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Saturday, October 10, 2015

Absolute Values

Rabbi Jonathon Sacks in an excellent article in the WSJ on Religion and Violence, the subject of a class we are teaching, speaks about the "absolute values" embodied in the three great monotheistic religions. He is arguing that we don't need less religion to avoid violence, we need more of the best in religion.

I don't quarrel at all with what he is proposing. I agree with him and Karen Armstrong that religion per se does not cause violence and at its best embodies the ideas and behaviors that overcome violence and cruelty. But I do quarrel with the concept of "absolute values" (except in mathematics and vodka). Why? Because I think that the very illusion of the absolute is a, maybe the, source of violence and cruelty.

Are there absolute values, truths, beings, beliefs, beauties, goods, meanings? I think not and want to discourage them as dangerous illusions.

Rabbi Sacks is correct. We are animals searching for meaning. That desire comes with our ability to think, which is our ability to use images and symbols to act with each other in the world.

We search for Truth and Meaning. We want to know reality.
We search for Goodness and Value. We want to act rightly and have love.
We search for the Beautiful. We want to appreciate and produce beauty.
We search for Reality-- the unity, the goodness, the truth, the beauty of Being.

But truths (like the Standard Model in physics or evolution by natural selection in biology) are not absolute and unchanging. They are preliminary understandings. Values contained in religion and in ordinary common sense are not absolute and unchanging. They are signposts along the way. The beauties of the universe and of persons are not absolute and unchanging. They are images in anticipation. Beings come and go.

Now whether we believe that the One, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful exists, or is becoming, or is an unrealizable future ideal, I believe we can all meditate, pray to, and call on the spirit of life, meaning, and love in ourselves. I experience that spirit in myself and you when I am living, working, listening, speaking, and acting with others--even those who are taking the time to criticize or argue with what I am saying or doing. That spirit is not an entity separate from us in time and space, but it is at the core of our existence personally and collectively. It is our transcendence and engagement in transcendence. It is not our beliefs or truths or values or products. But it is the source and therefore core of our truths and values and beauties.

There are so many ways of saying this. And I suppose that all religions at certain times and places try to. But really the words and symbols are merely pointing for us to consider that source and core in ourselves. It is there that the unity of our religions and cultures and worlds can be discovered. But for humanity's sake, let's not absolutize it. For as soon as we do, we've lost it.

Or, worse, we try to isolate and defend it--often by violence.

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