Friends and folks I know that seek to be ordained ministers in traditions similar but other than my own often have to produce a “statement of faith” in preparation  for ordination. The ones I’ve seen always mirror the Nicene Creed in many ways but are also personalized to the individual. Even though my goals lie in teaching World Religion and involvement in various social and non-profit opportunities, I began to ponder what I would say were I expected to produce such a thing. As an Episcopalian, even were I to seek ordination, many churches would likely be fine with the things I came up with, but not all. As for other traditions, I’m not sure. I guess anyone reading can comment as to if they think their particular denomination or location would accept something like this! I enjoyed doing this though, it made me focus on what it is I do believe in the structure and language of most of my fellow Christians.

I believe in One God: God that was First Cause and God that continues to be, running through all of creation. I believe God created all through scientific and natural laws, which God created as well.  I call the aspect of God that runs through all Holy Spirit. Holy Spirit is what activates the image of God that already exists in all of us when we allow it into us; Holy Spirit allows us to bring the good of God out of us and into the world where it can transform other people and situations. I believe that some of us are more open and receptive to Spirit; the prime example to me of one who was so open to Spirit that the line between the humanity of that person and the divinity of God blurred into One is Jesus Christ.

I believe I am to follow Jesus and live as he taught. In Jesus I found my entry-point to the wholeness and trueness of One God and as such I have a responsibility to seek Justice, love mercy, and walk in kindness. I am to seek Christ in the heart of the poor, the homeless, the outcast, the rejected, and the unloved—I am to spread the love of God to all I interact with and I am to seek to transform this world into a more just and fair world in whatever ways that I can.

I believe the Bible is a human attempt at understanding God and the meaning of life in relationship with God. I believe that in certain moments of private reflection and meditation and in communal readings scripture from the Bible can become the Word of God when they touch our soul and awaken in us a deeper love for God and neighbor and stronger thirst for justice. Although I believe other texts from other traditions can become the Word of God for those respective traditions, as one with roots in Christianity I most often find that Word in the Hebrew and Christian testaments.

I believe that sin occurs when we act in ways that damage our relationship with God or neighbor. I believe these actions occur in us all, but that we all can be forgiven and redeemed from them daily as we try to follow more closely in the ways of love for God and neighbor.

I believe we live in a broken world but we must live as if it can be restored, redeemed, and renewed and that we must live so as to make this world as it ought to be—I believe the Church can be the primary institution in bringing about this global, temporal yet eternal, transformation and salvation. I believe our personal salvation occurs when we place our faith and trust in a proper place and we thus are free from the chains of greed, apathy, failure, pain, death, and sin so that we can move forward with acts of mercy.

I believe the Christian faith best exemplifies for me the way to live—personally and communally, but I do not discount other ways for other people whose roots are in their own traditions. I believe that as we move deeper into the 21st century, we must all—Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, and Atheist—find ways to work together for the betterment of all humankind. We must have respect for our differences, security for our individualism, and love for each other and ourselves.

Here are links to other entries I’ve posted that expound on how I hold my personal beliefs in relation to some key Christian concepts. One that is missing but is in the works is on Communion/Mass/The Eucharist, something I feel strongly towards but need to explore further as to what it means for my type of faith.

The Trinity

 https://dmhamby2.wordpress.com/2010/03/12/reformulating-thoughts-on-the-trinity/

Prayer:

https://dmhamby2.wordpress.com/2010/01/14/prayers-and-an-earthquake/

Scripture:

https://dmhamby2.wordpress.com/2009/10/17/drastically-different-themes-same-source/

The Christian Life:

https://dmhamby2.wordpress.com/2009/10/07/as-serious-as-we-wanna-be/

Prophets:

https://dmhamby2.wordpress.com/2009/08/10/definition-of-a-prophet/

Hell:

https://dmhamby2.wordpress.com/2009/07/26/she-said-i-want-some-of-that-hellfire-and-brimstone-stuff/

Church:

https://dmhamby2.wordpress.com/2009/07/20/why-church-why-christianity-marcus-borgs-heart-of-christianity/

and

https://dmhamby2.wordpress.com/2009/06/11/the-church-as-it-could-be-social-justice-hub/

Salvation:

https://dmhamby2.wordpress.com/2009/06/26/salvation/

God (theism):

https://dmhamby2.wordpress.com/2009/04/21/theistic-interpretations/

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“No one who had a meaningful encounter with him will ever forget him. Cecil Sherman may have led the moderate movement in the SBC, but this much is clear — Cecil Sherman was no moderate.”

In eulogizing Dr. Cecil Sherman, this is the major point Dr. Albert Mohler seems to stress the most. A few months ago he did the same with renowned feminist Mary Daly: “The story of Mary Daly is, by any Christian measure, a tragedy. And, we must add, a tragedy with lessons we dare not miss,” is how he ended his blog post detailing her career when she died in January.

I debated whether to do this article myself; I know many who feel that when you disagree in the faith camp, you should just be silent and focus on what you have in common with the other; ironically, this is my main problem with how Dr. Mohler handled these two eulogies.

There are a few factors I’m juggling; I’m going to throw them all out and see if I can tie this cohesively together to express what I’m thinking about this as politely and non-confrontational as possible.

I grew up Baptist. I have known and still do know lots of great Southern Baptist folks. I can think of some that have never given Dr. Mohler a thought—those that may not even know who he is; I have also met many students and graduates of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he is President and where he has been the key figure in shaping curriculum and thought. Of these students, some share concerns and views I do as well. It’s proof that try and mold a consensus opinion as much as you want and you still won’t get everyone on the same page. Then there is the obvious fact that even if we disagree on many things, there is always something we can agree on and address together, which was the focus of a very important lecture I recently heard, which I’ll get back to later. But why should I care what Dr. Mohler thinks or writes given that I’m no longer a Baptist? Because, the SBC is one of the largest denominations in the country; they’re such a large group that they have a lot to do with the public perception of Christianity in this country. With such a large group of Christians under one umbrella, the work they could do is tremendous: so it’s of interest to all Christians that their work be directed in as righteous and productive an area as possible.

The lecture I mentioned earlier was by Eboo Patel, author of the award-winning book “Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.” Patel is the founder of Interfaith Youth Core, and the work he does which unites youth from multiple faith backgrounds together to perform community service is a vision he has for the entire world. Patel spoke of the hope that one day all cities and locations will have inter-faith panels of folks gathered together with shared goals; of inspiring a thirst for peace, justice, civic pride, and active engagement that surpasses the violence, fear, intolerance, and bigotry terrorist organizations instill in youth. To get past bigotry, we have to have basic knowledge of the good in each others faiths, awareness of the basic religious tenets of our neighbors. To best implement these type of actions, we must allow each other to be ourselves; focus on commonalities; and work together often. When Patel was through lecturing, a student in the audience asked him how we best go about engaging with others across religious divides when many find it hard to communicate with others in the same religion—denominations and “conservative” vs “liberal” Christians not being able to relate to each other, etc. Patel responded that if we “keep hitting a brick wall,” then we “should stop running into that brick wall”; for example, as a Muslim, Patel would likely not agree with a Christian about Jesus; so if he is working with an evangelical Christian, he and they shouldn’t bring up Jesus. But they could still build a house together and agree on fighting poverty. Inter-Faith Engagement, understanding, and cooperation is a huge interest of mine and I feel Patel vocalizes it so well it’s hard not to be inspired.

The question the student asked was a good one, and Patel’s answer was inspiring and logical. Yet here I am writing about Dr. Mohler; many folks I know are doing their best these days to ignore the areas they disagree with and “focus on the positive,” when it comes to other religious folks. And my main point with Mohler here, is that he didn’t do this, he made no effort to do this. In writing about someone from his own denomination, Dr. Cecil Sherman, he had to make the main point of his article be why Sherman wasn’t a “moderate,” even though he claimed to be. Mohler did write a few nice things about Sherman, but that wasn’t the focus of the article. Why couldn’t it have been? Why spend the days after the death of someone you had plenty in common with writing an article about why they weren’t what they claimed to be and why you disagreed with what they spent their life thinking and teaching? And am I hypocritical for dredging this up when I could just let his blog go unmentioned by me (and thus leave the few folks stumbling across this article unaware of my opinion on the matter)?

Because it’s hard to seek out commonalities when the other side tries their hardest to burn bridges and close themselves off into like-minded cloisters. It’s hard to get the participation of folks when their sense of importance is drastically different than yours. Sure, Mohler and I might both agree AIDS, poverty, homelessness, war, division, etc. are bad. But judging from his blog, he’s more concerned with the “threats” of feminism, liberalism, evolution education, gay rights, sex education, etc. The question the student asked was a very Christ-like one, a very earnest and honest one, one that needs a good answer. But sitting where I am, I find it much more likely that I can find cooperation, support, and like-minded priorities with Progressive Muslims, Buddhists, and Secular Humanists than I can with Fundamentalist Christians (or Fundamentalist/Extremist Muslims, etc). It’s been a point for a long while now that the progressive factions (or “liberal”)in every denomination—Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic, etc. –have much more in common with each other than they do with the conservative side of their own denomination. Those in the middle, those true “moderates”—like Dr. Sherman—aren’t even believed to be what they claim from those on the far right of their respective groups. Sherman was a moderate; the things that made him leave the SBC, like the demand to sign the “Glorieta Statement,” were not in line with what Baptists had traditionally been. Yet the SBC has so delightfully ret-conned their entire history that the newcomer or un-read in the area would have no clue of that. A great read concerning the actions of those that took over the SBC is “Going for the Jugular: A Documentary History of the SBC Holy War,” an article from the “Journal of Church and State.” You can download it here:

http://www.amazon.com/Going-Jugular-Documentary-History-Journal/dp/B00097SKUG/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1272147551&sr=1-3

I’ve always found what happened to the Convention to be fascinating. Growing up, my home church never mentioned much about it, but it was always in publications that came to the church. I had an older brother who was a student at SBTS when it occurred, who left as a result of it, so I heard some of it from him and read about it later on my own. These things are important because the absolute wrongness of them is so clear—do those like Dr. Mohler have the right to believe and teach what they do? Of course. I won’t attend a church that denies women the right to a leadership positions, that believes gays can and should be “made straight,” that views Jews, Catholics and other faiths as heathens in need of conversion and thus only interacts with them with that as the end-goal, or that believes the Bible we have in its present form is without a single scientific, geographic, or historical error, but Mohler and his followers have the right to think such things. I would still work with them to serve soup and clothes to the homeless if they wished and we simply wouldn’t mention any of these things. But what is wrong is forcing everyone who disagrees with you outside of the group, removing the diversity and respect for independence that had long been a huge part of Baptist heritage. If it can happen to the largest group, it can happen to anyone; and of course, their cohesion may be a huge reason for their large size, but is forced agreement good?

So do Progressives “write off” one of the largest groups of Christians in America when it comes to every justice issue? I certainly hope not. But can we work with them consistently? Can we see eye to eye enough to focus on a specific area with them? I think we can on an individual basis. I can think of several southern Baptist folks who work hard consistently to tackle poverty, drug addiction, and spousal abuse. I can work with them on an individual basis, if ever given the chance. We can see each other as justice-seeking, God-loving people who just happen to disagree on a whole lot of things.

Dr. Mohler on Cecil Sherman: http://www.albertmohler.com/2010/04/23/this-man-was-no-moderate-the-legacy-of-cecil-sherman/

Dr. Mohler on Mary Daly: http://www.albertmohler.com/2010/01/08/newsnote-the-death-of-a-feminist/

I wonder how the fanbase and the music press are going to take “Heaven is Whenever,” the new album from The Hold Steady. It’s set for release the first week of May, but I was lucky enough to grab one of the 500 limited-edition advance vinyl copys at my local indie shop for Record Store Day 2010 this past Saturday. Sporting a pixelated cover that looks nothing like the advertised artwork in the upcoming release, and a nice shiny, see-through, clear vinyl, I placed it on the turntable and set down for 1 of the 6 times I’ve heard it so far.

It was slightly jarring at first, as it drew to a close. After hearing it through the first time, I realized lead singer songwriter Craig Finn never did his “thing,” that point where the music can’t keep up with all of the words he’s trying to squeeze out, where he stops the pretense of singing and just talks really fast. That didn’t happen; there was very little punk influence on any of the record either; I’ve recently been relistening to “Almost Killed Me,” their very first record, perhaps the rawest and punkiest of all their work, and this is as different from that as can be while still sounding clearly like The Hold Steady.
So I dropped it on the turntable for spin number two, and listened some more. It opens with a twangy, 1970s era-Stones attempting country music song, “The Sweet Part of the City.” Then songs from “Soft in the Center,” through to closer “A Slight Discomfort” fly by. Standouts along the way are lead-off single, “Hurricane J,” and side 2 opener “We Can Get Together,” ( a perfect song for Record Store Day with its “heaven is whenever, we can get together and listen to your records” chorus). What becomes clear that second time around is that these are really good, really solid rock songs; but they are straight-forward. I’d heard that Finn was taking singing lessons before “Stay Positive” came out, and if so, the proof for it is now here. He sings his way through the entire record, and it sounds good. Long-time fans might be dissapointed though; because with it’s verse-chorus structure, gone is the time for the further exploits of the characters (you know, Charlemagane, Stevie Nix, hoodrats, that “hallelujah chick,” etc.), gone is Finn’s manic street preacher routine, gone is some of that abrupt and abrasivenss that probably kept some folks away. So now, the world’s best bar band might actually appeal to more bar crowd folks. The lyrics still drop smart lines, Finn is certainly no slouch, and the band has always sounded tight, exciting, expert–that’s still the case.
So I’ll wait and see how the rest of folks take it; the indie press loved their first two records, the slightly more mainstream press loved their next two, now will everyone like this one? Or just the mainstream? I don’t care, it’s good stuff, the band still rocks, you still can’t go wrong catching a live show from them. I’ll keep spinning this the rest of the year, get the free downloads that came with the LP when it’s mass-released, and throw it on my i-pod…I’ll see what my verdict is when I recap the music at the end of the year!

We all work so very hard at sorting out who’s in and who’s out. The core of all bad philosophies and social views is fear. Fear that we must get it right or we’re the one that is out. So we construct these systems of oppression and separation to box out everyone who doesn’t do it like we do it so that we can feel more secure that what we are doing is what is right, is what is expected, is what will get us to perfection, to heaven.
So people suspend their rational minds and silence what their heart and soul try to say to them. They work hard to justify their homophobia, sexism, racisim, classism. People use politics, family, or religion as the reason, but the reason is there without those factors–the reason is fear.

I was recently debating someone, politely enough, but it was obvious that we would never come to any sort of common ground. Many of my theological views seemed so far removed from his own that he insistently remarked that I couldn’t “really” be Christian, that I was just clinging to the language and should move on. He said if he was in my church I would be actively working to remove him– I insisted that in worship and communion I saw no reason as to why we couldn’t worship side by side without having to agree on every specific, so then he dropped the ball that “he couldn’t worship with a heretic,” it would be a “subtle form of violence,” and would incorrectly lead me to feel “justified in my own faith. He felt this kept with a hero of his, church father Athanasius. Not to be too crass, but I couldn’t give two shits if Athanasius refused to break bread with me…I’m pretty sure a person named Jesus would.

One point of difference that we had arose late in our debate. I recommended a book to him that dealt with the thematic consistency of the Torah which focused on Justice and care for the stranger. The book is by a feminist, so he stated that he would get nothing from it since he “rejected feminism on philosophical grounds.”  Slogan though it may be, the saying that “feminism is the radical idea that women are people and deserve rights,” aptly sums up the feminist movement and it’s one that many “traditionalists” in various religious contexts have often had a problem with. Then when I wrote of modern day Gay rights issues as being a consistent focus of justice and care for the “stranger,” he scoffed that, “isn’t it quite convenient that ‘scholars’ find that everyone was wrong in reading the bible at a time when  Gay Movement gains social and political power?” Many opponents of Gay rights advocates in the church find any argument for it on religious grounds preposterous.  Even if arguing that cultural and social prejudices crept into Scripture is too much for some to consider, many cases for arguing from within the text are possible. The few mentions of homosexuality in the OT all concerned male-male relationships and did so for the same reason there were laws that restricted masturbation- both were considered a “waste of seed,” because the Israelites were scarce at that point and would die out without reproducing. Those verses are very few; later in the NT, as many often note, Jesus doesn’t mention the issue at all—Paul extends “sexual deviance” status to women-women relationships in hand with his view of the limited role of the woman in worship, thus contradicting his own “in Christ there is no male or female,” statement—Paul often mentioned before statements that he was about to reveal his opinion on an issue and was not the voice of God—these two issues are that, a man in his cultural context would not have been enlightened about gender and orientation issues. As for the church and the apostolic tradition—it took years for the church to fight the Civil rights battle and the women’s rights movement, and the church was behind the curve of the rest of society. The same has happened in the Church regarding homosexuality. The church in many progressive corners of almost every denomination is now working to reveal God’s overwhelming love for all of creation, including the 10 percent of folks born gay every year who are that way as God has made them and need not repent of that. If we truly are concerned with “the sanctity of marriage” we will extend that status to LGBTQ folks as well-otherwise, if they enter into a committed relationship that society hasn’t caught up to recognizing and protecting yet, we as the church can recognize it anyway.

Which brings me back to fear and the variety of faith. If we look at any religious text we can find good and bad, peace and war. All religious texts are influenced by the human hands that help produce them. We can try to fit our own faith into a box that lines up “correctly” with every doctrine, creed, formula and council that any governing religious body in power deems “official” or “orthodox.” But if we’re truly honest, we have to admit that we are still highlighting certain themes and views in and of our text and tradition. I argued with this individual that a thematically consistent thread that runs through all of Jewish and Christian scripture is one of Righteous Justice and care for the stranger. This culminates for Christians in working to establish Jesus’ Kingdom of God, a new system of living that lets all at the table, that seeks peace, mercy, justice and compassion, that seeks to let the last be first and restores this world to a better and fairer system, now and later. God’s concern for the poor and the outcast are all throughout the Bible. I can make this argument, cite Churches that follow this model, cite book after book of scholarly work and populist theology that propose it. Furthermore, I can feel this is true in my own heart and mind, I can see it in the best aspects of practically all World Religions in a type of nodding assent. Opponents of this “liberal” style Christianity argue that it’s new and doesn’t belong under the same umbrella as “their” Christianity.” Well, it’s not NEW. It is found in American theology way back in the Social Gospel movement of the 1920s and I argue that it goes back to the teachings of the historical Jesus, and back before that to the heart of the Torah and present in so many other places as well. As a Christian, I find the system and Way proposed by Jesus to be revolutionary and revelatory and through it I may someday find my best transformation. Yet for others, might I say often “fearful” Christians, it’s not about this at all. It’s about full orthodoxy, right belief. So much so that many get concerned and spout things like “Grace plus nothing!” interjecting a fear of even bothering to do God’s good work because it might lead us to believe we are earning our own salvation.

My faith doesn’t have to fit in a box. My faith doesn’t have to be a checklist in which I can prove I’m correctly following all of the teachings that trace through the doctrines voted by the powerful in Christianity as “right.” Since those that often won debates and votes in Christian councils were politically powerful and ruthless, I wonder if had Jesus been alive and involved at this point if his own words would be voted as “right” since he was neither ruthless or politically powerful.

It strikes many fearful Christians as dangerous to step forward or claim any other modern inclusivity in their faith.  My faith lives in 2010; I am at a point in history where we have been through the Enlightenment and full exposure to all of the myriad faiths of the world. Archaeology, Biblical Criticism, and Academic work have shed new light on all sorts of ways of looking at ancient holy words and incorporating them freshly in our time.  I have to either close my eyes and mind to much of this and keep my faith in that box to stay fully with every medieval Christian view. Or, I can open both. Is my God a God of Love? Of Justice? Of Truth and Knowledge? Yes, Yes, and Yes. So why not use that knowledge, use that love, and work for that Justice consistently? If my faith was about nothing but “right” belief, then nothing would ever get done. My type of faith insists good work be done and that love be shown. To argue against that is preposterous. I cannot envision a true God that would not want us to act on the side of Love, Peace, and Righteous Justice.

What is a soul?

April 1, 2010

What is the soul? Are we born with it or do we acquire it? Is it the same thing as the”mind?” Is it eternal? What happens to it when our body dies? Is it even separable from the body? Is it learned? Does everyone have one? Is it even real?

Religions and philosophies all have different answers to these questions. A recent article from NPR showcased a study  done by the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” in which subjects experienced a brief magnetic pulse to a certain area of the brain which resulted in a shift in their moral reasoning. Subjects were told of a woman who believed she was putting sugar into her friend’s coffee who in actuality was putting in poison and of a woman putting sugar into  someone’s coffee believing it was poison. Without the magnetic pulse, the subjects judged the accidental poisoner as forgivable and condemned the accidental sweetener. During the pulse, the subjects judged the woman who meant to poison but instead sweetened as okay but the other as in the wrong. The writer of this article states that this is typical of the reasoning of very young children who in similar studies are apt to say that a little girl who accidentally breaks 4 teacups is  “naughtier” than a little girl breaking one teacup on purpose— the concept of judging intentions doesn’t emerge until later in the child’s development. In this magnetic study, the magnets caused the subjects to reason in the same way (read the story here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125304448

The author concluded with a statement questioning the very existence of the soul: if something as basic as moral reasoning can be influenced so scientifically, is there any need or room for the existence of the soul?

Well… first off, the person making that comment seems to have a very narrow box for what the definition or concept of the soul even is. I think all spiritual philosophies that posit the existence of the soul conceive it to be something much bigger than just a moral reasoning tool. After all, there are many psychological illnesses that inhibit moral reasoning in worse ways than this particular study, yet most religious folks wouldn’t question whether someone with a particular mental illness has a soul.

Our soul is our essence… it is what makes us “us.” It’s what makes us an individual. As such, it’s influenced by decisions we make, beliefs we have, genetics we inherit, situations we encounter, things we learn, and the lives we lead. I’m sure many will cry out in disgust at that idea, that any part of our soul can develop or change, that any part of it is influenced by the “material” world– but I think it’s the only way to explain the complete transformations that some people make in their lives. You don’t “gain” a soul, it’s something that’s there when you open your eyes for the first time in this world–but I believe you do “develop” it as you live and learn.

Does everyone have a soul? Yes. Is the soul merely a moral compass? No. Yet the soul does function in helping us discern truth; our soul helps us determine what is “right,” but there are so many other factors at stake in that as well.

In a post-modern, progressive Christian context, what claims can I make for myself about the soul and its “eternal” qualities? “The Heart of Christianity” author Marcus Borg has often written that he is an agnostic when it comes to the afterlife, that it’s impossible to know what exactly awaits and so the best thing is to do our best and most righteous now, and to savor every minute of life that we can. I think that’s a good grounding place, although I do make some “heavenly” claims out of faith and hope. The Hebrew religion we made our identity out of never spent much time on the afterlife; when it mentioned it, most often it was in regards to “Sheol,” an eternal land of the dead where all went and no divisions based on morality or faith were made. As any who have studied religion, politics and history in many areas can attest, during and after Medieval times, “Hell” became a selling point to attact devotees and fill pews as the Christian church spread. I won’t recount too much “heaven” and “hell” thought here, but you can check out previous articles I’ve written in those areas if you scroll to the bottom of the page and hit the “religion” tab. My own faith and hope claims insist on some essence of continuation of the soul, though. From my context I believe that a bit of inner Divinity is present in all of us; I believe that I can access that Divinity and use it to bring the good out of me and into the world to transform people and situations in those instances where I correctly align myself with the One true Creator and Spirit. I believe that when I seek justice, mercy, compassion and forgiveness, I am accessing that divine spark within me and in my best moments it may temporarily fill me. Better humans than I find ways to live in that space where they are almost always filled with and sharing that Divinity, mine are few and far between even when my intentions are good. So that inner soul, that piece of God within me, I believe, will live on after my body fails. Will it fill a new body in a new earth? Or will it travel back to the source of creation and be reunited with its Creator? Of that, I am agnostic in the truest sense, in that I do not know. Yet as I’ve written before, I believe those that seek the spiritual and to live true and have believed in mercy and Justice and Creation, whatever names, terms and concepts they have attached to it, their inner essence will live on. For those that haven’t, I can’t make any clear claims. I do feel that at the worst, they will cease to be; but I can’t fully claim there is ever a point in which any soul has no hope for restoration and completion.

So a magnet study that muddies our minds and causes us to make sub-par moral decisions doesn’t make me doubt the existence of the soul. The soul is much, much more than moral reasoning.