Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Humanist Pilgrimage

We went to Paris.  No reason, except for fun and relaxation.  Sue, my spouse, works incredibly hard.

When I say that travel is now the great humanist pilgrimage, I am not referring to humanism as atheism, but as the great humanist turn in Western thought when ordinary life was placed at the center of consciousness and thought.

We looked at the Italian, Spanish, Flemish and Dutch paintings in the Louvre.  Most of the Renaissance paintings were about Christian subjects, depictions of Biblical scenes and the lives of the saints.  They were theologically rich; they illustrate doctrine.

An explanation of the Eucharist in oils.
You could, if you wanted, classify and curate these paintings on the basis of their theological content.  You could sort them into Protestant and Catholic paintings, or paintings about Mary in one room and paintings about the Passion in another.  The title cards could have learned commentary about the doctrine the paintings illustrated, and even where the paintings had heretical content.

But that is not how we look at paintings from the Renaissance anymore.

But now we see those paintings primarily as paintings, interesting in the way that they illustrate the history of painting itself, and European art in general, and the cultural productions of humanity as a world-wide species.  What amazing things people are capable of creating!  We read them through humanist lenses, and they are icons to contemplate on a humanist pilgrimage.

How to illustrate this great turn away from the divine toward the ordinary and human?  Consider the Cathedral at Rouen, begun in 1200.  It was built to last, a place to worship the everlasting God by His everlasting church.  In 1890, Claude Monet painted a series of paintings of the Cathedral's facade, each one capturing the impression on his eyes made by the ever shifting light shining on the unchanging stones.

What has this to do with religion, aside from everything?  This is why I say of UU's -- we are all humanists now.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Universalism is a Process

While you were watching the shutdown/debt limit situation in Washington DC, you may have noticed that I had nothing to say here.  You shouldn't expect to hear from me at times like that.  It is not that I am not interested; in reality, I am completely absorbed in the those events.  October before an election is the same thing.  

I don't have anything particularly unique to say during periods of heightened political conflict.  Calling out the political desperadoes of the House GOP is a task already made light by the work of many hands. Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow do it smarter; Josh Marshall does it quicker; Charles P. Pierce does it with more style; Wonkette does it dirtier; and Andrew Sullivan meep-meeps it more portentously.  What would I have to add?

Anyway, my focus has been on the intersection of liberal religion and current events.  What are the implications of our liberal theologies for the political, social and economic conflicts of the day?  

Some thoughts: what we are witnessing with the Republican Party is desperate resistance to the will of the majority.  A reformist tide is gathering strength in American society and it seeks a broad range of new policies that will benefit more of the people.  Those reforms will come at the expense of the 1% and so they are resisting them.  But they will not be able to hold out forever.

I think that it is very possible that the period of 2015-2016 could be period of great progressive reform that would change the our society for the good.  A Democratic majority in the House and the return to majority rule in the Senate could result in immigration reform, national voting rights safeguards, gun control, further improvements in the health care reform, a minimum wage increase, a carbon tax and even more.  It could be a period like 1965-1966.  Such opportunities come rarely. ( I also believe that it is possible that the GOP will keep the House in 2014, and impeach Obama for something, even though they can't hope to remove him from office.)

Why? And what does this have to do with liberal religion?  What is happening that makes social reform possible? 


Universalism is not just a Christian doctrine of salvation.  Universalism is not simply a high moral ideal, a banner lifted up by the most cosmopolitan of elites.  Universalism is, I suggest, a concrete historical process, an unfolding process within which we are only in the middle.  It is just beginning to be possible to imagine a self-conscious and self-aware humanity, a humanity that takes all of its members seriously as worthy of full dignity and power.  Universalism is the process by which the subordinated human beings claim their full power, throw off the habits of deference (and entitlements) and see their universality, in all their diversity.  Universalism imagines a democratic world. 

Liberal Religion is the belief that this unfolding process of universalism will ultimately prevail.  This is not a given.  Probably more people in this country believe that history is moving inexorably toward an armageddon where good and evil will wage war and God does the dirty work of genocide.  Illiberal Religion believes in the apocalypse and the End Times and the war of civilizations.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.  

Liberals who do not see the longer view have been shocked by the desperation with which the Republican Party has been resisting social reform since Obama was elected.  And every ounce of militancy and fight is called for to break the back of their resistance.  Universalist hope is not pollyannish, centrist, both sides are to blame, let's all just get along.  But Universalism is hope, nonetheless.

There will be much conflict in the years ahead.  There will be more political struggles, in Washington, and in State Capitols, and in Cities, in the streets and in workplaces that will seem all-consuming.  They will drive me to occasional radio silence.

Liberal Religion, if it is to be of any use in the future, will be in the thick of these struggles.  But we will be the people of hope and confidence, not fear and panic.  We will be determined, but not desperate.  What we have faith in is the unfolding of universalism; that innate human ability to see the connections of each to the other, and to enrobe each other with worth and dignity, and to empower ourselves by empowering all.


Monday, October 14, 2013

Liberal Religion and False Consciousness

Unitarian Universalism, in general, has turned from defending "individualism" to critiquing it.   It is a shift in our theological anthropology -- our theory of the human being -- breaking from the myth that isolated individuals at some point in pre-history voluntarily created communities.  No, people were always in communities (packs, herds, clans and tribes), even back into pre-human history.  Isolated individuals -- people who live alone -- is a recent phenomenon, and their existence depends on well developed community structure to support them.  One couldn't live alone without a grocery store around the corner, and a broadband internet connection.

Many a UU minister these days is preaching against the mythology of individualism.  To which I say: quit beating that horse and bury it.  

Once UUism started talking about the "beloved community" as the goal of the religious life, it should have recognized that the opposite of the "beloved community" is not the selfish individual, but the "demonic or oppressive community."

The oppressive community is a structure of domination and subordination, oppressors and oppressed, exploiters and exploited.  It is maintained by false consciousness.

False consciousness and "internalized oppression" are similar concepts, but I think that "internalized oppression" seems to be more about how people think about themselves, while false consciousness is more about how people define the communities in which they are embedded.

False consciousness is an urgent problem right now.  The belief of the Tea Party is that they are
attributed to Reuters
"losing America."  They have a vision of an "America" which is exclusionary, nostalgic, and mythic.  One quite small feature of their mythic American community is that it honors the individual, but it cannot be reduced to that thought.  That "America" to which the populist Right is loyal to is also white, Christian, small-town and male-dominated.  The populist right is weepy over the loss of this community, and panic-stricken, and furious.  But that "America" never existed.  And for most of the ordinary people loyal to the populist right, the "good old days" were actually times when people like them were consigned to a life of back-breaking work, domestic drudgery, non-existent health security and an old age of poverty.  The remembered love and comfort of their family was in spite of the social system, not because of it.

Imagining yourself as being embedded in, and nurtured by, a community that does not really exist is false consciousness.  Defining your security and well-being as flowing from that community is false consciousness.

False consciousness is a spiritual problem, especially if we define our ultimacy in terms of a particular kind of community.  It is equivalent to idolatry (the worship of a false God) to imagine oneself as being a member of a community that either does not exist, or that you misinterpret.  And if the theological definition of "sin" is separation from God, then the equivalent concept is separating yourself from the real community to live in one of fantasy.

False consciousness is a spiritual problem for contemporary religious liberals.  It shows up as our mythology of being the modern embodiment of the Boston brahmin intellectual elite.  It shows up as our belief that the Unitarian Universalist congregation is a permanent alternative community.  It shows up in our presumptions of stability into the future.  We share the persistent false consciousness of most of the middle class -- that belief that the real economic decision makers are committed to our well-being and security.  It shows up in the belief that there are "others" whom we should help by "reaching out" to them.

Rather than preaching against individualism, ministers of liberal religion might want to question how and why we belong to the communities we think we do.

Help me understand something?

Over the last month, nearly 4000 people looked at a blog post of mine United or Untied?.  This is way out of line with the rest of my humble blog.   Of course, I am gratified, but I don't understand where these readers are coming from.  Anybody have any insight?

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Majority Rule in Danger?

Many commentators have correctly identified the GOP Shutdown of the federal government and the threat to drive the government into default as being a threat to majority rule.  And it is; it is an attempt to thwart the will of the majority with the tactic of taking the basic operations of government as hostage.

The quibble that I have is this:  the United States has never had majority rule.  In the beginning, whole sectors of the population were excluded from democratic participation and voting, and even now that situation persists: convicted felons, non-citizens (11 million undocumented people, many of them adults, live and work and pay taxes in the United States but cannot vote), etc.  In addition, complicated registration procedures and regulations, including weekday voting, further restrict participation.

The point is that the nation is moving slowly toward democracy and majority rule.  And when the will of the majority actually drives public policy, the country will operate in a very different way.  It is clear that the majority of the people want many things that are declared politically unfeasible today.  But the majority cannot work its will without a political apparatus to elect officials who represent them.  Democracy requires not only universal access to the ballot, but political organization and mobilization.

The Obama coalition brings us closer to democratic, majority rule, mostly because it mobilizes more people to vote and participate.  Using social media and technology, it has found ways to activate more people.  The Obama coalition threatens minority rule, and that is why it is being resisted so desperately.  To those who really do rule, majority rule is the danger; it is an existential threat.