of moral seeking to others and be moral in the highest sense. Humans will judge, as they should as seekers of rectitude. However, they are no more right in their judgment than one is of oneself. To repeat this vital point: though one must trust one's self-judgment as a mediation or inner voice guiding and adjusting rightness, one cannot rely with absolute confidence on that judgment. One can always be wrong no matter how diligently one tries to be right, but one must act on what is deemed with best effort to be right. That is the human condition and it will not change in the life of free men and women. We can be wrong even in our designs to free the unfree and relieve the suffering in those who should be relieved.
One can only do one's best. Those who ostentatiously judge are likely to be far from the mark in both the correctness of their judgment and their own moral accord. Society can judge by custom and law, and ethicists can judge by the logic of their systems, but the absolute moral judge does not walk this mortal earth. Seekers all are we who need, want, and are urged to understand, know and act rightly, knowing all the while that we do not and cannot know the inclusive moral order. Judge not others, lest you be judged by equally weak standards. But seek and never stop doing so, for there is where God is.
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1. A pertinent initial question is what is theology. I could look it up, but that would not be much fun. As I often expound from borderline ignorance, why change the pattern now. Theology to my thinking is a theoretical description of a god system and the relationship of all beings and things to that system.
Fear not, my theology strategically skims the surface and cherry picks to suit its purpose and to make concepts easier to digest. It is not a proposal for yet another religion. It is not a profession of religious belief. It is not an exact prescription of righteous practice. It does not presume to replace or alter religious practice. But it does attempt to lend existing practice a more humble frame of reference.
My theology is a theory. It has less to do with delineating personal beliefs and more to do with constructing a rational and intutitive scaffolding of mutual forgiveness, prudent cooperation, joyful gratitude, ethical obligation, and perpetual wonder – all inconvenienced by limits and loss – in a global community, the likes of which none of our ancestors throughout history have encountered. And in that sense, it is a path of salvation for others – for those who follow the present generations and dialogue with them in some distant future.
2. The natural order is at the center of the inclusive moral order. Think of the inclusive moral order as the one and only solar system surrounded by infinite void. Think of the natural order as the sun with other moral systems rotating around, intersecting with, and depending on that logical and easily perceived energy source. The orbiting moral systems, each with their own complex of subsystems and centers of gravity, are also connected to one another by innumerable threads of influence and interdependence.
Where the non-believer and extreme naturalist errs is in thinking there is only the one life-sustaining sun, neglecting the less tangible and less easily communicable substance of the whole. On the other hand, to ignore or distort the natural order is to offend the integrity of the inclusive moral order in another way, with willful sloth and deceit. The greater consequence of misunderstanding the natural order is to entirely misinterpret and misrepresent the inclusive moral order which is God and to subvert ethical law and practice.