Beloved Community in Our Lives — UUS:E Virtual Worship, February 21, 2021

You can view our February 21st Sunday service on the UUS:E YouTube Channel.

 

Crazy Little Thing Called Beloved Community — UUS:E Virtual Worship, February 14, 2021

What If…? UUS:E Virtual Worship, February 7, 2021

Friends: You can view our February 7th Sunday service on the UUS:E YouTube channel.

Got a New Normal? — UUS:E Virtual Worship, January 24, 2021

From a Wounded World to a Wondrous One
Rev. Josh Pawelek
Unitarian Universalist Society: East
Manchester, CT
January 24, 2021

___________________________________________________

 

You could say Wanda got it wrong. She clearly had no idea what a rose bush is, at least at first. The neighbors knew it too. They suspected Wanda was approaching a big disappointment. That was a possibility.[1]

But she also clearly got something right, and that something was her vision of a beautiful rose garden, and her willingness to work hard to achieve it. That something was her focus, her commitment, her dedication. Wanda inspired her neighbors so much that they brought rose bushes to her party, and the garden moved from Wanda’s imagination into the real soil of that abandoned lot.

This past Wednesday, when the national youth poet laureate, Amanda Gorman, recited her inaugural poem, she said, “we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.” She was talking about addressing the wounds, the painful history, the division, the violence, the white supremacy in our nation—addressing all of it and healing from it. But her words also reminded me of this story we were planning to share this morning, of Wanda’s vision for the vacant, trash-strewn lot near her home. We will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one. Her words reminded me that no matter how local or global our vision is, our commitment, dedication, focus and hard work matter. That’s what the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris was all about. These two now world leaders are going to work tirelessly on behalf of a vision of, to quote Biden,Opportunity. Security. Liberty. Dignity. Respect. Honor. And … truth.” We can and we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.

****

Since the pandemic began in the United States, since so-called normal life came to a screeching halt for so many, the members and friends of our congregation in Manchester have heard me repeat, many times, some version of the words, “we cannot go back to the old normal. We must dedicate ourselves to a new normal that is more fair, more just, more antiracist, more galvanized to address the climate crisis, more compassionate, more kind, more loving.”

And to be clear, the new normal must be more angry at injustice, more intolerant of hatred, more maladjusted to violence, racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny.

And it must provide no legal, social, economic or political sanction for fascism and other anti-democratic movements.

I started saying “we cannot go back to the old normal” in response to hearing the stories of colleagues of color – Black and Hispanic clergy serving predominantly Black and Hispanic congregations – about how the pandemic was impacting their people. Illness and death from Covid 19 were clearly much more prevalent in their congregations than in ours. Financial hardship, food and housing insecurity: much more prevalent in their congregations than in ours. The virus was exposing and exacerbating longstanding race and class-based disparities. The suffering was and continues to be enormous and it resides disproportionately in poor communities and communities of color. That’s why I started saying it. We cannot go back to a system whose sprawling inner workings result in such vast inequality. We have to work very hard – and we have to work now – for a new normal. Each of us, from the youngest to the oldest, from the poorest to the most wealthy has a sphere of influence, has some modicum of power to help birth this new normal. If you leave this service with nothing else, leave with these two questions: What is my power? How shall I use it to contribute to a new normal?

And better yet, what is our collective power? How shall we use it to contribute to a new normal?

Wednesday’s inauguration was wonderful for so many reasons. We could finally weep tears of joy rather than pain and fear and worry. We could finally feel hope after feeling hopeless for so long. We could finally believe those words of the poet: We will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.

How shall we use our power?

****

Of course, the pandemic isn’t over. Even with the arrival of vaccines, even with the arrival of a federal administration that takes scientific data seriously and fully expects to work with public health officials, many parts of the country, including New England, are still facing their most difficult months. Health and economic hardship continues for so many. We all live with pandemic fatigue, mask fatigue, isolation fatigue, screen fatigue, online worship fatigue. Understandably, there is an impulse to get it all behind us, to get the economy moving again, to get back to the way things were one year ago, to get back to the old normal. Yes, the pressure to return to life as it was is and will be intense.

Wait. Which is it? Getting back to the old normal or birthing a new normal?

As we begin anticipating the end of the pandemic, let’s learn to interrogate that pressure to get back to normal. When someone says, “I want life to get back to normal,” or when you say it, feel it, long for it, what do the words actually mean? In my newsletter column at the beginning of the month I asked members of our congregation to respond to this question. With her permission, I want to share Jean Labutis’ nicely nuanced response. On getting back to the old normal, she said: “What I hope will happen next is being with people again.  I miss that personal contact, the expression on people’s faces, the opportunity to acknowledge others, the stories, the laughs, the lunches and coffees where so much is shared, gatherings on my patio.” But with regard to the new normal, she said: I worry about the huge gains the rich have made and the deeper slide into poverty for so many….  The uneven distribution of wealth is at the core of our world’s suffering. No one needs a billion dollars.  NO ONE.”

I include Jean’s words about income inequality here because there are a lot of people in state government who were overjoyed to learn this week that Connecticut’s financial position is improving. We learned the state will be able to balance its budget without raising taxes. We can get back to normal. But let’s interrogate that claim. Normal for the past few decades has not been good for poor people; for low income workers, domestic workers, fast food workers, nursing home workers; has not been good for immigrants, for undocumented people; has not been good for prisoners and former prisoners; has not been good for many school districts. The old normal has been failing far too many people. The old normal won’t get us a subsidized public option in health care, won’t produce more affordable housing, won’t expand desperately needed mental health services, or services for people with disabilities, or services for ex-incarcerated people. It won’t repeal welfare liens. It won’t give us clean slate legislation for those of us working with GHIAA or CONECT. That old normal won’t because it can’t invest in our people, in our communities, in our cities and towns in a way that enables everyone to thrive. We need to be in the struggle for a new normal. We will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.

****

In his inaugural address Wednesday, President Biden assured us, quoting Abraham Lincoln when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, “my whole soul is in it.” In my experience, we find our greatest spiritual health and wholeness—we find our whole soul is in it—when our external lives align with our internal lives. If in our external lives we intend to resist the pressure to return to the worst features of the old normal, how might that resistance manifest in our internal lives? What changes might we make to welcome a new internal normal so that we can remain strong and grounded and rooted as the pressure to return to the old external normal grows in intensity? I’ve been sitting with this question for a while now. I’ve been wondering about the role the pandemic has played in reshaping our internal lives. We’ve been forced to live differently. It’s been hard. We want to go back to life the way it was. But hold on. There’s that pressure. Interrogate it. Surely living through this pandemic has taught us valuable lessons about ourselves—about our strengths and weaknesses, our fears, our loves, the things that bring us joy, the things that matter most, the things that break our hearts, the pain we can endure, the problems we can solve, the challenges we can overcome. We aren’t the same people we were ten months ago. None of us is. I contend there are now new aspects of ourselves, beautiful, compelling pieces of each of us we need to hold onto as the pressure to go back to our old selves intensifies.

We asked some of the children in our congregations to share their thoughts about what has mattered to them during the pandemic. You will now hear from Ella, Mazzy, Sage, Simone, Margeaux, Quin and Julian.

In the midst of a wounded world, is not the wondrous one already rising up? (Floating to us with Sage’s beautiful bubbles?)

Sheila Foran from UUS:E gave me permission to share her words in response to this question:As a born introvert, yet someone who likes interacting with people – on my terms, in small doses, a person or two at a time – something unexpected has come out of the vagaries of the pandemic.  I have made some new friends. Re-established some relationships. Accepted help, and otherwise have not flinched when someone has extended a – metaphorical of course – hand of friendship. Coming out of this experience feeling better supported emotionally at first seems counter-intuitive, but maybe enforced social distancing and mask-wearing are just what this introvert needs to comfortably embrace whatever the ‘new normal’ is turning out to be.” And Jean Labutis said “I love my alone time.  I can process things more deeply, read more serious material, understand just what is truly important to me.  So I like that part of what is being emphasized now.  I have not spent many days without talking with someone from UUSE, sometimes on a very deep level.  I have been the recipient of uncounted acts of kindness.”

In the midst of a wounded world, a wondrous one is rising up.

I urge each of you to reflect on how the pandemic has shaped you, how it has strengthened you, softened you, connected you, grounded you –made you more wise, more perceptive, more compassionate. Don’t race back to the old you. Hold onto this new you and let it inhabit your inner world so you are prepared for and sustained in the struggle for a new normal in the external world—a more fair, more just, more antiracist, more compassionate, more kind, more loving world,” a rose garden to grace a vacant lot, a world of possibilities, to quote President Biden, a wondrous world to replace a wounded one.

May our whole souls be in it.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Brisson, Pat, Wanda’s Roses (Boyds Mills Press, 2000).

We Rise for Racial Justice — UUS:E Virtual Worship, January 17th, 2021

Christmas Eve — UUS:E Virtual Worship, December 24, 2020

UUS:E Holiday Music Service, December 20th, 2020

Living Like Julian

Living Like Julian
Rev. Josh Pawelek
Unitarian Universalist Society: East
Manchester, CT
December 13, 2020

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”—the most well-known words from the medieval, Christian mystic and anchoress, Julian of Norwich, the first known woman to write an English-language book, Revelations of Divine Love. We call her Julian after St. Julian’s Church in Norwich, England where she lived for much of her life. She was born in 1343, died in 1416. As a child she lived through the bubonic plague, a pandemic which killed between a third and a half of the people of Norwich, and which resurfaced continually for decades. She lived through famine. She lived in the era of the Hundred Years’ War when England was engaged in near-constant warfare in Europe. She lived through the Peasants’ Rebellion of 1381.  We can say with confidence: Julian was keenly aware of human suffering. Her words, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” offer comfort and consolation in response to physical, emotional and spiritual suffering.

I call this homily “Living Like Julian,” with the hope that, in response to suffering, we may be among those who do not shy away, but instead offer comfort, consolation and companionship. Having said that, I’m not suggesting we ought to live like Julian actually lived. As an anchoress her spiritual practice was extreme. Apparently, after the church admitted you into this select group, it held a funeral mass in your honor to proclaim your death to the physical world. After the mass you entered a tiny cell and the door was bricked up behind you. One historian referred to it as “irreversible enclosure.” For the rest of your life, you never left that cell.

The anchoress’ purpose was to be close to God and to pray constantly for the local people—for their health, well-being, safety, prosperity, their souls. The cell was often located along the street in front of the church, so the people would know someone was praying for them.  Servants brought food to the anchoress, emptied and cleaned her chamber pot, and offered companionship through small windows. As Gina pointed out in her story, an anchoress could keep a cat with her, though the cat could come and go through the windows. Wealthier members of the community donated money to support the anchoress, and were likely able to secure a few extra prayers for themselves.

 Although anchorites are usually defined as “religious recluses,” that isn’t quite accurate. The editor of a 2015 edition of her book said that, “as an anchoress living in the heart of an urban environment, Julian would not have led an entirely secluded life. She would have … enjoyed … the general affection of the population [and] would have in turn provided prayers, advice and counsel to the people.”[1] The anchoress was a street-based spiritual life coach. Julian’s contemporary, the Christian mystic, Margery Kempe – also from Norwich – wrote about visiting her at her cell. “Much was the holy conversation that the anchoress and [I] had,” she wrote, “communing in the love of our Lord Jesus Christ many days [we] were together.”[2]

When I refer to “Living Like Julian,” I don’t mean ‘irreversible enclosure.’ Cats, spiritual life coaching, stillness, quiet, meditation, prayer, isolation during a pandemic, yes. Voluntary, lifelong confinement, no.

At age thirty, Julian became gravely ill. She and those caring for her believed she was dying. A priest came to deliver last rites. As the ritual began, Julian had a series of sixteen mystical experiences—visions of Jesus, which she called shewings. She recovered from her illness and began writing about the shewings. She continued crafting the 65,000-word Revelations of Divine Love over the rest of her life. It was first published 300 years later.  

I realize that when I talk about Julian’s theology, it’s easy to make her sound like a UU, like a religious liberal. There is a latent universalism in her theology, but I want to be clear: Julian was a medieval, Catholic woman living in a repressive, theocracy. Heaven and Hell were very real to her. She lived centuries before the Protestant Reformation,  the Enlightenment, the discovery of Pompeii, and European colonial expansion. Medieval England was a closed, inward-looking, fearful society. The modern, liberal religious consciousness we take for granted did not exist.

Given plagues, famine and endless war, we can be confident Julian knew suffering. She longed for a compassionate response from God. She prayed for a sign that God loved her, cared for her, held her, tended to her pain and the pain of others. What seemed to get in the way of that compassionate response was sin. God was always angry about sin. She wrote: “I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well.” If God created everything, why didn’t God make it impossible for people to sin? A reasonable question.

The shewings provided an answer. “Jesus,” she said, “answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ These words were said most tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any who shall be saved.”[3]  So, despite our sinfulness,  mistakes, flaws, pettiness, meanness, and in the midst of our suffering, we are still held in tenderness, still loved deeply. All shall be well.

Two features of her theology resonate with me and were likely dangerous for her to name  openly. First, she experienced Jesus as female, specifically as a mother. She wrote: “The mother can lay her child tenderly to her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can lead us easily into his blessed breast through his sweet open side, and show us there a part of the godhead and of the joys of heaven, with inner certainty of endless bliss…. This fair lovely word ‘mother’ is so sweet and so kind in itself that it cannot truly be said of anyone or to anyone except of him and to him who is the true Mother of life and of all things. To the property of motherhood belong nature, love, wisdom, and knowledge, and this is God.” [4]

Jesus also had male attributes, but Julian clearly couldn’t accept a purely male God. Historians speculate that she either experienced her own mother as tender, gentle, nurturing, wise and loving, or that she herself was a mother who felt deep love for her children. God could not possibly be only male, a disciplinarian, wrathful. So she boldly asserted in her writing a female, Mother Jesus as the answer to her enduring prayer for compassion in the midst of suffering.

Methodist pastor, Jennifer Williamson, visited Julian’s cell in 2018. She says: “There I sat, in the cell of Julian of Norwich. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. As my feet rested and my spirit relaxed I looked for an image in my heart…. I saw … my breastfeeding child … a memory of sitting up in the middle of the night with my newborn and marveling at how his tiny jaw moved up and down, his body calmed, and his belly filled with what my body provided him. A memory of how it felt to be so connected and to be so satisfied in mutually fulfilling each other’s need. A memory of that mix of instinct, love, relationship, and human dependency.”[5]

A second theological notion that resonates with me is her deeper, non-binary conception of God. Julian continually erases distinctions between body and soul, between God and humanity, between God and all creation. God is in us; we are in God. Matthew Fox, the founder of creation spirituality, says for “Julian … we are always in a state of being in the womb of the Divine, a place of utter interdependence and compassion…. We leave the womb of our literal mothers to enter the world and [enter the] fray … but when it comes to the womb of God … we do not leave. We swim in it our whole lives long.”[6]

How might we live like Julian? Many recent articles suggest Julian chose to live in a cell as a way of isolating during a pandemic.[7] I think that’s false. Becoming an anchoress was a profound spiritual commitment, not a public health measure. Nevertheless, she did live in isolation at a time when pandemics were common. Perhaps in our own isolation we are already living like Julian. Many people are now finding comfort in her example—her faith, her endurance, her stillness, her tender, nurturing God, her confidence that “all will be well.”

Living like Julian means seeking out the sources of love in our lives—knowing them intimately, finding comfort and strength in them. She found her most profound source of love in Mother Jesus. Where do you find love? In the divine? The interdependent web? Family and friends? A pet? Our UUS:E Community? In the stillness of this season, search for your sources of love. Drop gently into them.

Living like Julian also means being spiritually and theologically creative. In the midst of our isolation, can we discard outdated, unbalanced, oppressive religious assumptions; open ourselves up to mystical experience, experiment with new spiritual practices, and generate theological ideas that speak directly to the realities of life?

Perhaps most importantly, living like Julian means discerning how to respond to the reality of suffering—our own and that of others; how to live with it without becoming overwhelmed. Julian tells us “[Jesus] did not say ‘You shall not be perturbed, you shall not be troubled, you shall not be distressed,’ but he said, ‘You shall not be overcome.’” I love the song Jenn sang from Rev. Meg Barnhouse which imagines a dialogue with Julian. She knows the suffering at the heart of the human condition. “No one does not know … about sorrow … pain… hunger … shame … loneliness … disease … cruelty. She said I know it’s too much. It brought me to my knees, where I heard: ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’”[8]

Sometimes we gaze out at the world and know it’s all too much. But when we pause to reflect deeply on our own experiences of suffering, as Julian surely did, it’s possible to recognize we didn’t come through it alone. Some power greater than ourselves—some source of love—held us, remained with us, mothered us – a spouse, a friend, a parent, a nurse, a pet, a spirit, an all-pervading silence, a still, small voice. And in such moments of recognition, some version of Julian’s words sing in our hearts. All shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.

Amen and blessed be.  

[1] Windeatt, Barry, ed. Revelations of Divine Love. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) pp. xii-xiii.
[2] “What Julian of Norwich Said to Margery Kempe,” Clerk of Oxford, May 13, 2012. See: https://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.com/2012/05/what-julian-of-norwich-said-to-margery.html
[3] Quoted from Graves, Dan, “Article 31: All Shall Be Well,” Christian History Institute. See: https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/incontext/article/julian
[4] From Edmund Colledge, James Walsh, Jean Leclercq, eds, Julian of Norwich: Showings (The Classics of Western Spirituality) (Paulist Press, 1978), quoted in Williamson, Jennifer “Julian of Norwich’s Image of Mother Jesus, The Christian Century’s CCBlogs Network, August 7, 2018. See: https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/ccblogs-network/julian-norwichs-image-mother-jesus.
[5] Williamson, Jennifer “Julian of Norwich’s Image of Mother Jesus, The Christian Century’s CCBlogs Network, August 7, 2018. See: https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/ccblogs-network/julian-norwichs-image-mother-jesus.
[6] Fox, Matthew, “Julian of Norwich on Advent” Daily Meditations with Matthew Fox, December 9th, 2020. See: https://dailymeditationswithmatthewfox.org/2020/12/09/julian-of-norwich-on-advent/.
[7] Check out: “All Shall Be Well; Reflections on Julian of Norwich,” St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA, http://www.stpaulsbellingham.org/lindsay-rosshunt/all-shall-be-well-reflections-on-julian-of-norwich; “Coronavirus: Advice from the Middle Ages on How to Deal With Self-Isolation,” The Conversation, March 29, 2020 at https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-advice-from-the-middle-ages-for-how-to-cope-with-self-isolation-134585; Rigby, Nic, “Coronavirus: Mystic’s Relevance to a Self-Isolating World, BBC News, March 29, 2020 at https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-norfolk-52020227.
[8] Barnhouse, Meg, “All Shall Be Well.” See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Kadbd3tCqc.

 

Let the Stillness Carry You — UUSE Virtual Worship, December 6, 2020

Universals and Particulars

Friends: You can view our November 29th, 2020 virtual service on the UUS:E YouTube channel:

Universals and Particulars
Rev. Josh Pawelek
Unitarian Universalist Society: East
Manchester, CT
November 29, 2020

At our UUS:E 2019 Goods and Services Auction, Michael York purchased a sermon. After cancelling twice due to extenuating circumstances, this, finally, is Michael’s sermon. Full disclosure: I’ve known Michael since I was a child. He and his wife, Janet, were members of the Unitarian Society of New Haven in Hamden where I was raised. Their daughter Kathy and I were in the same grade at Hamden High School. And, here’s the kicker: I was the York’s paperboy, and used to see them every week when I stopped by to collect their payment for the New Haven Register.

Michael asked “Is there a universal morality?” Thanks Michael, for the invitation to reflect on a topic that has inspired and perplexed human beings for millennia; a topic on which more has been spoken and written than any other. Indeed, questions of right and wrong live at the heart of so many great stories, myths, fables, sacred scriptures, classic novels, constitutions, bodies of law… Sunday sermons. One can even discern moral models in the natural world: parents caring for their young, the community of wolves, ants, bees or elephants, the intricacies of the atom, the harmony of the spheres, the cosmic order.

Luckily I have fifteen minutes.

I misinterpreted Michael’s question at first. I heard him asking if there is a moral code inherent in human beings, a basic, deeply ingrained concept of right and wrong found in each person regardless of culture, country or continent. I’m not aware of any definitive evidence for the existence of an inherent, universal morality. Scientific studies confirm that altruism—treating people well—provides evolutionary benefits, helps us survive. But that doesn’t prove an inherent, universal morality. And while that isn’t the point of Michael’s question, I’m starting here because I have said many times over the course of my ministry, in different ways, that human beings are inherently good; which sounds like I believe there is an inherent, universal morality.

If there’s no definitive evidence, why do I say this? Well, I learned it as a child growing up in a Unitarian Universalist congregation with a very positive view of human nature.

I learned it growing up in a democracy—the United States—that ignored its own history of genocide and slavery, and reminded us often that “all men are created equal… [and] endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights… [including] Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I learned it working in liberal theological circles that contend all people are created in the image of God. If God is good, caring, just and loving, then we—God’s image—must likewise be good, caring, just and loving.

But there’s so much human-generated suffering in the world. So much oppression and injustice. An inherent universal morality? The evidence isn’t there. When I say people are inherently good, what I really mean is I long for that to be true. As a pastor I yearn to be good, and I want to inspire and encourage the people I serve to be good, to live lives of integrity, to have a positive, transformative impact on the world. Even if there is no inherent moral code, we can still strive to be good, live by our principles, build the beloved community. That’s one of the things I love about all of you. You long to be good. In response to the pandemic, you want not only to protect yourselves, but to protect the larger community. In response to the racial justice uprising, you want to be antiracist. In response to threats to our democracy, you work to protect voting. We don’t always do the right thing, or even know the right thing to do. But the longing to be good, the will to act and the willingness to try again when we fail—that matters!

Which leads me to Michael’s question. If we long to be good, how do we determine what goodness is? When Michael asks “is there a universal morality?” he’s wondering if we can define goodness in a way that is meaningful for all humanity and has the power to override the worst, most destructive impulses in human nature.

I sat down with Michael last October. He offered a wealth of ideas and covered thousands of years of human history. For him, morality emerges in a particular context. It evolves in response to a particular group’s needs; or its leaders’ needs. Hunter-gatherer societies lived (and still live) by moral codes that center group survival, respect for the forces of nature and reciprocity with local environment.

Agricultural societies developed moral codes linked to sustaining and sharing land, storing and distributing food and, likewise, community survival.

Ancient city states and empires with bureaucratic structures, royal families, trade, accounting, religious hierarchies and complicated divine pantheons yielded more complicated moral systems, often focused on sustaining the ruling hierarchy. Ancient kings and emperors often associated themselves with whichever God ruled the pantheon, giving their moral pronouncements the stamp of divine approval.

In many ancient cultures, morality became associated with duty, honor and sacrifice. The moral person is the one who follows the society’s rules and keeps to their place in the social hierarchy. The moral person is the one who accepts the fate the gods bestow on them. The Hindu Bhagavad Gita, the Analects of Confucius, and Vergil’s Aenied all express versions of this ancient, duty-oriented morality.  It lives on today in phrases like “my country, right or wrong”or “God said it, I believe it.” It is essential in ‘chain-of-command’ structures like militaries, where obeying orders can be a matter of life and death.

Over time, many ancient cultures added a moral code grounded in concern for the poor and oppressed. The Hebrew prophets challenged ancient Israel to become more just. The Buddha inaugurated a way of compassion in ancient India. The emergence of democracy in ancient Greece linked morality not to a supreme leader but to the will of the people. Later, Jesus announced the arrival of God’s kingdom which had at its core the mandate to love neighbor as self. Still later Islam offered a vision of a just and compassionate society.[1]

Today in the United States we live with competing versions of a hybrid Jewish-Christian / Greco-Roman moral code, mixed with various appeals to duty and sacrifice. The liberal version of the American code centers social justice, economic fairness, anti-racism, GLBTQ rights and inclusion, environmental stewardship. The conservative version centers traditional family values, gender roles and sexual mores. It favors individual liberties and free markets. We’re familiar with these two moral codes, but in my experience, most Americans aren’t as deeply grounded in either of them as the ferocity of the culture war implies. Most Americans aren’t making regular, daily decisions based on them, aren’t necessarily even aware of how they shape our society. I’m not suggesting that most Americans lack a moral code. Virtually everyone has a sense of right and wrong, but it emerges from a multitude of sources: family, religion, culture, schooling, upbringing, geography. We live with and navigate through a multitude of particular moral codes. Consider how you ultimately made your decision about how to celebrate Thanksgiving. That was a moral decision. How did you make it? What factors did you weigh? Those of you who struggled with questions around how to secure your children’s education during the pandemic: you ultimately made a moral decision. How did you make it? I suspect most people on the planet live with multiple moral codes, picking and choosing as particular situations arise. Not a universal morality, but many, particular moralities.

This is why Michael’s question matters. In his estimation—and I agree—humanity faces a series of doomsday scenarios:

  • Climate change
  • Food insecurity
  • Water insecurity
  • Overpopulation
  • The rise of antidemocratic populists, fascists, white supremacists and religious extremists.

There are others. 

These global challenges require a united, global response. A universal morality could help human beings work together across cultures, countries and continents. Yet, if most people live their moral lives in the particularities, can there be a united, global response? Given the urgent need to address the doomsday scenarios, Michael asks, is there a universal morality we can identify and promote? Minimally, is there a starting place for conversation?

When Michael talked about his understanding of morality in early human societies, he identified survival as the main driver for moral decision-making. When life is precarious, moral behavior is any action that results in group survival. Given Michael’s doomsday scenarios, life is becoming more precarious for more and more people. We know this. Survival is not a given. So Michael starts the conversation about universal morality with this assertion: “Any action that increases the chances that the species will survive is a moral action.”

That’s where our conversation ended. “Any action that increases the chances that the species will survive is a moral action.” I suspect Michael has a lot more to say about this. You may too.

Here’s my initial response. Morality has to be grounded somewhere: God’s commandments, a modern vision of freedom and fairness, an assessment of the group’s needs, a notion of honor. But none of these necessarily unite people on a global scale. If we’re searching for grounding for a universal morality, it makes sense to start with universal human experiences. This idea comes from the ethicist, Arthur Dyke, with whom I studied in seminary. He argued for a morality grounded not in abstract concepts like justice, equality or honor, but in real, lived common experiences. What kind of experiences? He said nobody creates themselves. People “cannot begin themselves,” he wrote, “without the existence of some caring community, however small; nor can they mature and sustain themselves in the absence of mutual aid, restraint, and protection…. The real world is like that.”[2] The most common human experience is being born, and then as infants being utterly dependent on our caregivers. Whether we remember our earliest years or not, we all share the experience of being born and being dependent on others for survival. That is true across cultures, countries and continents. We need others to survive. As much as we may forget this in adulthood, it remains a fact. A universal morality can begin there.

Here’s an invitation for your contemplation:

First, reflect on your childhood. What are all the ways you were dependent on your primary caregivers?

Second, reflect on the present: in what ways are you dependent on others for survival now? Has the pandemic heightened your experience of dependency?

Finally, how does recognizing the fact of your dependence shape your understanding of right and wrong?

If there is to be a universal morality that supports the survival of the human species, I say it begins with this recognition that we have always been utterly dependent on one another.

Thank you for beginning this conversation Michael. I pray it continues.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation is a very helpful guide for understanding the evolution of moral systems in the ancient world.

[2] Dyke, Arthur J., Rights and Responsibilities: The Moral Bonds of Community (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1994) p. 132.