One of the core tenets of the postmodern theory that swept through academia since the middle of the last century was an assertion of moral relativism. Over these years, as more and more people sought shortcuts to success, from Wall Street traders to drug dealing rap stars--and mores became looser and looser, as the nuclear family fell apart--our universities taught our young that human values are an expression of power. You teach people to follow moral rules so that you can control them. Those who have power determine what's right and wrong. We are taught to behave in certain ways, so as not to disturb the system that delivers money to those who have it and withholds it from those who don't. In other words, in this view, Christianity can be used to justify slavery or Fascism or whatever oppressive system that exploits it to create a submissive population.
Yet the reality is that values aren't relative, or dependent on cultural norms. In my experience, goodness exists apart from anyone's opinion about it. You can't escape it, any more than you can say the beheading of an innocent captive in the Middle East isn't evil. It takes humility to recognize the way good and evil exceed our perceptions of them--we see through a glass darkly, as the New Testament put it, and one of the greatest tasks in life is to simply recognize what's good and live accordingly. Iris Murdoch, the British novelist and philosopher, pointed out that the pursuit of the Good requires you to become increasingly more obedient--to the Good--which feels at first like a loss of freedom. Yet it's just the opposite. Obeying what's good offers a more subtle freedom from the compulsion and dependencies of a life based on fleeting desires and whims. You realize you can't do many things you might previously have had the urge to do, and maybe still want to do, but you reach for the freedom to resist your own disruptive impulses. It used to be called delayed gratification. It's an ethic that became a necessity for families struggling to survive during and after the Great Depression, and helped turn America into a beacon for the world into the early 60s. Then we began to lose our way. Our culture hasn't embodied the wisdom of moral restraint for quite a while.
Recent columns in the New York Times about mores, money, and values--particularly by David Brooks--suggest that values aren't relative and don't have to be determined by economics. Goodness is like the sun. Either you attempt to live in its light or you don't, no matter what your circumstances. It exists, whether you see it or not.
Universal values do exist: in my view, they are rooted in what Karen Armstrong calls a universal charter for compassion based on the acceptance, across religions and cultures, of the Golden Rule. There's nothing relative about it. From that absolute foundation we can easily build outward to a behavioral code that would be teachable--if we can shake off the relativism that has hamstrung us for nearly half a century. It involves a lot of choices that have become passé during those years: an embrace of what we all have in common, rather than what distinguishes one "identity group" from others, and a commitment to what's beneficial for a family or a community rather than simply what satisfies us as individuals. You might say, at least that's a start. In reality, it's actually a way of finishing what we already started in this country and then put on hold as we slowly lost the ability to stand up for what we all know is good. It isn't glamorous: just making small constant choices day in and day out. No matter how minor, each one matters. It's how they add up that counts.
Faith tells us that humanity's trajectory is destined to reach for the good. That's our karma. That's our ultimate destination. It's there to be had. If only we choose both individually and collectively to make it a reality.