Is God Required For A Life of Integrity?
Since I started to really think deeply about integrity— what it is, how to cultivate it, and why it’s so important— I have asked myself this question repeatedly:
Do you have to believe in God to cultivate integrity?
In his book on our subject, author Stephen L. Carter defines integrity as a process in three steps:
discerning what is right and what is wrong,
acting on what you have discerned, even at personal cost, and
stating openly that what you are doing is based on your discernment.
Historically, the definition of “right” was following God (or the teachings of your religion about the will of God), and “wrong” was everything else; but our world is not so tied to religion anymore and many of us are trying to find our way outside of religion’s formal confines. Carter’s definition is a solid jumping-off point to find our way, but it presumes that every time you act in a particular way based on your integrity that there is going to be someone to tell why, and that is not my experience of the vast majority of moments in which my integrity is tested.
Also, if you were to make a point of explaining the moral value, from your perspective, of every choice you made over the course of your day then you would quickly come to understand, as was so hilariously depicted in The Good Place, why everyone hates moral philosophers.
When I choose to order a book from my local independent bookstore rather than Amazon, knowing that I will have to wait longer and pay more, I am acting out of my integrity. I believe deeply that I am responsible for the vibrancy of my local economy and that locally-owned bookstores are an essential part of an intellectually robust community. But I am not going to lean out my window and shout at passersby about it every damn time.
When I witness a racist thought rise up inside my head I name it to myself, even though it undermines my sense of myself as “one of the good ones” and forces me to confront how my attachment to that self-identification has, at times, been more important to me than actually being anti-racist. I believe engaging habitually in that accountability is part of my obligation as a white person who strives to be anti-racist. But I am not going to detail that internal process on my social media feeds every time it happens.
No BIPOC I love is served by performative self-flagellation, and I sure don’t want other white people to swoop in to praise me or try to make me feel better.
When one of my kids does something super annoying, and borderline lazy, on a day when I’ve got 10 million things to do and no time to add to my list, I am not going to walk into their room and yell that they’re a lazy, ungrateful, unhelpful pain in my ass, as satisfying as that might be for as long as my mouth is moving. I don’t believe that emotionally off-gassing on the people I love honors our connection, nor do I think it helps my kids develop into responsible people. So, I’m going to do the harder thing— even though I don’t feel I have the time— and talk to them respectfully about expectations and consequences.
What I’m not going to do is preface our conversation by extolling the ways in which I wanted to insult them before I managed to marshal the energy to have a reasonable conversation.
So many of the small, private, low-stakes moments that help us build the internal fortitude to do what we think is right and publicly own the reasons and consequences when the stakes are high are only between us and whatever, or whoever, we answer to. For me, what I am left with when everything else falls away is my sense of connection to God, and an obligation to honor that of God in all of creation. For someone else, it could be the Dharma, or Love, or Science. Hell, it could even be Democracy. Would that more folks in our society felt beholden in their most private, and public, moments to Democracy.
About integrity in leadership, Dr. Henry Cloud writes, “To live and flourish, we must bow to the things larger than us…My purpose here is for us to look at the character trait of being able to bow to them, and being willing to bow to them, more than defining what those things are.”
Essential to cultivating not just a work-life, but a whole life of integrity is the willingness to stand firm in what you know is right, even when no one else is watching. Even when, god bless the writers of The Good Place, you don’t get any points for it. Or maybe you do, but The Judge is not calling to let you know, so you just have to do it anyway.
The reality is that sometimes standing firm in what you believe, and weathering the consequences, is exhausting and lonely. Sometimes it is terrifying. I don’t think you have to believe in God or have any sort of formal religious life in order to survive these moments, but I do think that having a sense of something transcendent that you bow to makes it easier.
If there is no transcendence for you, if you are the sole center of your own universe, then you are always and only skating on your ego, and eventually, you’re going to end up on your ass with nothing to grab onto to help you get back up. Those of us trying to live with integrity spend a fair amount of time on our asses. The transcendent gives us a leverage point to get up and moving again.
What do you think? I’m actually really curious what your take is. Does a sense of transcendence help you live your integrity, or do you manage the tough moments without one? Tell me in the comments!
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