Mechanically Moral Univese?

I signed up with Disaster Chaplaincy Services this month, so when I finish their training, I’ll be on call to be part of the spiritual care response in the New York area whenever there’s a disaster. Four days ago, on Wednesday, I was down in the city for an eight-hour orientation for disaster chaplaincy. The example scenarios and issues reminded me of how strong the human inclination is to believe in what we might call a mechanically moral universe. The mechanically moral universe theory sees the universe as a giant reward and punishment machine. You feed in virtue, you get reward back. You feed in vice, you get punishment back.

Humans have a deeply ingrained tendency to implicitly assume that’s the way the Universe works. Goodness is rewarded and evil is punished. So it disturbs us when bad things happen to good people. In disasters, people find their world turned upside down very suddenly, and this makes no sense. They are likely to say, "How could this happen? How did I deserve this?"

When people are in a crisis is not the time to engage them on the merits of their theory of the universe’s moral enforcement system. In a crisis, all that can be done is be present to their confusion and anguish. It’s when we’re not in a crisis that we can prepare ourselves with conceptual and emotional resources we’ll need when that time comes.

And it’s not easy.

Corollary to the idea that the universe as a whole monitors and issues rewards and punishment is the idea that inanimate objects are susceptible to our rewards and punishments. Our brains are just built to see moral agency everywhere! The other day, I was opening a package of something – raisins, I think it was, and was having a little difficulty. I jerked at it and got it open. And then I introspected: What just happened here? There was just a little more force than a purely practical assessment warranted. There was also just a touch of punitive intent. Where did that come from? There was a little part of me that was like, “I’ll show you, raisin package!” I just had to laugh at myself.

Our brains are built primed to treat anything as a moral agent. The universe punishes us to get us to act right, and we punish things, thinking (at some level) to get them to act right. That’s not logical. With self-awareness, you can notice it in yourself, laugh, and move on. Without self-awareness, you can stay mired in that blaming or self-blaming mood for . . . some time. And the mood can become a habit.

That’s why I want to talk about transcendence today. Transcendence is our theme for May, coming up. Experiences of transcendence – experiences of the awe and beauty and wonder of things – are the antidote for that irrational impulse to punish, or to imagine you are being punished for something. When you think that things aren’t going well – when you bemoan life’s unfairness, when you’re saying “Why me?” – when you’re perplexed by why bad things happen to good people – you’ve forgotten about the awe, the wonder of creation. Transcendence is also the antidote for feelings of entitlement, and the sense, when things are going well, that you are merely getting the rewards you deserve for being the virtuous person you are.

The wonder of creation transcends our blaming, judging mind and also our self-congratulations. This is where religion and science meet. The scientist Carl Sagan, near the end of his life, wrote in The Pale Blue Dot:
“In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?' Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”
Yes, Carl, and Unitarian Universalism is such a religion: stressing the magnificence of the universe to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe.

I think Carl Sagan is right that attention to the magnificence of creation – the magnificence of the universe – prepares us to tap reverence and awe. And modern science does reveal magnificence.

But religion has always included attending to the magnificence of creation, preparing us for transcendent experience.

In the next post, we'll look at the Book of Job as an example of attending to the magnificence of creation.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "Job and Transcendence"
Part 2: "Why Does Job Suffer?"
Part 3: "Savor the World and Save the World"

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