Morality Is Evolving

What clearly separates magic and superstition from more enlightened forms of spirituality is an evolving sense of morality. We see this evolution in the religion in ancient Egypt, from which emerged an advanced concept of morality, one defined as the divine force of ma’at, embracing truth, justice, order, and righteousness. This transformation indicated a broader recognition among members of society that they must cooperate if they are going to coexist peacefully. (For more on changes in religion, see Nonpersonal Spirituality.)

The Egyptians, instead of placing all emphasis on the auspicious control of unseen forces and magic, moved on to a deeper appreciation of moral values. Earlier religious practices were not overly concerned if individual actions were right or wrong, the main objective was to achieve a particular outcome, regardless of the means. 

There was a time when it was socially acceptable for religious devotees to curse others with evil or to pray for their death. Notions of legitimate revenge were also common and often considered honorable. Such morbid convictions persist today, even among some who call themselves spiritual.

Human sacrifice was another common ritual in early societies, one seen as a socially acceptable way to appease the gods in order to improve crops or consecrate religious buildings. Indeed, it was not until the Iron Age (1st millennium BC) that human sacrifice was largely abandoned in the Middle East, as it was among other human societies at that time. But the practice persisted in other areas, such as the Americas, where it diminished only five hundred years ago. This brutal practice later gave way to animal sacrifice, as demonstrated by archaeological and historical records.

We see this transition in the Old Testament, which is pervaded by notions of sacrifice, primarily as a means to remit sins, but also as a test of faith. One example is the Book of Genesis story in which God tests Abraham by asking him to kill his son, Isaac. Although Isaac was his second son, the sacrifice of first-born sons was not uncommon in these times. Later on, this primitive ritual was reformed by giving over the first-born son to the priesthood.

But even in the time of Jesus, the sacrifice of lambs and doves was considered necessary to atone for one’s misdeeds. And sacrifice continued on as a major theme in Christianity, as evinced by the atonement doctrine so ardently promulgated in the many letters of Apostle Paul—a lengthy collection of his thoughts and opinions that make up thirteen books of the New Testament.

But overall, the morality of the world has improved since Paul’s time. Indeed, one reason why Christianity is falling out of favor among well-educated and intelligent young people, is that they cannot reconcile the notion that a loving and just God, or even a stern and legal God, would condone the bloody sacrifice of an innocent victim (Jesus) for a guilty offender.

Nonetheless, the age-long belief that shedding blood was required for penance and salvation led to the early acceptance of Paul’s doctrine among budding Christians, most of whom were Jews or Greeks accustomed to the notion of sacrifice. These early followers viewed “sacrifice for atonement” as a reasonable explanation for the seemingly inexplicable death of their Master, the awaited messiah.

Today, however, blood sacrifice would not be considered moral, even if restricted to the sacrifice of animals. This change in attitude over time is just one indicator of the worldwide social trend toward a higher sense of morality.

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

– Hosea 6

Also consider that, in the time of Jesus, the Roman ideal of public entertainment was rushing to the arena to watch gladiators hack each other to pieces or to cheer on wild beasts as they ripped apart criminals and perceived enemies (men and women). But now it would be difficult to imagine any of this being morally acceptable.

God is not a grumpy, irascible old man whose displeasure with the sins of mankind could be appeased only by the sacrifice of his son. And Jesus did not condone any kind of morbid, blood sacrifice. Indeed, despite the barbarity of the time, he courageously delivered a cheerful and enlightened message—that his Father in heaven was a loving, merciful, and understanding God. He made it clear that a spiritual life and salvation (eternal life) are freely available for all who believe—to all who have simple faith in the compassion, goodness, wisdom, and grace of God—no sacrifices required.

Even Paul recognized this when he wrote, “It is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.”

Understanding Morality

Morality is a broad term but, in short, it refers to an individual’s inner sense of right and wrong behavior. This applies to either your own actions or the actions of others. The goal of morality is to live a better life, not just for oneself but for everyone.

Morality is a matter of personal judgment and should not be confused with government law or justice, even though the legal system is often guided by moral principles. It is society’s right and duty to pass laws and administer justice, but this has little to do with the individual sense of morality used to guide personal behavior. We may be able to legislate social rules of behavior, but we cannot legislate an individual’s inner sense of morality.

Morality has nothing to do with so-called common sense, unless of course, one means good sense. But as the French philosopher, Voltaire, suggested long ago, good sense is not all that common. And common sense often has a strong cultural component, varying from person to person, society to society, and nation to nation. Without a doubt, morality should be reasonable, but it falters when subjected to social mores and the temperamental whims of individuals.

Morality is not religion, although it can serve as the foundation for a budding religious experience because it opens the way for spiritual guidance and soul growth. But this does not imply that all religious thought is moral. We cannot confuse religious doctrines and superstitious rules of behavior with a truly spirit-led morality. Instead, the spiritual quality of any religious belief or ritual is directly proportional to the degree of truth and morality it contains.

In the Buddhist tradition, morality is the foundation of the Noble Eightfold Path, a religious path one must walk as the prelude to liberation. Any progress on this path requires the practice and perfection of such things as right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, and right effort. The very use of the word right explicitly defines the Eightfold Path as a moral mandate.

Set your heart on doing good. Do it over and over again and you will be filled with joy.

– Buddha

The Eightfold Path does not define exactly what behavior is right or wrong, but this has some advantages. All too often, religions restrict the thoughts of their followers by defining a long list of acceptable beliefs and behaviors. This stifles true spiritual growth rather than setting it free to seek the spiritual guidance so necessary for a spontaneous life in the spirit. Indeed, freedom of thought is one reason Buddhism has survived the test of time.

Nevertheless, some followers of Western Buddhism take great pains to distance themselves from morality, insisting there is no such thing as right or wrong—that it is actually a false duality. Buddhist instructor, Rodney Smith, prefers to interpret right as meaning wise in order to avoid any connotation of morality, which he perceives as making judgments and passing laws (e.g., Ten Commandments). But there is a significant difference between morality, moral codes, and acts of adjudication.

Even if we accept Smith’s use of the word wise, we are still left with the task of discriminating between what is wise and what is not because we are working on the premise that wise is good, but foolishness is not. In all considerations of personal choice, we cannot escape the fact that moral discrimination is necessary and that it is characterized by individual judgment.

Morality is relative, not absolute. All moral discernment is a matter of recognizing relative right and wrong. At times, we must consider many competing factors and we have to make the best choice in difficult circumstances. But we can improve our moral decisions by adhering to the highest values in life. And the highest values are always spiritual values (see Four Divine Values).

An improved sense of morality is derived not only from our sensitivity to divine values but also from the application of reason and the lessons of experience (wisdom). The goal of morality is to instill good behavior in the individual for the good of all members of society. It is recognizing that, if we want society and civilization to progress, then we need to work together to solve common problems. Overall, the crux of morality is a sense of social duty and living a virtuous life.

Morality and ethics are firmly linked to notions of fairness. This applies to all levels of social interaction. We know, for example, that democracy and capitalism have done much to advance civilization and improve everyday lives. But democracy is not infallible; it can be better or bad depending on the policies of governments and how much these governments truly represent the people. The most advanced (moral) political and economic systems are those that are fair to all members of society. They are ethical.

Whereas ethics has more to do with defining socially acceptable behavior with regard to the rights of all individuals, morality is an individual’s innate sense of rightfulness, integrity, trustworthiness, and duty. Other meanings include decency, godliness, and goodness. True, morality can be an outgrowth of reason but it reaches its pinnacle of discernment when guided by spiritual ideals. It is an intrinsic quality of humanity, having its origins in the inner, spiritual urge to be selfless and altruistic. Animals can be trained to react in certain ways and they naturally protect their young, but they have no ability for thoughtful morality.

From a spiritual perspective, morality should apply equally to all. As one example of the potential cross-cultural nature of morals, consider the golden rule, which is to treat others as you would like to be treated—do for others as you would have them do for you.

Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.

– Buddha

Moral evaluation denotes a spiritual, supernatural, and superanimal ability to choose between truth and falsehood, good and bad, beauty and ugliness. In the spiritual domain, there is no evil, there is no falsehood, and there is no ugliness. By choosing goodness, truth, and beauty, you bring yourself into harmony with the way of divinity and the wisdom of your Spirit Teacher. Consciously or not, those with discerning moral insight are invariably those who follow God—the spirit path.

A significant change begins to occur in our moral thinking when we realize, in heart and soul, that we are all spiritual sons and daughters of a loving Supreme Being—a Creator God. If we accept this as truth, then it follows that all of us are spiritual brothers and sisters. This, in turn, fosters our spiritual insight into what is truly right and wrong in all our relationships. It allows us to rise above the trivialities of life in order to see our personal problems in a different light—as seen by a virtuous, wise, and impartial third person.

An increasing sense of morality is essential to spiritual progress and God consciousness, but moral thought alone does not necessarily lead to more progressive levels of spiritual experience. If you wish to take morality to a more transcendent phase, you need to enact your moral convictions in a positive, active, and spontaneous way. And you accomplish this by actually living out the high morals you profess to believe.

The highest moral choice is the choice of the highest possible value, and always—in any sphere, in all of them—this is to choose to do the will of God. 39:4.14

– The Urantia Book

How to Evaluate Your Morals

From a God-centered perspective, a moral evaluation is the task of evaluating all situations in life relative to divine values, which includes the value of individual personalities. Without a consciousness of these spiritual values, moral evaluation is no more than a matter of ethics, being largely conditioned by the social mores of the present.

A sense of morality cannot be derived from material science, social conventions, or religious doctrine. A spiritual, moral life is best achieved by being completely devoted to supernal values and virtuous ideals, which requires being free of preconceived notions, inhibiting bigotries, and stubborn opinions.

It’s easy to make excuses for our poor choices. We can blame our circumstances in life or some limitation of our character, or we can blame our parents, the government, economics, or even the environment. And if we are superstitious, we can blame it all on misfortune, fate, or bad luck.

But to achieve any degree of spiritual maturity, we accept our present circumstances, take responsibility for our actions, and deal effectively with whatever situations arise, no matter how unfair they may seem. This is not to say we should never attempt to change the world or the circumstances of our lives, but instead that we learn, grow, and become wiser through our own efforts and experiences.

Deciding the right course of action is not always easy and much depends on our experience, wisdom, sensitivity to divine values, and the depth of our connection with spiritual forces. But in all cases, it helps to think things through, meditate on immediate problems, and then to weigh all viable solutions (see Divine Problem Solving).

Your values are important because they serve as your moral yardsticks for measuring and evaluating all situations and all decisions. Whenever you are in doubt as to the veracity of a moral decision, you can always ask yourself seven vital questions.

  1. Is it true? Are you being truthful with others and honest with yourself? Do you have ulterior motives that obscure the truth? Have you considered all evidence?
  2. Is it good? Is your decision beneficial, productive, and positive? Have you considered all consequences?
  3. Is it beautiful? Is it attractive, appealing, and charming? Is it graceful, elegant, and strong?
  4. Is it loving? Is it affectionate, friendly, and caring? Is it personable, kind, and respectful?
  5. Is it compassionate? Is it merciful, sympathetic, and comforting? Is it forgiving and tolerant?
  6. Is it fair? Is it just, impartial, and objective? Is it open-minded and virtuous?
  7. Is it helpful? Does it help or hinder others? Is it truly beneficial to your family, friends, and acquaintances? Is it for the greater good?