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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on October 26, 2008

A Religious Liberal in Quest of a Natural Moral Law

They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them.

Paul’s Letter to the Romans 2:15

Today I want to reflect on natural law. A dangerous proposition, of course, particularly if you’ve ever found yourself on the wrong side of what one considers natural. No doubt over the ages moral assertions believed to be derived from nature have led to numerous oppressions. Right off I can think of the subjugation of women and people of different colors and homosexual persons, not to mention left-handed people and folk with red hair. That acknowledged, still, the question hangs in the air, is there some moral code that can be called natural? Doesn’t our common humanity take us to some deep in our bones, written on our hearts, call to do this and to not do that?

I believe among the well read the inclination these days is to say no. And I find a compelling argument in that no. It was a year or so after I left the Zen monastery in Mount Shasta. I was working in a bookstore in San Diego and decided it was time to try a little college. I am, as you may recall, a High School drop out. So classes at University were out of the question. I went over to San Diego Evening College, which was only up the road a bit from the bookshop, and had open registration. As it turned out the only class available on the one evening I had free that was even vaguely interesting to me was something called Cultural Anthropology. I thought, what the heck, and signed up.

It was an eye opener. I’d already picked up how people didn’t all think the way I did. But I hadn’t thought through what that might actually mean. Until, that is, I heard the term cultural relativism. This past week looking for illustrations I did a little web research but couldn’t find anything that quite worked for my purposes, so I sent an email to the UU minister’s list serve, soliciting personal examples of cultural misunderstanding, adding that I hoped they would be humorous.

I got a lot of responses. Almost all turned on how we use different terms around the country for common objects like sandwiches. While interesting and occasionally amusing, none pointed to the deeper misunderstandings of how things are in the world. Until one colleague, who as you will see, needs to remain anonymous offered an illustrative joke.

Before I begin, let me remind you I am of Irish descent… An Englishman, an American, and an Irishman walked together into a bar and each ordered a beer. The bartender placed a frothy mug in front of each of them. However floating in each mug was a fly. The Englishman pushed the beer aside declaring, "That's disgusting.” The American pulled the fly out and started drinking his beer. The Irishman also pulled the fly out, set it on the counter and shouted “You nasty little thing, spit the rest of that beer out!” Not to be defensive, but don’t forget I am Irish.

This little joke conveys some important points. Cultural stereotyping is rooted in how people from one culture see people from another. Beneath that it points to how we see the world, and how that seeing is very much culturally bound. A culture is woven out of the stories we choose to tell about ourselves and about others. My sense is that the human mind itself is woven out of stories, my personal stories and the stories of my people. As I look relentlessly at the workings of my mind I find I am very much a product of time and place. There is liberation here, but also constraint. So, I feel a deep need to notice how these stories are going to be different across the planet. Very much including, and this is so important, our stories of what is right and what is wrong.

As such I think we need to cultivate a sense of cultural relativism. But cultural relativism isn’t necessarily moral relativism. They’re intertwined, no doubt. And I think the easy slide from one to the other by many of us, perhaps all of us at least on occasion, has been a mistake. If there is any sense in which there is a universal moral stance, ignoring it would have just as bad consequences as following false moral codes. Missing a deeper moral stance, if there is one, blinds us to who we are, you and I. And it blinds us to what goes on around the globe, and our place on this planet.

So, the question is hot. I know it burns deep in me. And the question is simple: is there really some universal morality? Is there something written on our hearts? In my spiritual quest, out of my years of introspection and observation, and profoundly cautioned about the consequences of misjudging, I’ve come to a conclusion. I think the answer is yes.

As I search my heart and mind, as I look at people from around the world, I'm confident there is something deep within our human consciousness which births as judgments of "right" and “wrong” behavior, whether specifics stand up to close scrutiny or not. The first observable fact is we all share a sense of right and wrong. I believe the source of our moral impulse is found within our biology. I'm sure there's all sorts of stuff related to our being mammals, and specifically as a herd variety of great ape. Our mammalian inheritance and particularly belonging to that herd sub-set, prejudices us toward relationship. We desperately need others.

But, also I suspect very much, it has much to do with the structure of our brains, with our innate quest for pattern, that amazing ability which has given us the planet on a silver platter. I believe our ability and our need to see pattern prejudices us toward order, and gives us all a sense of fairness, although the details of what that fair is are culturally specific.

Taken together, this becomes the mother source of our need for a moral life. The devil, of course, lies in the details. Is there anything we can look to that can provide generally helpful rules as we try to live lives of worth and dignity? As I’ve said I’m hardly the first person to think about this. And over my years I've found two codes that I find particularly interesting.

I've long been fascinated by the Noahide code, a "universalist" list of precepts derived from the Hebrew Scriptures which is believed in some Jewish circles to be an expression of natural law. The Lubavitcher Hasids are particularly concerned with advertising this code to the non-Jewish world, but it has an independent existence of any particular Jewish sect.

The Noahide code has seven precepts. One formulation goes 1) Do not worship idols, 2) Do not blaspheme, 3) Do not commit murder, 4) Do not be sexually immoral, 5) Do not steal, 6) Pursue Justice and 7) Do not be cruel to animals. Framed more positively they can be read 1) Believe in God, 2) Respect and Praise the Divine, 3) Respect human life, 4) Respect your family, 5) Respect the rights of others, 6) Work for justice, and 7) Respect animals.

I find these interesting, especially that term “respect.” Although while in part compelling, not, for me, ultimately convincing as the best articulation of a possible universal moral code. Frankly I'm much more taken with the Five Precepts of Buddhism. These are moral precepts said to have been prescribed like medicine by the Buddha, leading he claimed, to a cure for the hurt of the human heart.

The five precepts are. 1) Do not kill, 2) Do not lie, 3) Do not steal, 4) Do not misuse sex and 5) Do not become intoxicated. As with the Noahide code these precepts can also be formulated positively as 1) Foster life, 2) Speak truthfully, 3) Respect boundaries, 4) Respect your body and other's bodies and 5) Remain clear and open.

I find it intriguing where the Noahide and Buddhist precepts overlap and where they do not. Both have prohibitions about killing, although for one it appears to be more narrowly a prohibition of unlawful killing of human beings and for the other it is a rather more double-bind absolute no killing, about stealing and about sex, although again what exactly these mean is often expressed differently. The Noahide code upholds relationship with a creator, devoting two precepts to this, and calls for justice among human beings and kindness to animals. The Buddhist code is unconcerned with questions of deity, and instead upholds clarity of mind as the primary admonition.

That the details of any hopeful universal moral code are so slippery, I’ve come to feel that they must be approached with caution. It reminds me of the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean,” where the pirate captain Barbossa is confronted with a rule from the mythical "Pirate Code," and replies, "The Code is more what you'd call guidelines than actual rules."

As I’ve continued to ruminate on the subject I have found some suggestions, actually I’ve found seven bubbling up as possibly reflecting the deep needs arising within our human condition. They are principally derived from the Buddha's five lay precepts, enriched by reflecting on the Noahide code.

So, here’s my shot at a list of seven suggestions, seven universal precepts, seven, it seems to me, natural rules for human behavior. Each feels worthy of deeper reflection. But for today, just for a taste, I’ll share them with you as a list with briefest commentary.

1) Love Your Mother. Here I try to articulate the sense of deep harmony, which I perceive in those ancient calls to know and love God. I don't have a deep visceral sense of a personal deity, but I do have a compelling sense of a larger sacred of which I am simply a part, that following Spinoza and others can easily be called God. It manifests as an abiding sense of sacred obligation to others and to the world. Love our mother. Don't put idols in front of her.

2) Reverence Life. Here we need to see into the mystery of life and death, of the great conundrum that eating requires killing, that we cannot take a walk without killing thousands of life forms. And always, how within the embrace of our mother we are all one family, actually we are one. We need to see the connections and seek to walk with care and gratitude.

3) Speak Truthfully. Words have enormous power; words create and destroy. We need to be careful with our words. We need to speak what is helpful, generous and kind. For the most part we need to let our yes be yes and our no, no.

4) Respect Things. There is a profound conundrum to life. While in a very true sense we are completely interdependent, one can accurately say we are one; at the same time we are different, you are you and I am I. Here our Western logic sometimes fails us, just like energy is now a wave and now a particle, we are now one and now separate. This is a call to respect. We need to respect boundaries, even if they are in some ultimate sense provisional. And we need to acknowledge the various claims people have within these boundaries.

5) Respect Our Bodies. We need to know and respect and love ourselves, in particular we need to know and respect and love ourselves as sexual beings. And we need to extend that knowledge and respect and love to other's bodies, as well.

6) Seek Justice. In our communal lives we need to seek equity and harmony. We need to respect the individual and to know we have common needs. No one is an island.

7) Seek Clarity. In order to manifest this harmonious life we need to remain clear. We need to be watchful of those things that cloud our perceptions that lead to false conclusions and unhealthy actions. We need to foster those things that extend our clarity and allow our actions to be more generous and harmonious with the way things are.

Well, that’s my list.

So, if it were put into action what would it look like? Should we embrace this as our way, or something rather like it, what would it look like? We know it has to be organic, more like learning to dance than following a list we check off. We know it involves enormous humility; we have to allow ourselves the option of being surprised, and learning, and constantly, of letting go.

Over the years I’ve seen any number of descriptions of what this might look like. But here I would like to return to the Western tradition. The first of the psalms or songs attributed to the King David is generally considered to be part of the Jewish wisdom tradition. I think it is. In considering the text more deeply I also think it shows how we layer things and so often add in the unnecessary. But I’ve found a creative, generous, heartful engagement with that particular text which seems to show the whole thing, gloriously in Stephen Mitchell’s lovely translation.

Blessed are the man and the woman
Who have grown beyond their greed
And have put an end to their hatred
And no longer nourish illusions.
But they delight in the way things are
And keep their hearts open, day and night.
They are like trees planted near flowing rivers,
Which bear fruit when they are ready.
Their leaves will not fall or wither.
Everything they do will succeed.

For the sake of our hearts, for the sake of the world, may this become so.