Sunday, October 15, 2006

Suggestion for religious and spiritually liberal people for outreach

What I am going to write here today isn't novel. It may even be a little tired. But sometimes you have to pick up that tired truism and carry it forward. And if there is a standard or banner for progressive politics and liberal religion/spirituality, it is inclusiveness. Unlike the characterization often made by those who oppose such a perspective, it does not mean having no standards or principles or accepting any standards or principles, nor that there is no discrimination. The issue is what is being accepted and what is being discriminated.

Quite simply, what is being accepted are people. That is where the inclusiveness comes into play. If you are a sentient being, a human being, then you are accepted. That is the liberal idea of inclusion, especially the religiously/spiritually liberal form. What is challenged, differentiated, and judged? Beliefs and behaviors. How is it judged?

My formulation for how people tend to use the concept of morality is as follows: An action that is voluntarily chosen which benefits others at a cost to the self is the epitome of good, whereas an action that is involuntarily imposed on others to their harm for a benefit to the self is the image of evil. It is this self-sacrifice that people call altruism, the far end of the "goodness" meter on the morality scale. The basis of morality then is in recognizing others as ourselves (self-aware beings capable of choice and imbued with feelings).

So beliefs and behaviors which permit freedom of choice/are freely chosen is the initial criteria. Part of freely chosen includes freedom from coercion, but subtle and gross, including fear and the threat of pain, violence, or death. The "benefit" clause is, of course, open to interpretation, but generally speaking it would involve upholding the dignity and welfare of those affected. Food for the hungry, medicine for sick, shelter for the homeless, education for the ignorant, companionship for the lonely - it isn't too hard to get the drift here.

I think many mainstream and even some self-labeled conservative religious denominations and congregations have an element of these liberal convictions, which is an opening for dialogue. The more extreme versions of conservatism, as it is practiced today, are rooted however in egoism. It is the idea that a collection of individuals each working for his or her own self-interest (or more accurately selfish-interest as this is how it is typically interpreted) is going to produce the best results and that morality is tied into the each individual's personal gain (generally measured in terms of power, money, property, reputation, etc). Hence unrestrained capitalism is seen as the mechanism for the achieving the highest good. Religiously this is tied into the Calvinist idea that those who are materially successful are somehow superior or have "done better" in the eyes of God. This is precisely the kind of belief and behavior to which I am opposed.

Just because it cannot be over-emphasized, let me repeat: The essence of morality is not survival or prosperity. Morality 1) rests on the empathy of seeing others as ourselves, 2) is shaped by respecting others as ourselves, and 3) is manifested in our choice to treat others are ourselves.

As for the code of rational self-interest as a basis for morality, what would happen if one's own self-interest seemed to suggest you should kill someone? Let's say you see everyone as a separate unit loosely affiliated with other units who are all in competition for material goods and social reputation. By killing the person, you would benefit materially. The only downside you can see is if you get caught, thereby losing material goods, likely losing your freedom, and damaging your reputation. But, you are very certain you have the means to make sure that this won't happen. According to rational self-interest, if I value material prosperity and my freedom/reputation, so long as I know I can get away with it, killing is right.

But, what if that isn't true? What if we are all connected to each other socially, ecologically, emotionally, etc? If that is the case, then "rational self interest" would say that when you help others, you are helping yourself. There is no difference. When you harm others, you are harming yourself. In this case, we are each others "means", in such that we are either each others' salvation or damnation. So, to harm someone else just for material gain, even though I could "get away with it" in terms of being caught, still diminishes us all, so therefore it would be wrong.
The point is, "rational self interest" is entirely dependent on how you define "rational" (it used to be very reasonable and quite obvious to assume that non-whites weren't fully human, for instance) and how you define "self-interest". It has no basis for making moral statements beyond those views (essential to) determining the value of others that one already possesses.

Which brings us back to inclusion. In the liberal religious traditions, God, or the Tao, or Higher Power, or Ultimate Reality, Supreme Dharma, nor those who represent it in human form, such as Jesus or Amida Buddha, turn anyone away. There is no condition or restriction on the embrace of the Divine. Whereas a system based on the idea of individuals as competing for "success" is going to operate on a principle of exclusion. After all, there must be a way to gauge this success, so the idea that we are all welcome in God's eyes (to use one form of imagery) is anathema! Rather than seeing sin or delusion as a self-made barrier or a recognition of our own shortcomings, it becomes a mark of shame and target of ridicule. That's why I saw many otherwise conservative congregations have a liberal streak, especially many Christians, because they at least acknowledge that none of them can boast of their virtue being superior to anyone else's and that they are redeemed by grace. Unfortunately, that tendency toward exclusion then too often takes over and that grace is then again reserved for those who are follow their particular views and perform their specific rituals, but still, it's another potential point for dialogue.

As political progressives and/or religiously-spiritually liberal persons, we should keep this distinction in mind. Our message is open to everyone, our practices and policies should benefit everyone, and our actions, speech, and thought should reflect an appreciation for the welfare and dignity of everyone, even as we may oppose beliefs and behaviors that do not.

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