Symbols vary but core values are the same
MANY very religious people seem to be fretting these days that we cannot teach "human values" in the public schools without grounding them in religion (theirs, usually), which the courts currently forbid.
Yet, what I find quite interesting is that those basic values seem to have survived quite different religious traditions, or no religion, quite intact. It's true that the anthropologists like to remind us that cultural patterns and mores have varied widely in content and emphasis from culture to culture over the years. However, the core values in each of them have been wonderfully consistent.
I have not noticed that one religion has been any better than another in getting consistent compliance, but all have celebrated essentially one basic set of values for all their other differences.
I spent 13 years in juvenile law enforcement and never met a crook who needed to learn the Ten Commandments to know that he or she had violated those basic human values.
Throughout my ministry, I have been involved in social change movements. At my elbows were members of every religion available and those with no religion. Again, it was the same values functioning.
In interfaith dialogues, again and again we discover that for all the differences of language, image, symbol and story, we are celebrating and trying to live out those same values.
People come to me wanting to know if there is room for an atheist or agnostic in my faith tradition; it has often been the failure of religious folk to live out those same basic human values that has driven them away from religion.
My answer, incidentally, is, "Yes. There is room!" I am much less interested in a person's theological opinions than I am in their values commitments and how they live them.
In my tradition, the 19th-century Universalists sent out missionaries like other Protestants were doing. The Universalist missionaries came back saying things like, "You know, those Buddhists have some interesting ideas. Why, you can hardly tell the Dhamapadha from the Sermon on the Mount." We began to realize that behind all of those differences of language, image, symbol and story lie the same human experiences. They are expressed in different doctrines, but the basic experiences and the values are remarkably similar.
I once fantasized for my congregation a conversation with a visiting alien, a UFO pilot who had been observing us. I tried to imagine what our various religions would look like through its eyes. One of the things he said was, "If we had religious symbols like you do, I think ours might be your kaleidoscope. So many colors and patterns but, ah, the same light!"
Perhaps the time might yet come when the religious, the nonreligious and the irreligious alike can forget about insisting upon our favored and preferred theological code words and focus on those basic human values we all share. It is sometimes surprising how often we do that already and either don't notice it or assume it must be a rare and aberrant event.
And sometimes we are like my uncle who was vociferously prejudiced against every conceivable subgrouping of the species. And yet, he considered every actual representative of one of those groups that he got to know to be an exception. A bigot with a large heart? Maybe that's the best we can do for the time being.
Can we celebrate that?
The Rev. Mike Young is minister of the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu.