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.”