Although I do not support the boycotting of General Assembly because of the require-ment that we show government-issued identification to enter the convention center even for public worship, I do support the concern for the erosion of our civil liberties, using the existence of terrorism to justify it. I think, though, that what bothers me even more than the loss of civil liberties is the willingness of the American people to trade their liberty for physical safety. There is a lot of rhetoric about the bravery of the Amer-ican people in the face of attack, but what I see most of is a pitiful cowardice. The saving of one's own life seems to be more important than any kind of moral rectitude, more important by far than any of the values that we say we are willing to risk our children's lives for in battle. So I thought that I would talk to you this morning about the courage that I believe is the most basic necessity for a life that is worth living, worth so much that we are willing to risk it to save what matters even more.
I am extremely fond of children's literature. It is my contention that the best children's literature is often far more worth reading than a Russian novel. One of my favorite se-ries is the Oz books. They are badly written, but that is redeemed by their other quali-ties. One of the reasons that I am much fonder of the book, The Wizard of Oz, than the movie, though I think that was a marvelous achievement, is the character of the Co-wardly Lion. Bert Lahr's lion was charming, but the book made it much clearer that the important thing about him was that he was extremely courageous much more so than those who expressed no fear. They might be fearless enough before their confron-tation with danger, but in the confrontation itself it was the Cowardly Lion who came through. That is what courage is: not fearlessness, but the willingness to confront and conquer your fear and do whatever must be done in spite of it.
We usually think of courage in terms of physical bravery, and that is certainly one kind of it. On some level it has been necessary for our survival as a species, and an instinctive recognition of that is probably why our sports and combat heroes are idolized. It is an example of natural selection of those characteristics that insure the continuance of the human animal. That sort of bravery is not, however, the kind that is necessary for our spiritual life, however important it may be for our material ones. What is required there is moral courage, and that is usually more difficult to achieve. It is harder because it has more to conquer than does fear of a physical threat. It must conquer the fear of others' opinions and of one's own fallibility; it must conquer greed, indifference and laziness; it must conquer despair.
None of us who functions at all is without some measure of courage. It takes some cou-rage, after all, to make the simplest decision, and to do anything at all; we must make decisions - even the decision to get up in the morning. Making a decision forecloses other options, and it takes courage to let those other options go, as well as to follow the path that the decision opens before us. Nevertheless, the amount of courage that we have is the measure of our potential for fullness of life.
One of the most important examinations of the idea of courage as a religious concept is in The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich. Tillich has been the most popular and revered theologian of the modern age, although like most modern heroes, revelations (in this case by his wife) of sexual improprieties have somewhat tarnished his image. He struggled with the two most difficult theological concepts confronting us, existentialism and the death of God theology, and succeeded in dealing with them to the satisfaction of nearly everyone who could no longer remain in a traditional theism. He confronted existential despair and the theodicy required by the implications of the Nazi holocaust and emerged triumphant. He spoke of the ground of being and being-itself, of the God beyond god, and said that the necessary quality for the struggle for salvation, the shaping of meaning for yourself, is courage - the courage to be. Being for Tillich is what I mean when I talk about salvation.
I have often said that I really have only one sermon or at least that my sermons have only one theme. That theme is salvation. We tend not to use the word since it has the connotation of having some magic hero take us up to the sky and reward us for virtue with a paradise of unending bliss after we die. I trust that you are aware that that is not my meaning. Neither is it, if you'll pardon my shattering one of liberal religion's favo-rite myths, what most serious theologians mean by it. Salvation means the establish-ment of the strongest possible connection to the holy - to what is of ultimate worth. We achieve it by living according to the highest ideals that we can conceive. And that takes courage. It takes courage even to try. It takes more courage to try again after we fail, as we inevitably must. Salvation is not achieved once for all time. It is not conferred as a prize at the end of your life. It is the process of persisting in the quest for the holy in spite of the roadblocks of pain and fear and of ease and indifference. It is the process of continuing in the face of failure and despair. Salvation is the necessary goal for full humanity, and the necessary quality for its achievement is moral courage.
When you look around at the natural world, it seems clear that the whole goal of life is just more of it. And in fact it never occurs to us to wonder about the meaning of the life of a butterfly, or for that matter an alligator or a cockroach. They simply are, and their goal is merely to reproduce themselves. Human beings are the only animal that even thinks about the question, so far as we can discover. In the evolutionary sense, we are extremely successful. We have managed to destroy or control nearly all of our natural enemies other than ourselves with the exception of the viruses, but even most of those we have on the run. From the materialistic view of the nature of humankind, it would be reasonable to assume that the quest for meaning, the loyalty to such ideals as love and justice, and the worship of the holy, however it is accomplished, are important sur-vival traits, since these are characteristics unshared by our less successful cousins. However, they are impeded by many other traits of our need to survive which we do share with them.
I should say first that I do not agree with those who relegate our spiritual longings to a mere creation of our genes which has increased the human ability to survive. I believe that there is more meaning to life than simple survival either of the individual or the species and that our faith should even take precedence over such bodily survival. Of course, if they're right and I'm wrong, it's okay because my clinging to my trans-rational belief would contribute to the likelihood of the survival of my genes. That is by the way, but I am talking about survival of the human as fully human, and therefore the struggle against our more basic instinct for personal physical survival which sometimes gets in the way of our humanness, is a part of the problem. Moral courage is not something with which we are born but something that we must learn.
It seems to me that the instinct to survive often results in fear and greed. Babies are born, it seems, with those two roadblocks to salvation. It is when our survival is in doubt that we feel fear, and it is to ensure that survival that we grasp for more than our share or even more than we need. Some time ago I read about a study of lying which argued that we all lie from the time we begin to talk and sometimes before, that we do it well and often and sometimes from the highest of motivations. However it continues, it begins in fear - fear of the disapproval of those on whom we rely for our survival. I remember one time my husband's being enormously hurt and angry that one of our children had lied to him about the commission of some deed. I was not even surprised. If I had thought about it, I would have been more surprised if he had told the truth. It doesn't matter how kind and loving their parents are, children depend on them for survival and therefore fear their disapproval. Risking one's survival for the sake of honor - for the sake of salvation - takes moral courage to overcome fear. That any of us gain it at all is the wonder.
We need other people, not just our parents, for our survival. We need their acceptance and approval. We need to be a part of a community. None of us can survive entirely alone. It is, therefore, a great risk to be different, to think differently, to act differently, even to dress differently. And yet to be fully human we must maintain our individual integrity, do what we ourselves think is right even if it be different from the majority view. To overcome our fear of rejection for the sake of integrity takes an immense amount of moral courage.
So does it not to snatch and grab for the sake of security, to conquer one's natural greed in the name of justice and compassion. Those survive best whose bulwarks against de-struction are formed with material goods, and the proof of wealth. Piling up material goods is a natural instinct. The more we have the safer we are and the more likely we are to survive. The courage to risk want for the sake of what is fair is not easy.
Ease and indifference also can sometimes shield us from the life of the spirit. Perhaps that is the real reason that Jesus said that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. It might be less that they have more than their fair share of material goods than that they feel no need to transcend themselves in a connection to the holy. They may perhaps be too comfortable, and it takes courage to risk that comfort to nourish the spirit. Questing for the holy, after all, is not a comfortable or easy occupation. It requires that we confront our littleness, that we stretch for goals beyond our reach, that we learn humility in our inevitable failure.
It is in failure and despair that the necessity for courage is most clear. It is what makes it possible to continue even without hope. One of the concepts that Tillich talks about (not in The Courage to Be, but in other works) is basic trust. It is the sense that despite tribulations and failure, the universe is nevertheless an essentially friendly place. Even when he discusses existential despair, it is only the idea of the meaninglessness of life that he deals with, not the despair that comes when life seems not only meaningless but desperate.
Although there is much in existentialism that I like and agree with, particularly that it is the human task to find and shape its own meaning, existential despair has always seemed a bit precious to me. It is all very well to think about how meaningless life is when all we do is made pointless by the fact that we will die and it will all be forgotten, but that is merely an intellectual exercise in despair. All you need to do is look around you to find the real thing, and there are times when you may even experience it your-self. Sometimes it may come as a consequence of failure so complete that to try again seems impossible. Sometimes it may be the result of a loss that is so great that all signi-ficance seems removed from life. It is, indeed, the loss of basic trust. One is betrayed by life itself. If courage depends on this basic trust, and therefore ultimately on hope, then there can be no courage in true despair which is beyond hope of amendment.
Yet I think such courage exists. I think that it is possible in utter despair, with no idea of improvement, no hope for the future, to continue the quest, to remain loyal to the val-ues that you hold, to continue to worship and to celebrate. I do not know how it is maintained, but I have seen such courage and I reverence it more than I do that based on the hope that with persistence and courage matters will improve. But that's okay, too. Any way that we can keep the courage alive which enables our spirits to persist in the journey toward the best that we can know and be is good enough. It is not always easy to do in a world where even our basic survival seems the enemy of our ideals.
I try to articulate, sometimes, the proper work of a religious institution. We are here to identify and celebrate ultimate value, and to nurture its influence in the world. But I think we have another purpose. I am not sure where courage comes from - courage, as opposed to fearlessness which may be, and often is, a product either of ignorance or denial of the real dangers that confront us. Although everyone has at least a modicum of it, there can never be too much. It seems clear that our task is somehow to nourish and enhance the courage that is necessary for our spiritual growth and health, or just our spiritual survival, the courage that we need for salvation. It is, at least in part, for this that we meet together in fellowship, to give courage to one another for the religious quest.