Monday, August 29, 2005

The UU-FAQ IV: Hyphenated UU's

Q: Are Unitarian Universalists Christians?
The best one-word answer is no, but the actual situation is much more complex. Both Unitarianism and Universalism came out of the Christian traditions of colonial America, and each was considered a Protestant denomination at one time. (That’s why many UU church services look so much like Protestant services. We didn’t copy them, we arose from the same roots.) But Christians are a minority in UU churches today, and many self-proclaimed UU-Christians would not be accepted as Christians by other Protestant denominations.

The term unitarian originally meant non-trinitarian; in other words, Jesus was not elevated into the Godhead. Today, UU-Christians tend to focus on the teachings of the human Jesus rather than on the mission of the Christ spirit to redeem the world from sin – the Sermon on the Mount rather than John 3:16. Originally, universalist referred to a belief in universal salvation; in other words, there is no Hell in which some souls will be eternally separated from divine love. The Universalist Principles of 1899 affirmed “the final harmony of all souls with God.” Both the Unitarians and the Universalists evolved towards a more generally humanist outlook, and their beliefs were sufficiently compatible that they merged in 1961.

As with any statement about UU beliefs, these are statistical tendencies rather than doctrinal commitments. If Jerry Falwell wanted to join a UU church, he could. Attempting to welcome both Christians and people who are running away from Christian denominations that they find oppressive is a balancing act that each congregation has to perform for itself. Some do a better job than others.

You can learn about the range of UU-Christian views from the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship which also publishes the journal Unitarian Universalist Christian.

If UU’s aren’t Christians, what are they?
Just about anything. A sizable plurality (somewhere above 40%) of UU’s call themselves Humanists. Humanists focus on life in this world rather than an afterlife, and attempt to find natural explanations for events rather than supernatural ones. Similar attitudes are widespread even among UU’s who don’t call themselves Humanists.

Smaller numbers of UU’s also consider themselves to be Buddhists, Pagans, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and many other faiths. Collectively, all such people are sometimes called hyphenated UU’s because they use a hyphen to describe their religious commitments: UU-Buddhist, for example.

Many of these groups have some formal organization: HUUmanists, Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans, Unitarian Universalists for Jewish Awareness, and Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship, among others. The Unitarian Universalist Association maintains a more extensive list of such organizations.

How did all these people wind up being UU’s?
There are three basic paths. Some people are UU’s first, and their search for truth and meaning leads them to Buddhism or Paganism or some other belief system. (In a similar way, UU-Humanism developed gradually from liberal Christianity in late 19th and early 20th centuries.) From there, they choose to remain UU’s rather than join a more sectarian community. Some interfaith couples (particularly Jewish/Christian ones) come to UU churches as a place where each spouse can be accepted equally and their children can be raised to respect both parental traditions. And some members of small, liberal branches of other faiths (Sufi Muslims, for example) seek community in a UU church either because they find themselves in towns where their particular sect is not represented, or because their particular interpretation of the belief system is incompatible with the local sectarian organizations. Many such people become enthusiastic UU’s even as they continue to practice their original faith.

How do they all manage to get along?
Not perfectly, but surprisingly well. The key feature of Unitarian Universalism that makes this coexistence possible is that our communities are covenantal rather than credal. In other words, we are committed to help one another rather than to promote a particular belief system. UU communities work best when members give each other the benefit of the doubt -- when we assume, in other words, that our fellow members have some good reason for believing what they believe, even if we cannot fathom what it is.

Friday, August 26, 2005

UU World article: Who's afraid of freedom and tolerance?

My article Who's Afraid of Freedom and Tolerance? is on the cover of the Fall issue of UU World, the flagship magazine of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

This would be a fine place for comments on and discussion of that article.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Walter Brueggemann, Meet Cindy Sheehan

I believe that the proper idiom for the prophet in cutting through the royal numbness and denial is the language of grief, the rhetoric that engages the community in mourning for a funeral they do not want to admit. ... I have been increasingly impressed with the capacity of the prophet to use the language of lament and the symbolic creation of a death scene as a way of bringing to reality what the king must see and will not. -- Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (1978)

Cindy Sheehan's vigil outside President Bush's vacation home is being interpreted in many divergent ways, but I'm coming to favor this one: A prophet is confronting a king. Walter Brueggemann's Carter-era model of the prophet/king relationship applies so well that it seems ... prophetic.

The key concept in Brueggemann's model is the royal consciousness, which is perhaps the best label I can think of for the attitude that pervades the Bush administration. The royal consciousness believes -- or at least says in public -- that everything is fine. The right people are in power and they are doing the right things. Everything is on track. Everybody should be happy. No mistakes have been made.

It isn't just that the King has made the right decisions: The King has done the only things possible. No realistic alternatives exist. People who imagine otherwise are fools -- dangerous fools, pathetic people unworthy of respect or even attention.

The royal consciousness leads people to numbness, especially numbness about death. It is the task of the prophetic ministry and imagination to bring people to engage their experiences of suffering.

A society dominated by the royal consciousness becomes numb. It is obvious that things are wrong and people are suffering, but nothing can be done, so why even think about them? Why count the dead Iraqi civilians? Why count the workers who have given up on finding a job? Why measure the climate changes or count the species being extinguished? Why bother feeling compassion for the homeless, the millions without health insurance, or even those whose loved ones have died in the war? Nothing could have been different; nothing can be different in the future. Why indulge in pointless emotions?

Anything painful should be kept out of sight, in deference to those who do not wish to have pointless emotions. Coffins of the war dead should not be photographed. The president should not call attention to funerals. Who could be so presumptuous, so hateful, as to make him notice an individual death? On his vacation, no less. Would you want to deal with grieving mothers on your vacation? Of course not.

The task of the prophetic imagination and ministry is to bring to public expression those very hopes and yearnings that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we no longer know they are there.

The task of the Prophet is not to put forward a 15-point plan for reform. The Prophet does not come to replace the King and start a new administration. The job of the Prophet is simply to stop the royal consciousness in its tracks, to make it recognize that something is wrong. People are suffering. People are dying. Life out in the kingdom is not just bike rides and motorcades and helicopter flights to million-dollar fund-raising dinners.

Nothing can be done? That is not true. At the very least, we can grieve. And having grieved, we can dream. We can dream about peace, about maintaining the Earth's health and beauty, about caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, and comforting those who have suffered losses. We can dream about asking forgiveness of those we have wronged. We can dream about making restitution. We can dream about going forth and sinning no more.

Perhaps the King is right. Perhaps none of that is possible. But we can dream of impossible things.

If we are to understand prophetic energizing, we must see that its characteristic idiom is hope and not optimism. ... Hope expressed without knowledge of and participation in grief is likely to be false hope that does not reach despair. ... Clearly, only those who anguish will sing new songs. Without anguish the new song is likely to be strident and just more royal fakery.

Dreaming has to come before planning, not after. The royal consciousness maintains its hold by limiting our dreams to what we already know how to do. It will brook no foolish dreams, no impractical dreams, no dreams of things that do not already exist.

But after the Prophet has led us in grieving and led us in dreaming, then our creativity has something to work with and to work on. Optimism belongs to the known; it believes that our plan will work. Hope reaches to the unknown; it has faith that something new and previously unimagined may come to pass.

Cindy Sheehan doesn't bring an answer, she brings a question: Why did my son die?

She has not come to us as a saint, an angel, or some other holy and transcendent being. The prophets in their own era were nobodies. They were without honor. They were poor, dirty, uneducated. Undoubtedly their families were ashamed of them.

The prophets used cheap theatrics. It's easy to imagine the frustration of King Zedekiah when Jeremiah started wandering through Jerusalem with a yoke around his neck: That's not a plan! That's not a program! It's just a stunt!

Camping out in Crawford is a stunt too. That's what prophets do. They are not planners, technocrats, diplomats, or philosophers. They channel the grief of a numbed society. And they open the door to dreams of renewal.

Monday, August 08, 2005

The UU-FAQ III: Covenants

When I went to a UU service, the congregation recited a “covenant statement.” What’s that all about?

One typical UU covenant statement was written by James Vila Blake:

Love is the spirit of this church,
and service is its law.
This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love,
and to help one another.

Most UU congregations recite some similar “unison affirmation” as a regular part of their Sunday services -- more or less filling the slot taken by a creed in most Christian services. Covenant statements like this go way back in UU history, at least as far as the Puritan settlers in Massachusetts. They express the democratic belief that a church is established by the commitment of its members rather than by the authority of a bishop or king.

If a creed is one way to define a church, a covenant is another. In a creed, people look outward and agree that they see the same things. In a covenant, they look at each other and exchange promises. Marriage vows are one type of covenant; they say nothing about what the couple believes, but describe the commitments that the individuals are making to each other. Unitarian Universalist congregations, then, are united not by a core set of beliefs, but by a set of commitments.

Like a creed, a covenant statement can become a meaningless recitation. But taken seriously, a covenant like the one above lays out a challenging spiritual path. How should you act, for example, if in all of your dealings with your fellow parishioners you consider yourself to be an agent of the Spirit of Love?

“To seek the truth in love” is another promise that is much easier to make than to carry out, particularly in a congregation that has no creed. In reciting the covenant, you are committing yourself to help your fellow members seek the truth, even if they are looking in places that you consider totally wrong-headed. This commitment calls on you to remain engaged with others in their search while restraining yourself from non-constructive criticism. You can’t just humor fellow members by agreeing with whatever nonsense they say, and you can’t just blast them either. If you think that Unitarian Universalism is an easy religion, think again.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Confessions of a Moral Relativist

It's not easy being a moral relativist these days. Everyone is down on us. Addressing the College of Cardinals just before being selected as Pope Benedict, Cardinal Ratzinger said:
We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.

In his book Be Intolerant James Dobson's son Ryan summarized our worldview like this:
Moral relativism. Know what that is? Moral relativism is a way of looking at the world that says what is right or wrong for you depends on what you think is morally right or wrong. In other words, everything is relative.

Syndicated columnist John Leo blames us for this:
We are seeing large numbers of the young unable or unwilling to make the simplest distinctions between right and wrong. Even horrific acts -- mass human sacrifice by the Aztecs and genocide by the Nazis -- are declared to be unjudgeable. "Of course I dislike the Nazis," one upstate New York student told his professor. "But who is to say they are morally wrong?"

In the face of this shock-and-awe bombardment, it's not surprising that few people are willing to stand up and declare themselves to be moral relativists. Consequently, a vicious cycle is forming in which the term is used only by its enemies. The worse they make it sound, the less likely anyone is to defend it.

I Remember Liberals

We've seen this happen before: the Right did the same thing to the word liberal.

Conservatives can say anything they want about liberals these days -- Ann Coulter wrote a whole book about how we're traitors -- because no one admits to being a liberal any more. (Most ex-liberals are progressives now.) The problem with this Fabian strategy is that it gives the Right a demon-word. Anyone who tries to talk about real issues like health care ends up having to explain why he isn't a liberal -- and gets tied in knots because he probably really is a liberal, just not the demonic kind of liberal the Right talks about. As Barack Obama said: "Conservatives have created a boogeyman. Liberals take all your money; hate God; hate family." No wonder he doesn't sign up for that label.

But I don't want to make up a new label and then spend the rest of my life explaining why I'm not a moral relativist. So I'll confess right now: I am a moral relativist.

So, does that mean I think genocide is OK and Hitler was as good as anybody else? Hardly.

This is what moral relativism means to me: Every moral discussion takes place in a context, among a community of people who share some common language, assumptions, and values. Unlike the hypothetical examples raised by absolutists, actual moral judgments are always made in a time and a place, under the aegis of one or more moral communities. If you take a statement out of its context, it loses so much of its meaning that I probably can't say whether I agree with it or not. But in an actual situation, I'm as likely as anybody else to have a strong conviction about what is right and to take action based on that conviction.

Moral absolutists, on the other hand, believe that the words right and wrong refer to something as real and objective as height and weight. The moral properties of a situation might be hard for flawed human beings to measure or discern, but there is always a truth-of-the-matter independent of anyone's ideas, a God's-eye-view of the clear and absolute distinction between Good and Evil.

My Family's Values

A simple example brings these abstract ideas about context down to Earth. I was raised with very definite ideas about conversation, attention, and respect. In my parents' household one did not chatter. To speak was to demand the attention of others, and one did not make such demands lightly. But when you did speak, you got attention and were not interrupted unless someone needed to point out that the house was on fire.

I learned these standards by osmosis and applied them unconsciously, never realizing that they weren't universal. Imagine my surprise when I visited my friend Sean's family during a college vacation. In that household no one saw any reason to deny themselves the pleasure of speaking at any time. If you thought you had something important to say and couldn't be heard over the din, you raised your voice. Stunned by the cacophony, I imagined that these people must have no respect at all for each other. I expected violence to break out at any moment. It never did, and by the end of my visit I had realized that Sean's family loved and respected each other every bit as much as my family. Conversation just played a different role in their interactions. They had their own ways, and those ways seemed to work for them.

But if they weren't wrong, did that mean my own family was? Or is it "all relative"? And if the highest goal of relativism is "one’s own ego and one’s own desires," well then, the next time I went home I should have interrupted my parents whenever I felt like talking and told them they were stupid to react by taking offense.

I did no such thing. Instead, I recognized that different contexts call for different standards. My parents' house operated under one moral consensus, and Sean's house operated under another. The question: "Is it wrong to talk over somebody who is saying something that is just as important to them as what you want to say is to you?" has no absolute answer. I don't believe in a context-independent God's-eye-view.

Breaking the Chain

Having covered a simple case, we're almost ready to talk about Nazis. Is the morality of killing Jews relative, like the morality of interrupting your parents? I'm going to answer that question, but you'll have to wait for it.

First I need to discuss the most common over-simplification of relativism: the failure to recognize that the modern individual lives in multiple overlapping moral communities. That, in a nutshell, is the defining characteristic of modern Western society. In tribal society, by contrast, the tribe and your family belonged to the same consensus and there was nothing higher. More complex societies all worked (at least in theory) according to some version of the Great Chain of Being: a moral vision in which the same principles applied at every level. Conflict between two levels meant that one of them was in the wrong hands, requiring either a revolution to change leadership or an inquisition to bring the people into line.

The Renaissance and Reformation broke the Great Chain of Being in the West, and the situation has only gotten more complex since. Today, every individual belongs to dozens of moral communities -- families, companies, churches, nations, professions, cultures, and even subcultures like folk music or home-schooling. Each has its own shared assumptions and values, and each imposes its own obligations and restrictions. The central problem the modern individual faces is how to resolve the contradictions among these diverse moral visions: How do you form an authentic identity that can participate honestly in all the communities of which you are a part?

The most difficult moral issues of our day are not the ones that turn one person against another, but rather those that turn one of your community loyalties against another. How, for example, can you balance your admiration for a valued co-worker against your allegiance to a church that condemns him to Hell? How do you square the morality you practice in the marketplace with the morality you teach your children? How do you stay loyal to both your country and to abstract moral principles that your country is violating? Your neighbors, your pastor, your wife, your friends, the government -- no matter what you do, somebody is going to think you're dead wrong.

Moral absolutism tempts us with the promise of making all these contradictions go away. Somehow, the Great Chain of Being can be restored and one vision imposed on every sphere of life. Then one harmonious set of rules will apply wherever you go, and no one will ever fault you for following them. (In fact, what absolutists call relativism is actually an egocentric form of absolutism: I make the contradictions go away by defining a universal right and wrong according to my own interests. What favors me is right and what works against me is wrong.)

Unfortunately, the methods for achieving this charmingly harmonious world have not changed since the Middle Ages: war and inquisition. Scratch the surface of any moral absolutist from Osama bin Laden to Jerry Falwell, and you will find either a conqueror or an inquisitor. Or both.

What About the Nazis?

John Leo's simple-minded relativists would apply my family-conversation example directly to the Holocaust: Maybe it's wrong to murder Jews in America, but in Nazi Germany they did things differently and who's to choose? When in Mussolini's Rome, do as the Fascists do.

The problem with that analysis is that it ignores the multiple overlapping contexts. Bush's America and Hitler's Germany are not two different worlds, and I can't separate myself from a concentration camp guard by drawing neat circles around our two countries. In fact, the guard and I belong to many of the same moral communities: His family may be similar to mine; we may share a religion; we definitely share the heritage of Western moral thought that goes back to Jesus and Socrates and Moses. He not just a follower of Hitler, but also an inheritor of Goethe and Leibnitz and Beethoven. Like me, he probably claims the Western scientific heritage -- which, if he applied it soundly, would show him the flaws in the theory of an Aryan master race.

It is, in fact, these shared contexts that give us our intuitive conviction that the guard is still wrong, in spite of what his country's laws might say. We can judge him because he belongs to our community. To a lot of our communities, in fact. By contrast, a pack of wolves might kill just as many people as our hypothetical camp guard. And though we can choose to fight the wolves, we can't judge them the way we judge the Nazis. A moral judgment against the wolves seems ridiculous, because there is no context for it, no shared moral community or consensus.

Ryan Dobson's relativists would have to shrug and let the guard go on about his business, but in fact the guard and I would have a lot to talk about, because we have so much in common. I could attempt to show him that in following Nazism, he was violating every other piece of his identity. I suspect I would get further with him than Dobson would.

Of course, I might have run into the kind of Nazi who was happy to sacrifice every other scrap of his identity -- to be a Nazi and nothing else. I would get nowhere with such a person, and neither would anyone else. This kind of person is like the wolves: We can kill him or run from him or try to control him, but our morality means nothing to him. I could tell him that he was wrong according to moral communities he had rejected; Dobson and Leo and the Pope could tell him that he was wrong in the eyes of a God he had rejected. Other than the possible satisfaction of imagining the guard roasting in Hell, I can't see much advantage one way or the other.

Summing up

Moral relativism doesn't mean that you lose all claim on right and wrong, or that you make moral judgments in a whimsical, arbitrary, or self-centered way. You do lose the ability to make sweeping claims about poorly fleshed-out hypothetical situations. In exchange, you get to stop chasing chimeras and stop looking backward to the Middle Ages.

Personally, I think it's a pretty good deal. But that's a judgment you'll have to make for yourself.