Three Moral Realms

As human beings, we all struggle with three moral realms.  These three moral standards occupy portions of our lives, of our thinking, of our actions, of our opinions.   And they all take up permanent residence, resisting any change.

The first moral realm is karma, or justice.  This is the sense that everyone gets what they deserve, and that everyone should get what they deserve.  We work for pay, the good is praised, the criminal goes to jail.  What we do has a direct correlation to what we receive.  We know that life doesn’t always work out this way, but in some sense we think that it should always be this way.

The second moral realm is mercy.  This is the necessary putting aside of karma, to give what isn’t deserved.  Whether children are good or bad, we give them presents at Christmas.  We do nice things for our family, whether they deserve them or not.  We see someone in trouble, and we give them help, even if they can do nothing for us. 

Most spiritualities claim that the realm of mercy is superior to that of karma.

But there is a third moral realm which is older than either karma or mercy—the moral realm of Ritual.  Ritual is based on the idea that you are, and you become, what you do.  We learn to cook and we make a lot of mistakes at first, we might even burn some pans to oblivion.  As we keep at it, though, especially under guidance of an experience cook, we get better and then we become a cook.  We didn’t become a cook because we were naturally talented at it, but because we kept at it until people wanted to eat our food.

The Spiritual life is the regular practice of seeking the Spirit, a set of rituals we use to meet the Divine.  At first, our spiritual practice is like a toddler taking her first steps—wobbly and without much hope for the future.  But as we persist, the spiritual life becomes easier and we become a spiritual person.   Not by ignoring the other two moralities, but by having all three moral realms—karma, mercy and ritual be woven together into our lives, giving us a spiritual whole. 

Graphic by M.C. Escher

Steve Kimes