Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sunday Assemblies

Check this short video from the Sunday Assembly founders.

The question that I have is why are they trying to fit what they are doing into the model of a "church"?  Sunday Assembly -- a "godless congregation" -- a celebration of life?  OOO Look, we might be an "atheist church"!  Maybe even an "atheist MEGAchurch."

What marketing genius thought of this?  Let's take our new, vibrant, and exciting thing and call it by the name of something that most people don't want.  It would be as if Victoria Secret decided to call their newest line of panties "bloomers".

What I am seeing is that some leaders (who are not professional clergy) have come upon how to gather people for regular events that inspire reverence, awe, service, and community.  They using social media to replicate and spread that experience around the world.

People say that what they are doing is the same thing as a humanist UU church or an Ethical Culture Society does.  Only in the sense that a car does what a cart does. No. Humanist UU Churches and Ethical Culture Societies are NOT doing what these folks are doing.  Humanist UU Churches and Ethical Culture Societies are continuing to do what they have always done, but most of the world isn't interested.

The Sunday Assembly thing has devised a new way to organize liberal religious people.  I am reminded of how Occupy invented new ways of organizing political direct action. I can see a dozen pitfalls that might trap them, but haven't the old ways, our ways, also fallen short?

UU's can read the Sunday Assemblies as evidence to cite in our theist/humanist dispute.  Some UU humanists will see it as evidence that pure humanism is more attractive.  Some UU theists might even hope that our humanists would jump on this bandwagon as it rumbles by.  That's just cramming new experience into old categories -- seeing the new with old eyes.

We should be going to school on the Assemblies.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The "Atheist Church"

Check out this article about London's Atheist Church -- the Sunday Assembly.

Leave aside for a moment all your questions and comments about the purported necessity of having an exclusively atheist theological mix.  Notice what they are doing for an aggressive growth model:  it's a franchise model.

A recent article by the newly-minted Sunday Assembly Everywhere (SAE) network outlines the SA affiliation process: Interested groups must apply for a Sunday Assembly charter and license agreement, “which will give you the right to use all the Sunday Assembly materials, logos, positive vibe and goodwill.” The next step is to form a legal entity, probably an “unincorporated association… which allows you to have a bank account.” And then, training from SA HQ, either in the UK or via “webinars and telecals worldwide.” If all goes well, aspiring founders will be invited to sign “A SAE Stage I Charter. This is a ‘provisional license,’ which gets you running your Sunday Assembly using our tried-and-tested formats and themes.” This is followed by a peer-review process and evaluation by other SA chapters. Nailed it? A “Stage II Charter” will be issued, granting full SAE membership. The model is inspired by TEDx.

In general we congregationalist types are not particularly impressed with anything that relies on "Tried-and-tested-formats-and-themes."  And a "peer review process and evaluation by other [SA] chapters" would probably be unwelcome.

On the other hand, our Congregational Growth Consultant, Tandi Rogers is sputtering with a mild rage over congregations that don't keep current email addresses for congregational leaders up to date with the UUA.
The Sunday Assembly's founders, Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones
Anybody up for a discussion about mimetic rivalry? 

Let's review: Mimetic Rivalry describes a relationship in which the other party in the relationship is both your rival and your model.  

Unitarian Universalism has been in a mimetic rivalry with the evangelical, non-denominational megachurch since Brent Smith first visited Willow Creek back in the late 1980's. It seemed for them that great contemporary worship, great programming for all ages and stages, organizational competence (the microphones worked) equalled rapid growth.  We both 'hated' them and wanted to be like them.   They were rivals and they were models. 

We set about trying to emulate them in many ways.  At the same time, we also explained to ourselves that the real reason why they were so successful (and we were not) was that their theology appealed to people who liked conforming to authoritarian top-down structures.  Freedom-loving, hip, and smart people who would want to be Unitarian Universalists were not attracted to that sort of thing.  

The Sunday Assembly franchises may test our theory.  Here's a body that uses the megachurch model (actually goes beyond it to a franchise model) and may be attracting those freedom-loving, hip and smart people whom we thought would never fall for such a top-down undemocratic structure.  And they are not very different theologically from us; in fact, the content of their humanism is right in our wheelhouse.

There's enough irony in this situation to make your compass point in the wrong direction.  

Now we have two mimetic rivals.  

I predict that some people will say that the Sunday Assemblies are successful because they have not diluted their humanism, as we have, with all sorts of metaphorical theisms.  

Others will point to their superior brand management as the key factor. 

Still others will dismiss them as being yet another manifestation of consumerism in spirituality.  (Consumerism in ecclesiological discussions refers often to other people wanting something that you don't think that they should want.)

I'll be blunt here: I think that our 'rivals' succeed when they change lives and equip people to live more connected and responsible lives.  I think Unitarian Universalism succeeds and fails on exactly the same grounds.

It is possible that creating a "community of like-minded people" doesn't help people change, but actually shelters them in a place of resistance to a changing world.  But that is what some people need, at least for a while.  

And all of us, the evangelical megachurch, these new Sunday Assemblies and the UU congregation that may be your spiritual home, can easily fall into that temptation.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Why I am concerned about Sectarianism

When someone talks to you about Christianity, they ask you if your know Christ.  They don't ask you to consider giving your life to being a Baptist, or joining a Methodist congregation.

Islam asks you if you agree that there is only one God, and Mohammed is his prophet.  They talk about God and prayer and a few practices,  not being Shia or Sunni or Salafi.

When your friends asks you consider meditation and the study and practice of Zen, they don't talk about this or that lineage of teachers.

What is proposed is changing your life, your orientation, your spiritual practice, your beliefs.  The invitation to make that change through a particular institution comes later.

We ask people to be grateful, generous, loving, holistic, just, compassionate and self-aware persons.  We ask them to start where they are and do their best, and keep trying, to become persons who embody and enact love and peace and justice and reverence in everyday life. We seek, for them and for ourselves, to form a liberal and loving character.  That is the goal that we set for ourselves and we propose that they set for themselves.  It is what the world needs.

Joining a Unitarian Universalist congregation, or even committing to UUism in the abstract, is only a means to that larger goal.  It would bring you into community with others who are trying for that same personal transformation.  It gets you in touch with a living tradition of writers and thinkers and activists and leaders who have been seeking the same for decades and centuries.  But being a Unitarian Universalist is not the goal of anyone's life.

When people say that they are "spiritual, but not religious", I suspect that what is objectionable to them about religion is its self-serving ways.  An institution whose only goal is the success and preservation of itself gets no respect.  And that is what organized religion so often looks like.  And we focus too much on UU identity, UU growth, UUism itself -- we look like that as well.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Pope Francis and UU Pastoral Ministry

"The church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently."  Pope Francis.

What is "the church's pastoral ministry?"

Among we Unitarian Universalists, "pastoral" usually means "personal."  The care, and support, and  comfort that a minister offers to an individual, or a family.

But I don't think that Francis meant that "personal" ministry in the statement above.  Catholics use the word "pastoral" differently, and to describe a whole kind of ministry that we Unitarian Universalists are not quite conscious of.

"Pastoral" is, of course, connected to shepherding and sheep.  Catholics see their pastoral ministry as guiding their flock, shepherding their people, toward a deeper and more lived faith.  The church is trying to lead people in a process of changing.

We come closest to describing this work as "spiritual development", but that phrase often describes a self-directed process taken by individuals.

Yet, Unitarian Universalism is trying to change people, lead them somewhere.  We are not explicit about this because we carry an anti-authoritarian gene that makes talking about where we are trying to lead people feel so creepy, so Catholic, if you will.

So what comes through is a "transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently."  

There is nothing between the abstract principle (doctrine?) and the directive.

For example: "We believe that all life is in an interconnected web of existence and therefore, you need to recycle."  The pastoral ministry of the church (in the Catholic sense) is in the missing step between the principle and the directive: why and how this is my movement toward right relationship with the cosmos, myself, my fellow creatures and God to take this care with what I no longer need.

Francis said in the same discussion:

"The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow."

I am engaging in speculative translation now, trying to imagine what this would mean for us who have a different relationship to what Francis calls "the Gospel".

It is the word "proposal" that grabs me. Note that he does not say "The Gospel is simple, profound, radiant" and that from this Gospel the moral consequences flow. He is talking about the act of proposing the Gospel to a person.

In our corner, we are everyday engaged in the work of proposing our understandings to people. Right now, our understandings are most commonly summarized in the 7 principles, but we propose them to people and invite them into covenant with us in their spirit.

Here is where the Catholic style pastoral ministry comes in: How can we make what lies at the heart of these principles a living thing in you? How do we grow together into that? How do we deepen in faith?

Our default, unexamined pastoral ministry is still belief and doctrine based. We say, in effect, "We believe these things (inherent worth, interconnected web etc.") and if you believe them, then join us. And if you believe them, then live them, or else you fall afoul of that walk/talk dichotomy."

Stated baldly, like that, it is repellent. We know that there is some process of growth and change between the doctrine and the directive, but we do not have a good common language to describe that process: I would say that we are weak on our pastoral ministry, our leadership of a process of personal change.

And so, many experience liberal religion and Unitarian Universalism as moralistic and judgmental about a certain set of  behaviors and a particular set of words.  And yet, that is not our intention, and not how we deal with each other, in fact.  I think it is because we conceive our pastoral ministry as only personal and individual, and not as the primary ministry of the church to the people as a whole.  As a result, it is hidden and opaque.

Perhaps, Pope Francis has some wisdom for us as well.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Is UUism too sectarian?

The other day,  in response to Erik Resly, I put up a little chart that separated "belief" from "sectarian" in contemporary Unitarian Universalism.  I made them two axis, creating one of those 4 field grids so popular in training programs. One axis is the continuum on the question of theological beliefs: do you believe that there are a distinct, even though buried, set of common theological beliefs in UUism, or do you believe that UUism is not defined by beliefs, but by something else: practices, ethics, values, rituals or whatever.

The other axis is the continuum of opinion on sectarianism.  At one end would those who believe that Unitarian Universalism is a new and unique world religion, distinct and unto itself and at the other end are those who who believe that UUism is a transient organizational form of a much larger religious movement, in the way that Methodists believe that they are part of the Body of Christ, the world Christian movement.

I am very interested in hearing from you all about how you think about Unitarian Universalism.  Which quadrant makes sense to you? 

Definitions and presumptions.

“Belief” are theological statements held in common.  And I am defining theological in a fairly traditional manner.  If you define “belief” as any firmly held mental affirmation, then it is impossible to be “beyond belief” unless one decides not to think.  When Rev. Morales says that “what matters is not what you believe, but what you love” he obviously believes that, or he wouldn’t have said it.  Is that a theological “belief”? I say no.  

“Sectarianism” is a primary focus on promoting Unitarian Universalism as a distinct and unique religious identity.  Our “brand” to be crass.  If your concern is the growth and health of UU congregations, our reputation in the world, the health of our denomination etc, then you have a sectarian focus.  If you are reading this blog because you are trying to figure out the UU future, you are sectarian, at least in part.  

Is Missionalism the same thing as "Congregations and Beyond"?  No, they differ by their sectarianism.  Missionalism is localist: community organizing by faithful people, usually without regard to denominational identity.  "Congregations and Beyond" is creating organizational forms for people who do not want to participate in conventional congregational life to connect to Unitarian Universalism.  Missionalism is not when an established congregation redefines and recommits to its sense of congregational mission; that’s just good congregationalism and in most cases, sectarian.  

The Original Chart

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Constitution Day

Today is Constitution Day, commemorating the writing of the US Constitution in Philadelphia.
Much will be said today, much of it patriotic sentimental blather about liberty and freedom and the moral virtues of limited government.  

The most important fact about the Constitution, indeed the hermeneutical key to reading it, is this: The Constitution was written to create the strongest possible Federal Government that would not have, and could not ever have, enough power to end slavery.  

The early nation's 1% needed a stronger government, in part because they feared that the various states could not pay the back that the wealthy had lent them to finance the Revolution.  A new national government which would assume the debts of the states was the solution to the problem. The obstacle was that the Southerners feared that such a powerful national government might then be an instrument by which slavery would be threatened.  At the same time, other elements did not want to codify slavery into the Constitution -- it avoids an explicit affirmation of a right to own slaves.  But throughout the document and the Bill of Rights, great care is taken to protect slavery from a federal government potentially bent on abolishing it.

Even the second amendment, which is at heart, the right of states to have state militias.  If the main force of men in arms in the early republic was to become the United States Army, under the command of the President, could southerners count on it to protect them from slave uprisings? Could they require white men to join the 'slave patrols' which were the local forces of slave repression?

Compromise after compromise was fashioned to keep the southern slave-owners in the coalition for a new Constitution, while avoiding permanently affirming the institution of slavery.  It was a successful effort -- the only way that slavery could be abolished was to go outside of the Constitution, militarily defeat the southern states, and change the Constitution while they were in rebellion.

There is nothing sacred about the Constitution of the United States.  It was an ingenious and clever act of political craft.  It created a government which is stable and sustained order for all these years, if you don't count 1860-1865.  But it leaves in place so many obstacles to democracy, so many institutional barriers to the people working their will through the government to improve their conditions of life, that it has also impeded social progress all these years as well.

Beliefs vs Sects -- Response to Erik Risely

Rev. Erik has posted a thoughtful piece about whether UU's need or have a distinctive set of beliefs.  He has gotten a bunch of good comments on Facebook, and one snide on his blog.

But I think that he collapsed two different questions: one is whether we are sectarian and anti-sectarian and the other is whether we have a particular UU faith, or are a multi-faith spirituality.  The more I thought about this, the more I saw them as a grid, which I offer for all of your exploration.  I almost included names of people I know in each of the grids, but I didn't want to speak for them.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Another Front in the Class War

OK, I have carried on here about income inequality, and about the dominance of finance capital, and the 99% and the 1%, and why everyone should support fast food and retail workers in their fight for a decent living wage.  

Now, how about something perhaps a little closer to home for the middle-aged middle class?

The economic policies of this country have you on a path headed toward elder poverty and deprivation, and you will be told that it is all your own fault.

There was a time when companies paid pensions.  A pension is a "defined benefit" system.  Based on your years of service and income, recipients get a check for as long as they live: a defined benefit.  Social Security is a defined benefit system.  Under a defined benefit system, employers paid into a pension fund, which professionally invested the fund to make it grow.

Some 30 to 40 years ago, defined benefit plans were phased out and defined contribution funds were established to take their place.  The employer gave each employee a certain contribution every year, not as cash, but as a tax-free deferred compensation which was invested in special type of investment account.  All of us would each have our own little stock portfolio.  We could also choose how much additional money to save into our account.

Here is Matt Yglesias's summation of the experiment:

 Here's the essential shape of 401(k) as a backbone of the retirement system:
— Poor people get absolutely nothing.
— Wealthy people who would have had large savings anyway get a nice tax cut that offers no meaningful incentive effect.
— For people in the middle, the quantity of subsidy you receive is linked to the marginal tax rate you pay—in other words, it's inverse to need.
— A small minority of middle-class people manage to file the paperwork to save an adequate amount and then select a prudent low-fee, broadly diversified fund as their savings vehicle.
— Most middle-class savers end up either undersaving, overtrading, investing in excessively high-fee vehicles or some combination of the three.
— A small number of highly compensated folks now have lucrative careers offering bad investment products to a middle-class mass market based on their ability to swindle people.
One of the reasons why the financial sector does so well, and has the money to support the extravagant lifestyle of the 1% is that billions of our retirement dollars are pouring into Wall Street every payday.  In fact, every since the defined contribution retirement system took hold, the financial sector has grown much larger and the income inequality in the country widened, with the financial sector garnering much of the wealth.  Connection?

Because most employees lack the knowledge and the experience to make money on Wall Street, most of our retirement savings are drained away by poor investments and by fees paid to the professionals who managing the money on our behalf.   We might as well mandate that companies pay into employees retirement accounts with poker chips from nearest casino.  The house always wins.

We do have a defined benefit plan for our retirement:  Social Security.  Thank you.

The goal of the finance industry, of course, is to privatize Social Security and turn into a defined contribution plan.  Think of the fees that they collect from that dollar stream.

We face a crisis of elder poverty in the future, not because people haven't saved for their retirement, but because of much of our savings has been diverted into the pockets of the 1%.

We should be planning to increase the benefits paid by social security, not decrease them, and pay for it by taxing the wealthy, especially the financial sector.

A sign that the 9/11 era is passing

President Obama, in his speech last night, said that we did not need to fear retaliation from the Assad government if the US made a military strike against them.  Obama said, “the Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military. Any other retaliation they might seek is in line with threats that we face every day."

In other words, the United States is a very well-defended country; our security is as assured as anyone's might be in this world.  We face threats but we can handle them.

For most of the last 12 years, we have been told by our government that our country was in grave danger and that we were vulnerable to terrorist attacks.  Occasional events like the "shoe bomber", the "underwear bomber" and the "pressure cooker bombers" reinforced our fears.**

Last night, we heard a more realistic and more objective President.

President Obama's more realistic evaluation of the threat we face is a sign that we are moving to a new stage in our response to 9/11.

There was a time that the memory of September 11 was terrorizing, evoking the fears of that day, the threat we faced.  This day is a now for memory, for sadness, for grief.  As it should be.

** (As an aside, if a couple hundred cruise missiles are a "pinprick", what should we call a guy with some plastic explosive in his underwear?)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Theo Hobson's "The Good Kind of Liberalism"

Ron Robinson asked what I thought of this article in Christian Century.  In it, Theo Hobson argues that there is a good kind of liberal theology and a bad kind of liberal theology.

The good kind:

The good tradition of liberal theology is that which affirms a deep affinity between the gospel and political and cultural liberty. These things don’t exist in the abstract; they exist when a state promotes and protects them. Good liberal theology affirms the liberal state. Indeed, it was this tradition that first imagined the liberal state, in the mid-17th century. It rejected the assumption that a state needed religious unity (or “unitary theopolitics”), and it proposed liberty as the authentic basis for future national unity.

The bad kind:

The bad tradition of liberal theology is that which seeks to reform Christianity in the direction of rationalism and optimism about natural human capacities—a direction that can probably be summed up as “humanism” without too much confusion. Soon after the Reformation this ideal deeply infected much of Protestantism.
This version of faith can be critiqued in different ways. It can be accused of denying certain core Christian doctrines (the more Protestant response) or of denying Christianity’s basis in certain cultic practices (the more Catholic response). These critiques overlap. This liberal theology fails both to proclaim and to ritually perform the saving authority of Jesus Christ. In its attachment to universal rationality, it fails to affirm the particularity of Christianity, expressed in certain ritual practices and speech forms (celebrating the Eucharist, proclaiming God’s word) that are intrinsically authoritative.

The difference is that liberal theology has apparently given with one hand, but failed to take back with the other.  The good kind of liberal theology says that gospel has a deep affinity with liberty, but neglects to proclaim and ritually perform the saving authority of Jesus Christ.  But the good kind and the bad kind are inseparable. At the level of institutions, a liberal state does makes room for religious institutions that proclaim a particular authority, and the people are free to choose whichever one they prefer.

At the level of a person however, the liberal state would allow the person to freely choose not to recognize the saving authority of Jesus Christ, which means that one is not saved, which means either that either good citizens are not genuinely good citizens, or that salvation is optional to good citizenship.  Neither position accords with liberal theology.

Hobson continues:
The most obvious form of this tradition was deism, which located the essence of Christianity in rational morality while sidelining or dispensing with its outmoded “superstitious” forms.

Notice what was done here: the countering of "rational morality" with "Christianity".  If you understand that what we call "rational morality" is a cultural code created in the Christian West, you will understand that "rational morality" is just de-sanctified Christian morality.  Both are slippery and contested and capable of motivating everything from breathtaking altruism and self-sacrifice to gut-wrenching butchery.  The Christian tradition brings nothing not already present and available to moral consideration.  If no one were to ever be baptized again, people would still find the glorious history of Christian moral reasoning an invaluable resource to their reflection.

Hobson ends with this sentence:
Only a reinvented liberal theology can substantially revive the cultural fortunes of Christianity in the West.

Seriously? Is that the goal? "the cultural fortunes of Christianity in the West"?  And what depends on the revival of the cultural fortunes of Christianity in the West?  The fate of the planet? The end to global inequality? The liberation of the world's women?  The avoidance of nuclear war in the Middle East?

The affirmation of the soul's liberty by the gospel, through all its twists and turns, has sparked a global moral revolution, still unfolding after all these years.  It now reverberates beyond Christianity and is global.  It is carried in secular society and will stay alive even if no one believes in the saving authority of Jesus Christ.

This is why I say that liberal Christian theology ends in kenosis -- the self-emptying of God dying as a man.  Christianity as a vehicle of the soul's liberation has emptied itself into all the various forms of secular liberalism.  That river has flowed into that sea.  And if it means that liberal theology dies, then we must remember the final moral of the Christian story: that death is not the end, and something more glorious will rise as joy cometh in the morning.

Joining a Church

I am in the process of joining the congregation here in Ann Arbor, where we moved at the beginning of 2013.  And I am savoring this moment of non-membership and allowing myself to feel this process.

There is no doubt that I will sign the book.  This is my faith tradition from birth.  I get church life.  I really like the ministers at the church.  I find the worship fulfilling and satisfying, even though it is more humanist than I have been used to.  We filled out our pledge card months ago.  The people that I have met seem to be good solid folks I would like to have friends and companions.  But I don't really know them.

And there is where a little note of disharmony enters the picture.  A little discordant and false note.  The rhetoric of joining a UU congregation is typically describes it as "entering into this religious community" or "joining this group of people" or even "entering into a covenant with these people."

I know this because I have used those words over and over again, as I invited people from the pulpit to consider joining the congregation.

The little note that doesn't ring true is that the people of the congregation are the part of the equation that is most unknown.  Even after 9 months of pretty regular attendance, I don't know that many people, and those I do know, I don't know them very well.

So, it feels a little false to say that what I am doing is "joining these people in religious community."  I think that the real definition of the commitment that I am making is "I am committing myself to sustaining this ministry of worship".  Basically, I am saying "This Worship Experience Works for Me."  And, I am affiliating myself with this thing, Unitarian Universalism.

The presence of other people, people who seem to be good folk, at these worship services facilitates the worship experience and verifies to me that my perception of it is probably accurate.

But there is another step between my willingness to support this ministry of worship and a real commitment to the people of the congregation, which all of the rhetoric of the church says is the real goal of membership.

The rhetoric about joining a religious community sets an expectation.  It makes signing the book feel a little hypocritical, as in: "I say I am committing to these people, but I don't really have the basis to make that commitment."

In addition, there is no implied process of growth.

What if we said, instead, at the point of induction into Unitarian Universalism: "I have been called by this ministry of worship and service to make the values of Unitarian Universalism (or some such formulation) the cornerstone of my life.  I am saying "yes" to that call and are joining with those gathered here to support each other in that transformation."

Monday, September 09, 2013

Why Shouldn't We Try to Shape the Culture?

Keith Goheen writes:

So what I am hearing you suggest is that we set aside our diversities and unite in opposition to a common enemy, those nefarious, negative and illiberal Samaritans of Christendom, the Fundamentalists, whom everybody hates anyway. If we sacrifice our inner conversation and focus outward on a mandate of positive values, our empire will flourish! People will recognize that we are the good, value-driven souls, and if they join with us in staying focused on the values, they will not have to attend to internal conflicts, either. Peace will reign! It's a catchy idea, but how does it square with Jesus' teachings?

I am tempted to repeat everything I have said in the last couple posts to show that Keith has reduced them to absurdity.  Something about a proposal of an assertive Unitarian Universalism trying to promote liberal values strikes him as aggressive and unhealthy.

But let's turn to the teachings of Jesus.  The ministry of Jesus was an embodied polemic against the theological trends of his time.  It was agitational and it was aggressive.  Scholars disagree about whether he was more angry with the Jewish orthodoxy of his time, or the Roman occupiers, or both, but no one doubts that he was pissed.

He did not stay home to befriend his inner Roman   Jesus was trying to shape his culture. All religions attempt to shape the surrounding culture.  They do so by influencing people on a personal level (what I call deciding to make the values of liberality the cornerstones of their lives, but Keith calls sacrificing our inner conversation), by building institutions (what I call healthy and thriving churches, but what Keith thinks is empire-building) and promoting beliefs and values in the culture at large, (which Keith scoffs at by equating it with being intolerant ourselves.)

I believe that liberal religion (which is a movement much larger than Unitarian Universalism) might have the impact on our culture in the next 20 years that conservative Christianity has had for the last 40 years.

If it does, we might see many of the things we wish for:  real advances against racism and sexism, world-wide work to slow climate change, real efforts to reduce inequality, more peace, less war.

For discussion

How about this?

Every UU congregation could grow and thrive in its present building and with its present minister, if it

1.) clarified what it wanted to teach to the community around it,
2.) started serving the community in a way that brought its message to life
3.) learned to welcome, include and empower all the new people who might come
4.) let go of what no longer served its focus and purpose.


So We Are All Humanists Now? So What?

Rev. Melanie tweets:

All humanists now--well done, almost self-evident. But what do we do w/those pesky marketing disputes?
Anybody who manages to end all those marketing disputes within congregations about which humanist reinterpretation of which religious tradition gets expressed in the liturgy on which Sunday of the month deserves a Nobel Prize. Or at least, a fancy chalice on a sash given at a plenary in GA.
Nonetheless, I have some thoughts.
Let's name the problem properly. We have an atmosphere of persistent theological anxiety. People have the fear that their local congregation is going to change in a way that leaves them out. Or that it won't change enough for them to ever feel at home. As a result, they get very alert to changes in the liturgy of the congregation.
Further: Ministers do not have very much authority that derives from their position as the minister. Even after the extensive and expensive process of education and formation, even after being inspected and evaluated by the MFC, and even after being called by the congregation in a very open, transparent and democratic search process, ministers' authority has to be "earned" as a function of their personality and relational skills.
Further: congregations themselves and ministers are not sufficiently respectful of a congregation's worship tradition or its liturgical tradition. The worship tradition is what gathers and sustains the congregation. A congregation is, at heart, a group of people who gather together to worship in a particular way: what is included, what is excluded, the stylistic range of music, the atmosphere all define the liturgy and hence, the congregation. The minister is the steward of the worship tradition, preserving it and changing it to accurately represent the evolving mission of the congregation. To be more accurate, ministers lead the process of changing the worship tradition.

I get the impression at times that people think that changing the format of the Sunday morning show is easy. After all, we like innovation and experimentation. And we are democratic. So, some people want to junk liturgical elements that have been around for decades, or add quickly add some new ones. "This week, we are going to start clapping."
It just leads to anxiety about the identity of the congregation and results in vigilance about every little change.

So, own, name, and define the worship tradition of the congregation.

Then, quit talking about it all the time. Working within the worship tradition of your congregation, turn your attention to what really matters: expounding on the truths of liberal religion and urging people to make the values of liberality the cornerstones of their lives. There is no message of importance that cannot be creatively expressed within the worship tradition of your congregation right now.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

So, we are all humanists now? Now what ?

The point of my observation that all of supposed theological diversity among UU's is really variations of humanism is this: we can stop treating our theological diversity as the most important thing.

I propose that we ignore it for a while.  There are some things that just need a good leaving alone.

We should talk about other things.

We should be drawing a bright line between liberal religion and fundamentalist religion.  Liberal religion believes that religion is a human cultural product, that no religion is more true than another and the value of religious life is pragmatic -- does it improve life, create justice, and happiness?

We should be evangelizing for the virtues of liberality: reverence and awe, honesty and humility, generosity and gratitude, openness, solidarity, compassion and self-possession.  We should be asking people to decide to make these values the cornerstones of their lives.

When we are at our best, our common commitment to these virtues subsumes and transcends our supposed differences of theological language and liturgical preferences.

I know that our understanding of liberal religion and liberal values is culture-bound.  We have to know who we are and relate to other people who are religiously liberal, but culturally different from a place of honesty and respect.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

We are all humanists now.

Almost all of the supposedly diverse Unitarian Universalist theologies are humanist reinterpretations of pre-humanist religious movements.  Indeed, the Unitarianism and Universalism of the 19th century were reinterpretations of Calvinist Protestantism in the light of the emerging humanism.  

The Enlightenment demolished supernaturalism, and when theology now longer described material reality, the purpose of religion turned to serving human happiness and betterment. Religion turned from being God-centered to Human-centered.  In short, humanism, in its broadest sense. 

This broad humanism was not the same as twentieth century humanism, as summarized by the Humanist Manifesto. 20th century humanism took the path of continued theological realism: the positive statement that there was no God.  But other humanists took the path of reinterpreting older religious tradition to serve human purposes. 

I’ve been a UU Christian for years, and I assure you that most UU Christians are humanists, reinterpreting Christian tradition to make it serve the human purposes of happiness and betterment.  I am sure that there are exceptions.

My sense of other UU theologies are that when there is a conflict between a traditional teaching and the broad humanist purposes of Unitarian Universalism, that part of the tradition is ignored, or explained away, or contradicted.  

This is not confined to Unitarian Universalism; this is the liberalizing trend in all religious movements.  In fact, “liberalizing” or “westernizing” trends in religion are reconciling orthodoxy with the humanist definitions of reality and humanists understanding of justice: democracy, human rights and feminism, etc. 

We are all, broadly speaking, humanists now.  Except the fundamentalists, who are not. 

What we experience as conflict between humanists and theists in our religious movement and in our congregations are actually narrow and petty fights over language and liturgy.  We are not contesting over the TRUTH, or even the beliefs necessary to an ethical life and justice, but over pragmatic issues about membership growth and membership retention: marketing.  It all makes us small, not in numbers, but in purpose and concerns. 

Humanists now blame the stall in UU growth at our apostasy in turning away from Humanist Manifesto style Humanism.  Christians and theists argue that were we more theistic, we will be more relevant to the unchurched, most of whom still believe in God.  UU Buddhists point to the growth of Western Buddhism which often lacks a structured community.  Let's call these arguments what they are: marketing strategies.  Underneath it all, we are all humanists.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

If frogs had wings..

I wish that there was some way in which potential genocides could be stopped before they happen, and that war crimes could be nipped in the bud.  I wish there was a cavalry that come ride to the rescue of innocent people caught in bloody conflicts.  I wish there was international law and order.

My inclination is to be a liberal humanitarian interventionist.

But I don't think that it works.

I am just as clear that the USA cannot be that cavalry -- the police force of the global system.  The horrific situations where we are most tempted to intervene are horrific because they are the working out of longstanding conflicts.  Our intervention only involves us in those conflicts.

The combination of the Cold War, oil wealth and the conflict with Israel brought a series of militarized dictatorships to power all across the Middle East: from Libya to Iran.  Those have been going under.  They are not being replaced by secular democratic governments but by more conservative Islamic movements.  This is the tide of history, as they say.  Democratic liberalism will develop out of those emerging conservative Islamic states in the future, if at all.

Our present dilemma in Syria comes from the fact that we don't particularly want either side to win. The result is a policy confusion -- we want to bomb somebody, but not change the dynamics of the civil war.  The hope that somehow we could have intervened to bring about the victory of democratic liberals, a hope still held by Senators Graham and McCain, is a neocon delusion.

President Obama has proposed a liberal humanitarian intervention, much as he did in Libya.  (Remember that he proposed a very limited engagement in Libya, but ended up assisting the overthrow of the regime there, so there is reason for thinking that he might intend more than he says now.) I have to say that I have a lot of confidence in President Obama

But a pinprick will do nothing.

Assisting in regime change will involve the US in a civil war which will go on much after Assad is gone, much as in Iraq.

Which leaves staying out of it.  Which is where I stand.

The key thing is that he has proposed an intervention and asked Congress (and the rest of us) to approve it.  Any attempt to force Congress to act like adults should be welcomed.  Congress may be persuaded to approve the resolution before it; a lot of people are terrified of the prospect that any President might not get what they ask for in cases like this.  Standing and credibility and all that. Voting to stay out of it will take a lot of institutional guts for Congress.  There will be votes against authorization that are everything from principled and progressive anti-militarism to outright crazy anti-Obamaism.  It will not represent a cohesive vision of a different kind of foreign policy.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013


I don't know what party this was taken at, but I have only a vague memory of being there.

Lincoln and the Butler

The Steven Spielberg movie "Lincoln" was criticized for the way that it is treated the White House domestic staff, especially Lincoln's butler.  Lincoln's butler, (called "Slade" in the movie) was historically, an active leader in the free black community of Washington, D.C. However, he was portrayed as merely kindly and avuncular in Spielberg's movie.  For a critique of "Lincoln" the movie, on those grounds, see here.

Almost a year later, Lee Daniel's The Butler arrives to tell us a story of another White House Butler. Forest Whitaker portrays Cecil Gaines, the son of a sharecropper who served for 30 years in the White House as a butler. That 30 years covered the years of the Civil Rights Movement, beginning with Eisenhower and ending with Reagan.  Cecil Butler, in livery, silently served coffee and tea in rooms where white Presidents sought to evade the demands of justice.  The first such scene we see is Eisenhower trying to avoid sending troops to Little Rock, and the last is Reagan threatening to veto legislation applying sanctions to South Africa.

The film is fictional; the truth is here.

The movie is an exploration of the role of dignity as a response to oppression.  The preservation of African American dignity in the face of dehumanization has been means of both survival and struggle for this long history.

The movie made some connections for me, a white person.

One was that the non-violence of the Civil Rights Movement emerged out of the tradition of dignity, especially the tradition of dignified "service", that had developed in the Southern plantation/sharecropping system.   The movie makes this connection clear as it intercuts scenes of a lunch counter sit-in with scenes of the White House domestic staff preparing for a state dinner.  While the sit-ins were disruptions of the social order and the rituals of service at a state dinner were extreme manifestations of the social order, the affect and the demeanor were the same: the display of dignity.

The second connection that came to me was this tradition of dignified service was enforced by traumatic racial violence.  Cecil Gaines witnesses his father being killed by a white man who had raped Cecil's mother.  Cecil was brought into the 'house' as some sort of consolation, perhaps an act of penance, by the killer's mother.  The threat of violence and retribution hangs over so many encounters between Cecil and those he served.  The movie contains many scenes of Cecil skillfully evading affirmation of racist expressions of whites, including the Presidents of the United States, while not directly confronting them.  

The costs of service are almost too much to bear.  Cecil lives in two worlds -- his domestic life and the domestic life of others whom he serves.  His wife cannot come to his workplace. One of his sons becomes an activist, and a freedom rider and eventually a Black Panther, which is too much difference for the relationship to carry.  His son later becomes a more conventional political leader.  His other son serves (there is that word again) in Vietnam, and dies there.

On the surface, The Butler seems to an apology for our most cherished white fantasy of admirable African American behavior: dignified, friendly, concerned with our comfort, unobtrusive.  Cecil Gaines is an attractive and sympathetic character.  His dignity seems heroic, and I found myself sympathizing with his revulsion to the militancy of his son, even though that would not be my considered political judgment.

But we should try to see beneath the surface of the movie: where does such dignity come from, and what does it cost? And how does it shape our expectations, as white people, in relationship with African Americans today, in daily life, where we are meeting supposedly as equals in a democratic society?

Monday, September 02, 2013

Obama and Syria

President Obama continues his pattern of making good faith efforts to fulfill the role of President correctly.

When it comes to foreign policy and the use of force abroad, the USA has developed a system of an over-functioning executive branch and an under-functioning legislative branch.  The result is an Imperial Presidency and  a bias toward interventionism.

By seeking Congressional approval for military strikes against the Syrian government, he is doing what he ought, under the Constitution, to be doing.  He is not complying with the dangerous Constitutional theory that allows the Executive branch complete and unchallenged power in foreign and military matters.  And by not complying, he exposes how far off the norm we have gotten.  The neocons are now in the position of arguing that he should be more imperious, that he endangers the country by not unilaterally seeking out every quagmire he can find.  

President Obama keeps acting like a President ought to act.  He seeks bi-partisan compromises on the largest issues before the country, like spending and taxes and health care.  He speak moderately. He keeps inviting those Congressional leaders to lunch and to dinner.  He maintains his dignity.  That we continue to be trapped in gridlock is not on him, but on those who have declared themselves his enemies.

The strategy of "doing the right thing with dignity" is the African American heroic strategy.  Go see "The Butler" for an explicit celebration of that strategy.