Saturdao 8

Dao De Jing, verse 5a
16 translations

1. James Legge (1891):
Heaven and earth do not act from (the impulse of) any wish to be
benevolent; they deal with all things as the dogs of grass are dealt
The sages do not act from (any wish to be) benevolent; they
deal with the people as the dogs of grass are dealt with.
2. Archie Bahm (1958):
Opposites are not sympathetic to each other.
Each one of the many kinds of opposites acts as if it could get along without its other.
But Nature treats opposites impartially, dealing with each of every pair of opposites with the same indifference.
And the intelligent man will regard opposites in the same manner.
3. Frank MacHoven (1962):
Nature is indifferent to life. It realizes everything is as a straw dog. The truly wise are also indifferent to life. They realize humanity is as a straw dog.
4. D. C. Lau (1963):
Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs;
the sage is ruthless, and treats the people as straw dogs.
5. Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English (1972):
Heaven and earth are ruthless;
They see the ten thousand things as dummies.
The wise are ruthless;
They see the people as dummies.
6. Stan Rosenthal (1984):
Nature acts without intent, so cannot be described
as acting with benevolence, nor malevolence to any thing.
In this respect, the Tao is just the same,
though in reality it should be said that nature follows the rule of Tao.
Therefore, even when he seems to act in manner kind or benevolent,
the sage is not acting with such intent, for in conscious matters such as these, he is amoral and indifferent.
7. Jacob Trapp (1987):
“Nature Seems Unkind”
Nature seems unkind,
As indifferent to its own offspring
As if they were but sacrificial straw dogs.
The Sage, too, seems unkind,
As impartial as Nature;
Yet, like Nature, he benefits all.
8. Stephen Mitchell (1988):
The Tao doesn't take sides;
it gives birth to both good and evil.
The Master doesn't take sides;
she welcomes both saints and sinners.
9. Victor Mair (1990):
Heaven and earth are inhumane;
they view the myriad creatures as straw dogs.
The sage is inhumane;
he views the common people as straw dogs.
10. Michael LaFargue (1992):
“Heaven and Earth are not Good
they treat the thousands of things like straw dogs.
The Wise Person is not Good
he treats the hundred clans like straw dogs.”
11. Peter Merel (1995):
Nature is not kind;
It treats all things impartially.
The Sage is not kind,
And treats all people impartially.
12. Ursula LeGuin (1997):
“Useful Emptiness”
Heaven and earth aren't humane.
To them the ten thousand things
are straw dogs.
Wise souls aren't humane.
To them the hundred families
are straw dogs.
13. Ron Hogan (2002):
Tao's neutral:
it doesn't worry about good or evil.
The Master's are neutral:
they treat everyone the same.
14. Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall (2003):
The heavens and earth are not partial to institutionalized morality.
They take things (wanwu) and treat them all as straw dogs.
Sages too are not partial to institutionalized morality.
They treat the common people as straw dogs.
15. Yasuhiko Genku Kimura (2004):
The Kosmos is not humane;
Impartially, it treats all things as transitory.
The sage is not humane;
Impartially, he treats all people as transitory.
16. Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo (2007):
Heaven and Earth are not kind:
The ten thousand things are straw dogs to them.
Sages are not kind:
People are straw dogs to them.

Eight of the 16 translations use the phrase "straw dogs." What are straw dogs anyway? Besides the title of a movie, I mean? ("Straw Dogs" is a 2011 movie with James Marsden and Kate Bosworth, which is a re-make of a 1971 movie with Dustin Hoffman and Susan George. A couple moves to a rural town and face increasingly vicious harassment from the locals. It's a psychological thriller.) In ancient China, straw dogs were ceremonial objects -- sacrificial animal-images. "These sacrificial objects are artifacts that are treated with great reverence during the sacrifice itself, and then after the ceremony, discarded to be trodden underfoot" (Ames and Hall). So when nature/reality/heaven and earth treats us as a "straw dog", are we talking about during the sacrifice itself or after? Interesting. If you find that life is treating you really well, it means you're about to be sacrificed. If life is trodding you underfoot, at least you know the sacrifice is over.

Lao Tsu begins by telling us what our parents and teachers so often repeated: Life isn't fair. Heaven and earth aren't kind. In particular, they are not "partial to institutional morality," -- which means the world isn't bound by your ideas of what's fair, or your ideas of right and wrong and good and bad.

Then Lao Tsu tells us that, if we are to be as the sages, then we, too, must treat people the same way. What does that mean? Kimura indicates this means treating them as transitory -- not getting attached to them, just as earth and sky don't appear to be attached to any particular individual. Others suggest this means treating people impartially, the same: "she welcomes both saints and sinners."

Virtue really must be its own reward. Nature won't treat you any better for it. Nor will the wise.

Likewise, it's not your job -- it isn't anybody's -- to praise and condemn, as if the world would want to change itself to accord with your judgment of what it should be.

* * *
See: Saturdao Index


A Merry Unitarian Christmas

Christmas is, after all, you know, our holiday. Unitarians made this season what it is.

Consider: what does Christmas mean? It means, of course, the mass of Christ, the celebration of the birth of a Palestinian prophet named Yeshua, or Jesus. But what exactly does that mean? Historians have no idea what time of year Yeshua was actually born. The early Christian church celebrated his birthday in April at first, and then in June for a while, before settling on a strategy of co-opting yule and solstice. The first December Christmas wasn't celebrated until around 380 CE.

In the last 200 years, Christmas has been radically transformed -- and Unitarians were at the forefront in most of the transforming.

Christmas now means we put a tree indoors, and we decorate it. It was a practice in Germany, brought to the United States in the early 1800s by Charles Follen.

Charles Follen was a Unitarian.

Christmas means dashing through the snow, one-horse open sleighs. It means bells that jingle, and it means laughing, all the way. That’s the song “Jingle Bells,” by the James Pierpont.

James Pierpont was a Unitarian.

Christmas means music. In addition to "Jingle Bells," other Christmas songs include "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "Watchman Tell Us of the Night," by John Bowring, and "Do You Hear What I Hear?" by Noel Regney.

Henry Wadsworth Longgellow, John Bowring, and Noel Regney were all Unitarians.

Additionally, "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," is by a Unitarian minister. More about that one later.

The instantly recognizable Ebenezeer Scrooge
Christmas means Old Ebenezeer Scrooge’s heart opens up to compassion and joy. Charles Dickens, in 1843, published A Christmas Carol, and Christmas has never been the same.

Charles Dickens was a Unitarian.

In Dickens' tale, Scrooge confronts his past, when as a young man, his need for money -- that is, we suppose, his need for security or status -- caused him to lose his fiancee, Belle. He is shown the present reality of joy in gatherings of families, whether they are poor like Bob Cratchit's or relatively well off like Scrooge's nephew Fred. Then he is brought to an awareness of his own impending death. It's not that Scrooge had explicitly believed himself immortal. It's just that he had pushed the fact that life is temporary out of his mind. In pushing away death, he had pushed away life, for the two are the same.

Dickens' novella received immediate popular and critical acclaim, and almost as immediately shifted the way that Victorians celebrated Christmas. Over the next years, Dickens received hundreds of letters from complete strangers
"writing all manner of letters about their homes and hearths, and how the Carol is read aloud there, and kept on a very little shelf by itself."
A Christmas Carol was regarded as a new gospel. Critics noted that the book was, in their experience, unique in that it actually made readers behave better.

A Christmas Carol remains the most widely read-aloud book. It is still theatrically performed in various venues around the country every year. It has been made into numerous movie versions. Other popular Christmas tales such as It's a Wonderful Life and How the Grinch Stole Christmas are but re-workings of Charles Dickens' Unitarian gospel. "According to historian Ronald Hutton, the current state of observance of Christmas is largely the result of a mid-Victorian revival of the holiday spearheaded by A Christmas Carol."

The Christmas gospel of generosity, gratitude, and the joy of family gathering is fundamentally Unitarian. The Christmas social gospel is also Unitarian.

Edmund Hamilton Sears
1810 - 1876
Christmas means the message of Peace on Earth, to all goodwill. In 1849, just a few years after Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, a Unitarian minister, Edmund Hamilton Sears, wrote the words to "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear." With the war in Europe and the US war with Mexico weighing on his mind, Rev. Sears wrote a carol that urges us to hear the angels sing of peace on earth, to all goodwill.

The Gospel of Luke tells of angels proclaiming Peace on Earth -- but for most of the history of Christendom, that has been taken as referring to a private, personal peace. Few imagined that peace on earth actually meant we should stop killing each other.

Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears, however, was at the vanguard of a movement to understand peace on earth in social, community terms – instead of merely a personal, private peace. He called us to task for not heeding the angelic call to peace.
"Beneath the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong,
and man at war with man hears not the love song which they bring,"
he decried.

His lyrics raised objections from a number of Christian conservatives of the time. Many people said, contemptuously, that Sears’ hymn was just the sort of thing you would expect of a Unitarian.

Yes, it is.

If Christmas season today is a time when our hopes turn to ending war and truly bringing peace on earth, it is because a Unitarian minister wrote a song inviting us to imagine the day:
"when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,
and the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing."
This is our holiday. From the Christmas tree, to the jingling bells, to the Scrooge story, to the message of peace on earth, Unitarians made Christmas what it is today.


Respond to WHOSE Love?


The living tradition we share draws on many sources. . . . [including:] Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbor as ourselves.


"God" is a difficult topic among Unitarian Universalists. Some of us resist any use of the word or concept. For others of us, God is a central part of our understanding and our life. Is this an ontological disagreement (involving competing claims about the nature of reality and what reality does and does not include)? Is it a semantic disagreement (involving competing claims about what words do and don't mean)? Or is it neither of these so much as a matter of identity and group loyalty?

Respond to Whose Love?

My Mom recently recounted to me a story from my childhood. I had no recollection of the incident or any previous retelling of it. It’s an anecdote that reveals something of my mind, and my mother’s. I was about five years old, and we were at a fair or carnival where there were helium balloons. I'd never seen such things before, and I was fascinated.

“Mom, why do they go up?” I asked – or so I’m told I did.

Mom, rational scientist that she was and is, answered, “Why wouldn’t they?”

“Things go down,” I said.

“Uh-huh,” said Mom. “Why do they go down?”

“Because of gravity,” I said.

“Ah,” she said. “Well, the balloon goes up because of levity.” And this satisfied me. What could I say?

When I heard Mom tell this story, it did not occur to me to think, “Egad, my mother lied to me!” After all, why not call it levity? Yes, it might imply a kind of Manichaean physics. (Manichaeans believe that good and evil are both substantive forces at war with each other, and in my five-year-old mind, maybe I had some inkling of a similar notion of there being two opposing physical forces named “gravity” and “levity.”) But I was also prepared to learn, had it ever come up again, that “levity” was the name for how, when something is less dense than air, gravity pulls the air down and under it, pushing the less dense object upward.

Mom wasn’t ready to explain all that – or, rather, she knew I wasn’t ready to follow such an explanation – so she me gave this word, “levity.” I delight in this new family story -- not because Mom’s answer was false, but because it’s so true. I had entirely forgotten it, but I love knowing again what apparently I first learned at age five: things go up because of levity.

The world is full of wonder. Just when I think that gravity makes everything go down, I discover that some things go up. Language is full of wonder, too. The words we select to express our experience give the experience meaning -- and sometimes delight.

The wonder of world and word comes to mind when I reflect on our text for today: the fourth source of the living tradition we share, "Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbor as ourselves." (See all of the seven principles and six sources: click here.)

“Respond to whose love?” I have heard asked. It’s a topic that calls for both gravity and levity, isn’t it?

Unitarian Universalists have different experiences of the world -- different from people in other faith traditions and different from each other. People have different stories to make sense of our world.
  • Some stories about reality feature a creative force that is person-like in that it knows and it wants.
  • Other stories tell of a creative force that kind of has beliefs and desires – in a rather metaphorical sense.
  • Still other stories depict the forces of the universe creating and destroying utterly without anything that could be compared to knowledge, intentionality, or purpose.
We have different senses of what’s out there. Of course we do. We’ve had different experiences, so how could we not? I want a world in which that is not a problem, don’t you?

Besides different feels for what does or does not exist out there, we have different feels for how words may reasonably be used. I was poking around for definitions of "God" and I discovered that a blog up in Rhode Island had quoted me about that. It said,
Meredith Garmon . . . once observed, “The word ‘God’ points to a source of beauty and mystery; a power inspiring gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; an ultimate context and basis for meaning and value; the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed; a basis of ethics.” (Rev. James Ford, click here.)
After some further rummaging, I confirmed that, yes, I actually had written that some months back. OK, I’ll take it.
  • Source of beauty and mystery; 
  • power inspiring gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; 
  • ultimate context and basis for meaning and value; 
  • widest reality to which our loyalty is owed; 
  • a basis of ethics. 
This is what people have pretty-much-always been referring to when they said ‘God’ – regardless of whether they thought that these qualities attached to a person-like creator or not. Others, though, insist that the word ‘God’ unavoidably implies a person-like creator.

I believe that theology is a kind of poetry, not a kind of science or natural history. As poetry-making and poetry-hearing beings we need to use words creatively, to sometimes treat a peripheral association as a central meaning and ignore the meaning that had often previously been central. I want a world in which that, too, is not a problem. Don’t you? Is this so hard? A world in which different experiences of what’s real are honored, in which different styles of poetry and metaphor are honored? Why is that hard?

Call it tribalism. Tribalism was named as an issue in the controversy around Rob Bell’s 2011 book Love Wins. Reverend Bell argued, as Universalists have been arguing for over 200 years, that there is no after-life hell of eternal damnation. A loving god would not condemn creatures of God’s own making to an eternity of agony. While many Christian readers were affirmed and moved by Rob Bell’s universalism, a number of other Christians attacked Bell (as their predecessors attacked John Murray and Hosea Ballou) as a heretic. One of Bell’s defenders -- in fact, the editor of Love Wins -- decried the attacks. He wrote:
“As a young evangelical, I was socialized to see the biggest threat to the church as theological liberalism. But now I think the biggest threat is Christian tribalism, where God’s interests are reduced to and measured by those sharing your history, tradition, and beliefs, and where one needs an ‘enemy’ in order for you to feel ‘right with God.’” (Mickey Maudlin, source click here)
There is an awful lot of religion that is neither about a sense of what’s out there, nor is about a sense of the proper use of words. It’s just about: whose team are you on?

Religion can become talismanic – a mere talisman. Consider for example a report from this week’s Christianity Today: “Americans love their Bibles. So much so that they keep them in pristine, unopened condition." Or, as Gallup and Castelli said in a widely quoted survey finding, “Americans revere the Bible but by and large they don’t read it.” Time magazine observed in a 2007 cover story that only half of U.S. adults could name one of the four Gospels. Fewer than half could identify Genesis as the Bible's first book. Jay Leno and Stephen Colbert have made sport of Americans' inability to name the Ten Commandments—even among members of Congress who have pushed to have them posted publicly. (Christianity Today, click here.)

Yet Bible sales continue at a brisk clip. For many, apparently, the Bible is a sort of talisman: an object to possess as a symbol of tribal loyalty, not a text to study and understand. In a similar way, tribal loyalties get in the way of honoring and respecting different experiences about what is real, and different poetic inclinations for choosing words. We have a hard time simply accepting our differences when those differences symbolize what team you’re on – and when team membership requires being opposed to certain other teams.

Tribalism isn’t always bad. Recall that religion fundamentally is about three things:
  1. It’s about how you live -- the ethics and values that guide your life.
  2. It’s about community -- who you choose to come together with and share in rituals that strengthen your sense of group connection.
  3. It's about those moments of transcendence, one-ness, or mystery.
The task of faith and faith community is to bring those three functions together in such a way that each one supports, encourages, and strengthens the other two. Community is, indeed, an important part of religion. Being a part of a tribe can be a good and healthy part of the deal. We are social beings: we need community, and loyalty to our group is, by and large, a virtue.

The problem arises when the #2 function isn't facilitating either the #1 function or the #3 function -- that is, when one's tribal connection neither affirms and supports any ethic or value other than tribe loyalty, nor facilitates or helps integrate one's transcendent experiences of interconnection and peace. If the primary function of my community is to nurse a shared sense of who the enemy is, then my community isn’t healthy. People who want to post the ten commandments but don't know more than a couple of those commandments, are using the issue as a test to identify who their enemies are.

What about our own Unitarian Universalist forms of tribalism?

It's worth noting that where there are no tribal loyalties at play, we humans are generally pretty flexible about adjusting our understandings of words. For example, one of my former in-laws referred to her refrigerator as "the Frigidaire." She would say, for example, “There’s cake in the Frigidaire.” A glance at the manufacturer’s label revealed that her refrigerator was actually made by Amana. But even at my most churlish, teen-aged self, I was not inclined to say, “No, it’s not in the Frigidaire, it’s in the refrigerator, which happens to be an Amana.” Would you say that? Me neither.

We simply adjust to different ways of using words. Longfellow says, “By the shores of Gitche Gumee,” and most of us can go with that, without the annoyed feeling, "If he meant Lake Superior he should have said 'Lake Superior.'"

Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky tells us:
Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe,
all mimsy were the borogoves, and ye mome raths outgrabe.
Many of the words are made-up. You can call the poem “nonsense,” but it isn't meaningless. The sound and rhythm and context they create for each other invite us into a world of imagination, and most of us can go with that.

Tribalism, however, makes it difficult to extend the same flexibility and charity to language about God. To see how this works, consider the ways that some of us find our genial adaptability beginning to stiffen dogmatically when it comes to grammar. Attitudes about grammar illustrate how attitudes about "God" work.

For example, take me (. . . please!) I am sensitive to the difference between “lie” and “lay,” and I am capable of wishing that other people were, too. I have my pet list of words not to be used as verbs. Loan is not a verb, I say. Neither are impact, mandate, or critique. These words are nouns! The perfectly good verb forms are lend, affect, require, and criticize. Even more hideous: transition. Transition is not a verb.

You might remember a Calvin and Hobbes comic in which Calvin uses verb as a verb.

I have mellowed out a bit through the years. I actually rather like the Southern expression, might could, as in, “We might could do that.” I know that grates on some ears, but isn’t it more elegant than “might be able to”?

When LoraKim and I were first dating, I was a bit of an insufferable grammar dogmatist. I think that if I had corrected her one more time after she said "with you and I," the engagement would have been off. We Grammar Nazis like to make protestations about preserving the language, facilitating clarity of thought, and guarding against language so decaying that it becomes an impediment to understanding. Those protestations are hollow. What it's really about is loyalty: tribal -- or, more precisely, class -- loyalty.

It would seem a betrayal of our grandmothers or parents or beloved English teachers if we were to allow ourselves to relax the guard against the barbarians at the gate saying “got” when they should say “have.” Those adults we admire were the upholders of our class identity. The adults who sought to instill in me good grammar were teaching me to be faithful to my socio-economic class. The hidden message of prescriptive grammar instruction is: Don’t sound like those people – the lower classes. Grammar will be emotionally important to me precisely to the degree that my class identification is emotionally important to me – the degree that I desire to preserve privilege and separation between the other and me.

I'm talking about separation between the other and me. But if it will help close that separation, then I will say, "between the other and I." Hurts a little bit.  But I can learn. If it will help me connect with others, then I will (gulp) transition to the next phase. Any noun you might could verb, go ahead. And if I don’t know what you mean, I’ll ask. It’s not like speakers of upper-class English are really, on average, a whole lot clearer.

Tribal – or class – loyalty might make us balk at some language, but we noticed that when loyalty isn’t at play, as when reading Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, it’s relatively easy to practice the gentle arts of flexibility and charity.

I’ve come to understand that whether or not I want to insist that “God” necessarily must imply an entity with awareness and intentions is mostly about my tribal loyalty, just as my grammar pet peeves are. Can we Unitarian Universalists engage in a process we identify as discerning what God is calling us to do? Can we have conversations about the question, "How do we serve God?" Yes, we can. In talking about serving God, we would be talking about serving life, and good, and the flourishing of all beings, while also reminding ourselves of the finitude and corrigibility of our own conceptions of life, good, and flourishing – which is just what I think Jews, Christians, and Moslems are talking about when they speak of serving God.

When we say, with our fourth source, that we are called to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbor as our selves, we are saying that the moments when we have felt the greatest belonging and connection inspire us to want to help our neighbors also feel connected and know they belong – which is what I think it truly means to respond to God’s love, whether or not God is conceived of as a person-like entity.

This was once hard for me to say. I was the proud "Class Atheist" at my rural Georgia public school from fourth grade through high school. To change my language seemed like a betrayal of my standards, which, of course, really meant a betrayal of my tribe: us rationalist humanists standing courageously intolerant of the language used by certain people whom we accused of intolerance.

My journey slowly and unevenly brought me to a place where I could see connecting with others as more important than separating myself from them. If they -- if even, say, you -- talk to me about your faith in God, and if you do so with certain phrases that trigger in me remembrance of enemies past, if you use religious words that conjure the battle lines in culture wars in which I have fought for much of my life, please give me just a moment, and I will dismantle my trigger. I will. That's my promise. There might be some days where it takes me a minute to remember myself, but give me that moment, and I am committed to disarming that particular reactivity in myself. I make that commitment because . . .

. . . because if I have a chance to connect with you, whoever you are, then connecting with you is more important than separating myself from you;

. . . because I know that if you and I have each felt mystery, wonder, and beauty come together with peace, compassion, and the softening of ego defenses; if we have opened our hearts to love; then we have a shared commonality that transcends both your dogmatic opinions about God and my dogmatic opinions about how wrong your dogmatic opinions are;

. . . and because that shared commonality matters more than maintaining my tribal identity.

It turns out that I can still oppose mandatory school prayer, support mandatory inclusion of evolution, favor reproductive rights, legal recognition of same-sex marriage, abolition of the death penalty, and public programs to take care of all our people -- and talk about God. I can talk about the impetus of the universe as God’s call for us to improve our understanding, respect our differences, serve life and freedom, and share God’s “preferential option for the poor.” Willing to employ "God talk" judiciously, I can be more effective than I ever could by a fastidious refusal to invoke the one word that, more clearly than any other, conveys a sense of spacious mystery tugging us toward the better angels of our nature.

I find my wholeness and healing growing the more I perform the imaginative exercise of pretending that the world might be whispering to me, calling, inviting me to love if I but listen, listen. Listen: it is God’s love calling me to respond by loving myself and my neighbor as my self. It is God’s love lifting me up . . . as levity lifts a child's balloon.

May it be so. May it be so for all of us.