Thursday, May 21, 2009

A New Era of Responsibility?

A Call to Responsibility

Responsibility is one of the words of the day, in large part, thanks to President Barack Obama. He offered a compelling statement of responsibility in his January inaugural: “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

“This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

“This is the source of our confidence - the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.”

His call to responsibility was not a one time event, but a recurring theme. While campaigning for the Democratic nomination in June, 2008 at a Chicago Black church, he admonished young black men that “responsibility does not end at conception.” And when, earlier this year his administration issued its national budget, it was titled “A New Era of Responsibility,” setting a standard for economic recovery.

Responsibility is a theme dear to our liberal religious way, long yoked to our Unitarian organizing principle of freedom—freedom of belief and conscience. We have long suffered under an outside judgment that freedom is a license for licentiousness. So, in response, we have argued that freedom and responsibility are, in essence, a dialectic. Each presumes the other. Freedom and responsibility are pavers on the pat of our liberal religious journey.

This morning I will reflect on responsibility and challenge you to do so, too..

The Responsibility Covenant

I begin by looking at one of the founding documents of Western Civilization and the Jewish-Christian tradition, the first book of the Bible and the Old Testament, Genesis. I’ll read its first two chapters through the lens of responsibility.

First, toward the end of the seven days of Creation , God creates the first man, Adam. God then creates woman from Adam’s rib. (An older account later in this book says that man and woman were co-created at the same moment.) Whatever account you follow, the result is the same. God establishes a covenant with Adam and Eve. A covenant is an honored contract that establishes right relationships between the parties. God blesses the first couple with an existence in Paradise, with only one restriction or responsibility: not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

A serpent beguiles Eve and Eve beguiles Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. When they do, they gain moral knowledge. The signature of that knowledge is their startling awareness of nakedness, which they cover with leaves. This gives them away to God, who first holds the serpent responsible and metes out consequences. It shall crawl on its belly and be despised by humankind henceforth. Adam and Eve are held responsible, too. They are expelled from Eden. As a consequence the man will have to labor by the sweat of his brow for sustenance. As a consequence the woman will experience great pain in childbirth, yet still desire her husband.

The story jumps forward in time to the first siblings, Cain and Abel. Cain is a farmer. Abel is a shepherd. Abel’s burnt flesh offerings prove more savory to God. Cain is jealous and kills his brother. God questions Cain regarding his brother’s whereabouts. Cain responds with one of the most haunting responses that echo down the corridor of human history: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

God’s response is an indictment of Cain’s question, implying that yes, he is his brother’s keeper. In consequence, Cain is expelled to a land East of Eden and he (and his progeny) shall ever be wanderers, all to Cain’s supreme distress.

These seminal stories lead us to the double meaning of the notion of responsibility: 1) There’s responsibility in response to right relationships in the nature of things. Adam and Eve are responsible to God’s will through a covenant. And it is also true that God is responsible to them. Cain, despite his question, is in fact responsible for his brother Abel. 2) There’s responsibility as being accountable for one’s acts, usually expressed as punishment for irresponsibility, such as eating the forbidden fruit or harming one’s kindred.

So, think of responsibility in those two dimensions: 1) the moral obligation inherent in right relationships and 2) moral culpability or accountability for one’s actions.

In the swirl of the continuing economic crisis, a deep recession or possible depression. these two dimensions of responsibility loom large.

Culpability and the Economic Crisis

Regarding moral culpability for the mess that engulfs us all. There’s plenty of blame to go around: Hold responsible the imprudent seekers of the so-called sub-prime mortgages who ordinarily wouldn’t have qualified by virtue of down payment or income—the mostly underclass who were so easily duped. Hold responsible the lenders who sought out the imprudent, under-qualified. Hold responsible the bundlers who gathered together such mortgages and sold them to larger institutions, who in turn bundled more mortgages together and passed them on in ever larger circles throughout the economic marketplace. Hold responsible the large financial institutions, the banks, brokerage houses, and insurance companies who traded in such shaky packages. Hold responsible the supposed government regulators who should have been keeping tabs on this financial house of cards that imperiled so many financial institutions. Hold responsible the politicians who cozied up with titans of the marketplace, sometimes for their political/financial gain. Hold responsible the greed of Wall Street, where officers and upper management profited from obscene bonuses for their actions later proven derelict. Hold responsible the greed of Main Street in a era of easy money, when soaring housing values were turned into lines of credit and spent to afford what has been called “affluenza.” Blame a glut of credit cards that also fueled a consumer shopping spree, while paying interest rates that were once considered to be nothing but usury. Blame the auto-companies, two of the Big Three at least, for failing to divine a future of tight credit, more fuel-efficient and alternative fuel using automobiles, and labor contracts hobbling their future. Blame unions, too, for demanding benefits and wages that cause the cost of cars to soar in the face of international competition. Blame George W. Bush and blame Bill Clinton whose respective policies, Republican and Democrat, turned aside from tough and prudent choices

Taking an Old Testament point of view and invoking the universal moral principle of fairness, should those who caused the crisis be punished, if not in fact, at least in rhetoric?

For example, who’s responsible for and what are the consequences for allowing billions of dollars of Recovery Money to be used for huge bonuses for executives at AIG. And is it fair to retroactively declare that they must either return the bonuses contracted for months ago, or be taxed on them at an unheard of rate of 90%?

The fairness concept in the midst of this financial meltdown/crisis is perplexing. On one side is a large percentage of Americans. Those who did not take out subprime loans, who did not spend the equity of their property beyond a shrinking market value, who budgeted within their means. On the other side are the imprudent home owners and the financial institutions that exploited them. It’s not that we suffer in their wake of irresponsibility.

We are told that it is important for the sake of our national and even the international community that we incur a staggering debt of trillions of dollars, a debt that will likely burden future generations. The money borrowed and distributed in the financial marketplace, it is argued, will prevent genuine catastrophe. But, is it fair for the prudent folk of Main Street, to bear the burden? Much has been said of populist anger, of the prudent, carrying figurative pitchforks and torches, because of the unfairness and for a desire to punish the culpable?.

Dimensions of Responsibility

So. in this parsing of the moral notion of responsibility, we recognize that responsibility has several dimensions. 1) There is self-responsibility implying both prudence and bearing of consequences for bad choices. (This moral notion of self-responsibility is one a keystone of our UU way.) 2) There is the responsibility that we have beyond our self, family, and chosen communities to our society. This includes the obligations of citizenship to our nation—staying informed, voting, advocacy—and the obligations of being a citizen of the world. 3) There is responsibility to future generations, our progeny, that they be born into a world not burdened by our generation’s irresponsibilities. President called this responsibility to future generations “our most enduring responsibility.” He went on to say, “We have to change this country for them… We have to leave them a planet that’s cleaner, a nations that’s safe, a world that’s more equal and more just.” These are attributes that he cites in the ongoing task of creating a more perfect union.

I want you to reflect on responsibility and to share your thought as we reason together in a talk back session. Keep in mind our religious and ethical perspectives. What does it mean, the call of our President to “A New Era of Responsibility.”

April 19, 2009

Sports and the Religious Instinct

UCH’s Baseball Connection

Monday night, in the championship game of the World Baseball Classic, Japan defeated Korea by a score of 5 to 3 in 10 innings. The setting was Los Angeles’s Dodger Stadium. The U. S. team made it to the semi-finals, but lost to Korea.

The Classic isn’t a big event for most American sports fans. Major League Baseball takes precedence by a wide margin. The Classic doesn’t use the best American players, who opt out for a variety of reasons. And it takes place early in March, during Spring Training, so the American athletes aren’t close to mid season form.

However, the Classic is large for other world teams. Cuba, since its revolution, has fielded teams perennially at the top of the world game. (Fidel Castro was not only an accomplished ball player, he champions the Cuban teams for nationalistic reasons.) South American countries love the sport and send hosts of players to the American big leagues. This year Venezuela and the Dominican Republic fielded quality teams. Even the Dutch had a moment of glory early in this year’s series. And of course the two Asian countries of Korea and Japan proved their respective teams’ international mettle with a well-played and close game before 54,846 boisterous fans, many of Korean and Japanese ancestry. (Los Angeles has a large Korean population.)

Japan played a thoroughly team game of what’s been come to be called “small ball.” The Japanese players hit mostly singles, 74 singles out of total 92 hits. They stole bases, bunted, sacrificed to outscore their opponents by a lopsided 50-16 runs.

So what, many of you are probably thinking.

As I followed the course of the Japanese team to the championship, I felt a certain proprietary pride. And here’s why.

Fred Merrifield—a handsome man as this clipping shows, for a couple of years in the 1930s, was minister of this Church. He was a turn-of-the-century graduate from the University of Chicago, who had started out a Baptist but became a Unitarian. George Rutherford, for whom the Rutherford Room is co-named, said of Merrifield, “No matter how liberal his sermons, he always sounds like a Baptist Evangelist.”

Merrifield was also an All American baseball player in 1899 under the tutelage of the famous Amos Alonzo Stagg, long time manager of the University of Chicago Maroons baseball team in addition to the football team. Merrifield briefly served a Michigan Baptist church, but found his calling in 1904 as a missionary to Japan. While there he coached Japanese students in the game of baseball. He is credited with being one of the founders of baseball in Japan. In this regard, Merrifield was a pioneering field worker in an ongoing globalization of sports that began in the 20th century and is exploding in this first decade of the 20th century.

When Merrifield returned to Chicago he managed the Maroons 1921 team, while finding time to research and write. In 1925 Scribner’s published his well received Modern Religious Verse and Prose. In 1929 he published a book titled The Rediscovery of Jesus. He came to the ministry of this Hinsdale congregation in 1933.

I wonder if he made much of the conjunction of baseball and religion. (I’d like to imagine that he was the liberal counterpart to the famous ballplayer turned evangelist of that era, Billy Sunday.) Did Fred Merrfield All American and Unitarian minister mingle baseball/sports illustrations in his sermons?

The Green Fields of the Mind

There are some fine contemporary literary pieces that tease out metaphors of meaning—associating baseball with life’s larger meanings. In my estimation the best of the lot is a piece called "The Green Fields of the Mind" by A. Bartlett Giammati, a renowned Yale professor of literature and authority on Renaissance poets, Yale University President, who became for a brief few days Commissioner of Major League Baseball. His appointment was a high tide grace and class following the Pete Rose gambling scandal. Giammati brokered the agreement by which Rose left the sport.

I hope you agree with me that "The Green Fields of the Mind" is one of the finest modern essays, as pure writing but also for its insight. His sudden death served to make his remarks about “Mutability” all the more meaningful.

“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. Today, October 2, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped, and summer was gone. …

“Somehow, the summer seemed to slip by faster this time. Maybe it wasn't this summer, but all the summers that, in this my fortieth summer, slipped by so fast. There comes a time when every summer will have something of autumn about it. Whatever the reason, it seemed to me that I was investing more and more in baseball, making the game do more of the work that keeps time fat and slow and lazy. I was counting on the game's deep patterns, three strikes, three outs, three times three innings, and its deepest impulse, to go out and back, to leave and to return home, to set the order of the day and to organize the daylight. I wrote a few things this last summer, this summer that did not last, nothing grand but some things, and yet that work was just camouflage. The real activity was done with the radio--not the all-seeing, all-falsifying television--and was the playing of the game in the only place it will last, the enclosed green field of the mind. There, in that warm, bright place, what the old poet called Mutability does not so quickly come. …”

Mr. Giammati next offered a lyrical, bordering on the heroic, description of moments in the decisive last game of the season. And being a Boston Red Sox game of the 1980s during their long drought without a championship, the game ends in disappointment.

“Briles threw, Rice swung, and it was over. One pitch, a fly to center, and it stopped. Summer died in New England and like rain sliding off a roof, the crowd slipped out of Fenway, quickly, with only a steady murmur of concern for the drive ahead remaining of the roar. Mutability had turned the seasons and translated hope to memory once again. And, once again, she had used baseball, our best invention to stay change, to bring change on.

“That is why it breaks my heart, that game--not because in New York they could win because Boston lost; in that, there is a rough justice, and a reminder to the Yankees of how slight and fragile are the circumstances that exalt one group of human beings over another. It breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion; and because, after it had fostered again that most hungered-for illusion, the game was meant to stop, and betray precisely what it promised.

“Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.”

Now that’s some juicy writing—juicy with the stuff of life in varying degrees of poignancy, juxtaposing change with timelessness, mirroring the great cycles of our lives in the flow of generations.

A Cub’s Lament

I have a colleague Emily Gage who for several years was minister at the Universalist Unitarian Church in Joliet and who adores the Chicago Cubs. A couple of years ago she moved to Chicago, in part so she might attend more Cubs games at Wrigley Field. A couple of years ago she attended the final home game of yet another unrequited Cub season. The Cubs lost and the season was over. I’ll not forget her account of riding her bicycle back to her apartment, ruing the 90th-something year without a World Championship, while a cold rain, like bitter tears, began to fall.

Ah, the Cubs. Last year they passed the century mark without that coveted world championship, that fate seems to snatch from their grasp whenever they are good enough to contend. Yet each April hope springs eternal.

A few years ago, thinking about the Cubs curious fate and storied history, I fashioned a lament. A lament is a poem or song of mourning. I was guided by the Old Testament genre of the psalm of which the lament is a mournful song.

I called it “Bittersweet Days of Mellow October” and wove into as much Cub lore as I could:

O, Bittersweet Days of Mellow October,
paint Veeck’s ivy red and gold.
Haunt the gloamin’ with Gabby’s homer
ever-arching into twilight;
Stir memories of heroes whose diamond deeds
hallow honored names:
Tinkers, Evers, and Chance;
Jolly Cholly and Hack;
Santo, Banks, and Williams;
Hawk and Ryno;
And a host of others—
Men playing a boys’ game for the sake
of the youth in us all.

Season heaped upon season—
April sowed October disappointment.
Yet our heroes did not fail us.
Where Waveland and Sheffield meet,
They gave us the timeless summer—
long-shadowed afternoons, each its little eternity.
“Let’s play two!”

O, Bittersweet Days of Mellow October,
sound from brick walls echoes of games-gone-by.
Blend faded cheers with yesterday’s voices—
Jack and Lou and Harry: “Hey, Hey!” and “Holy Cow!”

O, Bittersweet Days, the veil between realities
grows thin and ragged.
Through time’s momentary breach, banish forever the curse
of the Billy Goat.

O, Mellow October, grace the Heartland
with a long-awaited harvest.
Bring a World Series to ivy covered walls.
And when the games have ended and a championship won,
May it be that high atop the scoreboard
a white flag with a blue W snaps to autumn’s cleansing winds,
waving bold and glad and proud against sculling clouds
and grand towers and aching years of unrequited desire.

A Religious Substitute?

Bart Giammati’s celebrated essay touches an aspect of sports that is transcendent, what, as a student of poetry, he knew as Mutability: change in the midst of timelessness. Few have taken the meaning of sports to such a lofty estimation. Sports generally serve more down to earth purposes.

It’s axiomatic that sports fulfill an instinct within the human condition for identity and community. The team outlasts the particular players and loyalty to the team often borders on the fanatic, hence the designation fan. Often the fan is loyal to the home team: “root, root, root for the home team.”

Individual athletes can become heroes and serve archetypal purposes. The mythological constructions that Joseph Campbell identified in his seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, play out game after game, in baseball some 162 episodes during a season, a continuing and cathartic experiences of truly epic proportions for the fan.

We live in a complex world that in scope grows ever more perplexing. Sports, I find, allow an ordinary person to acquire knowledge and to exercise that knowledge with a sense of control. Hence the sports talk shows on television and radio. Hence the predictions for the football draft, or the March Madness basketball brackets, or the Sunday football betting. Hence the fantasy baseball and football, so-called, leagues. To a sense of control add participation.

I find the role of sports in the transformation of American society to be particularly relevant in coming to terms with the American experience. Look at the role of sports relative to Civil Rights movement. The turn of the century, black heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson presaged the racial tensions that would shake American later in the 20th century. The black heavyweight Joe Louis and the black Olympian Jesse Owens furthered their race and pushed back Hitler’s rhetoric of Aryan superiority. Baseball’s pioneering black player Jackie Robinson opened a door for the post World War II civil rights movement. Western Texas’s (now the University of Texas El Paso) with an all black squad in 1966 defeated an all white, bastion of the South, University of Kentucky squad, changing the game of basketball forever.

Similar to the role of sports and race, sports has had a significant impact on gender issues. The second wave of contemporary feminism got a boost from Title IX action in college sports beginning in the 1970s, lifting up female athletics only in college but high school and earlier, too.

And I often muse that sports, particularly baseball, will provide the enduring descriptive for the last decades of the American 20th century, something like the Steroid Era, drawing on the likes of the now-tarnished superstars who broke longstanding records, such as Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and the Cubs own Sammy Sosa with oversized bodies and enlarged heads.

According to Michael Mandelbaum in The Meaning of Sport: “The meaning of sports, the source of their powerful grip on the imagination of Americans, has deep… roots. These games respond to human needs that can be traced back to the earliest human communities, needs to which the dominant responses for most of human history came from organized religion. Sports and organized religion share several important functions. Both address the needs of the spirit and psyche rather than those of the flesh. Neither bears directly on what is necessary for physical survival: food and shelter. Both stand outside the working world. And team sports provide three satisfactions to life to 21st century Americans that before the modern age only religion offered: a welcome relief from the routines of daily life, a model of coherence and clarity; and heroic examples to admire and emulate.”

Sports and organized religion serving the same purposes. Now there’s something to think about.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Simplest Ethic: The Golden Rule

Barack Obama’s Religiousness

I’m fascinated by a particular aspect of Barack Obama—his religious nature, which I find authentic and well developed. In this regard, I see parallels with Mr. Obama’s presidential role model Abraham Lincoln, whose home grown religion is famous.

Similarly, in rhetoric and now in action, Mr. Obama reveals his religiousness. I’ve been monitoring Mr. Obama for more than a year and a half. I have a few strong impressions.

First strong impression: I think more thoughtful attention should have been given to Mr. Obama’s association with an important Chicago Black Church and, specifically, its Black Liberation Theology. (His minister at Trinity United Church of Christ, Jeremiah Wright, was no cultural bogeyman, rather a scholar/practitioner of Black Liberation Theology who built a congregation from a remnant 250 in 1972 to a vigorous 8,500 in 2008 when he retired.) Mr. Obama recently recalled, “I didn't become a Christian until … I moved to the South Side of Chicago after college. It happened not because of indoctrination or a sudden revelation, but because I spent month after month working with church folks who simply wanted to help neighbors who were down on their luck – no matter what they looked like, or where they came from, or who they prayed to. It was on those streets, in those neighborhoods, that I first heard God's spirit beckon me. It was there that I felt called to a higher purpose – His purpose.” (Here there is resonance to this age’s most influential Christian book, Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, in which personal purpose is synonymous with God’s purpose.) Mr. Obama clearly declares that he does God’s work.

I’ve been maintaining for months that Mr. Obama is cast in the Prophetic Tradition of Old Testament Christianity, but with a thoroughly 21st century American perspective. Mr. Obama merges Martin Luther King, Jr’s faith rhetoric with the civic religion of Abraham Lincoln.

Second strong impression: I’ve argued that Mr. Obama, months before declaring for the presidency, made the most important contemporary speech regarding the role of faith and politics. The setting was the Call to Renewal convention, June 2006. Mr. Obama declared secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King— indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history — were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause.” Yet Mr. Obama also argued that those motivated by faith must seek universal values (to persuade even non-believers) when seeking to implement their faith based objectives in the political arena. It is not sufficient to simply argue from one’s own faith tradition’s theology. (Implicit here is conjecture that Mr. Obama can “universalize” his religious values and recast those values as public policy.)

Throughout his campaigning, and including the early days of his presidency, Mr. Obama has heartily supported faith based/ federally funded initiatives to serve society’s needs.

Third strong impression: Mr. Obama is indeed a unifier, who sees commonality in the midst of religious diversity. I’m remembering here the national prayer breakfast on the Thursday following his triumphant inauguration. With former PM of Britain Tony Blair, Mr. Obama gave brief remarks.

Mr. Obama said, “There is no doubt that the very nature of faith means that some of our beliefs will never be the same. We read from different texts. We follow different edicts. We subscribe to different accounts of how we came to be here and where we're going next – and some subscribe to no faith at all.

“But no matter what we choose to believe, let us remember that there is no religion whose central tenet is hate. There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being. This much we know.

“We know too that whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all great religions together. Jesus told us to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’ The Torah commands, ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.’ In Islam, there is a hadith that reads ‘None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself’.’ And the same is true for Buddhists and Hindus; for followers of Confucius and for humanists. It is, of course, the Golden Rule – the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth.

“It is an ancient rule; a simple rule; but also one of the most challenging. For it asks each of us to take some measure of responsibility for the well-being of people we may not know or worship with or agree with on every issue. Sometimes, it asks us to reconcile with bitter enemies or resolve ancient hatreds. And that requires a living, breathing, active faith. It requires us not only to believe, but to do – to give something of ourselves for the benefit of others and the betterment of our world.

“In this way, the particular faith that motivates each of us can promote a greater good for all of us. Instead of driving us apart, our varied beliefs can bring us together to feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted; to make peace where there is strife and rebuild what has broken; to lift up those who have fallen on hard times.”

I’ll continue to monitor Mr. Obama in regards to his religiousness; and there’ll be pulpit updates now and again. This morning I’m focusing on Mr. Obama’s eloquent invocation of the Golden Rule in the passage I’ve just read. To my sensibilities the Golden Rule hasn’t been much of a standard of personal and public life for many years.

The Golden Rule

To check this out I did a data base search of the New York Times using Golden Rule as my search phrase. There weren’t many contemporary articles, but there were a myriad of articles from the late 1800s through the 1930s, referencing ministers, industrialists, and politicians who promoted the Golden Rule as a means of addressing social dislocations.

One article reported on a 1920 Christmastime Bible Class held at the Fifth Avenue Baptist Church led by John D. Rockefeller. He declared the Golden Rule to be “the Divine law governing human relationships,” citing it as the only inflexible, workable law. He added that successful businesses were operating on the principle, particularly as the Golden Rule could be applied to labor relations. I found it interesting/odd and, yes, hypocritical that one of the great robber barons of American industry should declare the Golden Rule as his business standard.

Similar pronouncements by twentieth century captains of industry caused me to search out the history of the Golden Rule.

It appears that the World Parliament of Religions of 1893, an adjunct to the Columbian Exposition/Worlds Fair of 1892 held in Chicago, was the pivot of popularization of the Golden Rule. Cultural historians maintain that the 19th century was marked by a growing humanitarianism often expressed by the simple phrase, “The Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man.” This notion of a common humanity under one God seemed to be verified by the universality of the Golden Rule, when that simple moral rubric was “discovered” at the Parliament of World Religions.

And the general mood of the day, particularly in America provided a congenial environment as one of the historians of the Golden Rule noted: “The emerging movement of the golden rule was nourished by a romantic and democratic mood. Despite its capacity for purely nationalistic applications, the new mood did exalt the common man and the worthy sentiments of the human heart. Nineteenth-century America showed widespread tendencies toward belief in equality, an impatience with traditional social authority and with confining rules and regulations, confidence about the place of man within a vast universe, optimism about the human capacity for moral growth, a distaste for sophisticated theories, and a readiness of Everyman to be his own philosopher. Appropriately, the golden-rule champions of this era do not come from the ranks of philosophers and theologians; they are ministers, politicians, and businessmen.”

So the Golden Rule was a simple, popular, homespun ethic suited to an optimistic era. Its popularity also points to a surge in what we now call globalization—a world grown smaller with an awareness, if not appreciation, of cultural diversity.

The Ethic of Reciprocity and Our Better Angels

The Golden Rule is also known as the ethic of reciprocity. I’ve long been fascinated by reciprocity as a psychological principle, that is, a response that appears to be hardwired in our human psyche. (I was introduced to reciprocity as a compliance technique with the classic illustration being the once common practice in airports of a rose given by a Hare Krishna before asking for a contribution. It’s harder to refuse such a request after being given a gift. Frequently the gifted rose would be immediately dumped in a nearby trash can. The Hare Krishna would fish it out and regift it.) Evolutionary biology (socio-biology) explains reciprocity as important social glue.

I look at Golden Rule/the ethic of reciprocity from yet another perspective of evolutionary biology. Psychologists have identified recently an innate, universal moral sense of five dimensions. One of those dimensions is fairness.

The Golden Rule, whether expressed positively or negatively, is essentially about fairness. It also touches upon empathy or seeing the other person similar to one’s own self and projecting one’s own feelings/experiences onto the other. Self-reflection and awareness is combined with projection/understanding of the other, to walk for a moment in the other person’s shoes. This process involves relatively high level relational skills that use the brain’s incredible ability to imagine, especially to humanize another. (Here is the beginning of another of the five innate moral senses, community or shared society/humanity.)

The universality of the Golden Rule across world religions supports the findings of evolutionary biology regarding an innate moral sense. (It also has something to say about the evolutionary source of religion, both biologically and socially, but that’s a subject for another sermon.)

Now, I recommend the Golden Rule as an essential personal ethic. I prefer the positive statement of the Golden Rule, which implicitly involves love: self-love first than love of the other like oneself. “Do unto others as you would have done to self.” This is a sure means of using the spiritual power of love to transform the world. If you are acting to an other from/with love, through the human and ethical principle of reciprocity, that person responds with love. In this regard in every human interaction or relationship there are streaming possibilities to act out the Golden Rule and thereby create a world of proactive love.

Some moral and ethical philosophers see the Golden Rule as naïve and even self-deceptive. They ask how can a person, without great self-examination, trust her or his own motives or desires, let alone know another person’s mind—what she or he really wants, rather than what another thinks she or he wants? This argument has merit in a merely logical moral scheme. However, I find that evolutionary biology and the notion of an innate moral sense recommend that from person to person there is a resounding resonance. The Golden Rule is not naïve but profound and even radical, in sense that radical means root. It is at the psychological root of the human condition which is relational and social.

I challenge you to put the Golden Rule to the test during the next several days. Keep it in the forefront of your thoughts and let it guide your actions with all whom you meet, Consider the results of being proactive and positive. How does treating others as you want to be treated sit with you, and how do your appropriate actions transform you and your world? Try it out. Put it to the test. Measure/consider the results.

Does the Golden Rule extend beyond the personal, say into the realm of business? There were those in the early 20th century who fervently believed so, such as J.C. Penney who founded the merchandising giant Penney’s, a chain that began with a modest few stores called, yes, the Golden Rule Stores. For Mr. Penney the Golden Rule wasn’t advertising or merchandising gimmick but a heartfelt economic philosophy: decent goods for a good price with a lot of service. He argued, "By our service to our customers we would create in them that spring of sparkling good will which would prompt them to want to help us to serve them.”

Contemporary business/economics have followed, not the benign ethic of the Golden Rule, rather a Machiavellian ethic of Greed. Remember the mantra of the 1980s that played in the film Wallstreet? An iconic character with the lizard name of Gordon Gekko intoned “Greed is Good”

Similarly in the realm of international relations, we’ve embraced (that is, our nation has not just pronounced but acted out) a preemptive, look-out-for-number one posture grounded in the cynicism of realpoltiks of a co-called neo-conservative mindset.

So what was Mr. Obama getting at with his remarks quoted earlier regarding the Golden Rule? What do we make of his call "to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth."

I have an intuition: I think Mr. Obama, as Mr. Lincoln did before him, was invoking the better angels of our nature. And that’s a good thing, a very, very good thing. In this era of crisis perhaps only the better angels of our nature can save us.

February 29, 2009

Monday, May 18, 2009

Seven Efective Attitudes of Unitarian Universalists

Several years ago it was something of a rage within our Unitarian Universalist world to fashion so-called “elevator speeches,” short and informative descriptions of our eclectic and sprawling liberal religious way. The theoretical setting, an elevator ascending or descending between floors with an interested but uninformed audience (one or more persons), was emblematic of our glancing, sound-byte, brand-conscious, market oriented, competitive, consumer society. Our culture is famous for its many religions; and to be able to brand, that is quickly distinguish our Unitarian Universalism from the many other religions, was the objective of the elevator speech.

I was never a fan of such elevator speeches, judging they weren’t well suited to describe our rich liberal religious tradition.

Somewhat in contrast, a former intern minister Jeff Briere and I compiled in 2001 an oversized pamphlet, “101 Reasons I’m a Unitarian Universalist.” Jeff and I divided the 101 reasons and offered a paragraph or two about favorite aspects of Unitarian Universalism that included biography (we’ve had illustrious UU forebears), history (two hundred years of tradition and progress), practices, lore, and myth (some of the in-house stuff). It was intended to be an introduction for newcomers as well as a source of enrichment for members—a resource that could be read now and again and in bits as time and interest guided a reader.

This morning I want to take another tack in describing contemporary Unitarian Universalism by considering the attitudes of those who choose to affiliate as UU, whether long ago or recent come-outers. (A come-outer is a person who has left an earlier faith tradition [and sometimes no faith tradition] for UUism.) We are a congregation of come-outers.

If this were a traditional Protestant sermon, it would have a scriptural text. I’d use Matthew 7:16: “By their fruits ye shall know them. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” (ASV) By this I would imply that doctrine takes second place to behavior. If you want to know the nature of Unitarian Universalism then become familiar with Unitarian Universalists, how they choose to live their lives.

Here, then, are seven effective attitudes of UUs:


Life is an adventure. This is a matter of the external world and a matter of one’s own being. The world is wide and wonderful. The more and more we experience the world,--in its magnitude, in its diversity, in its beauty, in its challenges,--the more and more we love it and grow. It is our milieu—our right and fitting place. It is a place of our own, our natural and true home in which we discover and live our destiny.

Each of us, from birth to death, is a work in progress. The narrative arc of our individual lives spans the inevitable ages and stages. We are presented with ever changing tasks, challenges, and reformed meanings and purposes. We value the worth and dignity of the human life bestowed on us. This is inherent, yet latent. Therefore, with hope and courage we dare to live that we might be fully alive: Thoreau, one of our Unitarian forebears, wrote in Walden: “I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life….”

A favorite expression of the adventurous life is the classical story of the Odyssey. My favorite telling is by the twentieth century Greek poet C. P. Cavafy:


When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon -- do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.

Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience.


One of the significant impulses within contemporary Unitarian Universalism is feminism, which over the last three or four decades has transformed attitudes and practices. For example, from a small presence, the UU ministry now has a majority of woman.

With this surge we now have a strong sense that matters of the spirit—the religious impulse—is mediated by the body. For women this has lifted up the great occasions of reproductive life: the onset and cycles of menstruation, fertility and reproduction, and menopause. Women have nurtured a sense of being a physical chalice—the source and sustainer of life.

Woman’s spirit has led away from abstraction toward Nature and natural expressions. For some this has led to a reformed awareness of earth-centered religions, in which the pulse of Nature anticipates, parallels, and stimulates the pulse of the human body.

It seems to me how we respond to the great rites of passage, birth, coming-of-age, marriage and unions, and death, illustrates how our religion has grown more band more embodied—centered in the real rather than in platitudes.

This is a matter of passion, a word whose origin means suffering. Suffering is rooted in the human condition, as Buddhism has so aptly summarized: “all is dukkha,” a word that straddles a meaning between suffering and impermanence.

I know of no religious orientation better suited to offer a “Religion of Realities” than our liberal religious way. What is the human condition? How does humankind fit into the Natural Order, of the earth surely, but also of the Universe—its origins and evolution? And how does our incarnation, in all its aspects, determine the personal path we may follow to fulfill our destiny?


One of the important twentieth century historians of Unitarianism, cited Individualism, Freedom of Belief and Conscience, and Toleration as the great markers of our tradition. Toleration always struck me as somewhat condescending, a more passive than an active attitude. Acceptance is only a little better. (Remember Thomas Carlyle’s famous response to Margaret Fuller’s declaration, “I accept the Universe.” He said, “Egad, she better!”) I favor Respect, which contains Acceptance and Toleration and more.

We respect the many religions of the world, not as much for their beliefs as for their origins in the same human impulse to meaning and purpose and the role these play in family and community. Such diversity is a fact of human culture. And then the great world religions each bring a different, relatively unique emphasis to Universal Religion: Judaism brings Justice, Christianity brings Love, and Islam brings surrender to God’s will, to the Abrahamic worldview.

Our attitude of respect, I maintain, relates to what we call our first principle: “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” We begin with respect for self that logically extends to our fellowkind. Two hundred years ago, our forebears emphasized that human kind was indeed formed in the image of God and that we had a natural divinity, too. In a similar sense to the Buddhists bowing before one another to acknowledge the Buddha-spirit in one another, so we figuratively bow to the divinity of one another. Some of us might be more comfortable with Enlightenment recognition of egalitarianism and rights, but we nevertheless agree that what each of us recognizes in self extends empathetically to all.

In recent years our respect has expanded to include not only other forms of life, but also to include the whole of the earth. This has been expressed in another principle that declares, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

In my mind, Respect has an element of Reverence. Indeed, Reverence is Respect written large.


Remember the Scripture that I mentioned earlier, the one that would ably serve as a traditional text for these remarks? “By their fruits ye shall know them.”

The fruits of a human life cluster as the deeds we do. It might be said that our UU way seeks, individually and together, The Life Beautiful. Surveys have determined that for a majority of UUs the beautiful life is both the means and the end of living. The Life Beautiful contains the Life Ethical, the examined life lived virtuously.

One of the great controversies of Christianity, between the Catholic and Protestant worldviews, involves Works and Faith. The Protestant tradition has been wed to Salvation by Faith versus the Catholic outlook of Salvation by Works. Unitarianism developed an early doctrine of Salvation by Character—that how a person lived her or his life, depositing right actions on the personality as character, mattered ultimately—certainly here and now, the one Reality that was assured. Beliefs without commensurate deeds were hollow. Works without embodiment in life and world were without consequence.

Our Universalist heritage, in particular, points us to embrace the good and do the right, not for fear of punishment or for reward in some imagined future existence, but because it is good and right to do so here and now.

A favorite voice of Universalism, Clinton Lee Scott, spoke to the primacy of an ethical attitude; in a poetic meditation he called “The Larger Fellowship.”

Churches are many, but religion is native to all human kind.
In vanity creeds are drawn by unbending minds
and doctrines fashioned like garments to cover the nakedness of the unknown.

Theologies are the guesses of pundits,
a contrivance for dispensing with religion.
There is religion authorized by no priest or prelate and resting upon no book of holy writ.
It resides in the tender conscience,
in the ethical quality of thought and action,
in compassion for suffering,
in response to human need,
in moral indignation over wrong.

There is in the world a vast, un-named fellowship of goodwill, of the well-intentioned.
The members are in all churches, temples, mosques, and in none of these.
Wherever good persons stand is holy ground, and the manner of their lives is their religion.


Unitarian Universalists are lovers. We love the human condition in all its manifestations: female and male, young and old, straight and gay, every race and culture. We love the Earth and its Nature in its many aspects. We love the many world religions. We love the senses and the times and tides of our bodies. We love the free mind and will to meaning we can bring to bear in every circumstance of life. We love the richness of poetry and myth. We love the preciseness and clarity of science. We love tradition and we love innovation. We love contemplation and we love discussion. We love the arts; music, the spoken and written word, photographic image and painting, theater and cinema—all the creative forms through which human imagination seeks expression. We love our own life and we love our larger Life, despite the reality that living means dying.

Our Universalist tradition bends us toward Love. “God is Love” was the Universalist motto—an essential theological doctrine that compels loving God in return as well as loving God’s creation, especially our sisters and brothers.

We often cite Rupert Brooke’s poem “The Great Lover” that begins:

I have been so great a lover: filled my days
So proudly with the splendour of Love's praise,

And continues:

Love is a flame;—we have beaconed the world's night.
A city:—and we have built it, these and I.

An emperor:—we have taught the world to die.


The figurative heart, a seat of emotion and passion, is one aspect of the yin/yang wholeness we seek. If Love might be called our yin principle, then reason is our yang principle.

Our Unitarian forebears, heirs of the Age of Reason (Enlightenment), maintained that God was rational and reasonable and created humankind with a similar mind that we might come to know the Divine through reason. Hence they extolled the free mind, unfettered by creedal limitations, or superstitions, or even timeworn tradition (tradition for tradition’s sake).

We always seek to understand what we realize; and we are always quick to give up what doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of reason and reason’s handmaiden science. Our worldview is guided by science’s understandings, which by no means diminishes our religious experience. Indeed our religious experience expands: the majesty of an ever-expanding Universe, whose still mysterious origins reach back nearly fourteen billion years, brings us wonder, awe, and even reverence in responses exponentially greater than does the myth of Genesis.


The final attitude that we hold together in our freely chosen religious community known as Unitarian Universalism is the notion of progress. For us there is an arc for the individual, for humankind, and for society. It was the nineteenth Unitarian minister Theodore Parker who first declared: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Each of us, in the fullness of our lives, seeks to make our inherent goodness better and better, not just to pass through our years but to progress through them. So we seek the same for humankind and society. Progress in all these dimensions might be fitful or haltingly, but nevertheless upward or forward.

So we are religious liberals, for liberalism’s optimism maintains that the most effective way to maintain what was good in the past is to transform it in the here and now. This is why we call our movement a Living Tradition, ever open and responsive to the call for better and better. Our arc bends toward progress.

So, if you want to know the liberal religious and historic way of Unitarian Universalism, get to know Unitarian Universalists, experiencee our effective attitudes: adventurous, embodied, respectful, ethical, loving, rational, and progressive. These cluster in an outlook that is true to words of Theodore Parker uttered a hundred, fifty years ago, an ever relative vision of our free faith:

“Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere.
Its temple all space.
Its shrine the good heart.
Its creed all truth.
Its ritual works of love.
Its profession of faith divine living.”

January 11, 2009

Animal Rights

Progress and the Liberal Impulse

As I was getting started Thursday morning, watching the morning news on Cable TV, I surfed onto The 700 Club, Pat Robertson’s vehicle of news, commentary, and proselytizing on the Christian Broadcast Network. He was opining about the passage of a same sex marriage bill in Maine, the most recent of several similar state laws enacted in just a few weeks. (I’m frankly astonished and pleased that there has been so much activity in favor of same sex marriage—a veritable greening of American society.) Of course, Rev. Robertson is against same sex marriage and he declared that it runs counter to the Jewish and Christian, Bible based values that founded this nation; and are we in trouble for straying so far from the will of God!

I generally have lively arguments in my mind against such pronouncements. This time I thought about slavery, that curious institution that in the early years of the Republic was passionately justified by many religious on the grounds that it was sanctioned by the Bible.

Progress, the notion of better and better through time as knowledge/understanding advances, is at the very center of the liberal impulse. Just over the horizon new worlds are waiting to be discovered and lived.

Not so many centuries ago it was generally believed that the earth was the center of the Universe, that the Sun , other stars, and planets twirled around earth. Then in the 16th and 17th centuries, Copernicus and Galileo, upset the Western worldview of the most learned astronomers and philosophers by positing that the earth twirled around the Sun. The story of the Roman Church’s opposition has mythic proportions. First, in 1616, the Church called heliocentricism “false and contrary to Scripture.” In 1632 after Galileo published Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, he was tried by the Inquisition, found "vehemently suspect of heresy", forced to recant, placed under house arrest until death.

Galileo’s travails marked the beginning of a Scientific Revolution that looked to observation and experiment, free from Biblical myth. In the relative eye blink of a few centuries, from a geocentric worldview and an Old Testament view of creation, we now recognize the origins of the Universe is the inflationary expansion of a so-called Big Bang occurring some 13.5 billion of years ago. The Sun and its rings of planets, is a speck in a galaxy that is one of a multitude of galaxies—a hundred billion or so in the observable universe.

Add to this the even more recent, but equally admonishing, understanding of human life. A hundred and fifty years ago, again based on Scripture, creation of living things was seen as episodic with Human Beings created last and given “dominion” over the creatures of the earth. Now, thanks to the Darwinian revolution, we recognize an orderly evolution of life in multitudinous forms, over a span of some 3.5 billion years on an earth some 5 billion years old. In the great chain of life, our human species, is a part, but not the focus or the goal.

For a moment imagine how our world view, including the meaning and purpose of our human species, has changed from an egotistical center of creation, to being part and parcel with the origin and evolution of a Universe that continues to expand and evolve.

We are still coming to terms with such monumental advancements of understanding, especially as they impact how we understand the human condition. But I know in my few decades of pondering and processing, such things have given me entry into new worlds of understanding that send me soaring.

One of our UU principles cites “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” This principle, a relatively recent addition circa 1985, reflects the impact of the environmental or ecological movement of the last half century. It has resulted in a denomination wide initiative known as “Green Sanctuary” and caused many of us to change how we use the resources of earth—consuming and discarding in ways more responsible and sustainable. So we think more ethically and act more morally than before.

Once again take a moment to consider how “being green” has impacted you—how you see the world and how you act from day to day. For those who have longevity, who remember the early or even pre-environmental days, think of the radical shift in seeing and doing that you’ve experienced.

An Ethical Frontier

There’s a similar radical shift taking place. It has aspects of what I’ve already spoken to. It departs from the traditional Jewish and Christian Scriptural perspective that our kind was given dominion over the creatures of the earth. It displaces our human species from the center of existence, as it recognizes that evolution is a process of which our kind is part and parcel. It presents us with a new ethical model along with reformed ways of right and good behavior. And at first it will result in scoffing and ridiculing, for what’s called “animal rights.”

Last summer, on June 25, the Spanish Parliament took a giant step toward granting the so-called great apes certain rights (life and freedom) heretofore exclusively human. The environmental committee passed resolutions that echoed scientists and philosophers of the Great Ape Project, who advocate for humane treatment of our species closest animal kin.

The Great Ape Project's website declares: "The idea is founded upon undeniable scientific proof that non-human great apes share more than genetically similar DNA with their human counterparts. They enjoy a rich emotional and cultural existence in which they experience emotions such as fear, anxiety and happiness. They share the intellectual capacity to create and use tools, learn and teach other languages. They remember their past and plan for their future. It is in recognition of these and other morally significant qualities that the Great Ape Project was founded. The Great Ape Project seeks to end the unconscionable treatment of our nearest living relatives by obtaining for non-human great apes the fundamental moral and legal protections of the right to life, the freedom from arbitrary deprivation of liberty, and protection from torture."

In my estimation animal rights is an ethical frontier that illuminates our human relationship with Nature--the great web of life or the interdependent web of existence. Compiling my quote collection In Praise of Animals (Skinner House, 2007), convinced me that we are just beginning to appreciate animals as kindred and that a once assumed dominion over animals is a fallacy.

Anima: The Indwelling Self at the Core of Being

Here’s a good passage from my quote collection, In Praise of Animals, that looks to the essence of our relationship with animals. It’s by a 20th century naturalist Alan Devoe, of whom I very fond: “Conversationally and informally, we use the word ‘animal’ for creatures that we mean to distinguish from, say, birds, or fish. We use it to mean warm-blooded beasts that suckle their young. The term we ought to use in that connection is ‘mammal.’ The mammals are but one part of animaldom. Rightly speaking, an animal is any one of our fellow beings that appears, to the spontaneous judgment of a primitive philosopher, to possess an anima. Anima is soul, breath of life, the indwelling self at the core of being. Our sense of our own anima is what Coleridge called a primary intuition. It does not come naturally to most of us to think of a rosebush as a "self," an animated being of this sort . . . We do spontaneously take it, however, that a robin, a coyote, or even the cricket on the hearth, is at least in some degree, after its fashion, akin to us. It looks out on the world, as we do; it moves and seeks; it experiences. Its life is not exactly our life, of course; we are to beware of anthropomorphism, which means reading the human into the not-human. But even a cricket, we take it, in its crickety little way, is a being, a life, a self. Anima glimmers here; and our own responds, in brotherhood.

“Such is the great company of the animals. A little boy who had been asking me questions once summed up the nature of animals perhaps better than a biologist would do it. ‘An animal,’ he said, ‘is something you feel like talking to’"

And I add words attributed to Chief Dan George: “ If you talk to animals they will talk to you and you will know each other. If you do not talk to them, you will not know them. And what you do not know, you will fear. What one fears, one destroys.”

Animal Rights/Liberation

Animal rights is a relatively recent phenomenon. Many attribute its popular appearance to 1975 when the Australian ethicist Peter Singer published a seminal work, aptly titled Animal Liberation. Dr. Singer belongs to the utilitarian school of philosophy, emphasizing the greatest good for the greatest number. And in Animal Liberation, rather than emphasizing inherent rights of animals, he focused on the elimination of suffering. He also introduced the word “speciesism” into the ethics of human relations with animals. Similar to racism where one race claims superiority over another race, speciesism claims superiority of the human species over all other animal species. In application, speciesism supports and sustains a viewpoint that animals are objects or property.

So, in a brief span of thirty years, animal rights/liberation as an ethical area has emerged and rather astonishingly become mainstream. In this regard Europe has led the way, but even in conservative America the basic ethic of not to inflict suffering on animals is gaining momentum. This is progress, not just for other species, but for the human species as we reform our understanding of our place in Nature and as we reform our moral relationship with other species. We acknowledge, at the very least, that suffering is suffering, whether in human being or animal; and it is a moral principle not to inflict suffering.

There is a spiritual dimension to this growing understanding of our human relationship to animals. It relates to earlier remarks regarding the notion of “anima” or soul, that essence of life that you and I experience; and to which we give ultimate value. When we become sensible to that essence in all other sentient beings, a transcendence begins. When we add to the equation a scientific awareness of a great web of life, an interdependence, that transcendence expands. Of course, we must be ever vigilant to anthropomorphizing; and that is good from the spiritual dimension as we transcend the merely human.

Reverence for Life

The best expression of this spiritual dimension, in my understanding, is the Reverence for Life philosophy/ethic that Albert Schweitzer proposed a century ago. Dr. Schweitzer once declared, "True philosophy must start from the most immediate and comprehensive fact of consciousness, and this may be formulated as follows: 'I am life which wills to live, and I exist in the midst of life which wills to live'."

From this fundamental realization, Dr. Schweitzer proposed an ethic for the post-modern era that simply said it is good to enhance life, and it is evil to detract from life. Suffering and death detract from life, one’s actions, each and every action, then, must be done with awareness of the consequences on self and other life forms.

Practically speaking, our focus is on preserving our own life, often at the expense of other lives. And this ambivalence chastens and humbles us, always pressing us with the sacrifice made, a sacrifice that is unilateral and imposed by us. Always in mind is the value of life. As Dr. Schweitzer emphasized, this rational process brings us into a harmony with life and Life’s Source.

He summarized this spiritual equation in contending that Reverence for Life “…is the nature and origin of ethics. We have dared to say that it is born of physical life, out of the linking of life with life. It is therefore the result of our recognizing the solidarity of life which nature gives us. And as it grows more profound, it teaches us sympathy with all life. Yet, the extremes touch, for this material-born ethic becomes engraved upon our hearts, and culminates in spiritual union and harmony with the Creative Will which is in and through all.”

The 14th century mystic, Meister Eckhart expressed this union and harmony in traditional, theistic language.

“Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things.

“Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God.

“Every creature is a word of God.

"If I spent enough time with the tiniest creatures—even a caterpillar—I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God is every creature”

The growing animal rights/liberation movement is a next step in humankind’s spiritual and ethical progress.

May 10, 2009