There is a time for that.
What might be acceptable at noon, such as mowing your lawn, can be improper at night. We often associate certain activities with the weekend, instead of weekdays. The calendar year has its rhythms; you expect to hear Christmas carols in December, but not in May. And of course we all expect different behaviors from people at different ages.
When I was child, I spoke like a child, I reasoned like a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
One hears from the podium and pulpit that morals are absolute. One’s principles must be steadfast, if not sacrosanct. Far be it from me to supplant the moral authority of our leaders. Instead, my job is to complicate their sermons, pointing out that implementing any moral code requires a degree of interpretation. How does it actually work in concrete situations?
One of the great variables, therefore, is timing. As the wise man taught in the book known as Ecclesiastes, to everything there is a season. What was appropriate at one time is no longer appropriate at another. You have to know how to read the context. Morals can be both absolute and time-dependent.
If that much is true, then we have to consider the possibility that certain moral rules applied in one historical era, but not now. Maybe they had to do with hygiene at a time without indoor plumbing and handi-wipes. Today, we can quietly neglect some of the ancient strictures on washing or food preparation. Not because it wasn’t important then, but because circumstances have changed.
The underlying principles still matter. Look behind the rule to understand the reason for the rule. In most cases, you will find an enduring precept. What I am talking about is the spirit of the law, over against the letter of the law. Can we recognize when to shift our application of a rule?
I treated my children one way until they grew to maturity. Then I had to start treating them differently. I do not love them less. My values have not evaporated. I am simply trying to acknowledge the emerging reality that they are no longer kids.
Sadly, many of us still need explicit instructions. Just peruse the criminal code to see the detail we require of people, let alone the federal income tax code. Even then, it harkens back to the Constitution and Declaration of Independence…or at least it had better, for those are the founding documents on which all civic authority is based.
If you look leftward and rightward on the political spectrum in the United States, circa 2013, notice just how many activists, pundits, and plain old nut jobs ignore this simple lesson. There is a time for that. We should be developing our capacity to adapt, when all they can do is misquote and like a chastening parent lecture the rest of us about the common good.
Taken to extremes, this ignorance of changing conditions might inspire desperate young men to genital mutilation, honor killings, beheadings, and suicide bombings – all because they cling to shards of a truth that has no real world bearing. It would be sad, if it weren’t also so horrific.
Here then is a question for Americans to consider. We pride ourselves on tolerance and religious freedom. We want to celebrate diversity. We want other nations to like us. We need their oil anyway.
But just how useful is all this when they roam our streets freely planting incendiary devices in crowds or hacking our solitary soldiers to death on video? Has the time come to rise up with indignation and put away fantasies that if we could all just listen earnestly to each other, we would all get ponies and cupcakes and rainbows?
There is a time for that.
Max Dickson has given the historical society a gift that many will enjoy for years.
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- Thanks, Max