Moral Relativism & Religion
Is perennialism the answer?
(Disclaimer! I am not formally educated in the disciplines related to this topic. I just think about it a lot and wanted to get those thoughts processed in a concrete way. I don’t represent anything or anyone beyond myself. Also, I know that the premise of this piece is embedded in binaries which I did to be able to efficiently articulate my thoughts, but the reality is much more nuanced I’m sure.)
Our thoughts and beliefs are a culmination of what we have been exposed to, both actively and passively, throughout our lives. As mortal, evanescent beings with temporal and spatial limitations, it is impossible for us to have a grasp of anything in an absolute sense because it is impossible to experience everything that exists from all vantage points. Think doppler effect — the shift in an individual’s perception of sound or light based on distance from the source — but a thought version. And because no one person’s reality is any less real than another’s (to argue such would be, in my opinion, both arrogant and baseless), I am drawn to the idea that the concept of morality, as something that draws on our experiences, is a relative phenomenon.
The way “good” and “bad” are defined is contextual and has shifted significantly throughout history and in various societies which points, in my mind, towards a moral relativism sort of framework. From the seemingly ubiquitous take on cannibalism to the much more overtly divisive issue of abortion, individuals and groups and societies can be found on all sides of most morally tied actions.
As someone who sees all human creation as a manifestation of parts of a Divine being, an understanding of Truth then, of morality in an absolute sense, is only possible as a conglomeration of individual morality throughout time. If all the experiences of all of humanity that did, does, and will ever exist were dumped into a river, that river would contain something Absolute. As we age and travel, as we interact with people different from ourselves, our vantage point broadens and we approach, but never reach, the river of Truth.
Despite this recognition, I identify with a particular belief system that, like all other belief systems, is full of seemingly absolute takes on morality and associated judgement, which has increasingly become a source of dissonance for me. I find so much peace and contentment within the tenets and practices of Islam, but I always wonder if my connection to one faith is antithetical to my belief in the relativity of much of morality. Rumi’s “out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there” pulls me in constantly. While I do have morals that drive my behaviors, I recognize that they are nothing but reflections of my life experiences, which means they are limited and can sometimes impede in forming genuine connections with other individuals, especially if I tie them to a sense of absolutism. And that disconnect between my soul and the souls of those around me is ultimately an impediment to achieving the very thing religion is meant to provide me a pathway to — our Creator. But am I allowed to think this way and still identify with a religious system that is based on adherents’ belief in its finality and superiority to all? Is that what Islam expects from me?
For a while, I thought that simultaneously holding onto Islam and moral relativism was sheer hypocrisy and I started looking into means of congruence between the two. My quest led me to the concept of perennialism. The idea that all religions come from the same Origin, that they are all entrenched in and attempts at elucidating the Truth seemed to be the perfect balance of my two beliefs. It provided me with a framework in which I could maintain my current identity without feeling like a walking, talking contradiction. My mind relaxed and so did my actions. I went from strictly adhering to… not so much. My prayers dwindled. I had reached a balanced state where all religions were okay because it was about making your way towards the One, in whichever way felt right. Intellectually I felt so close to my Creator. I had spent so much time thinking it through. I had it all figured out. I was sooo spiritual. The ritualistic aspects of the faith were only meant to get you closer to the goal, but I didn’t need these rituals because I had already reached that understanding, hadn’t I?
And yet, I felt the love and the presence of the One slowly fade from my heart. God was there but He wasn’t there. Around this time I stumbled on a podcast on Fresh Air, “Remembering Huston Smith, Noted ‘World’s Religions’ Scholar,” that helped provide clues as to why.
The podcast features Huston Smith, a professor who started off his career as a Methodist minister but became very interested in many of the religions of the world, eventually adapting bits and pieces of practices from various faiths to incorporate into his own life. Sounds beautiful, right? I thought so. But Smith says:
“Mine has been a rather peculiar history, and I don’t want to leave the impression that one is in any way spiritually ahead because of this kind of incorporation. I liked what a teacher in India once said to me. If you are drilling for water, it’s better to drill one 60-foot well than 10 6-foot wells. And generally speaking, I think a kind of smorgasbord cafeteria, choosing from here and there is not productive. So I would not at all put what’s happened, I feel, to be feasible for me in any way ahead of where I might be if I had devoted my entire spiritual exercises to Christianity.”
One deep well versus ten superficial ones — that analogy definitely struck a chord with me, encouraging me to stick with what I knew best, with what resonated the most with my heart, regardless of the origins of that resonation. I went back to my five prayers and the Love came back to me. It makes sense I guess — a relationship between any two entities is strengthened by constant communication. Telling yourself you love someone but not bothering to check in with that person regularly will create distance and barriers and the relationship will slowly dissolve. Ritualism and spirituality work hand in hand to create a strong bond between us and our Creator. Understanding something without putting work into its manifestation leaves you empty and putting work into something without understanding it leaves you lost.
And as for whether the belief in the Truth embedded in all religions is compatible with the practice of one specific faith — I don’t think the world will ever provide me with an answer, but if I look deep within, I just feel… Allahu Akbar. God is Greater than all this — than all the sects and labels and faiths. He lies somewhere far beyond it all. And I am going to meet Him there.