Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Appreciating the Unitarian Universalist Theological Method

"Solidarity, Grandiosity, Reflection, Discovery"

I admit that ever since I came back to this, the religious home of my childhood, in 1989, I have been cranky about UU Theology.  After all, how deep can an agnostic theology go?  It seemed often to be a mishmash of feel-good generalizations, psychobabble and anodyne exhortations, seasoned with the spice of leftwing cant.  It resisted making any substantive link with Liberal Christian Theology, from which it has half-emerged, and so it floated free.

I have come to appreciate our methods more, now.  I am not being ironic, or sarcastic, or setting you up for a punchline. This is for real, not an extended improvisational Robin Williams riff.  I will goof around a little on the way to my serious conclusions.

Step One:  Solidarity.

Ever have the feeling that much of our theologizing is rationalizations for our already taken political and social views?  You're not crazy to think so, because that is what much of it is.  I am saying that is a feature and not a bug.

We move through the world, much like everyone else does, responding to the events and people we encounter, in real life and in the news and media.  Based on our experiences, our learnings, we see ourselves in solidarity with some people and not with others.  That's OK; the world is a divided place and we cannot be on all sides of every conflict.  This human act of seeing ourselves as being allied with others is the beginning of our theologizing.

Step Two: Grandiosity.

OK, I am being a bit ironic with this, but there is a way that we inflate our preferences into great and glittering generalizations.  Our first principle is one example:  it began as a broad anti-discrimination statement, a rhetorical inflation of that statement that we welcomed everyone regardless of race, color, creed, national origin etc. etc. etc.  Such statement were common in the 1950's and 1960's when Unitarianism and Universalism merged in the midst of the Civil Rights struggle.  Our mainstream was trying to express our sense of solidarity with the victims of discrimination and prejudice.   Through a long process, what emerged was a statement about the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  It was a bit grandiose, but in a good way.

Without grandiosity, young high school athletes see playing tennis as a way to build good habits which will give them a good fitness routine when they are middle-aged desk jockeys.  With grandiosity, they play tennis because someday they will win at Wimbledon.  Many people lose their natural adolescent grandiosity as they mature, and it is a tragedy.

Our solidarity with environmentalism became a grandiose statement about respecting the interdependent web of life of which we are all a part.

Our commitment to continuing the struggle for racial justice became a broad statement declaring ourselves as not only non-racist, but also anti-racist and further, anti-oppression, which is becoming the greatest athlete of all times in every sport.  

3. Step Three: Reflection.

The gap between our grandiose formulations of our sentiments and the practical realities we live in becomes the creative tension the drives our theologizing.  Our grandiosity caused us to articulate a theory of inherent worth and dignity which has led us to a radical humanism.  I look at our solidarity with transgender people and wonder if we would have gotten there if we had not gone beyond solidarity with the victims of discrimination based on factors over which the victim has no control.   Starting from the point of view that everyone has worth and dignity right now, as they are, accelerated the process.

Our theologizing now seems to center on these three things:
a. what does inherent worth and dignity mean?  How does it relate to moral and ethical distinctions between good and evil?  What is the nature of humanity?  Where do evil actions come from?  What is the relationship between our own inherent worth and dignity and the injustices we participate in and the privileges we enjoy?

b.  what does it mean to live in an interdependent web of life, where we are a part of the cause of everything we see and where we are conditioned by everything else?  How can we be moral and ethical when we have no place to stand to make a judgement?  How can we talk about God when there is no transcendent anymore -- nothing that is the unmoved mover?  There is nothing outside of the web?

c.  Is oppression a part of human nature?  Or is it an accident of history which can be overcome?   Is everyone a victim of oppression?  If so, how can it be oppression and not just the fact that life can be hard at times?

4. Step Four: Discovery

We end up in new places as a result of these reflections; we develop new ethical and moral demands.  I look at the movement toward ethical eating that seems to be developing among younger UU's.  To me it looks like a replay of some of the arguments between the hippies and the radicals of 1970-1975.  I chose the hamburgers and politics then.  But, I also realize that something new and different is going on -- that gestures of solidarity with the poor and with animals is taking some of us to new places.

Conclusion: I think that Unitarian Universalist theology has the great strength of pragmatism; it arises out of the real world and our experiences in it.  It moves from practice to theory and back again in a cycle of learning and knowledge.  It focuses us not on metaphysics (what is the nature of reality: a philosophical dead end for religion) but on ethics and morality.  It asks us to speak to  humanity about the real choices we face together.

Yes, the great theological traditions of all the world's religions are still there.  But our job is not to determine exactly how we fit in with them, how to harmonize our truths with theirs.  Our job is struggle with how to live, act, celebrate and suffer, and finally die in this, the only world we have right now.  

Monday, July 25, 2011

Liberal Religion's Answer to Oslo

Multi-culturalism in inevitable.  The process of globalization will lead to a blurring of religious and cultural differences; there are both melting pots and mosaics in our future.  Liberal Religion thinks that this a good thing; we welcome it as a frequently liberating process.  The future is secular governments, pluralistic culture, religious diversity, free religious organizations and the rights of private conscience and we think that it will be great.

There are people in the world who fear the future and some who will try to violently derail it.  While they pose a very real and concrete danger to the future of liberal society, they are fighting a losing battle.  But history tells us people trying to stop progress can be unspeakably cruel and violent.  We recognize this danger.  We call upon the state to keep a watchful eye on reactionary and racist groups and to vigorously enforce the law.

We call upon all people to be vigilant against any form of racism, national chauvinism and cultural reaction. Each of us must make clear our intention to live in a peaceful, multicultural world as a positive good.  Racists assume that the silent majority is with them; Liberal religion should lead the way in making clear that this assumption is not true.

We have a right to defend ourselves.

We are not afraid of the future.  We believe that the human impulses toward solidarity, friendship, curiosity, and cultural adaption will continue to shape our future together, judy as they have in the past.  We are one humanity growing into consciousness of ourselves as one.

(To be clear: when I refer to "Liberal Religion", I am referring to a broad group of people.  Unitarian Universalists are but one type of LIberal Religion.  I include in this most mainline Protestants, many Catholics, many Jews, some Muslims, lots of the unchurched, many adherents of Western Buddhism and many others.)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Hot Mess

I think Scott Wells named it first:  2012 Justice GA in Phoenix was going to be a Hot Mess.  Hot because it is Arizona and a Mess because it is where UU earnestness, idealism, entitlement and impracticality will meet in a glorious disorganized failure under the unforgiving sun.  Instead of Selma with Sand, it will be Altamont.

It's always useful to remember that the future hasn't happened yet.

Rev. Nate Walker of Philadelphia said in a sermon that one of the roles of the church, including the liberal church was "to set the moral agenda."  He said this in a sermon about vegetarianism that I found, ummm, challenging, but his point applies.

By going to Phoenix, we are trying to rewrite the nation's moral agenda.

Immigration has been viewed by most as a labor policy issue, or a budgetary issue, or national integrity issue.   Do immigrants, documented or undocumented, distort the labor market in the US, "take our jobs"?  Are immigrants attracted by more generous social services and stress our state budgets?  Can a great nation survive if it cannot control its own border?

None of these concerns are not real.

UU's are trying to rewrite the nation's moral agenda to say that the border and immigration belong on it.    It is a moral problem that our economy depends on and uses a class of workers who are set apart, have fewer rights, and fewer opportunities, many of whom are classified as "illegal" people.  It is a moral outrage that most Americans accept this as a matter of course, just the way it is.  Just as it was a matter of course that the cotton we used everyday was grown by impoverished sharecroppers who worked under a legal system that was stacked against them.  

UU's are trying to write onto the nation's moral agenda that racism is at work here.  Not just prejudice against Latino-a's, but an economic system that assumes that the Anglo immigrants will be dominant and the Latino-a-and indigenous peoples will be subordinate to them.  

The fact that these assumptions are based on race is demonstrated whenever we have to be reminded that some Hispanic people have deeper roots in Arizona than the recent migrants from Michigan.  We assume a color-coding of legal and economic status.

UU's come to these issues from an anti-racist perspective.  It is not labor solidarity that takes us to Arizona.  Nor is it ethnic solidarity.  We are mostly white and not often permanently in the low-skill, low-wage labor pool.  But as a religious movement, UU's have been learning about racism, and are beginning to see it at work.  And there are millions of people just like us around the country, and for the most part, they do not see the issues of immigration and the border as important moral issues.  They are opposed to racism in general, but do not see the racism at the heart of these issues.  That's our struggle too; we are teaching and learning among ourselves.  But many of those millions look to UU's for a signal about what is morally significant and what is not.  It matters that we say that this should be on our society's moral agenda.

Now whether we can pull this off, through our board/staff/GA/GAPC structure is another story. It could turn out to be a "hot mess", but usually most things turn out to be less awful and less wonderful as one fears and hopes.  But my argument is that it is very much worth trying.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sermonating and Social Media

Phillip Lund, Cynthia Landrum, Scott Wells and Dan Harper have been discussing sermons and social media.  Their general consensus is that the 20 minute sermon encased in the church worship service puts the message in a form-factor that is both obsolete and too individual in its creation.

I disagree that there is a problem with the individual creation of the sermon.  Sermons are not really individually created -- ministers have their circle of people that they use for coming up with and testing ideas that go into the sermon.   Whether people do that over the dinner table, at a meeting, at a coffee shop or on social media of some sort doesn't change the fact that in the end a good sermon comes from many people but no good sermon is written by committee.

Now, the other point, the terrible mismatch with the way that we now expect to receive information and the customary church service, I think deserves some deep consideration.

In social media, content rules.  Somebody has to keep putting new stuff out there for everyone else to react to.  There's only so long that people will want to check up on what everyone else had for lunch.

Sermons are the principle form of content being produced by the church.  Every week, hundreds of UU's and thousands of other ministers, produce a big hunk of content which presents their religious point of view on Life.  Lots of that content is wise, perceptive, funny, challenging, meaningful and informative.  Most of it exists as sound heard by a couple of hundred people at the most.

That experience of the sermon in worship should not be discounted.  There is something about being in the same room with a compelling speaker that is unique and irreplaceable.  Despite all our other sources of comedic information people still want to go hear a stand-up comedian perform.  "Live" still works.

But those live performances of sermons do not travel well.  Most of them never get out of the room that they are in.  Yet that content could travel in the streams of social media, but not in the same form as it now exists.

I like Ted talks.  I think if preachers packaged their sermon content like a Ted talk, many of them would travel in social media.  That means that they have to have (1) clear labeling of content in the title (2) short digestible length (3) high production values and (4) focus on the message vs focus on church or denominational advertising.  I think of the videos produced by the "it gets better' campaign -- simple direct messages to a particular audience.

I think that our ministers are fully capable of crafty such messages, but most lack the skills, equipment and time to turn their sermons into inspirational - It Gets Better- Ted talks.   Most are not equipped or ready to turn their sermons into a straight video recording of their sermon in their robe and pulpit now.

What we need is body that can advise and consult on technical matters, invite participation by gifted ministers, help them produce the content in suitable form, edit it and put together the final package.  If it could produce one a week that would be freely available to share through social media, it would be a good thing.  I would bet that the best ones would go around the world and to places where we never go.

I am confident that the people we have participating in social media will be able to use such content in ways that build their networks, stimulate conversation and connections, and support our building based congregations and new forms of community.