The Search for New Vocabulary

Part Two

This reflection is the second in a series that seeks common language that secular humanists and non-fundamentalist Christians can share. In a previous article, I argued that we can and ought, on the cultural level, replace the word god with the word love. In their churches, synagogues and mosques, religious people are free to still talk about god, and non-religious people can still not talk about god. But we can all use the word love, agape, exemplified in the parable of the Good Samaritan, to describe a worthy goal that we should all seek. The first entry in a common language is the word love.

The need for this common language is particularly obvious in the season we call the Holidays, which pounces upon us yearly. Our culture used to call it Christmas, but somewhere along the line we realized that we are not a homogeneous people and referring to Christ in our national calendar was a bit presumptuous on the part of Christians. The season is a prime reminder and illustration of our need to go beyond partisan divide and find common language that all can share.

Pursuing that goal, the second concept for which we might find common ground pertains to the actual difficulty we encounter when we try to love. How easy is it to act lovingly in an unconditional way? Are we capable, or does something stand in our way? And if there is a blockage, what might that be? The traditional Christian answer is, yes, there is a blockage, and it goes by the name of sin. Indeed, according to this model, why else would God send Jesus unless we required some kind of saving? Sin and redemption are the twin pillars of traditional Christian theology, and seem to imply that Christians believe that human beings are by nature bad. The myth of Adam, Eve and Eden is interpreted as describing the origin of this malaise, appropriately referred to as original sin, a literal disease that theologians in the tradition of Augustine believe is physically inherited. I have argued in a previous reflection that this is not at all what the myth is saying. Nevertheless, it is definitely part and parcel of the Christian perspective that something is wrong with homo sapiens. Such a perspective is not limited to Christianity. Others might name it irrationality or emotionalism, and yet others might blame it on the transition from hunter/gatherer to agricultural society, or on some gene inherited from our Neanderthal ancestors. But in either case, whether we name it sin or some other deficiency, human beings come up short when it comes to exhibiting that agape of which we spoke earlier.

The evidence covers the front page of our newspapers every day. Buddhists in Myanmar brutalize a Sufi minority. Pakistani radical Islamists protest and kill those who cannot idolize Muhammed. Christian evangelists con parishioners and seduce girls. And, of course, it is not only religious people that manifest these evils. And even if we don’t all give in to this draw, we are all capable.

On the other hand, the good angels are hard at work as well, helping hurricane victims, opening doors to displaced refugees, speaking truth to power, caring for one another on a daily basis. The good news just doesn’t get the coverage that the bad enjoys.

So, what’s the problem??

The question of whether we are good or bad and the causality behind that dichotomy is perhaps the wrong question. We might better ask: how do we become who we are? How do we individually evolve in the course of our life? I have dealt with this in a previous reflection, so allow me here to simply summarize.

As we develop, even in the womb, we are bombarded with stimuli, sensations such as sound, vibrations, movement, and later in life, sight, taste, smells. Inevitably, we develop categories into which we place the stimuli, and, also inevitably, the categories take on a life of their own. We distort the stimuli by forcing them to conform to our predetermined notions of what they should be. Reality is transformed into my reality. To repeat: reality is transformed into my reality. Also, again inevitably, I make the unconscious assumption that others share my perception, indeed, that they ought to share my perception…And now we have big trouble.

This egotism, in the purest sense of the word, happens to us at every level and is inescapable. Too easily, for example, on a personal level, we assume that other persons use words in the same sense we do, when in fact they do not. On the societal level, for example, religious fundamentalists (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, whatever, take your pick) believe that everyone else must believe as they do, and they are willing to kill them to prove it. We all come to situations with our own particular frame of reference, a perspective that may be uniquely ours alone.

The issue is not whether we are by nature good or bad. That is the wrong question. The proper question is whether we are aware of our own limitation and blindness, whether we are open to discovery, to learning, to acceptance of others’ life stories. The next issue to consider pertains to how we become enlightened, so to speak, and that will be our third topic. The point for now is to realize that we are neither inherently good nor inherently bad, but that we do have a problem.

So we have a second word that we can add to our common vocabulary. Just as god is replaced by love, so sin/evil/badness is replaced by egotism. And egotism is neither good nor bad, but limited and blind. It can be the cause of harmful and selfish behavior if we allow it to be so. But if we realize our conditioning, overcoming egotism can be the door that opens us to unlimited growth.

Jesus was able to challenge persons to overcome their egotism and live a new life. That is what the holidays, indeed our whole culture, need to be about, i.e. learning to realize and accept our limitations and appreciate the stories others can share even as we share our own story. That is the pathway to overcoming egotism with love.

Read Part One Here
Read Part Three Here

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