Monday, July 20, 2009

Morality and Christianity: The Prodigal Son

I was in a cafe the other day and the song "Prodigal Son," by the Rolling Stones came on. It's an amazing song, and I hadn't heard it in ages, and I got to thinking about the parable. I'm sure you know the story: father has two sons; one takes his inheritance and squanders it, living a dissolute life, while the other stays close to home; when the "prodigal son" returns, begging help and forgiveness from his father, his father is thrilled to have him home and throws a giant celebration. The other son, naturally, is indignant at this unfair treatment.

The father says to him,
"My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found."

I consider myself a morally sensitive person even though I'm not religious, and I got to thinking about how to understand this story from a secular moral point of view. It's not obvious, I think, because we tend to put fairness front and center when we talk about morality, and there's a sense in which the celebration for the prodigal son really isn't fair to his brother. The point of the story in a religious context seems to be partly that approaching human life with excess concern for things like "equal treatment" reflects a narrow and ungenerous nature. Which seems sort of right to me, prompting me to wonder: how might such a thought be explained in a non-religious context?

Some traditional interpretations of the story seem to take the lesson to concern the importance of forgiveness. But forgiveness is very puzzling from a moral point of view. The famous "paradox of forgiveness" points out that if the person deserves condemnation, then forgiveness is unjust, whereas if the person does not deserve condemnation, there is nothing to forgive. And furthermore, we tend to think that morality is fair when it applies to everyone in the same way. But a lesson of forgiveness can't be a lesson to treat everyone the same way: if you forgave everyone all the time there would be no meaning to forgiveness at all. In a way, forgiveness isn't even something you can plan for. If the father planned to forgive the son from the beginning the story wouldn't really be about forgiveness at all - it would be more about a father who doesn't mind that his son squanders his money and lives a bad life. But uncaring is different from forgiveness.

Other traditional interpratations seem to focus on compassion and love instead of forgiveness per se. The father is so patient and loving with his son that he cannot but rejoice to see the son returned to him. This seems to be a little different from the forgiveness idea: it's not that there was a transgression that must be forgiven but more that any considerations of justice, punishment, and equality are just insignificant in the face of the power of the basic fact that this person, who was gone astray, has now returned.

They're not mutually exclusive, of course, but I resonate more to the compassion and love idea than to the forgiveness one, perhaps because forgiveness seems so puzzling. Interestingly, love and compassion, while certainly having moral aspects, don't fit tidily into the category of "secular morality" the way "fairness" and "equality" seem to. But they're not unsecular emotions at all. This seems a pretty universal experience: the joy at the return and safety of someone you love suddenly overwhelming any indignation you might have felt, or even would have been justified in feeling. This universality transcends the religious/secular distinction.

So maybe the "moral" point of view is too narrow for living a good life, and we need some richer concepts for talking about how to live in the secular way -- concepts that go beyond just "morality," concepts that would include the importance of things like love, compassion, and even forgiveness.


Daniel said...

Hi Patricia,

Once I played the prodigal son in a Sunday school play!!

A question I have about interpretations of it is this: when people think about it - and concepts of justice, love, morality, fairness, &c - are they thinking about families? Or, and excuse my ignorance (I'm not really familiar with these sorts of stories), is it meant to be widely applicable, to communities, &c. The reason I ask is because it seems to be sort of an important distinction. A family member, or a personal loved one, might be celebrated upon his return to the dismay of his sister or brother. But, it would be sort of hard in a way to imagine it working well as the basis, say, of a law or government. It seems like there's probably more room for unequal treatment in the former, and less in the latter.

And, once again, I may just be missing the point of the Prodigal Son thing altogether.

Patricia said...

Hi Daniel, Wow, fun, did you get to eat the fatted calf?

I don't know what scope of the actual story is supposed to be (as a former portrayer of the prodigal son you probably know more about it than I do!).

But I guess what I had in mind in talking about the secular version was something like "everday morality," which I think is like your "family" idea only I think it goes beyond families per se. I'm thinking of things like, "Should I lie to one friend to protect another?" "Should I break my promise to this friend if it means I can help out this other one?" "Is it OK to read my kid's diary if I'm trying to save them from harm? Under what circumstances?"

We tend to expect of one another a certain amount of consistency in such matters - like, if you lie for your friend you'll expect them to lie for you in similar circumstances. Or that if you are a loyal friend rather than a prodigal one, you'll be rewarded. I thought the prodigal son story at least challenged the centrality of consistency and fairness in such contexts.

So yeah: family but also community in the slightly broader sense I'm talking about here. I totally agree with you that when it comes to law or government we need equality.

Daniel said...

I see. And get it.

A total tangent, but I somehow managed to portray the prodigal son, and, like everything else that happened in Sunday school, to not learn anything about it!!

Patricia said...

Hi Daniel,
Funny. And funny you feel you absorbed so little of the actual lessons.

PS By the way I'm an endorser of consistency myself, so when I said the story "challenges" its centrality, I meant it presents a challenge for me, too, for my own views.