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Values to Build a Life On

Part I: Introduction

Knowing the end of a career or life is approaching, one naturally looks over personal values, how they changed over the years, and what to share with those who follow. A “Last Lecture” has become a common way for academics to speak to posterity, even if the lecture is not given in public. Ministers sometimes deliver a “Last Sermon” at the end of their careers. Some of my friends in their 70s have shared drafts of their final thoughts with this fellow septuagenarian. The late Marcus Borg went even further upon reaching 70 by writing Convictions, a final book explaining his understanding of progressive Christianity and describing changes in his beliefs since a very Lutheran upbringing.

In the decade since returning to college teaching after retiring from a public service career, I have discussed my life journey in history classes. The freshmen in my classes are usually tuned in to private technological or social media interests and tuned out to current events of historical significance. As the country celebrated fiftieth anniversaries of events like the March on Washington and a great speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., I described living conditions in the South of the 1940s and 1950s and the dangers of advocating for racial justice in the 1960s. The civil rights movement was explained as a proud achievement of my generation of college students and professionals. I also end semesters with a challenge to look ahead 50 years when students will be approaching my age. Sometimes they laugh because thinking about the present is all that matters to so many.

I am also blessed with opportunities to teach historical and religious subjects to retired persons in continuing education courses in Gainesville, Georgia. Unlike younger students who resist engaging in classroom conversation, these students make it hard to cover all the material by eagerly sharing experiences and asking challenging questions. Along with participation, they expect academic content that pushes them to think and stay current with latest developments. They speak openly of lessons from professional experiences and the “hard knocks” of life – and of a determination to live to the fullest extent possible in their twilight years.

Trying to make students aware of values on which they can build their lives is more essential than whatever disciplines they study in a university. I emphasize that message in the final sessions each semester, but each class provides opportunities to convey important values along with information and practical skills.

This is the first in a series of articles in which I will endeavor to explain four values on which people can build their lives, even in an age of accelerating change that seems to threaten chaos in many aspects of daily reality. You might call this a series of five last lectures or sermons, shorter than Borg’s final testament but more longwinded than a single lecture or sermon. Four values will be explained briefly in this installment and then in more detail in articles about each of them.

1. Dedication to a religious tradition updated with democratic values. My classes include students who are Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, non-religious, and many variations within Christianity. As a Protestant Christian, following this admonition means reading, studying, honoring, and challenging the Bible as an indispensable link to the wisdom of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Belief in the value of the Bible is waning, so understanding why and how to read it are important issues today. The challenge for Christianity and other ancient traditions is to update their authoritarian origins by incorporating democratic principles and behaviors.

2. Dedication to citizenship in God’s World. Life is filled with competing group loyalties as each of us belongs to a family, a workplace, church, or other formal organization. As Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out, a form of morality comes with group loyalty that competes and often conflicts with ordinary rules for personal morality. Being an American citizen means that patriotic loyalty to fundamental principles of our constitutional democracy takes precedence over subordinate loyalties, such as to the organization where we work. Our approach to American citizenship too often refers to us as taxpayers, turning government into something that is bought as if we were only consumers demanding what we pay for, as opposed to recognizing an obligation to participate in maintaining and improving our system of government. Honoring the duties of citizenship must go hand in hand with enjoying its benefits. Even more, there must be a higher loyalty to citizenship in God’s world, which Jesus called the Kingdom of God. Although Jesus directed his words at Israel, the rule of God was over the entire planet. Citizenship under God’s sovereignty over the world requires dedication to the entire globe as part of loyalty to God.

3. Dedication to compassion for all humanity. Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion presents this virtue as central to all major religions of our time. The main idea was stated by Jesus in Matthew 7:12: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.” The opposites of this value are judgment, retaliation, and compulsion. Even though Matthew’s gospel records statements from Jesus encouraging compassion and rejecting its opposites, most forms of Christianity have traditionally practiced what was forbidden. The desire of early British settlers of America for religious freedom was tainted by intolerance of dissenters within and outside their communities. Today religious liberty is being used as a weapon of intolerance. That America is becoming ever more diverse ethnically and religiously makes compassion more difficult yet increasingly necessary as a central tenet of all forms of religious expression in our society.

4. Dedication to truth as the highest value. Five centuries of increasing scientific knowledge undermined respect for non-factual expressions of truth such as poetic symbolism and mythology. Objective truth has been contrasted with subjective ideas invented by humanity for political or religious purposes. On the other hand, spreading public literacy multiplied the use and acceptance of propaganda to distort public views of political, religious, and scientific developments. The explosion of information available through the internet has multiplied the impact of false and malicious information at a logarithmic rate. Understanding the complex nature of truth and following verifiable truth amidst chaotic misinformation are increasingly important. If the credibility of truth is undermined, all other values become meaningless.

Please note that each value represents a commitment, a goal, requiring a lifetime of effort. Success is not measured by public recognition or material accomplishments because differing cultural and political environments determine whether contemporaries appreciate these values.

Furthermore, each value requires dedication to lifelong education and unflagging courage. Uncommon honesty in recognizing and facing deficiencies takes courage if we are to admit personal stumbling or see through public approval of behaviors that we know betrayed our values. Dedication to learning also requires courage to adjust one’s beliefs to align with verifiable knowledge rather than follow public opinion or common prejudices.

Success in achieving these commitments can only be determined at the end of life. There will be stumbling along the way so that a “batting average” will be the measure rather than perfection. Winning in life will not depend on material attainment or doing better than others, but in how we played the game. In baseball and life, winning is having the courage to take the field knowing a large audience is watching, then playing the game to the best of your ability, and showing that you can handle wins and losses with sportsmanship and humility.
Karen Armstrong, Charter for Compassion,
Marcus Borg, Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most (New York: HarperOne, 2016).

About the Author
Dr. Edward G. Simmons was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1943. A graduate of Mercer University, he earned both an M.A. and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. He is retired as an expert in the field of organizational management through thirty-four years of service for the Georgia Department of Human Resources. He returned to his original career by teaching history part-time at Georgia Gwinnett College and Brenau University. An energetic speaker and presenter of sermons and educational programs, he is the author of Talking Back to the Bible: A Historian’s Approach to Bible Study.

Review & Commentary