Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Liberals and "Internalized Oppression"

I argue that liberals suffer from 40 years of conservative vilification and mockery.  We second-guess ourselves, doubt our own legitimacy, try to appease our critics and speak and act with caution.

Commentator Clyde suggests that I might be talking about what oppressed people called internalized oppression.  

I am reluctant to use those words; being demonized and scapegoated by your political opponents is not really oppression.  Oppression is much more serious; let's not make that word too thin, but making it cover too much ground.

But it is internalized something.

A synergy between right and left works to make liberals doubt themselves.  

Take, for example, the charge that the anti-Vietnam war movement was motivated simply by middle-class students' fear of the draft.  It came first from the leftwing of the antiwar movement, as a challenge for us to look more deeply at the war. The war wasn't wrong because it relied on the draft, but because it was an imperialist war, being fought by the poor. The criticism was being made  to encourage us to a more thorough opposition to the war, and to hear more voices against it.

Pro-war elements, though, picked up on the criticism, and used it to drive a wedge between students with deferments and poor and working class draftees. The purpose was not to get poor and working draftees out of danger but to shame the students into silence. 

Now, the dominant narrative about the antiwar movement was that it was a self-centered, self-interested movement of cowardly students. And the unspoken implication is that the war in Vietnam was good policy.

So, the life-cycle of the criticism that liberals were privileged elitists was (1)it originated among oppressed communities and radicals as a challenge to liberal movement to push harder and broaden their analysis. (2)It was then picked up conservatives and the real elite as a way to silence the liberal movement. (3)It finally comes to rest in the heads of liberals themselves, as a generalized malaise and self-paralysis, and a weapon to be used in our little arguments with each other.

In particular, the criticism that liberals are too elitist to relate to ordinary people, and so should be very cautious about trying to, has entered that perfect state of self-defeat that can last forever.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Why We Are Cynical About Ourselves

I have made a simple call that Unitarian Universalists move to express solidarity with low-wage workers, the working poor and poor people. To be clear, I meant solidarity in a fairly conventional political sense: expressing support for, and organizing support for, reformist proposals to improve the economic circumstances of the working poor. I did use the word solidarity deliberately, because I think that the capacity to feel solidarity with others is an essential virtue of the liberal character, and one that we ought to encourage.  But I don't mean mind-melding, or thinking that we are who we are not, or telling people on the front lines how to conduct their struggle.

The pushback from some of my friends and colleagues has been to question whether Unitarian Universalists are really capable of solidarity.  Are we locked instead into our privileges?

Let's look at the situation.

UU's are mostly Democrats these days.  By what percentage do you believe Obama carried UU congregations in 2008 and 2012?  The kinds of demands that are on the agenda right now for the working poor are on the national party platform of Democratic Party.  Raising the minimum wage is a mainstream issue.  US Senators are talking about increasing social security benefits.  The Senate has passed comprehensive immigration reform.  Elizabeth Warren is proposing student loan relief. Medicaid expansion in the red states is going to be a major issue in the elections this year.

Why would Unitarian Universalists believe that somehow they were incapable of participating in political coalitions operating in the interests of low wage workers, pensioners, the unemployed and others of our fellow citizens in economic hardship?

Especially when "they" are "us", past, present and future.

Support for these demands is just good coalition work.

So why would we doubt that we could do it authentically and sincerely and effectively?

Pay attention, now.  I have said this before, but it is hard for us to hear.

Our cynicism about ourselves, about liberals like ourselves, comes from believing what our political opponents have told us about ourselves.

Do you remember that scene in Good Will Hunting, where Robin Williams, playing a psychologist,
shows Matt Damon pictures of himself bearing the marks of the abuse from his father.  Damon resists looking at them, laughs them off, but Williams just keeps repeating: "It's not your fault." "It's not your fault." "It's not your fault."

For forty years, the triumphant and dominant conservative movement in the United States has insistently condemned liberals as self-serving, hypocritical, elitist, and dictatorial. Every criticism of the status quo that liberals made was turned back against them.

Now, I'm not saying that liberals are not implicated in the injustices that are this nation's past and present.  I doubt that Matt Damon was a perfect child, as well.

But I am saying that forty years being caricatured and vilified by a dominant conservative movement has affected us, and made us cynical about ourselves.

We are caught up in our heads, second-guessing ourselves, doubting our capacity to take even the simplest of actions.  The way forward is to act, and then reflect, and then act again, and then reflect, and learn from our mistakes and the feedback we are getting from those around us, and then act again.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Solidarity and Authenticity

I have made a call that UU's (and other religious liberals) make a commitment to solidarity with the working poor.  I have called for us to work for a higher minimum wage, for medicaid expansion, for increased social security benefits.  We should publicly oppose food stamp cuts, unemployment benefit cuts, public sector worker layoffs.  We should publicly support fast food workers and retail workers efforts to unionize.  We should be for anything that improves the standards of living of the poor and working poor.  We should be visibly against every form of austerity that inflicts pain on them.

I am inspired by Pope Francis, I admit.  I don't think that he objects.

My fellow UU's raise objections, though.  And from what I perceive as the "left" side of the spectrum.  (I had expected to hear from the "right" side of the spectrum: people who thought that such public ministry would be partisan and make Republicans feel unwelcome and from Libertarians who claim solidarity with the poor but were willing to see them suffer before watching the government do something about it.)

The left criticism is that Unitarian Universalists are too wealthy and too privileged and too self-distancing to have any "authentic" or "sustainable" solidarity with the working poor.  It would the work of "dilettantes".  Further, Unitarian Universalism must first address the issues of class within our own house.

I think these criticisms misunderstand public ministry.  In fact, they don't even deal with the category of public ministry, at all, being unable to separate the pastoral leadership within the church (the spiritual growth of the committed people) from the public ministry of the church in society.

I am saying that the liberal religious movement, and particularly Unitarian Universalism, must take on the work of advocacy, teaching and organizing out in society.  Our message is that the workings of our economy and government are violating the worth and dignity of the poor and working poor of our country, and it is immoral.  We are on their side, and we publicly preach that it is our intention that everyone, from the workers at the local McDonald's to the highest level of government know that we are on the side of the workers.

This is a political struggle for the soul of the nation.  It is a spiritual struggle for the political soul of the country.  It is struggle occurring out there in the world of voting, and lobbying, and coalition building and arguments in the letters to the editor and in the comment sections of blogs.

Low wage workers will not have their lives changed because they have some UU friends who prove to be resolute and trustworthy allies.  But a raise to $10 per hour will make a real difference.  Medicaid expansion in 20 some states will mean health care for their families.  And those good things will come about because of two things: more poor people voting and more middle class people voting to protect the poor from the rich, rather than the other way around.

We have influence in formation of middle-class opinion.  What we say publicly matters.

Let's look at recent history.  There are lessons for both the power of our public ministry when we choose to exercise it, and for the relationship between our public ministry and our own spiritual growth and development.

A few decades ago, Unitarian Universalism declared itself to be on the side of gays and lesbians.  I think it began with some GA resolutions, which I am sure were thought to be empty posturing and dilettantish at the time by some.  Internally, we were not ready to back that up with our internal practice.  A lot of time and energy and resources were spent to make this ultra-respectable religion welcoming to gays and lesbians.  We added more initials.  We discovered that "they" were not people "out there" but "us" and always and already "in here." Old habits were abandoned. New leaders were developed.  Reluctant people were patiently brought along.  Some left.  But meanwhile, in our imperfect, incomplete and even inauthentic state, we kept raising the rainbow flag over iconic New England village greens, and showing up as the only non-MCC churches in Pride parades.  And now, our members are instrumental in coalitions of all sorts of people winning at the ballot box.

Lesson one: we know how to do public ministry.  We've done public ministry.
Lesson two: We don't change as a precondition to public ministry; public ministry changes us, challenges us.  Our spiritual development happens as we run to keep up with our intentions and commitments, and by the people we meet.

These criticisms from the "left" are good questions, important stuff, and we will have to take them up as we engage in the practice of solidarity.   But are they reasons not to do it?

Past, Present and Future

The working poor, the low-wage workers, the occasionally unemployed, the disabled, the food stamp beneficiary, the welfare recipient, the two-job part-time workers, the boomerang child who returns home, the early retired who couldn't find another job, the undocumented working without legal protection: these are Unitarian Universalism's Past, Present and Future.

Many UU's have these experiences in their Pasts: some as the persistent condition of their childhoods and some as temporary situations on their life's journey.

Some UU's are in these circumstances in the Present, or they have family members who are, and they live in communities in which low-wage workers are all around them everyday.

And for many UU's, these positions are their Future, as retirement savings turn out to be inadequate, as full employment gets redefined as 6%, as misguided austerity shreds the safety nets, as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the middling classes get forgotten.  The younger see it more clearly than the old.

This is not Unitarian Universalism's self-image.  We tell a self-story that denies our own reality.  It is called "false consciousness" and a lot of it is going around.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Unitarian Universalism in 2014

My hope for 2014 is that Unitarian Universalist congregations move from service to solidarity

Service and charity fundraising is great, but it reinforces some problematic mental habits of the kinds of folks UU's tend to be.   They feed the illusions of power, wealth and privilege, being used with wisdom and judgment to help people who are far away, economically and socially.  

What this country needs right now is a movement of middle class people committed to standing with the working poor.  Unitarian Universalists should be in the forefront of that movement in 2014.  I hope for more ministers, with or without their collars, showing up to support fast food workers when they strike.  Some "Standing on the Side of Love" banners encouraging Walmart workers.  More congregational statements calling for Medicaid expansion in the states that are resisting it.  More ministers who read Rev. Morales' statement calling for minimum wage increase to their congregation.  We should be loud and clear about evils of cutting off unemployment benefits and slashing food stamps.  

The idolatry of wealth and the ideology of individualism and the demonic forces of racism and xenophobia all work to create distance between the dwindling middle class and the working poor.  The middle class is urged to "kiss up" and "kick down."  Everyone is told, again and again, that it their own fault that they are where they are.

Solidarity is a prophetic message in today's America.

Solidarity is voluntary, an act of will.  It is an attitude that can be chosen, a habit that can be cultivated, a trait of character that can be developed. 

Solidarity does not come easily to people who pride themselves on their education, or their cultural sophistication, or their refined patterns of consumption.   

Solidarity is humble.  It says to the fast food worker; I may be a locavore vegan, but I will stand with you for a living wage for selling hamburgers, because you have determined that is what you need.

My hope for Unitarian Universalism in 2014 is that we are filled with the spirit of Pope Francis and moved to stand up again and again for and with the people who are being made victims of the present order, and especially those who are speaking up and fighting back.  

Friday, December 20, 2013

Collars and Kenosis

The Red Pill Brethren talked about UU ministers wearing clerical collars.  Go look at the record of
the conversation.  

I don't have any deeper insight than these colleagues.

I have been resistant to the whole collar business.   It has always felt inauthentic to me, as though we were picking and choosing how to relate to Christianity, adopting it opportunistically.  More than once, I pronounced, as is my way sometimes, that a UU minister who wouldn't wear a clerical collar to church on Sunday shouldn't wear one on Saturday down at the Federal building.

But I recognize now that I long had a little Christ-shaped chip on my shoulder.  I saw everything through the lens of the Unitarian Universalist failure to acknowledge its relationship to Christianity. Given that perspective, I saw the collar as a misappropriation, not much different that chocolate communions.

Recently, I have been more persuaded by the logic of the collar that says it has social power which we should wield wisely.  It can add social power to protest.  It can, by upending expectations, subvert reactionary forms of Christianity.  It can make certain relationships and interactions possible which were not otherwise.  Many of the stories told by the Red Pill Brethren have this theme.

But all of that social power and symbolism is derived from the fading authority of the church.

My development away from carrying the Christ Chip on my shoulder was that I observed that the church was entering (in the global North, at least) into the tomb.  Christianity is being stripped of all social power and all authority.  As the letter to the Philippians says, "he laid no claim to equality with God, but made himself nothing".  Unitarian Universalism itself is an expression of this move toward the tomb -- a church stripping itself of the claim of providing a more direct access to God.
(Christians ought not to be afraid of the tomb; it's just a rest stop on the way to new life.)

So while it is useful, perhaps, in the short term to lay claim to the social authority of Christianity by wearing the clerical collar, it is will have diminishing returns.  Our ability to inspire others will have to come from some other source: our authenticity, our consistency, our humility, our transparency.

How would we convey what we are trying to communicate with the clerical collar if we did not wear it?

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Reading Francis, continued.

The Unitarian Universalist clergy is now discussing the perceived differences between parish and community ministry.  Pope Francis, however, seems to think that parish ministry is community ministry, or, at least, it should be.

Pope Francis:
28. The parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility, it can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community. While certainly not the only institution which evangelizes, if the parish proves capable of self-renewal and constant adaptivity, it continues to be “the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters”.[26] This presumes that it really is in contact with the homes and the lives of its people, and does not become a useless structure out of touch with people or a self-absorbed group made up of a chosen few. The parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration.[27] In all its activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers.[28] It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a centre of constant missionary outreach. We must admit, though, that the call to review and renew our parishes has not yet sufficed to bring them nearer to people, to make them environments of living communion and participation, and to make them completely mission-oriented.  (emphasis added.)

Is our fear that our parishes have become "useless structures out of touch with people or a self-absorbed group made up of a chosen few"?

Of course, Francis is a Roman Catholic and not a congregationalist.  But our congregationalism leads us to define the local body as the financial supporters. It predisposes a UU congregation to be a self-absorbed group of a chosen few.  But we could re-think that and change, by shifting our focus from who pays to who is being served.

WAPO on Francis

I opined on Facebook that articles like this make me despair of Christianity. And I said I would explain why.

The flow of Tenety's article is this: "People think Francis is cool for some good reasons. But I am here to tell you that Francis is cool because FRANCIS IS A CHRISTIAN and that is what is important. (Even though the Roman Catholic church does some yucky things, there are still lots of cool things that go on.) So don't go around thinking that Francis is cool because he agrees with you; he's not as cool as you think because HE IS A CHRISTIAN and that is what is important."

The flow of the article flows uphill, away from the present and away from real life.

I ask the question: what is the relationship between Francis' coolness, Christianity and me? What is the point? Francis is providing a clear voice for change. The challenge to me is do I lend my voice and hands to that effort? Am I inspired by Francis? I should hope so.
But that is not enough for Elizabeth Tenety.

She wants to remind us that the Pope is really working at the "Spiritual" level which is so far above our grubby political and social aspirations. In fact, for Elizabeth Tenety, Francis' engagement with the social and political realities of the global world is just evangelical salesmanship.

If Francis is a radical, it is like this: By speaking the language of the common person in the year 2013, in his awareness of the inspirational power of grand, symbolic gestures, through his call for everyday Catholics to embrace the simple, radical mandates of their baptism, Francis is awakening a world that was becoming dead to Christianity. If he’s breaking new ground, it’s because he’s discovered an effective way to call people to Christ.

I despair of Christians when they act like "calling people to Christ" is the point of the whole exercise.

After all, what is this "Christ"? The "Christ" is a shorthand for an extensive set of loyalties, doctrines, institutions and practices. At its most basic level, it is interpretation of history: an interpretation of the life and work of a man who lived 2000 years ago.

According to Tenety, when I look at what Francis says and does, I am to take it as evidence that the vast system of Christianity is good thing. So, the present and real validate the abstract and the historical.

I hope that the Christian tradition is what is pushing Francis into his engagement with the injustices of the global economy. My hope is also that the example of Francis is pushing you into your engagement with the injustices of the global economy.

Let the present and the real inspire more of the present and real.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Francis and the Need for Religious Leadership

Time magazine chose Pope Francis as the Person of the Year.  I like it.

Francis shows why we need religious leaders.  He condemns the stranglehold that global capital has on the day to day lives of the world's people.  He is becoming the global spokesperson for the poor. That role -- the prophetic voice of the global poor -- has not been filled in quite a while.

Only a religious leader can play that role.

So much of the hopes of the people of the world have been invested in Barack Obama, this
somewhat younger man of color who is, improbably, the head of state of the Empire.  President Obama, though, is circumscribed by his position.  He is, after all, the commander in chief of the imperial stormtroopers and drone operatives. He is also an executive fighting a constant political battle with determined opponents in the legislature.  He must fight hard even for halfway measures and watered-down compromises.  He is also under relentless criticism from a conservative propaganda machine. Every word he says, every hand he shakes, every moment of unself-conscious candid self-revelation is analyzed for signs of incompetence and treason.

President Obama who has carried the world's progressive hopes cannot consistently give them voice.

Only a religious leader can do that.  The world has missed the presence of a prophetic Pope for over 40 years.  The Reagan-Thatcher Thermidor included a two conservative Popes as well. There was no voice for the global poor and oppressed for years.  For a while, the freest voice for change was that of Bono, a rock star.

Religious leaders have the mandate to be prophetic voices.  On the other hand, they are also constrained by their institutional responsibilities.

Among the Unitarian Universalists, lip service is paid to the idea that the local parish minister should sound Joshua's trumpet, but only after the Sunday worship is meticulously (and collaboratively) planned, the staff team built and empowered, and all the secret suffering in the congregation sniffed out and soothed.  We say we want bold ministers, but many congregations are an unspoken conspiracy to make their minister nervous.

Francis has done his homework.  Read Evangelii Gaudium.  His call for justice comes from both his personal encounter with the poor of a city of 13 million people, and his theological reflection on the dignifying effect of the gospel message when presented to a person at the margins of the global order.

The only problem I see with Time's choice of the Person of Year is that it singles out one person out a much larger social movement.  What burst into the public consciousness with Occupy Wall Street is still in motion.  Francis occupied the Vatican; and low wage workers rally and demonstrate outside of their fast food sweatshops.  Get on board, there is a train a'comin.

What Child Is This?

One year, I retold the story of Jesus as a secret prince story, just to indulge my inner 12 year old. I have posted part of it here this year.  Maybe your inner 12 year old would enjoy it.  It's under the Pages column, or here.

Not Jesus

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Infinite Demand

We live by grace. We live in grace.

Amid the buzz and rattle of all that is, there is joy.  The joy is not constant, and there are pains and terrors that almost outweigh it, but joy still persists.

There is a rough grace at work. There is a grace that we can experience in ourselves. It is present in our relationships, in the pleasure that we have in beauty, in the marvel of natural world, in the ingenuity of the environments people have created.

Does it seem far away and inaccessible to you? If you never experience joy and grace, please seek help.  Constant pain and suffering is not the human condition, no matter the circumstances.

But grace hidden behind routine, behind the habit of boredom, or buried beneath our ambitions and objectives?  That we know.

To have more grace and joy in your life, cultivate the habits of reverence and awe.  It is simple: slow down, use your senses, stay in the moment, remember that everything that is does not need to be.  And yet, here it is.  Cultivate the habit of being amazed.

We live in grace. We live by grace.

Grace plays hide and seek through all that is.  If it did not exist, and life was a constant grim struggle for survival, we would not be having this conversation.  On the other hand, if it were constant presence, we would never notice it.

The inconsistency of grace, and our inconsistency in appreciating it, asks each of us: am I living in a way appropriate to the the promise of life?  Am I being dull to life: unmindful of beauty? Careless with people? Closed-minded? Ungrateful and ungenerous? Self-centered, even greedy? Am I unknowingly oppressive, or even indifferent to that possibility? Am I weaving a web of rationalizations and excuses to disguise unhappiness of a shallow and narrow life?

Grace asks questions for which there are no final answers.  We must choose everyday to summon the will to live up to life's promise.

I have spoken of grace, but not of God. I have made no claim that God has called us, or has a plan for us, or judges us.  I have only spoken of what we all have seen: that human happiness and human health seems to require some work of the will on our part, some act of conscious agency.

To try to live a happy and healthy life makes an infinite demand upon us, infinite because it can never be fully or finally satisfied.

I could elaborate either end of this equation.  We could mythologize the source of the demand:  One could say that God makes that demand on us, and that it is the impossible demand that we overcome our inherent depravity, original sin, by assenting to the proposition that God became Man in order to die for our sins.   Great religious traditions of art and story and music and architecture teach us who, why and how we are challenged.

And on the other hand, one could specify the content of that infinite demand: sexual codes, dietary laws, commandments to keep and rituals to observe, simple moral precepts to complex political and social reforms, even revolution.

Unitarian Universalism is a branch of Liberal Religion that does not care about the source of the existential and infinite demands felt by humankind.  The purifying fire of humanism burned away every mythic explanation.  We just know that we, as a species, are not living up to our potential, and the fault is not in our stars, or fate, or destiny, but in us, as a species.

Yes, it's not fair that cows get to live without second-guessing themselves about whether they are living into the fullness of the grace surrounding them, but we can't.

But Unitarian Universalism does care about the content of the existential and infinite demands.  It's what we most talk about. UU's hammer out explicit mission statements, but we also make congregational budgets, and allocate our staff time, and devote our mental attention here or there.

Unfortunately, our discussions of the infinite demand tend to center around what should "we" do -- our institutional priorities.

But what is demanded of each of us?

Each of us need to be more reverent, and allow room in life for awe.  Each of us needs to be more honest, truthful and humble.  We need to be more grateful, and more generous.  Each of us needs to be more open, cultivating an inner hospitality which lets difference in.  We should stand on the side of love, extending solidarity to those who are suffering, or excluded, or oppressed. We need to be more strongly self-possessed, able to enter relationships without fear of subordination or domination.

But each of us must decide that a life shaped by such virtues is how we want to live.  Our religious movement can witness our choice, and encourage us, and help us, and catch us when we fall. But we have to convinced that we want to live no other way.  We have to be convicted and converted.  Repeatedly.

Monday, December 09, 2013

The Purifying Fire and the Infinite Demand

I suggested recently that modern Unitarian Universalism's big bang of beginning was the explosive collision of liberal Protestantism and Humanism in the early to mid 20th Century.

Liberal Protestantism since the Enlightenment had become increasingly soft on the truth claims of Christianity.  Historical criticism of the Bible and Darwinism had made it clear that the biblical accounts, long accepted as historical fact, were not, in fact, true.  Turn of the century Fundamentalism had retreated to a position which asserted that the Biblical accounts were true, modern knowledge be damned.

Humanism brought a theologically realist critique to liberal Protestantism.  Everything that was not true per modern science was really not true.  Theology had to be about truth if it was about anything; after all, it is the truth that sets us free.

Humanism was a purifying fire to liberal Protestantism, burning away everything that was being preserved out of habit, out of a desire to maintain respectability, out of sentimental attachment.

The larger part of the Unitarian movement embraced it, enough so that throughout much of the country, it became an oddity for a Unitarian to also claim to be a Christian, or even a theist.

As we know, though, liberal Protestantism hung in among the Unitarians.  There were two saving remnants: many of the New England Unitarians retained their Christianity and their theisms.  They carefully balanced the demands of humanism with Christian or theist sentiments.  Institutionally, they had great strength, based as they were in some of the most established and well-endowed churches in the Association.  Another saving remnant were a portion of the Universalists, who had not gone in the World Religions direction exemplified by Kenneth Patton.

It now seems that the Humanist tide has peaked and begun to ebb. In fact, while overt Christianity seems to remain a minority status, much of contemporary Unitarian Universalism is adopting the styles and manners of Protestantism.  We know refer to ourselves as a "faith" that engages in "worship" and "prayer."  We talk of our "mission" and are now turning toward "evangelism".  Our clergy show up at public events in clerical collars; it is how they express their "call."  While UU's often, in words, make clear that we are something different than Protestant, if you turn the sound down, and just watch us in action, it's hard to see us as anything but the most liberal of the liberal Protestants.


Our Protestant DNA is still part of us, and we turn to it when we need to express the sense that we must live life in response to an infinite demand.   Simon Critchley writes The Faith of the Faithless
"faith [is] not the abstraction of a metaphysical belief in God, but rather a lived subjective commitment to an infinite demand." 

Critchley believes that faith so defined is available to the agnostic, the atheist and the non-believer.  I believe the same.  You can strip out all the concepts, but the deep sense still remains that the truth of the Universe makes a demand on you and that you must choose the better way to respond to it.

The scientific view of reality is not morally compelling.  There is no reason to let your little light shine because it is going to go out soon enough.  If you do a strict analysis, probably the stress caused by thinking about global warming is probably more dangerous to your health than global warming itself.

The squirrels in my back yard are fat and happy this fall.  I am pretty sure that they are not concerned that other squirrels somewhere else are too skinny to go into a harsh winter.  It's luck, but where in the laws of nature is it written that one should respond to good luck with gratitude and generosity beyond your own blood kin. No where.

Yes, if you do good in the eyes of your friends, self-interested as they are, you might be remembered fondly for a decade or two. A lot of good that will do you.  The evolutionary process is going to continue, and the notion that somehow we will change the future by seizing control of evolution now is scandalously naive.  And for that, you're saying I should pledge my life, my fortune and my sacred honor.  Really, it's not enough motivation to miss Modern Family on Wednesday night to go to some god-awful meeting.

But we Unitarian Universalists (and we are by no means the only ones) don't live that way.  We have made some instinctive subjective commitment to some infinite demand.  Somewhere we heard a call that demanded that we respond to good luck with gratitude and generosity and to misfortune with solidarity.  It makes sense to us that while Love may always see more than two sides to every conflict, it's a pretty clear choice whether to choose love or indifference as one's guiding principle.

Somehow the purifying fire of humanism has left that subjective commitment to living in response to an infinite demand whole, brighter and shinier than ever.  If Unitarian Universalism is to respond well to the crises ahead for our communities, our nation and our world, we will have to define ourselves more by what was revealed by the purifying fire, and less by the fire itself.

Friday, December 06, 2013

What is Uni-Q about Uni-T & Uni-V's.

Expanding on a response to a comment on the "Equations" post.

19th Century Protestantism developed in a few parallel streams as it responded to the historical situation.  We all know what was happening: the Civil War, industrialization, Darwin, Marxism, Freudianism, feminism, etc.  Protestantism became different streams: Fundamentalism, Pentecostalism, Evangelicalism, the Mainline. Unitarianism and Universalism were two of those streams of Protestantism, quite distinct from the othes.

What gives the Uni's their unique character was their willing confrontation with secularism and humanism.  Instead of trying to repel them, or protect the historic faith from them, they embraced humanism.  The mainline Protestants, on the other hand, did not embrace humanism, but onlyaccommodated skepticism.  That is why they have this two-tone quality -- on the surface, they are still orthodox, but in practice and in the pews and in the pastor's study, they are much more liberal.

The Unitarians of the early twentieth century went another way.  They quite gleefully tossed out the last vestiges of Christian orthodoxy they still held.  In most of the country, Unitarianism became 'the atheist church', long before these 'Sunday Assemblies' got started in London.  Unitarianism in its non-New England religious humanist form retained the organizational structure of churches, Sunday morning services and an ethical/moral system distilled from the Christian tradition. And Christmas in most places, but not Easter.

If it were not for the persistence of New England Unitarianism (Christian-ish, theistic, culturally mainline Protestant) and the ministers steeped in that tradition, Unitarianism would have become whole-heartedly humanist.

I think most of what goes on in Unitarian Universalism are efforts to harmonize our Protestantism and our humanism: theologically, evangelically, ecclesiologically and liturgically.

Protestantism and Humanism is an uneasy marriage, an unstable combination.

Out of all its offsprings, I think that the line represented by people like James Luther Adams is the most creative and unique.  He argues that the salvation history of humanity moves into the secular realm, in which churches in concert with other voluntary organizations build the Kingdom of God.  Today, Clyde Grubbs calls us a "radical universalizing movement"; it's a similar argument.

The creative essence of Unitarian Universalism has been its efforts to respond to humanism with this move: from the closed circle of salvation history of Christianity (God creates; Man falls; Jesus Comes; Church prepares; Jesus Comes Again; Man Saved.)  to a much more open-ended process of development whose future is much more contingent.  Instead of the Church preparing for the Second Coming, the Church learns and teaches and aims toward the Kingdom, or the Beloved Community.  

There are a lot of issues that have to be addressed in this effort: how to worship, how to build our own communities, how to avoid insularity, how to escape our demographic isolation, how to define an appropriate spiritual maturity in this context, how to work pastorally etc.  And UU's are hard at work on all these issues.

But what really matters, I think, is our purpose which is not to build churches and religious communities, but to take that religious impulse into the world: to humanize the global civilization.


Thursday, December 05, 2013


A recent Facebook interaction caught my eye.

Robin Bartlett Also, if the top ten factors that millennials cite that help make up their spiritual identities include prayer, the Bible, and their relationships with Jesus, perhaps it is time we started including prayer, scripture, and ways to have a stronger relationship with Jesus in our UU churches.
Aimee Stubbs Goodson For me, "prayer, the Bible, and their relationships with Jesus" would translate into UU terms as ritual or spiritual practice, our multiples sources of wisdom, and opportunities for spiritual deepening, like small group ministry.
(To be clear, I know Robin,  but don't know Aimee personally.)

What struck me was this process of "translating".  Prayer, the Bible and relationship with Jesus "translate" into UU terms as ritual etc.

Translation is something done with words and at its most primitive level is assumes a set of equivalences: "this equates to that".   

My impression is that UU's like to conceive of theological and religious differences as "languages" and that "translation" is an important ministerial skill.

But religious experiences are not equivalent; they are the phenomena of entirely ways of being in the world.

Unitarianism, Universalism and post-merger UUism are very different ways of being in the world than contemporary Protestantism.  Yes, they have their roots in 19th century Protestantism, which was a very different thing before the rise of fundamentalism (@1900), pentecostalism (@1925) and evangelicalism (@1950).  

I think we need to understand those differences, not as oppositions, but as contemporaneous paths of development.  By which I mean that we ought to step back and just be amazed that one trunk has resulted in such different branches.  

I am reading in Robin's comment a wish to go back somehow. But there is no road back to a time when our understandings of Jesus, the Bible and Prayer would be meaningful to the most Christian-identifying young people that the survey being discussed refers to. Too much Tillich hath been spilleth.  The task is, (and I think that Robin gets this) is bring them forward into the existential realities of today.  It is unfortunate that for most of conventional Protestantism, Jesus, Prayer and the Bible are pleasant alternatives to reality, and not entries into the reality in which we actually live.

But at the same time, "Jesus, Pray and the Bible" do not translate into the UU terms of small group ministry, undefined ritual and world scripture.  It's not like that UUism is the blank and empty ideal forms of religious practice into which anyone can pour whatever content they like.

In Singing the Living Tradition #113 (Where is Our Holy Church?), a system that equated the pillar concepts of 19th century Protestantism in laid out.

Church = that point of unity where diverse races and classes unite as equals
Scripture = wherever human hearts are inspired by truth
the Holy One (Jesus?) = everyone who rise to set the captives free
the Holy Land = the human soul
Paradise = our aspirational vision of justice.

Another set of equations is laid out in the most commonly used covenant of our churches:

Doctrine = Love
Prayer = Service
Sacrament = Seeking Truth

Instead "translating" traditional religious concepts in broader, more sterile generalizations (Prayer=Ritual), these historic documents specify and humanize religious concepts in contemporary realities.  They move "religion" out of the church and into the street.  This move was the signature move of 20th century humanism, and it cannot be undone, nor should it be.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Reading Francis

I have been plowing through Francis's Evangelii Gaudium, his "APOSTOLIC EXHORTATION ...

It is an appealing document; many have been attracted by his condemnation of contemporary capitalism and his call to a mission-oriented church.

But the title is something like "The Joys of Evangelism," not "The Joys of Mission".  He grounds the mission in evangelism.  That connection is hard for our Unitarian Universalist movement, given our reluctance to take up matters of what we believe.

Take for example, a statement given to me by leaders of a group planning worship at General Assembly in Providence this year.
A core purpose of our faith is to help people grow in spirit and in service. We believe that our faith provides a path for each of us to unlock our transformational capacity to serve the world with love. We want to expand our faith not just to grow Unitarian Universalism, but also to better achieve this transformational purpose.
UU theologians, writers and preachers need, not so much to "unpack" that statement, as "fill it in."   It abounds in mysteries.  What is this "faith" of which they speak?  Why the word "provide" versus "show".  A "path" goes from here to there, does it not?  Where is here and where is there?  Why the metaphor of a lock?  You get the idea.

I'm not being condemnatory; but only critical.  I keep coming back to these questions: "how does the experience of Unitarian Universalism change a person's life?  What is the conversion process of liberal religion? What is transformed and how?"

Reading Francis is following a progressive Roman Catholic mind as it explores analogous questions.

But the same mysteries are there, but with considerably more detail.

The very first paragraph:
1. THE JOY OF THE GOSPEL fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. In this Exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.
What happens in the encounter with Jesus and what his offer of salvation? It has been my theory that our liberal religious impatience with these phrases was once rooted in disbelief (how could we now 'encounter' someone dead for 2000 years?), but is now in their opaqueness.  What on Earth are they talking about?

But the functional definition of salvation is descriptive: "set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness."

So, working backwards and algebraically:  If X sets me free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness, what is X?

(If you are reactive to the word "sin", you can just call that "Not X", leaving: If X sets me free from not-X, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness, what is X?

More in the second paragraph:
The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.
The desire to do good comes from hearing X, and feeling X.  What is X?

Francis solves X as "God's voice and God's love." And the obstacle to the hearing and the feeling is that our interior life has become "caught up in its own interest and concerns."

I know that many liberal religionists can't get the "God's voice and God's love" part of Francis's thoughts here.  But UU ministers have been valiantly trying to humanize and naturalize such language for decades now.  Whether Christian or Humanists, we spend a lot of time finding ways to make those concepts meaningful to skeptical people, so I trust that those words are not an obstacle.

But I think that UUism and liberal religion question the metaphor of an interior life being a room with a limited amount of space.  In that room, according to Francis, our own interests and concerns struggle for space with concerns for others, and concern for the poor.

This is an old trope of spiritual discourse.  The Self vs God.  The Self vs Others.  It is now the fashion among UU's to talk about the Individual vs the Community.

Liberal Religion is a rare strain of spirituality that does not treat these opposites as a zero-sum game.  The 'interior life' is not a over-crowded room where someone has to leave to make room for God.  Liberal Religion does proceed down the road from ditch to ditch, first overemphasizing the self and then overemphasizing the other, but we have never whole-heartedly embraced self-negation as the path to spiritual growth.

To return to my question above: how does the personal transformation happen?  By the second paragraph, Francis begins to lay out his vision: the person mades room in his/her interior life for the voice and love of God.  I think UU's and liberal religion have a different understanding, but this will become more clear as we proceed into Francis's statement.

More reflections on Francis to come.  Gather your patience with Christian traditional language, set aside your absolutely justified impatience with the retrograde policies of the Church, and read Evangelii Gaudium.  There is much there to argue with and learn from.