Monday, December 28, 2009

O Is for Ornament ("The Christmas Pickle")

(My Christmas Eve service featured"The Holidays A to Z," encompassing in 26 vignettes the breadth of the  Season.)

Ornaments  festooning the Christmas Tree are among the most beloved of  Holiday traditions.  Ornaments represent  all sorts of things that fill our lives and offer meaning.  Or they are simply colorful, shimmering baubles that delight the eye. They rest in the green branches of a symbolic Tree of Life—the Christmas Tree.

One of my favorite ornaments is known as “the Christmas pickle”  The legend of the pickle ornament maintains it’s an old German custom.  According to the legend, it is the last ornament placed on the tree, well hidden in the midst of other ornaments, lights,and tinsel.  Children are challenged to be the first to find it, the winner earning a special gift.  However, Christmas pickle debunkers (Yes Virginia, there are Christmas pickle debunkers) claim it’s a bogus legend.  They wonder, could it be a scheme of German ornament makers to sell more ornaments?  

Like many of the Christmas legends, there are those who believe and those who don’t believe the legend of the Christmas pickle ornament. In this regard the "Christmas pickle" legend represents many of the Holiday legends that rise from a twilight of truth and over time become tradition.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

Friday, December 18, 2009

Peace on Earth

A Christmas Irony

The director’s remarks regarding the film “Joyeux Noel” (Merry Christmas) and the hymn we just sang “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” based on the Longfellow poem “Christmas Bells” illuminate the timeless irony of the mythic angels’ blessing to the shepherds keeping watch with their flock: “Peace on Earth."

Longfellow, while anxious and grief-stricken for his gravely injured son during the Civil War, clearly articulated the irony: “And in despair I hung my head, there is no peace on earth I said, for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

We are at war, once again, this Christmas Season. Since 2001 we’ve been engaged in an ambiguous world wide war against Islamic terrorism. But there’s no ambiguity regarding the two hot war we’re engaged in: a war in Afghanistan we’ve been fighting since October 2001; a war in Iraq we’ve been fighting since March 2003. The War in Afghanistan seeks to root out the terrorist organization Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda promotes a worldwide Muslim holy war and masterminded the September 11, 2001 terrorists attacks. The War in Afghanistan coincidentally seeks to diminish the Taliban regime that harbored Al Qaeda. The War in Iraq was ostensibly begun because Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed considerable weapons of mass destruction that were an imminent threat to America following

Both wars seek to implant freedom. George W. Bush, President at the onset of the War in Iraq, often spoke of the mission in Iraq in terms of introducing freedom and democracy into the Mideast to bend Muslims and their nations toward these Western Ideals. The War in Afghanistan has the moniker Operation Enduring Freedom. Among the names for the War in Iraq is Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Since 2003 on Christmas Eve, I’ve included in the service a meditation I wrote regarding Peace. I call it “An Audacious Light.” I vowed to reprise it on Christmas Eve as long as we’re at war.  I'll read it again this week on Christmas Eve.

It casts only a small sphere
of light,
But beyond this little sphere
the flame reaches toward
and reflects in each our eyes.

This fragile, yes fragile flame,
is nevertheless audacious:

It is an audacious light
in its brightness,
It is an audacious light
in its piercing of the darkness,
It is an audacious light
in seeking out our eyes.

Let this flame
An Audacious Peace.

Peace may elude nations.
(Tonight our Nation
is at war and
our spirits are troubled.)
But Peace is reflected
in our eyes...

This is where Peace

This is where Peace
This is where Peace
An audacious glint,
reflecting from person to person.

Look into one another’s eyes
and see a reflection, that glint,
of Peace.
Pass the reflection on.

As Peace is in our eyes,
Then let there be Peace
in our families and among our friends.
Let our sense of who is our Family
and who are our Friends
expand across the earth.

And then there
might be
Peace on Earth
Among Persons
Of Goodwill.

Then the pride and folly
of nations
Will dissolve into our shared
humanity and our common cause.

Barack Obama and a Just War

We’ve recently experienced yet again another illustration of the irony of war and peace, one which we’re complicit as a self-proclaimed peace-seeking-nation-at-war. The occasion was the acceptance by President Barack Obama of the Nobel Prize. Mr. Obama readily and coherently in his acceptance speech that he came to Oslo “filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace and our effort to replace one with the other.”

After a brief disclaimer regarding the controversy over his selection, Mr. Obama began his speech with remarks regarding a so-called “just war.” He spoke to a proud American legacy forged from World War I through the end of the Cold War: “the ideals of liberty, self-determination, equality and the rule of law have haltingly advanced.” And without using the term he alluded to the Pax Americana (the American Peace) after World War II.

Contemporary wars are different he said. Today wars are often within nations rather than between nations and kill a disproportionate number of civilians in the process. And of course terrorism proposes a unique threat whereby a handful can wreak havoc on multitudes. War and peace must be rethought. And he declared “There will be times when nations—acting individually or in concert—will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justifiable.”

Immediately after certain wars morally justifiable, he invoked the idealism of King and Gandhi and their pronouncements of non-violence in the name of love. Mr. Obama declared that he personally is than “living testimony to the moral force of non-violence.”

Yet he is a head of state sworn to protect and defend his nation.

So he has a huge dilemma and offered his rationale/justification in solving that dilemma of ideals and vision versus responsibilities and realities.

With incredible efficiency he sketched the basis of what is called “moral realism:” evil exists and sometimes force against it is necessary given history, human imperfection and the limits of reason. Now friends, this analysis bows to a mid 20th century theology articulated by the Protestant thinker/clergy Reinhold Neihbur who was instrumental in reviving a modern notion of original sin and wrote passionately, and for some persuasively, about the immorality of nations and societies. Moral Man and Immoral Society, one of his influential books, power, not reason, reigns supreme in the affairs of nations, societies, and social classes. (Mr. Obama in a 2007 interview with David Brooks called Reinhold Neibhur one of his favorite philosophers.)

But, and the but has many components, there are ways and means of morally conducting war when war is necessary. These standards must be articulated and adhered to.

He also outlined ways and means to avoid war by building a just and lasting peace. It was in this section that Mr. Obama spoke of advocating worldwide human rights, in accord with the dignity of every individual. Here he iterated economic security and opportunity. He invoked, without saying, the name and the spirit of Franklin Roosevelt. “For true peace is not just freedom from fear but freedom from want.” So the expansion of human rights and opportunity is one of the means for finding lasting peace.

Many thoughtful commentators have already cited Mr. Obama’s Oslo Speech as his most brilliant, threaded with strands of high morality and worldly realism, hence the judgment that it reflects the stance of “moral realism.”

Hearing it as it was being delivered, my first reaction was disappointment at his “just war” proclamations that serve to promote a status quo of dubious origins and specious motives. I understand the responsibilities of his office and the politics of the moment he had to reconcile to principles. Still, I wanted more principle, yes, more of the ideals of love and non-violence he associated with King and Gandhi and less of a so-called “moral war,” because the Oslo platform was the most bully pulpit Mr. Obama will ever stand behind..

A Doctrine of Human Security

And I’ve recently become an advocate of a relatively new strategy for attaining world peace. (Power vs. power, violence, as Dr. King said “never brings peace…solves no social problem.” Interestingly, Mr. Obama referred to this new strategy I’m liking when he spoke of human rights, particularly freedom from fear and want. This emerging, new, people centered approach for meeting conflict both within and between nations, is being called the doctrine of human security. This emerging doctrine emphasizes human rights and dignity, and is associated with Franklin Roosevelt’s famous speech at the beginning of World War II known as “The Four Freedoms:” freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.”

I’ve become an advocate of human security in preference to national security, especially in regards to world peace. We should bend our considerable efforts and treasures to effecting human rights at home and in the world. I’m glad Mr. Obama spoke to human rights in his Oslo Speech; but I want human rights to have been at the center, because it is a cause that is also an effect.

I think the philosopher/psychologist William James got it right, both practically and idealistically a century ago, in a quotation I’ve used before. (Remember, Pete Seeger has it painted on the side of his barn.) ”I am against bigness and greatness in all forms, and with those invisible, molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of man’s pride, if you give them time”

In closing I ask you to remember the gist of my reflection on peace, “An Audacious Light:”

Look into one another’s eyes
and see a reflection, that glint,
of Peace.

Pass the reflection on.

And so an “invisible moral force” working from individual to individual may transform our world.  I envision no other way that doesn't sow the seeds of violence time and time again than this doctrine of human security.  Pass on human rights.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Interrogating My Stuff

This morning’s overarching theme is stuff—the stuff in our lives.

It is also a reflection about the Holidays, Christmas in particular, and the double edged conundrum of giving and getting.

Each year we have new insight into the perils, including the excesses of gifting. This year a Wharton School professor Joel Waldfogel, author, of Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays is making the rounds of the talk show circuit. He is arguing that we generally value the gifts received considerably less than what they cost the giver. He says, “On the average gifts generate 20 percent less satisfaction than items we buy for ourselves.” He recommends, unless we know the person very well it’s better to give cash, in the guise of a gift card, that is, if you want your gift to be appraised by the receiver for what you spent on it.

Generally, I’ve observed that we have a love/hate relationship with material things, henceforth referred to simply as stuff, that inhabit our lives. (Stuff’s other name is legion, by the way.) I’m also using the verb inhabit intentionally. Does it seem to you as it does to me that we wake up to an infestation of stuff, like the mice who come into my home every autumn and multiple secretly but leave tell-tale markings in every odd corner and upturned dish. Unless I’m vigilant stuff cyclically but always astonishingly, in its mocking way, gets out of control.

I know that regarding the stuff in my life, it seems I can’t live with it and I can’t live without it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve resolved to pick through, sort, and toss the stuff that accumulates around me. I’ll get a start, but another, more pressing project comes along, and well, you now the results…. Remember my mice analogy. With mice and stuff a thorough rooting out has to take place or the infestation starts anew.

Some years ago, in keeping with the then au current themes of “voluntary simplicity” and “your money or your life” I cobbled together a sermon on Minimalist Living. I used as an illustration a woman of a certain age featured in a Tribune article of the day who lived alone in a fashionable condo downtown and was a consummate minimalist when it came to stuff. For example, she had just a couple a pair of shoes and a few outfits. (That they were interchangeable parts and she had great taste made her rather chic, nonetheless.) What made her unique was her vow, which she kept religiously, to toss an old piece of clothing whenever she acquired a new piece. (That she could live like a Vogue monk probably owed a great deal to her single status, as well as her age. The early years’ urge to acquire and keep ebbs in the third stage of a lifetime the Hindu tradition describes as RETIREMENT.)

Though a minimalist, it seemed clear to me that she was still a materialist. The stuff she possessed and where she lived mattered. She had not attained the ideal of the final traditional Hindu stage of NONATTACHMENT.

Minimalism (voluntary simplicity) is the best we American materialists might reasonably hope to attain.

Thanks to yet another manifestation of the Reality Show genre we have an example of the minimalist’s opposite: the hoarder. The A&E network has a popular show called “Hoarders.” It features persons’ and their beyond clutter habitations who suffer from OCD—obsessive compulsive disorder. (It’s something of a carnival geek show.)This series allows the viewer to peer voyeuristically into houses of squalor and, perhaps self-righteously, realize that their cluttered and /or disorganized houses are by no means as bad as one’s own. Yet there is also the tinge of guilt. Mea culpa we realize when we look around our own abodes.

I recommend that we live somewhere along the spectrum of stuff between the two poles of Minimalism and Hoarding. Now and again it’s worthwhile to examine where we fall on the spectrum and explore our motives,.

I asked Carolyn Healy to read her delightful essay “Interrogating My Stuff” because she offers a sound strategy of three questions to deal with the stuff of our lives: 1) What do I need you for? 2) What do you say about me? And 3) Would I buy you today? Each question has sub questions, and I’m offering a flyer with the details for you to take home.

In accordance with these questions we ask our stuff there are several options. It can be kept out in the open because it has use, it might be stored (in the box called Museum of Things I Can’t Stand to Get Rid of But Don’t Need to See Every Day), or it can be recycled/given away.

Carolyn’s process has practical results—decluttering and with that decluttering a modicum of freedom from the tyranny of materialism in a consumer. (As a measure of said tyranny just keep a log of advertisements/commercials that wash over you in a typical day.)

Carolyn’s process also honors what stuff represents—the practical value for sure, but also the intangible “value added” of meaning. Here, I’ve long loved Antoine de St-Exupery’s adage: “We live not by things, but by the meaning of things.”

The Jean Shepherd story, his memory trip ("The Return of the Smiling Wimpy Doll") stimulated by the box of gewgaws of his boyhood, teases out how meaning attaches itself to a thing. His box of gewgaws is a very personal Museum of Days Gone By.

So my counsel regarding stuff, beyond being a wise consumer—especially in this Season of gift giving and receiving,—is to thoughtfully measure the meaning of stuff in your life. This approach, measuring the meaning of material things, is pure, unadulterated Unitarianism and connects us with our Puritan roots and a long history of scrupulosity. We UUs are voracious meaning seekers, meaning demanders, and meaning makers.
Make de St -Exupery’s adage an endless mantra and even a constant admonition: “We live not by things, but by the meaning of things.”

This Holiday Season put meaning in what you give; find meaning in what you receive.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Imagine: If Christ Were in Christmas

I find the annual contention over crèches, crosses and Christmas versus holiday trees to be shallow concerns from the Christian side—an idolatry of forms over substance. And I muse, What would Christmas be if the historical Christ were truly at the center of the midwinter festival? It would be something radically different from what in our time and place is essentially a commercial holiday.

One of the most controversial aspects of Jesus’s brief ministry was the healing and comforting of the sick. Surviving sources leave no doubt that Jesus gave special attention to the afflicted of body and spirit. Translated to modern times, his example should move a believer to attend to the infirm, the ill, and the emotionally distressed in every circumstance. Certainly it would lead to direct acts of service, including charity for specific groups, which has become a seasonal custom.

But for those of fullest vision, Jesus’ example would also include universal health care. It would be unacceptable for any individual to be excluded from quality medical care because of economic or social circumstance. Followers of Jesus wouldn’t judge who is and who isn’t entitled to full medical care. They would be adamant that all are entitled, and they would seek reform.

Charity would abound in a Christ centered Christmas, but instead of an emphasis on giving downward, from those who have to those who don’t, there would be an emphasis on egalitarianism. The biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan has pointed out that Jesus ate at the same table with the dispossessed of his day, including women. It is one thing to work at a soup kitchen or hand out vouchers for food and meals. It is something else to share a meal, accepting those with whom you eat as fellow human beings through love rather than pity.

Such a radical outlook would awaken a strong sense of those “isms” that keep us apart—racism, classism, sexism, agism—and would ultimately look to correcting injustices and oppressions through what we’ve come to call social justice. Deep Christians would examine and seek to rectify a social and economic system that results in us-versus-them distinctions between the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, the undereducated, the hungry and the rest of "them." Like Jesus, Christians would be social revolutionaries, working for systemic change, always from a universal love that knows no distinctions.

Women in particular would have special focus at Christmas. That Jesus consorted with and lifted up women, relative to the practices of his place and time, would translate in our own place and time into a recognition of women’s full humanity. This wouldn’t be “woman on a pedestal”—mythologized and imbued with virtues that the traditional culture does not or cannot practice. There would be equal participation by women in the family, in the community, in government, in the workplace.

A Christ-centered Christmas would surely confront the endemic violence that marbles our culture. “Peace on earth” wouldn’t be a once-a-year slogan; it would be a motivating principle centered in the teachings of Jesus, internalized with such passion that all acts of individual, community, and state would be inspired by the ideal of nonresistance. Instead of a temporary state, as when warring armies put down their arms on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, peace would be the permanent, expected, normal state motivating all activities.

In a Christ-centered Christmas, the ultimate criterion for judging the motivation of any act would be whether it is done in the expansive spirit of love, which Jesus once declared was the great law. Each Christian would be compelled to look within and rectify her or his heart with the expansive love that Jesus not only taught but lived. Christmas would be a time of reflection and perhaps of corrective change—a time of humility and confidence in the power of love to transform the individual and society and make peace real.

Kingdom Come

In short, Christmas would be radically different from the commercial Christmas we now know. Jesus was an itinerant minister, so he acquired scant possessions. There would be no Black Friday the day after Thanksgiving, with frenzied shoppers lined up for deep discounts and hard-to-come-by products. There would be few if any presents under the Christmas tree (if there were a Christmas tree)—certainly no extravagances. A materialist Christmas would be more than vulgar; it would be sinful.

What there would be, I suspect, would be the fellowship and the natural levelings of the common table: good food and drink, including wine. But the purpose would be not so much to feast and drink as to gather together in gladness and joy—to be true companions. No one would be lonely or hungry on Christmas Day. And, most important, Christmas Day wouldn’t be one day—a brief interlude in a materialist and market culture—it would be every day. The Kingdom would then truly come, as Jesus once prayed it might.

Monday, November 16, 2009


I’ve entered an interesting stage of life, the onset of my elder years, (Here there ought to be some sort of ironic reference to the alleged ancient Chinese blessing and curse: “May you live in interesting times.” So, let this be both a blessing and curse: “May you too live this interesting stage of life.)

Regarding my pilgrim's progress through the years, I’ve long lifted up the Hindu spiritual scheme of the four stages of a fulfilled life—the fourth beginning with gradual retirement from the world of affairs easing into a final stage of freedom from mundane concerns, dedicated to non-attachment and wisdom.

Whether I’ve fit myself to this scheme or whether the natural processes take me there (and I think it's the latter), more and more I look back over years of varied experiences, of formal and informal study, and a long practice of being a UU minister. I discern a unifying principle, a great and inescapable truth, personally poignant, yet not unique to me. (It’s true for everyone: you and me.) Call it Mutability. It is A Great Arbiter, a rhythm of being to which Religion resonates and each of us yields--inevitably

I thank English professor and President of Yale university, and for less than half a year before his untimely death, Commissioner of Major League Baseball, A. Bartlet Giamatti for bringing the word mutability to me in his celebrated essay about baseball: "The Greenfields of the Mind.” It is one of our era's great teaching texts.

I adore the essay’s beginning: “It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.” (Of course Giamatti used a baseball season from spring though autumn as a metaphor for one's own personal life and even our embracing Life.)

And so by talking of baseball, Bart Giamatti cunningly illuminated the notion of Mutability, as the old poet spoke of it. (The poet Giamatti invoked was Edmund Spenser of the 16th century, who wrote a poem called “Mutability." Giamatti's speciality was Renaissance English poetry.)

Giamatti went on to declare, “Dame Mutability never loses.

I often think about about her, Dame Mutability, as things in my life have been breaking down with considerable frequency. Let me count the ways: my ecologically sound electric mulching mower finally succumbed from jamming its blade on a rubber doll’s head a neighbor kid tossed over the fence, the cylindrical fan went eccentric on our home’s gas furnace, the clothes dryer stays on only intermittently--a minute or two at a time, Ellie’s Volvo was pronounced pre-terminal (get rid of it as soon as possible, the mechanic said), the muffler on my Cabrio rumbles and I recently replaced leaking cooling and oil hoses in it, clapboards on my little barn (c. 1880) that’s now a garage are falling off, and of course the the four computers I use at different places for different things are suffering from electronic hardening and clogging of their arteries, to begin my list of Dame Mutability’s workings.

I’ve become philosophical regarding the gradual deterioration of things in my life, including my body, as well as the deaths of so many persons I have known and loved. So, all in all, this is an age/era when Mutability becomes manifest in more melancholic ways than previously, but this by no means results in inevitable pessimism, because I still hold to an optimistic outlook regarding change that I first realized via the Unitarian tradition of Transcendentalism. Actually, a few lines from an Emerson poem summarizes a general outlook: “All the forms are fugitive/but the substances survive./Ever fresh the broad creation,/a Divine improvisation.” In short, Self and world are ever reforming. This is essential UUism.

Long ago I wrote a meditation I continue to affirm:

Always there is a beginning
a new day,
a new month,
a new season,
a new year,
Forever the old passes away
and newness emerges
from the richness that was.

Nothing is ever lost
in the many transformations time works.
What was,
in some way,
Will be,
though changed in form.

Rejoice in beginnings
in the heritage from which they emerge,
in the freshness which they bring,
in the hope which they offer,
in the promise which they hold.

Know this
This moment is a beginning,
And our lives,
individually and together,
Are full of richness, of freshness, of hope, and
of promise.

And so Mutability is the means to return and renewal—of cycling spring and of a succession of generations. I see the dual nature of Mutability—an ending that turns into a beginning—as Natural and Real, part and parcel with all that tangibilitates. I speak of the religious way I follow as Natural Religion and a Religion of Realities, that accepts, even though it breaks the heart, the ways and means of Mutability.

Where I am in the course of my own life parallels where we are in the course of the seasons. I see deeply and clearly. My range of understanding expands. I call this meditation, which I also wrote long ago, “Revelation.”

After the leaves have fallen,
When trees are laid bare;
Before the first snowfall
Blankets the Earth,
There are a few rare weeks
of clear skies
When sunlight
bounces, reflects, illuminates
As it could not
Just now,
in the turning of the Seasons,
Our vision becomes—
suddenly, exceptionaly— lucid, deep, and penetrating.
We see
what was hidden.
We see
to the horizon.
We see
a Revelation too poignant for words
These are rare days
to see and know.
Use these days well and wisely.
To us all, Just now:
The opportunity and wisdom
To discover Nature's Revelation
Between the falling of the leaves
and the falling of the snow.
To us all,
Just now,
A time to see and know
As it was not possible

In the end I agree with Bart Giamatti, and I’m not talking about baseball but Life: It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.”

I add, that’s why we love it and hold onto it so, mourning the passings and celebrating the renewals, because it’s so beautiful, so damned beautiful,--Dame Mutability notwithstanding. Or should I say, Dame Mutability withstanding?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Seven Deadly Sins Redux

First Family of Art

The most famous American family of artists of the last century are the Wyeths of Chadds Ford, PA a place in the Brandywine Valley within several miles of my boyhood home. The patriarch of the clan, N. C. Wyeth was a celebrated illustrator at the turn of the century—imagine the romantic, lush illustrations for the Charles Scribner and Sons edition of Treasure Island, probably his best known work. Of N.C.s several children, two daughters and a son became successful painters, too. Son Andrew became a popular painter of the 2nd half of the 20th century. Perhaps his popularity joined to an out of vogue realism earned him the scorn of “serious” art critics. (Is his iconic portrayal, “Christina’s World” of a paraplegic woman in a dress, seemingly crawling up a shaggy Maine hillside toward decrepit buildings on the crest, great or trivial art? Its reputation surely suffered from reproductions of it hanging above too many suburban sofas in the 1960s.) Grandson Jamie, now in his 60s, also paints, often animals that he encounters as a matter of course on the family owned island of the coast of Maine or in the still somewhat rural countryside of Chadds Ford, near the Brandywine Museum where many family paintings can be seen. Jamie’ own iconic work greets visitors, a hyper-realistic, oversized profile of a hog.

Scandal adds poignancy to the Wyeth family saga: NC and an eleven year old grandson’s death in an automobile by a once-a-day, slow moving freight meandering through Chadds Ford might well have resolved an affair with a daughter-in-law—the grandson likely a son by that liaison. And Andrew’s 15 years of secretly painting a German immigrant named Helga, some nude portraits, fueled speculation a while ago about that relationship.

Such shadowed family legends only enhance the source of my remarks today, a remarkable series of recent paintings by Jamie Wyeth depicting the traditional seven deadly sins through evocative paintings of ordinary gulls.

Jamie has had years of observation and painting gulls. He doesn’t see them in any souvenir-shop, sentimental sort of way. "They're always depicted as white doves, when, in fact, they're evil scavengers … and they're edgy," he’s declared.

In a most remarkable, transformative way that art sometimes attains, Jamie Wyeth has taken carefully observed behavior of ordinary gulls and rendered that behavior into allegories rather than representations of the 7 deadly sins long said to lead to hell. (You can take the notion of hell to mean a hell of here and now.) In case they’re not on the tip of your tongue these 7 deadly sins are: envy, anger, gluttony, sloth, lust, greed and pride.

Reputedly, Jamie’s muse for the seagull series was a curious, hellish sight seen on the beaches of Monhegan, ME: a portable garbage burner fashioned out of an oil drum, around which gulls, drawn by garbage, fly. Jamie said, "It was something out of Wagner — this angelic little kid would shove the garbage in and the gulls would try to feed on the garbage but the flames would belch out," he said. "It was something you couldn't make up. It was just unbelievable." In the painting one gull flies so close to the flames its wing seems on fire. This large painting, “Inferno, Monhegan” accompanies the series in its ongoing exhibitions.

[Here’s an image of the artist and the painting.]

Ordinary Gulls and the Seven Deadly Sins

When I first encountered this series a few months via the World Wide Web I immediately judged it a work of genius. These paintings invaded my psyche, archetypes of universal behavior within the human condition. I wasn’t concerned with theological understandings of sin,-- hot or cold,--or the origin and evolution of the 7 deadly sins in Christian thought. I’ve revisited the 7 deadly sins through the years and have taken such cerebral approaches. This time, through the unsettling, even disturbing visions of the gulls, I merely projected the respective 7 deadly sins into our time and place and found considerable resonance.

[Let’s take a moment, without spoken word, that you might see and respond to these 7 paintings I’ve been describing.

As you looked on these depictions, did you imagine how a deadly sin corresponded to an aspect of contemporary life? I did and here are my responses.]

First anger. I’ve watched gulls in a similar pose as in this stark portrayal by Jamie Wyeth—on a beach or in a parking lot well removed from water, but near to fast food restaurants. (Gulls are not only voracious but wide ranging, clever foragers.) Whatever the setting I’ve wondered what are these creatures protesting, anyway? Is there squawking real, that is grounded in circumstance, or just raucus posture and display?

In the past few years I’ve had similar thoughts as I’ve listened to hectoring media personalities. You know the usual suspects, but in this context they’re worth repeating: Limbaugh, Hannity, Levin(who makes my wife Ellie’s stomach knot up),Savage, Beck, O’Reilly and even Miller and Medvev. You’ll find at least one of these on air, radio or TV, at any given moment, ratcheting up the emotion and to my estimation at least, being angry. Too often to my ear their anger is false anger, anger for the sake of ratings (that is, to sell commercial time) and to deliberately incite an audience. Often they invoke the fictional character, Harold Beale, from the movie Network: “I’m made as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”) I would argue that Beale is a cautionary character rather than a role model.

Such media populism has encouraged what has been called, not so much a grass roots, as an Astroturf movement embodied by the so called “tea party” protesters. Ugly expressions of populist anger burst out late this summer when Representatives and Senators held so-called town hall meetings, where shouting sprees in some instances degenerated into physical confrontations, while a few armed 2nd amendment advocates stood on the wings manifesting wit arms their right to bear arms.

Anger, both faux and incited, makes me ashamed of my society, if only for the marbling of incivility; but then, of course, civility is necessary for a functioning democracy. And there’s a deeper vein of something more fearful, a dangerous license for crackpots to do their violence.

Next, envy: Dante, who had much to say regarding the punishments of hell and associated sins, had this to say about envy: "Love of one's own good perverted to a desire to deprive other men of theirs."

In the recent polarized discussions regarding health care reform I’ve been astounded by a number of logical and moral disconnects. The most egregious for me is offered by seniors who enjoy the benefits of Medicare and fear that the extension of such benefits to more or all of the population will lead to a diminishing of what they enjoy. Is there any clearer exposition of "love of one's own good perverted to a desire to deprive other men of theirs?"

Actually, much of the opposition of health care reform evidences envy. Consider the possibility of taxing health benefits already received. Consider the imposition of higher taxes on the wealthy. Consider the argument, which I actually offered by a physician, that there are not enough doctors to go around should everyone have access to health care, so let’s not extend service. Isn’t that an astounding argument?

After envy, greed: Isn’t this gull, standing on a lattice-top brerry pie at surf’s edge spot on. There’s surely is a strong sense of the transitory. The next wave might wash the prize into the ocean to be lost forever. Yet at the foaming edge the gull lifts a cry of possessive triumph to the sky. This transitoriness represents what we’ve all experienced the last two years.

“Greed, is good,” intoned another cinematic character, Gordon Gekko of Wallstreet. And greed imploded in a subprime scandal that threatened to overturn turn the largest financial institutions in the world, eroded overnight pension plans and other personal investments including the equity of homes, shut down lending to a trickle, and levelled millions of jobs.

And all of this and more was a consequence of greed—a reciprocal relationship between Main Street and Wall Street.

And let’s not neglect the likes of Bernie Madoff and a towering pyramid scheme of investment that literally went unregulated. As any con artist knows the con works on the greed of the person being conned. As wise caveat is: “If it’s too good to be true, it is.”

Greed is the deadly sin that unregulated capitalism, unchecked by government and/or conscience must accept.

Greed has taken the deadly sin of lust to a new place—the Internet. I believe that it is still true, pornography is the most profitable business on the World Wide Web.

I hardly consider myself a prude. I doubt if many, if any of you are prudish. We also have strong commitments to First Amendment rights of speech and expression.

For me, looking on Jamie Wyeth’s rendition of two mating birds there is a sense of violation.

My quarrel with Internet pornography is twofold. It is grossly misogynist. Women, the sex most often portrayed in the pornography, are objectified by subservience, humilation, violence, and other forms of egregious behaviors. The misogyny alone challenges claims to healthy erotica, freedom from convention, or whatever justifications are routinely offered that such misogynist pornography has value.

My second objection follows the first. Internet misogynist pornography influences the impressionable: children and youth who with any Internet connection can instantly access unlimited misogynist pornography. Too easily the kind of sexuality portrayed on the Internet is normalized and/or becomes normative. And being essentially non-relational it negatively influences this area of human behavior.

My nearly 6 year old grandson is a navigator of the World Wide Web. My four month old grandaughter will surely, in imitation oh her older brother, be as adept. And for the same reason but with different manifestations in their two genders, I worry for how they will be influenced negatively by Internet pornography.

[I need a break,from these intense remarks, a song to inspire and uplift.]

Now, gluttony. The old church fathers had a real obsession with food and had well nuanced notions of gluttony. Obsessive anticipation of meals, eating too soon or too expensively or too daintly or too eagerly, and of course overeating were all forms of gluttony for Thomas Aquinas. (And he didn't have benefit of the Food NetworK.)

We are a food obsessed culture and are probably guilty of all ofAquinas’s categories of gluttony and more. For example, we are charged to think of agricultural sustainability and supporting small farmers: eat locally and eat organically! Aquinas couldn’t have imagined the burden of fast food and supersized, corn sweetner laced sodas. Nor did he have worries about depletion of the oceans varied resources or the suffering inflicted on factory farm animals.

But with Aquinas and the ages we shoulder the timeless guilt of enjoying plentitude while there are many who go hungry or can’t, for economic reasons, eat nutritionally.

Study Jamie Wyeth’s depiction of a gull gobbling a fish while claws are buried in more to be gulped down. At what point does eating to simply survive cross the line into being an obscenity for reasons of aesthetics, morality, or health?

Sloth is the only deadly sin Jamie Wyeth included a human being—a leg that had been lethargically suspended over the edge of a rowboat and is being shredded by gulls. And what do you make of the gull in the foreground?

My take on contemporary sloth is very UU. It involves having the incentive and doing the work necessary to progress as a human being. Be alert. Be open. Be responsive. Seek truth. Live according to the truths you know. Never be content. Continue to grow for as long as you live.

Sloth is the condition of those who are hard of heart, who give in to the seductions of society, who prefer to be entertained, who give into resentments, who abuse alcohol or drugs, who pull away from relationships—in one phrase, who by their lack of doing the work diminish their full humanness.

And finally the 7th deadly sin, pride, usually considered the cardinal sin from which all other sins follow. Dante defined pride as "love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for one's neighbor." In this regard pride is a social sin. Jamie Wyeth places the prideful gull with a prized lobster in its beak in a tableau of other gulls, one upon which the prideful gull stands. There is tension here. We sense the other gulls are just waiting for the chance to rip away the lobster.

I bring a Taoist interpretation to this portrayal, drawing on the counsel of the Chinese sage Lao Tse in the Tao Te Ching. Lao Tse spoke of the the irony of possessions, of status, of power—you can never really be secure with such things because others seek to wrest them from you. Your possessions ironically mock you--and mor, put you in jeopardy and even danger.

In our common life, nation and society, we suffer from Dante’s definition of pride as "love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for one's neighbor." In my experience there has never been such a contentious political climate based on this deadly sin of pride. (And so the nattering nabobs of negativism seek to pull down President Obama.)

In closing, if you find these gulls allegorizing the 7 deadly sins as unsettling as I do, I offer you a reason. They are archetypes of our unconscious—personal and collective. Through them we encounter ourselves.

These paintings are works of genius, windows into the American postmodern soul..

Monday, November 2, 2009

Ethics for Postmoderns

Instincts and Impulses: the Wild Things

My favorite op-ed columnist has become David Brooks. I look forward to his columns in the NY Times, which often draw from the best of contemporary science and social science. To my sensibilities he offers well-reasoned commentary that is also cutting edge. I don’t always agree with his conclusions, but I respect them for what he brings to bear on the issue at hand. Curiously, his musings often coincide with sermons I’m working on.

Last week, in a column "Where the Wild Things Are," Mr. Brooks wrote about the general notion of “character,” contrasting the point of view of philosophers and the point of view of psychologists regarding this notion. As an illustration he used the fictional character Max of the children’s book that’s a blockbuster movie du jour: “Where the Wild Things Are.”

According to Mr. Brooks, The Wild Things are outward expressions of Max’s own inner conflicts. For Mr. Brooks this illustrates the psychologists’ analysis of character. He wrote, “People have only vague intuitions about the instincts and impulses that have been implanted in them by evolution, culture and upbringing. There is no easy way to command all the wild things jostling inside.” Max is every girl/boy and every man/every woman, for that matter.

Earlier in the article Mr. Brooks wrote, “According to the psychologist’s view, individuals don’t have one thing called character."

“The psychologists say this because a century’s worth of experiments suggests that people’s actual behavior is not driven by permanent traits that apply from one context to another. Students who are routinely dishonest at home are not routinely dishonest at school. People who are courageous at work can be cowardly at church. People who behave kindly on a sunny day may behave callously the next day when it is cloudy and they are feeling glum. Behavior does not exhibit what the psychologists call ‘cross-situational stability.’

“The psychologists thus tend to gravitate toward a different view of conduct. In this view, people don’t have one permanent thing called character. We each have a multiplicity of tendencies inside, which are activated by this or that context. …We are a community of competing selves. These different selves 'are continually popping in and out of existence. They have different desires, and they fight for control — bargaining with, deceiving, and plotting against one another.'

“The philosopher’s view is shaped like a funnel. At the bottom, there is a narrow thing called character. And at the top, the wide ways it expresses itself. The psychologist’s view is shaped like an upside-down funnel. At the bottom, there is a wide variety of unconscious tendencies that get aroused by different situations. At the top, there is the narrow story we tell about ourselves to give coherence to life.

“The difference is easy to recognize on the movie screen. Most movies embrace the character version. The hero is good and conquers evil. Spike Jonze’s new movie adaptation of ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ illuminates the psychological version.”

In my estimation this is an aspect, and therefore an illustration, of the postmodern context in which we live. Throughout my ministerial career I’ve lifted up the notion of character—that character, the coherence of right beliefs and right actions—matters essentially and ultimately. And of course the Unitarian way has been, from its origin two centuries ago, justification by character. This means we “save” ourselves by the good person we freely will to be.

Yet as David Brooks argues our so-called “character” is situational, suggesting at the very least that we are not as systematic in parsing our actions before doing them as we are circumstantial in responding.

(If I had the time and you the patience I would explore how historic checks on behavior, traditional systems of ethics and consequent morals, have failed, and so many, who would have once relied on these traditional systems, now founder. The culture’s moral compass is broken, hence the philosopher’s vision is discounted.)

I simply acknowledge that we 20th and 21st century Americans live fragmented lives in a fragmented world, where “the [old] center does not hold.” That is the definition of postmodernism in a nutshell, a context where sureties and coherence have deconstructed and the “wild things”—the instincts and impulses of the unconscious--threaten to run berserk within the individual and throughout society.

So, what’s left? What might we draw on for inspiration and guidance regarding outlook and behavior? We are in a dilemma, a postmodern dilemma, relative to a moral compass.

I argue there are a number of compelling relatively “new” ethics from excellent minds of the 20th/21st centuries. I’ve been writing about this in a new blog: ethics for postmoderns. The ethics I highlight in this blog were arrived at independently and therefore appear unrelated. However, I have an intuition that these ethics have what, in another context, the great biologist E.O. Wilson called consilience—a meaningful convergence, but we have yet to determine the convergence.

I think that the postmodern dilemma relative to character can be solved by the many ethics that compel our better behavior, in spite of “instincts and impulses … implanted in us by evolution, culture and upbringing.” As Mr. Brooks wrote "there is no easy way." I say we must seek understanding, consider a complexity of outlooks and integrate those that hold true, and continually seek the universal beyond the parochial. We must do the work, never content that we’ve exhausted the possibilities. Contemporary ethics are not static, nor are they encompassing.

As a consequence, each of us has to do the work as well as act/live with ambiguity that is a function of change and complexity and incompleteness.

The term I’m using postmodern—also postmodernity and postmodernism—is controversial and confusing when compared to the term modern. In general use, the term modern was used throughout the 2Oth century and is still used to describe the changing, cutting edge of thought and the arts.

Postmodern is a term popularized in the late 20th century to describe a transformed, post World War II world—a world of proliferating images, ideas, communication, and travel. (Television is often offered as a significant and symbolic phenomenon of postmodernity.) The proliferation resulted in fragmentation, along with a sense there was no longer any unifying point of view. Everything is relative, a matter of the “eye of the beholder.” For example a woman’s experience offers a different experience than a man’s; a gay person sees the world differently than does a straight; and so on and on. Systems of belief continually deconstruct, a word often used in conjunction with postmodern.

Simply stated, I’ve long argued that the modern era was petering out in the late 19th century and was finished off by the utter horror of World War I. There were a number of thinkers who anticipated and realized the end of the modern era, such as Nietzsche who by the mid-1880s had proclaimed the Death of God. (This really meant that a long prevailing Western Christian worldview/value system no longer prevailed.) My favorite voice of postmodernism is Albert Schweitzer. Among his extensive his accomplishments, he was a preeminent Christian theologian of his generation. At the turn of the century Schweitzer declared that the great organizing principle of Western Civilization, what he summarized the will-to-progress, was no longer was valid. (His striving to find a new organizing principle resulted in his Reverence for Life Ethic.)
Modernism maintained that civilization was progressing and improving—onward and upward: the will-to-progress that Schweitzer debunked. In contrast, postmodernism offers a variety of outlooks, while deconstructing any one system that claims overarching authority.

I like to use the concept, the category of postmodern because it provokes us into confronting a radically altered world. It incidentally casts us as contemporary heroes, making our way in an unknown landscape
Here I will mention courage and faith, two attributes a successful postmodern embodies: courage to honestly face Life’s complexity; and faith that to act from such a courage is never to fail, really, no matter the consequences.

My intention this morning is to offer you a few contemporary ethical perspectives that I find valid and valuable as starting points for postmodern ethics. They are well worth accepting and incorporating into how you relate to the world, even as you accept ambiguity and tentativeness. Week by week I’m adding another contemporary ethic to the blog where I keep them, for purposes of exploration and explication. (Again, I call my blog

Out of postmodernism’s critique of 20th century society arose a defiantly fervent affirmation of the value of the individual in the face of multiple social, economic, and even political oppressions, as well as the psychological wild things that are our instincts and impulses.

Three Postmodern Ethics: A Starting Point

I offer you what I see as a starting point for a humanistic ethic in our postmodern era: three distinct but related ethics. They involve a principle dear to our UU outlook, which we summarize as “the inherent worth and dignity of each person.”

First, the great American novelist John Steinbeck presented an impassioned, eloquent appraisal of the human condition in his epic novel East of Eden, c. 1950. Steinbeck used the story of Cain and Abel to illuminate the age old question of the nature of the human condition. Is it essentially bent toward goodness or to evil? In a clever way, Steinbeck looks at the translation of God’s words to Cain in the Genesis account: "The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in 'Thou shalt,' meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—'Thou may-est'—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if 'Thou mayest'—it is also true that 'Thou mayest not.'…

“'Thou mayest'! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win. …

“[T]his is a ladder to climb to the stars." Lee's eyes shone. "You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness." …

“I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed— because 'Thou mayest.'”

I call this an Ethic of Choice, in which every choice has significance.

Similar to the Ethic of Choice, I’ve identified an Ethic of Nonconformity that urges us not to be anesthetized to our true nature by the demands and seductions of society, the conformities of group, business, and nation. In the 1960s Hannah Arendt reported on the Israeli trial of Adolph Eichman, culpable of the murder of tens of thousands Jews. She saw Eichman as a joiner and conformist and described him “as a leaf in the whirlwind of time.” He had no great hatred of Jews nor was he a rabid Nazi, he was a functionary who’d been indoctrinated to do his job by the state culture “that had lost its conscience.” He was somewhat bothered by the murders he was asked to facilitate, but declared that it would have been more unconscionable not to follow orders. In her analysis of the Eichman trial and of Eichman himself, Hannah Arendt realized 'the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught usthe lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.” The banality of evil is a thoroughly postmodern judgment.

An Ethic of Nonconformity isn’t nonconformity for adolescent or contrarian purposes but in a heroic sense articulated by John Steinbeck, because the human soul is a glittering instrument. One resists conformity to be a postmodern Prometheus.

A third postmodern ethic I call the Ethic of Meaning. Its source is the psychologist Viktor Frankl who devised a “third” school of analytical psychology called logotherapy. Frankl was interned in one of the Nazi death camps, on the brink of death from exhaustion, malnutrition, illness, and numbing cold. He was part of work group making their way across a frozen terrain early in the morning when he had a life changing epiphany regarding the reality of love that he experienced as he imagined his wife. I’ve read you the passage about this epiphany from his classic book that established logotherapy, Man’s Search for Meaning (originally From Death Camp to Existentialism).

Later, Frankl declared, “[E]verything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” This is to say that inner attitudes may transcend outer circumstances. Frankl pointed out this was true even for an inmate of a Nazi death camp. Frankl opined, “He may retain his dignity even in a concentration camp.”

In his well-developed scheme of logotherapy, Frankl spoke of the will-to-meaning as an essential aspect of every individual life. He wrote, “In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond be being responsible.”

An Ethic of Meaning intimately involves each person’s unique life and the pressing circumstances of the larger life.


The Ethic of Choice, the Ethic of Nonconformity, and the Ethic of Meaning each speak to the transcendent possibility of the human condition.

I like how John Steinbeck phrased it: “the human soul…a lovely and unique thing in the universe.” Rather ironically, I think, the postmodern, eclectic ethics I’m identifying sees ordinary, everyday behavior as heroic and transformative—even the means of becoming god-like.
Just so you won’t think of these three starting point ethics as narrow, or even overweeningly proud or narcissistic in opening us up to god-likeness, there is this tempering counsel from Viktor Frankl:

“By declaring that man is a responsible creature and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be found in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. By the same token, the real aim of human existence cannot be found in what is called self-actualization. Human existence is essentially self-transcendence rather than self-actualization. Self-actualization is not a possible aim at all, for the simple reason that the more a man would strive for it, the more he would miss it. For only to the extent to which man commits himself to the fulfillment of his life's meaning, to this extent he also actualizes himself. In other words, self-actualization cannot be attained if it is made an end in itself, but only as a side effect of self-transcendence.”