For sin pays a wage, and the wage is death. Romans 6 v23
Mistakes have a price. You can if you like think of this as a kind of divine punishment, but it’s more helpful simply to accept that this is how the world is. There’s little of justice in it; sometimes we err in ignorance and still pay a price, and sometimes we err and benefit from our error; the rain falls upon the just and unjust alike. Paying the price may not be immediate; it can be quite a while after you leave the pathway before you know you’re on the wrong track or fall into the ditch. What’s more, it is often our successors who must pay the price for our mistakes, unto the third and fourth generations; I’m afraid the ancient saying that ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge’ is all too true, even if the blame remains with the fathers. But none of that invalidates the general truth: mistakes have a price, especially if they are repeated. We need to take care, and that means basing our actions on sound principles, on having the right values. But how are we to know what is sound and right? To some extent we can learn from our own experiences, but a human life is too short to learn all we might wish we had known when we started to make decisions that affected the pattern of our lives. Like it or not, we have to learn from history, whether we simply accept what the tradition tells us or, more reliably, whether we try to understand how our predecessors came to learn the lessons we can profit from. Our predecessors in the
Judeo-Christian-Western tradition have identified three supreme values: Awe, and Love, and Truth. When we forget them there is a price to be paid, whether it is paid now or later, by us or by our successors.
Awe comes easily to us as children, to whom every day brings some new wonder to marvel at. As we grow up, familiarity with what is truly wonderful can lead us to lose our ability to wonder; that impoverishes us, but, much worse, it can lead to a kind of contempt. It is that contempt that will exact a price. Indeed it is already exacting a price. For environmental degradation and climate change have been made possible only by our coming to have contempt for the world around us; as a society, we have lost our proper sense of Awe in the presence of the bounty of nature. We have also lost our sense of Awe at being just one soon-gone generation in the long succession of generations stretching from the ancient past into the unknown future; we let our wants count for infinitely more than the needs of our successors, who will have to pay the price for our loss of Awe. You might identify the problem as unbridled greed, but that’s only one of the undesirable results of losing Awe. You might identify the problem as progress, but there is nothing wrong with progress so long as we make it without losing our sense of Awe. You might identify the problem as a lack of religion, but it is because religion speaks of Awe that its decline matters here. Take the sandals from off your feet for the ground on which you stand is holy ground.
As for Love, surely it is usually Love itself that exacts a price, rather than its absence? It is true of course that when we love, we are often called upon to forego things that we’d like to have. But there is a very important difference between this and paying a price; to forego things for love is something we do voluntarily, even enthusiastically, because feeling Love is more life-enhancing than what we forego. As with losing a sense Awe, not learning to Love is an impoverishment, but it can also lead us to be contemptuous, in this case of other people. There was a time, not so very long ago, when most people rarely left their village and were dependant mostly on people whom they knew. I doubt if it was easy to love everyone else even in such a close community, but it was at least possible to know what love might mean in relation to everyone whose life you could affect. Our problem is that we affect and are dependent on millions of people we don’t and can’t know. What does Love mean in these new circumstances? We are still working this out, and there are no easy answers. But certainly if we don’t find out, if we don’t factor Love into how we organise the global village, the results are likely to be disastrous.
Because Truth is a supreme value, it must be pursued for its own sake, as its own reward. The danger of pursuing Truth only because we can see how it might be useful to us in some directly practical way is not merely that doing so may prevent us learning things that may eventually but unforeseeably be of practical benefit; more dangerously, the demand for utility can easily trump the demands of the quest for Truth and cause us first to stop seeking Truth for its own sake and then to begin to accept conventional wisdom. That in turn leads to the dis-ease of sensing there is a disconnect between Truth and what we are all expected to accept. I’m not saying that Truth cannot be uncomfortable, only that that discomfort is nothing to the discomfort of sensing that what you believe or are being told is not the Truth. One way to try to avoid that discomfort is to confuse Truth with certainty; as we begin to doubt the truth of what we would like to believe we may take refuge in certainty. The alternative of course is to admit that we do in fact doubt what we once believed and find the courage to seek a richer, though still not a final, Truth. This implies development and movement into the unknown, fear of which drives the retreat into certainty. And because fear fuels some of the most violent human reactions, this retreat from Truth is likely to demand a high price of all of us, whether or not we ourselves fear doubt and Truth.
One of the benefits of traditional religious observance is that it offers a forum where Awe and Love and Truth can be, and at least sometimes are, celebrated. If a terrible price is not to be paid, we need to have such a forum and learn there what Awe and Love and Truth imply for us today.