Monday, November 16, 2009

The DIY Spiritual Practice

My latest column is up. It describes a spiritual discipline my wife and I have cobbled together and practiced for the last 21 years. This would be a good place to comment on it.

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Spirited Life

keynote address at the "Conversations Towards a Better World" workshop
at the Eno River UU Fellowship
October 3, 2009

The text of the address is here.

Several months ago I was looking for a phrase to sum up my vision of Unitarian Universalism, something that would state a positive goal rather than be mainly a critique of other religions and other ways of being religious. The phrase I came up with -- I hope to use it as a book title someday -- was "the spirited life".

A spirited life, as I picture it, is a life you can be enthusiastic about, a life with a great deal of meaningful experience. I intended to reclaim the word spirit to refer to a kind of experience, rather than to some kind of supernatural being.

Anyway, for months I've been looking for the right opportunity to premier the phrase, and last weekend I finally got one: I was invited to speak at a workshop for UU social activists at Eno River.

I decided to focus my talk on the people who weren't in the audience, asking the question: Why aren't more UUs involved in social action, and how can we reach out to them? I wanted to argue against one vision of who the non-activists are (i.e., that they are the spiritual-growth UUs), and claim instead that they are more likely to be stressed and overwhelmed people who can't imagine how they would start either a spiritual practice or a social-action project.

There are two main images in the talk. The first is of the pendulum. It symbolizes a balanced, healthy kind of UUism, in which inner work and outer work each have their season. I give the example of Thoreau, who wrote both Walden and Civil Disobedience.

The second image is of the UUs I worry about: the stopped-pendulum people. Activists may think the problem is that they're trying to be spiritual, but they're not actually doing either inner work or outer work. And if they could get started doing either one, chances are that the other would follow.

My suggestion for how to approach them is first what not to do: Don't put more pressure on them. Instead, the need a "message of salvation" -- a hopeful message that there is a better way to live. That way is the spirited life.

If that makes sense to you, great. If not, please don't trash it until you read the talk.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Who Owns the World?

a sermon by Doug Muder
delivered at the Community Church of Chapel Hill

October 4, 2009

Opening Words

The opening words are the first verse of an anonymous poem from 18th century England. It protests a process known as Enclosure, or what today we would call privatization. Through Enclosure, a village's common land would become the private property of some rich lord.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.


The first reading is from a papal encyclical, Laborem Exercens by Pope John Paul II.

Working at any workbench, whether a relatively primitive or an ultramodern one, a man can easily see that through his work he enters into two inheritances: the inheritance of what is given to the whole of humanity in the resources of nature, and the inheritance of what others have already developed on the basis of those resources, primarily by developing technology, that is to say, by producing a whole collection of increasingly perfect instruments for work.

The second reading is from Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, specifically from the 100-page speech by John Galt that is the novel’s climax and centerpiece. Here, Galt discusses the relationship between one of the novels’ heroes, the industrialist Hank Rearden, and his workers:

The machine, the frozen form of a living intelligence, is the power that expands the potential of your life by raising the productivity of your time. If you worked as a blacksmith in the mystics’ Middle Ages, the whole of your earning capacity would consist of an iron bar produced by your hands in days and days of effort. How many tons of rail do you produce per day if you work for Hank Rearden? Would you dare to claim that the size of your pay check was created solely by your physical labor and that those rails were the product of your muscles? The standard of living of that blacksmith is all that your muscles are worth; the rest is a gift from Hank Rearden.

I’ll hit this point harder in the sermon, but right now I want to call attention to what Galt’s speech has done to the Pope’s second inheritance, the inheritance of technology. In this passage Rand anoints the factory owner as the sole heir to technological progress. His workers inherit nothing from the inventors of the past. If they benefit at all from the progress of technology, it is not by right of inheritance, but due to the generosity of their employer. It is “a gift from Hank Rearden.”


When Unitarian Universalists talk among ourselves about social justice, we all more-or-less know what that means: Things should be more equal. The poor should be richer. The disadvantaged should be less disadvantaged. No one should be hungry. The sick or injured should be cared for. Education should available to everyone. And so on.

We’re much better making these kinds of lists than we are at explaining why this world we’re envisioning is just. I think that’s because, among ourselves, we don’t need to explain it. Most people with UU values just feel it, without explanation.

You say, “Isn’t it awful that in such a wealthy country, some people are poor or hungry or have to go without healthcare or education?” And whoever you are talking to says, “Yes, it is awful.” And the conversation goes on from there.

There’s nothing wrong with that conversation. But if that’s what we’re expecting, we’ll be at a loss if people feel differently.

They might, for example, focus on the cost of doing all these things and wonder why they should pay it. In his We Surround Them broadcast, for example, Glenn Beck made this one of the 9 principles of his 9/12 Project (principles which he stated not simply for himself, but because he expected his listeners to share them):

"I work hard for what I have, and I will share it with others when I choose, who I choose, should I choose. The government cannot force me to be charitable."

At a townhall meeting in Indiana this summer, someone said, "I'm responsible for myself and I'm not responsible for other people. I should get the fruits of my labor and I shouldn't have to divvy it up with other people."

If working people feel that way, imagine how rich people must feel. The CEO of Whole Foods began his newspaper editorial against President Obama’s healthcare plan with this famous Margaret Thatcher quote: “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”

When you’re expecting a compassionate response and don’t get it, it’s tempting to write people off as selfish or hard-hearted. But many of them aren’t. Some people who look at the world this way are quite generous. They give money away. They put themselves out for others. They volunteer. But the model they put on this behavior isn’t justice, it’s charity. Justice, to them, would mean keeping what is theirs. Giving it away is charity.

American history includes some outstanding examples of charity. In the Gilded Age, it sometimes seemed that the more ruthlessly money was acquired, the more generously it was distributed. People like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie endowed countless libraries, museums, hospitals, and universities.

The richest men in today's America, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, have put tens of billions of dollars into a foundation that is doing wonderful work around the world.

But charity and justice are very different models. The Brazilian Archbishop Helder Camara got right to the root of the difference in this quote: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

A charitable worldview doesn't critique the way the world works, it just tries to mitigate the unfortunate results. If the world’s resources are controlled by relatively few people, and if that small class gets richer and richer as time goes on, a charitable person may think that's fine as long as the privileged class is generous.

By avoiding a critique and embracing compassion, charity is fundamentally a system of the heart. And a society that relies on charity to solve its problems will find itself in a perpetual argument between head and heart. In any situation there will be the sensible thing to do and the compassionate thing to do, and the two will rarely align.

By contrast, a justice-focused worldview does critique the system. It asks why the poor have no food. It asks how the difference between rich and poor came about. It asks how the system that leads to this result justifies itself.

A justice-based view does not accept that head and heart are naturally in conflict. If your reason has led you to a system that your compassion rejects, maybe you missed something. Maybe you're taking something for granted that you shouldn't. Social justice does not ask you to give up on thinking and follow your heart. Instead it asks you to check your assumptions and think again.

Today I want to focus on one of the great works of the justice tradition, which unfortunately is not nearly as well known as it ought to be. I’m talking about a short, simple, and very insightful little book by Thomas Paine called Agrarian Justice.

Thomas Paine's name-recognition has gone up recently, because Glenn Beck has written a best-seller that claims to update Paine’s American-revolution classic Common Sense. This shows the difference between name-recognition and being well known, because if people have heard of Paine but think of him as an 18th-century Glenn Beck, they don't know him at all.

By the time he writes Agrarian Justice, Paine has already played his role in the American Revolution, has gotten himself thrown out of England for preaching revolution there, and is in Paris trying to keep the French Revolution from going off the rails. Agrarian Justice is his proposal to the English, that they should give each young adult (of either gender) a stake of capital to get started in the world, and also establish an old-age pension, and that it should all be funded by an inheritance tax -- or (as Beck might say) a death tax.

And what is most interesting from our point of view this morning is that he proposes this not as charity but as justice. Paine is speaking not just from the heart, but from head and heart together.

Paine's analysis challenges one of the most fundamental economic concepts: property. He realizes that once you accept the property system, you’re stuck in a charity model. If you accept that people own what they own, free and clear with no obligation to anyone, then from that point forward, Margaret Thatcher is right: doing anything for the poor means using other people’s money. Those people own it, and you have to either beg it from them by appealing to their generosity, or take it from them by force.

When people have lived under a property system their entire lives -- as the English had then and we have today -- they tend to take it for granted. But Paine did not take property for granted, because he had seen the example of the Native Americans. He writes:

The life of an Indian is a continual holiday compared with the poor of Europe; and, on the other hand, it appears to be abject when compared to the rich. Civilization, therefore, or that which is so called, has operated in two ways: to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state.

But wait, civilization is supposed to be a good thing, isn’t it? Paine agrees:

The first principle of civilization ought to have been, and ought still to be, that the condition of every person born into the world, after a state of civilization commences, ought not to be worse than if he had been born before that period.

Now that’s a fine sentiment, a statement of the heart. But if our heads are going to go along on this trip, we need to understand why things didn’t turn out that way. Is there some reason why the poor have to be wretched, or did we make some initial mistake that led to that result? Paine says there was a mistake, and it has to do with how we created property.

Let me stop here for a minute, because I just snuck in a radical idea: We created property. A lot of people today write about property as if it were a natural concept, something that exists prior to all societies or governments

Not at all.

Paine expresses this idea in Biblical terms:

Neither did the Creator of the earth open a land office from which the first title-deeds should issue.

He might also have pointed to the animal world, because nothing remotely like property exists in nature. Animals have territory, which is a very different idea. A bird may build its nest in a tree and chase off all competing birds. But no bird has ever sold a tree to another bird, or rented a nest, or taken in someone else’s egg in exchange for a few worms. When a lion kills a zebra, the other animals stay away until he has eaten the lion’s share. But when the lion trots away for his nap, the hyenas and jackals and vultures don’t buy the zebra corpse from the lion. They don’t owe the lion any future favors, because the zebra is not property.

Private property is not a natural concept, and it is not some mystical connection between a person and an object or a piece of land. Paine writes:

The earth in its natural, uncultivated state, was, and ever would have continued to be THE COMMON PROPERTY OF THE HUMAN RACE. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life-proprietor with the rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal.

Being a practical man, Paine recognizes that American or English-style agriculture would not work on those terms, because it requires a long investment of effort before you see any product. You have to cut down the trees and pull up the stumps and dig out the rocks. Each year you have to plow and plant and fertilize and weed. And who would do all that if, in the end, he had no more right than anyone else to gather the harvest?

And so Paine believed it was right and just for the difference in value between cultivated land and uncultivated land to be private property. Not the land itself -- the difference in value between cultivated and uncultivated land.

And here he locates the original mistake, the original sin for which the poor pay the price. Rather than just let people own the value of their improvements in the productivity of the land, we created a system in which they own the land. We created a system in which the Earth itself is owned, not by humanity in general, but only by the people who have their names on deeds.

In other words, the poor of Europe were worse off than Native Americans not because God created them that way, but because they had been disinherited; their share of the common inheritance of humankind had been usurped.

Paine was just talking about land, but it’s easy to see how his ideas extend to other areas. Individuals deserve to have some kind of property in the mines they dig and the wells they drill, but what they pull out of the Earth -- the gold, the silver, the coal, the iron, the water, the oil -- is also part of the common inheritance.

And consider not just our physical inheritance, but our cultural inheritance. I’m a writer. I work in words and I sell my words. But I did not invent words. I did not invent the English language. I did not teach it to all of you so that you could understand me. So if there is value in my words, I didn’t create that value out of nothing. Part of that value should belong to me, but part rightfully belongs to the common inheritance.

Newton said, “If I have seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” He did not say: “Those are my giants. I own this perch up here on their shoulders. I -- and not you -- are the heir to these giants.”

No. Inventors, researchers, and technologists do indeed create value, but they don’t create it out of nothing. The ideas that are the raw material of their creations belong to the common inheritance. Only part of the value they create should belong to them; the rest belongs to everyone.

Once you buy into the illusions of property; once you accept that people own what they own and owe nothing to anyone -- you’ve given the social-justice game away. You’ve accepted the usurpation of our common inheritance. You’ve agreed to disinheriting the poor. And the resources that are needed to feed the hungry, to care for the sick, to educate the young -- you can beg for them or you can seize them by force, but you can’t claim them by right anymore. From that point forward, your heart may still be with the poor, but your head will always pull you back towards Margaret Thatcher, because all the money in the world is other people’s money.

So if you accept that the poor have an inheritance coming, how should they collect it? Paine, as I said, was a practical man, and he recognizes that he can't even calculate the rents and royalties that the poor have coming, much less collect and distribute them.

Instead, he proposes that everyone be offered a deal. In payment for your share of the common inheritance, in exchange for your acceptance that you were born into a world where every single object of value was already claimed by someone else -- we’ll offer you this: When you reach adulthood, we’ll give you a stake, some bit of capital that you can use to buy a little land or some tools or something else that will launch you into a profession. And if you make it to old age, to the point where you can’t reasonably expect to work any more, we’ll give you a pension.

Notice that Paine does not propose a dole, or some program of bread and circuses, or make-work projects that will give everyone a meaningless job. His proposal is much more radical than that: The poor should be capitalized. Everyone should have a stake, a chance to launch themselves into the middle of the economy rather than start at the bottom.

In Paine’s day, there was a world of difference between a poor family and one with just little bit of capital. Think about all those traditional English names. With some capital, you could buy a wagon and become a Carter. With a grindstone you could be a Miller. With some tools and a little training you could be a Smith or a Taylor or a Cooper. But without capital, you were a nobody.

In Biblical times capital meant land, and so in Micah’s vision of the just world “Every man shall sit under his own vine or his own fig tree, undisturbed.” Later on in the encyclical I quoted, Pope John Paul II envisions the world not as a Great Feeding Trough but as a Great Workbench, where we all have our place and access to the tools we need.

Launching yourself into the middle of an information economy is more complicated, but by now the value of the common inheritance has grown. Exactly what deal it makes sense to offer today, in lieu of the inheritance we can’t deliver, is a topic for another day. Certainly education must be part of it, and childhood nutrition. In general, people should be freed from poverty traps, from situations in which their short-term survival depends on doing things that harm their long-term interests. No heir of a rich inheritance should ever have to eat the seed corn.

The Pope’s image goes a long way towards helping us evaluate the adequacy of any proposal: Everyone should have a seat at the Great Workbench. That seat should belong to them by right, and not through anyone's generosity.

Even if we had such a program, if we had a way to deliver to each and every person the value of their share of the collective inheritance, things could still go wrong. Some Prodigal Sons would waste their inheritance. Some unlucky people would lose it to accident or illness. Some people's abilities would be so limited that, despite our best efforts, we could not find tools that would make them productive.

There would, in other words, still be occasions for charity -- even if all people received the full value of their inheritance.

But that is not where we are today. In the world we live in, people are poor because the collective inheritance has been usurped by people who believe that what is theirs is theirs, and they owe no one for its use; who believe that only land-owners are beneficiaries of the Creation; who believe that businessmen and industrialists are the sole heirs of technological progress; who believe that only the educated rightfully inherit our cultural legacy.

After the inheritance or some acceptable compensation for it has been delivered to all people, then charity might be enough. But until then, we should never stop talking about justice.

Closing words

That poem I opened with has four verses, and the final one echoes the first:

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Greetings from Salt Lake City

I'm blogging at GA again this year. You can find my (and Dan Harper's and Sara Robinson's) posts here.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Other People's Kids

Whether you decided to have children or not to have children, chances are you have strong opinions on the subject. So I'm expecting a lot of response to my Graduation Day column that went live on the UU World web site this morning.

Here's the abstract: About two decades ago, my wife and I decided not to have children. Sixteen years ago I wrote an essay explaining why. Next month our friends' daughter -- a wonderful young woman we've been watching closely for 18 years -- is going to graduate from high school. What do I think about our decision now? The stuff I said 16 years ago -- does it still make any sense?

As usual, the World web site doesn't allow you to attach comments to articles. So you can comment here.

BTW: If you come to the article from UU World's Life section, you'll see the blurb illustrated by a photo of a young woman. It's not the real Meg, who (with apologies to the woman in the photo) actually looks better than that.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

That's Aphasia!

(to the tune of the Dean Martin classic "That's Amore!")

When you want to say "Hi!"
But then -- who is that guy?
That's aphasia!
When the words that you know
Seem to drift through the snow
In your brain.

It's a stop
On the drop
That will take us all down
To the Big Home.
At this stage
Of our age
It's as normal
As ... Whatzisname's Syndrome.

There's a name for your ill.
Don't forget it -- you will.
It's aphasia.
Backs get old, so do brains.
They crack under the strains
Of the years.

So when sentences halt
Please don't let the fault
Shock or ama-aze ya.
Just be grateful for all
The words you still recall
With aphasia.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Faith in Hard Times

If you haven't noticed it already, I hope you'll take a look at my current column on the UU World web site, A Religion for Hard Times.

What I'm trying to do in this column is challenge both Unitarian Universalism and the too-easy critique of Unitarian Universalism by asking how much substance we provide for people when life becomes difficult. The question itself is challenging, and the too-easy critical answer is: not much, because we don't have dogmas that make the promises people need to hear in hard times.

The gist of the column is first to introduce the idea of radical uncertainty: that we really, really don't know what's going to happen to us, to our communities, or to the world, even though we like to tell ourselves that we do. Second, to look at the two obvious ways of responding to radical uncertainty: panic and denial. And third, to say that real faith has nothing to do with promising people that some higher power will make everything work out the way they want. That's just another kind of denial, and even religions with an all-powerful God (in their higher forms) are not that naive.

What I want to call faith -- and I think I'm being consistent with many major religions here -- is a third response to uncertainty, one that senses a way to move forward without demanding promises about how it will all come out. That kind of faith is independent of dogma, and many UUs have shown it at some point in their lives.

But we tend not to talk about it, and I think that's a mistake in times like these. I think we need to offer each other assurance, not that everything will come out the way we want, but that there is a third way -- a way of faith -- in which to face life's uncertainty.

Naturally, it's all said better in the column. But the UU World web site doesn't have a comment feature, so if you want to comment you can do it here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell

[In honor of Valentine's Day, I told this love story to the children at First Parish in Bedford on February 15, 2009. To read the rest of the February 15 church service (which was more about death than about love) go here . – Doug Muder]

When Lucy Stone was a little girl, she decided that she was never, ever, ever going to get married.

She had a pretty good reason for making that decision, because she was living back in the 1800s. And in those days, when a man and a woman got married, the man became the boss. It said so right in the law. So if a woman owned some property, well, when she got married it wasn't her property any more; it was her husband's property. And if she had a job and made a little money – it wasn't her money, it was her husband's money. Because he was the boss.

Lucy didn't want to have a boss, so one day she announced to her mother that she was never, ever, ever going to get married. And her mother said something that parents say a lot. I know I heard it from my parents and maybe you've heard it from yours. Her mother said: "When you get older, you'll change your mind."

In those days, when a man started looking for a woman to marry, he went courting. He'd visit a woman's family and talk to her mother and father. And if they approved, then he'd talk to the woman. If that conversation went well, then maybe he'd come back for another visit, and another one after that, and maybe eventually he'd ask her to marry him.

Now in those days most women really wanted to get married, so when a man came courting they tried to be extra, extra nice. So if the man told a joke, the woman would laugh at it – even it wasn't really that funny. And if the man had an opinion, she'd agree with it – even if she didn't really agree with it. Because she wanted to convince the man that she'd be a very nice wife.

Well, men came courting when Lucy Stone was old enough to get married, but she didn't act that way. If a man told a joke that wasn't funny, she didn't laugh. And if he talked about some stupid idea, she'd tell him it was stupid, and go on to talk about her ideas.

That wasn't what the men were expecting at all. So at the end of the first visit, they'd always say to Lucy's father: "You know, she's really ... different." And they wouldn't come back. Now that would have bothered a lot of women, but it didn't bother Lucy, because she hadn't changed her mind. She never, ever, ever wanted to get married.

Then one day Henry Blackwell came courting. Henry Blackwell was a little different himself, because he grew up in a strange family. Henry's sisters were some of the smartest, most determined women anywhere, and they didn't see why they shouldn't be able to do the things men did. For example, one of the things a woman didn't do in those days was become a doctor. There weren't any female doctors – until Henry's sister Elizabeth came along. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in America to graduate from medical school and become a doctor. And a few years later, Henry's other sister Emily became a doctor too. And the two of them opened a clinic together, which was really something women didn't do.

So, growing up with sisters like that, Henry naturally thought that's how women were supposed to be. But when he went courting, the women he met weren't like that. They'd agree with whatever he said and didn't seem to have any ideas of their own. And that wasn't what Henry was looking for at all.

Then one day he came courting Lucy Stone. Lucy had a lot of ideas of her own, and she wasn't shy about them. Some of them Henry agreed with, and some they argued about. In the next room, Lucy's parents could hear them arguing, and they thought: "This isn't going well at all."
When it was time for Henry to go home, he stopped to talk to Lucy's father. "You know, she's really ... different," he said. "When can I come back?"

And he did come back. And he came back again, and again. And when he was out of town he'd write letters, and she wrote back to him. And before too long, Henry asked Lucy to marry him.
And what do you think she said?

[The children at Bedford expressed opinions both ways, so I called for a vote. The majority thought she said yes.]

She said no! Because she never, ever, ever wanted to get married!

Well, Henry was confused. He said, "Lucy, I love you. You love me. We should be married."

And Lucy said, "I do love you. But if we got married, then you'd be my boss. And I don't think I could love you if you were my boss."

And Henry said, "It wouldn't be like that."

But Lucy said, "Oh yes it would. Because that's what marriage is. That's what everybody says marriage is. That's what the law says marriage is."

And then Henry said something that may not sound so amazing today. But you have to remember that in 1855 this was a brand new idea. He said: "People can say whatever they want. And the law can say whatever it wants. But when we get married, our marriage will be what we say it is."

So they started working on an agreement. The agreement said that neither one of them would ever be the boss of the other. And they wrote it down and they signed it. And then they got married.

They stayed together the rest of their lives. And they raised a daughter together, and together they did important work to help the slaves get their freedom and to help women get the right to vote.

And Henry's new idea caught on. And that's why today, when two people decide to get married, they don't look to other people or to the law to tell them what their marriage will be like. They talk to each other, and they figure it out for themselves.

[As is the case in most children's stories, I applied a certain amount of poetic license. But the basic outline of the story is true. We know a lot of the details because Alice Stone Blackwell – a suffragette who lived long enough to get the voting rights her parents had worked for – quoted Lucy's and Henry's letters in the biography she wrote.

What is also true, but didn't make it into the story, is the part of their agreement that said Lucy could keep her own name. For about a century afterward, women who didn't take their husbands' names were known as Lucy Stoners. Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls wrote a song about the struggles of women in the music business, and called it Lucy Stoners. If you've heard it, you know why I didn't sing it for the kids.

I don't know of any songs about Henry or his sisters – he had four in all, and each one was interesting in her own way. Or about their brother Sam, who the next year married Lucy's college friend Antoinette Brown, one of the first female ministers in America. There really ought to be some. If I ever get a time machine, a Blackwell family dinner is definitely on my itinerary.]

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Dignitarianism: Treat Everybody Well

One of the things that always amazes me when I read American history is that we've never had a major movement to treat everybody well. It's always been way too easy for the Powers That Be to turn one oppressed group against another.

In the 19th century, for example, women's rights and anti-slavery groups were sometimes allied and sometimes opposed. Each tended to think that associating with the other would muddy their issue rather than sharpen it. (When the proposed 15th Amendment gave the vote to black men, but not to women of any race, Susan B. Anthony spoke out against it. On the other side, Fredrick Douglass opposed revising the text to include women, for fear the thing would never get passed.) Veterans of the union organizing movements of the early 20th century often fought against the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century. And today, some civil rights veterans express resentment when their rhetoric is adopted by advocates of gay rights.

Imagine if we'd had a consistent centuries-old movement to treat everybody well, one that built concepts and rhetoric that applied to every oppressed group.

I didn't realize until today that treat-everybody-well has a name: dignitarianism. Its opposite is rankism, the belief that some people inherently deserve more respect than others, or that having an advantage in one social setting (like outranking somebody at work) makes you a superior person overall.

Robert Fuller and Pamela Gerloff have an article in the current UU World promoting dignitarianism. I have to admit that at first glance it seems a little abstract and thin, and that I get an instinctive that-would-be-nice-but reaction. But I'll bet abolitionism and feminism sounded that way at the beginning too.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What Do UUs Need To Go Deeper?

In addition to whatever else is going on in this post, it's a good place for you to comment on my recent UU World column That Elusive 'More'.

If you didn't chase the link, here's what you need to know from it: Half of this year's Association Sunday money is going to fund projects in Lay Theological Education. I'm on the task force that is figuring out what to do with the money.

Now, on a purely superficial level the task force knows exactly what it's going to do: We're going to look at proposals from a variety of UU organizations -- churches, districts, seminaries, etc. -- and give some grants. But there's also a discussion that needs to happen, and it would be great to get as many voices involved in it as possible. Namely: What should the programs we fund be trying to accomplish?

Getting a little more specific, we're looking at this situation: Imagine someone who has already taken the first steps into Unitarian Universalism, belongs to a congregation, and may even be a leader there -- committee member, RE teacher, and so forth. S/he listens to sermons, goes to discussions, takes the occasional adult RE class ... and wants something deeper.

Now, several things might happen at this point. Sometimes we lose people here; they find another faith community with a better-defined spiritual path. Some people go exactly the opposite direction; they decide that the way to go deeper as a UU is to go to divinity school and maybe even become a minister. Some augment their UUism by taking some other kind of training; Buddhist meditation, pagan ritual, Christian prayer group, etc. Some just stay vaguely dissatisfied. Some find what they're looking for in UUism through an idiosyncratic path. (My own idiosyncratic path is what my column is about.)

Ideally, what would come out of the projects that get funded by our task force is a different set of options for such people. Something more intense than, say, your typical adult RE class or one-day district workshop, but not requiring the kind of drop-everything-else commitment that divinity school represents.

So what I'd really like to hear -- either in comments here or on your own blogs or at the task force blog -- is your reaction to this image of an individual UU at a plateau. (I guess I've mixed up and down in my metaphors. If you're at a plateau you need to go higher, not deeper. But you get the idea.) Somebody who is happy with their UUism as far as it goes, but who wishes it went further.

Have you ever been in such a place? Did you start growing again? If so, how? If not, do you have a sense of what is missing? Do you look at some other faith community and say, "Damn! Why can't we do that?" If you've seen other people at this point, what do you think they need?

If you want to tell your story, but don't want it exposed to the whole Internet, send me an email at the task force address: