The Moral Kernel at the Heart of Religion

A Service for the

First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus

July 16, 2006

Thoughts to ponder as we gather

"Every religion emphasizes human improvement, love, respect for others, sharing other people's suffering. On these lines every religion had more or less the same viewpoint and the same goal."

--The Dalai Lama

"Treat the Earth gently and with respect. For remember, it was not given to you by your parents; it was loaned to you by your children."

--Kenyan proverb



Dumelang. I greet you in the manner of the Tswana peoples of southern Africa. Dumelang ba haetsu - I greet you, people of my village.

And you would reply in the singular, "dumela."

[Call for reply]

Dumela. Such a simple word. The British colonials translated it as "hello"; but it literally means "I believe." I see you as a person. I believe in you and your existence; you are not a shadow. I acknowledge your identity.

A simple word, carrying a wealth of meaning. Dumela.

Welcome to the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus for another in our summer lay-led programs. Our ministers will reclaim the pulpit in September. This morning continues our look at the Living Traditions of Unitarian Universalism with an exploration of the Wisdom from the World's Religions - Tradition #3. If this destination was not in your plans for today, now would be a good time to de-plane.


CENTERING Adon Olam, Traditional Jewish - Patricia Reed, piano

OPENING all rise as willing and able

We are met once again to continue an exploration of the great traditions that underpin our principled system of belief and action. We come together in community, saying...

"Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations, we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support

KINDLING the grail signing our free heritage is kindled - Armando Prince

We light this flame in memory of the countless fires around which our earliest ancestors sat in their dawning self awareness, pondering the sunset, and the star-studded sky, and posing the first GREAT QUESTIONS from which come all religions. What are the stars? Why do the moon and sun follow regular patterns? How do plants come back to life after a wildfire? And where did the person that was grandmother go when her body died?

PRAISING HYMN #177 Sakura (verses 1 & 2) -Patricia Reed, piano

INGATHERING "Stone Soup" - traditional - Rachel Tayse-Baillieul, narrator; Ben Baillieul as the soldier

MUSICAL INTERLUDE "Hinei ma Tov", Traditional Jewish

- Patricia Reed, piano


AFFIRMING Responsive Reading # 596 "Boundless Goodwill" / Metta Sutta

Let us cultivate boundless goodwill.

Let none deceive another, or despise any being in any state.

Let none in anger or ill-will wish another harm.

Even as a mother watches over her child, so with boundless mind should one cherish all living beings,

Radiating friendliness over the whole world,

Above, below, and all around, without limit.

GREETING We remain standing and greet one another.

COMMUNING the Great Silence, remembering, and returning

This is the time in the service to pause in quiet reflection. Ponder, if you will, the escalating conflict in the Middle East where people fervently wish for peace and an end to bloodshed - yet religious traditions and beliefs serve to divide communities, engender fear and hatred, and stir humans to unhuman acts.

OFFERING an opportunity to support the social justice work of our church and our denomination

Hark, I hear a voice out of the silence, somewhat muffled but understandable. It is the cry of dollar bills and the song of loose change at the bottom of many purses longing to be freed to perform good works in the world. This is the third Sunday of the month - the time we ask you to contribute to our social justice programs. Heed the call and free this money to reach its noble goal of supporting our denomination and our church as we seek to make the world a better place for all people.

HYMN #295 "Sing Out Praises for the Journey" - Patricia Reed, piano


1. CHAPTER 31 OF THE TAO TE CHING OF LAO TSU - read by Ben Baillieul

Weapons are the bearers of bad news; all people should detest them. The wise man values the left side; the man of war values the right.

Weapons are meant for destruction, and thus are avoided by the wise. Only as a last resort will a wise person use a deadly weapon. If peace is her true objective how can she rejoice in the victory of war?

Those who rejoice in victory delight in the slaughter of humanity. Those who resort to violence will never bring peace to the world.

The left side is a place of honor on happy occasions. The right side is reserved for mourning at a funeral. When the lieutenants take the left side to prepare for war, the general should be on the right side, because he knows the outcome will be death.

The death of many should be greeted with great sorrow, and the victory celebration should honor ALL those who have died.


"This is the sum of duty. Do not unto others that which would cause you pain if done to you."

-- Mahabharata 5:1517, from the Vedic tradition of India, circa 3000 B.C.E.

"What is hateful to you, do not to our fellow man. That is entire Law, all the rest is commentary."

-- Talmud, Shabbat 31a, from the Judaic tradition, circa 1300 B.C.E.

"That nature alone is good which refrains from doing unto another whatsoever is not good for itself."

-- Avesta, Dadistan-i-dinik 94:5, from the Zoroastrian tradition, circa 600 B.C.E.

"Hurt not others in ways that you find hurtful."

-- Tripitaka, Udanga-varga 5,18 , from the Buddhist tradition, circa 525 B.C.E.

"Surely it is the maxim of loving kindness, do not unto others that which you would not have done unto you."

-- Analects, Lun-yu XV,23, from the Confucian tradition, circa 500 B.C.E.

"One should treat all beings as he himself would be treated."

-- Agamas, Sutrakrtanga 1.10, 1-3, from the Jain tradition, circa 500 B.C.E.

"Regard your neighbor's gain as your gain and your neighbor's loss as your loss."

-- Tai-shang Kang-ying P'ien, from the Taoist tradition, circa 500 B.C.E.

"Do not do to others that which would anger you if others did it to you."

-- Socrates (the Greek philosopher), circa 470-399 B.C.E.

"Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your superiors."

-- Epistle XLVII,11, from the Seneca tradition, circa 5-65 C.E.

"Therefore all things whatsoever you desire that men should do to you, do you even so to them. For this is the Law and the prophets."

-- New Testament, Matthew 7:12, from the Christian tradition, circa 85 C.E.

"Be charitable to all beings, love is the representative of God."

-- Ko-ji-ki, Hachiman Kasuga of the Shinto tradition, circa 500 C.E.

"No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself."

-- Koran, Sunnah, from the Islam tradition, circa 620 C.E.

"We obtain salvation by loving our fellow man and God."

-- Granth, Japji XXI, from the Sikh tradition, circa 1500 C.E.

INTERLUDE "Shalom Aleichem", Traditional Jewish

-Patricia Reed, piano

SPEAKING - Tom Baillieul


Wisdom from the World's Religions. Where to start?

Do we look to those Islamic fundamentalists who believe their faith requires the destruction of the Jewish State? That does not seem very wise. Do we look to people in our own country who are willing to relegate their neighbors to second-class citizenship based on religious beliefs? That also does not seem very wise. Or, how about the Hindus, from that great tradition that has assimilated over millennia the beliefs and practices of many religions, but who have now embraced a fierce nationalism which drives them to destroy places holy to their Islamic neighbors? No wisdom there. Do we look historically at colonists coming from Europe to the New World who believed so strongly in the primacy of their Christian worldview that they sought systematically to destroy the native cultures with which they came in contact?

Where IS this wisdom we hold as our Living Tradition - wisdom that we can embrace??

What if we strip away the trappings of religions that we use to distinguish ourselves from others, to declare our differences and even our superiority? Take away the robes and shawls and headgear. Eliminate the places of worship, those edifices great and small. Remove the rituals and orders of celebration, the muttered incantations and mythology. What are we left with? Elemental religion that is common to all people and all times.

I once led a class on the nature of science and religion. In preparing for that class, I came to understand that religion developed to serve several basic human needs.

Religion, in its most generic sense, provides us with:

Let's see; identity, community, and stability - those are really important considerations in human life. We all need to belong, to have a sense that there is a community out there that will look out for us. Certainly there is wisdom in sharing. However, those same rituals, beliefs, and practices that bind us tightly to our own community serve to separate us from others of different beliefs, rituals, and practices. It is this xenophobic, "fear of strangers", aspect of religion that has unleashed so much strife on the world.

Religion has tried to explain the natural world; however, Science, with its rigid adherence to testing and evidence, does a much better job. It would be unwise to reject the scientific method and return to myth and personal revelation as the way to run our 21st Century technological society.

Religions provide ways to try and intercede with the supernatural, and answers to ultimate questions. While serving very real human desires, these aspects of religion haven't been shown to impart a great deal of wisdom.

That leaves us with religion as a basis for developing rules of moral behavior. Here we find wisdom that has been gathered over the centuries and woven into the practices and scriptures of nearly every faith tradition. It is interesting to note that, however vociferously one group or another avows that their laws and rules of conduct come directly from GOD, the reality is that every law and moral code has sprung from the minds of human beings as the way to order their lives. I for one can't imagine that a god who created a universe of 100 billion galaxies, each containing 100 billion stars, would be concerned about human dietary habits or dress codes.

Out of the many legal codes and commandments that have ever been spoken or written down, one principle stands out as universal. - we call it "the Golden Rule". It turns out to be the moral kernel that lies at the center of all the world's great religions. According to Rabbi Hillel - a contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth - the entire law of the Torah can be distilled down to: "What you hate, don't do to another." [Tobit 4:15]; everything else is commentary."

I have long embraced this rule as my own personal moral compass; although I am still learning what it means in practice.

When I was about 12 years old I remember one summer day reading an issue of Readers Digest that had just come in the mail. I liked the jokes, but was also taken by the monthly feature, "My Most Unforgettable Person." In this particular issue, the story related how the author, as a young boy during the war, was taken to an afternoon movie matinee by his mother. In the middle of the film a fire broke out in the theater and the audience rushed in panic towards the exits. The boy saw his mother trip and fall beneath the feet of the stampeding crowd and was helpless to do anything but watch in horror. Suddenly, from across the theater, a sailor in uniform had heard his mother's cry and began pushing his way through the mass of people. With his broad shoulders, he pushed the crowd back while simultaneously helping the boy's mother to her feet. Sweeping his arms around them both, the sailor moved them safely to the exit, made sure they were both OK, and then took his leave without ever giving them his name. The writer of this tale pondered for years why this stranger would choose to deviate from a course that would have taken him to safety just to help out someone he didn't know. It was explained by another sailor in this way: "The oceans are vast and cold and treat all who go to sea with equal disregard. For those of us who sail, if we are ever to have an expectation that someone will come to our aid in time of distress, we must be willing to respond to others' calls, whenever they come - even if we end up putting ourselves at risk. It is an unwritten law that all sailors obey." This too is the Golden Rule and, in this explanation, may be the truest reason why it is to our benefit to live by this principle.

The Golden Rule underlies all seven Unitarian Universalist Principles. Like the UU Principles, the Golden Rule is not a credo, but a call to action. It calls on us to respect others - all others, and to look beyond our immediate desires. It means putting a conscious limit on our egos. It is such a simply worded rule, with such far-reaching implications that, if we could really live by its precepts, there would be no need for other laws or treaties.

As I have gotten older, I've come to realize that this rule, so simple to state, turns out to be incredibly difficult to put into practice. Looking deeply - what does this rule ask of us?

Firstly, it asks us about ourselves. Who am I; and what do I want from life?

As Americans, we are told that we have an inalienable right to "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." Then, there's the Bill of Rights which promises to keep the government from intruding on our personal beliefs and values, and mandates due process in any legal proceeding.

How about Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms", painted at the height of World War II - one of the greatest threats to democracy that this country has ever faced. We are promised:

Then there's the American Dream. You know, the 3,500 square foot house in suburbia, 2.3 children, a dog, an SUV and luxury car in the driveway, the perfect lawn, sports club membership, and all the right brands. This is my birthright - right? I mean, I only want my fair share.

But what about the OTHERS - remember, "do unto others"? And who are they anyways?

They might be family members, or friends and neighbors, or my co-workers - people I know well. They might also be the supermarket cashier, the single mother on welfare, or Bill Gates. They might live in this country or in Indonesia, Greenland, Romania, the Canadian plains, or the Kalahari Desert. The "others" that the Rule talks about are the entire 6 billion plus of us humans on the planet. Some would argue that the list should include the entire interdependent web.

What do I expect of them, these others? How do I want them to treat me? Of course, I would like everyone to respect my freedoms and my chosen lifestyle. And don't anyone get in the way of the great "American Dream."

But, how far am I prepared to go in return? Does everyone have a right to the same dream? What does it mean to DO unto all of these others? What is my obligation to know how my actions affect others? Surely I don't do anything to the Ogoni people of the oil-rich region of southern Nigeria, or the forest tribes of Papua New Guinea, or to the stock clerk at Krogers - right? Why should I care? I don't know these people. How can things that happen here affect people 10,000 miles away, and how can their actions concern me in any way?

These questions are as legitimate as they are difficult.

The answer, simply, is that in the 21st Century the whole world is connected as never before. The actions of six billion people have an affect on our global climate not seen in recent geologic epochs. Diseases which once were restricted to small parts of the planet can now be spread across continents in just days. Disparities of wealth cause revolutions which disrupt the flow of energy supplies and other raw materials upon which we depend. Just this past week, the price of crude oil hit a new record high, largely because rebels in southern Nigeria blew up one of the major pipelines. This act was in turn spurred on by the anger of southern Nigerians over billions of dollars of oil revenues were being hoarded by politicians from the northern tribes. Little if any of this wealth has trickled down to ease the abject poverty of the people living over the oil fields.

Rampant ignorance across the globe supports religious extremism - which, coupled with modern technology, carries consequences with which we have become all too familiar.  Because I value my right to believe as I choose, I must respect others' right to their own personal beliefs as well.  And equally, I have the right to expect that others will respect my beliefs and not try to impose their religiously-based ideas on me - or on society in general.

You can already see one major difficulty inherent in living by the Golden Rule. Several of the world's major religions - notably Christianity and Islam - are proselytizing faiths - a practice which runs counter to their central moral principle. How much human suffering has been caused - and continues - because some of us, so certain or uncertain in our beliefs, cannot tolerate any other points of view. Or as it has been put gently across the ages: 'your erroneous beliefs are clearly the work of Satan, and I must save you from yourself - even if I have to kill you in doing so.'

Our global economy assures that each 21st Century American, in the choices we make as we go about our lives, affects every other living thing on the planet. Certainly, the interdependent web of all existence has never been revealed so starkly.

I spoke to the Middle School's Ecology Class earlier this year and talked about the "footprint" each of us leaves on the world, individually and corporately. Just as we leave footprints when we walk along the beach or through the summer woods, so we leave behind traces of our passing as we go through life. For this class I prepared a chart showing all the steps every manufactured product takes in its life cycle -from extracting the raw materials, to primary production, to manufacturing, to distribution, to retail sales, to our purchase, and eventually to some form of disposal. Each step of this process requires energy - usually in the form of fossil fuel consumption. Each step also results in waste, some of which is toxic, as in the case of mining, or oil production, or chemical manufacturing. Some steps, such as manufacturing, require the inputs from several parallel precursor steps - say, an item which uses multiple types of metal and plastic. Moving the output of one step to the next requires some form of transportation - with its own impacts: fuel use, land disruption, problematic emissions. Everything I buy promotes this process to a greater or lesser extent. When I go to the store and buy an item - or fill up my tank - or simply turn on a light, I'm not just acquiring something that miraculously appeared on the shelves, or in the pump, or in the wires. Everything I acquire means a resource taken out of someone's back yard - or wastes that someone has to deal with - or the continuation of some despotic regime - or impacts to the atmosphere that sustains us all. When I buy gas for my car, or a product made of plastic, I help fuel the destruction of lives in oil-producing regions around the world; I contribute to global warming; and I add to our country's foreign debt load, weakening our economy and our security.

And the more we consume collectively, the less sustainable this style of existence becomes.

Science fiction authors Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl, in their 1991 non-fiction book, The Angry Earth, put the case very succinctly:

"This planet we live on seems pretty huge to most of us. It isn't easy for us to convince ourselves that any of the little wounds we habitually inflict on the Earth can make any real difference. Does it actually hurt anything if we jump in the car when we want to go a few blocks? Or drink out of foam plastic cups, or leave all the lights on when we go out? When a sport fisherman throws the plastic from a six-pack into the ocean, is it possible that he is doing any real harm?

Since each of us is so small, and the Earth so large, it's easy to think that the answer to all those questions is 'no'. Under the right circumstances, 'no' would be the right answer, too -- that is, if only one of us were doing them. What our common sense tells us is quite right: The damage any single individual can do to our habitat is trivial.

What makes it all non-trivial is that there are a lot of us, with more coming along all the time.

There will be four times as many people in the world at the end of the Twentieth Century as there were at the beginning, and collectively all those billions of us, with all our new machines, can do a great deal of damage. We do a great deal. Eight percent of all the carbon dioxide in the air today comes from the tailpipes of our cars. Those bits of plastic from a six-pack of beer, along with other plastic bits discarded from other vessels, have already become a significant cause of death among marine mammals. The five billion-plus [now six billion-plus] of us who are alive on the Earth today collectively commit more environmental destruction every year than any war or natural disaster ever has in all of human history.

When the Zero Population Growthers tell us that the fundamental pollution in the world today isn't carbon-dioxide pollution or chlorofluorocarbon pollution or acid rain, but people pollution, they aren't entirely wrong. There are simply too many of us, particularly in the developed world, to behave so badly."

If everyone on the planet today were to have the same lifestyle and material possessions possessed by the average American, then it would take 3 Earths just to provide the raw materials. Unfortunately, it is beyond our ability to create more raw materials. If I use more than my fair share of the world's finite resources, I end up denying someone else their equal right, both in the present and in the future. We are a world out of balance. By my habits, my actions and inactions - by the choices I make everyday - I affect this balance.

The answer, if we truly believe in doing to others what we would have them do to us, is to reduce our consumption - to live more simply. Isn't it interesting that according to Jesus, the Buddha, Hindu mystics, and aboriginal peoples the world over that the way to oneness, the way to enlightenment, is to move beyond human "limitations" - to leave behind petty wants, jealousies, and material desires. There is indeed wisdom at the heart of the world's religions so long as we don't allow: wisdom to be replaced by ritual; enlightenment by scriptural sound bites; and the truth of the message by worship of the messenger.

And it's not just consumption of natural resources that we should be concerned about. Take, for example, the development of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s and 60s. These highways allowed Americans previously undreamed of mobility and freedom to travel. They opened up poor rural regions to economic development. But they also had a dark side. Most of us forget the tremendous social disruption caused in the 1960s by the construction of Interstates through our major urban centers. Whole neighborhoods were destroyed along with the pedestrian character of our downtowns. These highways also accelerated the growth of suburbs and the consequential urban decay and suburban "sprawl." The next time you drive along one of our interstates, consider the acreage involved in creating these rights of way - much of it prime farm land. Also consider what has happened to towns which were successful in getting an interchange, and the consequences to those that didn't. How would you have wanted others to do unto you had you been one of those affected by these highway decisions?

Social justice issues go far beyond highways. Why is it that a Billion people around the world don't have enough to eat at the start of the 21st century? Or that another Billion don't have access to adequate supplies of clean water? The recent military excursions into Afghanistan and Iraq have shined a spotlight on the level of ignorance which exists throughout the world. This ignorance is exacerbated by - and contributes to a tremendous disparity of wealth. If we believe that huge disparities of wealth are a major cause of conflict around the world, we must be willing to create a model of economic equity here at home. If we value freedom for ourselves, we must value it for all people. This does not mean that we impose an American solution on the world by force of arms, but rather that we model non-discriminatory behavior to the world. It means that we need to require global businesses - if they demand to be considered "legal persons" under U.S. law - to embrace, endorse, and apply American values of freedom, equality, and justice throughout their global operations.

How many of you have seen the new Al Gore documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth"? It may be the most important movie in the past quarter century - and I urge everyone to see it. What the film demonstrates, conclusively, is that global warming is very real; that human activities are a principal cause of this unprecedented warming; and that the consequences will be devastating for billions. Those consequences include the inundation of much of Florida, New York City, and all of New Orleans this time. The cost of Hurricane Katrina will seem like a drop in the bucket to what's coming in the next century.

The choices we make everyday in life are moral actions; whether it's the car we drive, how many trips we make each week, whether we turn off the lights when we leave the room, whether to recycle that bottle or can. Dozens and dozens of little decisions each day, adding an increment to the social and environmental problems affecting the entire world.

How can I live up to the Golden Rule? I'm only one person, I can't possibly turn the climate crisis around on my own. I can't change the world.

The answer is the same as for so many problems in this world. I must take the time to learn about others, their needs and desires, and the consequences of my life choices. I can learn how others across the globe meet common human needs, and respect the answers they have chosen. In doing this I have learned that there are many "truths." However, to understand how my actions affect others, I must take the time to learn as much as I can about them. Of course, there aren't enough minutes in a lifetime to know personally the 6 Billion human inhabitants of this planet. However, I can become familiar with regions and major cultures. I can learn about different world views. I can learn about pre-industrial peoples and their desire to retain there way of life in the face of pressure from the outside world. I can learn about how the natural systems of the Earth - the water, the air, the forests - support us all. It is also incumbent upon me to understand how my actions and choices, large and small, affect the world around me and my fellow inhabitants of the planet. As a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1970s, I was given a piece of wisdom that is a direct corollary to the Golden Rule. "For any human situation and need, there is always more than one right answer."

Is learning about these many ways of responding to human needs easy? No! It is a life-long endeavor and one that will never be complete. However, the effort is not futile, for I can at least minimize the size of the footprint I leave on the world. And as I model this behavior, others will take notice and may begin to question their own lifestyles.

Here's a very simple thing that we can all do to ease our impact upon the world.  How many of you have replaced your old style light bulbs and halogen lamps with compact fluorescent bulbs?

[Ask for a show of hands]

This is easiest and also one of the most significant things we can do to save energy? And when we save energy, we reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that go into the air. We reduce our country's dependence on foreign oil and its destabilizing affect on our economy. We reduce the need for building new power plants. We lessen our support for regimes that deny people the basic freedoms we hold for granted. And we show, in a small but significant way, that we care enough about the world to change the way we live. Of course, an additional benefit is that compact fluorescent bulbs last longer and save us a lot of dollars in reduced electricity bills.

All moral actions are conscious choices. Or as Buddha taught: "We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world." What kind of world do you wish for yourself and, by implication, for others?

As we change the way we think and live, and learn more about others, maybe, just maybe we can make a positive difference in the lives of some. It is a basic tenet of Social Justice that if we are to have the hope of having someone be there when our family and friends fall on hard times - then we must be there for those in need now. That is the Golden Rule.

The call for help has gone out - from a young woman in Bangladesh. The ocean is encroaching ever closer to her home as the sea levels continue to rise. And the sea level is rising because the land-grounded ice covering Greenland and East Antarctica is beginning to melt. And the ice caps and glaciers are melting because Americans like you and I, and others throughout the industrialized world, are putting increasing levels of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. So, like the sailor in the movie theater so long ago, we have a choice to make. Do we change our habits and encourage others to do so as well? Or do we say "I don't know this person," and choose not to act.

How will the wisdom from the world's religions guide how you choose?

OFFERING an opportunity to support the congregation's institutional life, affirming that the church is all of us

Simplifying you life can begin right here and now. If you have extra wealth that didn't come forth in the first offering, now is the time to dig a little deeper. Help bring balance back to the world in your support of your very own church and its programs.


Our closing words come from Jim Barripang custodian of the Golpa Tribe's territory and traditions in today's Australia.  He talks about the aboriginal peoples' continuing relation to "The Dreaming", the creative force that brought the universe into existence and still pervades that creation, and sets the rules by which people should find harmony with each other and with nature. As UUs, we know this as the Seventh Principle - respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

"Aborigine can't make law. It come from long time ago; from the First Time. It can never change; always the same. Our culture can never change, our Law can never change. Only people can change. They born... they die. But the law stays the same. Each person is responsible for Law; for culture."

And now, take with you the living tradition which demands that we respect all people, all beliefs, and even the Earth itself.   Live this tradition fully and, by your example, pass it on to those you meet every day. Tsamaya sentle; shalom; salaam - go well, go in peace, go in peace.

MUSICAL POSTLUDE "When the Saints Go Marching In" arranged by Jerry Ray

- Patricia Reed, piano

CELEBRATING We meet informally in the Gallery and Fellowship Hall