I want to describe a religion has millions of followers but no official name. I call it the Religion of Kindness and Beauty. It is being improvised into existence by ordinary people – waitresses, small business owners, artists, teachers, parents, grandparents – whose hearts are drawn toward kindness and who sense that there is something beautiful, indeed sacred, in life itself, human and more than human. Often they are struggling against two pathologies of our time: a stale secularism that reduces all things to objects of scientific scrutiny and rejects any hint of a sacred dimension to life, and religious fundamentalism that makes a god of its doctrines and practices, yielding intolerance and sometimes violence along the way. Communicants in the Religion of Kindness and Beauty seek a more creative and flexible way of being religious. They see all things as enfolded within a larger web of life, itself quite beautiful, and they feel a sense of loyalty to life itself. They are friends of people and friends of the Earth.
One unique feature of the Religion of Kindness and Beauty, considered in itself and apart from connection with other religions, is that it is modest in its claims. It does not focus on questions of life after death or ultimate salvation, important as these questions might be. It does not claim to have all the truth or access to ultimate reality, whatever it happens to be. It leaves these "big" questions to the "big" institutionalized religions. Instead, it focusses on satisfying relations in this world and is committed to the flourishing of all life: people, animals, and the earth. Its sacred texts include poems, songs, and stories that speak poignantly about life’s beauty and honestly about life’s pain. Its touches of transcendence are found in the things of this world: music, other people, and orange cats. Its ethic is to live with respect and care for the community of life, with special care for the vulnerable. It includes but does not require belief in God; and when it comes to God it is open to many ways of thinking about God – God as Friend, God as Interconnectedness, God as Music - so long as they lead to kindness.
I realize that, if you take a survey of religious preferences, there will not be a box for this religion. There will be a box for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and others. There may also be a box for people who are spiritually interested but not religiously unaffiliated. But there will not be a box for the Religion of Kindness and Beauty. This is because it is an implicit religion of daily life rather than a formal religion with institutions of its own. It can be cultivated with help from other religions, enriched and by their teachings, and articulated in terms of their vocabularies. A Jew might call it “being a good Jew” and a Muslim might call it “being a good Muslim.” But it can also be practiced without any association with other religions. Someone who is religiously unaffiliated might call it “being a good person" or "being a friend of life."
You might imagine the religion of Kindness and Beauty on the analogy of a small flowering plant that can grow in many different soils, adding its own freshness to any environment. Sometimes the flower is hidden within a larger array of flowers and sometimes it is visible in a more overt way. It can be cultivated without having a name for it and is not particularly jealous about names. All it needs is some sunlight and water.
That’s what I’m trying to add in this essay. I want to add some sunlight and water. I offer a theology for the Religion of Kindness and Beauty, based on process theology, I hope that some of the ideas I offer might help you to live with respect and care for life, with special care for the vulnerable, and have some fun along the way. If you belong to another religion, please know that you can keep your religion and internalize the ideas I propose, understanding then in your own way. And if you not religiously affiliated, or have a fundamental distaste for religion as you've known it, please know that I write for you, too.
One more thing. If you are unfamiliar with process theology, please don't worry. I'll be introducing it along the way. I've already introduced three of its key ideas: that we are small but included in a larger web of life, that there's something inherently beautiful about the web, that I best proceed by introducing you to a former student who gave me the title Religion of Kindness and Beauty. Meet Rita.
Looking for my Tribe
It was nice to take your class in the world’s religions. I enjoyed learning about Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and others. But I left the course a little disappointed at a personal level. I was hoping to find a religion that fit me, but none of them did. I think I am still looking for my tribe.
Some of my friends are religiously conservative while others are avidly anti-religious. I am neither. I think I belong to the Religion of Kindness and Beauty. I want to be kind to others, kind to animals, kind to the earth, and kind to myself. And I draw inspiration from the beauty of ordinary life: friendships, movies, music, poems, conversations, animals, and the earth. I’m trying to build a life for myself and add some goodness – some justice and joy - to the world.
I’m not sure about the God thing. I believe in a mysterious and amazing universe, understood through science and poetry. Like the Buddhists I think that everything is interconnected and that we are part of a much greater whole: the hills and rivers, the trees and stars. Sometimes I go outside, look up at stars, and feel small but included in this greater whole. I think you called it cosmic awe.
But the question of God still mystifies me. My religiously conservative friends tell me that I should believe in God, as if it's morally obligatory. I ask why and they say, “Because God created you and wants you to believe in him.” It seems to me that, for them, God needs to be flattered. On other hand, my atheistic friends never refer to God at all except in a dismissive or ironic way. They seem to sure of things, and sometimes a little arrogant, too. I’m somewhere in between, moving back and forth between belief and unbelief.
On days when I believe in God, I find myself praying as if there is Someone truly listening, albeit without a fixed address. I don’t imagine God as a bully in the sky or a king on throne, but rather a great companion to the world’s suffering and joys, all-loving but not all-powerful. I think you called it Process Theology. Is that right? On other days I find myself thinking that the universe itself is what there is and all there is, and that it's enough to believe in Kindness and Beauty, even if you don't believe in God. So, I guess I am both theistic and non-theistic; or somewhere in between.
What I know is that there are scraps of light and that if God exists God is in the scraps. Is there a religion for me? I think I am still looking for my tribe.
A Religion of Everyday Life
Yes, I think there is a religion for you. Maybe even a tribe.
It is not one of the big institutionalized religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism. It is a religion of daily life that is being practiced by many people in the world today, including you, even though they don’t have a name for it. Your name for it is as good as any: the Religion of Kindness and Beauty.
For my part, I see it in many places. I see it people who are spiritually interested but not religiously affiliated, like you. I see it in kind-hearted Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and others who practice Kindness and Beauty with help from selected teachings and practices within their own religions, but who hold onto their religious identities with a relaxed grasp, because they think the well-being of life is more important than religious affiliation. I see it in people who lost their faith in God, or who never had it in the first place, but who live from kindness and sense something sacred in life itself. I see it in people who believe in God, but who, like process theologians, see God on the analogy of a companion to the world’s joys and sufferings rather than a cosmic tyrant. I see it among people engaged in interfaith dialogue as they discover a religion of shared humanity that includes but transcends their affiliations. All belong to a global affinity group emerging in our world today. All belong to Religion of Kindness and Beauty.
You mention process theology. You're right: it's not the image of a bully in the sky but rather that of eternal Companion with no fixed address. Maybe process theology can make a little sense to you, at least on those days in which you believe in a personal God. It can be especially meaningful for those who find God in kindness and beauty and who, like you, feel small but included in a greater and evolving whole. In process theology God is the Whole within whose life all wholes evolve.
I know what you're wondering. Is the Religion of Kindness and Beauty really a religion? Everything hinges on what we mean by religion and scholars have arrived at no single definition. I think of a religion as a way of seeing things, a lifestyle, and a spirituality. On this view Kindness and Beauty really is a religion. But it is not a formal religion with institutions of its own. It is an implicit religion of everyday life that can be practiced by many different kinds of people, including those who do not think of themselves as religious.
This takes me, then, to your question of looking for a tribe. I know what you mean: you are looking for a community of people with a shared mind-set and perhaps even some rituals that help you live out the Religion of Kindness and Beauty. For better or worse, the Religion of Kindness and Beauty does not have a community like this or a prescribed set of rituals. It is a global affinity group without a tribe of its own. There is nothing wrong with being tribeless if that is true to who you are. The world needs free spirits.
But for many people the solitary path lacks something important, a sense of community and tradition. Moreover it is hard to practice the Religion of Kindness and Beauty all by yourself. It helps to share the journey with others, and to have friends who inspire you and hold you accountable. If you are in this situation, don’t despair. Go looking for a tribe that can be a home.
There are many possibilities. If you were born into a formal religious tradition that contains some wisdom, you may want to reclaim this tradition for support and sustenance, or convert to one that is better for you. A religion doesn’t have to be perfect to be followed, and you can help change it. On the other hand, you may find a tribe that is not conventionally religious and more secular in nature. I have a friend whose tribe is a local chapter of Narcotics Anonymous and another whose tribe is Amnesty International. This works well for them. A church – a gathering of spiritual friends - doesn’t have to be formally religious in order to be a church.
What is important is that your tribe, your community, offers scraps of light that help you mend the world in your way, and that also you become a scrap of light for the community, too. What is important is that your tribe helps you practice the Religion of Kindness and Beauty.
One thing for sure. Your letter is a scrap of light for me. I'd like to write an essay on the Religion of Kindness and Beauty, addressed to people like you and to people who are religiously affiliated, but hold onto their religions with a relaxed grasp for the sake of life itself. I'll write it as if my audience is "everybody" but please know that, much of the time, I'm writing for you.
Two Primary Beliefs
The Religion of Kindness and Beauty has two primary beliefs.
The first is that the most important thing we can do in our lives is to be kind or compassionate -- kind to other people, kind to animals, kind to the earth, and kind to ourselves. This means that "success" is not measurable by personal wealth, power, and status; but only by love. In moments when we love, even if only briefly, we touch the very purpose of life. We are saints for that moment.
The second belief is that, despite life’s many tragedies, there is a beauty that is never fully eclipsed by the sadness: a beauty in friendships, the natural world, silence, and sense of mystery. This beauty does not erase or justify the tragedies: the pain, the abuse, the injustices. But the very existence of beauty means that, even amid the tragedies, there is a goodness worth living from and for. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead speaks of the multifariousness of life: “The fairies dance and Christ is nailed to the cross.” The Religion of Kindness and Beauty does not hide from the sad side of life, but it also doesn’t hide from the joy. It helps people dance with the fairies and be honest to the suffering.
I forgot to say one thing in my letter to you. It's about the larger context of our lives. I know that your desire for a Religion of Kindness and Beauty arises out of personal experience in local settings. You seek a meaningful alternative to religious fundamentalism and stale secularism you see around you. I do, too.
But we know that our individual journeys cannot be separated from the wider context of our lives: a planet in peril and a world in need. The problems we face today are enormous and I'm sure you're well aware of them: global climate change, obscene social inequalities, the extinction of species, the growing threat of nuclear war, the rise of political authoritarianism and ethnic nationalisms, a breakdown of local community life, the excesses of corporate capitalism, the spiritual vacuum that so many feel. You and I alike want to be about the common good not just our own personal good. We want our “kindness” to include service to others and, as we are able, social transformation.
It's almost as if we seek and need a new kind of civilization: an Ecological Civilization where people live with respect and care for the community of life. The fundamental units of this civilization would be local communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory, humane to animals, and good for the Earth: with no one left behind.
As I write my essay, I'll keep this in mind. I'll focus on the personal part of the Religion of Kindness and Beauty in the beginning, but then turn to its relation to the broader issues of our time. I'll suggest that our greatest hope is to spiritualize economics, politics, education, with some of the values of The Religion of Kindness and Beauty: kindness, beauty, service, compassion, joy.
Can this happen? I'm not sure. What I know is that, if we work with like-minded friends in the Religion of Kindness and Beauty, and if we welcome others who are not of like-mind but who deserve our respect and car, we have a chance.
Dwelling Musically in the World
When we walk in the way of Kindness and Beauty, we dwell musically in the world. This does not mean that we listen to music all the time. It means that we listen to the voices of other people and the natural world with full attention, in the same spirit that we listen to music, and then respond by trying to make music with them, adding beauty of our own. The music we hear will have many different colors: sad, happy, peaceful, angry, wise, foolish, quiet, and loud. Our task is to hear all the sounds with a gentle spirit, as best we can, and then add our own voice, relative to the needs at hand. The beauty we add can be a kind word to a friend, a helping hand to a stranger, an act of caring for an animal, or dancing barefoot in the moonlight. Whenever we act in the world in healing ways, we are adding a moment of beauty to the world, a scrap of light, a fresh melody. Even justice is an act of music-making, a kind of harmony.
Musical dwelling includes a sense that the whole world is music-like. This does not mean that the world is always pretty. Witness the violence and greed and despair. Witness the loss of life and the absence of love. There is too much unspeakable suffering, and too much missed potential, to say that the world is an ode to joy. Still, the world is music-like in that it is a fluid and evolving process composed of events that come into existence and then pass away, like musical notes of varying durations in an ongoing concert. Mountains are events, rivers are events, and people are events. Some events last longer than others but all arise and then perish. And each event is a blending of influences from other sources. It is an act of creative inter-becoming. In its creativity each event transcends the strict determinism of the past. It displays what the Chinese call a continuous creativity – a qi – which is always here and now, always spontaneous, and always expressing itself in the sheer as-it-is-ness of whatever is.
Of course, there is more to life than change. Amid the changes there are recurring patterns, the most general of which are the laws of nature. The sun rises and sets; the seasons come and go; protons bond with neutrons. Science does an excellent job of discerning the mathematical dimensions of these patterns, and this is part of its gift. Life occurs in the concreteness of actual events as they interact with one another. When we walk in the way of Kindness and Beauty, we lovingly attentive to life in its concreteness.
by Deborah Cooper
I see the way the chickadees take turns at the feeder. I watch a neighbor take her husband’s hand.
I see the way the sun will find the only interruption in dark clouds to toss this amber light across the pines. I see a row of cars stop on the road until the orange cat has safely crossed, then take off slowly, should she change her mind. I watch the way my brother lifts our mother from the wheelchair to the car, the shawl he lays across her lap. I save up every scrap of light, because I know that it will take each tiny consolation every day to mend the world.
Learning from Nature
One of the practices of the Religion of Kindness and Beauty is to learn from mentors: teachers, elders, friends, pastors, parents - past and present. We can also learn from the more-than-human world: hills and rivers, trees and stars.
It might seem that when we learn from the more-than-human world we are learning from something outside us called "nature." At some level this is true. But the very idea of "nature" as something external to human beings falls into a problematic dualism that is at the heart of environmental problems today. It is that we "humans" are one kind of reality and that "nature" is quite another, rightly conquered and subordinated to human ends.
In order to avoid this dualism some who practice the Religion of Kindness and Beauty prefer the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim idea of creation, understanding creation as an expansive web of life that includes all sentient beings created and loved by God. Others may simply speak of the web of life, bypassing questions of whether it is created by God. Either way we have the image of a family of life. In the Religion of Kindness and Beauty, our mentors can be kindred members of this family.
I offer examples from my own life.
Rivers One of my earliest mentors was a river. I grew up close to the hill country of Texas, and in the summers my parents would drive north, about sixty miles, to a section of the Guadalupe River near the small city of Hunt. I learned to swim in her currents and one of my first experiences of the deep side of life came in swimming underwater. I would be swimming two or three feet beneath the surface with goggles, seeing the vague contours of my parents standing on banks of her shore in the sunlight, and also looking around me at the underwater world of perch and catfish. There was something quiet and beautiful about the underwater world, even as I loved the light world of my parents. This experience was one of my first experiences in meditation or contemplative prayer; in the quietness you could really listen. The Guadalupe River helped me understand that there are two worlds: a mysterious world beneath the surface and a light world above the surface -- around us and within us. Both worlds are beautiful and there is no need to say one is better than the other. But I do want to honor the Guadalupe River as a mentor in my life. She helped me appreciate the vibrancy, the aliveness, of deep listening.
Dogs were also teachers for me. At home we would always have pet dogs and I loved them all. One was a cocker spaniel named Patty. I remember petting her when I was about five years old, looking into her deep brown eyes and feeling the touch of her hair against my fingers. She looked back at me and we had moments of communication. Something was transferred between us, a sense of trust, comfort, and affection. It was transferred through the eyes and the touch, quite apart from words.
Patty helped me understand the preciousness of other living beings: people, of course, but all living beings with whom we can have social relations, and also those that are quite independent of us. A Buddhist might speak of this preciousness as the Buddha-Nature in each being. A Christian might speak of it as the Breath of Life within each being. Whatever language we use, the intuition is similar: we feel the presence of another living being, but kin to us and different from us, who is a subject of his or her own life and not just an object for us, and who can feel our presence.
And then there’s music. It, too, has been a teacher, a mentor. John Lennon reports that, when he was a young boy growing up in England, nothing really affected him until he heard the music of Elvis Presley. I get this. John’s love of Elvis must have frustrated his teachers. I know because I am a teacher myself. No teacher finds it pleasant to realize that students prefer Elvis to algebra. But perhaps John’s negligence was justified by the fact that he was growing in a kind of intelligence which is complementary to the various forms of education often emphasized in school. Formal education focuses on mathematical wisdom, verbal wisdom and sometimes, through physical education, bodily wisdom. Music focuses on emotional wisdom. It offers a tutorial in human feeling.
This is the kind of tutorial John received when he listened to Elvis sing Love Me Tender and Don’t Be Cruel. In the melodies and rhythms of rock and roll he heard the longings and energy of the human heart. I think music functions for me in this way, too. Indeed, for many people music also functions as a world religion, offering a touch of transcendence even for people who may not be sure if they believe in anything transcendent. For some people it is a substitute for other world religions and for others a supplement to them.
Touches of Transcendence
These stories from personal experience illustrate touches of transcendence. I borrow the phrase from a theologian, Myra Rivera. She talks about how other people in their uniqueness and autonomy offer touches of transcendence: that is, a recognition that there is something more to the world, more important and more beautiful, than the privacy of my own ego. I agree with her completely on this. I also find touches of transcendence in rivers, dogs, and music. They introduce me to something more than me: the quietness of a river, the preciousness of another life, the mystery of emotions, other people’s and our own. They are scraps of light.
As an informal religion of daily live, the Religion of Kindness and Beauty has no formal bureaucracy, no priests, no seminaries, and no central sanctuary except the earth. It can be nurtured in many different kinds of gatherings: churches, synagogues, mosques, sanghas. But it can also be nurtured in what some call "secular" sites. Its gathering places include coffee shops, kitchen tables, dorm rooms, movie theatres, community gardens, Instagram accounts, and Facebook groups. From its perspective the problem in life is not that we confuse the sacred with the profane, it is that we work with this binary in the first place. From the perspective of this religion, the secular is sacred, if only we have eyes to see.
In addition to collecting scraps of light and learning from nature, another practice of the Religion of Kindness and Beauty is community building. This can be understood with help from the idea of jazz.
I mention jazz with trepidation, because I know that some people don't like this kind of music. My wife is among them. She teasingly says that every time she hears a jazz solo it makes her want to slap somebody. In her words: “You can’t sing along; the chords are dissonant; and it goes on and on forever without ever coming to an end.” I tell her that we need not go to jazz bars on Saturday nights lest we end up in jail on Sunday mornings. I say to her: “It is enough to enjoy the idea of jazz.”
I want to say this to you, too. Admittedly, I am a jazz enthusiast and in my more extravagant moments I entertain the idea that it might be good for everybody to listen to improvisational jazz at least once a day for twenty minutes, even if only as a kind of ascetical practice. Here is my argument. Listening to jazz on daily basis could help widen our sense of harmony so that we can better appreciate the many voices of our world, some of which are very different from our own. It could help us become more tolerant of ambiguity so that we would not always want to divide the world into tightly-knit compartments. It could help us become open to surprise so that we don’t feel we had to control everything. One of America’s leading jazz critics, Gary Giddings, says that jazz musicians have two goals: “Creating music that keeps listeners wondering what’s next, and finding a novel context within which to explore old truths.” I think the world would be a better place if we didn’t always have to know what comes next.
Nevertheless, in my more honest moments I realize there are additional ways of becoming more grateful for diversity, tolerant of ambiguity and open to surprise. Life itself can be a teacher. So I ask you to consider the possibility that the mind of jazz and the idea of jazz might help offer some important lessons in life, even if you never want to listen to a single note of it. The mind of jazz is an open-mind. It is relaxed yet alert, hospitable to strangers, delighted by surprise, honest about suffering, and yet trusting in fresh possibilities. It is a hopeful mind.
The hope of jazz is like the idea of justice or democracy. It is the image of people coming together, listening to one another, respecting one another’s talents, and trying to creating something beautiful together. They are free to express themselves as individuals, having been given the opportunity to develop their unique creative potentials. And yet they also have the humility to let others solo without having to be the center of attention. They are accountable for themselves and to one another, yet they are also forgiving, making the best of their own and other’s mistakes. Most importantly they have faith. As they play together they trust in the availability of fresh possibilities.
In a world filled with so much violence and suffering, it would be a good idea if a lot of people lived this jazz-like way. It would be good if people in households, workplaces, neighborhoods, villages, nations and listened to one another and worked together with a spirit of forgiveness, humility, creativity, and respect. And certainly it would help if they tried to make music with other animals and the earth honoring the unique voices of the more-than-human world. Surely this is one of our higher callings as a species. Cats are called to purr, dogs to bark, fish to swim and birds to fly. We humans have our limitations. But perhaps our calling is to dwell in harmony with one another and the earth.
One of the spiritual leaders of our time, Pope Francis, speaks of this as ‘integral ecology.” It is akin to Martin Luther King’s idea of beloved community with ecology added. A beloved community can be a neighborhood, a village, a city, or a nation. It is a society that is creative, compassionate, participatory, egalitarian, diverse, humane to animals, good for the earth, and spiritually satisfying – with no one left behind. As I see things, the Religion of Kindness and Beauty is in service to this kind of society. Its aim is not for individual satisfaction alone, but for social and ecological well-being: the flourishing of life.
A Shared Hope
The Religion of Kindness and Beauty may be very old. It may be among the streams of life hidden within many of the world's religions. But todaypeople are drawn to this religion out of a twofold weariness and a common hope. On the one hand, they are weary of religious authoritarianism as expressed in dogmatism, exclusivism, and hardened dichotomies between “us” and ‘them.” On the other hand, they are weary of a stale secularism which denies all things holy and sacred, reduces everything to a commodity on the stock exchange, and measures the whole of life in terms of appearance, affluence, and achievement. Out of this twofold weariness, they seek a third way: a way that is neither hamstrung by religious authoritarianism nor deadened by stale secularism. They seek what you call the Religion of Kindness and Beauty.