What to do when morality strikes like lightning?—Some Løgstrupian inspired thoughts on how we might deal with the moralizing that has followed the Brexit referendum and the election of Trump

READINGS: Luke 10:25-37 (trans. by David Bentley Hart)

And look: A certain lawyer stood up to test [Jesus], saying, “Teacher, by what deeds may I inherit life in the Age?” And he said to him, “What has been written in the Law? How do you read it?” And in reply he said, “You shall love the Lord your God out of the whole of your heart and in the whole of your soul and in the whole of your strength and in the whole of your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.” And [Jesus] said to him, “You answer correctly; do this and you shall live.” But he, wishing to vindicate himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbour? Taking this up, Jesus said, “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem, and he fell among bandits, who stripped him and rained blows upon him and went away leaving him half dead. And by a coincidence a certain priest was going down by that road and, seeing him, passed by on the opposite side. And a Levite also, coming upon the place and seeing him, passed by on the opposite side. But a certain Samaritan on a journey came upon him and was inwardly moved with compassion, and approaching bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine, and setting him upon his own mount he brought him to a lodge and cared for him. And taking out two denarii on the following day he gave them to the keeper of the lodge and said, ‘Take care of him, and whatever you spend beyond this I shall repay you on my return.’ Who of these three does it seem to you became a neighbour to the man falling among bandits?” And he said, “The one treating him with mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”


From “The Ethical Demand” by Knud Eljer Løgstrup (University of Notre Dame Press, 1997, pp. 11-12)

In E. M. Forster’s novel Howards End we have the account of a rift between Leonard Bast and the Schlegel sisters. Their respective milieus were as different from one another as they could possibly be. Leonard was a penniless office clerk whose married life was very drab and whose entire existence would be bleak indeed were it not for his consuming interest in culture. However, he was not equal to this interest; his hunger for books and music was and remained artificial. The Schlegel sisters, on the other hand, had never known anything but economic security. They were fairly wealthy. Since they had grown up in an atmosphere of cultural appreciation and had become the centre of a large social group where these things were discussed, their life was rich in terms of experience and delightful variety.
    On an altogether casual occasion Leonard Bast came into contact with the Schlegel sisters. He received an invitation to an afternoon tea with them. It turned out to be a fiasco. Leonard was disappointed in his expectations for the afternoon. He had hoped to discuss books and to keep his visit with them in a romantic vein and at all costs to keep it from getting mixed up with his routine, uninteresting life at the office.
    The Schlegel sisters had an entirely different purpose in inviting him, however, a very practical purpose, namely, to get him out of the firm in which he was employed inasmuch as they had secret information that the firm was about to go bankrupt. And they had another, an indirect, purpose too: to help him in his interest in culture, because though his love of books was artificial they detected that underneath there lay a desire for authenticity.
    The ensuing conflict was inevitable. It could not be warded off. For the Schlegel sisters’ idea in issuing the invitation was entirely different from Leonard’s idea in accepting it. The two parties were blind to one another’s world. Leonard’s anticipation of an afternoon devoted to the cultural aspect of his life blinded him to the Schlegel sisters’ desire to help him. Disappointed and embittered, he was carried away with outrageous and stupid accusations that they had low motives in inviting him, namely, that they wanted to use him for spying upon his firm. As for the Schlegel sisters themselves, not until afterwards did they have any inkling of the two worlds in Leonard’s life and of how important it was for him to keep them isolated from each other.
    Leonard Bast and the Schlegel sisters disagreed about many things, but it was not an objective disagreement which caused the collision between them. Nor was the collision caused by one of them committing wrong and the other being wronged. Rather it was because Leonard was disappointed in his expectation that the Schlegel sisters would satisfy his cultural craving by engaging him in conversation about books. This they did not do. And morality struck like lightning.


For later reading/listening if you are interested in knowing a little bit more about Løgstrup:


What to do when morality strikes like lightning?—Some Løgstrupian inspired thoughts on how we might deal with the moralizing that has followed the Brexit referendum and the election of Trump

Following a couple of points made during the conversation at the end of last week’s address I introduced to you to something explored by the Danish philosopher and theologian Knud Eljer Løgstrup relevant to our British and American cultures’ current highly fractious and polarised situation in which people have started condemning each other in truly unhelpful, judgmental moral terms. One common way this is revealed is when someone says, “Well, you voted for X, therefore you’re a morally bad and stupid person.”

The important point raised in our conversation last week was that right at this moment what we desperately need to see — and our wider cultures desperately need to see — is that just because a person voted in a different way to ourselves this simply does not make them a morally bad and stupid person.

Løgstrup begins his important and most influential book, “The Ethical Demand” by speaking directly to this point:

“We need to explain why conflicts which in themselves have nothing to do with morality or immorality, with right or wrong, but which are entirely due to a difference between our respective spirits and worlds — why these conflicts nevertheless turn into questions of sheer morality and self-righteousness and cause reproaches and accusations which are plainly unreasonable” (p. 9). 

Løgstrup feels that the answer is to be found in an understanding of trust which he thinks is “is a characteristic of human life” and “that we normally encounter one another with natural trust” (p.8). He goes on to note that:

“Human life could hardly exist if it were otherwise. We would simply not be able to live; our life would be impaired and wither away if we were in advance to distrust one another, if we were to suspect the other of thievery and falsehood from the very outset” (pp. 8-9). 

But what trust always does is lay us open, it makes us vulnerable and it is for this reason that Løgstrup feels we “react vehemently when our trust is ‘abused,’ as we say, even though it may have been in some inconsequential matter” (p.9).

Whenever we trust someone there is an expectation that something will be fulfilled. In manifesting that expectation Løgstrup realised we have already “surrendered oneself to the other person — even before it is certain that there will be any fulfilment” (p. 10). Of course, we all know that there are times when our expectations of another are not fulfilled and that this is disappointing to us. But Løgstrup points to a deeper disappointment. He writes:

“[W]hat is worse is the fact that in the manifestation one has laid oneself open. One’s expectation, exposed through its manifestation, has not been covered by the other person’s fulfillment of it. And it is this exposure which causes the encounter to erupt in moral reproaches and accusations” (p. 10).

This is a vital point to grasp so I’ll repeat it in a slightly different way: the difficulty is found not so much in the other person’s apparent failure to fulfil our expectation but in our discomfiture concerning our exposure, in our having laid ourselves open and it is this which causes the encounter to erupt in moral reproaches and accusations.

Here’s Løgstrup again:

“When one has dared to come forward in the hope of being accepted, and then is not accepted, this gives the conflict such an emotional character that even though no one has done anything wrong, one must turn it into the kind of conflict that results from the other person’s having committed a wrong. One finds it necessary to invent a suffered wrong by which to motivate his strong and deep emotional reaction” (p. 10). 

Now the failure of expectation — either ours of the other person, or the other person’s of ours — the failure of expectation is often nothing to do with “morality or immorality, with right or wrong” but rather to do with “a difference between our respective spirits and worlds.”

Løgstrup chooses the incident from Forster’s “Howards End” we heard in our readings because it illustrates this perfectly. There were no major questions of morality or immorality, right or wrong in the encounter between Leonard Bast and the Schlegel sisters but there was, however, a major difference between their respective spirits and worlds and so a major difference between their respective expectations once they had chosen to trust each other in their different ways. Those respective expectations were not, as we know, fulfilled and so the emotional shock of having laid themselves open was felt and, even though no one had done anything morally wrong, the situation became one where it was necessary to invent a suffered moral wrong by which to motivate their strong and deep emotional reactions.

Now, in our current polarised situations do we not see something very similar going on? Aren’t we all at times behaving somewhat like Leonard Bast and the Schlegel sisters? We each have our different respective spirits and worlds and so a difference naturally also exists between our respective expectations when we all laid ourselves open in trust in various recent political processes. Our respective expectations were not, as we know, fulfilled and so the emotional shock of having laid ourselves open has been deeply felt and, even though most voters had done anything morally wrong, it became necessary for us to invent suffered moral wrongs by which to motivate our strong and deep emotional reactions. And now, as we all know, it’s all got very nasty indeed.

Now Løgstrup sees the answer to this kind of dynamic in a recovery of trust based on Jesus’ proclamation to love one another. Jesus encourages us never to love an inherited, second-hand picture of another person, but always to love (and therefore trust in some way) the actual person as they are before you in actual situations. Jesus’ example of this dynamic at work is, as you know, the Good Samaritan. It’s important to be fully aware that the first hearers of Jesus’ parable were NOT Samaritans so Jesus is putting his hearers in the ditch as the injured person who, to their surpise, were going to be helped and tended to by a person whom they tended to picture as being morally, religiously and morally wrong-headed (and perhaps also stupid in some fashion). But, face to face, person to person, they find something very different — the true neighbour.

A more modern version of this dynamic is found in Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” in the example of Charles Myriel, the Bishop of Digne. (I here quote at length and gratefully from Robert Stern’s paper ‘Trust is Basic’: Løgstrup on the Priority of Trust pp. 25-26). You will recall that the Bishop shows not only compassion and pity towards the ex-convict Jean Valjean . . .

. . . but also trust in allowing him into his home at all, and particularly letting him sleep with access to the silverware owned by the household. It is clear that while the Bishop’s sister Mademoiselle Baptistine is prepared to go along with him out of respect for his judgement and goodness, the Bishop’s housekeeper Madame Magloire thinks that he has gone too far this time, and is profoundly shocked by his actions in trusting Valjean. What seems to be emphasized by Hugo’s narrative, at least from a Løgstrupian perspective, is that while everyone else sees Valjean as what he has done and thus become — a criminal, a vagrant, an outcast — the Bishop (and thus to a lesser extent his sister) see him as an individual human being standing before the Bishop as such. Even Valjean seems shocked by the openness the Bishop shows to him, and seeks to remind him of how he should be categorized:

‘Mme Magloire,’ said the bishop, ‘will you please lay another place?’

The man [Valjean] moved nearer to the light of the table-lamp, seeming not to understand.

‘It’s not like that,’ he said. ‘Weren’t you listening? I’m a convict, a felon, I’ve served in the galleys.’ He pulled a sheet of yellow paper out of his pocket and unfolded it. ‘This is my ticket-of-leave – yellow, as you see. This is why everybody turns me away. Do you want to read it? I can read. There were classes in prison for anyone who wanted to learn. You can see what it says – “Jean Valjean, released convict, born in –” not that that matters “– served nineteen years, five years for robbery with violence, fourteen years for four attempts to escape – a very dangerous man.” So there you are. (Hugo 1983, 85)

The Bishop, however, ignores all this and insists he is not interested, where in a letter from his sister that is then quoted in the text, she ponders on his behaviour, emphasizing in particular that ‘my brother did not so much as ask the man where he was born. He did not ask his story. For the story would have included some account of his crimes and my brother clearly wished to avoid all reference to these’. She gives the following explanation of why the Bishop behaved in this manner: ‘He must have reflected that the man, this Jean Valjean, was sufficiently oppressed already with the burden of his wretchedness, and that it was better to distract his thoughts and make him feel, if only for a little while, that he was a man like any other’ (Hugo 1983, 90). Again, from Løgstrup’s perspective, we might understand Hugo’s point to be that to trust Valjean just is to see him as no longer defined by his past, whereas conversely to see Valjean through the eye’s of the Bishop’s distrustful housekeeper is not really to see the person as such, but all the things he stands for – a convict, a felon, a criminal with a yellow ticket-of-leave. Like Løgstrup’s child, we might also think this gives the Bishop a ‘joy in living, a courage to be’ which the housekeeper, for all that we understand her sensible caution and reasonable doubts, can never possess, partly because she cannot see life as capable of the kind of renewal and reform in the same way as the Bishop can, while also being deprived of the kind of direct interaction with others that his attitude of trust also makes possible.

Løgstrup is of course not claiming that such distrust is never warranted, or denying that it could in some sense become ingrained in a person for good reason; but nonetheless trust is prior to distrust as this could not but cut us off from a better way of relating to others and to life itself.

It seems to me that only way we are going to get out of our current impasse in a decent fashion is for all of us to see that despite all that has happened we can still trust each other to be for each other Good Samaritans, Bishops Myriels or, indeed as Jesus of Nazareth even though what that good is is still perhaps unclear to us.  

True, we have all trusted in various recent political processes, we all opened ourselves up in trust, we all had our expectations, we have all in our very different ways been sorely unfulfilled and disappointed by what has happened and so we have all experienced morality striking like lightning.

But we have to let that painful electrical strike discharge by seeing — with utter clarity and despite our respective hurts and unfulfilled expectations — that none of what has transpired over the past nearly three years means we should believe the heinous lie that because “You voted for X, therefore you’re a morally bad and stupid person.”

We simply must learn again the necessity of meeting and intuitively trusting the other person as Jesus encouraged us to in the story of the Good Samaritan meeting the Jew, as Victor Hugo encouraged us to in the story of Bishop Myriel meeting Jean Valjean and as Løgstrup encourages us to do in his ethics.

Nothing less will do.