Passover Lessons

Exodus, Chapter 12, verses 21–34:
Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them: “Go, select lambs for your families, and slaughter the Passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood in the basin. None of you shall go outside the door of your house until morning. For the Lord will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down. You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children. When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. And when your children ask you: ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ You shall say: ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’”

And the people bowed down and worshiped. The Israelites went and did just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron. At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians. And there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead. Then he [Pharaoh] summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said: “Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord, as you said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone. And bring a blessing on me too!”

The Egyptians urged the people to hasten their departure from the land, for they said: “We shall all be dead.” So the people took their dough before it was leavened, with their kneading bowls wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders.
The Jewish holy week of Passover began at sundown on Mon Apr 22. The celebration of freedom continues eight days, through the evening of Tue Apr 30. The first two days and the last two days are full-fledged holidays: the middle four days are semi-festive. The first two days commemorate the 10th of the 10 plagues on Egypt. In that final plague, the mystery-beyond-naming killed all the firstborn of Egypt, but passed over the Israelites: hence Passover.

At this, Pharaoh released the Israelites from bondage. They immediately fled. They took their dough before it was leavened. They did not wait for the bread to rise. Pharaoh changed his mind and went chasing after them. A week later came the episode of the parting of the Red Sea, commemorated the last two days of Passover.

This is not history. Scholars put the setting at about 1300 BCE, but historically, it never happened. But that is not the point – because it’s not about ancient Israelites. It’s about you -- and us -- and about freedom – yours and ours -- right here and now. It is a narrative metaphor for us, as it has been to peoples through millennia.

"Bring out the festal bread and sing songs of freedom." Celebrate and reflect on the blessing of freedom. In parts of the world, full-scale slavery is still going on. If you're here today – or listening online -- then chances are that you are not enslaved in that full-scale way and never have been. Even so, I would guess that there has been a metaphorical land of Egypt in your past in which you were bound and from which you now are free.

"Bring out the festal bread, and sing songs of freedom." Yet freedom is the half-won blessing. Modern pharaohs live unchallenged. Chains still there are to break, metal or subtle-made. Resentments, small or large, bind us. A further Exodus awaits us still. And further truth, bright as a burning bush, cries to become known. We (we who are not under an unrelenting grind of oppression, nor consumed wholly with mere survival) stand somewhere in the middle between full-scale slavery and full-scale liberation. We have broken out of some fetters – but other fetters, or perhaps reconstituted versions of the old ones, have clamped onto us.

The next step in the work of freedom lies before us. So bring out the festal bread and sing songs of freedom.

Did you hear about the guy who was addicted to brake fluid? He said he could stop any time he wanted....

We all have our addictions. Whether it’s full-blown alcoholism or drug addiction or something we think of as milder, the key feature of addiction is that disconnect between what we want ourselves to do and what we’re able to actually do.

Passover is a time for celebrating the blessings of our freedom and also reflecting on what greater liberation would be. Pharaoh has many forms of bondage – addictions to video games or shopping or work. We can be addicted to anger or to blaming judgment.

What Pharaoh holds you in bondage in Egypt? Freedom is ever the half-won blessing. Its unfinished work lies before us. As they say in the recovery community: you can be consumed by your addiction -- or you can be recovering. Recovering – but never recovered.

It is rare indeed for a human to attain complete freedom. New chains appear. Old chains return. And their constraints are often so comfortable, for a while. It’s no easy thing to commit to a path of freedom, of liberation.

Here are four questions:
  1. Can you make a decisive break with a big part of your past?
  2. Can you endure the sacrifices this will mean?
  3. What about the effects this will have on others?
  4. Are there others who can go with you on this journey, who can walk with you on the path to liberation?
The Passover story is a narrative for wrestling with each of these questions. As I said, it’s about you.

First, can you make the decisive break? This is the "not waiting for the bread to rise" part. Even under the worst of conditions, there is some leavening in the loaf. What, give that up? Our addictions and our judgmentalism offer us creature comforts that are like a nice, hot yeasty loaf. What harm could it do to let one more batch of dough rise? Is it really necessary for the sake of freedom that we make do with the blandest unsalted crackers?

Sometimes, yes. It is. At some point we have to say: no more delays, no more putting it off. That’s going to mean something that was in the pipeline has to be abandoned. The bread won’t have a chance to rise. Is that a reason to stay in bondage?

It’s those little rationalizations that keep us stuck, isn’t it? Can you make the decisive break?

Second question: can you endure the sacrifices? Unleavened bread is nothing compared to hardships and trials on the path to freedom. It’s scary out there. The status quo has fierce armies to enforce its way. Days after leaving Egypt, the Israelites see Pharaoh’s army advancing on them. They cry out to Moses – Exodus, chapter 14:
“Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”
Powerful resources are arrayed against you to enforce the old way. And you don’t have the resources you need to support the new way. A few weeks after leaving Egypt, the people moan again to Moses – Exodus, chapter 16:
“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
The path to freedom is risky and uncertain. Can you endure the sacrifices?

Third question: what about the effects this will have on others? Are you just being selfish thinking about your own freedom? In the Passover story, the Israelite quest for freedom involves an enormous slaughter of Egyptians.

The rituals -- the paschal lamb, the unleavened bread, the consecration of the firstborn -- probably predate the story and the story probably took shape around pre-existing rituals. The rituals account for the story more than the story accounts for the rituals. It is impossible to know, writes the scholar Carol Meyers,
“how much of the narrative draws upon authentic experience and how much of it developed over time in relation to existing customs.”
Whatever it’s source, we have this problematic story. Meyers continues:
“The intentional destruction of innocent life in God’s slaying of the firstborn has long troubled readers of this narrative. What kind of deity was it, whose deed could benefit one group at such expense of others? Already in the early postbiblical period, rabbinic commentators sought ways to rationalize such a horrific act.”
The Israelites path to freedom came at the cost of this tragic slaughter of Egyptian firstborns. Is it worth it? What is the cost to others of your freedom? Should the Israelites feel responsible for this tragedy to the Egyptians?

It’s true that liberation leads to compassion. The chains that hold you back, more than anything, limit your ability to be present and caring to others. But might it not be better to try to work with the chains you’ve got, dragging them with you though they hamper and slow you?

Put yourself in the Israelites’ position. You hear that a plague is coming, and to protect yourself, you put lamb’s blood on your doorway. Should you also be protecting your neighbors?

Pharaoh got the same warning you did. In fact, he got 9 previous warnings in the form of the first nine plagues: Water was turned to blood, there was a plague of frogs, then one of lice, then flies, then livestock pestilence, a plague of boils, of hail, of locusts, and of darkness. He got the warnings, but he hardened his heart. Actually, Exodus says repeatedly that God hardened Pharoah’s heart – so is it Pharoah’s fault?

Let’s say you did tell your Egyptian neighbors to put lamb’s blood on their doorway, and they just wouldn’t do it. Now they’ve lost their child, and their grief is overwhelming. “There was not a house without someone dead.” Exodus says. What kind of God would do that? What kind of world would do that?

Our world contains such enormous grief, it is more than you or I can fix. Your path to freedom occurs in the context of others' pain and loss, but your freedom is not the cause of their loss.

Perhaps the Israelites’ hearts went out to their neighbors. Maybe they asked, how can we help? They were told to just leave – which happened to be what they’d always wanted. If there is a path to liberation for you – going back to school, quitting your job, changing the way you eat, changing your daily routine to include journaling, study, and meditation – and you hesitate because of the effect this might have on the people around you – you might just ask them. They might tell you, as the Egyptians told the Hebrews, just go. Do it.

What about the effects your liberation would have on others? A story about an activist I’ll call Gloria illustrates one way this question can play out. I met Gloria a number of years ago, back in the aughts. Gloria worked for good, for policy changes that would increase fairness and reduce suffering. Gloria had anger that took her straight to blaming and condemnation. "Those people in that other party are evil, corrupt, willfully blind," she said. "Some of that party’s supporters are simply dupes – who are duped by the evil and corrupt others." Her anger and judgmentalism were her bondage. It was hard for her to give that up, to be free of those chains, because she saw them as integral to helping the people she wanted to help. So there’s that question: how would your liberation affect those you care about? Sometimes we stay in the chains because we think we need them to be of service.

Gloria was venting with me one day, and I remembered: it is often the case that anger outward is a projection of anger inward, that negative self-judgments manifest as negative other-judgments. As the saying goes: When I point the finger at someone else, there are three pointing back at me. Gloria said, "Those people have no respect for other people." So I asked, "Have there been times when you didn’t respect others as much as you wish you had?"

Yes, there had indeed been times. Personal stories of regret and shame began pouring out. We’d made the shift from other-blame to self-blame – a step, maybe, but not a final destination. The path ahead, to self-forgiveness and self-compassion and thence to compassionate understanding of others, including one’s political opponents, would not be easy. That liberating path would make Gloria a more effective activist – and certainly one who enjoys life more.

She assumed she needed her chains of anger and judgment to serve the causes she cares about. The truth is that freeing ourselves allows us to more lovingly and more effectively care about others.

Fourth question: Are there others who can go with you on this journey, who can walk with you on the path to liberation? Here, too, is a lesson of the Passover story: Not one Hebrew ever walked out of Egypt alone. Nor could any have survived the wilderness alone. Freedom is a collective enterprise. We need each other to be free. Yes, there is necessary work only you can do. You, individually, have to decide it can’t wait any longer, can’t wait for whatever batch of dough you’re in the middle of to rise. You, individually, must choose the uncomfortable path.

Once you do, though, you don’t have to face it alone. There is other necessary work only we can do -- together. That’s what a liberal faith community is for: "liberal," as in "liberty," as in "freedom." Liberal faith community offers support – maybe some guidance, maybe some insight, maybe some affirmation and encouragement – as we wander in wilderness trying together to make our way to the freedom that is our birthright.

You aren't responsible for everything -- sometimes you have to let go and let others manage on their own -- but we are responsible for care and connection to one another.

Walking a labyrinth might be way you can bodily enact and reflect upon your path to and of freedom. Some years ago I was asked to lead a labyrinth walk for about 50 people in rehab to recover from substance abuse. These were people wrestling with demons that I can only imagine. Somehow, summoning courage that they wouldn’t have known they had, they made a break with their past lives, a sudden and dramatic exit from the comforts of slavery to their addiction. They now faced the slow part – the rest of their lives, really – the wilderness to traverse, a new life of freedom to build. We gathered by the outdoor labyrinth.

A labyrinth is not a maze; it has only one path. Its lesson is let go of your need to control, trust the path, keep going. One foot in front of the other. You must go into your center – wind your way in. You must find what is there. And: you cannot stay there. You must return out to the world, bringing the true self you have found. As the Gospel of Thomas says:
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.
If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
This was a group that knew a lot about what will destroy them.

Freedom is our half-won blessing. The first half is straightforward and negative (in a good way): no slavery, no masters or overlords, no chains. The second half is paradoxical. We arrive at liberation by accepting the constraints of discipline, by surrendering. By letting go and giving up, we gain. The first half involves being able to do what you want. But then you can become enslaved to your own impulsive wants. So the second half involves liberating the true self from the bondage of the desiring self.

The labyrinth is an exercise in freeing the true self by accepting the dictates of a prescribed path. When you walk a labyrinth, you wind around and around and end up at the center. Then take the path in reverse to go back out. Both journeys, the in and the out, are circuitous and terribly inefficient. The labyrinth’s lesson is that path and destination are intertwined, they define each other. The destination isn’t the destination unless it is reached by the needful path. Like Hebrews in the wilderness, you go around and around – often winding further from your destination rather than closer.

I instructed the group to notice the rhythm of their breathing, and synchronize their steps with their breaths. It helps the mind quiet, so the path can take over. Then I stood by the entrance with my watch, and sent them in one at a time, at five-second intervals. The first ones in reached the center, hung out there a while, and started back while others were still heading in. This, too, is a lesson: we encounter people who are heading in an opposite direction from us, who we could bump heads with, who might seem to be heading in a wrong direction, but there is only one path. We go in and we go out, and if you are in a going-out phase and pass by someone in a going-in phase, rest assured your positions will soon be reversed. Practice the gentle grace of letting others by. And notice that, doing this, you may have to take one step off your path. Others can knock you off your path, but never very far, and you can step back on.

Afterwards we retreated to an indoors space to debrief about the experience. I heard from them how they valued the experience, how they took to its lessons – though some acknowledged they had been skeptical and dubious. Some spoke of how, yes, their need to control had to be tamed, and how good that felt. They spoke of how the path was not always clear – the layer of leaves has gotten thick – but they let themselves trust the person in front of them, and how good it felt to trust and follow – to not be alone on this path. We all have our addictions. And we’re sometimes judgmental of others, of ourselves.

Before us is a path of freedom from those constraints. It may take some discerning to see it. Once you do: Take it. Go. You are not alone. There are others on the path waiting for you join them. Go. Don’t wait for the bread to rise.


Earth Day

The first Earth Day was 1970 April 22 -- 54 years ago. The Earth that we were trying to preserve on that first Earth Day, we failed to preserve. Our planet today is not the Earth of two generations ago. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels hovered around 275 ppm for all of human history up until 200 years ago. On the first Earth Day in 1970, C02 had reaced 325 ppm but back then most of us were blithely, blissfully oblivious to what rising C02 would mean. In 1988, we reached the 350 ppm safety-line. At 350 ppm of carbon dioxide, the planet survives. If we get above 350 for very long, or if we get very far above 350, then we will trigger tipping points and irreversible impacts. The journal Nature said that above 350
"we threaten the ecological life-support systems that have developed in the late Quaternary environment, and severely challenge the viability of contemporary human societies,"
Yet we've been above 350 for 36 years now, and as of May 2022 the global average concentration of C02 in the atmosphere was 421 ppm, and we are still adding about two more parts per million every year. In fact, scientist Kevin Anderson projects that even if rich countries adopt draconian emissions reductions within a decade, it is improbable that we will be able to stop short of 650 ppm of C02.

Our planet is already not what it was 54 years ago. What I would like to do today is take a look at a theory out there that it is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself and how climate change might seem to fit that theory. I will, however, be taking the chance to note that reality is never depressing. I'll mention some practical features of how we will live on this Earth that is already not the one many of us were born on. And I'll point to the spirituality - particularly the Ecospirituality, the connectedness to the sacredness of the Earth - that we need for this new Earth. I'll conclude that maybe the nature of intelligent life is not to destroy itself, but more often to work its way to the emergence of a peaceful, sustainable way of life in which the beings delight in the home they have.

The theory that it is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself emerged as one possible response to the Fermi paradox. And what is the Fermi paradox?

The brilliant Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, born 1901 , reasoned as follows:
  • Our Sun is a young star. There are billions of stars in the galaxy that are billions of years older.
  • There is a high probability that some of these stars have Earth-like planets which, if the Earth is typical, may develop intelligent life.
  • These older stars with Earth-like planets would be way ahead of us in developing interstellar travel.
  • At any practical pace of interstellar travel, the galaxy can be completely colonized in a few tens of millions of years.
  • Given billions of stars that have billions of years of head start on us, a few tens of millions of years is nothing.
It follows, concluded Fermi, that the Earth should already have been colonized, or at least visited. But Fermi did not think there was any convincing evidence that we had been. Moreover, not only have we not been visited, we haven't even spotted a sign of intelligence elsewhere in our galaxy. Hence Fermi's question: "Where is everybody?" This question has come to be known as the Fermi paradox.

One theory that has been proposed as an explanation of why we haven't encountered or seen other intelligent life is that it is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself. The theory is that, on any planet that evolved species that developed civilization and then technological civilization, those species will "usually or invariably destroy themselves before or shortly after developing radio or space flight technology. Possible means of annihilation include nuclear war, biological warfare or accidental contamination, climate change." It's a conjecture some scientists have offered - just one of many possible answers to the Fermi paradox.

Is it inherent in the way that intelligence emerges that a species will arrive at enough intelligence to be able to destroy itself before it arrives at enough intelligence not to? Yes, intelligence emerges in response to competition for scarce resources. As long as resources are plentiful, species don't need to outsmart other species, and all species remain comparative simpletons. So, yes, wherever intelligence emerges, it necessarily comes with the aggressive competitive drives that spurred that intelligence to develop in the first place.

When that ancient competitive aggression and drive to consume resources, extend longevity, and reproduce suddenly becomes paired with powerful new technology: boom. That "boom" need not mean that the civilization entirely self-destructs, only that it becomes once again nontechnological.

According to this conjecture, this has already happened on billions of other planets and is now happening here. The result of that rising C02 is that the top 10 hottest years ever recorded have all been after 2000. An average temperature increase of 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures has already happened. The increase is expected to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2040, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. We are on track to reach 2.7 degrees Celsius hotter by the end of the century even if current pledges from governments around the world to decrease emissions by 2030 are met.

In the 20 years, 1980 to 2000, the number of distinct weather-related disasters affecting the United States and doing at least a billion dollars of damage averaged 4.75 per year. In the 20 years, 2004 to 2024, the number of distinct weather-related disasters affecting the United States and doing at least a billion dollars of damage averaged 13.35 per year. That's 2.8 times more billion-dollar weather-related disasters that in the 20 years from 1980 to 2000. This is from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and their cost estimates for weatherrelated disasters are adjusted for inflation, so it's a true increase of almost 3 times more major disasters per year.

Is this intelligent life destroying itself? Three and a half billion people live in places particularly vulnerable to climate change. By 2100, 50-75% of the world population will see periods of "life-threatening climatic conditions" - mainly heat and rainfall. Food insecurity and water shortage will lead to humanitarian crises, conflict and displacement, with heaviest impact in parts of Africa, Asia, Central and South America, small islands and the Arctic. 350.org, summarizes:
"Glaciers everywhere are melting and disappearing fast, threatening the primary source of clean water for millions of people. Mosquitoes, who like a warmer world, are spreading into lots of new places, and bringing malaria and dengue fever with them. Drought is becoming much more common, making food harder to grow in many places. Sea levels have begun to rise, and scientists warn that they could go up as much as several meters this century. If that happens, many of the world's cities, island nations, and farmland will be underwater. Meanwhile, the oceans are growing more acidic because of the C02 they are absorbing, which makes it harder for animals like corals and clams to build their shells and exoskeletons."
When we speak of climate change and the long list of planetary damages it wreaks, it's common to invoke grandchildren. "Preserve the planet for the sake of our grandchildren," we say. Or, "Let's not let our grandchildren have to deal with the problem with which we should be dealing." But the Earth of the first Earth Day is already gone. As Bill McKibben says:
"Forget the grandkids. It turns out this was a problem for our parents." (16)
At this point, maybe you're thinking: "Oh, such gloom and doom! It's depressing. It's stressful. Tell me something uplifting and inspiring, not this litany of disaster scenarios." I'm going to tell you the truth as best I can discern it. And here's a truth that I think happens to also be inspiring: Reality is never depressing.

Being in denial, being out of touch with reality, pushing it out of consciousness, so that it has to sneak around, come at you from behind, and crawl up your back (for reality eventually finds a way to get through to us), that's the source of depression. Struggling to resist irresistible reality - that's what triggers depression and stress. Reality is never depressing. Paying attention to reality is the antidote of depression. Mindful attention to exactly "what is" is a practice of cultivating joy, Even if "what is" is pain. Literally. For example, if you've got a throbbing knee pain or headache, bring all your attention to the pain itself, minutely noticing every detail of its sensation. This doesn't make the pain go away, but it does make the pain bother you Less, for as long as you sustain attention. Reality presents us with challenges, and those challenges become depressing or stressful problems only when we want to push them away, push them out of mind. Instead, engage, and connect.

The good news is: you and I are going to die. (This may not be news, though you might not have thought of it as good.) That's great news because it means we don't have to figure out how to live forever - get everything solved, all threats removed, so that we can then relax into our immortality. We don't have that responsibility. We only have this short time a day, a year, a few decades and all we have to do is show up for just a few decades, just this decade, this year, this day. That's all.

Hallelujah, we do not bear the burden of eternity. Knowing I am blessed with an ironclad exit strategy, knowing the divine takes form only temporarily in the body and set of ego defenses called "me," I am liberated. My task is no more than to manifest this transience that I am. My task is no more than that - and also no less. We are, each of us, called upon only to manifest and in our manifesting engage with the challenges that happen to arise for the few years we happen to be here.

Not denying the reality we face, nor retreating into some survivalist bunker, ours is the path of open-eyed and open-eared awareness, and the path of connection to both nature and neighbor. We shall choose neither despair nor defense, but new community.

On this 55th Earth Day, the Earth we celebrate is not the Earth of 1970 - but it still has technological civilization. Intelligent life has not destroyed itself yet, and maybe won't. Our odds get better the more of us have the courage to face reality exactly as it is - and this courage comes from spiritual discipline. This courage IS a spiritual discipline.

Our capacity to hold our world in love, whatever may come is developed in spiritual practice and in spiritual community. Where love is, fear and sadness are not.

Because of climbing C02 level, and the consequent climate change, the Earth of our ancestors and of our youth is gone. We now face the prospect of developing community on a new Earth. Our new Earth will rely more on local food, and on farming that doesn't use huge quantities of fossil fuel for its fertilizers, its pesticides, its machinery, or its product transportation.

Food will cost more. For many years now food, by historical standards, has been ridiculously cheap, partly because of agriculture subsidies and fossil fuel industry subsidies (which also subsidize the type of agriculture that intensively relies on fossil fuels). Even so, rising food prices will be a hardship for some, so food aid programs will need expanding. Our new Earth will rely more on locally-produced energy - solar panels and solar water heating on your own house, and windmills in your yard because transmission across power lines loses efficiency over many miles. We'll also use the internet and Zoom instead of flying and driving places -- a move that has already begun.

To sustain us in our new Earth we need the very thing that sustained many of us on the old Earth: a spirituality of connectedness with this earth, of reclaiming a way of living lightly, carefully, gracefully on this delicate home, rituals and practices and ways of thinking that nurture attention, and calm delight in the simple beauties of life. Ecospirituality -- which "means that our experience of the divine comes through the natural world." (Jeanne Mackey) — will sustain us, individually and collectively. As Steven Rockefeller writes:
"Our environmental problems will not be fully addressed until we come to terms with the moral and spiritual dimensions of these problems, and we will not find ourselves religiously until we fully address our environmental problems."
Emerging Ecospirituality recognizes not merely that we have a religious obligation to protect ecosystems, reduce consumption, and in general be responsible stewards of our environment, but that nature itself is sacred, has intrinsic value, and is due reverent care — not simply because it is God's creation and God tells us to, but because nature tells us to, and nature has that authority based on being sacred in itself.

Connecting to the sacredness of the earth is what saves us. Wanting stuff makes us stressed, and being stressed makes it harder to step back from our desires for a larger perspective. So what I'm talking about really is not impending grim necessity - but emerging wholeness, joy, and delight. We may make for ourselves a materially sparer and spiritually fuller life on our tough little planet.

Getting there won't be easy. It takes being focused and intentional, and it takes a lot of us paying attention together.

When Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) experienced unity with the divine, she gave the experience these words:
"I am the breeze that nurtures all things green I am the rain coming from the dew that causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life."
In riding a bicycle or driving a car we can quickly come to feel the vehicle as an extension of our own bodies. In the same way, the whole world is an extension of your own body. Yes, sometimes it does things you don't want it to and can't control, but the same is true of your joints and organs (increasingly so as the years go by!) Truly, everything in the world is your joints and organs, sinews and bones, glands, skin, and hair. And brain and mind. Says Joanna Macy:
"We are our world knowing itself. We can relinquish our separateness. We can come home again — and participate in our world in a richer, more responsible and poignantly beautiful way."
We have, of course, no idea how things may have gone on other planets. If thousands or even millions of other civilizations have arisen in our galaxy, the reason we haven't heard from any of them, though, would seem maybe NOT that they destroyed themselves. It seems at least as likely the reason we haven't heard from them is that they haven't needed to go colonizing for more resources. The nature of intelligent life just might be not to destroy itself, but, more often, to work its way to the emergence of a peaceful, sustainable way of life in which the beings delight in the home they have.

Perhaps the galaxy is full of technological civilizations that found their way into the joy of living together with smallness of resource consumption and smallness of carbon footprint upon their planet. Perhaps Earth will be next.


Love and Ethics

Love and Ethics. That touches on two of the three prongs of our mission – what we’re here for. We’re here to grow ethically – as well as spiritually – and we’re here to love radically: ethics and love. I want to explore today the overlap: how do ethics and love relate to each other?

I learned at a young age from the Gospel of John – Lennon – that “all you need is love.” Is that true? The Beatles sang it, but, then, they also sang, “I am the walrus,” “nothing is real,” “happiness is a warm gun,” and “we all live in a yellow submarine” – so maybe not everything they sang is true.

Yes, certainly, in addition to love, we need things like air, food, water, shelter – but looking just at the ethical realm: to be a good person, to be a moral, ethical person, is love all we need? Is love all you need as your guide for how to act? I’m going to say, actually, yes. Love – including attentive care to be as effectively compassionate as we can be – IS all we need.

The counter viewpoint, generally accepted, is that to act rightly in the world, it is necessary to have moral principles. However, what I’m suggesting to you today is: never mind principles. Just love. Love is the only law, as sources as disparate as Ziggy Marley and Nisargadatta Maharaj have said. Making the case against principles may be a bit of a heavy lift. Let us jump in and see what can be carried.

We all face ethical decisions: Do I speak up, or remain quiet? When is it time to put Mom in a nursing home – or time to "let go" of a child? Am I prioritizing my time in a way that most benefits myself and others in the long run? Is the comfort I get from bumping up the thermostat a couple degrees, or the enjoyment of eating meat worth the damage to the planet? Does it really matter if my coffee is or isn’t fair trade, or if my shirt was or wasn’t made in a sweat shop, or if some product was or wasn’t tested on animals? Whenever you choose to do, or not do, anything, there’s the question of whether that choice is the right one.

The great ethical traditions have defended ethical principles. Immanuel Kant propounded the principle: so act that the maxim of your action may be willed a universal law for all. In other words, before you do something, ask yourself, what if everybody did that? Kant’s ethics also tell us to treat others never as a means only, but as ends in themselves.

The utilitarians argued that, instead, the only test of the goodness of an action is the goodness of its results. Their ethical principle is: so act to maximize the total happiness, or the total benefit, to all beings.

The third great ethical school is virtue ethics – which is rooted in Aristotle. This school of ethics says that to be a good person you cultivate virtues such as courage (which we’ll be looking at next month since courage is our the theme of the month for May), and justice (i.e., treating people fairly), and temperance and prudence. These are philosophical approaches to ethics, and I will say, as a former philosophy professor, philosophers are, occasionally, worth paying attention to.

Your brain, like mine, is a mish-mash of competing, contradictory ideas, concepts, values, beliefs. Cognitive dissonance sometimes surfaces, but whenever we can keep it out of mind, we do. Becoming conscious of cognitive dissonance feels icky -- to be avoided if possible. But a philosopher is somebody who goes looking for dissonance. Philosophers concoct all manner of bizarre, unrealistic hypothetical examples just for the purpose of inducing dissonance.

Example: Suppose either 5 people had to die or 1 person had to die. Which would be better? Clearly, it would be better for 1 person to die than for 5, right? OK, so suppose you have five people who are dying of different organ failures. One of them needs a heart transplant, another needs a liver transplant, another needs two kidneys, another needs lungs, and another needs pancreas and intestines. Would it be OK to kill one healthy person, harvest his organs and distribute them among the five? No! But wait -- better one person die than five.

See? The philosopher’s job is to induce cognitive dissonance -- which is uncomfortable. As we confront the issue of how we live our lives, we like to think we have moral principles that guide us. We imagine ourselves to be principled people. We would hate to be accused of being unprincipled. To live by principle seems an admirable thing. Moral principles keep you on the righteous straight and narrow irrespective of how you might feel about it.

Principles don’t depend on your emotions. You don’t have to love your neighbor to know you shouldn’t steal from her.

But on the other hand, if you do love your neighbor, maybe you don’t need principles. Philosopher Jonathan Dancy is a champion of an approach to ethics called "moral particularism." Dancy argues that ethics isn’t really about having principles and following them. Here's the opening paragraph of Dancy's article about moral particularism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
“Moral Particularism, at its most trenchant, is the claim that there are no defensible moral principles, that moral thought does not consist in the application of moral principles to cases, and that the morally perfect person should not be conceived as the person of principle. There are more cautious versions, however. The strongest defensible version, perhaps, holds that though there may be some moral principles, still the rationality of moral thought and judgment in no way depends on a suitable provision of such things; and the perfectly moral judge would need far more than a grasp on an appropriate range of principles and the ability to apply them. Moral principles are at best crutches that a morally sensitive person would not require, and indeed the use of such crutches might even lead us into moral error.”
Jonathan Dancy and moral particularism were featured on an episode of the NBC comedy, “The Good Place” a few years ago. “The Good Place” is about four people in the afterlife who are trying to become better people by studying ethics. They want to deserve to be the “the good place” – and their strategy is to study ethics. It’s hilarious. They talk about Kant, Sartre, utilitarianism, Kierkegaard, John Rawls. They mention names and ideas of people you’d have to be a total philosophy nerd to have ever heard of: Philippa Foot, Tim Scanlon – as well as this Jonathan Dancy. They talk about the scenario I mentioned of killing one person to save five. The cognitive dissonance that drives philosophy turns out to be more tolerable when it’s also funny.

I do love the concept here, though the evidence, unfortunately, does not support the idea that studying ethics – moral philosophy – has much real connection to being a better person. Studies of actual ethics professors show that they are not more likely to be courteous, more likely to vote, more likely to give to charities, more likely to be vegetarian, or less likely to slip into conferences without paying the conference dues than any other academic. In fact, a survey of which books go missing from academic libraries shows that ethics books go missing more than other philosophy books matched in age and popularity. So studying ethics may not help you be more ethical.

Still, perhaps a life of learning in any field is apt to make us better people. Indeed, most of us feel that learning is, in itself, a component of a good life. The characters in "The Good Place," seeking to become better people, might just as well have taken up the study of economics or chemistry. They happen to have chosen moral philosophy, and I guess that might work as well anything would. Just trying to learn IS becoming better.

The show's protagonists do confront moral dilemmas, and it's nice to see sitcom characters employing the vocabulary of moral philosophy as they wrestle with what to do. As one reviewer wrote, "The Good Place stands out for dramatizing actual ethics classes onscreen, without watering down the concepts being described."

The show ran for four seasons, and by the second season Chidi, who was an ethics professor in life, has settled into the role of serving as the ethics tutor for the other three: Eleanor, Tahani, and Jason. Also, Chidi and Eleanor have an on-again off-again romantic relationship going. In the 11th episode of the 2nd season, Chidi declares himself a Kantian. Chidi has talked about Kant, more or less sympathetically, in many of the episodes, but without committing himself unequivocally. Now our heroes are trying to get to “The Judge” who they hope will rule favorably on their case. To get there, they have to go to The Bad Place and make their way through a room full of demons who are having what is, essentially, a cocktail party. Our heroes must impersonate demons in order to make it through this demon party. They must hide their true identities. They will need to lie. Chidi says:
CHIDI: I hate this. I hate lying. It’s not permissible. I can’t do this.... Kant says that lying is always wrong, and I follow that maxim....Principles aren’t principles when you pick and choose when you’re going to follow them. ("The Good Place," Season 2, episode 11)
Later on, when our heroes have arrived at the cocktail party in Hell and are trying to last it out without being discovered, Chidi manages to pull Eleanor aside for a moment of private conversation.
CHIDI: Those bro demons over there think I’m some kind of great torturer. They want my advice on how to torture some one. Help me.

ELEANOR: You know the answer, dude. Lie your ass off.

CHIDI: No! Lies have consequences. I will have contributed to someone’s eternal torture because I disobeyed a basic Kantian principle. I’m going to be sick, and I don’t want to go back to the bathroom because they put mirrors in the toilet, and that makes you really confront what you’re doing!
ELEANOR: OK, OK. Sit down. [They sit.] Take a breath. Rub your lucky bookmark. Hear me out. What if lying is ethical in this situation? What if certain actions aren’t universally good or bad? Like Jonathan Dancy says.

CHIDI: Jonathan Dancy? Are you talking about moral particularism? We never even covered that. You read on your own?

ELEANOR: You think just because I’m a straight hottie, I can’t read philosophy for fun? Look. Moral particularism says there are no fixed rules that work in every situation. Like, let’s say you promised your friend you’d go to the movies. But then your mom suddenly gets rushed to the ER. Your boy Kant would say never break a promise. Go see “Chronicles of Riddick.” Doesn’t matter if your mom gets lonely and steels a bucket of Vicodin from the nurse’s closet.

CHIDI: Real example?

ELEANOR: Yep! But, a moral particularist like me – I’m one now – I just decided – would say there’s no absolute rule. You have to choose your actions based on the particular situation and right now we are in a pretty bonkers situation.

CHIDI: I don’t think I can change what I believe just like that!

ELEANOR: And I didn’t think I would ever be at a cocktail party in literal Hell, lecturing my teacher-slash-ex-lover about moral particularism, but life throws you curveballs, bro!
And life does throw us curveballs. We get that there’s something noble about the principled stand – that, as Chidi says, “principles aren’t principles when you pick and choose when you’re going to follow them.” But Immanuel Kant was just wrong. Moral principles cannot be absolute. Generally, lying and breaking promises are wrong – the moral ideal is to avoid those as much as possible. But if you’re a gentile homeowner in Holland in the early 1940s, and you have a family of Jews hiding in your attic, when Nazi stormtroopers come around asking questions, it’s time to lie. And, as in Eleanor’s example, when your Mom has just been rushed to the ER, it’s time to break your promise to see a movie with a friend at that time.

Sometimes principles conflict with each other – the principle of protecting life or supporting one’s mother in her time of need might conflict with the principles of not lying and not breaking promises. Conflicting principles can’t both be absolute.

Could the principles be ranked in order of importance so that only one principle, ranked at the top, is truly absolute? If that one is satisfied, then you move to the second, and if that is satisfied, on down to the third, and so on. When principles conflict, you follow the one that is higher ranked.

The problem with this approach is that it supposes that satisfying a principle is all-or-nothing. But principles tend to be variably satisfiable. There’s a difference between being saying something slightly misleading and telling a bald-faced whopper. We might protect life a little bit, or we might protect it a lot. So if a given action would violate the top-ranked principle a little bit, but not doing that action would violate the second-ranked principle a lot, then maybe it’s the second principle that should govern in that case. Once we admit that possibility, then it’s useless to try rank-ordering the principles.

Can we have principles without making them absolute or rank-ordering them? Some philosophers take this approach, seeing moral principles as contributory rather than absolute. For example, in deciding what to say, contributory principles might be “Is it true?” “Is it necessary?” and “Is it kind?” One might take the position that any two of the three is sufficient. If it is necessary and kind, then it need not be true. If it is necessary and true, then it need not be kind. If it is kind and true, then it need not be necessary. Each of the principles contributes, but none is absolute, and they aren’t ranked.

The moral task is to balance the contributions of various principles that apply to the given situation. At this point, are they really principles? Chidi says, “Principles aren’t principles when you pick and choose when you’re going to follow them.” But is "pick and choose" any different from "balance the contributions of various principles"?

“Pick and choose” sounds capricious. And now I think we’re getting to what’s really at stake. We don’t like to think of ourselves as unprincipled because we think of “unprincipled” as capricious or self-serving or both. Love is the answer to both those. Love manifests as care for others, and a steady commitment to care.

Caprice is what happens when we haven’t found our way to, or have lost our way from, our commitments of care. Self-serving is being negligent about appropriate care of others’ concerns and needs – it’s a failure of love. What we mostly do, and that love attunes us to do better, is take in the details of the situation.

Various details provide reasons for doing this or that. When those details are seen in the light of love -- including love for ourselves – then we are guided to respond in compassion and care.

Every situation is full of reasons – that is, details relevant for discerning how to respond. We need to attend to reasons, but Jonathan Dancy’s moral particularism says we don’t need principles.

What we know about human behavior is that by and large, in fact, we don’t follow principles. Nor does talking about principles and declaring allegiance to them, studies find, make people act better. It doesn’t stiffen up waning resolve – just as studying ethics doesn’t make people more ethical. As Dancy, writes:
“There is only one real way to stop oneself distorting things in one’s own favor, and that is to look again, as hard as one can, at the reasons present in the case, and see if really one is so different from others that what would be required of them is not required of oneself. This method is not infallible, I know; but then neither was the appeal to principle.”
Look again, as hard as one can, at the reasons present in the case. Pay attention. Notice. But what is the energy that we need for attending to the details of what is going on? We will be able to attend just so far as we care, so far as we love – love this life, love this world, love each other, our fellow travelers.

Love is the fuel of caring attention, and it is caring attention, not moral principles, that guides us in discerning what to do. As we love more, we pay attention more, notice more, and thus more fuller respond – bringing more of who we are to more of what the world needs.

All you need is love. Our four protagonists in "The Good Place," trying to become better people by studying ethics, do gradually become better people – but, you will notice if you see, or have seen, the show – they become better people through their commitment to each other, through their burgeoning capacity to love.

All you need is love. All you need is love indeed.