On Public Morals – Two Sources

What kind of moral values are acceptable in the public square?

It’s an important question in the current political climate, already rife with discord between liberals and conservatives, and now thrown into a kind of perpetual chaos by an unpredictable president.

On the one hand President Trump seems willing to flout traditional public morality and moral norms in both behavior and speech, and on the other he derives power from a Christian evangelical base that would like to see their version of morality imposed upon the culture at large (and who see liberals as trying to do the same.)

So whose version of morality wins? By what standard are we going to determine which morals are acceptable in public life, i.e. as grounds for policy and legislation and the formation of a public shared understanding of our civic responsibility? Is there a way to talk about all of these values in a way that a majority of people (and not just a bare 51%) would support?

In conversations with conservative friends, I have had the strange sensation of ships passing in the night. We try to talk about the same subject but drift off into separate spheres quickly, because our value narratives are so different as to be almost alien.

For example, one person recently said the “values of human dignity found in the Bible” supported a capitalist, market-driven economy in the exchange of goods and fair accrual of money according to one’s work. I reacted with some sense of befuddlement, and only later realized why: I was confused because I see the value of “human dignity” as a universal value, not a capitalist, sectarian or an exclusively Christian one.

What my friend said in support of a Bible-based society, in other words, was actually not a statement about the Bible. It was a statement of ethics, a concept of Good. My friend spoke as though belief in the Bible entailed belief in an ethical concept of Good. 

The Bible does not always articulate a coherent moral philosophy, not does it always treat all people with inherent worth and dignity (I’m thinking in particular of the victims of genocide at the hands of God’s people in Joshua, the lack of condemnation of slavery in both Old and New Testament, and the language about unbelievers going to eternal suffering and damnation spoken by Jesus, to name three examples). But assuming “human dignity” is a value indeed found in the Bible, does that mean that our source concept “human dignity” is exclusively biblical or Christian?

I don’t think so. To the extent that we follow rules of fairness and dignity as a capitalist society it is not because those values are found in the Bible, but rather because they resonate as universal values that are accessible by everyone.

Such conversations with conservatives about values led me to compose the following premise, in an effort to clarify where some common ground might lie between liberals and conservatives:

PREMISE: Public moral values, i.e. values that can transcend the personal, private sphere and become an acceptable source of common discourse in the public square, must be a) secular, based on non-religious reasoning, or b) universalist, based on what is accepted by all religions.

In some cases such public values will overlap with both a) and b).

This premise, if accepted, would accomplish at least three things:

  1. Establishment of common ground on which to build arguments that can be heard by all sides, because they are based in values and language universally recognized.
  2. Prevention of publicly sectarian, divisive language that only seeks to judge those outside on the basis of narrow morals
  3. A re-alignment toward a vision of Good that includes a diversified religious and non-religious ethical and moral philosophy, one that is unified around common values.

Seeking consensus on secular and universalist values is not only a necessary step to any lasting and meaningful dialogue, it is a way to re-assert a rational process into a highly charged political environment and bring it to a healthier place. 

We need a more robust, universalist philosophy in the public square. It may be the only thing left standing as a bridge, after the devaluing of public morals takes its course. 

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Strong for deliciousness

Is the flesh so weak
Or is it simply strong for
All deliciousness?

A friend of mine wrote this haiku in response to an assignment from a reading group we both belong to. We wanted to write some haiku after reading Krista Tippett’s chapter called “Words” in Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into The Mystery And Art Of Living.

Here are some others, written by members of the same group.

Inspired by dogs:

My name is Xena
Must paw must paw must paw must
Get your attention.

By an OR nurse:

small pink intestines
bubble out of the body
I kind of like it

One who works in Manhattan (and thinks of the recent election):

These city streets lie
But not like he who roamed them
Thinking he owned them

I found it illuminating not only to hear the haikus, but to hear from people in the group how they were heard. We all admitted it was fun, and we want to explore doing it again. Highly recommended for a group activity!

In the next post I’ll share some of my own haiku from this assignment.

Earth life is slow

We are creatures of Earth; our life is part of the life of the Earth, and we draw our nourishment from it just as plants and animals do. Earth life is slow; autumn and winter are as essential to it as spring and summer, and rest is as essential as motion.

-Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness

It is winter, the days are dark, and nature does not offer up the comfort of warmth. But instead of complaining or decrying this, we can accept it as a part of the creative cycle.

Our bodies need rest. So do our minds. This time of year we can take more time for that by recognizing that everything has a time and place and season. Trust that you will progress and grow, when it is the right time. Spring brings energy, transition, a pushing outward. Winter brings quiet, inner reflection, an evening gathering with friends that is a natural response to the short days, and finally, sleep.

Let the bare trees of this season remind us that we are also needing to look at the bare facts of ourselves, the naked truth of who we are. That will be the starting point for all our love and all our work in the year to come.

Standing At the Edge

standing at the edge

the first step

is the only step

-even now, by jill sabella & rosemerry wahtola trommer

A New Year, and what are your resolutions? I prefer to think of them as dreams, dreams I’ve resolved to make real.

Here are a few of mine:

  • More play. I don’t get enough and it is beginning to show.
  • More collaboration. I want to work with and alongside people more rather than on my own.
  • More poetry. I received a beautiful little gift called “even now” for Christmas. It has only 3-line poems resembling haiku, accompanied by artwork of only three brushstrokes. Minimalist, profound, I’ll be sharing them here.
  • A devotional book. I’ve long wanted to publish a devotional based on humanist spirituality. I can’t figure out how to get it started, but start it I must.

In order to do anything or add anything to our lives, I believe, we must stop doing something else. Law of equal and opposite reaction. If I want to do these four things, I will have to stop doing some other things.

That’s a tough one, especially if the “stop doing” list involves other people’s expectations. Family members have a way of making us cling to old behaviors, since it often benefits them emotionally.

Don’t try to tackle all of the emotional hurdles at once. Standing at the edge, the first step is the only step.

The Great Eastern Sun

Imagine the sun rising.

At first it seems weak, then it becomes stronger and stronger as the morning goes on. Soon it is shining with great power.

So it is when we find our genuine wholeness. It may seem a weak thread, but getting comfortable in your own skin, finding your own unique strength and letting that shine, you will grow into great power.

A genuine sense of self, and of trust in one’s place in the universe, is like the sun in many ways. It is a gentle source of energy and renewal, as well as a natural cycle. Sometimes it is occluded by clouds, or hidden at night, but always there.

Let the Great Eastern Sun rise in your heart, and in your head. In this way your wholeness will bring you peace, energy and renewal.

Transformation of Grace

[It was] one of those moments where reality sort of spills outside its boundaries, and you become aware of a happiness that you don’t deserve. Which is grace. When that happens your soul swells up a little, and you want to be worthy of that happiness.

-David Brooks, on seeing his family in an idyllic moment playing in the backyard. He was speaking with Krista Tippett for the On Being podcast.

I think of grace as winsome beauty, natural hardiness, and long-lasting robust love all rolled into one. Capable of withstanding momentary stresses and deep human error.

When David Brooks and E.J. Dionne were speaking to Krista Tippett about this subject (listen here: http://www.onbeing.org/program/david-brooks-and-ej-dionne-sinfulness-hopefulness-and-the-possibility-of-politics/9001) it was in the context of religion and politics. They made the point that even in a context of separation of church and state, our political views are still informed and shaped by our religious ones.

What could happen if the spiritual understanding of grace dominated our politics? What could we do to regain the category “grace” as a practical and conceptual guide? What if it was a cultural imperative alongside of other words like “freedom” or “hard work”? What if we had ways to ensure its presence in our legal system, our tax code, our educational system, and our penal system?

Grace can be a robust thing, brought forward from nice-sounding Bible quotes and cute pictures of ballerinas, into the tough realm of the every-day world. It has the power to change us by making us want to be more, to rise to a higher level.

How could we be transformed, if we adopted the beautiful and strong thing called Grace as our governing reality? If our heroes were not Supermen but Grace-Men? Not Wonder-Women, but Grace-Women?

Who are grace-heroes for you? Take a moment and talk about one here.

Grace, Wellspring and Compass

‘Tis grace shall bring me home.         –Amazing Grace, Spiritual 

My Lutheran heritage brought me in contact with a theological tradition that talks about grace. We defined it as undeserved love. It was one of the things that demarcated Protestant faith—no penance, praying rosaries, no elaborate ecclesiastical hierarchy. Just grace, plain and simple, accessible to all, given to all, accepted by faith.

But it went deeper than that. It was a whole outlook on life, a way of being that gave forgiveness and compassion because you yourself were forgiven and deeply loved. I felt this from my parents. I was taught to look for it in scripture. I sang about it in church, and later, taught it from the pulpit.

Grace is a powerful thing. As a concept, its theological roots run deep, and it can be found across religions. As a practice, it is a both a spiritual wellspring from which to draw and a moral compass for how to treat others.

Christians anchor God’s grace in the person and work of Jesus. The importance of the crucifixion story, as I now understand it, is as an expression of a universal consciousness of grace as lived out in a singular life, in a particular place and time, and how that life and that time can be in a way redemptive for us all.

There is much to be gleaned from the Bible when it is read from the lens of grace. If by meditating on the Word we find grace, we are the better for it. When the Bible is not read from a place of grace, and for a message of grace, it is easily subsumed by fundamentalism and fearful, protectionist dogma.

But more than that: it needs to be said that the Bible and the story of Jesus are not the only narratives of grace. In a time that seems to be ruled by the grace-less (in every possible sense of the word), we need as many narratives of grace as we can find. I’m looking for them, from all sources of religious thought, as well as from atheist and non-believers.

~~~

What are your stories of grace? Take a moment and share one here. Especially if it involves a character from a non-Christian background or source, I’m deeply interested in hearing that story now.