Rev. Furrer preaches on Taoism’s Middle Way. With notes on the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin twenty-five years ago, the poetry of Robert Frost and Jack Kerouac, and Aristotle’s Golden Mean.
“Restoring Balance in Religious, Civic, and Personal Life”
Restoring Balance in Personal, Religious, and Civic Life: this idea of balance is an ancient, ancient ideal. It’s the Golden Mean of Greek philosophy, and it’s found in the writings of Aristotle and Plato; indeed, throughout Greek thought: “Moderation in All Things.”
Balance was a value not only in the West, but also in the East. The Middle Way of Taoism, sometimes also referred to as the watercourse way. Or as the Mean by Confucius. Indeed, the ideal of balance was one of the axial age notions that the Greeks shared with all the other ancient traditions–with the Vedic (Indian), and the Chinese. And with the Persians, too.
Now it’s easy to lose balance, to veer from the middle path, as all the ancient traditions carefully warn us. The Greeks warn about hubris. The Europeans: pride. But it’s not only Aeschylus and Milton; poets of our own day and age offer images of balance—and the return to balance—that we all do well to contemplate. Like Robert Frost’s “Birches.”
The fact is, people are stressed out and out of sorts. Perhaps this has always been so, but it’s clearly so today. My prescription: work, meditation, practice.
Most of us are doing none of this: instead, most of the time we’re running from one place to another; running to our jobs, to the childcare center, the grocery, the mall, back home. Work, childcare, grocery, home, one after another, to the next, and the next and the next after that.
And then there’s financial imbalance; income inequality is one warning sign, debt is another. But these are symptoms, not the cause of our financial imbalance. What’s the cause: the whole economy’s out of balance. My second cousin, Bill Hughes, recently retired after a successful forty-year career as a stockbroker. The last time I visited his San Fernando Valley home, we got to talking about this idea of our culture being out of balance. “Sure it’s out of balance” said Bill, “and I can tell you why. The whole economy is way too dependent on the defense industry. And it has been ever since the build-up to WWII starting in 1939.”
Which is true. Eighty straight years of budget increases. Amazing! With the collapse of the Berlin Wall many hoped that we’d finally enjoy a “peace dividend.” No such luck. Despite recent tax cuts, the Defense Department budget continues to grow year after year. President Trump claims he want to pull out of Afghanistan and Syria, but it remains to be seen whether he actually will. As it currently stands we now we have a national strategy of wars-without-end to keep the whole thing going.
It has been close to two decades now that Americans soldiers have been in Afghanistan. This has been good for anyone shrewd enough to have invested in Halliburton or Bechtel. (Well, not Bechtel, since that’s not a publicly traded company. One has to be invited (like former Treasury Secretary George Schultz) to buy into Bechtel–and I sure would be interested to see the list of who has received—and who has accepted—such invites. But I digress.) It’s not just Afghanistan. A burgeoning Defense Industry has become crucial to maintaining the balance of payments. Selling so many jets to the Saudis, or the Colombians, or any of the other Pentagon “client states” keeps the whole juggernaut careening along. It’s “good” for America’s balance (so-called) of payments.
Actually, it’s Orwellian. Feeding the War Machine—which is the definition of out of balance—to keep up the balance of payments. Such that today we have a twenty-two trillion dollar national debt and a six hundred billion dollar annual trade imbalance, or trade debt. Both of which mean, in simplest terms, that we’re way out of balance, guys. It’s been this way for a long time… and it’s getting worse.
There are other places on the globe that are worse. Life in the occupied Palestinian territories in the last fifteen years has been more and more and more out of balance. Compare this with the approach the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin—assassinated a quarter century ago by a fanatical right-wing Israeli. Yitzhak Rabin saw through the craziness of any and all retaliatory strategies. A great warrior in his youth, Rabin sought in his maturity the Middle Way, the way of peace. As did Martin Luther King before him. And Gandhi. Moral and ethical leaders of different faiths, but of one way: the Middle Way. Or consider Dwight D. Eisenhower, another courageous and highly decorated warrior who moved dramatically toward peace in his later years.
Seeking a balanced, middle way can be a dangerous strategy—especially in precarious times—because zealots on either side (like the ultra-orthodox fanatic who killed Rabin) hate the peacemakers even more than their so-called “enemies.” Staying alive, and keeping peace alive is not easy. You’ve got to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (as one great peacemaker put it. [Matt. 10:16]) You’ve got to keep your sense of humor. And remember, always
Meditation –take time to be a swinger of birches, daily—and
Practice. Practice refining your psychic balance, until you can go up that tree just right, the way kids do; walking along that curb or wall or embankment; playing in your heart and imagination some made-up game that, like Robert Frost, takes you up into the enchanted places wonder and faith…and then softly back to earth again. Complimenting the responsibilities of earthly life with sojourns of the heart and spirit: the Middle Path.
There’s a poetic quality to the Middle Way and those who espouse it—no matter how honest, straight shooting and integral—are often condemned. George Orwell and Albert Camus come to mind from the last century. Both caring and loving and imaginative souls, and both reviled by fanatics of the Left and the Right.
My thesis today: Only from a balanced, moral, heartfelt position can life matter. Perhaps the greatest practitioner of the Middle Way was Jesus. He was too sensitive, to wise, too open to fall onto one side or the other, or to condemn anyone to damnation. Jesus followed the Golden Mean. Upright and honest in personal behavior he nevertheless welcomed sinners, tax collectors and Pharisees alike to his table. Welfare mothers, Iraqis, aids patients, crackers, Hondurans, Merry Pranksters, Charismatic Christians, Zapatistas….
Many biblical scholars believe Judas “the Zealot” betrayed Jesus because Judas had thought of Jesus as a political revolutionary—which he was—who was going to take Jerusalem by force of arms—which he never would have done. When Jesus’ pacificism suddenly became obvious, Judas turned him over to the very reactionaries he sought to topple. In those days there were many enemies of the Golden Mean. Same as today.
Try following the Middle Way today and you’re laughed at. People tease you that you’re a Kerouacian Buddhist: But remember: Kerouac and his cohorts were On the Road. They were Bohemian, but they were seeking the Middle Path—certainly by Dharma Bums they were—and we could learn something from them. In contemporary American life, as Kerouac aptly depicted, Aristotle’s Golden Mean has been completely abandoned.
What’s respected, instead, is ideological purity. “Don’t talk to Nina Totenberg,” Rush Limbaugh told the freshmen GOP Congressmen in 1994; “She’s the enemy.” This vilification and demonization of those with whom you disagree is guaranteed to prevent finding the Golden Mean.
Plato contrasted two kinds of dialogue: eristics and dialectic. Sadly, most of our conversations are eristic and have to do with convincing those with whom we’re talking that we’re right, and that they should listen to us. Marxists vs. Capitalists, Christians vs. Muslims, East vs. West—it’s almost all eristics. Except for those rare moments when we quit defending our points of view and begin searching, together, for the truth: that’s dialectic. According to Plato and Socrates, dialectic is not only the path of truth, it’s also the Middle Path of reason and open-mindedness.
In religion, as in life, the ends never justify the means because the means the end. In the words of peace activist A.J. Muste, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.” The means in this case is the Golden Means. How we behave, how we treat one another, is what it’s about. Not whose ideology is the most correct, the most pure.
Trying to find the Middle Way—the place between the extremes of either side—is hard. The Hindus say it’s like walking a razor’s edge. The Prophet Jesus said as much when he said, “…the gate is narrow and the road hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” [Matt. 7:14]
In the end it’s clear to me that the Way of Balance is also the Way of Dialogue. One maintains balance by remaining in conversation with others. This, it seems to me, is the ultimate value of families, and of longtime friends: their capacity to speak straightly to one another and tell you clearly when you’ve lost it, or are all wet. My offbeat Aunt Fran—simply by talking with me and interacting with me lovingly—always helped her strung out nephew come back into balance and back down to earth; back in touch with people and places that nurtured me and also with sources of personal creativity within.
Maintaining a safe space for dialectic is also one of the principle values of religious communities. Unitarian Universalist communities especially—because of our broad intellectual diversity—can be powerfully healing places. Places where we can practice listening to divergent points of view and allow ourselves to truly consider them with open minds. Where we can actually listen to and touch one another. Where we can be in right relationship.
The way out of our current situation is not to destroy our adversaries but to reach out to them—that’s the Middle Way: to learn again how to listen to one another and how to engage in dialectic, not eristics. How to be in communication and not a shouting match—or worse yet, a shooting match.
The Middle, Golden Mean requires communication, but allows—very much encourages—personal reflection too. Yes, we need to talk lovingly with one another, and to hold one another in check when we’re loosing our balance. But we need also to escape for constant communication, need to be able to unplug, to be silent and meditative. To be “swingers of birches.” That is part of following the Middle Path, too. Being in touch with others. And being able to also follow one’s own heart and imagination—to meditate. And to work and to practice.
The Golden Mean of antiquity. And the path to wholeness today. Amen.