Rumi, Shakespeare, and Moral Codes

The Persion poet Rumi noted, “Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.” This is similar to Shakespeare’s famous observation, “Nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

These two quotations appear to convey moral relativism which permits basically anything under the sun, appearing to convey the absence of any moral absolute. But I do not feel this is the case at all for the teachings of these men suggest they have much more in mind than mere self-indulgent behavior. Each recognized that it was the God-given capacity to think which creates categories for the whole of human experience, including those categories of what is right and wrong. But it is only “thinking” and the capacity to think that allows this categorization to take place. They are merely noting that “thinking” and the resulting categorization of human experience can appear to be quite arbitrary. For example, not too many years ago in our country African Americans were thought of as second class citizens, and in the Deep South in particular, were second class citizens in the estimation of most white people. And having been raised in the South, due to this pervasive mind-set that my sub-culture was imbued with, I saw African Americans as second class citizens. For, as we learn to perceive, so things are. The categories formulated on the basis of our perceptual field are real, as far as we know it. And unquestioningly accepting these categories is validated day in and day out in the community. However, due to the strong arm of…may I say it…an “intrusive” Federal government our thinking regarding race has changed significantly in the past fifty years. African Americans are not viewed with the same racist mind-set by many Southerners and those who continue to subscribe to those Neanderthal beliefs are forced to treat them with more respect, albeit begrudgingly in most cases. One other example is prominent in our world history. At one point the prevailing world view was that the world was flat. That viewpoint was reality and anyone who deigned to suggest otherwise did so at the risk of ridicule or worse. The world was flat for that is how prevailing thought described it.

So, back to “wrong doing” and “right doing” or Shakespeare’s “good” or “bad.” Yes, it is only thinking that makes anything right, wrong, good, or bad. However, what these gentlemen were teaching is that we must get beyond mere categories, mere words, mere labels and learn that subscribing to a mere moral code will merely leave us trapped in the letter of the law. Sure, these moral codes will constrain our behavior and thus serve a useful social purpose. We cannot function as a society without them. But at some point we have to grow spiritually to the point that we are no longer merely constrained by the mere letter of the law but by the spirit of the law. Therefore, if I want to do something which I feel is “wrong”, I am given pause and proceed to ask myself, “Now what does this reflect about the depths of my heart? If I want to do a brother harm, what does that say about me, aside from whatever this brother might have done?

Now Rumi’s note that “I will meet you in a field that lies beyond that domain of right doing and wrong doing” is rich. A field conveys an open space, an area out beyond the narrow confines of a moral code, and this is the realm of the spirit. When we are rigidly governed merely by the letter of the law, when our heart is jam-packed with rules to which we are slavishly devoted, we can never get beyond, we can never get out side of our self, and we can never get into that Sacred Space where honesty, openness, and intimacy is found. This is the domain of the “I-Thou” relationship so eloquently described by Martin Buber.

Let me reiterate. A person who is slavishly devoted to the letter of the law, whose life consists of punctilious observation of moral, religious, and spiritual rules is trapped inside himself/herself. And if he/she finds the comfort of like-minded people, great comfort can appear to be found, but at a great price. And usually this mind-set produces a judgmentalism which has to be wielded on other people as the beasts within which this “letter of the law” carefully constrains will be projected onto the outside world. One expression of this poison is the view that the world is “going to hell in a hand basket, is inherently evil, and must be actively combatted.” Well, the world has evil present but I argue that groups with that emphasis need to pay an equal amount of attention to the evil within their own hearts. The evil outside with which they are obsessed is actually within their own hearts. This is the classic projection spoken of my Karl Jung.


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