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Living Beyond the Clamor of the Self

Interfaith leaders challenge a Doheny Library audience to examine the practical role of morality in contemporary life.

Living Beyond the Clamor of the Self
Two interfaith leaders recently grappled with “The Moral Morass of Contemporary Life” at a gathering in Doheny Memorial Library.

Moderated by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jack Miles, the discussion between George Regas, former rector of All Saints Church in Pasadena, and Leonard Beerman, founding rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles, explored the role of morality and religion in public life.

Miles is the acclaimed author of “God: A Biography.” Regas and Beerman are national leaders in building interfaith dialogue about peace and progressive politics. The panelists reflected on the moral dimension of poverty and other issues at the Visions and Voices event, which was co-sponsored by the USC Libraries and the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities as part of the Dialogues series.

USC College history professor Steven Ross, co-director of the institute, said, “Over the past 40 years, Beerman and Regas have established a reputation as two of the city’s most active and articulate spokesmen for social justice. Both have worked to bring conscience and faith to the forefront of many difficult and controversial social questions of our time.”

Praising Beerman and Regas for their courage during the 1960s civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War, Miles said, “These men are specialists in delivering the discomforts of religion – identifying unrighteousness and giving it the name it deserves.”

Beerman began the dialogue with a meditation on the moral impasse human beings face when they become aware of suffering and injustice. “Franz Kafka once wrote that you can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, and that is something you are free to do … but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid,” he said.

Regas developed the theme of moral responsibility with respect to specific issues such as the war in Iraq, the environment and gay marriage. He said, “Against the sin of American exceptionalism, which holds that the lives of some people are more valuable than the lives of others, we must reaffirm the sacredness of all creation.”

Regas then argued that war, discrimination and the destruction of the environment violate this principle. “There is a divine presence in all creation,” he said, “and anything we do, we do to God.”

Emphasizing the responsibilities that follow from our close relationship to others, Beerman said, “Even the color of our eyes shows the influence of the past – other people. We’re never really alone, even by ourselves in our rooms, because everything we are relies on someone else.”

As a result, he added, “My parents’ generation taught the concept of menschlichkeit, or the readiness to live for ideals beyond the clamor of the self.”

Said Ross, “Our goal for ‘The Moral Morass of Contemporary Life’ was to incorporate USC’s core values into a discussion of ethics in politics and everyday life. Too often students do not see the pertinence of intellectual life outside the classroom. Working closely with the USC Libraries, we’re organizing a series of dialogues to highlight the practical utility of intellectual inquiry for making sense of a complex and often seemingly incomprehensible world.”

Students in the audience welcomed that message. “Many people today take the view of moral nihilism – that there may be no such thing as good and bad – so I wanted to learn more about morality and how it relates to my life,” said philosophy major Dane Lee. “To me, what stood out most was the argument that being in the same boat is part of the human condition.”

Film-production student Isaac Bauman said, “I’m really interested in these issues, and I’ve been fascinated with Visions and Voices events. Increasingly, it seems like people are turning away from morality towards religious dogma. But they’re not one and the same. The discussion really helped me explore what morality is for its own sake – and where it comes from.”

Tyson Gaskill, the USC Libraries’ director of programming, collaborated on the event with Ross and the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities. “It was an honor for the libraries to host Beerman and Regas,” he said. “They know how to talk about morality, but for them it’s more than rhetoric. It is the guiding force of their lives.”