The Rabbit in the Road

When I went to get the paper this morning at our rural mailbox, I saw a crow picking away at a dead animal in the road near our neighbor’s driveway. It looked like a cat, but when I walked over, it turned about to be a rabbit, a large rabbit. I felt sorry for the rabbit and also for the crow whom I had driven away by my presence. But the crow would be back. The rabbit wasn’t going anywhere–except as it was ingested into the crow.

This led to me reflect: what is the value of a dead rabbit in the road? I was reminded of some of the thinking of Holmes Rolston, III on the value of life in his Environmental Ethics, and also of some ideas I had written in my two books.

I think that a live rabbit has value in and of itself, and it affirms its own value as it tries to live. This is the value of life. And it is the value of a particular creature that represents of legacy of evolution that goes back to the beginning of the universe. The rabbit, while alive, was in developed form some of the energy-matter from the “big bang.” this is true of all living forms including us. The rabbit also was a legacy of DNA evolution that over time on earth produced this particular rabbit. And the rabbit was a child of two other rabbits whose recombined DNA made this particular rabbit. All this was what I thought of when I considered the value of that rabbit’s life. It also is what I think about when I consider the value of my own life.

But now the rabbit was dead. Does it have any value? It certainly has value for the crow–the value of food that now helps support the life of the crow, who is affirming its own life by eating the rabbit. The crow is another manifestation of the energy-matter that had evolved throughout the history of the universe, another creature that had value in its own right–historical life value.

All things are here today as a result of their having come forth from the “big bang” through processes of evolution. All things are related to each other through that same process. Now dead, the rabbit is related to the crow as sustenance for the crow. It has what Rolston calls “life support value.” Certainly it is significant to support the value of another creature. This is a way that the rabbit was valuable even in death, in fact, only because it was dead.

So we all live and die, and we all have value in and of ourselves as results of the evolutionary creativity of the universe. And we all have value as we support the lives of others, as we care and nurture others through our living and, when we die, as our molecules and atoms continue to support the lives of others. My father used to say: “we are dust and food for worms” (paraphrasing Percy and Prince Henry in Shakespeare’s King Henry the IV). When I heard this, I understood my father to be simply stating a fact–the way life goes to death to support more life. In this dance of life and death, all beings, including rabbits and humans, have value when we die, because through death we become part of ongoing life.

Revitalizing America

This is a sermon I gave at the Unitarian Society of Hartford on February 15, 2009.  Even though President Obama has not been able to fulfill the vision he brought to us after his inauguration, I still believe that the vision is what is required of us today.


Good morning! I would like to dedicate this sermon to two wonderful girls—Amelia Anne Davis, age 4 1⁄2, and Nora Beth Davis, age 3. With these granddaughters I have experienced the wonder of children growing and developing in the first years of life. They, and children like them, are our future.

One and a half years ago I was working hard to complete my book on Spiritual Transformations. The book focused mostly on the spiritual transformations we undergo as individuals during our lives. I also wanted to write a chapter on societies—a chapter called “Societal Revitalization.” However, I was unable to put this chapter together, and the book was published last summer without the societal transformation chapter.

Since then things have happened in my mind and in our country that prompt me to try this again. Today I am going to suggest that there now is an opportunity for a spiritual transformation of America. My remarks will reflect our minister BJ’s image of the three legged stool: science, spirituality, and service. Grounded in some of the sciences, and rooted in spirituality, we are and can engage in service that helps revitalize our nation.

Because revitalizing America involves a kind of spiritual transformation, let’s begin by exploring what spiritual transformations are. In my book I suggest that a spiritual transformation is a fundamental change in our individual identity. This, first, consists of how we understand ourselves in relation to other people and our world. Second, it consists of changes in the basic values by which we live. And it also consists in living from what I call “our sacred center,” what BJ in her sermon two weeks ago called having a “beginners mind.” Using the curiosity of this state we are able to step away from our selves, much as BJ showed a larger doll calmly surveying the sensations, thoughts, and feelings of its smaller self. As we practice stepping away or up into this balcony viewpoint, we also are able to take in the behaviors, feelings and thoughts of others. We are able to experience what is really happening in the world around us. Our hearts expand as our awareness and perspective expand, and we experience a state I call “listening love.” With this ever evolving listening love, we attend to our own inner lives and the lives of others with curiosity, clarity, compassion, calmness, and creativity. When we are in this state, we are in the core of our being, in a state of spirituality. Spiritual transformations are those changes in our identity that help us to realize more and more this state of listening love as we go through our lives.

1There are many things that can help us more fully realize our sacred centers, our living with listening love. Worship services can move us to internally re-experience aspects of our lives, and so can more individual practices of prayer and meditation. I find that small-group ministry meetings help, because of their emphasis on listening without judging. And last month I discovered a practice that for me is quite effective. I call it “one breath at a time.”

At one of our worship services last month I came away with a couple of ideas floating in my mind. One was breathing. The other was the image that sometimes our lives are like riding dangerous rapids in a swiftly flowing river, while at other times our lives are like resting in calm waters. As I left our church I felt like I was in the rapids. My life was hectic as I was responding to some family crises and at the same time trying to meet some public speaking deadlines. Outside I walked to my car saying to myself: “One day at a time, Karl.” But that didn’t do it. So I tried “One moment at a time?” No. Not quite. And then I thought “one breath at a time.” As I walked to my car, I started saying to myself, “One breath at a time—with each breath. One breath at a time.” I became aware of each breath as I walked. Suddenly in the rapids of my life I was in a state of calm, fully aware of the present—and enjoying what was happening around me—even as I was on my way to a difficult meeting.

Being in the rapids comes about in many ways. Sometimes a health crisis; sometimes the loss of a job; sometimes getting ourselves overcommitted; any number of things can threaten to overwhelm us, and increase uncertainty, anxiety, and stress. At the same time these crises can also provide opportunities to become transformed spiritually, so that we emerge with new self-understandings, new ways of living, and greater maturity.

Can the kind of transformation that happens to us as individuals also happen to an entire society? Even a large-scale, complex society such as our American society today? One way of looking at societal spiritual transformations is with a model provided by anthropologist Anthony Wallace. In the 1950’s Wallace and one of his graduate students Sheila Stein studied data about transformative change in societies around the world. Stein suggested that they be called revitalization movements. Such movements may be religious but they also can be secular and political. Whether religious or secular, they exhibit a similar pattern. Wallace writes that a revitalization movement is “a deliberate, organized effort by [somel members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture,” centered in a sacred message enunciated by a prophet or maximum leader. The message states what is wrong with the society now, what it should be like in the future, and how to get from now to utopia.”i

Let’s take a look at our society today and ask if we are in the midst of a revitalization movement that has the potential to bring about a change in the basic identity of who we Americans are, a change in our core values.

For years now I have been hearing some anthropologists say that we may be in the midst of a revitalization movement. If we ask how we know this and what is wrong now, we can say that a storm of crises has been coming across the horizons of our lives: global climate change, extinction of species, ongoing war around the world, terrorism, violence in our cities, economic injustice, and political instability. The river of change in our lives has been growing more and more turbulent. Now with our current


economic depression, we as a nation and world are in rapids that are beginning to overwhelm many and increase the level of stress on those who still manage.

Moreover, we are in a crisis of values—a crisis of American identity, of who we are as a nation. According to political scientist Andrew Bacevich, it is a crisis of how we understand our American heritage of freedom. In his book The Limits of Power, which came out last year, Bacevich writes: “Today, no less that in 1776, a passion for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness remains at the center of American civic theology. . . . Yet . . . Americans . . . have, over time, radically revised their understanding of those ‘inalienable rights’. Today, many Americans use their freedom to do many worthy things” creating and appreciating the arts, building and preserving, and “in commendably large numbers attend[ing] to the needs of the less fortunate. . . . Yet [Basevich continues] none of these in themselves define what it means to be an American in the twenty-first century.

He writes, “If one were to choose a single word to characterize that identity, it would have to be more. [Although many resist this,] for the majority of contemporary Americans,” he says, “the essence of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness centers on the personal quest to acquire, to consume, to indulge, and to shed whatever constraints might interfere with those endeavors. . . . The ethic of self-gratification has firmly entrenched itself as the defining feature of the American way of life.”ii

In his book Bacevich develops the thesis that the continual demand for more has driven us to expand our attempts to dominate the world. Ironically, at the same time we are actually becoming more and more dependent on other countries to satisfy our needs. Bacevich calls us to step back, look at ourselves with a clear mind, and recognize how we have distorted our precious value of freedom.

While many are indulging themselves in freedom as more, others in society are suffering. Among those suffering the most are families in the inner cities of our country—often single parents—trying to raise children. The environment of these children is often impoverished and stressful—with long-term consequences that affect these children all their lives.

To understand this we need to know that, according to a “Science-Based Framework for Early Childhood Policy,” published in 2007 by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, the first three years are critical for human brain development. Early brain development in children is the result of the interaction between genes and experience. “Genes determine when specific brain circuits are formed and experiences shape their formation.” If the environment is continuously stressful, a child’s brain will not develop properly. Some stress is helpful for healthy brain development, especially in a nurturing environment. However, if in early childhood there is “strong and prolonged activation of the body’s stress response, and if there is no buffering protection of adult support,” and especially if children are abused and neglected, a child can suffer a “lifetime of greater susceptibility to physical illness . . . as well as mental health problems (such as depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse).”iii This results in considerable cost for society as it tries to respond through remedial education, health care, and the criminal justice system to the results of poor brain development in the first three years.


Most recently, while it is not the only cause of the current economic crisis, the underlying attitude of freedom as the license to acquire so as to outstrip the workings of the financial system, is a major reason why we now are in the turbulent rapids of change. All of us are in the rapids, but perhaps those most affected by the stress of turbulent times are those at the very beginning of life. If healthy brain development is hindered, opportunities for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can be greatly diminished. From the revitalization perspective this is one way of seeing what is wrong with our society now.

A second aspect of a revitalization movement is the emergence of a leader who has the vision and effectiveness to attract and guide the hearts and minds of a significant number of people in a society. Wallace calls such a person a charismatic leader, a maximum leader who heads the process of revitalization. Of course, in a complex society like ours, such a leader cannot act alone. He or she requires the assistance of many others who share the vision and can help implement it.

It is reasonable, I think, to see President Barack Obama as such a leader. Every time I have seen him on television, he impresses me as a person who is calm, compassionate, clear, creative and completely there. He is humble, able to make fun of himself. He seems to be fully present as he listens to others. He seems to be “awake,” as a Buddhist might say, someone who is in what I call a “sacred center.”

I think that from this state Obama offers a vision of the new society, of what America can become, a new vision that reaffirms old values as is often done in revitalization movements. His entire inaugural address fits Wallace’s pattern for revitalization: a charismatic, maximum leader outlines our problems and presents a vision of the future and how to get there. The vision is one that reaffirms traditional values: “The time has come,” Obama says, “to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” Later he says: “Our challenges may be new . . ., but those values upon which our success depends— honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism—these things are old. These things are true. . . . What is demanded . . . is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility—a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world. . . . This is the price and the promise of citizenship. . . . This is the meaning of our liberty. . . .”iv

With such words Obama calls our nation to be revitalized—spiritually transformed—from following a selfish idea of freedom, of always getting more for ourselves, to following the vision of shared freedom in community that involves living in service to others and thus rebuilding our nation and world.

These words of our new President ring true to me. They ring true because they articulate what I have experienced us doing here at the Unitarian Society of Hartford. As BJ has put it with her image of the three legged stool: grounded in science and rooted in spirituality, we live in service to others in the wider community. Some of us work for racial justice, some support marriage equality regardless of sexual preference, some promote sound environmental living, some help educate the children in our


community, some lobby the government for universal health care, some seek fair access for the disabled, some join in internet activities to ban torture. Together with a variety of individual and small group efforts, we are carrying forth, as our President says, that great gift of freedom and delivering it to future generations.

I wonder, however, if we are doing enough for the next generation that is just starting life, for those in the first three years of life. As I said above, a continuously stressful environment can impair brain development and result in a lifetime of physical and mental problems—with great cost to society. As a result of what science is telling us about this critical phase of a human life, in January of 2008, Governor Jodi Rell called an early childhood summit. According to the Hartford Courant, Rell said, “Every child gets one chance at their first 1,000 days. We don’t want to squander that.”v

Two weeks ago, at the dedication of Caleb Maloney-Hastillo, Gail Syring presented these words: “Every child needs to be received by and held in loving arms; to be given basic care: food, clothes, shelter and protection. Each child needs nurturing; to be loved abundantly and creatively. Each child needs structure and discipline; to be surrounded by mature adults who understand how to challenge and support them as they mature.” As I remember the dedication of Caleb, his loving parents and God-parents, and our community commitment to him, and as I remember my grandchildren Amelia and Nora, I wonder if, in addition to all the others things we do, we can also find ways to support the youngest children and their struggling parents in our wider community during this time of turbulent change.

Today, as individuals and as a nation, we are riding the rapids into the future. Taking one breath at a time, in the stillness of our sacred centers, let us step back and look at ourselves with clear minds and listening love. Let us examine our own values. And let us discover what we can do—each in our own way in our own sphere of influence—to join with others to revitalize America. And with other people of other lands and cultures—let us build a better world of love, peace, freedom, and justice for all.

i Anthony F. C. Wallace, “Recurrent Patterns in Social Movements,” CC/ART HUMAN, (26): 18‐18 DEC 17 1990. The general description of the type was published in the American Anthropologist paper in 1956

ii Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (New York: Henry Holt, 2008), pp. 15‐16.

iii “A Science‐Based Framework for Early Childhood Policy.” Cambridge, Mass.: Center on the Developing Child, National Forum on Early Childhood Program Evaluation, and National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2007, p. 9.

iv “Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address” Transcript, New York Times Online, January 20, 2009.

v Arielle Levin Becker. “Pediatrician: Life’s Tracks Set by Age 3: Early Child Care’s Importance Stressed.” The Hartford Courant (January 16, 2008).‐ ctwired0116.artjan16,0,4930379.story.


Spirituality and Social Action

The following sermon, from ten years ago, still represents my thinking today.  It contains an interesting definition of spirituality that includes both feelings and behaviors.  It draws on a general evolutionary framework.  And I think it shows how spirituality can contribute to social action.  Comments are welcome.


Karl E. Peters

Unitarian Society of Hartford

August 26, 2001

A few months ago a friend and I were having lunch and talking about our church and Unitarian Universalism.  We noted the increasing interest in spirituality.  My friend said that some people who were interested in social action were concerned about this.  That got us into a discussion of whether spirituality and social action were opposed to one another.  Some people seem to think they are.  But we wondered if that has to be the case.  Instead of either spirituality or social action, could we have both spirituality and social action?  We thought the both-and was possible.

That lunch discussion is the basis for my talk today.  For the past two months I’ve been thinking about what kind of spirituality might be harmonious with and supportive of social action.  This morning I want to share with you my first attempt.  I don’t claim to have any final word, but only want to suggest some things for us to think about together.  Afterwards, I hope you will give me feedback.

Let me begin by offering some ideas about what spirituality and social action are.  Spirituality is a fuzzy idea at best, but a common element in most kinds of spirituality is “connectedness.”  To be spiritual means to be connected with a reality greater than ourselves.

This connectedness can take many forms.  It may be to deeper aspects of our individual selves.  It may be an interconnectedness with other humans in a common cause.  It may be a sense of ourselves as part of the interdependent web of life.  It may be the ongoing realization that we have come out of the stars and are a part of the greater, evolving universe.  It may be the intuition that we are connected to other realms of existence with greater powers or an ultimate creator and sustainer of all that is.

All these ways of being connected take us beyond our individual selves to find meaning for our lives in some greater reality.  This may not be all there is to spirituality, but connectedness to something other than ourselves seems to be an important aspect of spirituality.

Social action can mean any action that is intended to help others realize greater good in their lives.  One way to talk about this is to say that it is good for all people to flourish by developing their own potentials.  In order for anyone to flourish, they must be able to meet basic needs for food and shelter.  They must be in good health.  They must have access to education or training that will help them develop their potentials.  And they must have the opportunities to express the potentials they have.

Injustice occurs when some flourish and others do not—especially when some flourish at the expense of others.  Social action seeks to remedy injustice, so that all people can fulfill their potentials, both now and in the future.  Furthermore, for many, social action means changing some of our human ways of living, so that all creatures on earth—nonhuman as well as human—can fulfill whatever potentials they have for living.

The basic idea is one of fairness.  If I can fulfill my potentials as a human being, everyone should have the same opportunities that I do.  I should not be in a privileged place in society—able to realize my life ambitions while others cannot.

This morning I’m not going to deal with specific instances of injustice.  However, when I hear about injustice or read about it in the newspaper, I ask myself, what would motivate me to get involved?  What would encourage me to reach out beyond my own private world to work with others for the good of others?  Is there a kind of spirituality that will prompt me to become involved in some kind of social action for the well being of others, so that others can fulfill their potentials even as I fulfill mine?  I call this the problem of moral motivation.  What motivates human beings to act for the good of others?

For me, a first step as addressing the problem of moral motivation is to set my thinking in an evolutionary framework.  This is the framework I’ve been developing in my thirty-five years of working on issues in science and religion.  For me, evolution offers me many helpful suggestions for thinking about myself and the meaning of my life.  I would like to share three of these with you now.  I’ll call them lessons:  the lesson of interconnectedness, the lesson of creative transformation, and the lesson of human moral ambivalence.

The first lesson is that our lives are set in a cosmic context in which everything is interconnected.  As our responsive reading suggests, we have come out of the stars.  In our bodies is the energy that that was present at the origin of the universe, and the atoms that were created in the death throws of stars exploding as supernovae.  We also have evolved on planet earth, as a species whose DNA is mostly continuous with that of other primates and to some extent with all species of life on our planet.  Our own being is intimately connected with all that has evolved.  We don’t have to work at being interconnected.  We only have to realize that we already are interconnected with other human beings, with all of life, and with the rest of the universe.

The second lesson from studying evolution is about Creative Transformation–the creative process by which things evolved.  Our hymn this morning used the metaphor, “O Life that Maketh all things new.”  When one looks at the history of the universe, of life on this planet, and of human societies, one realizes that our world has evolved through a process of transformation in which things are combined and recombined to form what is new.  This is true even in our own lives.  We are constantly, like it or not, being transformed as we daily interact with our world and with other human beings.  To recognize this is for me the basis for a kind of spirituality—what I call the Spirituality of Creative Transformation.  In a few minutes I’ll spell out in more detail what this means in relation to the problem of moral motivation, to why I should become involved in social action.

For now, I want to focus on the third lesson I have learned from studying evolution.  It is that we humans have evolved to be morally ambivalent.  We have the biologically evolved predispositions to be both moral and immoral, for example, to be both selfish and altruistic, to neglect the well being of others and to care for the well being of others.

I first came to realize this ambivalence when I read a book by science writer Robert Wright, The Moral Animal:  Why We Are the Way We Are, the New Science of Evolutionary Psychology.  Now, a lot of people in human history have recognized that we are morally ambivalent creatures.  What evolutionary psychologists add is that we have evolved to have ambivalent emotions and behavior because they help us survive and reproduce.  That is, they are adaptive.  Wright shows that emotions such as anger, jealousy, and envy have evolved because they offer some adaptive advantage, some increased chance for relative reproductive success.  So too have inclinations for love, patience, faithfulness, and peacemaking.  Depending on circumstances, all these emotions and their related behaviors are biologically adaptive.  However, we regard some as moral and others as immoral.  This is what I mean when I say they are morally ambivalent.

Another way to talk about our morally ambivalent nature is to say that we have tendencies to be self-protective to the point of withdrawing from society and we have tendencies to want to care for others, which take us out into society to work with others for their well being.  Two emotions related to these tendencies are the emotion of fear, especially the fear of strangers, and the emotion of empathy, especially empathy for those who are suffering.  We have evolved to have both of these for good reason.  Both are adaptive.  And they often work together:  I find within myself that, when the suffering of others connects with my feeling of empathy and urges me to help others, almost at the same time the fear of strangers kicks in to pull me back from becoming involved in social action.

Sometimes our self-protective feelings can feed a kind of individualistic spirituality that leads to withdrawal from being actively involved in the world.  It can feed a turning within to uncover a deeper self.  Or it can move some to seek special religious experiences in which they find their own self-affirmation because they are affirmed by some higher power or by a personal, loving God.  There is nothing wrong with such spirituality.  Many people need and benefit from it.  Perhaps all of us need this kind of protective spirituality at some time or other.  However, as helpful as it may be personality, privately, it is not the kind of spirituality that would move me to social action.

So what kind of spirituality would?   I think it would be a spirituality that is grounded in the second lesson of evolution mentioned above—a Spirituality of Creative Transformation.

A part of my own religious journey involves my coming to think of God (or the Divine or Sacred) not as a being who creates the world but as an ongoing process of creative transformation within the world.  For me the Sacred is an activity, and the word God is more like a verb than a noun.

One way I think about this creative activity is in terms of Darwin’s theory of evolution:  on the one hand interactions within organisms, and between them and the wider world, produce new genetic variations.  Some of these variations are harmful and are not reproduced.  Others are benign and are simply carried forward from one generation to the next.  Still others are advantageous, making an individual more effective at taking care of itself and reproducing.  This Darwinian process is called random variation and natural selection.

Some thinkers apply this idea of variation and selection to the world of human thought.  Philosopher of Science Karl Popper has written a book called Conjectures and Refutations.  Popper suggests that new knowledge comes when thinking engages in a two-part process.  For example, in trying to solve a problem we first make a number of conjectures as possible solutions.  Then we begin weeding out those conjectures that don’t work to solve the problem.  We keep conjecturing and refuting until we find a solution that works.

I suggest that you observe yourself thinking and ask if this is not how it goes.  To me it seems like a dance—trying new things, selecting some of the tries—trying other new things—selecting some of those.  And so on.  Life and thought moves on creatively as a trial and error process, seeking to try ever-new genetic modifications, ever-new ways of thinking.  This creative process is what I think of as Sacred or Holy.  It is that which continuously transforms the universe, life, and ourselves.  It is the process that has brought us out of the stars, up from the seas, with the capacities to think and to love.  It is the Life that continually makes all things new.

Another way of talking about creative transformation as a two-part process is illustrated by biologist Charles Birch and theologian John Cobb, Jr. in their book Liberation of Life, pp. 180-182.  They give the example of the creative transformation of a young graduate student.

“A brilliant young graduate student had almost completed his doctoral thesis after four years of intensive study and research.  During this time he had devoted his efforts . . . to exploring the nature of the nervous system and particularly the brain in higher mammals . . . .  He was fascinated.  A whole new world of biology was opening up before his eyes.  Furthermore, his studies had a significance that extended far beyond the nervous system.  He was prying into the nature of life itself . . . .

“While he was still writing his thesis an opportunity came for him to present his work before an international conference of Neurophysiologists in the capital city of a large developing country.  There for the first time in his life he was confronted with abject poverty, starvation, political oppression and torture—the whole works, as he described it.  And all this alongside Western style affluence.  He was shattered.  What was he to do?   The following possibilities occurred to him.  He could return to his laboratory in the United States, complete his thesis and continue doing much the same experimental work . . . .  He could make his new found concern for the poor and oppressed a major concern that would change the whole direction of his life.  To give up neurophysiology and join the Peace Corps would be a head-on attack . . . .

“A third possibility was to accept the new insight and take it seriously without rejecting all that he had come to value in a scientific career.

“His growing concern for a world outside the laboratory led him to rapidly complete his thesis.  He got a post-doctoral grant to continue his studies on the nervous system.  His university authorities agreed to his request that he spend half his time only on research in neurophysiology.  The other half of his time he intended to spend on learning about the wider world in which science and technology operated.  This meant studying in a neighboring university where he could learn more about economics, politics, and also philosophy and theology . . . .  All this of course reduced his chances of an early job in his chosen field.  Others would gain a march on him while he broadened his understanding of life.  That was a real sacrifice but he was willing to pay it.  He trusted his intuitions that life was more that professional expertise and advancement.  That is where he is now.”

Birch and Cobb go on to say:  “In this example the contrast of the new insight with the old understanding was the occasion for the widening and deepening of our student’s thought.  A way of thinking emerged which assimilated the new through the transformation, and not the rejection of the old.  It is this third possibility that appropriately embodies the working of Life.  To trust Life is to allow the challenging and threatening elements in our world to share in constituting our experience.  It is to believe that they can enter into a creative interchange with what our past experience brings into the situation.  It is to trust that the outcome of allowing the tension of the old and the new to be felt can be a creative synthesis which cannot be predetermined or planned.”

What Birch and Cobb say about trusting life as the process of creative transformation really speaks to me.  I agree with them that it is a way of talking about what is Sacred or Holy, about God.  But creative transformation also really scares me.  That one’s life could be so radically changed by interacting with strange situations, by being open to the new and being willing to change the old.  Yet, in the midst of my fear, I also recognize this as the way I can grow.

There are two kinds of growth.  One is to develop along the same lines we have always been developing, to get better at doing some things in the same kind of situation.  Such growth helps develop particular potentials we have already discovered inside ourselves.  The second kind of growth is the discovery of new potentials for living—potentials we were not previously aware of.  This can’t be done by simply doing more of the same.  We need to become transformed to uncover new possibilities.  This is what happened to the graduate student.

And this is what can happen to someone like me if I get involved in social action, if I put myself in situations I have not been in before and interact with people and problems that are foreign to me.  In such creative interactions I can be transformed in ways that I could not imagine, and uncover new potentials within myself.

Uncovering and fulfilling human potentials.  Near the beginning of this talk I suggested that this is one of the goals of living.  I said that it is unjust for some to be able to fulfill their potentials while others cannot.  I now suggest that it is possible for people, like me and you, to uncover and fulfill new potentials as we support others, who are suffering from injustice, while they develop theirs.  There is thus a kind of spirituality that motivates me to engage in social action.  It is the spirituality of creative transformation, of participating in a Sacred Creative Process, which continually creates the universe, and life, and human beings.  This spirituality enables me to grow by calling me beyond my fear, by calling me in empathy for the well being of others.  While some forms of spirituality may remove us from interacting with others in society, the spirituality of creative transformation calls us out from our private worlds to address in whatever way we can problems of injustice in the world.  In this way one can engage in a spirituality that is supportive of social action.


Beginning Reflections of One Unitarian Universalist on Cloning and Related Technologies

Beginning Reflections of One Unitarian Universalist

on Cloning and Related Technologies


Karl E. Peters

Boston University Conference on Cloning and Genetic Technologies

June 2, 1999


Note:  In 1999, with the cloning of Dolly in Scotland, the concern quickly became the possibility of human cloning.  The conference at Boston University included scientists, professors of law and philosophy, and representatives from various world religions.  I was asked to speak from a Unitarian Universalist Perspective.  Whle the follow is something I would still stand by, I’m struck with how the issue of human cloning has faded into the background.  The focus has shifted to how stem cells can be produced and used in contemporary medicine.  Yet, the idea of human cloning is still a possibility.  And so, from time to time, it might be good to reflect on its ethics.  (Karl E. Peters July 2, 2011)



For a video of this presentation go



I’ve been asked to present a Unitarian Universalist perspective on cloning and genetic technologies.  Unitarian Universalism emphasizes the free, rational inquiry of each individual on moral and religious matters, along with respect for differing views in caring communities.  In order to make decisions at both the local and national levels, Unitarian Universalists engage in democratic processes.  At present, the federation of individual congregations, called the Unitarian Universalist Association, has not passed any resolutions regarding cloning and genetic technologies.  Therefore, I am presenting the beginning reflections of one Unitarian Universalist.

As I do this, I am guided by Unitarian Universalist statements of seven principles and values as well as of six resources for religious and moral reflection.  These have been approved by the Unitarian Universalist Association of congregations and are part of the Association’s Bylaws (Section C-2.1 Principles).  The principles and values are 1) the inherent worth and dignity of every person; 2) justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; 3) acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; 4) a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; 5) the right of conscience and the use of democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; 6) the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; and 7) respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.  The resources are 1) direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life; 2) words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love; 3) wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life; 4) Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves; 5) humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against the idolatries of mind and spirit; and 6) spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

Based on some of these I will first outline elements of a world view that provides a context for making ethical decisions.  Then, with these elements and some Unitarian Universalist principles and values I will address four questions.  1) Should we try to clone animals as resources for treating human disease?  2) Should we try to develop human mesenchymal stem cell technology to provide replacement tissues and organs?  3) Should we try to develop nuclear transfer cloning technology to produce human preembryonic stem cells that can be developed as replacement tissues and organs?  4) Should we use nuclear transfer technology to clone human beings?

Elements of a World View to Provide a Context for Moral Decision Making.

The first element of my own Unitarian Universalist world view comes from science.  It is the evolutionary story.  From this story I conclude that human beings are part of a larger natural family.  Like everything else in the cosmos we are made from energy that was present fifteen billion years ago at the “big bang.”  Like everything on our planet we have evolved from elements such as nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon that were created in the supernovae of earlier, giant stars.  Like all living things on Earth we are constructed according to a DNA code, and our own code is almost the same as that of other higher primates, such as the chimpanzee.  We are members of a larger natural family.

However, we are unique in two significant ways.  First, we have evolved with the intelligence to direct energy, matter, and now even the further creation of life.  As Philip Hefner and others say, we are “created cocreators.”  To me this is consistent with the idea of the “image of God” in the first chapter of Genesis.  If one asks, what is the God of which humans are the image, it seems quite clear from the text that God is the creator.  The image of God thus means that we too are creators.  Of course, we are not ultimate creators.  We are part of the created universe.  Nevertheless, even though we are finite creatures, limited in many ways, we have a capability that no other creature on Earth has–the power to direct energy, matter, and life, using them to create in new ways.  One of these new ways has been the creation of the sheep Dolly through nuclear transfer cloning.

A second way in which we are different from other members of our natural family is that we have evolved with the capacity for ethical reflection.  We can reflect on the power we have, on all the things we can do, and ask whether we should do them.  We are thus created to be responsible cocreators.  This is our special place in the natural family of which we are a part.

A second source for elements of my world view is religion.  Looking at a variety of religions, from those of tribal societies to the developed world religions, I draw two ideas.  One is that a central task of religion is healing.  In almost all societies religious healers are very important.  In the Christian religion Jesus is known for his healing of physical diseases, and this healing is related to his proclamation of the coming of God’s kingdom.  Healing is therefore significant.  Furthermore, many religions today support the use of modern science and technology in healing, for example, in religiously supported hospitals.  A key question is, “to what extent can cloning be supported as a technology of healing?”

A second idea I draw from religions is that whatever creates life is sacred.  Most religions value life, and they consider the powers or the processes that create life as holy or sacred.  As created cocreators, we humans have created many things.  However, with cloning we have created something that goes beyond anything we have done to date; we have created a new way of creating life.  We have entered into the realm of the sacred.  As I now move on to apply the elements of my world view, along with some Unitarian Universalist principles and values, a major question will be, to what extent should we enter the realm of the sacred in order to heal and to bring new life into being?

Should We Clone Animals as Resources for Treating Human Disease and Maintaining Health?

In 1997 Scottish scientists took specialized cells from the mammary gland of an adult sheep,  placed them in a culture dish, and by undernourishing the cells returned them to a state in which they could once again become any cell in a sheep’s body.  Next the scientists  took an egg from another sheep and removed its nucleus, creating an enucleated ovum.  Then they removed the nucleus from one of the dedifferentiated cells originating in the mammary gland and fused it with the enucleated ovum of the other sheep.  After 277 attempts, Dolly was born.

One of the reasons for cloning animals is to create a more efficient and effective way of producing pharmaceuticals.  As sheep and goats are cloned, their DNA can be modified.  For example, “snippets” of human DNA can be inserted into the DNA of these animals, so that they produce insulin in their milk.

Here we are entering the realm of the sacred with genetic engineering and a new way of creating animals.  Do we have good reasons for doing this?  I think we do, for this helps us carry out a central task of religion, that of healing.

However, as responsible created cocreators we should consider setting some moral boundaries.  Maybe we even need to develop more explicitly and comprehensively an “ethics of agriculture,” related to current work in animal rights ethics and environmental ethics.  I am struck by the fact that an ancient society, the people of Israel, included animals in their ethical thinking.  The Torah of Judaism not only articulates how humans should be related to God and to one another.  It also states how humans should behave toward animals and the land.  Contemporary society seems to have forgotten this.

Following the Unitarian Universalist principle of living in harmony with all creatures out of respect for the interdependent web of existence, and because animals are part of our natural family, we should be concerned about their health and longevity even as we use them for our own purposes.  We seek for humans a healthy life and a normal life span.  As we use animals to help us do this, we should not jeopardize their health or longevity.  For example, it has been reported in the journal Nature that Dolly’s telomeres are shorter than expected.  Although the scientific jury is still out, it could mean that her cloned cells are older than expected, which might mean a shortened life span.  Such a finding would be morally relevant as we consider whether we should continue cloning animals.

On the other hand, it seems that animal cloning is less harmful to animals than many of the other things for which we utilize them.  Further, nuclear transfer cloning combined with genetic modification could produce pharmaceuticals for animals as well as for humans.  This technology can be beneficial for both the practice of human medicine and veterinary medicine.

Should We Develop Mesenchymal Stem Cell Technology for Treating Human Disease and Maintaining Heath for the Total Life Span?

In early April 1999 it was reported that scientists isolated mesenchymal cells from bone marrow.  Using a combination of various growth factors, nutrients, spatial organization, and mechanical forces, they got the cells to differentiate into bone cells, fat cells, and cartilage cells.  The hope is that stem cells from various parts of our body could be developed for repairing damaged tissue and replacing organs.

There are good reasons for doing this.  Developing and applying mesenchymal stem cell technology would be a boon for people as they age, and would carry out the healing task of religion.  It would not use aborted fetuses or embryos left from in vitro fertilization, and it would not produce any new life form.  Ethically this seems to be the least controversial of the questions we are considering.

The main drawback may be a technological one.  Mesenchymal stem cells are not pluripotent, able to be developed into all the types of tissues and organs we night need.  This leads to the next question.

Should We Develop Nuclear Transfer Cloning Technologies to Produce Preembyronic Stem Cells That Can Be Developed as a Wide Variety of Possible Tissue Repairs and Organ Replacements?

Preembyronic stem cells are cells capable of becoming an adult human if implanted in a uterus.  They are less than fourteen days old and have not yet divided to form the placenta and the embryo.  As long as they are not implanted, some people think it is okay to use them for other purposes.

Current sources of preembryonic stem cells are the germ cells of aborted fetuses and preembryos remaining from in vitro fertilization.  Whether to use cells from these sources for research and other purposes is the subject of the current report of the National Bioethics Advisory Board.

These stem cells are pluripotent or totipotent, which means they have the potential for becoming any type of tissue or organ a person needs.  Thus they have a wider range of uses than mesenchymal stem cells.  One drawback, however, is the problem of rejection.  Tissue and organs derived from existing preembryos would probably not be related to those of a recipient.

To solve the rejection problem, one might engage in nuclear transfer cloning.  One could take somatic cells from the person who needed replacement tissue or an organ and dedifferentiate them using techniques developed in cloning Dolly.  The nucleus of one of these cells could be fused with an enucleated ovum.  The resulting preembryonic stem cells could then be directed to form the desired tissue or organ. People could thus become their own organ donors.

Are their good reasons for doing this?  Once again, this would fill a religious task of healing, enabling more people to life full, healthy lives.  However, with such a technology preembryos would be created that conceivably could be implanted to produce another human being.  This leads to my final question.

Should We Develop Nuclear Transfer Technology to Clone Human Beings?

Here, as created cocreators we clearly and fully enter the realm of the sacred, using humanly developed techniques to create human life. Do we have good reasons for doing this?  Not if we simply what to clone ourselves for DNA immortality.  This would not be affirming the worth and dignity of the cloned person–a violation of a Unitarian Universalist principle.  Not if we want to clone individuals for special tasks.  This again violates human dignity and also the principle of equity, justice, and compassion, for it probably would create special classes of humans for other people’s purposes.  Not even to clone a replacement child, say a teenager who died in an accident.  This would be using the cloned child as an instrument for the parent’s purposes.  Expectations placed on the child as the substitute for its dead sibling would make it difficult to regard it as having worth and dignity in itself.

However, consider the following possible scenario (modified from a short story titled “Carbon Copy” in Wired Magazine, reprinted in Glenn McGee, The Cloning Controversy).  A couple in their late thirties marries.  They want a child.  Taking precautions to make sure they have a healthy child, they reproduce.  The child dies in two weeks.  They are devastated.  It turns out that the mother has a rare mitochondrial defect that does not affect her but kills her offspring.  It also makes it impossible for her to have any offspring.

Assume we are sometime in the future.  Because nuclear transfer technology has been developed to safely clone animals and preembryonic stem cells, it is possible to take cells from the dead child, dedifferentiate them, and transplant the child’s DNA into an enucleated ovum donated by a woman with healthy eggs.  The ovum is then placed in the uterus of the dead child’s mother, and the mother gives birth to a healthy child.

Should cloning for reproduction be done in a case like this?  One might respond “yes” if cloning in such cases were regarded as a way of dealing with the mother’s mitochondrial disease, assuming there was no other way to cure the defect.  The cloning would be carrying out the task of healing.  A second reason for cloning might be to carry on the biological heritage of a family.  This might be a reason for some people in religious traditions such as Judaism.  In this case the healthy child would be the DNA serial twin of the dead child and, therefore, the descendant of both the wife and the husband.  Their biological heritage would be continued.

On the other hand I have some concerns of about the ethics of human cloning even in a case like this.  I wonder about the burdens this would place on the child, especially if it became known that the child was a clone.  Even though it would be difficult to recognize a cloned child by its appearance, I am not as sanguine as some that the way it was created could be kept secret.  Once discovered, I worry that cloned child would not be treated with worth and dignity?  Worth and dignity are conferred by people in the society.  Could a society give worth and dignity to any child created by cloning, or would it be considered more like a freak?

A second concern is justice and equity.  In similar cases would such technologies be available to all regardless of race or economic class?  If nuclear transfer cloning were regarded as one of the means of treating a disease, it might be accepted as something covered under insurance.  Unless it was covered, it would probably be primarily for the wealthy and the privileged.

Another issue arises when we consider other alternatives available to a couple having children.  One is adoption.  Because of the number of children needing loving homes, it might be more just and compassionate for the couple to adopt a child, even if that child does not carry on their own genetic heritage.

A related issue arises when we consider our responsibility to the rest of our natural family as part of the interdependent web of life.  With the overall rate of growth of the human population, I wonder if we need to develop new ways to create human children.

Finally, I want to raise an issue related to the Unitarian Universalist principle of encouraging one another to spiritual growth.  This is an issue that applies not only to reproductive cloning but also to the other three questions concerning the treatment of disease.

We all know that death and loss are difficult to deal with.  So is sickness.  So is the degeneration of our own bodies.  We try to overcome these, and with the aid of science and its technology we in part succeed.  However, many who have experienced the loss of a loved one, even the death of a much wanted child, and many who experience the ravages of disease conclude that there is more to health than just a physical existence free from suffering.  For some health includes loving and being loved, caring for others and being cared for–even in the midst of disease and death.  In such cases there can be a growth in matters of spirit.

I do not wish to say we should do nothing to treat disease, nothing to compensate for the deaths of infants.  However, I want to raise the question of how far we should go.  If we rely only of what some call “technological fixes” to solve problems of illness and mortality, we might miss developing some of the spiritual resources that religion calls us to develop.


In conclusion, drawing on the scientific story of how we have evolved to be responsible created cocreators in a larger natural family, I have suggested that we should enter into the sacred realm of developing new ways of creating life when such ways help us to carry out a primary task of religion–that of healing.  Therefore, I suggest we support the development of cloning technology to further the health of individuals already existing.  If, in some cases reproductive cloning were thought of as a medical technology, it too might be considered part of the human repertoire for healing.

Like all medical technologies, cloning and related genetic technologies should be carried out in a way that respects the worth and dignity of persons; is just, equitable, and compassionate; and respects the wider web of existence of which we are a part, including the health and longevity of animals we use for helping treat disease.

These moral principles become even more important when considering whether we should engage in the reproductive cloning of humans.  All too often we think of doing things for our own selfish ends, or simply because they can be done.  A form of moral reflection that combines scientific understanding, wisdom from the world’s religions, and principles and values such as found in Unitarian Universalism will be required to help us decide what we should do from all the possible things we can do.




Karl E. Peters

Much discussion and debate has occurred about whether God is.  I’ve always been more interested in what the word “God” might mean.  Over the years I’ve developed a schema of ways to think about God.  The following is that schema.  The first item considers what some call the “formal definition” or characterization of whatever it is to which the world “God” can refer, that which is our  ultimate concern.

1.  Thinking about God is thinking about matters of ultimate concern (Paul Tillich) or ultimate commitment (Henry Nelson Wieman).  I also use the words “Sacred,” “Divine,” and “Holy to talk about what concerns us ultimately.

“Ultimate” refers to whatever it is around which we organize our lives—the center of our existence.  Seeking wealth can be God if it that around which we organize our lives.  “Justice for all” can also be God.

Religions also think about what is ultimate in terms of the source of existence.  God as creator.

2.  Some ways of thinking about what is ultimate or God.  Can we think of them as ultimate in the above two senses?  All of them?  If not all, which ones?

Many One





Polytheism.  Many deities of ancient cultures.  E.g. the Greeks.

Henotheism.  Many gods but only one is to worshipped or followed.  Ancient Israel—Yaweh.  “Thou shall have no other gods before me.”


Monotheism.  Judaism, Islam, traditional Christianity.  A universal God of all peoples.


“A loving presence”  (Terasa Cooley)









Forces of nature.  Laws of nature (Sanborn Brown).


Possibilities for good.


Monism.  Hindu Brahman without form that gives rise to all forms of existence (including the gods).

“Creative Process” (Henry Nelson Wieman, Karl Peters)

“Unifying symbol for forces of nature and history that give rise to the human and make the human more humane” (Gordon Kaufman).

“That principle in human existence which awakes our best potential” (V. V. Raman).

3.  God has been thought of

as Person, Power (force), Presence, Process, Possibilities, and Principle in relation to our lives and the world as we know it—and

as Mystery (Transcendent either to what we can know [epistemologically transcendent] or to the universe as a whole [ontologically transcendent]) to indicate that all our ideas are only just our ideas about God.