Wednesday, March 28, 2012

On Reaping My Rewards or "It's not ever about me."

[Linking up with Joy from Joy in This Journey for her #lifeunmasked series.  If you haven't read her before, you should.  Her post today about postmodernism is wonderful.]

Sorry it's been so long...and I started off this month with such gusto, but alas, it couldn't last.  I know all six of you (that's right, I think we added a couple) are disappointed. It's just that...

I'm just so very tired.

My life is busy, my heart is heavy, the future is uncertain, and the words just don't come anymore.  I could make a thousand excuses about school, about work, about the responsibilities of parenthood, and they would be good excuses. Strong excuses.  Excuses that would have you nodding your head and wrinkling your face in one of those sympathetic pouty-frowny smiles with your eyebrows raised in pity.

There are so many things that scare me, piss me off, depress me, sadden me, etc, and sometimes they just seem to pile on.  But let's be honest here. 

Let's get some perspective. 

My excuses are pretty pathetic.  My life is pretty cushy.  I'm a 30 year old, middle class, straight, white, Christian guy who lives in the suburbs. I don't know pain. I don't know oppression.  I've never come up against the kind of institutional injustices that others have. I don't know what it's like to have the deck stacked against me because of the color of my skin, or my economic status, me sexual identity or my ethnicity.  In all honesty, I've got things pretty easy. 

So I feel like I've got some perspective, why's it stil so hard to move forward?  This is the question that has troubled me for the last few months, and I think I've finally figured out the answer:

I've been selfish. 

And not the innocent "I need some time for me" type of selfish, but the ugly "everything I do, even the stuff for other people, is really all about me" kind.  In moving away from the fundamentalism of my youth (toward what, exactly, I'm still not sure at all), I've lost the one motivation that good little Christian boys and girls have for doing anything good: escapism.  Anyone who grew up in a church like mine knows what I'm talking about.

"Storing up treasures in heaven"
"Building your mansion"
"Eternal rewards"

These are our motivations for doing good things. Not simply the fact that they are right, that other people are valuable, that doing good is what matters, but rather that doing good things results in a something good coming back around to us. 

One might say we stole a page from the karmic playbook with that one.

But it's not good enough for me anymore. It strikes me as a cruel kind of utilitarianism that uses people as nothing more than temporary means to an eternal end. I have to do better than that. So I will. I have no idea at this point what that even means and no idea how I'l go about doing better, but I will.

I'll start here by acknowledging one fundamental truth.  Don't worry, I don't need 16. Hat tip to all my A/G peeps.  :)

Regardless of whether or not what I do for people results in my "getting something out of it," people actually, objectively, fundamentally, and absolutely matter.

What do you think, 6 loyal readers?  Is there anything wrong with doing things because we get something out of it in the long run?  Is actual altruism even realistically possible?  Are people more than what we can get out of them?  Talk at me.


  1. It seems to me as though a proper understanding of eschatology would help settle this issue (for me anyway). All throughout the N.T. we hear about both present suffering and hope but also future hope. It is not just future hope in the midst of present trials. Reading Romans 8:19 in this light along with the associated versus gives us the idea that the children of God are whom creation is awaiting but that it is both present and future. We have the firstfruits of the Spirit, the downpayment on the future and this is the life we are living right now.

    The peacemakers are these children of God to give one example, is this to be interpreted as anything other than here and now peacemaking and reconciliation? I don't think so. So then these children of God are bringing present hope to all of creation, a glimpse of future restoration.

    Our ethics and our motivation should therefore result out of the paradox that our living in the Kingdom of God right now results in present good but knowing also that our actions may also result in our own suffering. Remember Jesus? Is that not perfect and true altruism?

    1. If I'm being completely honest, for me it was more about separating my ethics from my eschatology, or at least demoting eschatology to a secondary concern. I have to approach things from the standpoint of: even if none of this is true, even if when we die we just die and there is no great everafter, being good to people is still absolutely the right thing to do, and the potential benefits to me have no bearing on the inherent rightness or wrongness of an action.

      As far as Jesus as the incarnation of altruism, yes, I think you're right and that is our paradigm, but the escapist conditioning is hard to override, and I think we have to accept that we are in a very different position than Jesus, since he had everything to lose and we have everything to gain.

    2. This may be off topic but...

      When we combine ethics or morality with faith I think of Kierkegaard and the teleological suspension of the ethical (Abraham). The ethical sphere is separate from the faith sphere although the two can overlap I suppose too. The ethical sphere exists in reason and the conscious knowledge of and choice of good, the faith sphere can be paradoxical to that.

      This is why the object or outcome of faith is not a new or old morality necessarily.

      I'd argue that the ethical or moral sphere is where religion and political action resides. The knowledge of good and evil, rather than the tree of life, and often lacking the paradox of faith.

      But this brings up the question of how do we know what is good and then what do we do about it?

  2. kewl, i get to be #7! (really, i'm still smiling at the "all six of you" references.) and at the risk of dating myself (why doesn't that sound right? . . .), i'll say that what you shared reminds me of a line from a keith green song. once i heard it, truly heard it, i was left changed. for the better. it's from his song "oh Lord, you're beautiful" and he says, "And when I'm doing well, help me to never seek a crown. For my reward is giving glory to you."

    great post, luke. really enjoyed & appreciated it,

    1. Great to have you Tanya! I will officially raise the number to 7 for future self-depricating references to my readership. :)

      I do love me some Keith Green, but couldn't we take it even a step further, and say that, aside from giving glory to God, our reward is simply that the others we bless are indeed blessed, or better yet, that we need no reward at all to bless them?

      I hope you stick around!

  3. If we don't fundamentally believe that the basic, fundamental humanity of human beings ought to be recognized and respected in EVERY case NO MATTER WHAT, then we are already on a slippery slope. In our faith, we put it this way: All people have inherent worth and dignity. Every single one. Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman. Yes, even the doozies of the past like Hitler. The minute we think that we can write any one of them off in any way, or for any reason (they did something bad, they said something mean, they looked funny, they love the wrong people) then we are already in trouble.

    I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with doing good in the world and noticing or appreciating the emotional benefit you get in return. It's probably a good thing we're wired that way, because if we weren't, Lord of the Flies wouldn't just be fiction. But I do think that our obligation, as people of faith, is to go beyond that and do what is right even when there is no benefit to ourselves...and even when there may be real sacrifice that we must make.

    People are definitely more than what they are capable of producing, or more than we can reap. They are complete, whole, and fundamentally human in and of themselves. It is out of that amazing reality that we struggle to make sure that humanity is fully recognized...and that we struggle to hang on to our own humanity, which the Empire would gladly steal from you. No one is a demographic. No one is a consumer. No one is a minority. No one is anything except a human being. Living out of that lens...that's the struggle and the promise.

    1. I don't think there's anything wrong with noticing, but I just don't feel comfortable with the phrasing that couches our motivation for doing those good terms strictly in terms of the benefits we receive (which seems to happen often, especially in religious dialogue, and not just my particular religion), does that distinction make sense?

  4. Luke, I have been thinking about this as well. Here is another question, if there is no reward will we do it or are we so utterly motivated by a reward/punishment system that pulling out of that system, also pulls us out of motivation? Where does our motivation come from? I guess that was 2 questions, but they are in a similar vein. Here is what I'm thinking; if I really want to be like Jesus, like I want to be like cool or valued or respected etc. if I really value my relationship with him to the point I want to deepen it because I find life and heaven there, then I will love others as myself, because that's what Jesus did and I want to be like him and hang out with him. This may sound like a reward and fall right back into the trap you are talking about, because it is. But it's also what altruism is right? From an evolutionary point of view or biblical point of view, altruism = I lay down my life, because there is more life in that than not laying down my life.

    1. I touched on it in my comment above, but for me anyway, I had to take it as far as asking if none of this is real, would loving others still be the right thing to do? To me, I think it absolutely would be (but maybe that's just my own cognitive bias kicking in). We could even ask the same question about emulating Jesus. Does our motivation for emulating Christ arise out of what we can potentially get in return (the reciprocal relationship)? I'm honestly not sure. It certainly leaves open the question of what our motivation to be good to others would be if all this Jesus stuff was a crock. ;)

      I think that there's an avenue here that addresses both possibilities in the form of moral obligation. Not obligation in the negative sense, but in a realist sense (whether biological or theological) the results in our normative guidelines for behavior. Even there, though, there seems to be an expectation of recciprocity, where we do things because we [hope?expect?know?] that others will do the same, but for some reason that's a bit more palatable to me, though I'm not exactly certain why.


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