Free will and wickedness

Historically, religious liberals have affirmed the presence of free will in humans. For example, Unitarians reacted against the predestination of Calvinism by affirming that humans could choose whether or not to do good, and their choice would affect whether or not they would go to heaven; and, being optimistic folks, chose to believe that humans would mostly choose to do good. In another example, Universalists reacted against Calvinism by declaring that all humans would get to go to heaven — a kind of radical predestination, or determinism, if you think about it — but nevertheless here in this life humans still have the capacity to choose goodness or wickedness; and some Universalists also affirmed that those humans who chose wickedness while alive would undergo a limited period of punishment after death. The details may vary, but religious liberals have long affirmed that humans could chose freely between goodness and wickedness.

During the Social Gospel era, religious liberals came to understand that wickedness could exist outside of the individual in social structures and wider society; sometimes humans do wicked things not because they freely chose to do those wicked things but because they were embedded in a social structure that was wicked. However, the Social Gospelers had no intention of doing away with the possibility of individual wickedness; they merely wished to point out another possible locus of wickedness; they pointed out that there is even more wickedness in the world than we had previously thought before.

Under the influence of the Social Gospel, and later the influence of humanistic psychology, and then liberation theologies, we religious liberals have become increasingly aware of the wickednesses that exist in society. We have been so attentive to social wickedness that we sometimes neglect the possibility for individual wickedness. But wickedness must still exist in individual humans: as long as we affirm a belief in in free will, we humans will have the option, as individuals, to be wicked.

Another stupid church joke

The finance committee of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Aipotu was trying to develop a budget that would finally pull the church out of the red. One member of the committee presented a severe austerity budget. “If we follow this budget,” he said, “we can cut our operating expenses in half.”

The chair of the committee said, “I have an idea how we can live on less than that.”

“How?” everyone asked.

“Live on two budgets.”

A prolegomenon to ethics

Agatha Christie’s famous fictional detective Miss Marple once said:

“…The truth is, you see, that most people … are far too trusting for this wicked world. They believe what is told them [by other people]. I never do. I’m afraid I always like to prove a thing for myself.” — The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

Miss Marple is not quite correct. In order to get along in the world, we simply have to trust that the way other people present themselves is basically truthful; it is too time consuming to do otherwise. Nevertheless, the world is a wicked place — there is a great deal of wickedness, from big systemic problems like the lack of morals in our financial institutions, to small personal problems like the way one individual can be hurtful to another without even thinking about it.

I don’t want to deny that there is much goodness in the world, but neither do I want to deny that wickedness is exists, and is widespread.

Major changes at the last minute

Excerpt from my teaching diary

The traffic sign over Highway 101 displayed an unwelcome message: “Left 3 Lanes Closed at Willow Rd Seek Alt Routes.” I sought an alternate route off the freeway, and arrived at church half an hour later than my planned arrival time, and only twenty minutes before class began. The goal of today’s lesson plan was to tell the children a little about the history of the flaming chalice, the unofficial symbol of Unitarian Universalism, and the lesson plan called the children to make flaming chalice of their own out of very small flowerpots. I went to where I knew we had a stash of very small flowerpots — and there weren’t any flowerpots there. Uh oh. Continue reading “Major changes at the last minute”

Veterans’ Day

On this day in 1918, at 11:11 a.m., the armistice ending the Great War, the war to end all wars, came into effect. The Great War was later called the First World War; of course it wasn’t the war to end all wars, and indeed many historians now argue that the seeds for the Second World War were contained in that armistice agreement that was signed on this date 97 years ago.

On this Veterans’ Day, or Armistice Day as it used to be called, the United States remains at war in Afghanistan, in the longest war of our country’s history. The financial effects of this, the most costly war the United States has ever fought, will be with us for decades, as we try to recover from spending half a trillion dollars and counting. More importantly, the human effects of this war — the returning soldiers who are crippled in body or soul, the soldiers who don’t return — will haunt us for decades. And it is an open question whether the war’s still rising cost, and our citizenry’s unwillingness to make any sacrifices to help pay for the war, will prevent us from providing adequate ongoing care for returned soldiers who need care.

All this causes me to believe that the primary moral characteristic of U.S. politics today is a dreadful unwillingness to take responsibility for our decisions and actions. That’s a depressing thought on Veterans’ Day.

Just a sweatshirt

Early this evening, Carol and I were discussing how Penn State fired football coach Joe Paterna, because he didn’t report credible allegations of child abuse to the police.

Then we decided to go for a walk. It was a little bit chilly out. Carol went to get her sweatshirt, which just happens to say “Penn State” on it. “I wonder if I should wear it?” she said. We decided that probably no one would notice.

We had been walking for a quarter of an hour when a car drove by and someone yelled something out the window. We couldn’t figure out if they were yelling at us. There were no other pedestrians in sight. But we couldn’t think of anyone who knows us who would yell out the window at us if they drove by. “I wonder if it’s the sweatshirt,” Carol said.

After half an hour, we got to the business district at Burlingame Avenue. There were quite a few people walking on the sidewalks. Suddenly Carol stopped. “I can’t tell if they’re looking at me or not,” she said, and took off the sweatshirt, and tied it around her waist.

On the ethical implications of the biomass of domain archaea

A friend of mine is a graduate student doing research in microorganisms in the domain archaea. Archaea are one of three domains of life, the other two being eukaryotes and bacteria; plants, animals, algae, protozoa, slime molds, and fungi are included in the domain eukaryotes.

In talking with my friend graduate student recently, he mentioned that some biologists believe that organisms of the domain archaea might well comprise a significant portion of the biomass of the planet; archaea and bacteria together probably comprise half the biomass of the planet. Many organisms in archaea live in extreme environments, like deep sea ecosystems. It is unclear to what extent archaea and bacteria will be affected by global climate change, but at the very least deep sea ecosystems may remain relatively unaffected for some time.

This raises an interesting ethical point. A popular ethical argument says we should stop global climate change because it will lead to massive species extinctions. But what is really meant is that global climate change will cause extinctions to a small percentage of organisms in the domain Eukaryotes, specifically larger plants and animals; that is, it may be that a small portion of the earth’s biomass will be affected.

Considered another way, while a huge number of species may be driven to extinction by global climate change within a relatively short time, that’s in comparison to past numbers of extinctions within a given time period. But if you compare the number of extinctions to the total number of species on Earth, then it’s a very small number.

So from an ethical point of view, what we find most troubling about global climate change is that it has the potential for killing off the species with which we are most familiar, and on which we are most dependent. We know so little about archaea, and cyanobacteria, and the hundreds of thousands of insect species that have yet to be described, that it’s hard for us to have much in the way of concrete ethical concern for them — we don’t even know if we should be concerned for them. My friend the graduate student put it something like this: We don’t really know what the effects of global climate change are going to be, but it seems likely that most of earth’s organisms won’t be affected by it.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be concerned about global climate change. We should be desperately concerned about global climate change. But any ethical concern should stem from our ethical concerns about how it is going to affect us human beings — whether global climate change will kill species we love, ruin ecosystems we depend on, and maybe even drive us to extinction. Our ethical concern should not stem from worries about archaea, or even about termites, both of which comprise a great deal of the earth’s biomass and both of which will probably survive global climate change quite nicely, thank you.

Gary Dorrien on the Occupiers

Christian Century magazine interviews social ethicist Gary Dorrien on the Occupy Wall Street movement. The interview is a promotional piece for an essay by Dorrien in the latest issue of Christian Century, but it’s worth reading on its own. Best bit from the interview:

As a social ethicist whose field was invented by the Social Gospel movement, I treasure the Social Gospel’s emphasis on just distribution and the common good, along with Reinhold Niebuhr’s realist emphasis on power politics and the faults of liberal idealism. But liberationist criticism adjudicates what I take from the Social Gospel and Niebuhrian traditions. Social justice must not be reduced to concerns about the fair distribution of things. It is also about giving voice to oppressed communities and being liberated from structures of oppression and dependency.

Read the interview.

REA conference, part seven

Some miscellaneous notes on, and information from, the Religious Education Association annual conference:


The conference proceedings are online, an consist of working papers presented at the conference in Research Interest Groups and Colloquia:


One of the pleasures of attending the conference was seeing luminaries in the field of religious education like Gabriel Moran and Thomas Groome; these are people who wrote books and articles that were formative in my own development as a religious educator. I also enjoyed hearing the REA archivist’s report, in which he talked about previous REA members who had also influenced me. It was also affecting to hear about the death of Harold Burgess when recently deceased REA members were recognized before Saturday night’s banquet; Burgess’s Models of Religious Education was a very important book for me in my first five years working as a Director of Religious Education. Continue reading “REA conference, part seven”