Thursday, April 26, 2012


Over the last decade or so, I’ve significantly reformed my core understanding of Religion. I’ve spoken to you, through my sermons, about the changes.

By the 1990s, I advocated a postmodern point of view.

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 finished 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.) A favorite voice of postmodernism is Albert Schweitzer. Among his extensive accomplishments, he was a preeminent Christian theologian. 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.).

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, what has become, in our lifetime, a radically altered world.

I lift up courage and faith, two attributes a successful postmodern person embodies: courage to face honestly Life’s complexity; and faith that to think and act with such courage is never to fail, really, no matter the consequences. It is to be an unflinching Realist.


As a balance to postmodernism’s ambiguities and relativisms, I delved deeply into the dialectic between Science and Religion. (Any contemporary Religion worth its salt, must engage in such a conversation.) My rational UUism bent me toward the authority of Science, yet I strove to maintain the positive outlook and practical results of Religion, if only the seeking of meaning and purpose—my estimation of what Religion is essentially concerned with.

In the late 1990s, I dedicated one sermon a month for an entire year to explore the transformations that science and science’s handmaiden, technology, had wrought in a relatively short time. I described the rudiments of a new mythopoetic telling of the origin and the evolution of the universe. I collected these sermons under the title of Manifesto for Meaning, in which I summarized emerging understandings of the human condition through exciting new disciplines: socio-biology, evolutionary psychology, and neuroscience.  

I contended that scientific findings--reasonable truths--trumped traditional statements of faith and personal intuitions of belief. I also contended, with the likes of Richard Dawkins, that science leads to a kind of consciousness or experience that is deep and rich:  “The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver.” Such a response is analogous to, if not the same as, traditional religious experience.

A sermon of that era, "Light of Science" won a prize and was included in a Templeton Foundation anthology of contemporary essays about changing attitudes toward God.  [Expanding Humanity's Vision of God: New Thoughts on Science and Religion] My essay called for a new mythopoetic telling, true to science, of the origin and evolution of the universe.

The most compelling aspect of science’s discoveries relative to Religion concerned a still emerging understanding of the so-called moral nature of humankind as being primarily intuitive/instinctual rather than rational. Social/evolutionary psychologists such as Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt talk about five inherent moral instincts: a sense of the value of one’s own and others’ life—do no harm; a sense of fairness or justice; a sense of community—group loyalty;  a reasonable respect for authority; and a sense of purity. Now these instincts are surely nuanced by nurture and experience. Still, recent studies find that we act/react unconsciously, while almost instantly forming rationalizations. Simply stated, evolution has hardwired us with instincts that have insured our species survival. There is a universal and normative moral instinct with an exception that evolutionary psychologist wrestle with—psychopathy. About one per cent of the population appears to lack the affect most often called compassion—or fellow-feeling.

In such a scientific light, we, the 99%, are surely moral creatures. We have no choice (unless we fall in the psychopath spectrum) but to be unconsciously moral, acting from our instincts, before rationalizing why we do what we do. (Indeed the whole question of free will comes into question as we strive to understand the human condition.)

[In an aside, one of the books du jour is Jonathan Haidt’s very recent The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, offering a much-appreciated explanation of the conservative/liberal divide and the red state/blue state alignments. I recommend it as an important read in a contentious election year.]


This brings me to a few thoughts regarding ethics. Ethics is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong. (I remember a song from the 1960’s that had in it a simple expression of ethics, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “Treat Your Children Well: "You, who are on the road, must have a code that you can live by."

The road is metaphorical—it’s our life-long journey. And a code is an ethic. Because we are conscious as well as self-conscious creatures of a moral nature, who also seek meaning and purpose, we need and therefore create codes. Such codes are also the means by which we pass on through our progeny what we value. As a post modern religionist, I’ve wrestled with how we can effectively and efficaciously reach and teach ethics in a postmodern era of complexity and ambiguity.

I’ve settled upon a mosaic approach. A couple of  years ago I created an occasional blog that I called “Ethics for Postmoderns” and began posting the focused ethical outlook of important 20th century persons, each who offered an ethical shard to contribute to a larger human mosaic.

As I ran across an ethical shard, I posted a summary. The voices on my site include the predictable: Albert Schweitzer on Reverence for Life; Martin Luther King Jr. on Unconditional Love; Rachel Carson on an Environmental Ethic of Personal Experience; and Peter Singer on Animal Liberation. I’ve also found ethical shards from public intellectuals and writers such as John Steinbeck and Hannah Arendt. I also found ethical shards from politicians: Franklin Roosevelt’s Moral Order of Freedoms and Rights, Barbara Jordan’s Ethic of the Common Good, and quite surprising to me Herbert Hoover’s Ethic of Equality of Opportunity. 

What I’ve found in building my blog Ethics for Postmoderns are a host of important, though relatively narrow ethical outlooks, each which resonates to one of the five moral instincts: do no harm, fairness, community, authority, and purity. Each by itself is compelling because we resonate to it.

Religion excites me now more than forty years ago when I first began to study it. Back then, I yearned for substance, more than mere faith or philosophy. I drifted toward the underpinnings of religious experience as understood through psychology, particularly the work of Carl Jung as authority. But even then, I recognized the speculative nature of such a soft science as psychology. 

We now have at our disposal an ever-growing cache of solid evidence of who we are—as a species and individually. My hope for Unitarian Universalism is that it will lead the way in reforming Religion so that fundamental yearning of the human condition will find communal, as well as personal,  encouragement and nurture.


Another major shift in my personal perspective vis a vis Religion involves the notion of a philosophy of life. Recently, I’ve spoken to Stoicism, recommending its timeless outlook and contemporary relevance. I’ve written a book, my personal take, on the eccentric outlook of the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, an agnostic philosophy of life embedded in the Hebrew and Christian canon. Ecclesiastes recommends seize the day through ordinary wisdom. The aim of a philosophy of life is that elusive yet palpable concept of happiness

A philosophy of life can function independently or it can supplement a traditional religious point, so says a leading scholar of Stoicism, William B. Irvine in his recent book about Stoic Joy. In a culture that is becoming less formally religious—the fastest growing component of the population claim no formal religious affiliation, often self-describing as spiritual rather than religious—a philosophy has traction.

Personally, I find myself bending toward a common sense, philosophy of life point of view, resonant to one’s own experience and centered in wisdom. Each of us can register, from within our own experience whether or not we are happy. (Our American system, from the Declaration of Independence through today, tells us that one of our unalienable rights as a citizen, along with life and liberty, is the pursuit of happiness.)

There are many reasons why I’ve been drawn to the Book of Ecclesiastes, a slim work of a mere 5500 words, but packed with so much. It is an inquiry into happiness and in part is set as a narrative of the great king Solomon. The narrative becomes more expansive when joined to two other books attributed to Solomon, The Song of Songs, and the Book of Proverbs. These three books relate to the stages of Solomon’s life: his lusty youth, his wise middle years, and his more reflective, even pessimist final years. Ecclesiastes takes the measure of the first two thirds of Solomon’s life as well as the realistic debilitations of age and inevitable death into account.

The conclusion, stated several times throughout the text is to acquire wisdom, work hard, enjoy the gifts life of life with the one you love. Yet implicitly, through Solomon’s example, Ecclesiastes recommends to make a test of your life moving appropriately through the ages and stages seizing each day, indeed each moment then moving on, letting go of what time proves to be of transitory value. What is kept I call wisdom, an ever-growing understanding of self in time and place, best expressed in pithy aphorisms.

For me, wisdom is the most enduring aspect of a life lived appropriately and fully. Wisdom accumulates within one’s own life and lasts in myriad cultural deposits, such as the Book of Ecclesiastes. Wisdom is the large category that contains enduring values of self and culture.

From a philosophy of life perspective, what endures? This is what I’ve found and with which conventional wisdom agrees.

Life matters. The old Stoics recommended that one should now and again reflect upon mortality. The Latin term is memento mori. The reflection need only be fleeting, and it should bring you to a realization and appreciation of the fleeting moment. Consistent with our moral instincts, the realization of one’s own life leads to empathy and compassion with other life and the Web of Existence. For each of us there is no greater gift than our life, nothing more precious than the life around us. Nature has bought Life into being and found clever means to pass Life through the generations. 

The Mind matters. Experience joined to more formal education, processed by imagination and reason, produces our individual consciousnesses. Each of us is a rich and complex world, unique and at the center of the universe. Let us be curious and free thinking.

Connections/Relationships matters.  By nature, we humans are social creatures. We’re all in this together. Simply put we need one another for a variety of reasons and purposes.  The deeper connections go by the name of love. My recently deceased colleague Forrest Church proposed that our immortality rests upon love, the love that endures though we have died. The philosopher Martin Buber beguiled us with transcendent nature of subject-subject encounters, the purest state of being reaching to the Divine. A deep or mystical consciousness recognizes the extent of our connections, which we often express as an ‘interdependent web of existence.”

My fourth and final enduring value is work and the results of work. Work matters.  Ecclesiastes declares, “Whatever your hands finds to do, do with all your might.” I agree. Work is the means by which we meet the world, discover self, and make our special contribution, embedding our values just where we are.
When I first started my ministry, I took to heart a wise colleague’s advice on how to attain immortality: plant a tree, raise a child, or write a poem—all aspects of one’s Life work.

Happiness flows from an ever-growing alignment of self with enduring values.

Hold LIFE in a gentle/strong embrace.


Let your MIND be free and expansive.

Do your WORK, your vocation as well as your avocation, with dedication and purpose.

Infuse these enduring values into your life and you will repose in happiness.

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