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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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.


Your Values Are Not YOU

Your values are not YOU.

It is a very hard truth to absorb.

When an ideal, a belief, a value, something we hold very dear is rejected by someone, it can feel as though we ourselves are being rejected.

I’ve been on both sides of this phenomenon, giving and receiving such rejection. It can hurt! Most of us have felt that sort of rejection. We can take it very personally, for example, when a family member chooses another road than we had in mind, when a child rejects the religion of her parents, or when half the country rejects the candidate you voted for.

In recent years in our political life I have observed people feeling personally rejected on a level they never have before. Those who were opposed to Obama felt so personally bad about him that for years they wanted nothing but to see him discredited, blamed, and obstructed. Now, those who voted for Obama and Clinton feel their values have been roundly rejected and are protesting even before the Trump presidency starts.

Your values are not YOU. The things you hold most important are concepts in your mind, they are not YOU.

This can sound very abstract, I know. But pull it down to earth – what it means is that you, as a living, breathing, human being, with a mind, have the ability to transcend even those values that you most hold dear, even the beliefs you think are the most bedrock, even the ideals you most treasure.

You also have the ability to stand apart from even the most important, meaningful, and life-defining goals, plans, and actions that are based on your set of values.

In practice, this means we can separate our being, our SELVES, from the beliefs we hold, and connect to other people who hold differing beliefs. It means we can see others who reject some of our values in a different light, because fundamentally we don’t base our selves or their selves on the values they hold. We hold them sacred apart from their values.

I may believe in heaven, you may not. I may believe in the fundamental value of diversity. You may not. I may reject the argument for the existence of god, you may support it wholeheartedly. I may be Democrat, you may be Republican. I may not care at all about Black Lives Matter, you may look at it as the most important movement around. The point is: none of these things really define us, internally, as human beings.

Values may govern our behavior. They may define how we choose to organize ourselves together as a governed society, and in turn those choices may determine results (sometimes life or death) for other people in practical ways that we do not always grasp, meaning we must still talk and learn about each other’s values, and write thoughtful policy based on our learning and our dialogue about our values. Values are very important.

But what I am trying to get across right now is, the values we hold are not essential to who we are.

What is left when we stand apart from our values? If we think the answer is “Nothing At All” we will fight tooth and claw for our values, and become really inept and insensitive to other viewpoints, because it seems like life or death. We will cut off opportunity to do the learning and dialogue that are necessary to govern together.

When our values are identical with ourselves, then when the value goes away, so do we. Our brains, with this slight-of-hand, go into fight or flight very easily. We are wired to self-protect, and those mechanisms go haywire when something as deep seated as our values seems threatened.

But if, on the other hand, our answer to the question, What are we without our most treasured values? is Something, a very robust Something, even if don’t know what that Something is and can’t wholly define it yet, we have reason to work together with those other humans whose values we do not share. We have reason to listen to their beliefs and to their arguments about what is good, right, and true. We have reason to respect what makes them happy, what they wish for in life, what drives them, and what they are trying to move away from, or fix, or solve.

Human beings are complicated, our bodies and minds interact in ways we have never previously understood. We form beliefs, we hold values. We begin to mistake those for our essential nature, our essential selves. We jumped to conclusions about our fundamental selves, and forgot that our value-forming process is just an aspect of ourselves.

This is how philosophical reflection can open practical ways forward. How do we live and move and have our being in the same spaces as others? How do we learn to exist peaceably (a value), in a kaleidoscopic world of competition (another value) and violence (another value). How do we arrive at somewhat of a consensus (another value) about the values we share, about which values we are choosing as the most important ones, which ones most serve humanity, both individually and collectively (more values)?

We cannot do so without first separating ourselves from those very values, so that we can stand back and evaluate them.

Can we engage this rational process, in the service of our ability to live and be together?

Can we access the parts of ourselves that simply exist, without and prior to values? I believe we can, but we aren’t very good at it. We need guideposts.

Future posts promised on this topic, and I would love to hear your thoughts as well.


To Strive and Strive

I am tired of striving.

We live in a world where striving is valued, almost above all other virtues. Take the Olympics, recently completed. What is that but a contest of striving? We admire the grit, courage, and determination required to get there. We draw inspiration from these athletes to go forth and do the same in our working lives; individuals, press on!

Except, I am tired of that. Like, bone-deep, world-weary, this-needs-to-end-now tired.

I am 43 years old. I have striven for my entire life. First in school, for good grades. Then in sports, so that my Dad would not think I was a wimp. Then in orchestra, because I needed a challenge. Then as an artist, because I wanted my work seen.

I strove in college to be a double major, because I was curious, but also because I wanted to prove I could. Then I strove after college to prove that I could be employed. I have striven in job after job after job, with varying degrees of success, because I needed money, but mostly to prove to others that I was responsible.

I strove in church to be good because, well, the best investments are the long-term ones, and what could be longer-term than eternal life? Stephen Covey told me “Begin With The End In Mind” (one of his Seven Habits). The Bible says that God is the goal and end of all things. That twin idealism led me to strive after being a pastor, to uproot my life and move many times to go through seminary and internship and become ordained and lead a church, because people all over evidently needed help living toward that End, and that End would reward all this endless striving.

I strove to stay married. Way, way longer than I should have. Because I had a script running in my head that said, this is what you do. I strove to build a life around that narrative, to fix up a house (mighty striving), to have in-laws (mighty, mighty striving), and to suppress some of my most important thoughts and desires (mighty, mighty, mighty striving) so that I could fulfill my vows, so that I could preserve and protect that contract.

In the end I didn’t preserve it. My marriage ended on nearly the same day as my pastoring. I found myself striving again, this time to see my children, and to find money wherever I could. I strove to gain legal footing, to get out from under a penal family law system that held me in arrears even before we started, to be recognized as a co-parent. Just to live near my kids took a heroic effort, but that was only the beginning. Oh the striving, to land in a new community and be treated as an outsider, to try to find work that would actually pay the rent and child support, to repair the career boat while sailing it out on the open sea in stormy weather.

Five years later, and I am finally back on my feet, with a modest income again, able to make consistent child support payments, and living with a committed long-term partner. Life feels stable again. The career boat is repaired and has entered calmer waters.

Yet I still find myself striving. To switch metaphors, if someone decided to come and give this Jenga tower of mine a little push, it would topple easily. I don’t have enough emergency savings, I don’t have enough income, I don’t possess enough to have any strength in any sort of legal conflict.

A significant consulting project, which lasted about six months, ended recently. It was a successful, peaceable exit, albeit an abrupt one. It involved a third party who was potentially able to cause me great trouble, legally and professionally. I’m relieved to be away from that potential source of trouble. But I’m also finding myself contemplating why it was that I entered the agreement, since it only meant more striving.

This is the reason: I want a better life, a secure life, a life where I can have my values and the freedom to live them without fear of someone taking basic necessities away. I want my partner not to have to work as many hours as she does just so we can pay rent.

I want society to recognize me, and everyone else, for the work we do and the contribution we make, by crafting a safety net so that we don’t live with this sense of constant anxiety that if we don’t strive, and strive, and strive, we aren’t any good, we won’t make it.

I want to be part of a community that believes that we create together out of a sense of wonder, rather than a stoic, individual Olympic-style sense of sacrifice. I want a religion that doesn’t involve an Individual Who Died To Be Resurrected, and instead has a Cosmos That Became Ever More Grand And Beautiful.

I want to birth a new way that is dynamic and where work has a place but does not involve our entire selves. I want a life where money flows but is not the whole river. Where relationships are good in whatever form they take and for the time they need, but we aren’t asked to strive for what they cannot give. I want a culture that pays for everyone to have certain basic care and basic needs met, without having to work three jobs or take no vacation. I want a legal system that is not so penal and retributive, and more assistance-oriented. I want my children to live in a world where art and music and love and sex shine as brightly as any office building they might work in or car they might drive, because they come from a place of goodness, wholeness, and natural morality.

I know these things are possible. In the real world, not some utopia, and not some 60s Woodstock. But I wonder, Who can help? Who else wants these things?

Can we feel this boat we are in together move along the water, without such toxic and dis-empowering sense of scurrying? Can we run without judging each other when someone isn’t able to keep up the pace? Can we worship without enthroning a cross-carrying mentality? Is there space for patient discovery and failure? Is there curiosity in exploration and navigation of our world? Is there time in which to rest and enjoy it, without having constantly to push it forward, forward, forward?

Is anyone else tired of the endless striving?