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April 6, 2008: “Universal Ethics for the 21st Century”

Some years ago, I was invited to gave a talk on Business Ethics to a small Texas town Chamber of Commerce outside of San Antonio at the invitation to one of our members who was mayor there. I began with the obvious leading sentence: There are some who say the term, business ethics is an oxymoron. Sometimes those two words do seem like opposites, but they don’t have to be. It was the base for this sermon, because I talked about the idea of universal ethics, not business ethics as being different from any other ethics. Talking about a concept of good and evil that was not directly linked to a specific religion, it reminds me of the story about a man appearing before the proverbial St. Peter at the golden gates:

Are you sure that you didn’t make a mistake? this person asked St. Pete. I mean, there are parts of my life of which I’m ashamed.

No, we didn’t make a mistake, said St. Pete, you’ve already punished yourself for your mistakes. What most people find difficult to understand is that actually we don’t keep any records.

The person was greatly relieved and overjoyed, then noticed another group of people in various garb beating their heads against a celestial wall and stomping their feet in disgust. What’s the matter with them? St. Peter was asked by this person.

Oh, said St. Peter with a smile, they’re the leaders of various religions and they, too, have just found out that we don’t keep records.

Indeed, religious questions about the meaning of life relates to universal ethics. In traditional western religious terms we might talk about sin as being unethical behavior. But I don’t want to talk about Christian ethics or Jewish or even Buddhist, because they might only apply to followers of a particular religion. It would be nice to think that how we behave on Monday morning in the marketplace reflects how our religion teaches us over the weekend. In fact I recently read a twist on the popular saying What would Jesus do? that reflects the growing SUV market and its impact on the environment; it asks, What Would Jesus Drive?

I worked for a few years as a sales rep for John Hancock. Yes, that’s business way for saying I sold life insurance. I wrote a million dollars of life insurance in my first six months and won various sales contests, but I found that I was having trouble with some questionable sales techniques. I found that the most successful salespeople in my office were, well, somewhat ethically challenged. It should also be said, of course, that there are plenty of so-called religious people that could also fill that description. There are also times when it sounds like some religious folk are also selling a product called their particular approach to religion.

H.L. Mencken: It is impossible to imagine the universe run by a wise, just and omnipotent God, but it is quite easy to imagine it run by a board of gods. If such a board actually exists it operates precisely like the board of a corporation that is losing money. Someone once said that nothing makes it easier to resist an unethical temptation than a proper upbringing, a sound set of values, and witnesses.

Why should ethics be universal and not just one particular religion? Because the world has outgrown just one religion. A book by that title that was on the NY Times best seller list for more than 3 months. That means it sold a lot of copies. It means that a lot of people must have been interested in it, and when that many people are willing to buy a book, it means that there is something going on in America that people are trying to figure out. The title is simply Ethics for the New Millennium; the author is His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

I find that just a mite unusual. The Dalai Lama is the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism, but not only he does he talk about universal ethic, but a universal religious approach to life itself. He is not trying to sell us a Buddhist one way and only one way to religion, but he is raising the point that many of us are feeling (hence the best-seller category).. The fact that it was a best seller may also reflect our yearning for universal ethics.

There are three parts-I The foundation of Ethics, where he one chapter is titled, Modern Society and the Quest for Human Happiness, As if we live ethically, we will be happier, maybe not richer, though books on getting rich also frequently make the best seller list.
II Ethics and the Individual;
III Ethics and Society with chapters like Universal Responsibility, and Role of Religion in Modern Society.

He talks about positive ethical conduct-universal principles, religion and ethics: My own view, he writes, which does not rely solely on religious faith or even on an original idea, but rather on ordinary common sense, is that establishing binding ethical principles is possible when we take as our starting point the observation that we all desire happiness and wish to avoid suffering. We have no mean of discriminating between right and wrong if we do not take into account others feelings, others suffering. For this reason, and also because …the notion of absolute truth is difficult to sustain outside the context of religion, ethical conduct is not something we engage in because it is somehow right in itself but because, like ourselves, all others desire to be happy and avoid suffering. Given that this is a natural disposition, shared by all, it follows that each individual has a right to pursue this goal. Accordingly. I suggest that one of the things which determines whether an act is ethical or not is its effect on others experience or expectation of happiness. An act which harms or does violence to this is potentially an unethical act.

He calls for a spiritual revolution as well as an ethical revolution. And the fact that this book is a best seller is a concrete example of the yearning for many Americans for a universal religious message of hope and love and ethics. The NY Times magazine now has an ethicist section where people write in, almost like dear Abby, with their ethics question. One universal way of looking at ethics is very much on one of religions basic teachings called simple the Golden Rule.

I received one of those chain mail emails about what The Dalai Lama has to say on the, but it had merit, therefore, I share it with you-


Take into account that great love and great achievements involve great risk.

When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.

Follow the three Rs: Respect for yourself ; Respect for others; Responsibility for all your actions.

Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.

Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.

Don’t let a little dispute injure a great friendship.

When you realize you’ve made a mistake, take immediate steps to correct it.

Spend some time alone every day.

Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values.

Remember that silence is sometimes the best answer.

Live a good, honorable life. Then, when you GET older and you think back, you’ll be able to enjoy it a second time.

A loving atmosphere in your home is the foundation for your life.

In disagreements with loved ones, deal only with the current situation. Don’t bring up the past.

Share your knowledge. It’s a way to achieve immortality.

Be gentle with the earth.

Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before.

Remember that the best relationship is one in which your love for each other exceeds your need for each other.

Judge your success by what you had to give up in order to get it.

Approach love and cooking with reckless abandon.

PRACTICE EACH PASSING MOMENT, at work, at play, in all that is done.

From another Eastern religious source, this one Taoism, there is a reading which says: Reading 19. Throw away holiness and wisdom, and people will be a hundred times happier. Throw away morality and justice, and people will do the right thing. Throw away industry and profit, and there won’t be any thieves. If these three aren’t enough, just stay at the center of the circle and let all things take their course. Trans.-S. Mitchell

Philosopher Immanuel Kant, writes in Religion within the limits of reason alone; The highest moral good cannot be achieved merely by the exertions of the single individual toward his own moral perfection, but requires such individuals to unite into a whole directed the same goal . . . It involves working toward a union of which we do not know whether, as such, it lies in our power or not . . .

There are people who say that the problem in this country is that we don’t follow the 10 commandments anymore. Some say that we could reduce crime and violence if we only posted them in every court and school room. I think to myself that it hasn’t helped much in either the Middle East or Northern Ireland. Indeed, the 10 commandments don’t seem to be of equal value.

A preacher named Wesley Tracy tells about a letter he once received. “I have hundreds of biblical photographs,” the letter said, “including several of the Garden of Eden.” “Wow!” says Tracy, “I have seen and taken a lot of photos of biblical places–tiny mustard seeds on the Mount of Olives, the Temple courtyard, and the Lord’s supposed birthplace guarded by a soldier with an automatic weapon–but Eden? Did they have cameras in [Eden]?”

“Where was Eden anyway?” he asks. “Though a headline in a supermarket tabloid screamed, Adam and Eve’s Skeletons Found South of Denver,’ Eden was not in Colorado. Where was Eden?”

That’s the question a student once asked Dr. Carlyle Marney. He put down his pen, turned to the college freshman, and replied, “I can tell you exactly–in Tennessee.”

“What?” gasped the student.

“Knoxville, Tennessee, 215 South Elm Street,” Marney insisted. “It was there on Elm Street, when I was a boy, that I stole a quarter out of Mama’s purse and ran to the store and bought a bag of peanut clusters and ate it as fast as I could. Afterward, I was so ashamed that I came back home to 215 Elm Street and hid in the closet. Mama found me and asked, Why are you hiding? What have you done?'”

“Need any help locating your own Eden?” Tracy asks in conclusion. “The place where you first betrayed the noble, the good, and God? Your Eden was that situation in which you discovered that you suffered from a curvature of the soul’–sin, original sin.” ( “Geography Lesson,” HERALD OF HOLINESS, February 1996, p. 2.)

Instead of the 10 Commandments, I wrote something for a wedding I called, THE TEN SUGGESTIONS which
by Rev. Arthur G. Severance

Find Out who you really are and what you want out of life; then find out what life wants out of you. Find your own way to be religious.

Give up the need to be right( usually you’re not!). When there is stress in your relationship, find your part of the blame and admit it; be the first to apologize, and then change that part of your behavior.

Cultivate love all around you; develop and nurture a deep and profound love of life and people.

Be slow to anger and quick to forgive. Grudges are much too heavy to carry around, and they tend to multiply the longer that we hold them.

Take care of your heart, mind, and body – practice love, intellectual stimulation, and physical health.

Find a way to make the world a better, happier, more loving place.

Beware the “sin” of cynicism; attempt to see the positive instead, and avoid putting others down.

Be kind to animals- yes, but also to each other, your elders, yourself and to all people, Be kind to Mother Earth.

Have lots of fun; don’t work too hard, and don’t take life too seriously. Find a job you love, that doesnt feel like work No one on their death bed wishes they had put in more hours at the office.

Learn to truly share, working for social justice in the world and relational justice in your relationships.

A few years ago, the death of Harvard University philosophy professor John Rawls made national news and seemed synchronistic for this topic From a web site- Rawls destroyed the notion that political philosophy was dead and revived the discussion among intellectuals about the nature of justice. Most of his philosophical theories are summed up in A Theory of Justice (1971), the instantly popular book in which Rawls attempts to present a grand theory with a comprehensive discussion of normative standards (standards based on the average or median achievement of any large group in any particular category, in this case social) which he tried to apply to the idea of justice (simply defined as giving every man their just due). More or less, Rawls presented a form of modern pluralism in his book, basing his theories on societal obligations to the disadvantaged. He based his theories on a social contract, which was the agreement among men created from a hypothetical state of nature which effectively established the entity of society

The Jewish Talmud talking about the Torah, or the law which sometimes seems to require vast memorization and orthodox formulas simply put: The beginning and end of Torah is performing acts of loving kindness.

Or it could be as simple as what Abraham Lincoln said, When I do good I feel good When I do bad I feel bad. And that’s my religion.

Unless we personally believe a certain way and accept certain religious authorities, like the Bible and 10 commandments, we are left with a moral vacuum. There is an empty space, lets say, in our trying to find what we believe in our hearts is right and wrong, and it almost always is in relationship to what I call- You, Me and the Universe; relationship with our self, our inner spark of divinity , our relationship to others , including parents and siblings, friends and lovers; and lastly, our relationship to the universe, to the world. Indeed, if we are good only for a reward or to prevent punishment we are not really good in a universal sense.

The reason for universal ethics or morality is as Emerson said, inherent in us, but more than that, is the world has gotten too large to only have a morality based on one particular religion or even a concept of a supreme lawgiver God .

Instead of the Western I will argue, outdated concept of of sin and punishment, it is time to share the Eastern Religious concept of being in harmony with oneself, each other and the universe.

Unitarian minister and hymn writer, William Channing Gannet wrote his masterpiece which would be called The Things most Commonly Believed Among Us and which would be used for almost the next century to describe Unitarianism, not as creedal test. but almost universal words of wisdom which still may inspire us, realizing this was before inclusive language:

We believe that to love the good and live the good is the supreme thing in religion:

We hold reason and conscience to be final authorities in matters of religious belief:

We honor the bible and all inspiring scripture, old or new:

We revere Jesus and all holy souls that have taught men truth and righteousness and love, as prophets of religion…

We believe that good and evil inevitably carry their own recompense, no good thing being failure and no evil thing success; that heaven and hell are states of being; that no evil can befall the good man in either life or death; that all things work together for the victory of Good:

We believe that we ought to join hands and work to make the good things better and the worst good, counting nothing good for self that is not good for all.

I am discovering in my religious journey an increased willingness to translate traditional religious language like God or even Goddess, into my own spiritual meaning. My idea of God or Goddess is not someone one or some supernatural being to whom one prays, hoping for a fair hearing and a good result, but that spirit which underlies all religion that calls us, even those who might claim to be atheists, to religious living. I believe that we are at a turning point today, and that it is time for universal ethics, tolerance, and the world transforming powers of good or evil. Let us always choose to spell God with two os rather than argue about whether he, she or it exists and which religion is right? Let love be our guide, let living the interdependent web of all life be our guide, may the Golden rule be our guide, may we work together to save the world.

Amen, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum(may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and let me add one more blessing that I adapdted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. Vaya con Dios is SPanish for Good-bye, but literally is Go with God, SO I adapted it to say Vaya Con Su dios, Go with your idea or interpretation of God