Compassion and the Faith Instinct

A Natural History of Compassion

The news is good. Compassion emerged from the faith instinct, and it has been evolving, growing, and spreading. We are getting better able to be caring toward strangers -- not just our own families and tribes. That's good news indeed!

It's just that progress is very . . . very . . . slow.

We'll begin with some suggestive anthropological findings about early humans, and then look at how compassion and hospitality develop in literary, including Biblical, history.

The Inhospitable Early Humans: The Roots of Religion in the Needs of War

When our ancestors were hunter-gathers, as hominids have been for the vast majority of their history, war was small-scale and frequent. Bands of males attacked other bands of males – as chimpanzees do today. Nicholas Wade writes:
Chimpanzees in fact occupy territories that are patrolled and defended by bands of males. Through raids and ambushes, they try to pick off the males of a neighboring group one by one until they are able to annex the group’s territory and females. (Wade 48)
Among early humans,
About 75 percent [of pre-state societies] went to war at least once every 2 years . . . whereas the modern nation state goes to war about once a generation.
Enslavement was not practiced, and prisoners were not taken:
Captured warriors were killed on the spot. Anthropologist Lawrence Keeley estimates that a typical tribal society lost about 0.5 of its population in combat each year, far more than the toll suffered by most modern states. (Wade 49)
Another study estimates that 13-15 percent of all deaths among foragers were due to warfare. Compare that to
the percentage of deaths due to warfare in the United States and Europe during the twentieth century, the epoch of two world wars: less than 1 percent of male deaths. (Samuel Bowles cited by Wade 72)
Why do we do this? Why have humans and pre-humans been fighting and killing each other for millions of years?

It seems to be what social animals do. A group that is able to work together enhances the spread of its genes by working together to conquer neighbors. Ants, for example,
are territorial and will fight pitched battles at their borders with neighboring groups.
Human groups face a constant tension: commitment and sacrifice may be good for the group, but bad for individuals. A situation in which every one else was courageous and took risks to protect the group, while I could stay back, avoid the risks of fighting while reaping the benefits of keeping rival groups at bay, would be ideal for my genes. But if everyone follows that strategy, the group will be undefended -- and short-lived. So human groups put a lot of energy into keeping freeloading low and group commitment high: we monitor, condemn, and punish those who don’t do their part. Survival depended on it.

Small groups used gossip to keep people in line, but once a group gets past about 150 people, there are too many for gossip to keep up with. We needed another strategy.

Rituals and shared music, dancing and drumming, helped our ancestors rev up certain neuropeptides and hormones and neural pathways of group connectedness. We felt much more connected to the group. Public ritual and ceremony also allowed monitoring who wasn’t participating -- and therefore who wasn’t so reliably connected to the group.

Moreover, our sociable brains, highly attuned to other people – who to approve and disapprove of, and who is approving and disapproving of us – are primed to see the same thing in the natural world: that the sky and earth, too, are monitoring us with approval and disapproval. We used shared story-telling to reinforce the sense of person-like monitors, judges – and sometimes guides – in earth, sky, sun, moon, rivers, mountains, animals.

Religion, which comes from the latin, religare, meaning to bind together, really does bind us together – in the sharing of rituals, ceremonies, music, dance, and sacred stories. Religion exists in every human culture because it is so good as a functional adaptation to bind our group together so we can compete successfully against other groups.

Religion Transcends Its Origins

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. Religion started getting out of control. Not that it was ever exactly in anybody’s control. I mean, the faith instinct started spreading beyond its purpose. Slowly, slowly, the connection we had to our tribe also connected us to people outside our tribe, even to our enemies. For several millennia, there were only isolated outbreaks of compassion for the stranger. In a recognition of shared pain our circuitry of connection is sometimes sparked – if we let it be.

Homer’s Iliad, for instance, tells how the Trojan Hector killed the Greek, Patroclus, Achilles’ dearest friend. Achilles, mad with rage, finds a way to isolate Hector in battle, kills him, mutilates the body, refuses to give it to the family for burial, which means Hector’s soul will never know rest. What happened next, Karen Armstrong, in a lecture I heard her give at General Assembly last month, described this way:
But then one night Hector's father, old King Priam of Troy, comes into enemy territory into the Greek camp in disguise, and he makes his way to Achilles' tent, and he takes off his disguise and everybody, of course, is shocked. The old, old man comes forward and pulls at Achilles feet to plead for the body of his son. He embraces Achilles' knees and he weeps.
At this point, Homer calls Achilles manslaughtering Achilles. Achilles has killed not only Hector, but many other of Priam's sons. Achilles looks at the old man and he thinks of his own father and he, too, begins to weep. The two men weep together out of their private pain, but creating a bond, that bond between people. Priam weeps for all of his sons. Achilles weeps, Homer says, now for his father, now for Petroclus. Then the weeping stops, and Achilles goes for Hector's body. He carries it and lays it very gently and tenderly in the arms of the old man, afraid that this will be too much for the old man to bear. The two men look at each other and each recognizes the other as divine. It's when we can go beyond the hatred, the enmity that knocks us into so much grief and pain and violence, it's then that we become god like. That is the end of the religious quest.
(See the video and transcript of Karen Armstrong's Ware Lecture: click here)

Tomorrow they will be trying to kill each other again. For a moment, the recognition of shared pain creates compassion – literally with-feeling – com = "with," passion = "feeling." In feeling with each other, they have a moment of that experience of connection, the kind of connection we were made for, the kind in which we become god-like because everything that the word God was ever supposed to mean – all the depth of sincerest devotion and the awe of infinite mystery and love – is right there.

In Homer, we find this moment of recognition of shared pain. In Genesis there's a story of hospitality that seems to come less from a particular great pain, and merely from the recognition that compassion to strangers is called for. It is, in fact, the way that we encounter the holy.

Hospitality: The Call to Compassion Outside Ourselves, Our Family, Our Tribe

Genesis, chapter 18:
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant.”
Now Abraham doesn’t recognize who these visitors are. Abraham's use of “my lord,” is a general term of respect. His running out to meet them and bowing down are the same generous hospitality he might show any human visitor. Abraham continues:
"Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refesh yourselves, and after that you may pass on – since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.”
It was a patriarchal culture, so when Abraham decides to have guests, Sarah has to get to work – though Abraham is busy, too:
And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the heard, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
(For Rev. Kaaren Anderson's General Assembly Worship sermon which inspired me to delve into this Abraham story, click here.)

In ancient times, a stranger often represented a threat. Yet Abraham rushes out to show kindness. He sets out his best offering. What he finds out, is that he is serving God. Abraham's act of practical compassion leads to a holy encounter.


That’s it.

As I read that story, it’s not that reaching out to needs greater than our own causes a magical being to reward us for it – though I understand why a group might describe it that way. It certainly feels magical. Reaching out and connecting is the holy encounter. We touch the divine when we contact in compassion the other, the stranger. Whoever it is, that’s God.

A man I know who has worked for three years to help the homeless here in Gainesville spoke to me one day of how in the preceding couple months, something switched in him. He was not a man who thought about or believed God – words like holy, sacred, divine, transcendent were not in his vocabulary.Yet all of a sudden, as he was downtown distributing toiletries and socks, he began to have a new sensation. He didn’t know what word to use for it except “holy or something.” In the homeless men and women he saw shining beings, whose light made him shining too.

Connecting in compassion is the holy encounter, and the Biblical story of Abraham's hospitality teaches us that.

Abraham and Isaac: Other means Other

Now, if you are thinking about Abraham, you might also be remembering another Abraham story. You might be thinking that old Abraham doesn’t seem very compassionate a few years later as he prepares to sacrifice his son Isaac.

What do you make of that episode? If a man today said that God told him to kill his son, and he was preparing to do it, we’d call protective services, no question. Yet the story tells us that there is a meaning and a joy in a connection that isn’t just about you and your interests and your family.

The call of the divine is the call to hospitality outside the usual circle of loyalty, compassion to the stranger, a connection that stretches us. That’s where we encounter the holy. The point was made in the story about Abraham meeting God by being hospitable to three strangers. Then the point is driven home by the story of the binding of Isaac. The Isaac story is saying: if you think that just taking care of your own is where it’s at, you’ve missed it. Other means really other. Abraham’s willingness to cut off his own line, his greatest interest, represents in parable the dethroning of himself from the center of the world – a giving himself over to something bigger than himself – a connectedness beyond his own (his family's, his tribe's) interests.

Modern listeners can't help but think about Isaac's interests. But remember that for the peoples of the Ancient Near East, children had no interests of their own -- they were solely a part of their father's interests. Thus, the crucial part of the story is Abraham's willingness to give up himself. Isaac represents Abraham's last chance at the sort of immortality that progeny provide, for Ishmael had been sent away. Abraham stands ready to die without any "living on" in a son. He is ready to die utterly. For it is not Self that life is for; it is Other, represented here by God, the Holy Wholly Other.

Every religion still has tribal forms – forms that celebrate “us” through demonizing “them.” And all the major world religions also have universal forms -- forms that recognize that “us” means all beings. To this day, we see all around us the playing out of this tension between tribal religion and universal religion.

I am inspired by the lesson of hospitality in the Abraham story. I am also inspired by what we now know of how the story itself originated. We now turn to the story of the story: the conditions under which the Abrahamic legend was created.

Exile Begat Abraham

The setting of the Abraham stories (Genesis 11 to 25) is somewhere around the 18th century BCE. Those stories were created, according to a growing consensus of scholars, in the 6th century BCE, during the period of exile known as the Babylonian Captivity. The Babylonians conquered Judah, and the Israelites were enslaved and taken far away to Babylon. The 70-year period of Babylonian exile, until Babylon in turn fell to Persia and some, at least, of the Hebrews returned to their land, was a period of deep reflection on the meaning of who they were and why their God had abandoned them.

During the exile, the stories about King David that are in the Biblical books of Samuel and Kings were compiled, incorporating earlier fragments. Some kind of David probably really existed and lived around 1000 BCE. Some scholars think the story in Samuel and Kings is roughly historically accurate. Extensive archaeological excavations, however, show that the City of David -- the original urban core of Jerusalem where the Bible says David and Solomon ruled -- was not a significant population center in the 10th century BCE. Parts of Samuel characterize David as a charismatic leader of a band of outlaws who captured Jerusalem and made it their capital. Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman argue that this is the oldest, most reliable part of Samuel, and the rest of the David story is without historical basis.

Baruch Halpern argues that David was a vassal of Achish, the king of the Philistine city-state, Gath, and David never ruled an independent kingdom. For Steven McKenzie, David came from wealthy family and was an ambitious and ruthless tyrant who murdered his opponents, including his own sons. Bandit leader, vassal, or wealthy tyrannical murderer -- whichever he really was, most of the Biblical account of David appears to be the creation of an exiled people's deep yearning for a story of past glory.

In the process of constructing that story, a detailed ancestry for David was concocted, going back to Abraham eight or nine centuries before David. While David was, it seems, a real person, albeit not much like the Biblical depiction, Abraham was entirely made up. The creation and telling of these stories gave hope to the Hebrew people in a time of despair and suffering and defeat. The stories told them of a past time of glory and also called them to hospitality rather than to bitterness.

The glory and the hope represented by David needed a foundation -- so fragments of other mythic tales were woven together and expanded into a story of exodus and Moses and covenant, set four hundred years before David. The exodus story established a context that showed that David didn't just happen. David was the long-coming fruition of Moses' covenant four centuries earlier. But Moses didn't just happen either. The promise on Mt. Sinai was itself the long-coming fruition of the foundation laid by Abraham in a narrative arc set another 4 or 5 centuries before Moses. And that foundation was hospitality.

The stories of Abraham, Moses, and David reassured the Israelites that they had a history. Their history, fictional or not, was their basis for hope for a better time to come -- for it told them God had promised to make the descendants of Abraham a great nation. It told them that the path of the fulfillment of that promise was a winding one that had taken them into captivity before, in Egypt. They had emerged from past captivity into a time of freedom and prosperity, and so could again. Without that story, composed in oppression and exile, the Israelites are one more Ancient Near East tribe – along with the Jebusites, Ammonites, Aramites, Midianites, Moabites, Edomites, Huttites, Etceterites. But with that story, the Hebrews coalesced around it into the religion recognizable as Judaism.

Some of the writings of the Babylonian captivity do express deep bitterness, anger, violent hatred of the Babylonian captors. Here, for instance, is Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon -- there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"

How could we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem's fall, how they said, "Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!"
O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
The first two of three verses have a plaintive beauty that has made the Psalm a popular one for setting to music -- but the musical versions leave out the deeply vicious ending. If the bitterness of their oppression didn't make the bitterness of their hearts understandable, I would be tempted to call the Psalm unredeemable. In the midst of that bitterness, understandable or not, some of the Hebrew story-tellers had the wisdom and the courage to perceive another way: a way of hospitality rather than bitter and violent anger.

Giving vent to pain does not heal the wound; it only expresses the pain. So these story-tellers brought forth from the imaginations of their better selves another sort of story, a salve for smoldering hatred -- a story that called the people not to pay back violence and death, but to pay forward compassion -- a story not of pain that makes more pain, but a story of hospitality that engenders healing and wholeness. That's the story the Israelites in their captivity put into the foundation of the narrative that defines the Jewish people, hence the Christians and Moslems, hence us.

The Abrahamic tradition has not had any easy go of it. Jews, Christians, and Moslems, are still fighting – though modern warfare kills a smaller percent of us than early human warfare did. Religion’s ancient use for war runs deep and is not easily replaced by its new use for peace across tribal lines.

Sometimes people do harmful things in the name of religion – harm their children, harm themselves, blow things up, go to war. That’s because religion hasn’t finished outgrowing and transcending its original tribal function. But it’s getting there.

The Israelite story-tellers, in the midst of their captivity, homelessness, and pain, found a way to remember others’ pain, too. Somehow they found a way to make stories to move their hearts from pain toward compassion, to care for the stranger. What they illustrated in story, they codified in principle, for Deuteronomy was also substantially created in Babylonian captivity:
You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deut 10:19)
Swords Into Plowshares

Our early ancestors needed a way to draw out of each other the last full measure of devotion on behalf of the tribe. They needed something that would provide:
  • a sense of powerful entities watching and judging, and
  • a sense of overflowing love, a joy in the life shared with tribe-mates. 
Religion got wired into us because the tribes that couldn’t do that were overwhelmed by those who did have that deep connection.

Failure of the capacity for spiritual connection meant death. Today, it means that still – only now, the “tribe” at stake is the planet. In any species, genes won't survive if they don't incline individuals to care adequately for their young. Social apes like us, had also to build in an intense care for our group. We had to even be willing sometimes to set aside our interest in our selves and our own offspring for the sake of something bigger. The groups that did that survived.

The stories that emerged in the Babylonian captivity have not ended the violence that oppresses our planet. Those stories do show us what is possible. The violence can be ended.

Our spiritual hardware is built into us. It's what we have and what we are. It was made as a sword. It's up to us to beat that sword into a plowshare, cultivate fields of care, and sew the nourishing knowledge that we are one. It is up to us to find the ways to connect, to cultivate compassion for enemies, to train ourselves in nonviolence, to recognize that violence is any thought, word, or deed that treats a being like an object or diminishes a being’s sense of value or security.

Thus we stand in the Abrahamic tradition of hope and possibility, stand with the radical vision of some captive Israelite story-tellers.
What they dreamed be ours to do.
Hope their hopes and seal them true.

- - - - - - - - -

Revised version of sermon preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville, 2011 July 17. For list of all blog posts derived from sermons, click here for Sermon Index.
Audio Podcast of the original sermon: click here.


poem: prayer to the rabbit god

the night is dark and this I know:
the rabbit god herself made the foxes.

she put bunnies all over
gave them a green planet to eat
made them love to hump
like rabbits
and love their babies.
bunnies make bunnies faster than plants grow, she noticed.
so the rabbit god made foxes.

predation is kinder than starvation, she said.
and foxes will give my lovelies
sharp ears
beautiful speed
a touch of cleverness.
let them be grateful for the red fur death
and the fear that makes them bright alert.

thus the rabbit god became the fox god too.
bodies are made of nutrients,
there being no other way to make them,
how could there not be carnivores?

dear god of hunter and of hunted
I, too, a body of walking food, pray
to be eaten rather than starve
to love
the beauty of this fear.


Reverence for Life: Toward Beloved Multispecies Community

The Unitarian Universalist Animal Ministry (UUAM) has developed the Reverence for Life program to assist UUs interested in exploring human relationships to other animals. (For info, click here.) Rev. LoraKim Joyner, a UU community minister and my spouse, heads up that program. Herewith, some reflections (see also my "On Being Animal," click here).

Reverence for Life
Let ours be a time remembered for the awakening of a new reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, the quickening of the struggle for justice and peace, and the joyful celebration of life. (The Earth Charter, 2002)
The Earth Charter’s use of “reverence for life” reflects its indebtedness to Albert Schweitzer (1875 –1965), the doctor, theologian, humanitarian, and Unitarian. Schweitzer did not invent the concept: it is a central teaching of Jainism and Buddhism, which Schweitzer studied. Schweitzer did, however, adopt the phrase, reverence for life, as the summation of his life and work, substantially develop the idea within the Western tradition, and bring it widely to the attention of Europeans and Americans.

In The Philosophy of Civilization (1923), Schweitzer set forth his most detailed and philosophical exploration of reverence for life. His premise:
I am life which wills to live, in the midst of life which wills to live.
From this premise, Schweitzer arrived at his ethical stance.
A man is truly ethical only when he obeys the compulsion to help all life which he is able to assist, and shrinks from injuring anything that lives.
Helping life and avoiding harm benefits other beings and brings wholeness to our spirits:
Until we extend our circle of compassion to all living things, humanity will not find peace.
Today an increasing number of people are heeding the call to reverence for life. It is a call to open our hearts to, commit our talents and resources to, and dedicate our lives to compassion to all living things – for the sake of the planet, for the sake of all beings, and for the sake of finding peace. Compassion is called for in each of the ways that humans use and relate to nonhuman animals. This list, neither exhaustive nor exclusive, includes the main areas of animal concern:

· Wildlife threatened by loss of habitat: Habitat destruction, pollution, and climate change have accelerated species extinction rates.
· Wildlife poached or hunted for profit: Trade in elephant ivory, rhinoceros horns, birds, reptiles, fish, though often illegal, continues.
· Animals humans breed for food: Industrial meat production subjects billions of cows, pigs, and chickens to painful conditions.
· Animals humans companion: There is abuse and abandonment of dogs, cats, and birds and other animals kept as companions.
· Animals humans use in research: Painful experiments, procedures, and housing conditions are inflicted on millions of laboratory mice, rats, rabbits and numerous other species every year.
· Animals whose fur or skin humans wear: The fur industry inflicts pain and death.
· Animals used in sports and entertainment: Horse racing and equine-using sports, dog racing, dog- and cock-fighting, animals in circuses and various animal shows, recreational hunting and fishing, are all issues.

The Liberal Faith Context: Challenge, Resource, Possibility

Challenge. For a number of years now, LoraKim and I have witnessed the confusion and misunderstandings in liberal congregations when animal issues arise. We have seen repeatedly how individuals and congregations struggle with questions about our relationship with nonhuman animals. We have been at congregational potluck dinners that have evoked anger, irritation, sadness, and disappointment among participants. We have seen members seethe and sometimes resign from the congregation because their hopes for more humane potluck dishes went unrequited. Others have seethed and sometimes resigned when they felt their preferences for food that included animal body parts was not respected. We have seen the puzzled looks when we say “multispecies community.” (One congregation member wondered whether dogs would be running board meetings. She then added, “Probably not such a bad idea.” But, of course, having a dog chair a meeting amounts to not having a meeting. And we will need to continue having meetings -- discussing, sharing wisdom, and planning actions -- to do the work before us.)

From witnessing these tensions and disconnects through the years of our respective ministries, it has for some time now seemed to us that animal concerns are the most significant area of need for spiritual, emotional, and intellectual growth in liberal religion. It’s an area of needed growth in mainstream and conservative religion as well, to be sure, yet here we address the liberal religion we know best.

If our liberal religious movement were to turn its attention and commitment to reverence for life in all its forms, it would not be because we have ended the oppression, suffering, injustice, and violence humans inflict on each other. Indeed, the world of human-human relations seems as far from global peace and justice as ever. Nor can we say with any certainty that caring about species other than our own empirically correlates with caring about human conditions other than our own. Studies are inconclusive, and some suggest that people can compartmentalize their compassion: attitudes about the appropriate regard for the beings in the various categories through which humans relate to other animals (as companions, as food, for research, as wildlife, etc.) do not always correlate with attitudes about social justice, human rights, or peace movements. Rather, if people of liberal faith commit to revere life, it will be because of an inner urging toward wholeness. We will have heard an internal whispering that reverence for any life is incomplete without reverence for all life, and that our own fullest flourishing lies in a life of uncompartmentalized compassion.

Resource. Unitarian Universalists and others of liberal faith who seek to respond wholeheartedly and effectively to the call for reverence for life have a context of empowering meaning in our liberal religious tradition. Our worship practice and experience, our way of being together in free and covenantal faith community, give us solid footing from which to move forward to meet Schweitzer’s challenge to bring fuller and wider justice and peace to our world. Liberal religion for centuries has centered on a set of related values: freedom, acceptance, fairness. Unitarians and Universalists have expressed those core values with various words through the epochs of our history: the earlier words and understandings paved the way for the language and understanding now current among us. Of particular value for understanding and caring about animal concerns, there is the enduring legacy of the 19th-century Unitarian Transcendentalists who limned the sacred depths of nature, and many of whose words, included still in our current hymnal, continue to inspire.

Since the mid-1980s, we have had the Seven Principles in our association’s by-laws:
“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote . . . inherent worth and dignity . . . justice, equity, and compassion . . . respect for the interdependent web of existence. . .”
The practice of liberal faith community creates a steady deepening of the meanings of these values in our lives, and has lead us to live into them more fully. Our living tradition, in other words, has through the centuries gradually clarified what we may call “faith skills.” As we have sought to live the meaning of our values, we have developed among us resources of skill in articulating and practicing those values. Those skills will help us now move forward to find new ways for our principles to guide us to more compassionate and effective action, and more profound and loving reverence for life.

Moreover, we have applied and sharpened our faith skills in social action through the centuries. Unitarians and Universalists, joined by liberal Quakers, Mennonites, other Protestants, Jews, and sometimes Catholics have faced many challenges in our overlapping histories. People of liberal faith were together at the forefront of the movements for universal education, abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, improvement of worker conditions, birth control availability, desegregation, civil rights, women’s equality, ending the Viet Nam war, reproductive rights, acceptance of GLBT folk, and recognition of same-sex marriage. Each of those challenges called on us to change ourselves and change our world. Each of them was a step in our growing reverence for life, articulated in word, manifested in deed, and rewarded in deepened joy of connection and widened circle of community.

Finally, the liberal religious tradition of openness to new revelation and discovery has made us comfortable drawing from new work in the academy. Unhindered by suspicion of threat from new research, our worship, theology, and discussions, reference academic findings with a natural ease. This comfort will serve us well as we look to incorporate into our faith lives the substantial academic contributions in the last two decades. Works of philosophy, religion, social science, literature, and ethics departments offer new ways of thinking about nonhuman animals. Studies in biology, ecology, and physiology have shed new light on animal well-being and the science of human-nonhuman bonding.

Possibility. The academy alone, however, will not produce large numbers of humans motivated to act from care for the flourishing of all animals. There is a role for faith institutions to play in this world transformation, and liberal religion has not yet seized that role. Until we explicitly hold all beings to have inherent worth and dignity, we are only “light green.” In Dark Green Religion, Bron Taylor calls for a sensible religion, which includes the tenet that every being has inherent worth and a sacred spark, and which:
“is rationally defensible as well as socially powerful enough to save us from our least-sensible selves." (Bron Taylor)
We believe that millions now yearn for such a religion, fostering communities of life where every species and every individual belongs.

The Unitarian Universalist delegates at the 2011 General Assembly in Charlotte, North Carolina, took an important step toward a mission of reverence for life when they approved a Statement of Conscience titled “Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice.” The Statement addresses environmental and worker justice issues in the food industry and includes also these passages about our relation with nonhuman animals:
Aware of our interdependence, we acknowledge that eating ethically requires us to be mindful of the miracle of life we share with all beings. . .
The mass production of food . . . has resulted in . . . mistreatment of animals and workers. . . .
We acknowledge that aggressive action needs to be taken to . . . end the inhumane treatment of animals. . . .
Unitarian Universalists aspire to radical hospitality and developing the beloved community. Therefore, we affirm that the natural world exists not for the sole benefit of one nation, one race, one gender, one religion, or even one species, but for all. Working in the defense of mutual interests, Unitarian Universalists acknowledge and accept the challenge of enlarging our circle of moral concern to include all living creatures. . . .
Concerns about the Humane Treatment of Animals include intensive confinement and abuse in CAFOs [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations], and inhumane conditions during production, transport, and slaughter. . . .
We aspire to buy, raise, and consume food for ourselves and our families that . . . minimizes the pain and suffering of animals. . . .
We advocate for the benefit of animals, plants, food workers, the environment and humanity by . . . pressing food sellers to require that their suppliers certify the humane treatment of animals; . . .
With gratitude and reverence for all life, we savor food mindful of all that has contributed to it. We commit ourselves to a more equitable sharing of the earth's bounty.
(To read the full text of the Statement, click here.)
In recognizing that ethics is not limited to human-human relations, this Statement of Conscience is a milestone in liberal religion’s ethical development and on the path toward the peace which, as Dr. Schweitzer told us, humanity will not find “until we extend our circle of compassion to all living things.”

Multispecies Community: Relations of Care . . . and Uncertainty

The path of peace, of reverence for life – and, indeed, the path of joy and fulfillment – leads, we believe, to multispecies community, – a term which remains unfamiliar to many. A grant to UUAM (the Unitarian Universalist Animal Ministry) is supporting development of a book to be titled, Reverence for Life: Toward Beloved Multispecies Community. Yet the grant almost did not happen because some on the grant panel found “multispecies community” baffling and bizarre. Perhaps you did too when you saw the title. If so, I hope you'll read the book when it comes out, and that by the time you're done, “multispecies community” will seem to you not only obvious and implicit, but also the urgent need of our time, our faith, and our planet.

The concept of right relation which liberal religious congregations have been seeking to understand and apply can help us in imaging a more whole relation to nonhuman life around us. The ways to be in right relation with the blue jays outside your church, with the cat and dog companions of your church members, with the South American jaguars affected by your church’s coffee-buying policies, with the cows whose flesh might or might not be destined for a dish at your next church potluck, are all different – and all of those relations matter, to us and to them.

In one important sense, multispecies community is unavoidable. It is and always has been a fact of life. There is no way for humans, or any species, not to be in relationship and interaction with many (or most, or all) other species. We are inescapably part of the interdependent web of existence, as the Unitarian Universalist seventh principle recognizes. In another sense, true community, built upon right relation, is the unrealized possibility before us. Reverence for life calls for us to be increasingly conscious of, increasingly intentional about, and increasingly compassionate in, the ways we participate in multispecies community. Through such reverence, our multispecies community becomes beloved multispecies community.

Right relation with animals, human or otherwise, requires our careful attention to the signals. Extinction rates and drastically diminished populations of wildlife speak quite clearly that something is not working for those animals. Extinctions may be “natural” in the sense that the shifting ecologies of the planet over the last 2 billion years of life have brought about the extinctions of most of the species that have ever been. However, where human activity is the cause, or where extinction and endangerment rates are way above “natural” levels and we have the power to lower them, then reverence for life calls us to action to preserve life.

Other signals are more subtle. Is a given animal displaying a troublesome lethargy, or is it just being a healthy sloth? What are the physiological and behavioral markers of well-being in each of the estimated 10 million species on earth, or even of the 62,000 currently known vertebrate species? Certainly, there is much more to learn. At the same time, we already know a lot about the physiology of vertebrate pain, how to identify normal and high levels of stress in birds and mammals, and what behaviors are neurotic in various species. We can’t all become veterinarians or zoologists, but we do make rough assessments of the health of animals in our lives, and we can educate ourselves to be better attuned to the signs of well-being in domesticated companions, animal raised for food, and in wildlife around us. We can learn actions that engender better health and flourishing of the animals in our world. Fundamentally, right relation is a relation of care.

Against the forces of complacency and relativism stands beauty: the splendor of every being and this earth we inhabit together. This beauty calls us toward greater understanding, compassion, and awareness of interdependence, calls us to constantly re-imagine how to be the change we wish to be in the world, for our sakes, and for our neighbor's sake. And who is our neighbor, those whom Jesus urged us to love as ourselves? If, as we believe, our neighbors are all living beings, then our human lot is cast with the underdog -- and underchicken, undercow, and down-under marsupials.

Yet there is no one right way to think about and care for nonhuman animals. We are all involved in a messy interdependent web of existence in which we are, willy-nilly, prey and predator, and eater and eaten. Each of us makes tragic choices that result in harm to others. LoraKim and I struggle with this. We ate meat for much of our lives, for instance – and still do, occasionally, eat dairy products. The goal is not purity. Rather, the goal is to engage in life to the fullest by being aware of the lives around us. This means that we do no rest upon what we have accomplished, but seek ever to grow, to change, and often as a result, to have our heart’s break open so the world can fall in and fill it up.
Take courage, friends. The way is often hard, the path is never clear, and the stakes are very high. Take courage. For deep down, there is another truth: You are not alone. (Wayne Arnason)
The way is indeed not clear. Who most needs our care and attention right now? Is it the wildlife losing habit, or being poached or hunted? Is it the factory farm conditions of cows, pigs, and chickens? Is it abused or abandoned dogs and cats? And what is the best way to manifest our compassion? How does faith in the inherent worth and dignity of all beings grow and deepen? How can we better apprehend the mutual dependence of our well-being and the well-being of other beings? How can we act with greater compassion – and greater power? Life is so much more complex than any one stance or argument can convey. Fortunately, we aren’t alone. We have each other to turn to: to other humans on the path of reverence for life, and to such guidance as we can glean from the animals themselves.


Beyond the Veil: Women and Islam

Guest post by Renee Zenaida, member, UU Fellowship of Gainesville
Sermon preached 2011 July 24

As much as I love the big stories, it’s the little ones I count on to explain things. Although, there are always more stories, more stories needed to fill in new gaps. Still, I felt well-prepared to weigh in when Islam was a suddenly the topic in Gainesville. I’d read Huston Smith, of course, but I had even known Muslims.

Years ago now, I married a lapsed Muslim from Lebanon. It was a marriage not made in heaven -— a lapsed, somewhat angry Muslim and a lapsed, somewhat angry Catholic. Rather than an interfaith marriage, it was more of a counterfaith union.

So when people, non-Muslims, try to tell me some deep dark secret about Islam, I smile because I have heard it all before. Any negative thing about being a Muslim that could be said, I heard from someone raised in the faith.

It’s just that it didn’t wash. Little stories. I never met my mother-in-law, except through stories. She was a devout Muslim, Hanoum. She came from a very traditional family. Her father had two wives and each gave him six children: one woman had six boys and Hanoum’s mother, she had six girls.

Hanoum was a bit of a fashion fan and was able to copy patterns of Chanel designs in Vogue magazine and then sew runway-quality copies. She taught at a little school in Beirut when her boys were small. In the school, she covered out of respect. She did not otherwise.

One day she ran into the principal at the market, the principal admonished her for not being covered in public. Hanoum went in the following day and quit.

Little stories. I got to know a number of students from the Middle East, many of them Muslims. It was pretty amazing how some of them accepted me, and some didn’t, just like everyone else.

It was my Western friends who took on a unified front. Even the most liberal of friends whined, “well, you know…” It was inevitable. I was going to end up forced to wear a veil and/or, if we had any children, “well, you know…” Everyone asked me if I’d read Not Without My Daughter. I was perplexed, anxious about the singular character of this, well, bigotry.

At the heart of it was fear of the unknown. Historians have yet to weave the contributions of the Muslim world into our books of Unitarian and Universalist history -— but I think I have a new project for Ken Burns.

But locally as well, the Muslim American community hasn’t drawn a lot of attention to itself, even the community’s charity work seems to go relatively unnoticed except by those on the receiving end. Until the subject came up, everyone was just getting along fine.

The custom that many have us have adopted, of not discussing religion or politics in social settings leaves the question of one’s faith, unasked and unanswered. Unless you’re a woman, a hijabi -— a woman who chooses to cover, to wear the hijab. Then everyone knows.

Back in the late eighties, the media was just getting started framing the Islamic World. But already the PR tide was turning; but I wanted to look at what my friends were telling me from more than one viewpoint. I thought about their concerns for a long time. I wanted to have an answer to give them. I only came up with a question.

They tell their daughters they are too beautiful. We tell our daughters they are not beautiful enough.

If I had a daughter, which should I prefer she believe?

Even now, the information we do get, often the only information we get, is directed by the very narrow lens of the media, or worse, Hollywood. And people living out their everyday lives in harmony, well that just doesn’t “make a story.”

Still, the three great Abrahamic religions do all seem to have a problem with women. Yes, ladies, we’re a problem. Women are thrust into an either-or frame. Good or bad. Temptress or Goddess. Saint or Sinner. I think we might be able to trace it back to the Greek love of dichotomy, but surely the writers and thinkers who’ve followed through on the big stories never really got to know a woman. When have you ever known a woman who was either-or?

We all do it. We fit everything, everyone we meet into frames, grouping like with like, to get as quick a picture of the situation as possible. That’s biology. We need to assess new situations, determine if there’s any danger, and act accordingly. There isn’t time to look at things from every angle, at least not at first.

Either “Muslim Artist” or “who”? I had expectations. [When I first went to see Ameena Khan's art,] I was expecting it to be a lot more serious.

The opposite of vilifying someone for his or her beliefs, opposite but equally devastating, is romanticizing someone for his or her beliefs. I expected a Muslim artist; I met a Muslim, a wife, a daughter, a wonderful mother, an incredible artist, an environmental engineer, a friend -— and the kind of selfless compassion that is all too rare I this world.

Compassion. If you’re looking for something that is held in common among Muslims, among any group really, experience the culture. Every community builds a culture up out of itself. So if you want to understand something -— a country, a religion -— get to know the people. Immerse yourself in the culture, and oh…eat the food…better…experience the meals. (Always a great antidote to the 11 o’clock news.)

The culture I encounter among the Muslims I know and have known is one of benevolent compassion. There’s a sense of community and shared plight.

When you talk about the United States, you can argue from here to next Thursday about the intentions of the Founding Fathers. United States culture is overwhelmingly Christian. When most of us were growing up, we never gave it a second thought when a City Hall had a nativity set on its lawn. It just was. We may not agree with reintroducing the Ten Commandments into civic settings -— but most if not all of us know them, base our morals on them. There’s a national flavor to US culture -— a not-so-subtle worship of the individual.

Yes, ours is a culture that will protest school uniforms with the fervor other cultures reserve for McDonald’s trying to move in. It may seem trite, but it’s serious business. That’s how deeply ingrained the reliance on the individual is in American society: no one is going to tell us what to wear.

Of course, we end up mostly wearing the same thing as our peers. To wear anything different is to “stand out.” People who dress outside the norm are often treated as just that -— outsiders. I imagine there is similar peer pressure in countries and regions that are predominately Muslim. Resisting would be difficult—in a place where covering is the law, impossible.

But imagine wearing hijab here. Or in any Western country? Instead of disappearing into a sea of veils or an ocean of hairstyles, you stand right out. And it’s not like wearing Orange and Blue in Gainesville, you’re not on the home team.

When news of an Arab spring began to filter in, I was excited. Having let go some of my romantic notions about what being a devoted Muslim looks like, I headed off to a protest on the corner of University and 13th. There were quite a few women there. I was the only one not wearing a headscarf.

Oh my goodness. I held my sign, chanted along (we were awful at the chants, we’re doing much better with our chants for peace this morning), but I stood out.

Now, there’s something about being a Unitarian Universalist, I’m not sure why, but you end up carrying a lot of protest signs. I’ve been in the crowd before; but this time at least a dozen people pointed out that they’d seen me for less than a second on the news. I stood out.

Still, I was feeling pretty good about having been there, at least tangentially, cheering on world-changing events, when I went to gather my things. As I was waving goodbye, an elder, a woman, walked near me. She dropped a flag. I picked it up and took it to her. I was expecting an accent. Egyptian perhaps? It was an Egyptian flag. No. The lovely lady turned to me, and, in since the cradle Southern, said “Thank you, Sweetie.”

No matter how far I stretched my frame, it wouldn’t hold a representative grouping of Muslim women. So why not really test the boundaries. I put a note out on Facebook, asking Muslim friends to comment on “the veil,” and to share with their friends.

People sent me articles, videos, and best of all, personal notes. All spoke of hijab as an expression of faith, but each had a unique way of expressing her faith and her relationship to covering.

I sometimes get the impression that in that romanticizing way, some think women wearing hijab are somehow unaware of its implications. Somehow these dear innocents haven’t caught up to us yet.

With the information I’ve received so far, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that Muslim communities worldwide are discussing the role of women, the role of hijab -— from lovely songs extolling the virtues of hijabi to a comedian shouting about what is and what is not hijab to internationally published profiles of women who have chosen to not cover, sometimes after many years of wearing the hijab. There are blogs and websites discussing all the possible frames a Muslim woman can fit into. The range is staggering.

Islamic scholars debate whether the instructions on modesty were for all women or only for the Prophet’s wives; argue over how much covering is required. There are radical women and moderate women and conservative women…and men…all interacting from within and from outside the system. Islam is not the monolith some perceive it to be: it’s a vibrant, living faith. Change, if it comes, will come from within the faith.

One of the most touching letters I received was from a woman named Angham. She started covering when she was 21; and it was a hard decision…but she’s forty now…and she has grown into and with her commitment to her faith.

What was more difficult for Angham was moving to the United Kingdom. People stared. She even felt pity. She had been a lecturer in English literature at an Iraqi university, she was in the UK to pursue a higher degree.

She wrote:

“To be honest, when I came to study in the UK last year I was uncomfortable with the way some people were looking at me and I fully understand how most people in the West look at the veil… I don't blame them as long as they are highly attracted to what certain newspapers tell them… I even sometimes feel that they pity me for this!!!! I think it is our job. I mean the veiled Muslim women's job is to try to change the way the West perceives this, not necessarily by words but by deeds… I think when every body around me realizes that this cover is not preventing me from thinking, studying, participating in life in general and breathing like the rest of them and when I show them that the veil wont prevent me from building bridges with them and make friends and behave normally they will eventually change the way they look at it… It is the veiled women's Job and mission…”

Maybe we could meet Angham and her sisters, those wearing the hijab and those not, half way. To embrace religious diversity, to live the words of Francis David -— that we need not think alike to love alike -- we need, perhaps, to turn our attention to discrimination against women who choose to express their faith by wearing the hijab—countries where certain styles of covering are banned, sporting events turned political, attitudes that judge a woman as lacking because she chooses to cover her hair.

Unless we look beyond the frames, beyond the veil, and see each woman individually, we won’t recognize real oppression when we see it.

Oppression. Non-Muslim friends gave me input about Women and Islam too. A number of people asked me if I’d read Infidel. It was the only lens through which they’d gotten a closer look at women and Islam.

Harrowing. But remember, I was raised Catholic. People who live in glass cathedrals… And as a Catholic, I have heard some pretty harrowing tales about losing one’s religion.

One of Karen Armstrong’s first books, Through a Narrow Gate, about joining and leaving a convent, was unsuccessful on many levels. In 2004, Armstrong wrote in her reprise of the journey, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness, that it had been too soon -— she had not even begun the process of spiritual healing.

That she chose a path of spiritual healing is admirable, and fortunate for many of us. Armstrong is an extremely popular author and advocate for interfaith communication and…compassion… her topic at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly a few weeks ago.

Are there Muslim women who are oppressed? Yes. But there are non-Muslim women who are oppressed as well. Are Muslim women victims of domestic violence? Yes. But no more so than any other religious group. It’s not either-or. It’s us.

“They tell their daughters they are too beautiful, we tell our daughters they are not beautiful enough.”

It’s not either-or. Either a young woman held back from following her dreams, or a teenager saving up for plastic surgery.

It’s not either-or. It’s us. It’s a woman thing. Women have made amazing strides the world over, but when you look at the numbers, women still get paid less, are harassed more, are educated less. Women are the targets of war efforts, and the pawns in political repartee. They are victims of cruelty and ignorance.

When a group of women in Saudi Arabia rev up their engines to get the right to drive. When groups of women brave bullets to march through the streets of Homs, Syria. Whenever and wherever a woman stands up for her rights, would we refuse to stand alongside because a woman chooses to frame her face and cover her hair?

There’s a dimension to the hijab that is difficult for some of us to get our heads and hearts around—it is an expression of faith.

One dear friend just said it wasn’t her way of expressing her faith, but she is no less faithful. I have gained such respect for Muslim women, those who do not cover despite peer pressure to do so, and those who do despite public pressure.

I’m sure it doesn’t happen every day, at least not after a woman has been wearing the hijab for awhile. In the beginning, it can be consuming… like any life passage. But later, when she has endured days where she just couldn’t get it pinned right, hours outside wishing she could brush the hair and veil up off her neck and let a cool breeze in, stares of curiosity and derision, after that and more… she catches sight of herself in the mirror and knows it is an offering, the good and the bad, the pride and the struggle.

What is our hijab? What reminds us of our connection to something greater than ourselves, to all that is greater than ourselves. Maybe we begin with an embrace, embracing our sisters and brothers, and walking to a place of learning and healing.


On the Road

Worcester Union Station
What is this life?

And what are we supposed to do with it?

Jack Kerouac’s novel, On the Road, thinly fictionalizes his travel adventures across late-1940s America. I was, in a milder, tamer way, on the road myself this last week. Most of the way was by plane -- I flew from Gainesville to Atlanta, then Atlanta to Boston. And the train I hopped, from Boston out to Worcester, Massachusetts, I had a legitimate ticket for. The train arrived in Worcester shortly after midnight, so I did have the chance to feel rather beatnik-hobo as I hoofed it three miles in the middle of the night from Worcester Union Station to the retreat center where I spent the week. (For more on that, click here.)  Yes, there was a line of cabs at the station, and, sure, I had plenty of cash on hand to take one. But that didn't feel very adventurous. Or like much of a way to look for America along a three-mile stretch of Pleasant Street, Worcester, Massachusetts.

Besides, I'm cheap. And could always use a little exercise.

After the retreat was over, I was on the train back to Boston. The conductor came by to sell me my ticket and noticed the book I was reading. This is either the advantage, or the disadvantage, depending on how you look at it, of deciding not to get On the Road on my Kindle.

"Kerouac," he said. "I dated his niece once."

"Oh, yeah?" I said. "What was her name?"

He thought a moment. "Colette."

"Wow. Was she a Kerouac?"

"No, no. It was her mother that was Jack's sister," explained the conductor as he handed me my change. Then he he was gone on down the aisle. I returned to my book. The train, and Kerouac's prose, rambled on.

When I got home I did some googling around. Jack Kerouac only had one sister, Caroline. And Caroline had one child, a son. No daughter. Maybe the conductor had meant a grandniece of a cousin of Kerouac or something. Or maybe he made it up entirely. Perhaps some part of his brain was remembering something Jackie Kennedy said shortly after JFK was elected in 1960: "I read everything from Colette to Kerouac." In any case, there's something about this Beatnik literary figure that people want to feel close to, somehow, in some way.

Kerouac struggled with what he wanted this book to be for several years. Then, in April 1951, in a three-week burst, staying awake with Benzedrine, he wrote almost without pause. He didn’t even want to pause to change sheets of paper in his typewriter. So he cut tracing paper sheets to size and taped them together into one long hundred and twenty-foot scroll. And the thing flowed out of him, single-spaced, without margins or paragraph breaks. That was the first draft. Then there were six years of looking for a publisher and working with editors, and revising. (Previous blog entry has excerpts, and video of Kerouac reading from On the Road and Visions of Cody: click here).

The original scroll of the first draft is now a revered artifact of American letters. In the picture, you see it stretched out like a road – a road of words, without even a paragraph break crack in its pavement, a road that beckons to us on that journey: journey to where?

Where does Kerouac’s road want to take us? Kerouac’s quest is religious. For him as for the beat generation generally, the journey is a spiritual one. The real road is the inward one, the road to find ourselves, to find authenticity.

What are we, really? And can we really be our true selves? In On the Road, Jack Kerouac gives himself the name Sal Paradise, and he chronicles his road trips back and forth across the United States – to find Dean Moriarty, to go away from him, to go back to him. Three different around-the-country trips are chronicled: one in 1947, one in 1949, and one in 1950. In between the first and the second one, Kerouac wrote in his journal:
In America today there’s a claw hanging over our brains, which must be pushed aside else it will clutch and strangle our real selves.
Our real selves. Our real selves?

On his first trip westward Sal and someone he’s just met are hitchhiking together.
A tall, lanky fellow in a gallon hat stopped his car on the wrong side of the road and came over to us; he looked like a sheriff. We prepared our stories secretly. He took his time coming over.
"You boys going to get somewhere, or just going?"
We didn’t understand his question, and it was a damned good question.
Cassady, left, and Kerouac
We have some dim inkling of where we want to get to – but it’s so vague to us that we can’t say whether we’re going somewhere or just going. We don’t know the answer, and we don’t even understand the question, but we understand just enough to know that somehow, it’s a very good question. The goodness of that very question – which we don’t understand, let alone know the answer – impels us forward – in search of an answer, maybe, or else just a question that we can feel we understand.

In that quest, the idea of Dean Moriarty haunts Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac: "I think of Dean Moriarty," is the last sentence of the book. This Dean Moriarty represents wildness, liberation, freedom, vitality. Moriarty – in real life Neal Cassady – actually was born on the road, “when his parents were passing through Salt Lake City, Utah in 1926” (On the Road, 3). Mother died when he was 10; raised by his alcoholic tinsmith father in Denver; much of his youth lived on the streets of skid row with his father, or in reform school for various thefts. Stealing cars was an early talent and habit. At 19, out of jail, he and first wife “Marylou” – the real life Luanne Henderson – moved to New York, where he and Kerouac met.

Moriarty/Cassady’s powerful enthusiasm, unconstrained by law or convention, his insatiable sexuality, and wildness attracts Kerouac, though Kerouac himself doesn’t go there. He thinks that maybe he would like to, but Kerouac ultimately has other loyalties, to family and stability.

Life on the road is unpredictable, wild, moment-to-moment. There are times when the money runs out, even for food, and hunger becomes very real. There are also times of reading poetry aloud, and all-night long intense and earnest discussions. And other nights in smoky jazz clubs saying things like “man that cat can blow.” And sex and drugs with a variety of partners and substances. There are moments of ecstasy, and also sadness. At one point Kerouac writes:
As the river poured down from mid-America by starlight I knew,
I knew like mad that everything I had ever known and would ever know was One. (147)
from the upcoming film, On the Road
And later:
And for just a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm, and the sensation of death kicking at my heels to move on, with a phantom dogging its own heels, and myself hurrying to a plank where all the angels dove off and flew into the holy void of uncreated emptiness, the potent and inconceivable radiancies shining in bright Mind Essence, innumerable lotus-lands falling open in the magic mothswarm of heaven. . . . I realized it was only because of the stability of the intrinsic Mind that these ripples of birth and death took place. (173)
These moments come along with a lot of sadness – whether it’s the “feeling of sadness that only bus stations have” (35) -- or the sadness of failing to live the holiness and preciousness of every moment:
We lay on our backs, looking at the ceiling and wondering what God had wrought when He made life so sad. . . . Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk – real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious. (57)
Dean represents for Sal a kind of sacred insanity, a spiritual visionary. About two-thirds through the book, after Sal and Dean have been apart for a year, Sal hits the road again, looking for Dean. When he finds him, Dean is falling apart – but still shining a kind of light. Here’s Dean Moriarty speaking of himself in third person:
I’m classification three-A, jazz-hounded Moriarty has a sore butt, his wife gives him daily injections of penicillin for his thumb, which produces hives, for he’s allergic. He must take sixty thousand units of Fleming’s juice within a month. He must take one tablet every four hours for this month to combat allergy produced from his juice. He must take codeine aspirin to relieve the pain in his thumb. He must have surgery on his leg for an inflamed cyst. He must rise next Monday at six a.m. to get his teeth cleaned. He must see a foot doctor twice a week for treatment. He must take cough syrup each night. He must blow and snort constantly to clear his nose, which has collapsed just under the bridge where an operation some years ago weakened it. He lost his thumb on his throwing arm. Greatest seventy-yard passer in the history of New Mexico State Reformatory. And yet – and yet, I’ve never felt better and finer and happier with the world and to see little lovely children playing in the sun and I am so glad to see you, my fine gone wonderful Sal, and I know, I know everything will be all right. (185-86)
In real life, this Neal Cassady, with his crazy intensity of life, unstoppable energy, overwhelming charm, and savvy hustle, did only a little writing: published some poems and an autobiographical novel. Mostly, however, Neal Cassady was an artist whose medium was being. The pen, really, was too slow for him: Cassady was a live show. He was a muse, an inspiration, for Kerouac, for Allen Ginsberg, who writes about Cassady in “Howl,” the most famous Beat poem, which calls “N.C.” (Neal Cassady) the "secret hero of these poems."

Cassady would go on to meet Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1962, and became one of the Merry Pranksters, a group that formed around Kesey. Kesey wrote about Cassady in the book Demon Box, calling him “Superman.” In 1964, Cassady was the main bus driver of a bus – the destination across its front simply saying, “Further” -- immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Hunter S. Thompson wrote about him in his book, Hell’s Angels.

Who was this guy, irresistible to writers as he was also to a great many women – and more than a few men – with whom he slept? What kind of model of life is this?

In one scene from On the Road, Neal/Dean, with his body seemingly falling apart, is thrown out by his wife, and his primary recurrent girlfriend, formerly also his wife, leaves him. Dean and Sal go looking for sleeping accommodations at another friend’s place, Ed Dunkel. Ed himself has disappeared for a while on the road, and Ed’s wife, Galatea, lets them in and several of the women cohorts of the male Beat characters are there and take the opportunity to express their collective condemnation:
“For years now you haven’t had any sense of responsibility for anyone. You’ve done so many awful things I don’t know what to say to you.”
And in fact that was the point, and they all sat around looking at Dean with lowered and hating eyes, and he stood on the carpet in the middle of them and giggled – he just giggled. He made a little dance. . . .
I suddenly realized that Dean, by virtue of his enormous series of sins, was becoming the Idiot, the Imbecile, the Saint of the lot.
“You have absolutely no regard for anybody but yourself and your damned kicks. All you think about is . . . how much money or fun you can get out of people and then you just throw them aside. Not only that but you’re silly about it. It never occurs to you that life is serious and there are people trying to make something decent out of it instead of just goofing all the time.”
That’s what Dean was, the HOLY GOOF.
“You stand here and make silly faces, and I don’t think there’s a care in your heart.” [said Galatea]
This was not true; I knew better and I could have told them all. I didn’t see any sense in trying it. I longed to go and put my arm around Dean and say, Now look here, all of you, remember just one thing: this guy has his troubles too, and another thing, he never complains
and he’s given all of you a damned good time just being himself, and if that isn’t enough for you then send him to the firing squad, that’s apparently what you’re itching to do anyway. . . .
“Now you’re going East with Sal,” Galatea said, “and what do you think you’re going to accomplish by that? Camille has to stay home and mind the baby now you’re gone – how can she keep her job? – and she never wants to see you again and I don’t blame her. If you see Ed along the road you tell him to come back to me or I’ll kill him.”
Suddenly we see that this familiar, familiar voice of morality and reason, source of so much rage, is as filled with contradictions as Dean’s free-wheeling is. If you were any good you’d go back, but don’t you go back because she won’t have you. And the people we want are the ones we want to kill.
Where once Dean would have talked his way out, he now fell silent himself,
but standing in front of everybody, ragged and broken and idiotic, right under the lightbulbs, his boney mad face covered with sweat and throbbing veins, saying, ‘yes, yes, yes,’ as though tremendous revelations were pouring into him all the time now, and I am convinced they were, and the others suspected as much and were frightened. He was BEAT – the root, the soul of Beatific. . . .
There was a strange sense of maternal satisfaction in the air, for the girls were really looking at Dean the way a mother looks at the dearest and most errant child, and he with his sad thumb and all his revelations knew it well, and that was why he was able, in tick-tocking silence, to walk out of the apartment without a word, to wait for us downstairs as soon as we’d made up our minds about time.
This was what we sensed about the ghost on the sidewalk. I looked out the window. He was alone in the doorway, digging the street. Bitterness, recriminations, advice, morality, sadness – everything was behind him, and ahead of him was the ragged and ecstatic joy of pure being.
“Come on, Galatea, Marie, let’s go hit the jazz joints and forget it. Dean will be dead someday. Then what can you say to him?”
“The sooner he’s dead the better,” said Galatea, and she spoke officially for almost everyone in the room.
“Very well, then,” I said, “but now he’s alive, and I’ll bet you want to know what he does next, and that’s because he’s got the secret that we’re all busting to find,” (195)
Does Dean Moriarty Neal Cassady have the secret? Doesn’t he?

Does he?

Ah, what is this life?

And what are we supposed to do with it?
Neal/Dean is a heroic figure in that he attempts to live a life beyond the time-bound compromises most of us make with life. But he’s also a sad and tragic figure in that this very same uncompromising stance ultimately leaves him abandoned. (Edington, The Beat Face of God, 100)
At the end of On the Road, Sal drives off with friends leaving Dean alone in the cold.

Conventional morality says: Choose between living for yourself and caring about others. Or try somehow to hew a balance between these opposites. Conventional morality is surely wrong. Living for yourself and caring about others are not opposites. The greatest gift that you can give this world is the gift of presenting to it who you truly are – your most real and authentic self, following no script, creatively present to each moment, ready to surprise and be surprised. And that very thing is also your own deepest desire.

I don’t know what to tell you about how to address the challenge presented to us in the figure of Dean Moriarity/Neal Cassady. After all, the point is that my guidance is beside the point. Don’t listen to the preachers – even if they dress in black and look scruffy. Listen to yourself.

Ironically maybe, listen to himself is what Dean Moriarty fails to do. Impulses pour out of him, but is he even aware of them at any point before he is in the middle of what they compel him to do? He doesn’t so much have impulses as the impulses have him. Is that freedom? Is that calmly greeting the tiger of fear with a steadfast “hello, tiger,” presence? Or, instead of fleeing from the tiger into conformity and conventional morality, does Dean merely flee the opposite direction into excess?

I believe that your true self emerges from neither repressing nor indulging. Attend to the impulses, the mad, wild desires. Don’t push them down or away; they are always offering you a teaching: listen carefully.

Listen always. Indulge sometimes.

Follow no formula, but a creative and loving and spontaneous wisdom.

This is no easy thing to do. It is the vaguely defined destination of my own life’s road trip, the "Further" to which I imagine my bus is headed, the damned good question I don’t understand. I do believe, though, that listening to what is going on in us requires cultivating a stillness and silence, so we can hear – and that’s something Dean Moriarty could never sit still long enough to do. Kerouac writes:
With frantic Dean I was rushing through the world without a chance to see it. (205)
Yeah, man.

Slow down.

Slow down and maybe then see what this life is.

And what to do with it? You could take it on the road every once in a while.


Remembering Jack Kerouac

From Jack Kerouac:

From On the Road:
The only people for me are the mad ones,
the ones who are mad to live,
mad to talk, mad to be saved,
desirous of everything at the same time,
the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing,
but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!"
From Visions of Cody:
It no longer makes me cry and die and tear myself to see her go because everything goes away from me like that now — girls, visions, anything, just in the same way and forever and I accept lostness forever. . . .
I'm writing this book because we're all going to die.
In the loneliness of my life, my father dead, my brother dead, my mother far away, my sister and my wife far away,
nothing here but my own tragic hands
that once were guarded by a world,
a sweet attention,
that now are left to guide and disappear their own way into the common dark of all our death,
sleeping in me raw bed, alone and stupid. . . .
At the junction of the state line of Colorado,
its arid western one,
and the state line of poor Utah
I saw in the clouds huge and massed above the fiery golden desert of eveningfall
the great image of God with forefinger pointed straight at me
through halos and rolls and gold folds
that were like the existence of the gleaming spear in His right hand,
and sayeth, Go thou across the ground;
go moan for man; go moan, go groan,
go groan alone go roll your bones, alone;
go thou and be little beneath my sight;
go thou, and be minute and as seed in the pod,
go thou, go thou, and die hence;
and of this world report you well and truly.
Here's Kerouac himself reading:

The final page of On the Road:
“D’you think I can ride to Fortieth Street with you?” he whispered.
“Want to be with you as much as possible, m’boy, and besides it’s so durned cold in this here New Yawk…”
I whispered to Remi.
No, he wouldn’t have it.
He liked me but he didn’t like my idiot friends. . . .

So Dean couldn’t ride uptown with us and the only thing I could do was sit in the back of the Cadillac and wave at him. . . .

Dean, ragged in a motheaten overcoat he brought specially for the freezing termperatures of the East, walked off alone,
and the last I saw of him he rounded the corner of Seventh Avenue,
eyes on the street ahead,
and bent to it again.
Poor little Laura, my baby, to whom I’d told everything about Dean, began almost to cry.
“Oh, we shouldn’t let him go like this. What’ll we do?”
Old Dean’s gone, I thought, and out loud I said: “He’ll be all right.”
And off we went to the sad and disinclined concert for which I had no stomach whatever
and all the time I was thinking of Dean
and how he got back on the train and rode over three thousand miles over that awful land
and never knew why he had come anyway, except to see me.
So in America when the sun goes down
and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey
and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast,
and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it,
and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry,
and tonight the stars’ll be out,
and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?
The evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie,
which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth,
darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in,
and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old,
I think of Dean Moriarty,
I even think of Old Dean Moriarty, the father we never found,
I think of Dean Moriarty.