© Mark Rahman 2005. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
August 21, 2005

There is a war ongoing for the hearts and minds and souls of all the people in all the world. Two great ideologies do battle in an eternal struggle. They could not be more different in appearance or behavior. I do not speak of communism vs capitalism, Unitarianism vs Trinitarianism, nor east vs west, or north against south. No individual institutions or movements are taking sides. The struggle arises in nearly every group that you can think of, with one side or the other in ascendency. The clash is of how to conceive of the world, one's relationship to each other, to this world and the next. It is not too much hyperbole to say that who wins or if there is a winner will determine the fate of the world.

The great cataclysm is the one between morality and ethics. ( cliche moment) I am aware that Webster defines morality as a set of ideas of right and wrong" and ethics as any set of moral principles or values" which sound very similar. Yet they operate in the real world in very different manners with greatly differing precepts. It is their difference in behavior that I wish to focus upon. Behavior defines what the genuine essence of each is.

Before I proceed further, I would like to say what I am not going to do. There are many here who regard a moral frame of reference as the proper one to use. I am not referring to that real personal morality but to the morality that we see every day in life about us. The morality that commands others, forces, and coerces. The morality that can excuse the enforcer's own immorality while in the process of enforcement. It can happen from the actions of persons of good faith. They simply must believe that they are called upon to enforce morality for the good of the community. The morality of self should not be confused with the morality that one applies to others.

So, to what morality am I referring? Morality is characterized by three features as it is presented with a public face. The origin of all moral authority is external. Not simply outside humanity but from outside the material world entirely, whether from God, divinity, or spirit. No individual can claim the right to proclaim moral truth on his own authority, but must be receiving instructions from elsewhere up the chain of command. Whatever institutions dispense moral judgments, they must hearken back to time when the law was first handed down by revealed knowledge to the first human.

Each moral law has always been, will always be. The precepts have existed since before time began and will still exist after the 'big crunch.' This is in keeping with the spiritual realm itself existing outside of time and space. Any less durability would call into question the validity of the moral code, and its right to be considered superior to ordinary humanity.

A corollary is invariance, immutability. In addition to eternal duration, each law must never have changed in any detail. As God exists outside of time, so must morality have no indication that it is subject to effects of time or is not universally applicable. The same law must be absolutely right on at any time, any place and for anyone. All this no matter what conditions prevail.

Ethics is just a little bit different. The system is completely man made, without a hint that any otherworldly being took a hand at all. Individuals may pray, seek divine guidance, look to spiritual leaders, but they are still the ones who have to do their best when developing a code. Humans rarely agree on anything and the result of wide consultation is bound to be a set of compromises and therefor imperfections. Personal interest may take a hand. Any number of difficulties may arise because people are inherently imperfect.

The resulting code does not apply to everyone. Only the members of the concerned group are going to subscribe to the code, and they have written the code for themselves. The result is an arrangement among the willing. There may be reference only to the membership, or they may decide to include provisions for the treatment of outsiders. This is not a universal application nor consent of the governed. Enforcement is problematic. There may be sanctions for unethical behavior in name only. The end product may be more or less noble depending on the intent and follow through of the persons involved.

Ethical codes must be adaptable. They are to apply to the ways that people treat with each other. And the circumstances within which people meet each other are highly changeable. We have all seen immense variation over our lifetime in situations, social relations, movements of peoples and cultures and especially changes in technology. We have had to consider questions that would not have been conceivable a short hundred years ago. The work of ethicists is never complete and usually barely able to keep up with the changes.

Thus are the public faces of the two great ideological movements. And yet, is it all that simple? Can we really leave the differences at this level? If we can, then this is a very short sermon. In practice the roles of the two are nearly reversed. Each takes on some of the attributes of the other.

Morality can be considered to be the property of an institution staffed by professionals. They maintain a monopoly over interpreting the moral code. There can be no acceptable division of authority. Any difference over interpretation or of the power to interpret is fiercely challenged. Many are the religious schisms that resulted from competing seats of authority. It is better to be separate than to differ, leading to questions about the value of the institution. Galileo found this out when he declared that he could prove his theories independently of the church as authority. The Pope of the day was favorably inclined toward the ideas but not to the challenge to church authority. The most troubling aspect for a moral code is in the event of a contradiction between two moral laws. Both are supposed to be inviolate and yet they cannot both hold true. Usually the less desirable result is ignored while enforcement proceeds on the other. Whoever decries an immoral war, will be asked why they support terrorism.

There have been many great changes over the years in what is considered to be moral or not moral. Many issues revolve around who may be in control over one sphere or another. At one time women were important in the major religions as priestesses. As the West gave way to Christianity and the Middle East to Islam they lost the right to supervise rites and be leaders. Women attempting to assert influence outside the normal limits were living dangerously. Only recently have they begun to retake important positions on a regular basis.

Secular power also has evolved into strange justifications. Early in the West and East the secular leader was also a god and had real divine right. Later in the West the 'Divine Right of Kings' was supposed to come from God and be conferred on the monarch, notwithstanding the many changes of dynasty and fortunes of nations that imply God changes His mind frequently or has a serpentine route to an end. There is no moral authority declaring who should rule in today's West, as that has ceased to be a specifically moral question about the specific type of governance. In the East god-kings gave way to emperors secure in the 'mandate of heaven.' That in turn gave way to a system that claimed a moral right to rule on behalf of a particular class. Morality still exists yet in a secular sheepskin. Other new underpinnings of moralities that have moved away from religious connections include bulwarks against communism or terrorism and natural law.

What it means to be a human being has long been determined as morally enshrined in the social structure. Slavery struck a recurrent theme from biblical days, through the Greek and Roman Empires down to recent events in this country. The Civil War was always a moral crusade to the South. At other times and places caste has been the determining factor. One's economic status and opportunities can also depend upon class, perceived character, and especially race.

The relation between the spiritual and material worlds has had a back and forth history. Many thought the end of time would come soon at many periods of history. The resurrection of all was expected by Jesus' followers shortly after His death. The Millenealists caused a stir around 1,000 and 2,000 of the common era. It was a moral decision to turn their backs on the material world and anticipate the imminent return to God. Let us not forget the idea of the chosen people. Centuries of history give us many examples. Jews, Romans, Arabs, English, Germans, Japanese, Han Chinese, and (white) Americans. A very incomplete list, all of whom were morally obligated to at spread their culture and perhaps displace or eliminate other peoples. What is clear is that far from being eternal and invariant, morality changes to fit the time and place of its use. Morality, as we see it practiced in the world, generally supports the elites and promotes their agenda.

Choosing how we will treat others in a systematic way, is really about how we wish to be treated ourselves. Let us not be led to believe that nice treatment of our fellow beings stems from the goodness of anyone's heart, present company excepted. There is a fear for most people that they will not be able to keep what they have in a dangerous world. One can choose to maintain status by taking from others or, if one is not in a position to do so, according them rights equal to one's own in the hope that all will be guaranteed a continuation of status in return. This is not an easy proposition to promote. Many temptations exist to draw people into the idea that they can be on the inside when those outside are left bereft. There are not a great many ethical systems that exist outside of those groups where an obvious common interest bound the subscribers together.

An early code of ethics was the Hippocratic Oath. The oath described what the physician/teacher and student owed to and expected from each other. This included a non-competition clause. It also had a section on the proper behavior toward patients that has the curious concept, first of all, do no harm. The oath has survived nearly to the present with only mild alterations. It is very near to what most modern apprentice situations today call for as common practice.

We are all aware of another system of ethics that called for hundreds to cobble it together, to fight over every word, what to include or not. Allow me to read some of it as it is instructive. "We, the Member Congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Covenant to Affirm and Promote:" worth of persons, justice, acceptance, free search, conscience, world community, and respect for all existence. We have sought a system where individuals freely contract with one another to mutual gain and a better life for all by extending the same consideration beyond our own confines. We owe to each other certain behaviors, not to a king or government or idea or institution nor anything else under someone else's control. This is not the first list of principles that the UUA has had nor shall it likely be the last. But not one of the principles is really new. They have all been around for hundreds of years.

A novel experiment occurred sometime back that was essentially an ethical proposal. It also involved a group of people spending much time and acrimony hammering out a compromise. There is nowhere in the document the phrase by the grace of God" nor a claim for divine inspiration. The experiment was new but the ideas were old. "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." The important word in both documents is "We". When the efforts are less than stellar, for instance the 3/5's clause, then the ones who caused the consequences will also suffer consequences. The colonies did not come easily to the constitution. They had tried first to go it alone, and then in a loose confederation before difficulties caused them to give up trying to gain advantage and accept an approach for the common good.

Ethics and morality can be seen in open conflict. Technologic change is the most usual venue for conflict to occur. Stem cell research shows a clear difference. Moral judgments are completely against the technology, while the ethical panels have found useful and safe paths. The techniques involved in cloning may have some use medically and the ethical panels are still involved trying to figure out the proper way to proceed while the technology is moving ahead quickly. The moral response is a simple opposition that effectively leaves the technology an open field. A moralistic frame of reference cannot adapt to change because the ideas are from a different time.

Thus the battle between the great ideologies is joined. Our children's future hangs in the balance. The choice lies between an acknowledged imperfection and a claimed perfection. Whether we adapt to rapidly changing circumstance or have them control us as happened to the Norse elites on Greenland that John told us of last week, is the great question of the age. The outcome could choose between democracy or autocracy, environmental disaster or not, between a great war or peace. I have no confidence one way or the other. I am very interested in seeing how it turns out.

I mentioned real morality earlier. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle put the words into Sherlock Holmes mouth, "My dear Dr. Watson, once you have eliminated all that is not true, then whatever is left, however improbable, must be so." If the worldly morality is eternal, external, and immutable then truth is easy. Real morality is within an individual only, not from without and cannot be used to command another. It is as transient as the individual for their connection to a divine spark dies with them. No two people can feel that connection the same since it is an inexact apprehension of the unknowable. As people change so will their understanding of the connection. For the Buddhists this is the Buddha within. For the Quakers it is the inner light. I hold out the hope that your inner light will see you through to good choices.

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