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.