October 17, 2007

Prayer, Stoicism, Moral Duties, and Happiness

Deus, dona mihi serenitatem accipere res quae non possum mutare, fortitudinem mutare res quae possum, atque sapientiam differentiam cognoscere

In English, this means “God, give me the grace to accept with serenity that which cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” I came across this sentiment – interestingly, recast in the light of Hindu theology – earlier today, and promoted as one of the primary keys to personal happiness. The Hindu commentor suggests that by focusing on one’s moral imperatives rather than on the outcome of fulfilling those imperatives, personal happiness can be increased. I generally agree with that sentiment and while I don’t always practice it, I’m generally happier when I’m able to. An interesting comment by a Christian was made in response to this idea. He cited 2 Samuel 12:15-23 as an illustration of how this sentiment is found in the Bible.

Here’s the back story: David is King of Israel; he fell in love with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriel the Hittite, one of his great warriors. In order to make Bathsheba his own wife, he ordered Uriah to the front of a battle, where he was certain to be killed, and in fact Uriah was killed. David then married her (note that he had other wives at the time) and they had a son. But even though David observed all the legal and social niceties like waiting until the widow’s customary forty days of mourning had passed, Jehovah saw what was really going on (being omniscient and all), was quite displeased with King David’s conduct, and took action on His displeasure:

…And so the LORD struck the child that Uriah’s wife bare unto David, and it was very sick. David therefore besought GOD for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth. And the elders of his house arose, and went to him, to raise him up from the earth: but he would not, neither did he eat bread with them. And it came to pass on the seventh day that the child died. And the servants of David feared to tell him that the child was dead: for they said, “Behold, while the child was yet alive, we spake unto him, and he would not hearken unto our voice: how will he then vex himself, if we tell him that the child is dead?” But when David saw that his servants whispered, David perceived that the child was dead: therefore David said unto his servants, “Is the child dead?” And they said, “He is dead.” Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the LORD, and worshipped: then he came to his own house; and when he required, they set bread before him, and he did eat. Then said his servants unto him, “What thing is this that thou hast done? Thou didst fast and weep for the child, while it was alive; but when the child was dead, thou didst rise and eat bread.” And David said, “While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, ‘Who can tell whether GOD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.”

This story is intended to serve as a model of behavior for people to draw lessons from to guide their own lives. And a poor one at that – David strikes me as behaving in a morally deficient fashion here. His son was sick and dying and refusing to eat. Of course, David was upset by this. But what did he do about it? He didn’t stop being the king while this was going on. Were there no doctors in all of Israel, no one who knew what to do with a sick infant that the king could send to tend to his dying son? Instead of acting to heal the child, David fasted and prayed. Perhaps the doctor wouldn’t have done any good anyway, Bronze Age medicine being what it was, but he could have at least tried. It seems to me that at best, David lacked the wisdom to tell the difference between that which he could change and that which he could not. (Yes, I do think that many Christian Scientists are morally in the wrong for refusing medical care, particularly for their children, because of their spiritual beliefs. Faith healing and prayer is roughly as successful at healing people as providing no treatment at all; when it’s reasonably within your power to provide healing, you probably should do it.) David, as far as I can tell, stood by and did nothing while his son died. This is quite simply not a model of good moral behavior.

The story goes on that after washing up and getting some grub, David consoles Bathsheba by having sex with her again. But that’s not really the point, is it? The point, I suppose, is to accept that despite the tragedy of the loss of the son, David was still alive and he had to accept his loss and move on. The story does a fine job of expressing that point – to such a degree that David recovers from his grief and enters acceptance of his loss with inhuman speed.

UPDATE: It has been privately pointed out to me that not every story in the Bible is intended to be a model of good moral behavior. Fair enough. But it still seems to me that David is being held up as a wise or good man here for his acceptance of his son's death and resumption of his life and his duties, and to that extent the story is, at minimum, highly ambiguous morally. It is also pointed out that since the point of the story is the lesson of acceptance, perhaps the author of the story chose to omit details about the doctors; after all, the story doesn't say that David refused to send medical help. Again, I'm not blind to the point of the story; but the sending of doctors would seem to have been about the highest moral imperative here, and if David is going to be illustrated as a paragon of conduct in one sense, it seems odd that the author of the story would have omitted David's discharge of his moral duty if he really had done it.

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