VIEW VIDEO It is good to be back among you after my gallbladder surgery. I’m indebted to Mark for bringing last Sunday’s message, in which he urged us to ignore the Ten Commandments, at least that’s what I gathered from listening to his message on Zoom. Where was Mark last month when my neighbor bought a 1984 Porsche 911 and I came home and told Joan all about it and said I wanted my own Porsche 911 and she quoted the 10th Commandment, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors house, nor his farm, nor his cattle, nor his Porsche, nor anything that is his.” Where was Mark then? What good is theological counsel if it comes too late to be useful? Nevertheless, I am grateful to him for stepping up to the plate, knocking the dirt off his cleats, and hitting a home run, even if it was too late in the game for me to get my Porsche.
During my rehabilitation, I passed the time watching WWII documentaries, an odd habit for a Quaker pacifist, but there you have it. While brushing up on militarism, I caught myself wondering what the most dangerous day in human history might have been. Perhaps the day gunpowder was invented, or the day scientists unlocked the destructive power of nuclear fission, or maybe the October day in 1347 when four merchant ships carrying the rats that carried the fleas that carried the Black Plague landed in Sicily, unleashing history’s most destructive pandemic, killing 1/5 of the world’s population, not stopping until it occurred to people that the Black Plague wasn’t defeated by prayer or bloodletting or self-flagellation or giving money to the church, but by quarantining the sick, thereby separating the unhealthy from the healthy, stopping the spread of disease.
But as dangerous as all those days were, I sometimes wonder if the most perilous day in human history was when it first occurred to someone that if they convinced others that God spoke to them, and them alone, imparting rules to live by, that they could acquire the greatest power of all–the authority to tell their fellow beings what they could and could not do.
We’ve been reflecting on the topic of humanism, which we defined as having a strong interest in or concern for human welfare, values, and dignity. There are three foundational assertions of human, which affirm that 1) knowledge and wisdom are best obtained by studying the observable world using the scientific method as opposed to an appeal to divine revelation, 2) that humans arose through evolution, are self-aware, possessing the ability to discern right from wrong, and 3) that our moral principles are not determined by divine commandments, but by examining the results that our actions yield in the lives of real men and women. Simply put, if our actions result in happiness and well-being for ourselves and others, they are moral. If not, they are immoral.
I wish to speak on the third assertion this morning, that our moral principles are not determined by divine commandments, but by examining the results that our actions yield in the lives of real men and women. I know this is antithetical to the historic claims of Christianity, which has traditionally held that morality originated from God, given to us through the traditions of Scripture and the Church. And certainly if you wish to believe that, you are free to do so, but I no longer can. I can no longer believe that God appointed a tiny tribe of people on a sliver of land on the edge of a middling sea, on one of trillions of planets, to impart a moral code, the Ten Commandments, for everyone for all eternity, that when followed to the letter still permitted rape, child abuse, and slavery.
I no longer believe that just because a religion claims divine authorship of its moral code makes it so, for I have noticed that almost every moral code works to the favor of those who wrote it, protecting and perpetuating their favored status. Slavery, for instance, was not a sin in the southern church, though helping a slave escape was considered theft. Muslim fundamentalists think it a sin for a woman to show her face, while that woman’s husbands, fathers, and brothers face no such restriction. The United Methodists are dividing in two, because one group of straight Methodists believe gay Methodists should have fewer liberties. North Carolina Yearly Meeting, a yearly meeting began nearly 320 years ago, has recently split for the same reason. Almost every moral code works to the favor of those who wrote it.
If morality did originate with God, it is clear God neglected to teach us the same morality. And let’s be honest, aren’t you just a bit suspicious when someone tells you that God has told them what you should do? So I am much intrigued by the humanist’s assertion that right and wrong should be judged by their very real effects on real men and women, that if our actions result in happiness and well-being for ourselves and others, we may call that a moral action. If not, it is an immoral action. But be warned, this standard is not for the morally lax or indifferent. We can longer read a list of ancient rules, commit them to memory, and follow them scrupulously. Instead, the humanists invite us to live our lives with deep self-awareness, mindful of the real consequences of our actions. It requires discipline, our constant and continued determination to seek not only our happiness and well-being, but the happiness and well-being of others.
I heard this week of a young Catholic family with four children. Not wanting to have any more children, but still wanting to experience and enjoy human intimacy, the husband went to their Catholic priest to ask his permission to receive a vasectomy. The celibate, childless priest told him, “Absolutely not, that would be a mortal sin. God forbids it.” A Catholic friend directed them to speak to another priest in the next town over who granted permission, telling them vasectomies were not a sin. How can we speak of God’s will when two Catholic priests living ten miles apart can’t even agree what it is?
There is nothing so dangerous as one who claims to speak for God, who imposes their archaic, hurtful, and amoral beliefs on the rest of us, whether they are Quakers, Catholics, or Muslim. I do not believe those so quick to “speak for God,” actually speak for God. I am not morally obligated to obey their absurd and dated dictates. I do not believe in a God whose values always seem to coincidently mirror my own. I believe that the rightness of an action should be determined solely by its effect. If an action contributes to my happiness and well-being, and the happiness and well-being and others, I will do it. If an action diminishes me or my neighbor, I will not do it.
I do not want it said of me that I pursued, out of a sense of religious obligation, a course of action that harmed and hurt others. What a dreadful legacy that would be. At one time in my life, I did such things, but no more. Now I am a humanist, a free man with a high regard for human welfare, values, and dignity. The Quakers I most admire believe the same, so I quite comfortably bear the title of Quaker and humanist, believing our objectives are one and the same—the betterment of all humanity and not just one group within it.