The Best Things in Life

Sermon and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation. More than the usual number of typos and errors in the text, but I didn’t have time to fix them — sorry!

Moment for All Ages: “Prince Gotama and the Four Sights”

Once upon a time, a prince named Gotama lived in a royal palace in the land of Kapilavastu, which was on the border between the countries we now call India and Nepal. Gotama’s family was very wealthy. As he grew up, the prince had everything money could buy. He had servants to take care of every need. He had the finest food. He had all the toys he could wish for.

The story is told that while Gotama was still young, a sage came to visit his parents, the King and the Queen. This sage was very wise. He looked at the young boy and said, “This child will grow up to be either a great king, or a great spiritual leader.”

Now his father wanted Gotama to become king after the father died. Therefore, the King decided that the young prince must never see anything that might raise spiritual questions in him. The King instructed everyone in the palace that Prince Gotama must never be allowed to go outside the palace grounds by himself, lest he fall into conversation with a wandering spiritual person. The King also ruled that Prince Toama must not see anyone who was ill, or disabled in any way, nor anyone who was old. The King also ruled that if someone died, the prince should hear nothing of it. Thus the King hoped to keep the prince from asking any spiritual questions.

To keep Gotama happy, the King and Queen gave him everything he could want, so that he would want to stay inside the palace grounds. And when he was old enough, they found the kindest and most beautiful young woman in all the kingdom to marry the Prince. Both the prince and his new wife were vary happy, and they became even more happy when they had their first child together. The King and Queen hoped that the prince had forgotten his wish to leave the palace on his own.

One day, when he was twenty nine years old, Gotama went out of the palace to go hunting, accompanied by his servant Channa. As they were riding along on their two horses, they came upon a man lying beside a rock, groaning in pain.

“What is wrong with this man?” asked Gotama.

“He is ill,” said Channa.

“But why is he in such pain?” said Gotama.

“It is the way of life,” said Chana. “It is just what happens when people are ill.” And they rode on.

When he was back at the palace, he tried to ask the wise men there about illness, but they would not answer his questions.

Gotama and Channa went out hunting again. As they rode along, they passed a woman whose hair was white and whose skin was wrinkled, and who used a cane to walk.

“What is wrong with this woman?” asked Gotama.

“She is old,” said Channa.

“But what do you mean by ‘old’?” said Gotama.

“It is the way of life,” said Channa. “It happens to anyone who lives a long time.”

Back at the palace, Gotama tried to ask the wise men there about being old, but they would not answer his questions.

Gotama and Channa went out hunting again. As they rode along, they came across man lying as if asleep. But Gotama could not wake him.

“What is wrong with this man?” asked Gotama.

“He is dead,” said Channa. “This is the way of life, people must one day die.”

Gotama and Channa went out hunting a fourth time and saw a wandering holy person. Gotama asked Channa who he was.

“He is a wandering holy person,” said Channa. “He wanders around the world begging for his food, and seeking spiritual enlightenment.”

This was something Prince Gotama had never heard of before. That night, Gotama could not sleep. He remembered both the suffering he had seen, and the holy man seeking enlightenment. Gotama realized that he himself would one day face illness, old age, and death.

“I must leave the palace where I’m always protected,” he thought to himself. “I must find answers to my questions.”

He got up, and told Channa to saddle his horse. The he looked in at the bedroom where his wife and their child lay sleeping. If he left the palace, he worried that his his wife and son would not be safe. He didn’t want to make them go with him.

He stood looking at them, wondering what to do. Should he stay? Or should he go?

As it happens, we know what Prince Gotama did. He left his wife and child behind, went out into the wide world, and after many hardships he became the Buddha, the Enlightened One, one of the greatest spiritual leaders the world has ever known. Knowing that, what would you do? Would you stay and become a great king, or leave and become a great spiritual leader? Would you give up the chance of being enlightened to stay with your family?


The first reading is from “The Wealth of Nations,” book 4, chapter 1, by Adam Smith.

“A rich country, in the same manner as a rich man, is supposed to be a country abounding in money; and to heap up gold and silver in any country is supposed to be the readiest way to enrich it. For some time after the discovery of America, the first inquiry of the Spaniards, when they arrived upon any unknown coast, used to be, if there was any gold or silver to be found in the neighborhood. By the information which they received, they judged whether it was worth while to make a settlement there, or if the country was worth the conquering.

“Plano Carpino, a monk sent ambassador from the King of France to one of the sons of the famous Genghis Khan, says, that the Tartars used frequently to ask him, if there was plenty of sheep and oxen in the kingdom of France. Their inquiry had the same object with that of the Spaniards. They wanted to know if the country was rich enough to be worth the conquering. Among the Tartars, as among all other nations of shepherds, who are generally ignorant of tho use of money, cattle are the instruments of commerce and the measures of value. Wealth, therefore, according to them, consisted in cattle, as according to the Spaniards it consisted in gold and silver. Of the two, the Tartar notion, perhaps, was the nearest to the truth.”

The second reading was the lyrics from the song “Money (that’s What I Want),” a song written by Janie Bradford and Berry Gordy in 1959.

Sermon: “The Best Things in Life”

What are the best things in life? We like to pretend that the best things in life are free. Janie Bradford and Berry Gordy skewered that pious sentiment way back in 1959 with their song “Money (That’s What I Want).” In the song, Bradford and Gordy said they believed that “Money don’t get everything, it’s true / But what it don’t get I can’t use.”

So what are we to believe? Do we believe that the best things in life are free? Or do we believe that money is what’s really important? I’d like to think out loud about this question by presenting you with some case studies.

The very brief case study is the story of Genghis Khan’s son, as told by Adam Smith, one of the primary theorists of capitalism. Genghis Khan, as you will recall, was the leader of the Mongol Empire. His people lived on the steppes of central Asia, and periodically erupted from the steppes to invade Europe, the Middle East, and China, pillaging as they went and leaving destruction in their wake. According to Adam Smith, Genghis Khan’s son did not ask how much money — how much gold and silver — there was in France, but rather he wanted to know how many sheep or oxen. The point here is that different societies measure wealth in different ways. While the Spaniards wanted to know how much gold and silver they would get before they invaded a foreign land, whereas the Mongol Empire wanted to know how many cattle they would get, they just had different ways of measuring wealth. If Janie Bradford and Berry Gordy wanted their song to be true across cultures, I guess they should have named their song “Wealth (That’s What I Want).”

However, this still doesn’t answer the question of whether the best things is life are free, or whether wealth is all that matters. So let’s turn to the case of Prince Siddhartha Gotama, which we heard in this morning’s Moment for All Ages.

As you recall, Siddartha Gotama was raised by his parents so that he was never exposed to anything that might upset him — he was never exposed to anything that might him start asking big difficult questions about the meaning of life. In particular, his parents did not want Prince Gotama to see anyone ill, anyone old, anyone who had died, nor anyone who followed a religious vocation. This desire to protect their child from everything unpleasant and difficult backfired on them. As soon as Siddhartha Gotama saw the Four Sights — an ill person, and old person, a dead person, and a religious person — he immediately conceived an intense desire to know why there was suffering in the world. This intense spiritual yearning caused Siddhartha Gotama to want to leave the wealthy and comfortable life he had been living, safe inside the palace walls, and go outside to enter into the life of a wandering saddhu [sah-doo], that is, a spiritual seeker who has renounced worldly life in order to focus on higher matters.

I will say parenthetically that I find this to be one of the most difficult stories of any major religious tradition. In order to become a saddhu, Prince Gotama basically abandons his wife and his baby — that is what I find difficult. In most retellings of the story, Prince Gotama stands looking at his sleeping wife and child. He wants to give them one last kiss and caress. But he knows that if he does so, they would awaken, and probably convince him not to leave. So he turns away and leaves them behind without even saying goodbye. I really don’t like that part of the story.

However, this does tell us something about how Siddhartha Gotama might answer the question of whether the best things in life are free, or whether the best thing in life is money. And his is not a simple answer to the question. On the one hand, Siddhartha Gotama clearly believes that for him, the best thing is to leave money behind. The best things in life are not just free, the best things in life require the absence of money. It is only in the absence of money, thinks Siddhartha Gotama, that he will be able to find what he is seeking for. And of course that’s exactly what happens for Siddhartha Gotama — by living a life without wealth, he is able find the enlightenment that he seeks. He in fact becomes the Buddha, the Enlightened One. After his enlightenment, he turns to teaching others how to deal with suffering in this world; and according to some sources, after his enlightenment, he does reconnect with his wife and their son.

On the other hand, Siddhartha Gotama did not take his wife and their baby out into the world to lead the lives of wandering spiritual seekers. Not to put too fine a point on it, but to become a wandering saddhu was to choose to live on the street, to become what we now call an unhoused person, to sleep outdoors and beg for your food, and more than likely to go sleep cold and hungry as often as not. That is not the kind of life that anyone would choose for their baby. Siddhartha Gotama knew that if he left his wife and baby behind, they would be cared for and cherished and loved by his parents.

So here is how Siddhartha Gotama answered the question. For himself, Siddhartha Gotama believed that the best things in life are free, and he wanted to abandon all his wealth so that it could not distract him from the burning spiritual questions he had to answer. But for his child, and incidentally for his wife, Siddhartha Gotama believed that the best things in life are not free, and that what they really needed and wanted was money.

Now I’ll turn to a third and even more complex case study. This is the case study of Juanita and Wally Nelson. My spouse Carol first met Juanita and Wally Nelson in the 1990s, when they used to attend meetings of the Northeast Organic Farmer’s Association (or NOFA). They were hard to miss, for not only were they older than most of the other people at NOFA events, they were also some of the very few non-White organic farmers in those days. But Juanita and Wally Nelson’s story is far more complex than the story of an older Black couple who decided to become organic farmers.

Their story is worth telling in some detail. It will serve as my third and final case study. And I think it will further help us to answer the question of whether the best things in life are free, or not. I’m going to focus on Juanita Nelson to tell the story, because I was able to get more details of her life from her oral history interview, which you can read on the Massachusetts Department of Education website.

Juanita Morrow was born in 1923, and grew up in Cleveland. She was a student at Howard University for two years, and in 1943 while at Howard she was arrested for the first time when she and some classmates tried to get served at a segregated restaurant.She had to drop out of college after two years for financial reasons, and began working as a reporter. In 1944, while she was a reporter, she interviewed a conscientious objector named Wally Nelson. Wally was a pacifist who refused to serve in the military for moral reasons. Juanita realized that she was a pacifist too, and when Wally was released from federal prison after the Second World War was over, they became — in her words — partners. They went on to work with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), helping to end Jim Crow racial discrimination in the United States.

As committed pacifists, they gradually came to the realization that they did not want to support the military industrial complex in any way, if they could help it. And so in 1970, when Juanita was 47 and Wally was 61 years old, they started farming and living off the land. Although they were not religious themselves, as pacifists they got to know many Quakers — pacifism is one of the central religious beliefs of Quakerism — and theQuakers who were running an alternative school at the Woolman Hill Quaker center in Deerfield, Massachusetts, invited them to come live there. Which they did. Wally died there in 2002, and Juanita stayed there until she was no longer able to care for herself. She died at a friend’s home in 2015.

Even though Juanita and Wally Nelson were not religious, they remind me a great deal of Siddhartha Gotama. Like Siddhartha Gotama, they decided to renounce the world of money and wealth. Instead of money and wealth, they pursued higher values — Siddhartha Gotama pursued his quest for the truth about human suffering; Juanita and Wally Nelson pursued their truth about peacemaking and pacifism. Siddhartha Gotama lived as a wandering saddhu, which was not an easy life — there were many times when he did not get enough to eat. Juanita and Wally Nelson refused to buy anything if they could help it, and while they were able to build a comfortable house using salvaged materials, they refused to have electric power or indoor plumbing. Juanita wrote a number of pieces about what it was like to live off the land, both the inconvenience of it, and the power of it. I’d like to read to you from one of these pieces she wrote, a poem called “Outhouse Blues”:

Well, I try to grow my own food, competing with the bugs,
I even make my own soap and my own ceramic mugs.
I figure that the less I buy, the less I compromise
With Standard Oil and ITT and those other gouging guys….

Oh, but it ain’t easy, when it’s rainy and there’s mud
To put on my old bathrobe and walk out in that crud;
I look out through the open door and see a distant star
And sometimes think this simple life is taking things too far.

Juanita and Wally Nelson gave up a comfortable life — gave up wealth and money — in order to pursue the higher purpose of peacemaking. But in this poem, Juanita also acknowledges the attractions of having money. If she had money, she wouldn’t have to go out into the cold and the rain and the mud to use the outhouse. For Juanita and Wally Nelson, money and wealth may have their uses, but they can also distract you from following the highest purposes of life. So we can see that the Nelsons had much in common with Siddhartha Gotama. In a funny kind of a way, the Nelsons had something in common with Adam Smith, who concluded that the desire for wealth could lead to war; Genghis Khan’s son wanted to know how many cattle lived in France, so he could decide if that country were worth invading.

All this is very interesting, but we still don’t have a simple answer to the questions with which I began. Do we believe that the best things in life are free? Or do we believe that money is what’s really important? Siddhartha Gotama abandoned his life of wealth in the palace, because that wealth was keeping him from answering some urgent spiritual questions. But he left his wife and baby in the palace, where there was sufficient wealth to take adequate care of them. Juanita Nelson left behind a comfortable American middle class life, because the comfort that came with her relative wealth was keeping her from pursuing an urgently moral course of action. But she acknowledged the very real downsides that came with living without money.

I’m not convinced that we can ever have final answers to these questions. Yet we can reach some fairly obvious conclusions. First of all, as Siddhartha Gotama knew, poverty and life on the streets is not good for children. Children need adequate food and secure and stable homes. Secondly, money and wealth do seem to get in the way of spiritual progress. I don’t know why this is so, although perhaps it’s because wealth can cause to covetousness, and covetousness can lead to greed, and greed can end up in war and violence.

What these stories seem to be telling us is that there is a balance between having money, and not having money — and that balance is hard to find. Having too much money does seem to bring problems. Thus Siddhartha Gotama felt that the extreme wealth of his family insulated him from reality, and kept him from from making spiritual progress. Where your money comes from can also bring problems. In an extreme case, Juanita and Wally Nelson felt that all money in our society is tied in with the military industrial complex, and thus having any money kept them from making the moral and ethical path they wanted to follow. But even though money might have problems associated with it, money is good when it is used to help us to raise our children; money is good when it is used to take care of those who are weaker and more vulnerable.

More generally, perhaps money can become a good thing if it can help us turn our highest values into reality. If you can use what money you have at your disposal to support your highest moral and ethical values, then perhaps money can become a positive good. Although by doing so, you can run into other people trying to use their money to support moral and ethical values which are in conflict with yours. So for example, I support First Parish financially, in part because we’re willing to fly a rainbow flag in front of the Meetinghouse to show that we support LGBTQ+ rights; while there are those in this town (and I’ve heard from a couple of them) who are angered by the fact that we have a rainbow flag in front of the Meetinghouse. If money can promote our values in the wider world, then we run into the far larger problem of how to mediate between competing values; but that’s a topic for another sermon.

That’s my inconclusive conclusion for this sermon. I will only add that First Parish is beginning our annual fundraising campaign this week. Since I believe First Parish promotes my values in our community, I’ll be giving at least two and a half percent of my annual income to support First Parish and those values; this in addition to my other charitable giving.

Is It Religion? (part three): Communism and Capitalism

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading is from one of the Bibles of communism, the “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844” by Karl Marx:

“The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity — and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general.”

The second reading is from one of the Bibles of capitalism, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith:

“To propose that Great Britain should voluntarily give up all authority over her colonies, and leave them to elect their own magistrates, to enact their own laws, and to make peace and war as they might think proper, would be to propose such a measure as never was, and never will be adopted, by any nation in the world. No nation ever voluntarily gave up the dominion of any province, how troublesome soever it might be to govern it, and how small soever the revenue which it afforded might be in proportion to the expense which it occasioned. Such sacrifices, though they might frequently be agreeable to the interest, are always mortifying to the pride of every nation, and what is perhaps of still greater consequence, they are always contrary to the private interest of the governing part of it….”

The third reading is from an essay about Karl Marx by Charles Hartshorne, a Unitarian Universalist philosopher of the mid-twentieth century. This is from his 1983 book Insights and Oversights of Great Thinkers:

“It is true that our mixed economic system has been kind enough to me, nor have I run any great risks in sometimes criticizing it. Also I can see some merits in the Soviet system, for Russia, and the Maoist system, for China, but with tragic limitations in both cases…. I still doubt that one man (or two or three, adding Engels and Feuerbach [to Marx]), writing early in the industrial revolution, can tell us in the Americas, Europe, Australia, or Japan, or even in the Third World, much of what we need to know about our problems. Population excess and pollution, or the exhaustion of fossil fuels, or the dangers of nuclear power and nuclear war, for example, were poorly foreseen by any of the philosophers or economists of the past. What they nearly all missed was that our species… alone among species is capable of destroying itself and an indefinitely large portion of the other life on this planet.”

Sermon: Is It Religion? (part three): Capitalism and Communism

Is communism a religion? Is capitalism a religion? Or, at least, do these two ideologies sometimes act like religions? I’m going to try to convince you that the answer is yes — both capitalism and communism can act like religions. And I’m also going to try to convince you that the answer should be no — we don’t want capitalism or communism to act like religions.

In the United States, we usually define religion as something that is — or should be — completely separate from politics, and from economics. Our current understanding of religion is based on the assumption that the religious realm is separate from the secular realm. We adopted the separation of religion and the state in the United States in order to promote freedom of conscience. But the separation of religious and secular only dates back a couple of centuries or so. Before that, the religious world and the secular world weren’t separate at all. As one example of this, recall that our own congregation was supported by tax dollars from 1721 when it was founded up until 1824.

Now if we define religion as something completely separate from the secular realm, then obviously capitalism cannot be a religion. Similarly, communism cannot be a religion. Capitalism and communism are economic systems. Since they are part of the secular world, they cannot be religious. But once you realize that the separation of the religious realm and the secular realm has never been a perfect separation, then you can see that capitalism and communism might in fact act like religions.

Let me begin by explaining how capitalism can sometimes act like a religion.

First of all, we can pretty quickly see the ways in which capitalism resembles Western Christianity. Capitalism deifies a mythical thing called “The Market,” which can be seen as a rough equivalent of the Holy Spirit, a force with powers beyond humanity that moves in mysterious ways. Capitalism has its holy scriptures, perhaps most notably “The Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith; and just like the Christian Bible, “The Wealth of Nations” gets interpreted selectively. So, for example, we heard in the second reading how Adam Smith actually argued that overseas colonies were detrimental to capitalism, but this argument was conveniently ignored by the capitalists of the British Empire.

Capitalism has its prophets, economists who interpret the capitalist scriptures for us, and predict gloom and doom unless we follow their prescriptions for action. One of the the most interesting things about capitalism is how some of its prophets define sinfulness. Traditional Christianity argues that all our troubles come about because of sin, and sin comes about because humans diverge from God’s plan. Some religious followers of capitalism argue that all our troubles come about because we don’t follow the tenets of capitalism. The prophets of capitalism tell us to do one thing, and if we do something different — so they tell us — then we will suffer for it. This is true at the national level — if we don’t follow Keynesian economics, or neoliberal economics, we will suffer the torments of our sinfulness. But it’s also true at the personal level — if you live in poverty, it’s obviously because you are at fault; you have gone against the teachings of capitalism, and you’re being punished for your sins by being poor.

Obviously, for many people, capitalism is simply an economic system that seems to work better than any other economic system. Many people — perhaps most people — are pragmatists, and if they felt there was a better economic system out there, they would drop capitalism in favor of the better system. Yet there is also a minority of people who follow capitalism with a fervent and blind belief, people are sure that only capitalism can save humankind. By the way, some of the people who believe that only capitalism can save humankind are also conservative Christians, and some of them even argue that capitalism is affirmed by the Christian Bible — what an interesting mash-up of two seemingly incompatible religious positions!

Next, let me try to explain how communism can sometimes act like a religion.

As with capitalism, we can pretty quickly see the ways in which communism resembles Western Christianity. Communism has its holy scriptures, and its Bible is Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Communism has its own equivalent of the Holy Spirit, found in the movement of the Hegelian Geist which will propel society inexorably out of capitalism into communism. Communism also has different denominations. In one example of these different denominations, communist nations have a tendency to deify their leaders. Perhaps the most important example of this is the cult of Mao Zedong in China. Mao was worshipped as an all-knowing leader, and icons depicting Mao appeared throughout Chinese society. Mao remains an object of worship even today.

As with capitalism, communism has had its prophets, people who interpret its scriptures and predict gloom and doom unless society follows their prescriptions for action. These days, it’s more difficult to be a prophet for communism than it is to be a prophet for capitalism. If you read Marx, he was predicting the imminent end of capitalism sometime in the nineteenth century. Yet capitalism continued to thrive through the twentieth century. Then with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1989, it became still more difficult for the prophets of communism to explain why communism remained a viable option.

While communism is usually vilified here in the United States, I will say that the communists I have known personally have all been highly moral individuals. The ones I have known have had a deep antipathy to economic injustice, and deep sympathy with people who are poor or economically disadvantaged. The first reading gives part of their justification for this attitude — they believe that capitalism has dehumanized people by turning them into mere commodities; instead of being ends in themselves, human beings become means to the end of capitalist profit. The principled morality of individual communists reinforces my sense that communism can act like a religion.

So it is that I feel both capitalism and communism can act like religions. The religion of communism is almost dead in the United States today, and it has little or no impact on our national life. However, the people who follow capitalism as a religion remain a strong force in our society.

Religious capitalism troubles me because the religious followers of capitalism demand unquestioning acceptance of their religious doctrine. They ask us to accept without question that capitalism is the best system, in a tone of voice that reminds me of conservative Christians who loudly proclaim, Thou shalt have no other gods before the God of Christianity. This annoys me both as a Unitarian Universalist, and as a pargmatist. As a Unitarian Universalist, I’m constitutionally averse to doctrine and dogma. When someone wants me to accept religious doctrine or dogma without question, I immediately doubt their religious doctrines, and I immediately suspect their motives. Then as a pragmatist, I know that any theory or proposition is subject to modification when new evidence arises. As a pragmatist, I won’t believe it when the religious followers of capitalism tell me to follow capitalism just because they say so; I want to see evidence; and if a new economic system comes along that performs better than capitalism I’m willing to adopt it.

All of this brings me to the third reading, by philosopher and Unitarian Universalist Charles Hartshorne. The title of his book, “Insights and Oversights of Great Thinkers,” tells you everything about his approach: he is willing to accept worthy insights from the great thinkers of the past, but he is also not going to gloss over the things they got wrong. Here’s part of what Hartshorne said in the reading:

“I still doubt [he said] that one man writing early in the industrial revolution, can tell us in the Americas, Europe, Australia, or Japan, or in the Third World, much of what we need to know about our problems. Population excess and pollution, or the exhaustion of fossil fuels, or the dangers of nuclear power and nuclear war, for example, were poorly foreseen by any of the philosophers or economists of the past. What they nearly all missed was that our species alone among species is capable of destroying itself and an indefinitely large portion of the other life on this planet.”

Hartshorne rooted his own philosophy in the understanding that the world is constantly changing. Perhaps the most familiar example of this principle of constant change is the theory of evolution: Unitarian sympathizer Charles Darwin theorized that living organisms have been constantly evolving towards states of greater complexity. But everything is changing: the continental plates are in constant motion (just ask anyone who lives on a fault line); the universe continues to expand; and, more to the point of this sermon, human society is constantly changing.

Hartshorne would say that both Adam Smith and Karl Marx had brilliant insights into how human society works. At the same time, both Smith and Marx were products of their times. Their brilliant insights were insights into human society of a century or two ago. Human society has changed a great deal since they wrote. Thus neither Smith nor Marx anticipated how environmental pollution would come to have a significant economic impact; and neither thinker had the faintest notion of the effects of global climate change. We can respect the brilliance and insights of these two long-dead thinkers, but we must also acknowledge their oversights. We cannot treat them as holy prophets whose every word we must accept without question.

Herein lies the danger of making either capitalism or communism into a rigid doctrine. We se the same sort of problems when religion is reduced to a rigid doctrine. These problems can be summed up by saying that once you have a rigid doctrine, people stop thinking critically. Sometimes they just stop thinking at all. They stop investigating and observing. They stop trying to make their mental models conform to reality, and instead demand of reality that it conforms to their mental models. People in the thrall of rigid doctrines can wind up abandoning their humanity to become rigid ideologues.

It would be wise for us to remember that any one of us could become an ideologue — yes, even you and me. We human beings like certainty, and we become anxious when faced with uncertainty. We human beings like to be right, and we get cranky when others point out where we might be wrong. It can be so difficult for us to remember that things are constantly changing. It can be so difficult for us to face up to the fact that a brilliant idea from a hundred and fifty years ago no longer fits our current reality.

So how do we keep ourselves from becoming rigid ideologues? One way to keep from falling into the trap of ideology is to remember that human beings are ends in themselves, not means to an end. Human beings do not exist to serve capitalism, or communism, or any other religion. Capitalism, communism, and religion are things that are only good insofar as they serve all human beings. An idea, or an economic system, or a religion, is only good when and if it serves real human beings, or when it helps pull real human beings out of poverty, or when it reduces human suffering, or when it increases love.

May we save ourselves from becoming rigid ideologues. When we’re confronted with a new reality, may we learn to adjust our mental models to fit that new reality. May we be constantly thinking and observing and investigating. And may all our actions, and all our thoughts, be guided by love.