People have traditionally followed two divergent paths to righteousness, a hard and heavy path and a soft and squishy path. I mean old testament versus new testament, duty versus faith, Catholicism versus snake-handling. Most religions contain both these elements and maintain them by cognitive dissonance. Blessed are they who try to reconcile the paths. The task is impossible and it only ever turns out one way. Many, many examples of the inevitable outcome exist, from the Sufis, to the Chan, to the Kabbalists.
The relevant lot from the Christian tradition are the snake-handlers and they are the best lot of them all. Math, meditation and music do have the power to transform, but a handful of rattlesnakes is clarity itself. Like all sects that get involved in changing how members are as well as what they do, the snake-handling churches subscribe to conventional scriptural authority. Most are even literalists, and quite austere literalists at that. In typical fundamentalists, literalism makes for a dull theology, fearful and full of contradictions. For the snake-handlers however, the rules and regulations, just like the snakes, are guides to align a person’s trajectory. The target is a right way of being, not just a right way of doing. The Holy Spirit subsumes scriptural dictates. The soft and squishy way absorbs the hard and heavy one. This arrangement of the spiritual food chain is necessary, because the hard and heavy way is not real and it must go under. The ought isn’t.
Ask for a definition of Good. A clever theologian will say it is like a primary color – something we can know, but not describe. A less clever theologian will tell you it is what one is told to do. The guy on the bar stool next to you will say it is what he wants. Good is a stick. It can point. It can start a fire. It can crack a skull. Good is all of those things that the theologians and the drinker wish it to be, because moral good is an error of language. Good begins as what we want, then we want things of others, then we need to tell others how to give us what we want. We start using “good” in the first case and carry on through, watching the word transform itself from a mundane descriptor to an ethereal being.
The truth is, “good” remains a descriptor all along and as we boost it to higher and higher levels of discourse, it is the concomitant release of dopamine that makes it radiant. Used in a sentence and pursued through right actions, good’s charge is grounded, contradictions multiply, and the glow dissipates. What’s left for us is a handful of rattlesnakes, which is preferable.
Though an ‘ought’ reconciles the act with scripture, no ‘ought’ drives a believer to pick up a snake or drink poison. He is determined to do those things by his faith. His faith is made of his history, recorded in his genes by forgotten generations of ancestors and accumulated over the moments of his life. In devotion to his faith by acts, he becomes concordant with the truth of that history: he is not a discrete entity. Sounds awful squishy, but that’s what we are, squishy globs of history on a very squishy path. No wonder we like to think solid entities like good and evil might exist to make a channel for us. We must live with our inherent imprecision, though. As messy as it may be, it is still less messy than pursuing an error.