Friday, December 21, 2007

Keeping Sol in Solstice

At this time of year I like to go back to a story I wrote in 1992. It's called Midwinter, and it's an imaginative reconstruction of how an ancient rural culture might have celebrated the winter solstice.

It's told from the point of view of the grand-daughter of the old wise woman. I wrote it to be read out loud, and it's suitable for children. Enjoy.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

More Questions About Famous UUs: Dr. Seuss?

I continue to try to verify lists of famous UUs. Linus Pauling? Yes. He belonged to the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles. The UUA web site has a biography.

Supreme Court Justice John Marshall? Sort of, but not really. Several references have him as an Episcopalian, and while he seems to have doubted a lot of the doctrine, there's not much to positively label him a Unitarian. This account by his daughter claims that "he was a Unitarian in opinion, though he never joined their society." That would almost do it for me, but the same account says that he changed his mind shortly before he died. If she's a reliable source for the one, then I guess she's a reliable source for the other. In any case, at best he was unitarian in the sense of belief, and not a member of a Unitarian congregation.

The one that's giving me fits today is Dr. Seuss, Theodor Geisel. UU minister Douglas Taylor starts a sermon "Theodore Geisel was a Unitarian Universalist author better known around the world as Dr. Seuss." But he doesn't say how he came to that conclusion. Now, of course, the Dr. Seuss books have all kinds of great UU ideas in them. A few biographical details point to him not being a church-goer: He was married by a justice of the peace. He was cremated without a funeral. I'm getting a humanist/agnostic vibe, which might fit with a CLF-type UU who never clicked with a UU congregation. Or maybe he just didn't connect with any religion at all, UU or otherwise. Anybody out there have a lead on this?

Another one I wonder about is Samuel Morse, the telegraph guy, who appears on a lot of Famous UU lists. His father was Jedidiah Morse, who was Channing's main opponent in the pamphlet wars that led to the Congregational/Unitarian split. Wikipedia says of Samuel "Although he respected his father's opinions, he sympathized with the Unitarians." Wish I knew what they mean by that. Sympathized could mean he joined, or it could mean, "Dad, why don't you lighten up on those Unitarians?"

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Who's Not a Famous UU?

Lately I've been going through those "Famous UUs" lists and trying to figure out why we claim this person or that one: Do (or did) this person ever belong to a UU (or Unitarian or Universalist) congregation? (John Adams, for example, belonged to First Parish in Quincy, Massachusetts.) Did s/he ever claim the UU (or U or U) label in public or in writing? (Thomas Jefferson called himself a Unitarian -- or rather "an Unitarian" -- in some of his letters.) In the days before Unitarian or Universalist congregations got organized, did s/he hold one of the defining beliefs: universal salvation or non-trinitarianism? (Isaac Newton and John Locke seem to have been non-trinitarians. Ethan Allen believed in universal salvation.) Or are we just claiming this person for no reason other than because we want to identify with him/her?

The problem I'm having is that these Famous UU lists take on an urban legend quality. If I decide to add somebody ridiculous -- Confucius, say -- to my list of Famous UUs, then my list starts showing up on Google and people copy it. Before long there are twenty web sites claiming that Confucius was a UU, and it's impossible to track down who first made that claim or what they were thinking.

So anyway, I've been hacking through these lists trying to figure out what the basis for the claims are, and it occurred to me that we need to start putting negative results out there, so that a "Confucius was not a UU" article will show up when people google "confucius UU".

Let me start with Carl Sandburg. I know why people want to claim him: Not only was he the kind of guy who would fit in well in a UU congregation, but he went to Lombard College, which was started by the Universalists. In the 1961 biography by Harry Golden (the first one I pulled off the shelf at my local library) it says that Sandburg read a lot of Universalism at Lombard and "to this day he is perfect in all the arguments that God is good and will not send us to hell."

But Golden goes on to say: "Since his confirmation at age thirteen in the Lutheran Church of Galesburg, however, Sandburg has not been on the membership rolls of any established church or religious institution." Golden mentions that various denominations, including the Unitarians, sometimes claim Sandburg, and so he asked Sandburg "the direct question" of what religion he held. He got this answer:
I am a Christian, a Quaker, a Moslem, a Buddhist, a Shintoist, a Confucian, and maybe a Catholic pantheist or a Joan of Arc who hears voices. I am all of these and more. Definitely I have more religions than I have time or zeal to practice in true faith.
Now, that's a great answer for a UU to give. But given the chance to label his religion, Sandburg listed almost everything except Unitarian and Universalist. I think we've got to accept that.

Another name that shows up on a lot of lists is Alexander Graham Bell. Even the not-specifically-UU site has him listed as a UU. (The fact that they have him as a UU and not a Unitarian or Universalist probably means that they just copied his name from one of our lists.) But I can't find any evidence to support that claim. On the contrary, the National Presbyterian Church lists Bell as one of the worshippers at its predecessor, the Covenant Presbyterian Church. That's a lot more specific than anything I can find connecting him to Unitarianism or Universalism.

I'll try to post more negative results as I get them. Feel free to add your own (positive or negative) research to the comments. Anybody have anything definite about Ray Bradbury or Paul Newman?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

One more thing about the working class

The cover article of the Fall, 2007 UU World, "Not My Father's Religion" has netted me more mail than anything I've ever written. Almost all of it was very thoughtful and some people told me their personal stories of being working class UUs or of having working class parents who don't understand why they became UUs. I didn't manage to write back to everybody who deserved a response, but I tried.

I keep thinking I'm going to do a summing-up post of everything I learned from the responses I got, but that seems to be one of those projects that is too grand and wonderful to actually manifest in this world. Instead I'll just toss this out to acquire more comments. As I remember things, I'll add them to this thread as comments.

Pete Stark: Unbeliever in Congress

My latest column has been up for about a week now. It's about Congressman Pete Stark from California, who last March came out in public as "a Unitarian who who does not believe in a supreme being." In September I attended a talk he gave at Harvard, in which he accepted the Humanist of the Year award from the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy.

It was an interesting talk, because Stark's spiritual journey points out the difference between two kinds of non-theists: Those for whom unbelief is a major part of their identity, and those who just never get around to thinking too deeply about God, because they're living life just fine without a deity. (In the column I refer to the two types as tooth-fairy unbelievers and purple-cow unbelievers.) Stark is the second kind, a purple-cow unbeliever.

It's an interesting question, I think, whether purple-cow unbelievers can be pulled together into a movement, and if so, whether it could be the same movement as tooth-fairy unbelievers.

There's no comment feature on the site, so you can post your responses here.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Jesus has annexed my town

"Nashua belongs to Jesus Christ."

That's the slogan on the bumper sticker of a car in the parking lot of my apartment complex in Nashua, New Hampshire. I've seen it several times over the last few weeks. It's either a campaign of some sort, or else I keep noticing the same two or three cars. I'd ask somebody, but the cars are always either empty or moving.

To me it sounds like a threat, like non-Christians should get out of town or something. Is that paranoid? Maybe the people who drive these cars are just clueless and don't realize that it sounds that way.

What do the rest of you think? Have you run into this in your town? What's it supposed to mean?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Reflections on the Beginning of Another Church Year

It seems like an odd thing to do, when you stop and think about it.

Why give up a weekend morning, make yourself and your family presentable, and go to church? Why join its committees and work on its projects? Don't you have more urgent things to do with your time? Why contribute money that you surely could apply to some other purpose, money that you could put aside towards (say) a nice vacation or use to pay down that worrisome balance on your credit card?

Why church?

The traditional churches have a simple answer: Eternity. It seems like a good deal they offer: a little bit of trouble and expense now in exchange for eternal bliss. Or else take your chances on damnation. What's it going to be? You have fire insurance, don't you? Why not take out a little hellfire insurance?

But our church can't make that pitch. We've trained you (if you needed it) not to be so gullible, not to jump at every threat or promise that someone makes in an authoritative tone, not to jerk like a puppet at every thou-shalt or thou-shalt-not you read in some allegedly ancient text. Why shalt thou? Why shalt thou not? Who is this voice that calls itself God? Is there a man behind that curtain? Is there an all-too-human all-too-earthly church?

Why should we (who know better) make a church? Even a "free" church, as we call it? Would animals, taken back to the plains of Africa and released, build themselves a zoo? Even a "free" zoo, with cages that didn't lock? Would they surround themselves with wire and stay on moated islands just for old times' sake?


So why a church?

You don't need another demand on your attention. Forget eternal life, day-to-day life is already more than enough to think about. Job, health, home, family -- couldn't you use a second 24 hours every day just to keep up with them? Or to get away from them and finally have some time for yourself? Maybe once there were homemakers who needed church as an excuse to get out of the house for a while. Maybe there were workers who were grateful to be told to sit down and do nothing on a Sunday morning.

But those days are over, aren't they?

Or maybe they aren't. You don't work 16 hours a day in the mines or the mills. You don't beat rugs with a stick or haul water from the well or bake your family's bread from scratch (unless you want to). But there's always something, isn't there? Something that a better version of yourself would be doing. Stuff to put in order. Plans to make, letters to write, things that someone is going to expect you to know and understand and deal with. Soon. Maybe already.

Sometimes life is like one of those dreams where you're running from something and don't believe that you're going to get away. You think you need to run faster, but what you really need is to wake up.

Wake up.

Eternity? You could use an excuse to step back and think about next month. Or a year from now. Or five. Where is it all going, this life you've made? Sometimes that question hits you in spite of the clothes in the hamper and the meeting tomorrow morning and the kids who are waiting for someone to pick them up. Where is it all going?

Maybe it hits you on a round-numbered birthday. Or out of the blue, when you spot a white hair or hear the news about that friend you haven't seen since almost forever.

Or maybe it comes after one of those moments when time seems to stop. The last sliver of the red sun peeks out over the ocean. Or the engine hums and the interstate rolls past and you know all the lyrics to the song on the radio. Or the symphony is over, but its last note still stretches out in your mind; you stay in your seat just a little longer so that you don't break it. The moment, for reasons of its own, doesn't run away. It lingers. And when time starts again, that's when it occurs to you to wonder:

Where is it all going?

It's not even about death, not really. If the thread of your life suddenly snapped, well, then it would be over and you probably wouldn't be anywhere where you could think about it. (Or if you were, then that would be a different thread, still holding.) That might even be the best way to die, to be racing through your life and then (suddenly) not.

No, it isn't death that hits you. It's loss. Something slips into the unrecoverable past and you wonder: Was I supposed to do something with that? The tautness of your face, the zip on your fastball, the youthful energy that you seemed to have only a few days ago. Were you supposed to do something with that? The mentor who always seemed to have an answer, the grandmother who knew all the stories -- now they stare at you blankly and you wonder: Was I supposed to learn something from them? Was there some message I was supposed to hear so that I could carry it and pass it on? Did I miss it?

Maybe. Or maybe you can still remember it, if you stop and think.

And it's not just time, it's space. Somewhere, right now, children are dying from diseases that have been curable for half a century. Or just hunger, maybe, which has been curable forever. Wars are being fought, and people are banging the drums to start new ones. Some people are committing crimes, while others are looking at the options society offers them legally and realizing that none of them are acceptable. The natural world is still killing people with floods and earthquakes. Somewhere, right now, a perfectly good and innocent person is helplessly waiting for a hero to come.

Who? You? You can't. The dishes are piled in the sink and the checkbook is unbalanced and a voice on TV is saying that everything would be fine if only you bought this product. The kids' homework isn't done and the yard needs mowing and the in-laws are coming over tomorrow.

It's huge, the world is. It's full of people and they all want something. Something of yours, maybe. Maybe they should even have it, and maybe you'd even be willing to give it to them if only you knew of a path from your door to theirs. But you don't.

Or maybe it's all just another reality TV show. Who will get off that island and win the million dollars? Will that promising young actress ever stop drinking and get her life together? Is that politician really gay? Did that celebrity really murder his wife?

What's real? What isn't? What should you care about and why? Who has the time to sort it all out?


At least, no single person does, if they have to do it all by themselves. Nobody has the time. Nobody has the knowledge. Nobody is smart enough.

Not alone. Not by themselves.

But what if a bunch of us got together? Think about it. We could set aside some time to meet. We could remind each other to take that step back and look at the bigger picture. We could compare notes about what's important and what isn't. Maybe, together, we could sort some things out. Maybe, if we met often enough, we could learn to know each other and trust each other, so that when I get running so fast that I can't remember who I want to be, you can remember for me. And maybe I can remember for you. Maybe once in a while we could give each other a good shake, so that we can stop running and wake up.

We could try it.

We could talk about what's going on in time and space (or even outside of time and space, if it seems important for some reason). And among us all, on any given day, there might be somebody who knows what we need to know and understands what we need to do. Not the same person every time, but somebody. Or maybe we'll all bring a piece of the puzzle, and put a few of them together. Maybe enough to make out a picture.

It might work. It'd be a start, at least. Maybe, while we were doing it, we'd think of something else, something better.

So what would we call it, this bunch of people getting together to remind each other of our best selves, to wake each other up, to pool our attention and try to deal with a world that is too much for each of us alone? We could make up a new word for it. Or we could recycle an old word that (as far as I'm concerned) has been sitting around uselessly for generations now.

We could call it a church.

What do you think? We could try it. It might work.

See you Sunday, maybe? I think I'll be there.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Wild speculation

My second column went up Monday. It's called Drops of Water Turn a Mill and it speculates about the long-term effect that the Internet will have on religion. I also think it has one of my better opening lines:
I doubt I will ever forget the moment when I saw the White House destroyed by aliens.
The bulk of the column is about the relationship between media and how people think, a subject that shows up in Al Gore's latest book The Assault on Reason and in Neil Postman's 1980s classic Amusing Ourselves to Death. If the Internet gives us new experiences and changes the way we think, it's also likely to change the way we do religion.

Take a look, then come back here to comment.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The most subversive book I've read this summer ...

... is a children's fantasy: Un Lun Dun by China Mieville.

To get the gist of Un Lun Dun, picture this standard fantasy pattern: There's a parallel world (UnLondon) in which magic works, inanimate objects move and talk on their own, and so forth. This world is facing a crisis, but there are prophecies of a Chosen One who will save the day by performing a series of great ... oh, never mind.

Within about five minutes of the Chosen One's appearance, it's obvious that none of that is going to work. If the world is going to be saved, an Unchosen One is going to have to pick up the slack and make something up. And she's running out of time, so she's going to have to convince UnLondoners that they don't have to do things by the book, they don't need answers to all the questions they thought they needed, and they don't have perform the quests the prophecies describe. But they do have to get their act together and do something right away. And they're going to have to do it themselves, because the predestined messiah wasn't up to the job.

So inside a world of magic rich and imaginative enough to enthrall any 10-year-old runs the following message: We all thought we knew how the world was supposed to be and the way things were supposed to go, but that's not happening so we're going to have to think for ourselves now.

Even more subversively, the novel doesn't jump to the opposite extreme and support the anti-religious rants of Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris. One of the first allies of the Unchosen One is the book of prophecies itself -- which is animate, of course, and deeply distressed about its own failures. It turns out that the tales of the Chosen One, in spite of their overall wrongness, contain a great deal of useful information -- after you sift them through your common sense.

In other words, Un Lun Dun is a parable of liberal religion. In terms a child can understand, it models respect for scripture without subservience to it. After you challenge all the assumptions and throw out everything that isn't going to work, you still have something left. But what you have left is a useful member of your team, not an authoritarian leader.

So if you think of liberal religion as an insincere compromise between humanism and fundamentalism, or as an intellectual nuance that the rabble could never understand -- think again. It can be laid out in terms so clear and sensible a child can understand them.

Building Your Own Ecclesiology

The title says it all, right? Well, it does after it's defined: ecclesiology means "theory of church".

This is a big hole in UU adult religious education. We have "Building Your Own Theology" to help individuals figure out what they think about the big questions of individual human life. And occasionally we have workshops to help churches find a mission statement, or arrive at some other expression of their collective purpose. But there's no introspective what-I-think-about-us course. We need one.

As some of you know, I'm in the process of writing a UU 101 book for Skinner Press. Most of the time I'm just putting words around stuff that is widely known and understood. But when it comes to ecclesiology -- what a church is about and why you might want to be part of one -- I'm having to wing it a lot more.

And that speaks to a disconnect I find at my local church. On the one hand I sense a hunger for deeper involvement in a lot of people. On the other hand, there are a lot of things not getting done. There's a gulf between the people who are waiting for volunteers and the people who would like to be invited to participate in something important and meaningful. There's not a widely held vision of church that makes it natural to jump in here or there, or to create something new that the church needs.

So I picture BYOE like this: It presents a lot of different visions of what a church might be and the role it might play in someone's life. And then it asks you to claim such a vision for yourself: What do YOU think is going on here and how do you see the you/church relationship? What role could the church fill in your life and what role could you fill in the church's life?

Doing this in a group would have an added advantage of providing perspective. Somebody who is looking for allies in social action will be in a group with somebody who is looking for support in spiritual growth and with somebody who is looking for a village to help raise a child. Each of them could be inspired to envision a more holistic church than the one that fulfills their personal needs. (And that, I guess, is part of my ecclesiology: Church pulls us into something larger than ourselves.)

At the end you don't write a credo (I believe) you write a sumus: We are.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Go(o)d Crutch

I've often heard atheists say that belief in God is a crutch. If you need to believe that some Big Father in the Sky is going to make your life come out all right, that He's going to punish the Evil and reward the Good, or that He's set up some special realm where you'll understand all mysteries and get to see your dead loved ones again – well, that's because you're crippled. You're just not up to facing the world the way it is.

Personally, I have a lot of ambivalence about atheism, to the point that I dither about whether to use the pronoun we or they when I talk about atheists. But I think this crutch metaphor deserves a closer look than it usually gets, and in the end I'm not sure who it really serves. Theists sometimes turn it around: Humans, they observe, are all crippled in one way or another. And who is more pathetic than a cripple too proud to use a crutch.

Let's back up. To use the word God in any kind of a reasonable discussion, I need to make a distinction between God the hypothetical ruler of the Universe, and the concept of God in people's minds. We might (inadequately) label them as the Objective God and the Subjective God. The reason I sometimes consider myself an atheist is that I don't know how to talk about the Objective God in any sensible way. Almost everything I hear about the Objective God sounds like gibberish to me. (Theists might claim that this just makes me a mystic rather than an atheist, which is certainly arguable.)

But the Subjective God is another topic entirely. When you talk about the Objective God, "Does He/She/It exist?" can be a reasonable question. But when you talk about the Subjective God, who obviously does exist, the better question is "Should He/She/It exist?"

To which I say: Sometimes, for some people, yes. Sometimes for me, in fact, though less and less often as I get older. I might project that process forward, and imagine that if I ever achieve perfect maturity, I'll be a 100% atheist.

Or I might not.

In order to explain why, I need to make another objective/subjective distinction, though fortunately this time I can steal terminology from Jung rather than make it up myself. Let's think of people as the objective beings who wander around in the world, and of characters as the corresponding ideas in our heads. Characters are woefully inadequate ways to think about people, but they're all we've got. Usually the inadequacy doesn't get us into too much trouble, which is probably why our brains evolved to think this way.

The inadequacy is most notable and problematic when we introspect. Each of us is an objective being-in-the-world that Jung called a Self. And each of us also conceives of himself/herself as a character that Jung calls an Ego. The two never match. They can't; the human mind just isn't set up to represent itself. Which makes sense, if you think about it. When homo habilis roamed the plains of Africa, acute introspection probably wasn't a deciding survival factor.

As we mature, we can adjust the Ego to describe the Self ever better, but another piece of maturity is to realize that the description will never be perfect. The Self always contains undescribed depths and unrealized potentials, which is why it's so often worthwhile to try things even if you know you can't do them. (I used to go through decks of playing cards and guess red or black. I expected to average a 50/50 score: 26 right out of 52. Instead I averaged somewhere between 28 and 29. That turns out to be the score a card-counter would expect. I hadn't consciously thought of that strategy, but I managed to carry it out all the same.)

A lot of religion and psychology – and magick for that matter – amounts to a series of tricks that allow us to unlock undescribed powers of the Self without breaking our Egos. (As limiting as an Ego is, you'd be lost without one. You might want to reshape yours a little, or step outside of it once in a while, but you definitely don't want to break it.) Often such tricks are innocuous, and we use them without thinking about it. I used to know a woman who strongly believed that she had no head for finance, but that I did. So she'd call me when she had to make a financial decision and we'd talk it through. One day she made a major decision without discussing it, and later described the process like this: "I tried to call you, but you weren't home. And then I realized that I knew what you would say. So I just did that."

Now, where did that financial thinking happen? In her Self, obviously, unless you postulate some telepathic connection I was unaware of. She couldn't do the thinking inside her Ego, though, because her Ego had no head for finance. But the Self includes not just the Ego, but all the characters in a person's head. So she did the thinking inside the character that represented me.

Jung calls that projection. It's not good or bad, it's just one of the ways the mind works. One time when my godson was four, we both got stung by bees, probably because I didn't react to the situation fast enough. (My father, by contrast, once heroically charged into a swarm of hornets and plucked me out unharmed.) Afterwards, I thought my godson was angry with me. It took a bit of time to realize that I was angry with me, and he was staying away from me because I was so obviously angry at someone. I had represented the anger in my mind by projecting it onto him.

Some projections are nastier. You may, for example, maintain a racist character in your head, maybe a grandfather or an uncle. If you're white and you see a black person, you might think, "Grandpa would call that person a nigger, and tell me to watch out for him." And so the racist thought gets to enter your head without dirtying your Ego.

is another word that often shows up in atheist discussions of God. God is a screen onto which the faithful project their hopes and desires. This is generally presented as a bad thing. But is it really? Might not some projections be useful crutches?

Consider guilt and forgiveness. Guilt evolved for good reasons: It reminds us that we have wronged someone and need to make restitution or change our future behavior. A person incapable of feeling such guilt would be a sociopath, and a tribe of sociopaths wouldn't survive. But we all know people whose guilt has gotten out of hand. They feel guilty about accidents that they can't avoid by changing their behavior, and maybe there's nothing (or nothing more) they can do to make things right. Their best option at this point is let themselves off the hook and get on with life.

The Self can do that. It is totally within the power of the Self to interrupt the guilt process and send the all-clear signal of forgiveness. If you consciously had access to all the powers of the Self -- if the management of them were part of your Ego -- you could just decide to stop feeling guilty about something. But how many people have an Ego wise enough to handle such a power? If turning off guilt were as simple as scratching an itch, who could resist? The world would be overrun with sociopaths.

Instead, to the extent that people are aware of the forgiveness power at all, they usually project it. That's what society teaches us to do, and who can argue with the wisdom of it? Some of the power gets projected onto the characters we believe we have wronged -- if they say it's OK to forgive ourselves, we will. But some of the people we've wronged are dead, and others are too petty or resentful to use the forgiveness power responsibly. Sometimes we've wronged entire groups with no obvious spokesman. So it makes sense to give the forgiveness power to some other character as well. And while we're at it, it would make sense to project our wisdom and our sense of justice onto that character too, so that it would use the forgiveness power for the greater good.

Let's call that character God. And now that we have a subjective God, let's assign Him/Her/It a whole lot of other Self-powers that our Egos are unable or unworthy to command. Let's project the self-love that we're afraid we don't deserve, the compassion that would break our hearts, the judgment we can't face, the social outrage that would consume us, and the foresight that we're afraid to use.

That God as I've described Him (I've read a lot about female versions of the character, but the male version is the one I was taught to imagine) is a crutch. A totally enlightened, totally mature person should be able to claim all that power and wisdom and compassion as his or her own, without projecting it onto a character who may or may not correspond to anything in the world.

Know any such people? Me neither.

The atheists I've met are, as a group, no closer to total maturity and enlightenment than the theists. Some of them find other characters on which to project the power of the Self, some take it into their Egos and abuse it, and others just learn to live without it -- like cripples who are too proud to use a crutch.

Theists, as a group, have their own problems. Some God-characters are even less worthy to wield power than the Egos they stand in for. They forgive -- or encourage or even demand -- slavery or genocide or some other hideous evil. Or they are puppets for corrupt institutions or individuals, who want to hijack your Self-power and abuse it. Just turning those powers off would, in many cases, be a step forward.

But in other cases it wouldn't. Even Nietzsche recognized that. When Zarathustra meets the saint in the forest, he refuses to pass on his revelation that God is dead. "What could I have to give you?" he asks. "Best I should leave before I take something from you."

And so, as much as I wish for all people to come into their power and wield it responsibly, and while I continue to hope for my own enlightened atheistic future, when I meet people whose God-character is doing a reasonable job I try not to disturb them.

So worship on, good theists. I'm just passing through, and I'll try to leave before I'm tempted to steal or break anything valuable. And maybe, since I'm here anyway, you wouldn't mind if I picked up a hymnal and sang a verse or two.

Friday, July 06, 2007


I must be religiously illiterate.

Steven Prothero, author of Religious Literacy and chair of Boston University's religion department had an article in the July 2-9 issue of Newsweek. It was part of a true/false series of articles, and his was "True or False: the Major Religions are all Alike." Answer: False.

I was appalled.

Now, it isn't that I think the answer should be True, though if I were on a debate team I think I could defend that point. I'm appalled at the whole idea that someone with any depth of understanding in religion would answer the question either way. Even though I've never been Jewish, I somehow acquired an Inner Rabbi who answers questions with questions. And if there was ever a time to let him out, this is it. The right answer to "Are the major religions all alike?" is "Why are you asking?"

Anytime you look at another person, you can see either similarity or difference. Focusing on one or the other is a choice. Are you like Gandhi? Of course you are, and of course you aren't. Are you like Hitler? Same thing. Why are you asking?

Either choice -- similarity or difference -- can be used to enrich our understanding of the other person or diminish it. Which one am I trying to do? Am I focusing on similarity so that I can have a deeper sense of compassion, so that I can imagine the other person's motives in the rich, full way that I imagine my own? Or am I doing it to deny other people their separate identities, reject their uniqueness, and make their point of view go away? It makes a difference.

Conversely, I can pay attention to differences in order to envision other people more fully and treat them better. (I like cheeseburgers, but my Hindu friend is offended by them -- don't offer him one.) Or I can do it in order to demonize them, to project Evil onto them and claim Good for myself.

And you can't answer this question without noticing that the subtext of any discussion of Major Religions these days is the Western Judeo-Christian tradition and Islam. And the subtext of any Christianity/Islam discussion is Iraq.

The Bush administration's rhetoric includes both similarity and difference, but uses both of them to diminish our vision of the Iraqis rather than enrich it. The Good Iraqis are just like us: They want freedom and democracy and capitalism just like we have in America, and they trust American motives the same way we do. The Bad Iraqis are totally other: They hate freedom and they love death -- their own or anybody else's.

So, Dr. Prothero, what if it's President Bush coming to you and asking: "Are all major religions the same?" Do you want to say True and reinforce the notion that the Good Iraqis are just like us? Or do you want to say False and endorse the idea that the Bad Iraqis are totally other?

Or do you want to push back and say: "Why are you asking?"

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

David Korten's Big Theory

It took me a while to get a handle on David Korten and his "Great Turning" notion. I was assigned to cover his talk at the UU General Assembly in Portland, so I read his book The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. As I said in my Portland, Ho! entry, the book pushed a lot of my buttons, so I had to work through that before I could cover his talk with any objectivity. My view of my role as journalist made that all the more important: I was working for the UUA web site, and the UUA was essentially Korten's host. I don't think that would have obligated me to whitewash what he said, but I do think it obligated me to give him every chance to get his points across. I believe I managed to do that in my account of his presentation.

Part of my problem was nothing personal about Korten, but is something that comes up whenever I read anti-corporate, anti-globalist authors. I share a lot of their conclusions, but for some reason our minds work differently, so that I have trouble pulling any testable hypotheses out of their big theories. So their writings seem to me to have a vaporous quality. They belabor points that seem obvious to me, while ignoring other questions that seem more fundamental. (Probably they think the same things about my writing, if they notice it.)

Anyway, the Great Turning is one of the biggest theories imaginable. It says that human civilization took a wrong turn five thousand years ago and chose to emphasize dominance over cooperation. A whole host of problems is leading to our final realization of the unsustainability of that choice, so that now we have to turn away from dominance and back towards cooperation. It ties together a bunch of ideas of varying degrees of acceptance, from more-or-less established theories like global warming to controversial ones like peak oil, the prehistoric matriarchy, intelligent design, a hierarchical theory of spiritual maturity, framing, and several others that may have slipped my mind.

Now, I love big theories. When postmodernists deride them as "master narratives" I reply: "You say that as if it were a bad thing." My notes these days are full of preparations to write something about how changes in media have influenced the history of religious thought, which certainly qualifies as a big, speculative theory. (You can see the beginning of that theory in my piece from last summer about the relationship between ritual and the preverbal mindset.) But I can't make sense of such a theory until I've answered these questions: Why are we doing this? What questions motivated this whole construction? What parts of the theory are really central, and which ones did we fill in later to patch the holes?

Eventually I came up with answers that satisfied me. Korten started out writing about corporations and globalization in books like When Corporations Rule the World. His arguments then were comparatively present-centered: Corporations are legal abominations that are obligated to seek profit at the expense of every other human value; free-trade agreements are ways for corporations to establish their agenda as paramount and to override or preempt any democratic attempt to favor non-corporate values; poor nations and poor communities are not going to be able to advance until they are able to pursue their own interests democratically rather than being dominated by foreign corporations.

So far, so good. I can translate all this into stuff that makes sense to me.

Then 9/11 happened, and suddenly the anti-corporate arguments seemed wholly inadequate to the challenge. Bush's anti-terrorist agenda swept away everything in its path, and while it seemed intimately connected to the corporate agenda, its arguments hit people on some whole other level. People who ought to have known better started repeating its slogans.

That's when Korten realized he needed a bigger theory, something that would explain not just why corporations and governments were doing things, but why those things garnered the enthusiastic support of ordinary people. That led him to the opposing visions of Empire and Earth Community. ("Empire" is Korten's re-labeling of the feminist "Patriarchy", which I think is a good change. It reminds me of Philip Dick's novel VALIS and its enigmatic line "The Empire never ended.")

These visions could stand on their own in the present, but Korten finds them more compelling if they're attached to a historical big theory, which is where the prehistoric matriarchy and the five-thousand-years-of-Empire come in. I don't find either of these theories all that convincing, so I'm happy to discover that they're separable from the rest.

Then he needs an argument that Empire is heading towards a crack-up. This is where global warming, peak oil, the coming collapse of the dollar, etc. come in. Some of these supporting theories are a whole lot more convincing than the others, so it's important to realize that you just need something in this slot. If you happen to believe that there's a whole lot more oil in the ground than pessimists think, or have an argument that explains why the trade deficit is not such a big deal, that doesn't torpedo the whole Great Turning.

Finally, the Great Turning comes with an action plan, and that plan starts with changing popular worldviews by changing the stories we tell. He doesn't use the term "framing", but that's what it is. Lakoff did it better in Moral Politics. Korten identifies three big stories (i.e. frames) that need to be changed from an Empire version to an Earth Community version: the prosperity story, the security story, and the meaning story. In each case, I found that the Empire version was too much of a caricature and the Earth Community story wasn't compelling. But this is fixable. I think I can write better Earth Community stories, and maybe I will. I don't think Korten would mind.

Korten's section on meaning stories is really awful. He identifies meaning stories with creation stories and gives two parallel Empire versions: the Calvinist God-made-the-rich story and the Darwinist everything-is-meaningless story. His Earth Community meaning story is basically intelligent design with a Dancing-Wu-Li-Masters, bad-quantum-mechanics twist. (The closest I got to snark in my account of his talk at GA was to note that the room went dead silent during this segment.) There's room for a much better liberal religious, meaning-is-what-we-make-it story.

So anyway, this is the scaffolding that I needed to construct around The Great Turning. If you've had as much trouble with it as I did, I hope this helps.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

How I Spent General Assembly

Lots to catch up on here. I just got back early this morning from Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Portland.

The main thing I did there was write. I wrote the UUA web site's GA Journal blog, which you can find here. My goal in the GA Journal (second year I've done it) is to capture the feeling of being at General Assembly. The rest of the web site covers the events at GA in an objective, journalistic way. I try to cover everything else. (Like the panhandler whose sign said: "Trying to take over the world. Need cash for weapons of mass destruction.")

Some of that event coverage was also by me. I covered four events: Rob Eller-Isaacs' talk "A Faithful Conversation" at the Thursday worship service. Paul Rasor's talk at the annual John Murry Lecture "Universalism and the Sectarian Element in Liberal Religion," David Korten's "Navigating the Great Turning," and the annual Ware Lecture by Rashid Khalidi.

Also Saturday afternoon I saw a retrospective on the 35th anniversary of Beacon Press publishing The Pentagon Papers. I was deeply affected by hearing Daniel Ellsberg and Mike Gravel talk about a time when people were willing to take real risks to end a war. So I wrote "Is There Courage in This Generation?" for Daily Kos. When I went to bed Saturday night the piece had gotten one comment, and that was critical. So I figured it was one of those posts that goes nowhere. The next morning I woke up to find it on dKos' front page. (Thank you, Meteor Blades.)

And then there was my "Spiritual Writing" workshop with Meg Barnhouse. I've already posted my part of the talk here.

I come home with a bunch of new ideas, which you'll be seeing in the coming months.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Spiritual Writing: My GA Talk

[This is the text of my 15-minute segment in the Spiritual Writing workshop organized at the UU General Assembly by UU World magazine. I was on a panel with Meg Barnhouse, the other columnist on the UU World website. Meg, who has written five books and has made musical CDs, is much better known than I am, so we packed the 200-chair room to the point that the organizers had to keep reminding people not to sit in the doorway.]

Before I get started, there's something I should tell you. About 20 years ago, the female characters in the comic strip Eyebeam described a chronic condition that I immediately realized I suffer from. It's called Male Answer Syndrome. The main symptom is a compulsion to answer any question you're asked, whether you know what you're talking about or not.

The worst case I ever saw was my college roommate. When people asked Mike for directions, he always gave them – even if he had never heard of the place where they were going. To this day whenever I'm lost, I remember Mike and I never ask for directions.

I thought I should tell you this, because a few months ago Kenneth Sutton asked me: "What makes writing spiritual?"

So here I am.

What makes writing spiritual?

I once led a discussion at my church on the question "What is spiritual?" It didn't work out very well. The second person to talk – probably another Male Answer Syndrome sufferer – looked spiritual up in the dictionary and answered the question for us. Where can a discussion go from there? Who were we to pit our authority against the OED?

I don't want to repeat that mistake today, but if you're going to talk about spiritual writing, you do need at least some working notion of spiritual, so I'll tell you mine. To me, spiritual isn't a type of subject matter, it's a frame of mind. This really comes through in Zen, where they might teach you to practice archery or calligraphy. Are those things spiritual? Well, no. But you can do them – like you can do almost anything – in a spiritual frame of mind.

What frame would that be? The best way I can think to describe the spiritual frame of mind is that it's an engaged humility. You're totally absorbed in whatever you're doing, but not in a dominating, controlling way. When you do something in the spiritual frame of mind, you can get so far away from the sense of your own place in the spotlight that you feel privileged just to be present – even though you are the person doing the thing that you're present at.

So: spiritual writing. Well, almost any writing can be spiritual to the writer. It's like archery or calligraphy. You could be writing the most formulaic murder mystery. But if you hit that point where the story takes on a life of its own and the characters start saying what they say rather than what you tell them to say – that's a spiritual experience. That's engaged humility. You forget that you're writing the story – it's just happening and you feel privileged to be there.

But notice: It's the process that's spiritual, not the product. The reader just sees a murder mystery.

So I think I'd rather reserve the term spiritual writing for pieces that are intended to be spiritual for the reader. A good piece of spiritual writing should invite the reader into a state of engaged humility.

The night sky may not be a piece of writing, but it has that effect. On one of those cold, clear nights in the desert, the sky goes beyond just being engaging. It's arresting. You can't stop looking at it. And it's also humbling, because there's too much of it. You can't look at all of it. You're just a finite being in a Universe that might as well be infinite.

But again, spirituality is in the process, not the product. It's not that the night sky itself is spiritual. Rather than being engaged and humbled, you could look at the night sky and experience a sense of pride in your ability to identify all the constellations. Instead of being humbled by the whole, you could cut it into pieces and master each one by knowing its name. There's nothing wrong with that, but I wouldn't call it spiritual.

And that, I think, is a lesson for writers. If the Creator of the Sky can't force a spiritual response from people, neither can you. You can invite readers to dance, but you can't sweep them off their feet.

Now, spiritual writing as I've just described it is very different from religious writing, where you write about religion or about religious concepts like God or karma or the UU Principles. Sometimes the two overlap, because some religious concepts are so big that they're like the night sky. You're engaged by the concept, but you're humbled at the same time. Even as you grasp a piece of it, you realize that there's so much that you're not grasping, so much that's just on the edge of your comprehension, and probably even more that is outside your field of vision completely. That's when religion becomes spiritual.

But some religion and some religious writing is downright anti-spiritual. Because it's not about humility at all; it's about mastery. You can cut God up into constellations and name them: God is omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent. God is a character in our book, and the book has rules that He has to follow. And so we can hold God to His commitments, because we're the ones in control.

Another anti-spiritual kind of religion promotes humility, but it's the humility of a slave rather than a saint. Instead of engaging you, it beats you down: Don't look up at the night sky. It's too big for you. You wouldn't get it. You'd just be confused. I, the author, have been specially chosen and specially trained to look at the sky, and I'll tell you what you need to know. Listen to what I say. And the first thing I say is: "Don't look up."

On the other hand, writing that opens up new vistas of consciousness can be spiritual, even if it has nothing to do with religion. Three hundred years ago reading Newton could be a spiritual experience. The idea that the same law made your fork fall off the table and kept the Moon in its orbit – it was so big. Everything you'd ever thought seemed small by comparison.

Now finally we get to UU spiritual writing. To me that means spiritual writing that has some UU religious content, and not just a UU author. It doesn't have to be a dissertation on the seven principles, but it should be informed by a UU sensibility. Meg Barnhouse's essays, I think, are good examples of what I mean: It's not like the words Unitarian Universalism appear on every page, but it's no surprise when you discover that the author is a UU. My writing, I think, comes in the other door: It's obvious when I'm writing about UUism, but I only occasionally get spiritual with it.

Some of the challenges of spiritual writing are the same for UUs as for anybody else, and some are unique. Like any other kind of religious writing, UU writing can be anti-spiritual. Sometimes we go so far in our efforts to demystify religion that we destroy any sense of awe and wonder. The Universe becomes something to master, and humility goes out the window. Or we can beat people down by telling them that their subjective engagement with life is just idiosyncratic and not worth paying attention to.

One special challenge is a UU audience's distrust of authority. There are no spiritual experts in UUism, so you can't just say, "Listen to me." To a certain extent you have to be like the early sea-faring merchants when they dealt with skittish tribes. They wouldn't barge into the village and try to make a sale in sign language. Instead they'd lay some of their merchandise out on the beach and back away from it. In time the natives would come and inspect it and leave some of their own products in its place.

So you don't go to a UU audience and say, "You should think this." Instead you say, "This is how I look at things. These are my experiences that lead me to think this way." Then you back away. Slowly, your readers come out of the jungle.

The place where my religious writing gets most spiritual is when I present a vision of how things could be. But I always have to be careful to put it forward as my vision, not the UU vision. If readers want to make it their own vision, they can pick it up off the beach.

On those rare occasions when I do say something directly, maybe because I don't have time to do anything else, I try to make it non-threatening by wrapping an amusing metaphor around it – like seafaring merchants and skittish tribes.

A second special challenge – I wish I had an amusing metaphor to buffer this one – is UUism's impoverished religious language. This really hits me whenever I read evangelical stuff. I get language envy, because they can very quickly and simply communicate things that would give me fits. Several years ago I saw a piece on 60 Minutes about a Christian couple who adopted and raised kids that nobody else wanted. They had like 26 of them. And when the reporter asked why, the wife said very plainly (as if these things happen every day) that this was the work God had called them to do. That was all she needed to say. Evangelicals all over the country knew exactly what she meant.

If that woman were a UU, she could explain for half an hour and still leave questions. She absolutely could not say that this was the work God had called her to do. "God? God Who?" UUs don't have a religious terminology that everyone understands.

We also don't have a canon of stories and characters that we can take for granted. If I were talking to an evangelical audience about friendship, I could just say "David and Jonathan". I wouldn't have to tell the story. They'd know it well enough to figure out for themselves how it applied to my talk. But what UU stories does everyone know? That lack of common reference impoverishes our ability to communicate. (Actually, for the Star Trek fans out there I can make this point in three words: Darmok at Tanagra.)

As a UU writer, you get around the poverty of our language by grounding your points in the nitty-gritty of everyday life, and making metaphors out of experiences so common that almost everyone can identify with them. (And also, occasionally, by using pop culture.) Religious words, if you use them all, need to come late, after the everyday metaphors fix their meanings. Just now, for example, I talked about the night sky before I ever mentioned God.

Meg's pieces make good examples of this UU style. She almost always engages us by starting in some totally mundane place like a laundromat or a diner or a county fair. And she's in a role we all recognize: she's a mother or a daughter or somebody trying to do a hard job. The religious content arises slowly, and the humility in these pieces comes from realizing that even the most ordinary situation has depth. Even the most mundane setting opens outward to the infinite. If I were really aware, what might I see in this room? It's a humbling thought.

I wanted to close by reading a poem that captures this same kind of dualism between ordinary experience and themes so vast that they become spiritual. It's "First Lesson" by Philip Booth. I don't know whether Booth was ever a UU or not. I know the poem because Laurel Hallman used it in her Berry Street Lecture, which is in the volume A Language of Reverence. As Hallman notes, the poem has not one word of religious language in it. Superficially, Booth is just talking about teaching his daughter to float. But the deeper themes are there also. Listen:

[I then read the whole poem, which would not be fair use to publish online -- Hallman didn't publish it online either. But I did find it here. How the Poemhunter site deals with copyright issues I have no idea.]

Monday, June 18, 2007

Portland, Ho!

Once again this year I'm going to be doing a sort-of-blog for the UU General Assembly. It's a blog in the sense of being a regularly updated chronicle of what I see and do, but it's sort-of because there's no mechanism for leaving comments. (Not my fault; the GA web site just isn't set up that way.)

I'll post a link when I know one, and feel free to attach comments to this post.

This week I've been doing my homework. I'm covering the Ware Lecture by Rashid Khalidi, so I read his book about Palestine "The Iron Cage". Liked it. He gives the impression of being thoughtful and not knee-jerk partisan. I am not an Israel/Palestine expert though, so I can't judge how accurate his overall interpretations of the facts are. I expect an interesting talk.

I'm having more trouble with my other homework. I'm covering David Korten's talk, so I'm reading his recent book "The Great Turning: from Empire to Earth Community". I want to like the book, but it's pushing so many of my buttons.

When an author is trying to state a case or make a point, one of my tests is whether s/he seems to understand why some people disagree. I'm impressed if you can state the opposing case in a reasonable way, and I'm not impressed if you think that everyone on the other side is either stupid or evil. So far, in the first 100 pages, the main reason I've seen for people choosing Empire is that they are not as spiritually advanced or psychologically mature as the people who choose Earth Community. That doesn't give me a good feeling.

He also pushed my gender button. 67% of "Spiritual Creatives" -- the highest caste in Korten's system -- are female. Now think about the reaction an author would get if he defined a ladder of spiritual advancement and discovered that 2/3 of the highest caste were male. Immediately issues of structural bias would come up. But Korten just swallows this number in one gulp, without raising a single question about it.

On the GA web site I'm going to maintain journalistic objectivity; it's my job. But it may not be easy.

Monday, June 04, 2007

My Moment in the Public Eye

Good things (and bad things, I suppose) happen in bunches. The same day that my first column appears on the UU World web site is also the day I get my first article published in a political quarterly: Public Eye.

The article is called Defense Against the Dark Arts, and it's about the working class evangelicals. What's going to happen to them? Are they going to rediscover their progressive self-interest? Or is 2006 an aberration, after which the Reagan coalition will reform?

The title, you probably noticed, comes from Harry Potter's favorite subject. Here's the metaphor-establishing paragraph:
At Hogwarts, the Reagan spell would be taught in Transfiguration class: Lower-wage workers who coincidentally belong to conservative churches are transmuted into moral crusaders who coincidentally have bad jobs. The progressive working class becomes the religious Right, and the band plays "Onward Christian Soldiers" instead of "Joe Hill" or even "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" And liberals - compassionate, decent people that we think we are - are transmuted in their eyes into soul-destroying monsters.
If you've been reading my stuff for a while, you'll probably notice that most of the themes and references of Who's Afraid of Freedom and Tolerance? are back, but repackaged into a more political context and given a new framing metaphor. And hopefully reaching a new audience.

I Are an Columist

Today begins something I've been looking forward to for a while: I've become a regular columnist on the UU World web site.

If "regular" makes you think of Paul Krugman writing twice a week for the New York Times, I'm overstating things. My column will appear six times a year. One way of looking at it is that Meg Barnhouse (author of the book "Rock of Ages at the Taj Mahal" and the new "Did I Say That Out Loud?") and I are sharing a monthly column.

My first column is a more philosophical look at something I've been posting scattered impressions of since April: the New Humanism conference at Harvard. The column is called Does Humanism Need to be New? I'm pleased with it. I think I got a lot of content into a small space, and I'm happy with the phrases and the running series of sci-fi metaphors.

I have an ulterior motive for not posting the text here: I want a lot of people to go to the UU World web site and read my column there, so that it gets a good hit count. UU World doesn't have any commenting feature, though, so come back here to say what you think.

Friday, May 18, 2007

New Humanism Conference III: Me and Salman

The thing-I-will-never-forget about the New Humanism Conference is that I got to ask Salman Rushdie a question.

The first night of the conference (Friday) was devoted to giving Rusdie some kind of lifetime achievement award in "cultural humanism". So there was a long process of introducing introducers who introduce somebody who introduces Rushdie. I'm sure you know how those things go. Steven Pinker was one of the introducers, and Rebecca Goldstein made some interesting points, so it could have been worse.

Then Rushdie did a reading from "Shalimar the Clown". I liked it a lot. At this point I have to make a shameful confession: I've never read a Rushdie novel. I bought "Satanic Verses" back when the Ayatollah was threatening to have Rushdie killed, but I never got around to reading it. Buying it was more of a political statement than a literary ambition. (I know you're wondering: Whatever happened to the fatwa? It was never officially rescinded, but Rushdie wanders around pretty freely these days. I get the impression that certain circles in Teheran will celebrate when Rushdie dies, but bringing that day closer doesn't seem to be high on anybody's to-do list.)

Afterwards there was a question period. I'm always conflicted in situations like this. Part of me wants to interact with the famous person any way I can, and another part of me is ashamed of that juvenile impulse and sits on it. So if I recognized God having the grand slam breakfast in the next booth at Denny's, I'd probably leave him alone. I don't want to waste his time with something stupid like: "The Universe was just such a cool idea. I really, really like it." I'd try to watch him without being obvious, and then later I'd think: "I can't believe it was like, God, right there. And I didn't say anything."

So I'm not saying anything, and all these people are trying to ask refined literary questions, some more successfully than others. Rushdie is answering them very graciously. One woman is an English teacher whose class read "Midnight's Children". They argued over what the ending meant, and she wants to know what Rushdie thinks it means. And he says exactly the right thing: "It's not my job to say what it means. That's your job."

I'm watching the line of questioners dwindle, when I realize that I actually do want to know something that nobody else is asking. So after some internal debate I stop sitting on my juvenile self and get in line. I continue to be the end of the line, and when the MC offers Rushdie the chance to declare victory and go home, Salman notices that there are only four questioners left and decides to let us ask our questions. I'm last.

I ask: "Looking back at 'The Satanic Verses' and the fatwa and the way it dominated your life for so many years, my question is: Would you do it again?"

And Rushdie very wryly says, "Well, I'd rather not." And then he makes a very interesting comment, which I won't put in quotes because I don't remember it word-for-word. He said that it makes him happy now that finally people can read "Satanic Verses" as a novel. For years, he said, no one commented on it as a novel. You could talk about it in a political context or a religious context, but not in a literary context. He said it was very frustrating as a writer to put so much of your time into writing a piece of fiction and have it talked about every way but as a piece of fiction.

Then the evening was over and I went home. For a while I thought that although Rushdie's answer had been interesting, he had sort of dodged the question. I had meant to ask: Knowing what he knows now, knowing what the effect on his life would be, would he have written and published "Satanic Verses" at all? And he didn't answer that.

At least not directly. As I thought about his answer and about the general tone of his other answers, I realized something: This crowd had gathered to honor him as a Humanist hero, and he wasn't going to come out and tell them in so many words "Being a hero wasn't worth it." That wouldn't have been gracious at all. Instead he told me that he was glad that the book had stopped being a symbol and gone back to being a novel. Which, I think, sort of means the same thing. But he made it my job to come to that interpretation, not his job.

And I guess that means that the book on my shelf has stopped being a political statement and started being a novel that I haven't read. Maybe I will.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

New Humanism Conference II: Da Yute

Easily the most fun session at the New Humanism Conference was the "Next Generation of Humanism" panel. Whoever assembled the panel must have had a blast doing it. In addition to leaders of more-or-less traditional student organizations -- Amanda Shapiro of the Harvard Secular Society, Peter Blake representing Harvard Graduate Humanist Community, August Brunsman of the Secular Student Alliance -- the panel included three new-media types: Rebecca Watson, editor of the online magazine and blog Skepchick and regular contributor to the podcast The Skeptics Guide to the Universe; Bryan Pesta, who hosts the atheist and agnostics page on MySpace; and Hermant Mehta, author of the book I Sold My Soul on eBay.

Mehta's backstory is the most entertaining: He grew up Jain but has been an atheist since he was a teen-ager. The stunt that eventually became his book was that he offered the following auction on eBay: the winner could send this lost young atheist to the church of his or her choice. He expected to get about $10, but the bidding ended with a $504 bid by evangelist Jim Henderson. Mehta proceeded to visit a number of churches chosen by Henderson and blog about them for Henderson's web site Off the Map. (If this all sounds too good not to be planned in advance, you too may be a skeptic.) The book chronicles Mehta's adventures visiting a variety of Christian churches, including Ted Haggard's church in Colorado and the Willow Creek megachurch in Illinois.

Skepchick is another great story. The online magazine last published an issue in May, 2006, so it may be defunct. But the blog, forum, and podcast are active. Under slogans like "Smart is Sexy" and "Critical Thinking for the Masses", the Skepchick community discusses all sorts of topics from a youthful, skeptical, female viewpoint. (Anything from "Who are the 11 hottest movie scientists?" to "Can or should religion and science cooperate?") Probably the most outrageous thing they do is sell a "sensual but not lewd" calendar of skepchicks, which sadly was not available in the merchanting area. (Order yours here. Submit your photo for the next one here. See the 2007 calendar turned into a music video here.) This is not your grandmother's Humanism. It's not even the Humanism of your spinster great-aunt that nobody talks about.

The panel part of the discussion was noteworthy more for its attitude than for any outstanding idea or quote. This is a generation of Humanists who are not going peacefully into the closet. They don't shy away from terms like atheist. And they've also gotten past the in-your-face adolescent-rebellion God-sucks kind of atheism. And they don't look like the classic pocket-protector-wearing nerds. They are who they are and they seem comfortable with it.

The most interesting audience question/comment came from Fred Edwords of the American Humanist Association. He was being blown away by the numbers the new-media people threw around. Pesta's MySpace group has 31,604 members (I just checked) and Watson claimed her podcasts could get up to 16,000 downloads. Edwords pointed out that the MySpace group was technically the largest Humanist organization in the country. He urged the 20-somethings to come to meetings of the longer-standing humanist groups and explain how they were reaching so many people. It was like watching a middle-aged businessman boggle at the net worth of the Google founders.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Things I Learned at the New Humanism Conference, Part I

I went to the New Humanism Conference at Harvard two weeks ago, and I've had writers' block about it ever since. I think I've finally figured out why: I've been trying to write something that captures everything I learned, pulling it all together and capping it with a bright red bow.

Not going to happen. Too much. Too big.

The conference was full of stars: novelist Salman Rushdie, biologist E. O. Wilson, singer Dar Williams, Senate candidate Ned Lamont, and some other very important people who I hope are not insulted to be left off that list. Some of the talks launched me into idea-fugues of my own, leaving me unable to say exactly which ideas were theirs and which are mine.

This morning I figured out that I can break the logjam by starting small. One of the talks that got the least buzz at the conference was by Tu Weiming, a professor of Chinese history and philosophy at Harvard. Busting myths about Humanism was a general theme of the conference, and Weiming was part of a panel busting this myth: Humanism is a purely Western phenomenon that we are either exporting to or imposing on the rest of the world. Weiming tackled the subject of Confucian humanism.

My notes are a complete injustice to Weiming's talk. I fugued, but along the way I came to understand something about the East/West divide that I had never grasped before: the difference between Eastern and Western ways of thinking about self. In the West the self is a thing; it has an inside, an outside and a boundary. Sometimes when we're explaining things, we'll draw a little blob to represent ourselves. Other people have their own blobs, and each one has its own unique essence. When I learn and change, something is happening inside the blob that represents me. You could pick that blob up and put it somewhere else without changing its essence.

But when Weiming talked about the Confucian self, it sounded different. "The self is never an isolated individual but a center of relationship." I puzzled over that and similar statements for a while, until a new framing metaphor popped into my head: Weiming was viewing the self not as a blob, but as a point. A point doesn't have the space to contain an inner essence; all it has is a location. It exists on a map. And a person grows in wisdom by getting a ever richer picture of the map, not by developing the interior of the self.

To a Westerner that metaphor sounds, well, empty. If I'm a point, somebody could plunk me down somewhere else and I'd be just like the points that are in that location. If I moved to Detroit and became a lawyer, I'd be just another Detroit lawyer. We think that way because our maps are impoverished compared to the map of a Confucian sage. The sage understands the uniqueness of each location on his multi-dimensional map. I'd be not just another Detroit lawyer, but one who had these parents and went to that school and read those books and was influenced by such-and-such ideas. That would all be represented by my location, my point of view.

Two individuals, in this metaphor, are separated by a distance rather than a wall. The distance is ultimately uncrossable. I can move closer to your point of view, but you have spent your entire life getting where you are. I will never arrive at your location, nor you at mine. In the Confucian model, this -- not some interior essence -- is our individuality.

The Confucian humanist "seeks harmony without conformity by dialog. Dialog is not a way of persuasion; its purpose is to find out what we do not know." Conformity would be an artificial attempt to mask the distance between us, to hide the fact that we are in different locations and view things differently. And yet, despite our distance, we can harmonize our actions to achieve common purposes.

As I experimented with this model -- thinking of myself as a point rather than a blob -- a lot of Eastern (not just Confucian) thought made more sense to me. All the Buddhist talk about "the emptiness of the self" -- a Westerner hears that and pictures a blob with a vacuum inside. But points are empty because they have no interior into which you can put stuff. There is no vacuum, only a recognition that the space you imagined inside yourself is a misconception. Westerners hear about "destroying the Ego" and imagine that it involves achieving some universal point-of-view. If I read this metaphor right, the exact opposite happens: You understand that all you are is a point of view. The Ego is the illusory wall you have built around all the things to which you are attached.

I'm pretty sure Weiming said the stuff in quotes. As for the rest of it, I don't know. It happened somewhere in the space between us.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Religious Prejudice Against the Tillmans

This is unbelievable. According to ESPN, Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, the guy in charge of the initial investigation into Pat Tillman's death-by-friendly-fire in Afghanistan, says that the reason Tillman's family is making such a big deal about this is that they're aren't Christians. Here's the link.

The part I'm referring to is maybe a quarter of the way down Part I of the story:
"But there [have] been numerous unfortunate cases of fratricide, and the parents have basically said, 'OK, it was an unfortunate accident.' And they let it go. So this is — I don't know, these people have a hard time letting it go. It may be because of their religious beliefs."
In an interview with, Kauzlarich said: "When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don't believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing, and now he is no more — that is pretty hard to get your head around that. So I don't know how an atheist thinks. I can only imagine that that would be pretty tough."

Tillman's mother responds:
"Well, this guy makes disparaging remarks about the fact that we're not Christians, and the reason that we can't put Pat to rest is because we're not Christians," Mary Tillman, Pat's mother, said in an interview with Mary Tillman casts the family as spiritual, though she said it does not believe in many of the fundamental aspects of organized religion.

"Oh, it has nothing to do with the fact that this whole thing is shady," she said sarcastically, "But it is because we are not Christians."

Surely any comment I might add to this is already obvious.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Humanist Visions: the World City

Last Thursday (April 19) I spoke to a chapel service of UU divinity students at the Andover-Newton Theological School. The talk was a variation of the Cosmopolis sermon I first gave in Middlebury, Vermont in January 2006.

I'm not sure what to do with texts like this. This is the third time I've preached on the same subject (Bedford this January was the other time), and I don't want to clog up this blog with many variations of the same talk. On the other hand, it does change a little bit each time. So I thought I'd compromise by putting a PDF of the sermon here, and link to it.

If you've never read it before, by all means follow the link. It's probably my best sermon, which is why I keep taking it on the road.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Unitarian Universalism and the Working Class

Delivered Tuesday, April 3 at the weekly chapel service at UUA headquarters in Boston

My hometown is in downstate Illinois, in the farm country. We had one high school, so whether your dad was a millionaire or ran off when you were three never to be seen again, that’s where you went.

My father worked in a factory, the same factory for my entire childhood. You could do that in those days, if you showed up on time every day and did what they told you.

It was a good job. The factory made cattle feed, and cattle always need to eat, so the work was steady. If you were careful, it paid well enough to support a family.

It was also a bad job. Dad always came home stinking of fish oil. Over time, the noise ruined his hearing. And the schedule flickered. He worked the day shift one week and the night shift the next. Back and forth every other week until he retired. All the workers in that factory did that.

If the night shift was working overtime, I didn’t see him all week. But otherwise I got off school about an hour before he had to leave for work. I’d race home on my bike and we’d play baseball. He taught me to hit by throwing me tennis balls in the front yard.

Dad had an interesting method for teaching me not to be afraid of the ball. “Let it hit you,” he said. Because that’s how Dad thinks: If the worst has happened already and you survived, what’s to be afraid of?

Unitarian Universalism has a class problem. We talk about it some, but not a lot. And when we do we often focus on the very poor: the homeless, panhandlers, people on welfare.

But we also have a problem with the working class. I don’t meet many people like my Dad in UU churches, not even at the church in my hometown. I’ve preached there twice now. Dad came to hear me the first time, but I don’t think I sold him on Unitarian Universalism. He hasn’t been back.

Meanwhile, I’ve met a lot of educated professionals there – the newspaper editor, the superintendent of schools, a professor from the local university. Because that’s who goes to a UU church.

Why is that? In some ways it’s the same mystery as our race problem: We try to stand for all people, but when we look around we’re usually standing with people like ourselves. We promote equality, but perversely, the less privileged would rather join conservative churches, churches that seem to us to serve the interests of the rich, churches that tell them it’s their own damn fault their lives are such a struggle.

One reason this mystery is hard to talk about, I think, is that a lot of us believe an explanation that we don’t want to say out loud: Working class people are stupid. The powers-that-be have duped them into pining for Heaven instead of changing Earth.

It’s a tempting explanation, because it absolves us. We don’t have to ask if we’re being stupid, if the working class doesn’t listen to us because we’re really only talking about our lives, not theirs.

Let’s go back to baseball for a minute. Batting helmets. Did you know the major leagues didn’t make batting helmets mandatory until 1971? You know who fought that rule? Players. Hitters. The league had to grandfather the active players in, so that they could keep facing Nolan Ryan without helmets until they retired. The last batter without a helmet was Bob Montgomery in 1979. The same thing happened in hockey. The last helmetless player retired in 1997.

Now, from the outside it sounds crazy that the players would fight a rule that protects them, but it makes an odd kind of sense. You see, the players knew the lesson my Dad taught me: If you’re afraid of the ball, you can’t hit it. They just took it one step further: If you’re really not afraid, why do you want a helmet?

When you’re doing something hard, like hitting a baseball, sometimes the mindset that works is not the objective, big-picture view – the one that tells you to wear a helmet.

Another sports example: I remember hearing Muhammad Ali say, “I am the greatest. There ain’t never been no fighter like me. There ain’t never been no nothing like me.”

If you ask whether those statements were objectively true, you miss the point. Ali was doing something hard. He needed to think that way to do what he did.

Working class people are doing something hard. Picture it like this: Imagine society as a giant maze, with success as a prize at the end. Some people are born right by the exit. Others start in more difficult places. They can’t just wander out. They have to make all the right moves.

Now, you might stand in a high place outside the maze and feel compassion for the people deep inside. You might ask: “Why does it have to be so hard to find the prize? Couldn’t we knock out a few walls? Why can’t the minimum wage be higher? Why can’t the government hire the unemployed? Why can’t college be free?”

When you’re standing in a high place those are great questions.

But if you’re inside the maze, that mindset won’t get you out. “Why does this maze have to be so hard? Why does that wall have to be there? Why can’t I have a clear path to the prize?”

It doesn’t help. No matter how good those questions are objectively, if I’m in the maze I don’t need them in my head.

Ten-twelve years ago I was visiting my sister in Tennessee. She also got an education and joined the professional class. My nephews never had any doubt they were going to college.

That Saturday night I got her husband Ed talking. He was researching clean ways to burn coal. It was a demanding job, but he believed in it and thought it was important. So he worked long hours and traveled a lot. He was also finance chair of their conservative, not-quite-fundamentalist church. They were raising money for a new building. That seemed important too. And his sons, my nephews, were both in elementary school. Ed worried that he wasn't spending enough time with them.

Job, church, family – every part of his life wanted more from him. What to do?
The next morning I went to church with them. The sermon topic was “Resisting Temptation.” I boiled the entire 20-minute sermon down to three words: Don't be bad.

I felt smug that morning, because I knew that Ed would have been so much better off in my church. We talk about real life, his real life. He didn’t need to be told not to be bad. His issue wasn’t Good vs. Evil; it was Good vs. another Good vs. a third kind of Good. And that’s the issue in my life and in the lives of all my professional class friends.

The primary spiritual challenge of the professional class is discernment. There are so many good things we could do with our lives. How do we choose?

A UU church will help you figure that out.

But I don’t think discernment was Dad’s issue. Because the factory was not a competing Good. It was a necessary Evil.

When he was pitching me tennis balls in the front yard, I don’t believe that any part of him actually wanted to go off to that dirty, hot, noisy, dangerous factory. He went because if he didn’t something bad would happen. He’d be punished. And in the long run, if he lost his job, I’d be punished.

He didn’t need help discerning what to do. He just needed to make himself do it.

And that’s working class life in a nutshell. You’re not following your bliss. You’re not pursuing your calling. You’re selling your time for money. The way out of the maze, and the way to get your kids out of the maze, is to go out every day and do something you’d rather not do.

Professionals have trouble grasping that. Because we imagine that we also do things we don’t want to do. We don’t get that extra hour of sleep in the morning. We have meetings with people we don’t like. We fill out forms that we know are pointless. It’s on a whole different scale.

Here’s what sums it up to me: When professionals retire, we keep dabbling. The newspaper editor in my hometown – he’s retired; he still writes. When the professor retires, he’ll keep reading journals and going to talks. But in the thirty years since my Dad took early retirement, he has never brought home some fish oil and mixed up a batch of cattle feed in the garage. When you retire from WalMart, you don’t set up a bar-code scanner in the basement, just to stay busy. You do that stuff for money, and when they stop paying you, you never ever do it again.

UU churches also help with the second major spiritual challenge of the professional class: inspiration. That’s what discernment is for: to find a consistently inspiring path through life. The ideal profession is a calling, and inspiration is how you work those 12-hour days without burning out. Inspired people bounce out of bed in the morning with ideas and ambitions. They stay late because there’s always one more thing they want to try. Those are the people who really make it in the professions. If you have to push yourself, and you’re competing with somebody who’s inspired, you’re at a huge disadvantage.

That’s why professionals tell their children: “Find something you love, so that you'll be brilliant and creative and energetic. You'll run rings around the guys who are just doing what they have to do.”

In the professional class, inspiration is the road to success. It’s the way out of the maze.

In the working class the road to success is self control. That’s what you want to teach your children: Resist temptation. Walk the narrow path. Do the hard thing you don’t want to do, so that you and the people who are counting on you won’t be punished.

That almost sounds like a theology. But not our theology.

Let’s throw one more thing into the mix: Second chances. Rich kids, professional kids – they get them. The door never completely closes on you. If your parents are doctors or lawyers, you can flunk out of two or three colleges. It’ll work out. If your name is Bush, you don’t have to get serious until you’re 40. The sky is still the limit.

In the working class it’s not that way. Listen to Eminem’s song Lose Yourself. He asks: “What if you had one shot?” And the fantasy, of course, is that you get one shot. What if you had one shot? You wouldn’t blow it, would you?

So you’re deep in the maze. There’s a church in there. It tells you that there’s Good and there’s Evil. And because somebody has done something incredibly generous, you get a chance to choose Good. One chance. You get it wrong, you go to Hell forever.

There’s another church. It tells you there are a lot of ways to be good. And if the good you pick doesn’t turn out to be the best good, pick again. It’ll work out.

Which church is talking about the world you live in? Which message do you want your kids to hear? Which one gives you the mindset you need to get out? You see, it isn’t just that a harsh theology justifies a harsh world. It also works the other way: a harsh world justifies a harsh theology.

Of course, if you’re already outside the maze, if you’re standing in a high place and have the big view, then the whole good-and-evil, heaven-and-hell theology doesn’t sound so impressive. It’s crazy. It’s stupid. Almost as stupid as batting against Nolan Ryan without a helmet.

The question I want to leave you with is whether Unitarian Universalism is bringing the world a message about life, or just a message about our lives? Can we speak in words that make sense both in the high place and in the maze? Can we teach both subtle discernment and making yourself do the obvious hard thing? Inspiration and self control?

I hope so. Because otherwise we’re a boutique religion. Otherwise we’ve surrendered the working class to the religious right.

My hunch, my faith – or maybe just what I need to believe to do what I do – is that we can find such a message, that there can be a truth that encompasses all times and all places, a wisdom big enough for all people.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The View From the Channing Pulpit

Yesterday I led the chapel service at UUA headquarters in Boston. I think the text of my talk, "Unitarian Universalism and the Working Class," is going to show up on the UU World web site soon, so I'll post the link later rather than the whole thing now. Today I thought I'd just describe the experience, which is an odd and fascinating combination of Big Deal and No Big Deal.

On the No Big Deal side, they do this every Tuesday just before lunch in a room on the second floor. It's just half an hour, which includes a couple of hymns, a period for sharing joys and concerns, and opening/closing words. So that leaves maybe 15 minutes for a reading and sermon, rather than the 20-minute sermon plus maybe 5-minute reading you get in a typical hour-long Sunday service. Maybe thirty people show up -- they keep filtering in during the prelude, when I'm gearing up to talk and have stopped counting, so I can't say for sure. Afterwards they tell me that's about the usual number of people -- way less than the 150-or-so I spoke to at my home congregation in January.

I had mentioned to my minister (John Gibbons of First Parish in Bedford) that I was doing this. And he, recognizing that I was nervous, emphasized the no-big-deal side of it. He keeps not getting around to scheduling one, which I'll bet is a common attitude among Boston-area ministers, who already have commitments for 20-25 sermons a year.

The Big Deal side of it starts with 25 Beacon Street itself. If you've never been there, the UUA headquarters sits across from Boston Common and next to the State Capitol. And I don't mean "next to" like across-the-highway and over-the-barbed-wire-fence. When you look out the window from the Eliot Chapel room, it's like your neighbor has a really big house with a gold dome on it. If 25 Beacon didn't already exist, they couldn't build it there today. The whole place is an odd combination of working office and museum. People busily go back and forth down narrow hallways, under the watchful eyes of portraits of long-dead folks who are legendary figures if you know Unitarian history and complete non-entities otherwise.

The Eliot Chapel (I examined a plaque trying to figure out if this was the same Eliot who was president of Harvard, the one who lifted the ban on Emerson and hired William James) is set up to be wide but not deep. The State Capitol is behind the speaker, and the far wall has tall mirrors carefully positioned so that the speaker can't see himself. (I was grateful for that. I try to make eye contact with the audience when I speak, but I think eye contact with myself would be unnerving.)

I stand behind a weathered piece of dark wood with a small plaque on it. This is the Channing Pulpit. It used to be in the Federal Street Church back in the days when Massachusetts still hadn't separated church and state. So delegates spoke from this lectern to debate ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. John Adams, almost certainly at one time or another. It's called the Channing Pulpit after the minister of that church, William Ellery Channing. Unitarianism doesn't have a Joseph Smith or Martin Luther type founder, but if we had to name one it would be Channing. You can see a life-sized statue of him on the Boston Common.

So naturally I'm thinking: I'm here why, exactly?

The last time I'd been at headquarters was in February, to talk to my editor at Skinner Press. (I'm writing an intro-to-UU book that we still haven't titled or set a release date for). I had forgotten the significance of Tuesdays, so I just missed the chapel service, led by William Schultz, ex-president of the UUA and ex-executive-director of Amnesty International.

I'm here why?

And then there's who the thirty people are: the executive VP of the UUA, the director of electronic communications (who invited me), a full slate of UU World editors (one of whom is playing the piano), a couple of Skinner Press people whose good will my book is going to need if it's going to come out looking anything like what I picture. And the people I don't recognize: Maybe I should. If I were really plugged in and knew what's what.

Finally, there's my philosophy of preaching, which insists that I say something challenging. If you come out of one of my sermons feeling warm and fuzzy about yourself, I've screwed up.

"It's intimidating," I had told my minister, "to think about going to the UUA and challenging the top people in the denomination. But if I'm not going to do that, why am I there?"

I try not to be harsh or needlessly confrontational. But the writing process always starts with the question: "What do these people need to hear?" not "What do they want to hear?" UUism is possibly the most educated denomination in the country, and our congregations are full of professionals with masters and doctorates. What's up with that? So I start with my father, a factory worker: Why don't we appeal to someone like him? Is it his fault or ours?

It gets easier once I start talking. I always preach from a complete script in 16-point type, formatted like poetry so that each line is a complete phrase and each sheet ends with a pause appropriate for turning the page. At that point it's just performance; I make myself trust completely in the infinite wisdom of the person I was when I wrote this stuff. The message is what is; it's too late to change it now.

And it works. I can tell because they keep watching me; their eyes don't drift over to the gold dome. Afterwards some of the people I didn't recognize come up and talk to me. One works with a prison ministry. Another remembers her father, who worked in an elastic factory. They've also been thinking about class issues. Tom Stites, the retiring editor of UU World, tells me I've stolen the sermon he wanted to do at the end of the year, just before he leaves.

The reaction is gratifying. But as the room empties, just before I gather up my notes to leave, I touch the Channing Pulpit one last time.

It's not impressed. It's heard better.