© Dr. Chris Schriner 2008
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
February 3, 2008

There is a Native American story in which a wise old Creator makes the world and everything in it, and finally makes the first human. Then he turns to his companion, the dog, and says, "Now I have finished my work."

"Oh, no, Grandfather," says dog. "Now, you must make first human to laugh." So, the Creator bends over first human and says, "Laugh! Laugh!" And first human laughs and laughs. "Now, Grandfather, you have finished your work," says dog.

"Oh, no," says the Creator, "Now I must make first human to cry." So, the Creator bends over first human and says, -Cry! Cry! Cry!- And first human cries and cries. "Now, we have the gift of laughter and the gift of tears,- says the Creator. -They are equal and they are good."

This story deals with both the creation of humans and the creation of human meanings. After making a person who can walk and run and talk, old Grandfather creates the capacity to be happy and sad. And that requires a sense of meaning.

The sense of meaning I'm referring to this morning is not about knowing the meaning of words or the meaning of road signs. It's meaning in the sense of, "Your phone call meant a great deal to me." "Freedom of religion means so much to Unitarian Universalists." Or more casually, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." I'm talking about our values, the things we care about. In this sense, to say something means a lot to me is the same as saying it matters to me.

So where do we look to find what matters most deeply? It used to be easy. Just learn the values of your culture from parents and other grownups. People thought the values of their tribe were clearly correct, and other tribes with other values were just being silly, as obviously wrong as if they believed 2 + 2 = 5. But today Unitarian Universalists try to appreciate all cultures, as when I spoke earlier about Lunar New Year. Different cultures have different values, so how do we know who is right? I have come to believe that values are neither true nor false, at least not true or false in the sense that it's true that 2 + 2 = 4 or that baseballs are round.

Now of course it is true that some values help us achieve other values. If one of my goals is to stay alive, I can say truthfully and correctly that eating healthful food is good. Good food is a means to an end, helping us attain the more basic goal of survival. But why is that a good goal? Why is living better than dying? That's the sort of basic value I'm talking about today. Other examples include: Why is pleasure better than pain, as a general rule? Why is happiness better than misery? Why is feeling fulfillment better than feeling despair, feeling healthy better than feeling sick, having good friends better than being lonely and isolated? If our basic values are neither true nor false, then how do we justify them?

Some people say God is the source of meaning. Just as God created the world, God created certain things as having value. If God says that humans have worth, then we do. If God says we have no value, then we're worthless. Whoever dealt the cards gets to make the rules.

Some people say that we should look within, either instead of looking up to God, or in addition to that. Perhaps we have an inner instinct that determines what's valuable and valueless. Perhaps we evolved to feel that life is good and death is bad, and that pleasure is typically better than pain.

This morning I'm going to argue that regardless of where we look for inspiration, we are the ones who are responsible for deciding what we value, and there is no way to escape that responsibility.

Do you find yourself wondering, "How can I make this momentous decision about what is basically good or evil? Just little ol' me?" I admit that we don't find meaning in isolation from everything around us. It does help to talk to other people; to find inspiration in nature, science, art, and literature; and to listen to God, a higher power, or our own higher self. But after consulting these sources, it's up to us to say, "This is right, and that is wrong; this matters deeply, and that is trivial." The choice about bedrock values always comes back here, and there's no way we can get off the hook. Meaning and morality come from within.

Religion often tries to locate the source of values outside of us. For example, many people say that if we follow God's commandments and resist the temptations of Satan, then we don't need to decide what's right and wrong. But how does one justify following God instead of Satan?

There is a very instructive story about two theological students who were arguing heatedly, late into the night, about the nature of God. Finally one of them exclaimed, "Oh, now I see! My god is your devil and your devil is my god."

Think about that. Who decides which invisible spirit should be called God and which one should be called the Devil? "God" just means a great supernatural power that we humans label as good. "Devil" means a supernatural power that we humans label as bad. Someone who says, "I'm going to follow God" is making a decision that God's way is best.

But many humans are awfully uncomfortable with their responsibility as value-creators. Even some academic philosophers are still looking for a way to make ethics objective, so that right or wrong is a matter of true or false. Since our brains are wired up to discover facts about physical objects, we tend to think value is something real we can find out there in the world. We tend to think the same thing about beauty, that it is a built-in feature of beautiful things. So some philosophers want to find an objective standard for deciding what is beautiful.

I am convinced that beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. Loveliness is not a feature of lovely things that we can discover in the same way we can find out the weight of a watermelon. Ask yourself, now, "If no creatures existed that appreciated aesthetics, would the universe be either beautiful or ugly, just in itself?" I don't think so. It is by our own heartfelt responses that we beautify the world. And by saying Yes to what we love and No to what we detest, we confer value upon a world that is neither good nor bad in itself.

I want to emphasize that if you believe in a creator-god and you go to that deity in prayer, you'd better listen to what the creator has to say. A being that made the world probably knows a lot about the most fulfilling ways for you to live. But it's you who decides that God's voice is a good guide.

Values are not something we discover like finding coins under the pillows of a couch. Instead, valuing is something we do. Bestowing value and significance is part of our nature, part of our heritage as human beings. Think of the song, "My Favorite Things" - "Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens." Familiar, reassuring, everyday experiences, reminding us of family and home, comfort and safety. These simple things call forth an affirmation that flows out of our very center. Valuing comes from valuers, and we are valuers. To be a person is to be a meaning-maker.

"But Chris," you may ask, "If values are a choice rather than being true or false, we end up with moral relativism." Yes we do, and that does make things complicated. No two cultures have exactly the same values - nor do any two individuals. But most of us realize that we do better if we focus on the many ways that our values overlap and try to reach win-win solutions to conflicts, rather than just shooting everyone who disagrees with us. But it's tricky. Mythologist Joseph Campbell has urged us to "follow your bliss," which inspired a cartoonist to show two people strolling reflectively down the beach, one of whom was evidently an attorney, who asked, "But suppose my bliss is suing people?"

More radically, suppose we encountered creatures from outer space who did not value us and wanted to destroy us. Would this action be neither right nor wrong? And what about Hitler? Was he truly a monster or did he just have a very special way of looking at good and evil? That's a complex question and you may want to puzzle about it on your own. My quick answer is that he was not truly evil, in the factual sense that a rock is truly heavier than a feather. But if Hitler had been thinking clearly he would have seen that he was evil from his own moral perspective. He was a monster by his own standards, but he was confused about that. Maybe I'll come back to this one another day.

There are lots of ways we may become confused about the idea that values are neither true nor false. First of all, we may think that since we are the ones who create meaning, we can choose whatever we want as good or bad. Existentialist philosophers such as Sartre are sometimes interpreted as saying we are absolutely free to do anything. Morality is simply something we make up as we go along. But beware of selecting your core values by impulse or whim! Values flow out of our nature as human beings, and we violate our nature at our peril. Saying we are value-creators does not mean acting out of momentary caprice.

Sometimes when people realize there is no such thing as absolute, objective values, they fall into despair. If values are not something we can discover, like we can discover the distance from Fremont to Fresno, we may wonder whether life is just meaningless. I'm reminded of a Peanuts cartoon in which Sally was jumping rope with a big smile on her face. She then dropped the rope and burst into tears. Linus ran over and asked, "What's the matter, Sally? Why are you crying?" "I don't know," she replied. "I was jumping rope ... everything was all right when ... suddenly it all seemed so futile."

Jumping rope was something Sally valued, because energetic bodily movement is one of life's joys. It feels healthy and natural, and it needs no justification beyond that. But if we ask, "Why is this worth doing?" we may become befuddled. We may forget that we treat some things as worthwhile just because we value them, period.

We may also worry about whether there is any sense of right and wrong in the universe as a whole. People seem to think it's terribly important that Old Mother Universe should back up our human sense of worth. Maybe she does, or maybe God does. But suppose just for the sake of argument that the universe doesn't care a bit what happens to us, or to anything else. "Gee, if Mother Universe doesn't care, maybe we shouldn't care either." But that doesn't make sense. Why should we let something that has no sense of right and wrong (the universe, let's say) dictate whether we consider anything right or wrong? To find inspiration about values, we need to consult something that can make value-judgments, not something that is value-blind. We may think the universe must be right about this, because we are so teeny-tiny and it is so vast. But being physically larger or smaller has absolutely zero to do with who's right about questions of value.

If we despair at the possibility that there are no objective values, notice that even this sad feeling expresses our values. Without values, we would neither laugh nor cry, (unless someone tickled us or we were slicing onions). Except in unusual circumstances, we cannot stop viewing our world as filled with meaning and significance. We produce valuings like birds fly and fish swim.

Let's take an example of a very basic value-judgment. What living things are worthwhile in themselves? Not surprisingly, people bestow value on people, but what about other animals? What about plants? Or creatures from outer space? In the movie, E.T., The Extraterrestrial, was E.T. of worth to approximately the same extent that humans have worth? Many of us would say yes, because E.T. has many qualities which we appreciate in human beings: a rich and complex inner life, the ability to feel happiness and sadness, pain and pleasure, and so on. If we value these things in humans, it would be absurdly capricious not to value them in an extraterrestrial. There is also lots of overlap between the worthwhile aspects of humans and animals. Thinking of some recent news stories, this means we shouldn't kick sick cows or tease tigers in the zoo. It's harder to evaluate organisms that seem simpler than we are, but I try to err on the side of caution. I do not kill spiders. But I do take antibiotics, without feeling guilty for being a mass murderer of microbes.

This Tuesday I hope all UU voters will cast their ballots in the California Primary. And I recommend a meditation before making your final decisions. Reflect upon the kind of world you would like to help create. What basic values do you most passionately want to realize? Do you want physical safety, nutritious food, and good health for all? Do you want excellent education for every young person? Do you want wide access to meaningful and rewarding work? Do you want civil and religious liberty? What is your vision? Then look again at the candidates and propositions, to see whether they match this vision.

Life gives us many gifts, including the gifts of laughter and tears. We can laugh and cry and dance and mourn and merrily skip rope, because it is our nature to feel good or bad about whatever happens, saying "yes," saying "no." And it is perfectly OK to be this way, perfectly fine to affirm our destiny as meaning-makers. This is who we are and this is what we do. In fact I can imagine the wise old grandfather-spirit, in the story I shared earlier, making a value-judgment about the humans to whom he has given life: "Yes, they laugh and they cry, and they care, and it is good."

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