I was asked once to speak at a congregation where I was told that the theme for that year or season was universal values. I laughed and said something like, "Shouldn't the question first be, 'Are there any universal values at all?'" As we become familiar with other cultures, other ways of thinking, it becomes clear that what we had thought in the past was universal may not be so at all. But I think that the question is even broader and deeper than that. It has seemed to me that we are at the present time undergoing a profound shift in the way we see ourselves, the universe and God - those ideas that enable us to form our values - more profound than any but two other times in the whole sweep of human history. Such times are unsettling, even frightening, sometimes dangerous, but they are inevitable. Many of the unsettling, frightening, phenomena of our present society and the civilization of the world can be traced directly to this shift, some as reactions against it, some as inadvertent results of it, but few, if any, as thoughtful responses to it, mostly because we haven't really understood quite what was going on.
Such shifts are caused by revolutions in our ways of storing and sharing data. It has often been noted with some puzzlement that great minds and revolutionary philosophical and religious ideas rise independently all over the world at close to the same time - that is, close to the same time considering the whole history of humankind. Moses, we are told, was an extraordinary forerunner in the first great shift which created a new world view, but his ideas only gained real currency, even among the Jews, during the time of the Persian Empire. The Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tze, Advaita Hinduism, and in the west, finally, Socrates, were the culmination of the shift from the random universe of many Gods, where nothing could be entirely depended upon except their whimsicality, to a monotheistic world-view in which all was based on divine law. The law might be arbitrary, but it was singular and could be depended upon. It happened because we learned to write. Records could be kept, history could be recorded, oral tradition was no longer the only lore, and God was one. There were differences of interpretation and even manifestations of this One, and it took a very long time to enter the human consciousness, but it did, and with it the understanding that our universe followed the laws of the one reality.
Then type was invented, books were printed, and consciousness changed again. We experienced the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the rise of science and scientific thinking, the beginning of technology and industry, the idea that rather than arbitrary law, what we could observe of the universe was cause and effect. The chain of causality could be traced back and back, and even the Creator was subject to those laws. There was a question, as trivial as the one about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, which belonged to a former age, but one which could never even have been asked before this shift of consciousness, "Could God make something so heavy that he could not lift it?" God became subject to his own laws of cause and effect, and the rationalist deist view of God was born. Miracles, which before were evidences of God's activity, became a stumbling block, as the new concept of God made them impossible - just stories to convince the unsophisticated. God was the ultimate cause, but having caused everything to begin, his job was done. Cause and effect took over, and the only theological questions could be the meaning of the effects he had had in mind in the first place, since what he had in mind must inevitably occur according to inexorable law.
Then, now, came the electronic media. The last shift had not even been absorbed when the new one came upon us. We entered the Age of Uncertainty with no warning, no preparation, and cause could no longer be relied on to create an inevitable effect. Science, with Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and Planck's Constant told us that, and even outside of science our answers were not absolutes but probabilities. The world shrank with television, shrank again with the internet, had been shrinking for a long time with each advance in communication, and differences in people which were at one time peripheral to our understanding of human truth, as cultures only clashed on the edges, became centered in our understanding. No absolute material truth, no absolute spiritual truth, the universe has become statistical/probable, rather than cause and effect, and where in the world or out of it can God or any kind of universal values be in all this? Even as the world shrinks we become more fragmented in our retreat from the new reality. We reawaken tribal and religious wars, create identities based on color or family of origin which have little to do with who we really are, praise communitarianism, identity politics and the segre-gation of multiculturalism as our salvation, and use the teachings of post-modernism to avoid the creation of ways in which we can all live together as we must somehow learn to do. Each time the world changed God changed with it to help it make sense and to somehow give us meaning for our lives. Where can we find a new way of seeing God in this uncertain world that will help us to live together, find ideals to hold in common, as we now must do, and live abundantly?
It would be easy to say nowhere. Atheism, despite its detractors, is a very respectable solution to the problem of the inability to believe in the old gods. When people ask why there is something rather than nothing, it is reasonable to ask why not? Wouldn't somethingness be as easy to expect as nothingness? And when asked how to explain how nicely it all works, it is easy to point out the glitches, the non-repeating decimal ratios, and to suggest that what survives is what works, and that is how it manages to be there. For the true atheist our lives have no purpose or meaning, but then how often do we ask ourselves the purpose and meaning of a mayfly or a cockroach - or even a Bengal tiger? Who are we to expect that there is a reason for our existence, a purpose for our lives? We are simply a product of evolution, and not even the end-product unless with the new genetic technologies and possible expansion of life to unimaginable spans we manage to halt evolution altogether as it applies to us. That, I think, would be a pity, since there is nothing to tell us that the next stage of evolution might not be better than this one - but that's probably an-other sermon. The morality of atheism is self-interest, and enlightened self-interest (but nowadays it seems less and less enlightened as narcissism flourishes) can be the answer to the question of how we can live together on this small planet of ours.
There are a couple of good arguments against the contemporary atheism which finds no necessity for God in a universe that can be explained in its statistics and patterned in its probabilities. One is the aesthetic sense which values things which have no survival value, merely for their beauty alone, and which will consume itself to create beauty not for its own benefit but merely to create beauty. Another is the absolute conviction within us, beyond scientific knowledge, beyond reason, beyond evidence, that there's more to it than that, that there is purpose and meaning outside of our mere survival, and that only by discovering it and serving it can our lives be of real value. It can, of course, be persuasively argued by those who wish to do so that those qualities in us do have survival value, that those who first loved the beautiful through some genetic quirk, and those who first loved the holy and served it were made by these things more fit to survive and passed those genetic propensities onto their descendants. It is specious, but I can't really buy it, and worse, those who argue thus are hoist on their own petard, because if a belief in the tran-scendent is a survival value, it is in our self-interest to practice it, and thus it is still necessary to discover some kind of holy truth to fit our new universe - one that we can believe and serve.
The most persuasive formal theology for our new universe is probably process theology. It was founded as a philosophy by the brilliant mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead, and was converted to theology, and a sense that it gives our lives meaning, even in this uncertain time, by Henry Nelson Weiman, John Cobb and Charles Hartshorne. It sees God, as creative process which Weiman argued is ultimate connection - connection between and among beings, and with the process itself. The problem with it, for me, is that it too easily becomes a kind of pantheism with God identified with the evolution of the material universe, or ecology theology. The interdependent web of all existence, of which, to continue the redundancies, we are a part, becomes God, which for me, at least, has insufficient moral grounding. Its adherents begin to talk of all living things being, as part of the web, of equal value, but I celebrate the end of the smallpox virus and would like to see a similar destruction of HIV, I have my apartment sprayed for cockroaches every month without a twinge of guilt, and I will quite shamelessly murder any buckmoth caterpillar or mosquito I see. Although I think a concern with ecology is of vital interest to our survival, I am not sure that our survival, or even the survival of life on this small planet, is of vital interest to God.
There is, however, heard within us, a call to goodness and beauty, a call which is inextricably intertwined with our sense of purpose and with the need for meaning in our lives. The seemingly innate desire for justice, the respect for living things, the search for truth, the compassion that we feel for undeserved suffering, the struggle for peace and for freedom, the writing of a symphony or a poem, the creation of the perfect sponge cake, gifts to charity, arranging flowers for your liv-ing room or for the church, all these things are answers to the call. It is a call which transcends our differences in how we define goodness, in the awareness that we all seek goodness; that transcends our differences in definition of beauty in our shared awareness that beauty is. It is not affected by what we discover about the way the universe began, or the impenetrability of the movement of electrons or the weather. It is revealed to us in our choice of the good, and our ser-vice to it gives our lives meaning.
But this is still, newly, a statistical/probable universe and a world where different values are held, different understandings of truth exist side by side with one another and rub up against one an-other all the time. People do Zen meditation in the middle of Kentucky, and others celebrate Christmas in Japan. Goodness is uncertain, and there is no agreement about what makes something or someone beautiful. Our awareness of this can only increase as we become more and more connected with one another through our electronic media. The party of a neo-Nazi in Austria forms a coalition government and the world knows it immediately. A scandal in the government in America is laughed at in Europe in all its sordid details. We wear each other's fashions, eat each other's food, adopt more and more of one another's customs, and can eat MacDonald's wherever we go. We must somehow transcend our differences in our common love of goodness, but without that we find ourselves fearful, retreating into ethnic enclaves and holding on desperately to our outdated gods. We build social and political structures and philosophical justifications that keep us apart, assure us that no one can understand us except ourselves, and that no one is concerned for our well-being or even our lives unless they share our color or our accent.
The world will go forward and ultimately force us out of our insistence on separation. Somehow we must learn to live together, and to do so we must have common values. There can be idiosyn-crasies of culture, different names for god, but we must share the ways we choose the good. And therefore I would say yes, there are universal values. All of us brothers and sisters in humanity must share certain ways of thinking about the world if we are to live together. We must honor freedom, equality of opportunity, justice for every person, peace, respect for others' ideas, and the right of all to live with dignity and responsibility for their own decisions and their own fulfill-ment. These values must transcend differences of culture, of color, of gender, all the ways we separate ourselves. Our new universe will not let us be separate for much longer, no matter how hard we try to hold the future back. The god of our new universe will call us to goodness, whatever we call our god.