21st Century Religious Ethics . . . Pondering the God of a Trillion Stars

England Church Lilies

Written in 2011:

The recent turmoil in England, the riots and resulting damage, raise the challenge of a troubled society without spiritual anchors. Comments have been made that the rioters, mostly young, unemployed males are adrift without religion and, its moral guidance. Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith expressed similar concern after his 2008 research project about how our 18-23 year olds think and talk about moral issues. The “default position” expressed about moral choices was that they were personal, a matter of individual choice. Few felt the constraints of religious or institutional direction. A 2011 Wall Street Journal article, written by a Jewish rabbi, states:

“In virtually every Western society in the 1960s there was a moral revolution, an abandonment of its entire traditional ethic of self-restraint. All you need, sang the Beatles, is love. The Judeo-Christian moral code was jettisoned. In its place came: whatever works for you. The Ten Commandments were rewritten as the Ten Creative Suggestions. Or as Allan Bloom put it in The Closing of the American Mind: “I am the Lord Your God: Relax!”

The purpose of this effort is to consider those comments and the role of “religion” – particularly Christianity – in providing ethical guidance in the 21st Century. First, some background to frame our discussion.

Myths and Science

The late Joseph Campbell is known as the world’s leading authority on myth. His 6-hour PBS series with Bill Moyer, the Power of Myth, aired upon his 1987 death provides great insight. His writings include the Hero with 10,000 Faces, Transformations of Myth Through Time, Myths to Live By and dozens of additional, well-researched scholarly works. What is the role of myth? Campbell states

“Getting into harmony and tune with the universe and staying there is the principal function of mythology. … Now the first and most important effect of a living mythological symbol is to awaken and give guidance to the energies of life.”

We are, Campbell argues, rarely guided in our life’s mission by science, for by its nature, “science does not and cannot pretend to be true in any absolute sense. It does not and cannot pretend to be final. It is a tentative organization of mere working hypothesis that for the present appear to take into account all the relevant facts now known.” Science remains a work in process. Myths, however, as their stories guide the energies of life, find their way into our belief systems, our philosophies. canonized within our religions. They tend to become “fixed,” accepted as absolutes.


It was Bertrand Russell who said, “Science is about what we know, philosophy is about what we don’t know.” Philosophy and religion give structure and hypothesis for the unknown – guidance for the mysteries of life and the universe that science has not yet answered, and may never be able to answer. Over the centuries, philosophers and theologians have relied on a priori reasoning – abstract, theoretical reasoning without testing or other evidentiary support for their conclusions. The problem is that unsupported, philosophic or religious conclusions can easily become “unchallengeable“ ideologies.

For philosophy, we can start with Aristotle and Plato, pass through Kant and Spinoza and end with Ayn Rand – each, as well as the others in between – expressing ideas and conclusions as unquestionable truth about mankind, how we think, our role, and right and wrong, unsupported by scientific evidence.

The philosophy of Aristotle, so dominant among Western philosophy, including that of Ayn Rand, is the philosophy of the rational mind, devoid of emotional input, as if the mind is separate from the brain and the body, where logic, the tool of rationality, can easily prevail. The idea of separation of mind and body, received later philosophic support from Descartes, who wrote, “I think, therefore I am,” discussed below.


What cognitive scientists are now able to tell us, principally from their work since the 1960s, is that our decisions are not the product of a rational mind, separate from our emotions, our bodies and our environment. Emotion is more than a primitive response from the depths of our hypothalamus; emotion is an essential tool in our decisional processes. Mind and body are not separate, but a single totality. Antonio Damasio makes the point in his Descartes’ Error, “The mind is first about the body, or it could not have been. … The human brain and the rest of the body constitute an indissociable organism, … The organism interacts with the environment as an ensemble … Mental phenomena can be fully understood only in the context of the organism’s interacting in an environment.”

We now know that Aristotle, Descartes, and in our time, Ayn Rand, are wrong. We do not, and cannot, separate our emotions or our bodies from our thoughts. We do not decide exclusively with a rational mind, separated from physical reality. That is impossible, no matter how authoritatively philosophic organizations, like the Ayn Rand Organization or the Brights Organization, advocate the contrary.

Mind Frames

Cognitive science also tells us that we think in “mind frames,” shaped by our belief systems. We are wired to believe first, and evaluate information from within the frames provided by our established beliefs. If facts fit within our belief systems, we accept them readily. If facts are contrary to our belief systems, we diminish their importance and for the most part reject them. If we were to ask ourselves, “Is it true because we believe, or do we believe because it is true?” we would conclude that we believe because it is true; but in reality, what we accept as being true is what we first believe, supported by carefully sifted and sorted out facts that support our belief system.

Only with great difficulty are we willing to expand or change our “mind frames” to accept contrary factual information. George Lakoff comes to a similar conclusion in his The Political Mind. Think, for example, about the work of Galileo and Copernicus and other non-conforming thinkers over time. Heresy trials, witch burnings, and centuries of denial by those who would not accept our earth as being other than flat and the center of the universe, ruled from the heavenly throne of a sometimes jealous and sometimes benevolent tribal god, Yahweh.

Consider today the denials of global warming, overuse and destruction of the earth’s resources, and rejection of Darwin’s work regarding evolution of species, no matter how strong the supporting scientific evidence. I remember a few years ago talking to a rancher, an evangelical, whose life was dedicated to breeding the best show horses possible. He denied evolution in nature without recognizing that it is the lessons of evolution every breeder uses to improve his herd, his flock, or his crops. Recently, I watched a PBS video about “God and Global Warming.” The program was about a trip, an “unlikely alliance of Evangelical Christians and leading scientists to witness the breathtaking effects of global warming on Alaska’s rapidly changing environment. Though many in the evangelical community feel recognition of global warming is in opposition to their interpretation of the Bible, their prime source of truth and reality, the week-long trip inspired new, positive thinking on the relationship between science and religion, and our moral responsibility to protect our planet.”

Why do evangelicals not have “eyes to see and ears to hear“ what science can enlighten for them? Because certain of the findings of science disagree with their long-established belief systems and are outside the frames of their minds.

A September 2011 CNN poll concludes that 6 in 10 Tea Party members deny global warming and conclude that evolution is wrong. These “beliefs,” elevated to the status of fact, are contrary to scientific fact. Evangelicals and Tea Party members are not alone in the limitations of their mind frames; in one way or another each of us has our own mind frame to understand and challenge.

The dangerous negative of the limitations imposed by our mind frames is our actions are guided by anti- intellectualism, a denial of reality, particularly the reality of new discoveries and knowledge conflicting with out established beliefs that have become sacred. Richard Hofstadter wrote Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in 1963. His protégé, Susan Jacoby updated his work in 2008, The Age of American Unreason. Hofstadter sees these strongly-held beliefs as instinctive defense mechanisms, assurances that children will not abandon or desert parental ways.

Perhaps the tight focus of our mind frames were necessary for survival on the savannahs of Africa a million years ago, but today the limitations imposed by our mind frames create harmful hazards for us. Joseph Campbell points out the danger of anchoring our mind frames to 2,000 year old myths – canonized as religious beliefs, formed without the benefit of, or modification by, what we have learned since those ancient times. We return to this point later.

Educator David Orr writes in Ecological Literacy that too often our education system serves only to make Americans “better vandals,” uncritical consumers and exploiters of the natural world. Much of education today is shaped by our belief systems and limited by our mind frames and does not stimulate creative or critical thinking and is anti-intellectual in scope and approach.

Linguistic Expression

But, let us ponder these observations for the moment and turn to language, our tool for the linguistic expression. How do we use language to communicate ideas and information? Through sentences composed of words. Are sentences composed of words in and of themselves “facts” or “ideas” or expressions of facts or ideas? A growing consensus of cognitive psychologists, discussed in Lakoff’s and Johnson’s Philosophy of the Flesh, is that words are metaphors – we speak in metaphor. Our words conjure up pictures that shape our understanding, even for the most basic of concepts; the “hidden hand of our unconscious mind” uses metaphors to make sense of reality. We speak and conceptualize in metaphors. For example, “days fly by,” “time marches on,” “he’s higher than a kite,” “he had to climb a torturous mountain to get where he is today,” and on and on. We create mental pictures with our words and we understand our world through the mental pictures we create – metaphors of reality and thought.

Now, back to the work of Joseph Campbell.

The language of myth – through its metaphorical expressions – is the language of religion. The expression, God, Campbell says, is a metaphor. God, he writes in Transformations of Myth Through Time, is not a fact; God is “simply our notion of something that is symbolic of transcendence and mystery. The mystery is what’s important.”

Remember Campbell’s statement regarding the role of mythology: “Getting into harmony and tune with the universe and staying there is the principal function of mythology.”

For most of us, that’s easy to accept when we read, and evaluate, about the virgin birth of the Buddha from the side of his mother, but when it comes to our sacred beliefs, these beliefs for us reside as undeniable historical truths rather than spiritual messages spoken in metaphor.

Judaism, Islam, and Christianity – separate branches of the ancient Abrahamic religion of the tribes populating a small triangle in the Negev Desert – each grew to become a “book” religion. For the most faithful of the believers of each of these religions, though the books of each were different, the written word of each of the books became the literal word of God for the tribal members. The written word for the true believer is not metaphor or myth, it is literal truth. As Thomas Berry wrote, the spiritual message was converted to unchallengeable historical fact in the minds of the believers.

Thus, the reality of experience or scientific evidence that disagrees with the tribal book is, for the members of that tribe, wrong, blasphemous. Think again about the fates of Galileo, Copernicus and Darwin.

In a sense, for the true believer, nature and life are the metaphor for the written word instead of the written word being the metaphor for nature and life.

As we think about the validity of this conclusion, we should reflect on the words of George Santayana, the Harvard Professor who wrote Reason in Religion a hundred years ago: our religion is, like our language, the result of a historical accident – the place of our birth. But for each of us it becomes a sacred truth.

Are “beliefs” etched on ancient minds and in our ancient writings as historical fact when the best we could do was envision that Yahweh, the Abrahamic tribal god, resided in the clouds a few meters above Mount Arafat, not worthy of modification? We now know there are trillions of stars and trillions of universes and our planet is a rather insignificant offering circling a rather insignificant star in a rather insignificant galaxy among trillions galaxies in trillions of universes
The writings of Carl Sagan in his classic, The Pale Blue Dot, are worthy of deep reflection:

“We seem to crave privilege, merited not by our works, but by our birth, but the mere fact that, say, we are humans and born on Earth. We might call this the anthropocentric – the human-centered – conceit. The conceit is brought close to culmination in the notion that we are created in God’s image: The Creator and Ruler of the entire Universe looks just like me. My what a coincidence! How convenient and satisfying! The sixth century B.C. Greek philosopher Xenophanes understood the arrogance of this perspective: ‘The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair … Yes, and if oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms if the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen …’”

Campbell points out in Myths to Live By, that the religious “tales” that guide us in our own religious sphere are not unique, but have their counterparts in “every quarter of the earth.” The mythology of the Book of Genesis, for example, is “largely an adaptation of the Sumero-Babylonian myths. … When Cortez and his Catholic Spaniards arrived in Aztec Mexico, they immediately recognized in the local religion many parallels to their own True Faith. … There was even an incarnate Savior, associated with a serpent, born of a virgin, who had died and was resurrected.” The invaders rationalized the similarity by concluding that St. Thomas must have reached America earlier and had preached the gospel to the Aztecs.

When it comes to Bible literalism, the comments of the Catholic Encyclopedia about Noah and his ark are illuminating:

“The opinion that these chapters are mere legendary tales, Eastern folklore, is held by some non-Catholic scholars; according to others, with whom several Catholics side, they preserve, under the embroidery of poetical parlance, the memory of a fact handed down by a very old tradition. On this many Catholics can agree.”

When Sir Water Raleigh arrived in America, he concluded, after sailing the Atlantic with men and beast, that the idea that Noah took two of each beast on his ark was literally impossible – there were many new, and never before seen animals in the new world that could not have been known to Noah. Impossible? Legends? Poetic parlance?

In the 1950s and the 1960s, when I started a somewhat intense study of religion and philosophy, I read the three-volume work of Immanuel Velikovsky, a Russian Jewish scholar. His main work was Ages in Chaos. He was convinced that the earth’s catastrophes, like Noah’s flood, were suffered on a global scale, caused by close encounters with planets, like Saturn or Jupiter. He cited myths and stories of floods from around the globe in support of his theory. His theory, but not his observations, have since been discredited.

Campbell rejects the conclusion that the one true God of the book religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, is in fact the God of the universe, and the one true chosen people are the tribes of Israel and, in the tribal beliefs of Christians, their Christian descendants, and in the beliefs of the Jews, the Jewish descendants, and in the beliefs of Islam, the followers of Mohammed, are the chosen by God over all others. Campbell observes “the people of all great civilizations everywhere have been prone to interpret their own symbolic figures literally, and so to regard themselves as favored in a special way, in direct contact with the Absolute.”

I am sure by now, I have raised the ire of many readers, so let us pause in this discussion and move on to America.

Early America and Religious Freedom

When America was first settled by its “non-native“ English it was settled as a Christian nation, as an Anglican nation, since that was the mandated state religion of England and we were an English colony. So, today’s evangelicals, who want to “recreate“ a Christian Nation, a theocracy, are correct in stating that America was settled as a Christian Nation. Of course, we were a nation that only recognized the Anglican church, For example, the Baptists were not recognized; in fact Baptist preachers were arrested for preaching without a license, and they couldn’t get a license since they weren’t Anglican and therefore weren’t Christian. (some evangelicals objected in the most recent election to Romney’s campaign for president as he is a Mormon, and therefore not a Christian, or at least not an “insider” Christian.)

But the revolution changed the religious constitution of America. The original, Anglican, Christian Nation was a nation our Revolutionaries were bound to escape. When America separated from England, the idea of religious freedom was of vital concern. (If you have an interest in learning about the mixed and varied religious beliefs of our founders, peruse Alf Mappʼs Faith of our Fathers.) Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Franklin were deists, followers of the Enlightenment. Many, like Thomas Paine were Christian. A prime financier of the Revolution, Haym Salomon, was Jewish.

However, most Americans who voted on the Constitution then, as today, did not dig deeply into religious enlightenment. They simply wanted freedom from England. But, even the idea of freedom was not universal, as about ⅓ of Americans supported the British (including Ben Franklin’s son), about ⅓ didn’t care one way or the other, and the other ⅓ were revolutionaries. What were the founders’ thoughts on religious freedom? Paine, a Christian, writes in Common Sense: “For myself, I fully and conscientiously believe, that it is the will of the Almighty, that there should be diversity of religious opinions among us.” Jefferson, a deist, authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the forerunner for our Bill of Rights. He discusses its adoption in his Autobiography. During debate about the statute, Christians wanted the Act to “grant” freedom, but recognize the primacy of Christianity. The Christians were rejected and Jefferson concludes that within its mantle, the Act provided religious freedom for “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and the infidel of every denomination.”

Values to Live By

So, we have organized as a nation bent on each of us having religious freedom. Thus, when it comes to championing values, are we as a nation to champion the Judeo-Christian values, as expressed in the Bible? Do we suffer because we do not “have” to believe the offerings of any particular faith? When Jefferson, the deist, was President, he wrote the Jefferson Bible. Essentially, he extracted from the New Testament the sayings of Jesus, without the miracles. His work was not far from the later discovered Gospel of Thomas, which contains only sayings of Jesus, some quite different from accepted gospels. In his letters Jefferson wrote extensively about his religious views and his criticism of “pseudo- evangelists.“ In his letter to Dr. Joseph Priestley, he wrote about Jesus:

“To do him justice, it would be necessary to remark the disadvantages his doctrines have to encounter, not having been committed to writing by himself, but by the most unlettered of men, by memory, long after they had heard them from him; when much was forgotten, much misunderstood, & presented in paradoxical shapes. Yet such are the fragments remaining as to show a master workman, and that his system of morality was the most benevolent & sublime probably that has ever been taught, and therefore more perfect than those of the ancient philosophers.“

For Jefferson, the Bible, the book, was not the written word of God, but the life of Jesus was his moral guide. Similarly, the life of Jesus became the guide for Albert Schweitzer, perhaps the greatest humanitarian of our time.

Albert Schweitzer, the physician and philosopher who won the 1954 Nobel Peace Prize for his life work and clinic in Africa, was also an ordained Lutheran minister in his earlier years. When in medical school, he wrote the Quest for the Historical Jesus, a fascinating work about the humanity of Christ and Hebrew eschatology. He also wrote the Philosophy of Civilization. His philosophy is “Reverence for Life.” Like Damasio, he too is critical of Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.” Schweitzer urged that man must turn away from abstract concepts and reflect on the elemental, most immediate reality:

“Out of this act of thinking in the abstract, which is without substance and artificial, nothing concerning the relation of man to himself and to the universe can come. … The most immediate fact of man’s consciousness is the assertion ʻI am life that wills to live in the midst of life that wills to live’ and it is as will to live in the midst of will to live that man conceives himself at every moment…. Until now the great weakness in all ethical systems has been that they dealt only with the relations of man to man. In reality, however, the question is, ‘What is our attitude toward the universe and all that it supports?’ A man is ethical only when life as such is sacred to him – the life of plants and animals as well as that of his fellow men – and when he devotes himself to helping all life that is need of help.”

I am a deist, and in that my worldview has borrowed heavily from Schweitzer. For me, the Bible stories reflect the evolution of thought and spirit, from early desert tribes being ruled by the hand of a terrifying tribal god to the New Testament concept of God as agape, universal love. The Biblical stories, particularly the New Testament, can best be understood against a background of Hebrew eschatology. For the early Christians, their times were believed to be the end times. That is the mindset I glean for Jesus from my studies. A study of the Dead Sea Scrolls confirms this belief.
In the early Christian belief about the coming end-time the Essenes and the early Christians were wrong. Campbell writes, “There can be no doubt of the influence of Zoroastrian eschatology on such ideas [of the end of the world and the resurrection].”

The times were times of tremendous cruelty, including the slaughter of many men, women and children, not unlike the genocides of our time and the wars in the Middle East. The historian Josephus wrote of the times that a “deep terror seized the people.” They were without hope. They gathered their strength from their thoughts about a better world, a new world, to be ushered in the future by their God. A 1,000 years of peace was “promised.” The promise provided them by their priests gave them strength and hope.

The history of the Christian religion is found in the delayed anticipation of the end time. Campbell notes that about every 1,000 years, followers see the end time as near. In June 2011, as they did in 1,000 A.D., end-time believers sold their possessions, quit work, took their children out of school and waited. When the end time did not come, did beliefs changed? No. The believers found an error in their calculation and reset the date to October 21, 2011. The facts experienced did not fit within their belief system, so the facts were rejected. When the end did not come in October, their conclusion was that they had again erred, but the fact the end time was coming remained a historical fact, not merely a spiritual belief, a metaphor that anticipates a change for the better among humanity.

Yes, I believe we can learn much from the Biblical stories as long as we remember they are for the most part mythical stories, created during man’s struggle during an earlier time to understand and deal with reality. Yes, I admire the work of Jefferson and his life; but his ethical conclusions, far-reaching for the time in which he lived, do not satisfy me.

It is the work of Albert Schweitzer, it is his Reverence for Life that best expresses for me the “belief” system that I choose to follow, for it best fits the evidence I have been able to observe and discover.

Campbell says that life is about life feasting on life. It is a tough place for all of us.

Schweitzer adds that all life has its own will to live, and we are only ethical when our actions recognize and revere the will to live in all plants and creatures. Thomas Berry, in more recent times, writes that this is the spirit lost in our genocide of the indigenous peoples of the world, who saw themselves as part of Nature, not lords over Nature.

Chief Seattle, speaking to Congress about its taking of his people’s land asked:

“Will you teach your children what we have taught our children, that the earth is out mother? What befalls the earth befalls all of the sons of the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. One thing we know, our God is your God. The earth is precious to him. To harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator. Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the view of the ripe hills are blotted by talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Where will the eagle be? Gone. And what is it to say goodbye to the swift pony and the hunt, the end of living and the beginning of survival.”

Schweitzer writes that our world view must come from rational thought, with all rational thought about life and our universe ending in mystery, the divine mystery of creation, not merely the creation of man, but of all creation. Chief Seattle and Schweitzer, for me, fill the void, the philosophical spaces among the mysteries of life. I cannot prove the existence or nonexistence of a God, nor can anyone else. What God “is“ symbolizes the divine mystery for me.

Here, I find that the conclusions of the Israeli scientist, Gerald L. Schroeder, expressed in his writings, The Science of God and The Hidden Face of God, make sense to me – for Schroeder, the marvels of science “proves” the existence of God, revealed through uncovered mysteries. There is no conflict between thoughtful science and thoughtful religion.

Science is a tool for exploration, for discovery. But an undiscovered, deeper mystery lies beneath each fulfilled inquiry of science, large or small. All of life is steeped in creative intelligence and it is doubtful we will ever grasp its depth or reach all of its mystery. Thus, there underlies even our most magnificent discoveries and stellar explorations, the ultimate divine mystery that we must hold in thankful awe.

As I travel, photograph and grow in my understanding of the depths of nature, I increase in awe of the divine mystery we are privileged to experience. It is not just the intelligence of man that amazes me, it is the remarkable intelligence in all of nature, from the simplest cell to the largest galaxy, from the bend of a tree toward the light, from the mating dance of a bird, from the grace of an antelope, from the spirit, the adaptability, and the will to live in all of life. I find little support for the belief of Richard Dawkins, a renowned scientist and atheist, as expressed in his God Delusion. The world as I see it is not the product of a “blind watchmaker.” Intelligence of the universe and of life is evident in all that we see.

A growing view among scientists supports my observations that “intelligence” is the “creator“ of the universe and life. This is not the “Divine Intelligence” of the Creationists, the God that created a universe fixed in size and content for the benefit of man. It is the evolving intelligence expressed in nature, discovered by Darwin, the true language of a creative God. Man is but one of the lucky participants. There is a substantial difference in concept and the role and place of man, a mere “strand weaved into the web of life“ – as Chief Seattle eloquently stated.

We live on the shifting sands of time, but we are wired to seek spiritual answers, as evidenced since the cave art and burial practices of the Neanderthal. Our younger generation, the Millennials, is in the hunt. The Christian Science Monitor, in its September 15, 2011 article, “A shifting spiritual quest,” observes:

“[T]hat ongoing spiritual quest is taking on new forms, some of which can seem troubling at first glance. Polls show many outward signs of religious activity, such as attendance at religious services, creeping downward. A new suspicion of the motives and aims of institutions – whether political, commercial, or religious – is on the rise. At the same time belief in God and interest in spiritual matters continue to rank highly in polls of Americans of all ages. Today more Americans seem to be striking out on their own in their quest for spiritual progress, taking an ‘a la carte’ approach to their religious beliefs.”

America is evolving toward a place with “310 million people with 310 million religions,” says religious pollster George Barna, adding, “We are a designer society. We want everything customized to our personal needs – our clothing, our food, our education” – and our religion. A survey of Protestant pastors in the United States showed that 62 percent think the importance of being identified with a particular denomination will diminish over the next 10 years. Shaking the dust off a religious practice that’s devolved into nothing more than habit, ritual, or routine certainly isn’t a bad thing. Active seekers, not sleepy slackers, are more likely to find what they are seeking. Many teens and young adults also seem more eager than ever to show their compassion for others through community service work, whether in the US or overseas. Much of it is faith-based. And they’re less likely to hold onto religious, racial, or other prejudices against groups. That’s to be applauded.

An article in Foreign Affairs, “The Care and Repair of Public Myths,” concludes that societies that do not have a myth to support them, and provide coherence, go into dissolution. That is the concern of Campbell and it should be our concern, for he says if we do not have mythology, we end up with ideology. Why can’t we continue with our sacred myths? Campbell concludes:

“But there is a difference between the science of 2000 B.C. and the science of A.D. 2000. And we’re in trouble because we have a sacred text that was composed somewhere else by another people a long time ago and has nothing to do with the experience of our lives. And so there is a fundamental disengagement. When we look back at the text, it speaks of man as superior to nature, man’s mastery over nature as being what has been given to him. Compare that to the words of Chief Seattle. … [The] mythology has dried up, is dead. … When the mythology is alive, you don’t have to tell anybody what it means. It’s like looking at a picture that’s really talking to you.”

The spiritual quest continues … Just Suppose …

Let us consider an example from “current events” that gives us hope. Consider political and religious opposition to “gay” marriage. In the views of the deniers, being “gay” is being godless, contrary to the Bible. There are strong words in the Bible, particularly in Leviticus, chapters 18 and 20, to support their position. “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a women, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”

There are other passages, including New Testament words from Paul that are equally as condemning. No wonder that, today, Michelle Bachmannʼs husband counsels gays to “convert” to “straight” thinking – man is meant to look sexually on women, not men, he has been known to say. The idea is that being gay is a matter of choice, a sin to be overcome.

Thus, if we use the Bible as our spiritual guide for society’s handling of gays, we would do more than reject gay marriage; we would condemn the gay to death, or at the least, expel them from society.

But consider the “Bell Curve,” and human characteristics and performance. Applying the curve to most every human characteristic indicates a few of us at the high end, a few of us at the low end and most of us bunched in the middle, raising the curve into its bell shape. The curve is not limited to plotting intelligence. It applies to most every human characteristic. When it comes to sex and sexual attraction among men, some are going to be “really macho.” Some will be more feminine, gay. Most will be in between. Gays, machos, and the rest of us all come out of nature’s gene pool, in varying shades and configurations. Being macho or being gay is rarely a matter of choice, it is a matter of genes. Similarly, being lesbian.

That’s where the Bible and some evangelicals get it wrong, and it is an example of the difficulty using the Bible as the prime, or absolute, source for moral guidance. The written word, not the workings of nature, have become the historic facts. But according to the Public Religion Research Institute, today’s young, the Millennials, lead the charge to change our attitudes toward gays and lesbians. Seven out of ten say that churches are alienating younger Americans by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues. There is over a 20-point generation gap between Millennials (ages 18-29) and those over 65 when it comes to approval of gays and gay marriage. Public Religion Research Institute conducted its survey in 2011, which can be found at www.publicreligion.org/research/?id=677.
Among its findings:

• Public support for allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry has registered double-digit increases over the last 5 years. In PRRI’s current July survey, views of same-sex marriage evenly divided; 47% of Americans favor it and 47% oppose it.
• Among Americans who say their views have shifted over the last five years, more than twice as many say their current opinion about the legality of same-sex marriage has become more supportive than more opposed (19% and 9% respectively).
• A majority (51%) of Americans currently say supporting same-sex marriage is the more socially acceptable position to hold.
• Most Americans (51%) believe it is difficult to live openly as a gay or lesbian person, but nearly twice as many Americans believe more gay and lesbian people “coming out” is a good thing (34%) rather than a bad thing (18%) for American society.
• Slightly more Catholics believe the Catholic Church’s position on the issue of homosexuality is too conservative (46%) than believe it is about right (43%).
• Nearly seven-in-ten (69%) Millennials agree that religious groups are alienating young people by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues. Among seniors, only 37% agree.
• More than six-in-ten Americans, including majorities of all major religious groups, believe that negative messages from America’s places of worship contribute either a lot (23%) or a little (40%) to higher rates of suicide among gay and lesbian youth.

(Since originally writing the above example, there has been an increased movement toward recognition of the rights of gays and in 2015, recognition by the Supreme Court, though there remain many deniers.)

We could go further in our examples, but hopefully the point has been made. We are in a period of rapid change, of tremendous instability, and the myths of the past are becoming anchors impeding the present and not livable guides. Christian Smith, the Notre Dame sociologist referenced above, expressed deep concern after his study that our young have not been given the resources by schools, parents, churches and other institutions to cultivate their moral intuitions, to think broadly about moral issues and discipline themselves in regard to their conduct. Our concern must be for our youth, but our criticism must be of ourselves. Smith has written extensively regarding these issues. His most recent work is: What is a Person? Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up.

Worth Pondering

Albert Schweitzer wrote the first two volumes of his Philosophy of Civilization in 1923. After his death, incomplete drafts of his planned 3rd and 4th volumes were found, but the written work was never completed. Some historians believe it was not completed because of the impact of World War II. Others attributed the lack of completion to his intense and all-consuming work at his mission hospital in Africa, where the survival rate of patients exceeded that of many of the finest hospitals in the Western World.

But, a deeper inquiry into the life of Schweitzer reveals his ultimate conclusion: I will let my life be my statement.

There is no better guide, no more profound message for each of us, as we search for harmony with the God of a Trillion Stars.

Let our lives be our statements.

Joanie Meets Irma

Joanie Meets Irma

No – we’re not talking about Joanie “meeting” Hurricane Irma. We’re talking about Joanie meeting a hurricane casualty, a Cormorant named Irma.

The mighty winds of Hurricane Irma drove Cormorant Irma to our condo’s pool – with a concussion, disoriented, unable to fly. Slowly, Irma the Cormorant began to recover. Rick, an avid fisherman and one our residents, fed Irma by throwing a few of his catches into our pool, which quickly became Irma’s private domain and training ground.

It didn’t take long for Cormorant Irma to fit right in to our community. When I swim in the pool, Irma jumps in and swims with me. When folks gather poolside for conversation, Irma’s right there, one of the crowd. That’s where Joanie met Irma – poolside.

Irma’s one of us. Happy to be alive. Happy for our help. Happy to have us as her friend! And, you can tell from the smile on Joanie’s face, we’re happy too!

That’s what catastrophes like hurricanes can do for us – they bring out the essential good in people. Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma stories abound about people extending themselves for others, setting aside racism, elitism, religion, politics and polarized beliefs. When Hurricane Harvey ravaged Houston, Republicans and Democrats found a way to quickly package hurricane relief, facilitated with a necessary increase in the federal debt limit – a contentious political thought threatening to bring our country down before Harvey’s devastation.

It’s amazing how catastrophes bring us together!

And that makes me wonder . . . Will it take a nuclear catastrophe, a war with North Korea or Iran, before the ravages of war will force us to bring together the political divides that separate us? Of course, our divides don’t stop there. There’s race, inequality, global warming, health care, taxation, and education to name but a few of the issues that divide us.

When I wrote Wonderlust, I introduced the lessons I learned from trekking the seven continents with the importance of our “dirty-hands wet-feet learning” in shaping our beliefs and thoughts. I introduced Wonderlust with this beginning:

“We’re born curious. We’re born to explore — to be outdoors — to dig in sand, peek under rocks, splash in rivers, find seashells on beaches, make mud pies, climb trees, play stick ball, feel wind in our hair, smells in our nostrils, be awed by stars in the night sky. We’re born to learn by play, by doing, by going there — dirty-hands wet-feet learning, with life’s lesson plans graciously endowed upon us by Mother Nature. That’s the child we start with, the child we’re born with, the child within us. The curious child that from dawn to dusk won’t slow down, won’t stop puzzling out those curious “whys.” “Whys” that morph into Wonderings, curiosities checked out during the Wanderings of our Child Within, uninhibited by the boundaries of adult-borne beliefs and dogmas.

“But some time and some place along the way, we get bogged down. Whether it’s the hard charge we take to earn a living, whether it’s settling down to life’s routine, whether it’s the rituals of our culture we grow to accept without question, or whether it’s our fear of the outdoors and the bad stuff going on out there, we lose touch with our Child Within.

“We retreat to a virtual world, an electronic world that sanitizes us, that becomes our safe, virtual reality. We’re soothed, comforted with minimal conflict or physical effort. After all, in cyberspace there are no too cold, too hot or too stormy days, nor hustling to eat or sleep, nor real bullets, nor illnesses, nor scars or hurts. No dead that stay dead. No wind in our hair. No trees climb. No smells in our nostrils. And there’s no dirty-hands wet-feet learning.” [emphasis added]

But, I confess, I underestimated the importance of dirty-hands, wet-feet learning. There is simply no other way to see the world from the other side. And seeing the world from the other side is essential to our understanding, our problem-solving.

The web, once championed as the tool we’d use to broaden our points of view has had the exact opposite effect, confining us to silo-thinking, as we huddle comfortably in echo-chambers with others who champion similar beliefs and values, as if ours was the only worldview that matters.

No, technology and its virtual reality won’t save humanity. Only dirty-hands, wet-feet learning – only understanding the needs and concerns and beliefs of people from the other side – will endow us with the vision and the wisdom we need to solve our growing problems. And that requires hands-on, face-to-face interaction, and thoughtful listening and consideration of points-of-views that won’t make the hit parade in our comfortable silos.

We set aside those sorts of differences when faced with a catastrophe like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Why can’t we set our differences aside to work together to solve our problems before they become catastrophes that can only be solved by setting our differences aside?

As you ponder these thoughts, take 18 minutes with Theo Wilson [It takes 2 clicks to get to the TED Talk]:

P. S. September 24th: Irma has recovered and now spends her time in the wild; however, I was pleased that she paid us a visit yesterday and we had a swim together before she flew off.