Wednesday, April 5, 2006
Knock, knock, knocking on Mark Oppenheimer.
A guest review of Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture, by our resident doctoral student in American religious history Jeff Wilson:
OK, it's time for me to stop nipping around the edges and actually state in a semi-coherent form my objections to Oppenheimer's work on Unitarian-Universalists in Knocking on Heaven's Door. I've read his introduction and the chapter on Unitarianism and Gay Rights, as well as skimmed through the conclusion. I've also read the posts on the book by several people online, most notably Chris Walton and Kevin McCulloch at Philocrites and Keep Atlanta Beautiful. I've expressed objections about his definitions of religion and counterculture already, so now I'm going to try and really keep my attention focused on his historical work on UUism, which I find to be at times informative but overall inadequate.
First, I need to mention that I am a PhD candidate in religious studies who has been trained to study religious liberals in America. My direct training in this field comes from Thomas Tweed and Grant Wacker, both of whom were trained by the late William Hutchison, who taught liberal religious history at Harvard for many decades. With conservative evangelicals ascendant in all areas of American culture, liberal religion has become overshadowed as a field of study and thus is in some danger—many of the best and brightest choose to study other areas, resulting in an overall "brain drain" from liberal to conservative religious research subjects. This is a matter of some concern to me, so when a book comes along that pays serious attention to liberal religion (such as Unitarian-Universalism), I'm usually enthusiastic, whether or not I agree with its conclusions. At the same time, I'm wary that a general draining of the field can result in studies that do not handle liberal religion well. Unfortunately, I have to conclude that Knocking falls into this category.
My objections mainly come down to the feeling, as a historian of American religion with a particularly specialty in liberal religion, that Oppenheimer has not done good historical work and fundamentally does not understand the way that a liberal religion like Unitarian-Universalism operates. As Chris noted, Oppenheimer does not come from a religious background—his interest in the subject began at school. His training in religion did not include experts in liberal religion; on the contrary, his professors were researchers in totally other areas. In his acknowledgements he provides us with a glimpse of his training, which can be broken down as follows:
- Jamie Mercier: someone I've never heard of, not at Yale, with no publications
- John Ratte: an expert on Catholicism
- Harry Stout: a top American religious scholar who focuses on early American evangelicals; also religion in the Civil War
- Jon Butler: Oppenheimer's dissertation advisor ("Knocking" is an expanded version of his dissertation). Butler is arguably the most important scholar of American religion—his specialties are early American religion, and evangelicals in revolutionary and early Republic America
- Jane Archibald, Curt Robison, and James Rugen: these are teachers at Loomis Chaffee, an elite boarding school in Windsor, CT. When we were growing up in central CT, the students at LC made even us middle class kids at good public high schools feel like plebes.
- Paula Hyman: an expert on Judaism, especially women in Judaism
- J.D. McClatchy: a poet and writer on poetry
- Robert Stone: a fiction writer and teacher of creative writing
- Nicholas Wolterstorff: works on Christian theology
Oppenheimer thus had no access to people trained to talk about liberal religion in a systematic, sophisticated way. The Yale education in American religious history is excellent but is also famous for its heavy emphasis on Jonathan Edwards and Puritanism. In part, I actually think this absolves Oppenheimer of some responsibility. He did not have access to resources that would have helped him write about modern American Prostants/post-Protestants in an informed, nuanced way—he's got great Americanists on his roster, but they're not specialists in liberal religion. I suspect his chapters on Catholicism and Judaism are better, since he did have experts on these subjects in his stable.
Objection number one: Oppenheimer's historical discussion is poorly presented. The major problem is that he leaps about from time period to time period with no attention to the pitfalls of using evidence anachronistically. His dissertation was explicitly only about the years 1968-1975; in his discussion of the counterculture he opens it up a little to become basically 1955-1975. But he consistently brings in evidence from later time periods to bolster arguments about historically-situated subjects. An example: in trying to characterize UUism in the 1960s, he refers repeatedly to the familiar first principle about the inherent worth and dignity of every person—a principle formulated and adopted in the 1980s.
Objection number two: He makes limited use of resources. His presentations of key events are often uni-vocial. For instance, nearly all of his information on the early organizing activities (and alleged persecutions/obstacles) of Richard Nash comes a single telephone interview with Nash himself, or a handful of writings by Nash or that rely heavily on Nash's own press releases/statements. This problem crops up repeatedly and makes it difficult to establish confidence in his timelines and assertions.
Objection number three: He is inconsistent in his usage of his own key definitional terms. This objection goes beyond my general displeasure with how he defines religion and counterculture—my concern here is that he doesn't stick to these definitions once he declares them central. For instance, on page 17 UUism is a religion; on page 34 UUism is definitely not a counterculture; on page 59 UUism is a culture, not a religion, and maybe it is a counterculture; on page 60 UUism is still not a religion, but now it is a counterculture. His sense of these terms becomes very slippery and any coherence which his original definitions offered seems to evaporate.
Objection number four: Oppenheimer fundamentally does not understand liberal religion. His model for what religion is comes from conservative religion, and he cannot quite reconcile to himself that other models are actually in fact religion—to say nothing of understanding them in a sophisticated way. For Oppenheimer religion is based on exclusion—one cannot be a Jew and a Unitarian he says (yet some are). He is confused and rather offended by Unitarianism's lack of adherence to the Bible, a fact he brings up over and over again (pp. 33, 34, 59, 222, 228 and elsewhere) as if the Bible was the main way in which a religion should define itself. He talks of "repudiation" of the Bible and says that the Bible was no longer an important source for the Unitarians, which is just plain wrong. Many UUs felt that their adherence to liberal theology was a fulfillment of the teachings of Jesus, and the Bible at all times remained the most referenced religious sourcebook for UUs—moving the Bible off-center doesn't mean that it wasn't still first among equals, and liberal exegesis is only treason if you've committed yourself to a literalist, ahistorical reading as the only correct approach to the Bible. He says that UUism was not "theologically based" (p. 34) because he is unable to see how Americans can theologize in non-fundamentalist ways—describing UU tolerance, openness, skepticism, and religious exploration he fails to see how such things can function as religious beliefs (i.e. theology) unto themselves. To Oppenheimer these are and can only be cultural, not religious values, meaning that he simply does not understand the very people he is studying. Thus he ends up hating his own subjects: "the Unitarian penchant for promiscuous toleration allowed New Age silliness to replace, in many of their churches, honored tradition and Scripture." This is so un-neutral a statement from a historian of religion as to be actually shocking to me.
Objection number five: He doesn't get congregational religion. It is hard for him to understand the importance of local culture to UU churches, so when something happens at a higher level (like GA) he assumes it is representative of the denomination as a whole. When he uses the example of ESP to prove that UUs couldn't say no to anything, his evidence is a mere twelve churches and a loose group of Psi-enthusiasts with no denominational support. Anyone who knows anything about UUism knows that small groups meeting at a dozen churches does not make a mass movement—rather, that's pretty close to the definition of a marginal movement that can't manage to acquire general denominational legitimacy. (Also, he assumes that what interest there was in Psi phenomena came from the so-called fluffy "New Age" end of the spectrum, when a more likely source is the UU commitment to science and interest in the mind—the very quote he offers shows that UUs considered it an unexplored scientific frontier, not a communion with the spheres on the astral plane. And he's wrong by a long-shot about UUism being the only possible place for openness to Psi phenomena—just as an example, during this time period the most prominent religious advocate of such things was James Pike, Episcopal Bishop of San Francisco.) On page 217 local Unitarian ministers are responsible for leading their flocks to accept gay rights, not the other way around; on page 220 we learn that GA sets Unitarian policy; on page 223 we learn that localized polity enforces Unitarian conformity. So which is it: is local control in UUism an agent of change or the status quo? Did gay rights conquer UUism because of local or national control? His story seems to shift continually. And I happen to know he's wrong with his timing. When Community Church of New York (the former church of Donald "what's next, bestiality?" Harrington) was deciding whether to become officially Welcoming in the late 1990s, there was still vocal opposition that gays would come in and prey on the Sunday School children. I know because I ended up giving an impassioned speech as a 21-year-old member of the church against those sort of views. For the record, we voted to become Welcoming.
Objection number six: He doesn't have a clue about UU Christianity. His first item on a list of possible UU objections to homosexuality is that there were still a few Christians around and we all know Christians hate gays. After all the Bible says so, and maybe some UU Christians take the Bible seriously. This is such a fundamental lack of understanding about UU Christianity (and the range of Biblical exegesis in general) that it really damages my confidence in his understanding of how religion operates in anything other than a rigidly fundamentalist Christianity.
Objection number seven: Here I must rebuke him for the most egregious oversight of all: he does not seem to understand basic aspects of religion itself. He says that none of the religions in his study changed theologically, only in form, in aesthetics. This is a terribly embarrassing thing for a scholar of religion to be caught saying. I would gently correct such a statement if it came from one of my undergraduates; from a doctor of religious studies it is really troubling. How can he possibly assert, for instance, that allowing women to become ordained is anything less than a tectonic shift in theology? Only by defining theology so narrowly as to say it is purely beliefs about the nature of God could he make such a statement, which shows a clear naiveté about religion. Ordaining women into a historically male supremacist religion is as big a shift in religious thinking and conceptualization as deciding that God is One, not Three, or that hell is fictional, not real, or that Jesus really is the messiah. Separating thought and practice so totally is methodologically out of touch with modern religious studies.
I could go on, but that's more than enough. To his credit, there are useful parts of this book and some decent observations. For instance, Oppenheimer makes the cogent point that there was apparently never any UU denominational discussion about whether gays should be ordained, unlike the titanic struggles in many other denominations. And while I am not able to trust that he has given us a full portrait of the UU movement for gay rights (and especially not of its opposition), he has given us access to some very interesting voices and documented at least one important side of the story. Future historians could use his work as a springboard for additional research. And anytime someone tries to study Unitarians, Jews, Catholics, and Protestants in the recent times I have to give them a nod of thanks. I'm afraid I don't have the time for a proper book review—in an academic forum I would bolster my assertions with considerably more direct citations from the book, but really I've already spent too much time away from my actual academic responsibilities of this week. My thanks to Chris for bringing the book to my attention and to everyone else for the interesting discussion.
[Copyright © 2006 by Jeff Wilson]
Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 5 April 2006 at 7:13 AM