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Thursday, November 21, 2002

Dogma and liberal doctrine.

Steve F. writes:

Sometimes the same word has different meanings for different people, but shouldn't the national UU define those terms so that they can be used by all UU local groups?

The "national UU" has no authority to define terms like this. Trying to define the terms would be an act of dogmatic overreach — it would be an attempt to close down a conversation by an arbitrary authority. No one in the liberal tradition has that kind of authority.

Our tradition deals with doctrine differently. We are not and never have been anti-doctrinal: We know that what we believe matters, and that our principles come to life through our actions, and that we stand for some things rather than others. The difference is that we are willing to keep an argument going about our doctrines because we acknowledge that our opinions are partial and open to correction. We argue about definitions, believing that this process yields greater value than claiming to have the definition nailed down.

An example: Many decades ago, a denominational committee studied the theological trends in the Unitarian movement and concluded that Unitarians agreed consistently on a number of theological issues, but also disagreed on a number of others. The committee pointed out that the disagreements were just as central to who Unitarians were as the agreements. (We're the church that argues about how central God is to faith, for example, with many of us — even in the 1940s — arguing that the concept is not central.) The committee made a novel suggestion: Unitarians ought to publically state their agreed-upon doctrines and their unresolved doctrines. No other tradition could do that: Here's a church (sorry) that knows which issues are important enough not to have a settled dogma about.

Steve asks: "Are we avoiding asking some tough questions?" Yes, I think many Unitarian Universalists have avoided talking about fundamental religious issues — about doctrine — because we have an understandable fear of dogmatism. But I also think we are hungry for a conversation about these very issues. We want to talk about what we believe. But we also want to talk in a way that doesn't condemn points of view too quickly. We value doubt, questions, and exploration as real virtues of a liberal faith. We need models of theological and religious conversation that take important questions seriously, but that don't tell people that they must claim to believe things that they cannot believe.

Steve also commented: "How do we call ourselves inclusive of all belief systems while having no local UU groups called synagogues or mosques, only some called churches? Is this not bias?"

Unitarian Universalism is not "inclusive of all belief systems." We're not the "meta-religion," the religion that includes all others. How could we be? David Rankin once said that UUs tend to believe that "all religions, in every age and culture, possess not only an intrinsic merit, but also a potential value for those who have learned the art of listening." There's an important difference here.

We are people who are trying to learn the art of listening. That's very different than trying to be a minisociety of the world's religions. (It's also different from being people who know that we are right and everyone else is wrong.) We see each tradition as having real human merit — of being an expression of profound human concerns, which makes them interesting to us — but this is very different from agreeing with all of their claims, or valuing their modes of life equally.

Our tradition has fuzzy borders, to be sure, but they are there. They shape the doctrines and values that we use to interpret the world and our place in it. The fact is that our religious culture is overwhelmingly shaped by the liberal Protestant Christian experience in North America. In a way, we're the heirs of the branch of Christianity that first chose to listen to the other traditions, and to be changed in the process. Transcendentalism and then religious humanism grew out of that openness. Religious humanism made a place especially for humanistic Jews and people in interfaith marriages. But it would be self-deceiving to disregard the tradition's evolution or roots: we don't get to pick our parents, and we don't get to invent Unitarian Universalism's history.

Congregations shape their own identity, and congregations choose to be part of the UUA. Local congregations are not franchises of a brand; the Association is the made by the congregations, not the other way around. The UUA can't tell them who to be or how to define themselves. Each congregation decides whether it is a church; the UUA has nothing legitimate to say about it.

(Originally posted to UUCommunity.)

Posted by Philocrites, November 21, 2002, at 11:34 PM | 0 comments

The question of empire.

Twelve years ago, when I was a college student, I spent three months working in the "Utah Coalition Against War in the Middle East." I helped draft public statements; I designed and posted flyers all over Salt Lake City for a November 1990 antiwar march. I subscribed to the socialist In These Times, the left-liberal Nation, and other progressive antiwar periodicals; I attended teach-ins; I wrote letter after letter to government officials. By the time Congress approved the use of force to get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, however, I had dropped out of the antiwar movement.

My exposure to the hard left — the Socialist Workers Party and incipient Green Party activists who made up the coalition's base and who ended up defining the aims of Utah's antiwar movement — left me frustrated and dismayed. I withdrew over the slogan they adopted: "U.S. out of the Middle East now!" I had thought the first Bush administration was being disingenuous about its goals — stopping Iraqi aggression I could understand; protecting Kuwait's "democracy" simply insulted our intelligence — but the antiwar movement's radical goals offered no realistic alternatives.

I thought there might be more effective diplomatic measures (like strong U.N. sanctions and regional military coalitions) to force Saddam Hussein to back down. In retrospect, I have my doubts: Even if diplomatic measures had succeeded, Iraq's nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons facilities would have survived intact, and the world would arguably be a more dangerous place today. But the antiwar movement chose a more ambitious and indefensible goal: a full American retreat from the world's most explosive region. It didn't help that the antiwar activists simply reversed the most extreme anti-Iraqi rhetoric: The young Socialist Worker who manned the coalition's table at the University of Utah liked to tell students that George Bush was more like Hitler than Saddam Hussein was.

And now they're at it again. Well-meaning people who want to see a realistic alternative to the use of military force are confronted with the angry slogans and absolute demands of utopian sixties hold-outs and idealistic students. American power, to them, is the source of the problem; neutralizing it is the solution. (Click here for liberal critiques of left-wing folly.)

But American power isn't going away, and no amount of denial can absolve the U.S. of its obligations in the world. The Democrats, who have downplayed foreign policy for many years, didn't present an alternative because they haven't thought of one yet. The Republicans are divided between unilateralists and isolationists — all or nothing, in other words — with a handful of "realists." The choice isn't between isolationism and empire, as the all-or-nothing people on the political fringes want us to believe. The choice is between the responsible and irresponsible uses of American power.

Michael Ignatieff describes the U.S. government's short-sighted attempt to rebuild Afghanistan with little effort and almost no funding; he calls it "nation-building lite." We're in danger of allowing Afghanistan to relapse into civil war, which is the situation that brought us the Taliban in the first place. There are liberal and humanitarian reasons to intervene forcefully in Iraq — but only if the United States and other nations are committed to long-term reconstruction. (James Fallows describes the scenario as "the fifty-first state.") But the Bush administration says little about the aftermath of war, and is clearly not budgeting for the expense of running other people's countries. So what kind of empire is the U.S. building?

Alan Wolfe writes, "There is more to having an empire than simply the possession of great military power," and observes that for better or worse Americans "fear empire rather than welcome it." Americans are cheap when it comes to overseas adventures — a predisposition that hinders Republicans especially. "No serious empire-builder would ever cut taxes as recklessly as President Bush has," he writes. Not only is the U.S. financially unprepared to take on an empire, Americans remain blithely unconcerned about life abroad — and President Bush has done nothing to counter this. Finally, Wolfe says, U.S. policy still responds much more to domestic elections than to international concerns: If forced to choose between protecting the interests of a bloc of voters or protecting the interests of an international ally, American politicians will pick politics over empire. One thing the Bush administration is not: a concerted effort at expanding an empire.

"We resist an imperial role for America not because we are humanitarians and internationalists but because we are stingy with our government and lack genuine interest in the rest of the world." Perhaps the most important domestic political battle in the coming years will be over the meaning of America's power in the world, and whether we will develop principles that help make the world a better place.

Posted by Philocrites, November 21, 2002, at 07:02 PM | 0 comments

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