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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Beyond Sylvan Grove :: An Open Letter To My Family Part II

At this summer’s reunion my aunt brought to life our great-grandmother in a dramatic presentation.

Her name was Julietta, and she was raised in a small town called Sylvan Grove, Kansas. Her life was touched early on by her father’s death and her mother’s illness. She was raised for a time by a local pastor.

I loved hearing about my ancestor, feeling that she was close by. But I had a mixed reaction to the presentation as a whole.

My aunt reminded us that the ONE thing Julietta wanted to pass down to us is faith in Jesus. We heard how she was looking down from heaven and wishing that we all could remain in the joy of that faith. As the representative of the family tree at its head, she wants Jesus known and proclaimed above all. She wants us to know Jesus loves us.

On the face of it, why should anyone find that troubling? The words said by Julietta through my aunt were delivered with love, and were only the expression of well-meaning care for her family. If Jesus means love, if Jesus means family, if Jesus means all that is true, right and holy for us all, then why would anyone want to disagree or go another way?

As a family, we have come a long way from Sylvan Grove.

Steeple And Cross Set Against A Blue Sky

This wooden cross on a simple steeple set against a sunny summer blue sky reminds me of visiting the small country church in Sylvan Grove as a child.

We have spread out from that idyllic place where people were fed and nurtured on the Christian faith and a simple, plain and happy existence, into a changing and diverse world not graspable by anyone in that small town. Our family has members whose experiences and beliefs no longer match up with the worldview put forth out of Sylvan Grove.

New views of the world, new systems of belief, new faiths and non-faiths have entered the family bloodstream. These other viewpoints and beliefs are, in my view, equally legitimate to the one that came from Sylvan Grove.

Sylvan Grove The trouble with these singular narratives is just that: they are singular. They don’t allow for other stories, other explanations of the world, other lenses through which to view reality. Not everyone in our family sees Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. Not everyone feels welcomed when they are told they must believe in him. Not everyone wants to base their life on his teachings. This does not make them ignorant or immoral, just human.

I don’t blame my great-grandparents for their worldview from Sylvan Grove. But I do know that as educators, they would have also wished to leave a legacy of expanding knowledge. My great-grandfather, after whom I was named — would he have wanted us to stay frozen in time, stuck in a single place, placed in a box of knowledge and not allowed out? 


The next posts will continue this open letter.

Telling the Truth

Midweek Devotion

November 25, 2015

The church teaches that human beings are born essentially sinful and bad, but I think the idea that a newborn is stained with sin is dangerous; how can parents believe that their infant child is anything other than good?

—Matthew Fox, as reported in The Sun

Telling stories is fun, and around the holidays it is a bonding experience with family. We need to hear how great-grandpa fought in the war, and how our parents met, and how our uncle and dad goofed around together as kids.


Telling Stories

But imagine that after hearing great-grandpa’s war stories, your cousin leans over and whispers, “He was never in the war.” Or finding out that your dad doesn’t actually have a brother, he was just making it up (or hallucinating.)

The factual basis of a story doesn’t matter to us—unless it involves us or people we know and trust. Many a career has been halted suddenly because the person was found out telling a false story about themselves. (The recent example of Brain Williams is well-known.)

Stories give us our heritage. They are an important source of identity. That’s why it matters whether or not they are true.

The religious story of fallen humankind is one example. Generations of children have been told that story, and now that those children are adults, their entire concept of reality is governed by it. It leads to a self-conception of being dependent on a god (because I am sinful I need a savior), it leads to viewing government and secular society as inherently evil (because full of sinful human beings), and it leads to a host of programmatic actions that limit the rights of minorities, women, the poor, and so on (because we must protect them from themselves.)

What if we replaced the story of original sin with a different one? I love the way the Roman Catholic priest Matthew Fox describes “original blessing”:

In a sense, the evolution of the universe is an original blessing to humanity, preceding original sin by 13.8 billion years. It seems to me that evolution has far more to say about who we are and where we come from—including our propensities for violence and war—than does original sin, which can be just a cop-out.

Sometimes religious liberals emphasize the value of stories and myths so much, they seem to miss an important dynamic: that the verity of the story is as important as the story itself.

When we read fiction, we are not concerned about whether the story is true, but about what it tells us metaphorically. (And of course, the moral of the story being metaphorically illustrated may be “true” in that sense.) But when we are telling stories around the dining room table about our family, background, and origin, we absolutely must be concerned about the verity of the story, and not just its metaphorical value.

If original sin isn’t factually true, its metaphors aren’t true either. Living by false metaphors will put us down false roads. False beliefs hardwire our brains, and affect us at a deep subconscious level, well after we may have consciously discarded them. Some salient examples of false beliefs based in false stories: men are created to lead their households, slaves are to be obedient to their masters, sex is destructive unless contained within marriage, bad weather is a punishment on the iniquity of a city.

We have all witnessed the apathy and utter disregard for human life that comes from that latter story alone. Think of Katrina and the way the poor areas of New Orleans have yet to recover.


Light of Myth, Light of Fact

Metaphorical stories are always based on a conviction that those stories are, at least at some level, factual. For example, we may not believe that the 10 plagues occurred but we tend to believe that the Israelites were actually enslaved by the Egyptians. Factually, it is claimed, we are all servants (i.e. slaves, the biblical word is the same for both) of God even if we no longer agree with enslaving other people. Therefore even though we may read biblical passages on slavery, we can look at those as metaphors of an underlying fact: that we are to be “slaves to Christ.”

If that underlying fact is not a fact, where does that leave the story? If grandpa was not really in the war, then in telling us so he is sick or sinister or silly, or some combination, but not worth basing our actions on. We would not want to invite the local VFW to commemorate his “anniversary” for example. If we are not actually “slaves to Christ,” then none of the biblical narratives about slavery carry any weight, not even metaphorically.

The factual truth of a story matters, if we are trying to base our actions on that story. The referent of a metaphor matters, if we are trying to base anything on the metaphor.

A new identity can only come from what is true. If we pay more attention to the stories we tell, especially the religious ones, and take the time and mental effort to inquire about their truth, we will end up with more solid footing on which to base our actions, our sense of self, and we may even connect better as families and communities. We also take away the power of religious narratives of violence and destruction when we show them to be false. Wouldn’t that make the world a better place?

The truth matters; be the person to help shine that kind of light on the world.

Take a GoodMinute

What might happen if we ask after the truth of our deepest stories?

As we spend time with family over the holiday, what if we gently inquired whether or not some of our deeply held stories are true?

If one of our deeply held stories is not factual, what might that mean for us?

Living in the World of Cause and Effect

Midweek Devotion

November 5, 2015

We have true power when we learn how to live in the world of cause and effect.

Every religious person, even the most literal-minded fundamentalist, must of necessity live in the world of cause and effect. They must do it daily. The Bible can’t tell us how to make breakfast, replace the broken furnace, navigate in traffic, or help our kids with their math homework. Not to mention larger issues we face like understanding financial markets or finding a cure for Ebola. The Bible has no idea what to do (besides pray) when a child has Asperger’s, or when our hard drive crashes, or when our spouse is dealing with depression.

Who Placed The Rocks?

Who Placed The Rocks?

In each case we must act in the real world. We leave behind the world of fantasy and pay attention to the world of cause and effect.

This is hard to do.

We want badly for there to be a powerful personal agency behind it all, reminding us of its purpose, comforting us when we stumble, and giving our emotions some kind of anchor.

By applying my creativity to the real world I discovered an important spiritual truth: the agency is inside of us. We get to live within the cause and effect of the universe.

The inner workings of the cosmos, are the inner workings of me!

Take a GoodMinute

How can I find my own personal agency today?

Why do we look for personal agency (or god) outside of ourselves?