Another folk-type hymn

I ran across a poem by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper variously titled “Let the Light Enter” or “The Dying Words of Goethe.” I thought it would make a good hymn: it’s a poem by a liberal religious writer, and we religious liberals have too few poems on the topic of death and dying. So I wrote a simple folk-type melody to go with the poem — it’s a little schmaltzy, but not (I hope) too schmaltzy — and provided a basic harmonic structure, with guitar chords, and an easy bass line to fill that out a little.

Somehow I can’t see many religious liberals using this in a Sunday service. But I’ve found it fun to sing, and I can see it as a campfire song, or something along those lines. On the off chance that someone else might have fun with it, here’s a PDF of the sheet music (you humanists will want to lose the sixth and last verse):

Let the Light Enter (The Dying Words of Goethe)

The most bestest thing about liberal religion in 2011

Here it is — the most bestest thing about liberal religion in 2011:

1. I’m seeing less focus on administrivia and more focus on mission. I’m seeing less interest in clinging to power for no good reason, and more interest in developing greater spiritual maturation. I’m seeing more people smiling, and fewer people arguing.

In short, I’m seeing more and more religious liberals actually having fun while doing religion.

What could be better than that? Happy new year!

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.

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.

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.

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.

An item of concern

For the past decade or so, I’ve been most concerned with the institutional health of liberal religion: there are human values which are carried best by human institutions, and without a strong institutional structure those values seem likely to wither like a plant without water and adequate soil.

But recently I have become increasingly concerned about the spiritual health of liberal religion in general, and Unitarian Universalism in particular. We religious liberals spend so much time on social justice — and there is indeed an overwhelming amount of social justice work to be done — and we spend so much time on the health of our institutions — and again, there is indeed an overwhelming amount of institutional work to be done — that it has come to seem to me that we are slighting our spiritual well-being.

Along with that, we have come to understand “spiritual well-being” in such individualistic terms that the phrase has almost no meaning within the context of institutional Unitarian Universalism. In the past month or so, I have heard the following mentioned, and even glorified, as activities that foster spiritual well-being: yoga; Zen retreats; shamanic training; dream work; walking the labyrinth; meditation that is rooted in non-Western practices. These are either highly individualistic practices, or practices rooted in another spiritual community; or both.

Yet I rarely hear religious liberals speak lovingly of the core practices that lie at the center of our own liberal religious tradition. Those core liberal religious practices include the following: Continue reading “An item of concern”