Category Archives: Existential Ethics

The Good Shepherd Lives

Here is a much mistreated passage from the Fourth Gospel about shepherds and sheep.

I have come that human beings may have life and may have it is all its fullness. I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hireling, when he sees the wolf coming, abandons the sheep and runs away, because he is no shepherd and the sheep are not his. John 10 :10-12

Those who give sermons on the good shepherd often assume that this ancient image applies to a contemporary pastor who tells his flock what they should believe and how they should act. Such a view also assumes that most people are sheep in the sense of being gullible, go-along, authority-addicted dumbbells.

I do not believe this was the meaning intended by the original author of these verses. The original shepherd image was grounded in the experience of noticing highly dedicated persons working on a hillside with a flock of sheep, providing them grass and water and protecting them from wolves. Being a follower of Jesus means being such a leader.

So where can we actually experience this Good Shepherd in our lives today? Let me answer this with a fictitious story—a story made out of my own experiences. In my story, Sally McGillicutty teaches an adult class in the Sunflower room of the Umpity Ump Christian Church. Sally trusts the Ultimate Message that the Infinite Silence we meet in every event of our lives loves Sally and every other person (and creature) on this planet or any other planet. Because of her trust in that Eternal Wholeness that is faced by Sally and by us, Sally is thereby an embodiment of the Ultimate Message from Eternity.

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The Depth of Christian Social Ethics

All social ethics takes place in a context of history. Christian social ethics is no different: as Christians we do not have a set of principles that apply to every generation of history. The ethics of Leviticus and the ethics of Deuteronomy were shaped for those times in history. The same applies to the ethics of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, and H. Richard Niebuhr. Time moves on and social ethics moves on with the times.

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The Flight From Freedom

Freedom is a component of our essential nature along with trust of Realty and care for self and neighbor. Yet we flee from this freedom, just as we distrust Reality and neglect care for ourselves and others. Flight from freedom is an estrangement from realism.

The Primal Merging with Freedom

When we have been blessed to see beyond our self images, personality structures, and social conditioning, we discover our intentionality, our initiative, our freedom to act beyond those self-inflicted boundaries. Too easily, we tell ourselves that we can’t do what we can do. The truth is we don’t know what we can do. We think we are determined where we are not. For example, if I am by habit a shy person, I can still discover my freedom to risk myself in gregarious contact with others. If I am by habit a boisterous person, I can still discover my freedom to calm down into being sensitive to others. Personality impulses exist, but so does freedom, unless we have squelched it.

Our essential freedom does not control the future—almost always he future comes to us as a surprise. Our freedom is not absolute control, but a participant in options. And this freedom is a gift—a gift that must to be received and enacted by us. Freedom is our profound initiative to make a difference in what the future turns out to be. Our free initiatives mingle with massive forces beyond our control to form a future that is both a surprise to us and a result of our initiatives.

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Innocent Suffering

Several Christian theologians, including H. Richard Niebuhr, have used the term “innocent suffering” to provide us with clues to our ethical priorities. What do we mean by this term?

For example, it is certainly true that African American persons in the United States confront an up-hill slope compared to their white brothers and sisters. To even be a candidate for the office of president, Barack Obama had to be qualified way beyond the norm for this job. Though we might not support some of Obama’s policies, we had in him a superbly qualified person: a law scholar; a public speaker of Abraham Lincoln class (many of whose speeches will be remembered for centuries); a talented comedian seldom seen in public office; a person of self control, obvious sanity, and sincere intent to be a positive influence. Had he had any of the flaws or weaknesses of Donald Trump, he would never have been elected Senator, much less President. Can we imagine the response of voters, had Obama said things about women that Trump apparently got away with (at least with millions of voters)? A white man in our culture often avoids sufferings that a black person will almost certainly experience.

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Time?

In both contemporary physics and contemporary religious writings “time” remains a mysterious topic. Nothing is more obvious than time to an elder who has watched babies grow into adults. “How time flies!” is almost an automatic exclamation. Nevertheless, in both our scientific quest for truth and in our interior or contemplative quest for truth, “What is time?” arises as an unusually profound topic.

Contemplative Time

When we look within our own conscious being, we see ourselves living in an ongoing quality we call “now.” Time seems to flow through this now. The past is just a memory taking place now as content in our memory banks. And the future is only an anticipation, taking place now in our guesses about future nows that have yet to “happen.” In our experiences of contemplation or art participation or solitary brooding, “now” continues to be our core experience of time

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The Road and the Retreat

Your vision of the world is your world,
until you find a better vision of the world.

In the four years preceding 2011, five unknown visionaries, Ben Ball, Marsha Buck, Ken Kreutziger, Alan Richard, and myself, wrote a book entitled “The Road from Empire to Eco-Democracy.” This book named ten positive trends toward a viable and promising future for humanity on planet Earth. Trumpism manifests the opposite of all ten of these trends. If there were a Trumpite book on such topics, it might be titled “The Retreat from Eco-Democracy to Anthropocentric Empire.”

I am going to name those ten trends examined in The Road and give names to Trumpism’s ten retreats that are reversing those positive trends.

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Prayer Always Works

Jesus spent many long hours in prayer–whole nights, 40 days in the wilderness preparing for his life mission. He probably spent hours every day in prayer. He was a busy man. Why was he spending all this time in prayer? And what was he doing with all this prayer time? Certainly, Jesus was not doing the sort of long-winded praying for which he criticized the religious leadership of his time. In his teachings, he clearly recommends solitude and sincerity.

In the opening verses of the 11th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, we find the disciples noticing that Jesus spends much time in prayer. One day, after he finishes praying, they ask him to teach them to pray. Jesus, according to Luke, gives his disciples a brief set of terse sentences we call “the Lord’s Prayer.” Then Luke continues the subject of prayer with Jesus teling his disciples a story about a man who goes to his friend in the middle of the night to get three loaves of bread for his suprise guests. The friend is already in bed and won’t get up. Jesus says that if this man persists, his friend will get up and give him everything he needs.

Jesus applies this story to the subject of prayer, “And so I tell you, ask and it will be given you, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you. The one who asks will always receive; the one who is searching will always find, and the door is opened to the person who knocks.” (Luke 11:9,10) These verses seem to contradict about half of what we experience in our real lives. We have all asked for things we never received. We have all done some passionate seeking without finding. And we have all done some knocking on doors that never opened.

Some interpreters of these verses have suggested that our problem is poor praying. If we were to pray correctly, we would receive what we are praying for. But such interpreters have never satisfied me; nor have they convinced me that this is what Jesus really meant. In the 14th chapter of Mark, we see Jesus himself praying all night not to have to drink the cup of crucifixion. As part of his prayer, he notes that all things are possible to God. Yet he apparently knew that God might not give him his request, for he concludes his prayer, “Yet it is not what I want, but what you want.” (Mark 14:36)

So what does it mean to say that the person who asks always receives? An answer to this question can be found in the verses that follow the verses about always receiving:

“Some of you are parents, and if your child asks you for some fish, would you give that child a snake instead, or if the child asks for you for an egg, would you give that child the present of a scorpion? So if you, for all your evil, know how to give good things to your children, how much more likely is it that your Heavenly (Parent) will give The Holy Spirit to those who ask (Him/Her)!” (Luke 11:11-13)

God gives the Holy Spirit! What a curious thing to say. The verse seem to imply that if we ask God for some fish or an egg, God will give us The Holy Spirit! And this gift is a “good thing.” The Holy Spirit is a better gift than fish or egg or whatever specific things we asked for.

Is this the way that prayer works? No matter what we ask for, God gives something better. God sends the Holy Spirit! Let me stretch this metaphor out a bit: The divine prayer-answering order-house works very simply: it only has one product, all packaged and ready to go. No matter what you order, you get this same package, the Holy Spirit. This makes things easy for the prayer-answering order house. You pray for a new car. God sends the Holy Spirit. You pray for better health. God sends the Holy Spirit. You pray for a lover. God sends the Holy Spirit. You pray for a workable, planetary social order. God sends the Holy Spirit.

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Mono-devotionality

The word “monotheism” has experienced some disrepute among recent theologians and secular philosophers.  Nevertheless, H. Richard Niebuhr gave this old term “monotheism” some new life in his breakthrough book Radical Monotheism and Western Culture.

Too often overlooked is Niebuhr’s insight that the word “God” in biblical writings does not point to “a being,” but to “a devotion”—that the word “theism” or “God” is a devotional word, like the word “sweetheart.”  Niebuhr holds that the Hebraic Scriptures and the New Testament, as well as Augustine, Luther, and thousands of others use the word “God” to mean a devotion to a source of meaning for our lives.   Luther was very explicit about this: “Whatever your heart clings to . . . and relies upon, that is properly termed your God.”

So, if we view the syllable “theo” in the word “theology” to mean a devotion rather than a being, then “theology” might be termed “devotionology.”  “Monotheism” becomes “mono-devotionality.  “Polytheism” becomes “poly-devotionality.  And “henotheism” becomes “heno-devotionality.”

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So What is Morality?

The essence of morality is not a gut response, but a social construction. Morality is like the custom of stopping at stop signs. At some point our society simply decided that stopping at red lights is the thing we are supposed to do. All morality is like that. If our morality is about marriage being only between a man and a woman, that is just a custom some social group constructed. It has no more authority than that. If morality means not killing people, except in circumstances of self defense, appropriate police action, or declared warfare, that is also something that a society has decided.

We can have gut responses to our moralities. We like them. We don’t like them. We are nauseated by people to violate them. We enjoy seeing people violate them. These gut-responses are not our moralities, but attitudes we ourselves take toward the familiar moralities that our society, community, parents, or peers have taught us. Our superego, as Freud called it, is nothing else than our internalized social moralities, plus the various attitudes we take toward those moralities.

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The Cry for Equity

One of the lessons I have learned from the Old Testament prophets is how poetry is more powerful than prose to uncover the depth of our social ills. So I have attempted to write poems on social topics. I have called these “teaching poems,” for I do not pretend to specialize in the art form of poetry. Here is a poem on a topic that still characterizes the current news media.

I Love Politics

Ronald Reagan was wrong
to make “regulation” a curse word
and create disdain for government,
politics, and politicians.

I say, let us love politics
and piss on the private sector.

Let us make business obey the rules.
and let us create better rules—
stricter rules—and enforce them
immaculately.

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