“In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself” by Wislawa Szymborska
The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn't know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they'd claim their hands were clean.
A jackal doesn't understand remorse.
Lions and lice don't waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they're right?
Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,
in every other way they're light.
On this third planet of the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is Number One.
Over the last couple of months I’ve officiated at several weddings. When I do a wedding, it is interesting because I’m up there in front of a bunch of people and most of them I’ll never see again. They don’t have any experience of me, and most of them don’t have any experience of Unitarian Universalism. And, sometimes what happens is that people will come up to me and say things that project onto me ideas about ministers and churches in general, and these ideas don’t really have any connection to how I understand my ministry or our religious community.
Most recently a wedding guest came up to me and began, “Do you know why I don’t go to church.” I didn’t know, but I bet she was going to tell me. “I don’t go to church,” she told me, “Because church is someone telling you what’s right and what’s wrong, and I’m not going to sit there and have anyone tell me how to live my life.”
I politely excused myself as quickly as I could. But, now, I’m a bit curious. What exactly does she do that she is worried that someone will tell her not to do? But, I was also struck by what she thought it was my job to do. On one level, I kind of reject her understanding of the role of the minister. For example, say I run into you in a public place and you’re with your friend. “Oh,” you say to your friend, “I’d like for you to meet Thom. He tells me right from wrong and good from bad and he tells me what to do.” That would be awkward. But, I also would find it awkward for you to say, “I’d like for you to meet Thom. He’s a minister, but don’t worry. He never says a word to anyone about right and wrong or good and bad and he never says anything about how we should live our lives.”
Or, let me put it a slightly different way. Someone who lives in a different area of the country recently shared with me that she attended a discussion group at her Unitarian Universalist church. During the discussion, an older man remarked, “The great thing about the Unitarian church is that it doesn’t interfere with my life.”
I think a lot of people are drawn to Unitarian Universalism because of the freedom that is found here, because of the acceptance, and because nobody will say, “Here are the absolute answers. Here are the final truths. This is what the eternal word of God says.” But, it is also true that this church is a place where we ask questions about morality, attempt to figure out the answers to difficult ethical questions, and increasingly understand that there is an ethical dimension to how we live our lives. And, part of what we might gain here is some assistance with ethical discernment. We might develop a greater moral literacy, by which I mean the ability to read the ethical significance of affairs in the world around us. We might also develop a greater moral fluency, a larger capacity to speak about things of moral importance. And, we might exercise moral imagination and reasoning, the ability to question the way things are and think through significant ethical questions.
In bringing up the subject of morality, I should probably make clear that I don’t think that this is an area where we as a community of individuals are grossly inadequate or deficient or particularly in need of remedial instruction. Most of the time, most of us have a developed sense of right and wrong and good and bad. Our understandings of right and wrong have evolved over time and with experience and are open to the influence of those we trust and love. But, in articulating that sense of right and wrong, we may struggle at times to identify the source of authority.
Not a lot of us here believe that God literally gave Moses stone tablets with commandments chiseled on them. And, because we doubt that it happened this way, all questions about right and wrong will include a second question: on whose authority? The sources of authority we look to, then, are not singular. We find authority in the revelation that comes to individuals and communities and in our own experience of what works to preserve and uphold life. We find authority in the depth of our conscience, in the workings of reason, and in lessons from the humanities, the sciences, and the arts. We find authority in the examples and teachings of great moral figures and in multiple traditions of wisdom from around the world.
Moral fluency, moral literacy, moral reasoning: these are ideas I want to explore with you this morning. And, I want to suggest that moral fluency, and moral literacy, and moral reasoning are especially important because it can be argued that we live in a world that is less morally fluent. When I say that the world is less morally fluent, what exactly do I mean? I don’t mean that people behave worse than they used to. That is not what I’m saying at all. I mean that people are less likely to speak of things as having moral significance.
This idea for this sermon began as a response to an email I received from a member of this church. This member sent me a link to an op-ed piece by the right-leaning New York Times columnist David Brooks. Brooks’ article discusses a recent sociological study that concluded that young people struggle to articulate their thinking about moral issues. To quote from Brooks’ article,
[The researchers] asked about the young people’s moral lives, and the results are depressing.I think that Brooks is partially right and that the researchers he cites are partially right. But I also think that the truth is not nearly as bleak as they make it out to be. I do think that there is an increasing tendency to avoid speech that articulates moral principles. And, I think this is unfortunate. And, I think that there are good reasons that this is the case.
It’s not so much that these young Americans are living lives of sin and debauchery… What’s disheartening is how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues.
The interviewers asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life. In the rambling answers, you see the young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so.
When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn’t answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all… "I don't really deal with right and wrong that often," is how one interviewee put it.
Allow me a digression to talk briefly about something that probably seems extraordinarily random: changes that have taken place in conservative political discourse. But, there is a reason why I bring this up, as I will explain shortly.
Conservative political discourse has changed over the course of the past few decades. A few decades ago, even a few years ago, the loudest right wing voices in America belonged to the religious right. In the eighties they were known as the Moral Majority, although both their status as a majority and as moral were dubious. In the nineties, they were known as the Christian Coalition, as the Religious Right. Their leaders spoke in the language of moral absolutism and moral certainty. They shouted condemnations and judgments. It was a movement that was morally repugnant and morally farcical. But then, this movement sort of dropped out of sight. Jerry Falwell died. Pat Robertson got old. James Dobson ran into money problems. Ted Haggard got caught up in a salacious sex scandal. Here in town, Jerry Johnston’s trajectory mimicked that of the movement as a whole. Of course, the dangerous ideas of the religious right are still around and they are still dangerous. Just look at Topeka. People who believe in religious diversity and the separation of church and state will always have to contend with Dominionists and demagogues.
Now, and this is my point, the loudest conservative political voices in America are much less overtly moral in nature. The language used by groups like, say, the Tea Party is not the language of morality. Their explicit goals are presented as amoral or extra-moral. Of course, the effects of their ideas would have significant consequences, consequences that I believe to be immoral and evil, but the discourse about those ideas, by and large, suspends morality as a category worthy of consideration. [Robert Putnam and David Campbell offer a slightly different sociological study of the Tea Party in this piece.]
I spoke about conservative rhetoric first because the opposite end of the spectrum, the religious left in America, has notoriously had a problem with articulating morality. Jim Wallis’ 2006 book God’s Politics: How The Right Gets It Wrong And The Left Doesn’t Get It. Note the subtitle. Wallis picks apart the moral vision put forth by the religious right, calling it shameful, but also condemns the left for being mute on the issue of morality.
Everything I’ve said so far has been painted with broad strokes. I’ve spoken in generalities and there are plenty of exceptions. But, thinking about those researchers who tell us that many in the younger generation struggle to articulate their moral thinking, I’m left to wonder whether this isn’t as much a rejection of the bombastic judgments of the religious right as it is something akin to the communication struggles that have plagued progressive religion and progressive politics.
If you read the actual interviews on which Brooks based his article, you find that they are not always as alarming as Brooks would have us believe. What is behind the moral quietude of these young people? The interviewees seemed cautious about judging other people whom they may not understand. They seemed careful not to express positions that may be insensitive or oppressive to ethnic or cultural minorities. There was questioning and curiosity mixed in with apathy. Moreover, they rejected the rhetoric of absolutism as false and fruitless and ugly. This is not to say that those interviewed always got it right. This is not to say that they don’t have much to learn. This is not to say that greater moral literacy and moral fluency and moral education are not needed.
I have to be honest with you, when given the choice between a red-faced demagogue and a person who practices moral quietude I would often choose the company of the latter. And, at the same time, I have to admit that something is lost in this moral quietude. What is lost is the ability to critique or challenge or resist the dominant cultural narratives around us.
The researchers I spoke of earlier also wrote this about those they interviewed,
We went into this consumerism section of the interviews expecting at least some emerging adults to display a heightened awareness about environmental problems associated with mass consumer economies. We thought we would hear a variety of perspectives, including some “green” and “limits-to-growth” viewpoints… We expected at least some of them to speak critically about the emptiness or dangers of all-out materialism… We also went into our interviews expecting to hear [them] talk about the political or military complications of such dependence on foreign natural resources like oil. And we expected some to emphasize the importance of personal, inward, subjective, or spiritual growth or richness over the material consumption of products. But we heard almost none of that… Soon we were nearly pushing [them] to consider any plausible problematic side to mass consumerism, if they could. They could not.If spending money is fraught with moral considerations, saving money can be just as morally dangerous. As one minister friend of mine shared in a recent email, monies that are saved and invested, depending on where they’ve been invested, can be used in multiple by financial institutions to provide loans for the predatory lending businesses and other forms of “development” that blight our local communities as well as to create the factories abroad that exploit workers. Banks can use our investments to place bets on whether Greece will go bankrupt. There are enormous moral dimensions to the dominant narratives in which we live.
Polish poet Wislawa Syzmborska, in her poem “In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself,” writes,
On this third planet of the sunMoral fluency, moral literacy, moral imagination, moral reasoning. All of these actively resist quietude. All of these muddle the clearness of conscience. They demand that we be more outspoken about our values, to risk offending, to risk speaking.
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is Number One.
There is a balance to be found between the zealousness of declaring how other people ought to live their lives and the quietude, indeed the silence, of choosing to avoid “interfering” with anyone else’s life. But, it is necessary to find our way in between. Conscience demands it.