Sunday, June 29, 2003
What does Unitarian Universalism need? More people like Matthew Gatheringwater, whose blog — like the excellent "UU Books" e-mail group he has facilitated for the past few years — conveys the two things I love most about liberal religion: its simultaneous embrace of faith and criticism. He's a voracious reader of the literature of our tradition, and is constantly reintroducing forgotten classics, but he is no antiquarian. He wants to find the contemporary analogs, the compelling modern versions, the words that connect with our experiences today. But the style of his criticism appeals to me most: He asks hard questions about his own assumptions — and about the assumptions (and idols) that seem pervasive in Unitarian Universalism today — but he does so in a truly liberal, modest, and humane way.
Please welcome him to the UU blogosphere. (And if you have a blog that discusses liberal religion, Unitarian Universalism, and civic life, drop me a line!)
They're all here this weekend — the Christians and the Jews, the Buddhists and the Wiccans, the theists and the atheists, and the agnostics and the humanists — all members of one religious denomination not sure how it feels about God.
There's a lot more in this excellent article, including a quote from a friend: "I would like for Unitarian Universalists to be able to express, in inspirational language, what it is that moves and guides us through the world," said Melissa Quirk, 25, of Cambridge.
The most wonderful surprise of this General Assembly has been the reminder that expressing what is inspiring and compelling about liberal religion does not have to be so verbal. Last night's art-and-music service, "The Seven Principles Are Not Enough," by the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar (a classmate of mine from Harvard Divinity School) and two adult choirs at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the largest congregation in the UUA, introduced an extraordinary way to share the liberal "good news" without handing somebody a flier or wallet card or even launching into an "elevator speech." Last year, the Tulsa church commissioned a painting that would illustrate in concrete ways the key themes, values, and sources of their tradition. The painting hangs in the church's foyer — a 21st-century iconographic representation of liberal religion. You should have heard the choirs perform (and you can, in fact, buy a recording!), but you really must read about the painting and its symbolism.
Also in the news: the Rev. John Buehrens talks to the Globe about his new book on the Bible for skeptics, seekers, and liberals — and you can read an essay adapted from his book in the new issue of UU World: "Why Bother with the Bible?"
Thursday, June 26, 2003
Here's a good news story about how one Unitarian Universalist congregation talks about its own theological diversity: "Seven members shared their faith experiences with at least 250 people who packed the church."
Gloria Heard, an organizer of the program, said the purpose was to celebrate the congregation’s diversity and to encourage discussion between members of differing faiths.
Although the denomination boasts of its plurality and acceptance of all people — regardless of race, gender and religion — members say living it out as a congregation is a challenge when some members use the word “God” and others don’t want to hear the word.
“Frankly, we have to tolerate each other, and that’s not easy to do,” Arnold said.
In 2000, 14 different belief systems and philosophies emerged in a survey of the 139 who attended the church. Today, many newer members have come not from a humanist background — the more usual Unitarian adherent — but from a Judeo-Christian background, Heard said.
(From the York Daily Record 6.23.03.)
Monday, June 23, 2003
Okay, that hiatus I mentioned two weeks ago turned out not to last very long. But this time I mean business! Between wedding planning and the General Assembly, which kicks off later this week, I can't imagine when I'll find time to write. If you're in Boston for the General Assembly, leave me a note at the message board. It would be fun to meet in person. (And don't forget: If you have a Unitarian Universalist or liberal religion blog, drop me a line — and participate in our sermon contest!)
Saturday, June 21, 2003
Check out this interview with the Pentecostal bishop Carlton Pearson, whose "gospel of inclusion" is essentially the Universalist theology of the early 1800s.
Friday, June 20, 2003
Somehow I missed this news last fall:
At the sixteenth [Chinese Communist Party] Congress last November, where Jiang [Zemin] handed over the reins to Hu [Jintao], the CCP cut its last links to its past as a revolutionary Marxist organization. For the first time, CCP leaders formally allowed capitalists into the party. They abandoned their long-standing claim to represent only the working class and now champion all of society's interests and embrace free-market economic policies. At the conference, keynote speakers dropped all references to Marx, Engels, Lenin, or Stalin.
Good news, right? As Jasper Becker explains (sub req'd), the country's leaders have found a model for post-Marxist China: fascist Italy.
Thanks, Chutney, for reminding me about The Family — the power-Christian fraternity in Washington, D.C., that includes U.S. senators and representatives — not to mention dictators from the Third World! I had mentioned Jeffrey Sharlet's compelling expose of the group in the March 2003 Harper's, but I didn't know the magazine had put the article on-line. Chutney's site, My Irony, links to this Alternet article, where I found a link to Sharlet's article, "Jesus Plus Nothing." Read it. (It's fun and disturbing.)
I mentioned a new Harper's magazine piece on the religious dimensions of the environmental movement. It's Jack Hitt's long essay, "A Gospel According to the Earth: Sown by Science, a New Eco-faith Takes Root," July 2003, 41-55. Since it won't be on-line, you better save your pennies and visit your local news-stand. I haven't finished reading it, but here's a taste anyway:
In the decades leading up to the odometer turn of Y2K, it was possible to hear from each of the three faiths of the Book — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — louder and louder cries for a return to a literal reading of the Word. . . . Maybe it's just the inevitable periodic spasm of internecine destruction that has characterized the three great faiths over the ages. Maybe.
Or it may be that a competing framework — one that for now doesn't even begin to resemble what we call "religion" — is eroding the explanatory power of Scripture. Perhaps one day this time will be remembered as the moment when the academic, remote, and ancient quarrel between science and religion found a vernacular — environmentalism — that permitted many new ideas about the world to enter the hearts of the democratic populace. . . . I'm only stating the obvious: that even as middle-class moms forcibly drag their children to "church" because it's good for them, simultaneously these same people are mining other places, often literally their back yard, for deeper meanings that affect their lives.
Speaking of which, Hitt makes this earthy observation:
"Communion" and "compost" — the words, oddly, have similar roots in Latin, meaning a sharing or putting together. The real differences between the words exist in the extensive connotations they have (or have not) gathered over time and the sound they make when spoken. "Communion" hums serenely on the palate like notes of celestial music; the other plops earthily from the mouth, suggesting something else altogether.
Can't wait to digest the rest.
Thursday, June 19, 2003
Today's nomination is from Peg Duthie, author of Measured Extravagance, a fine blog. She nominates "The Interdependent Web of All Existence" by the Rev. Dr. Randolph W.B. Becker, preached Aug. 24, 1997, to the Williamsburg, Virginia, Unitarian Universalists. (The title refers to the last of the Unitarian Universalist Association's seven Principles, for those who may be unfamiliar with the lingo.) Here's a selection:
There has been an assumption that the phrase "...of all existence..." is descriptive of physical reality. The interdependent web which we respect is taken to be a web of physical entities and forces. But, the phrase continues "...of which we are a part." I know that in my life, I am a part of a much greater web than can ever be limited to physical reality. I know I cannot now envision all of the dimensions of my being, but I envision enough more to know that my physical being is but one dimension of who I am.
I'm intrigued by this part of the sermon in part because I just picked up the new Harper's, with a long and fascinating folio essay on the religious dimensions of the modern environmental movement; if I hadn't left the magazine in the office, I'd quote from it. But Peg points to another aspect of the sermon — a helpful description of the differences between the explicit, implicit, and "null" dimensions of a religious tradition, which concludes:
And beyond the explicit and the implicit lies the null — that which we communicating [sic] by not speaking about it. For example, when we just say Unitarian and not Unitarian Universalist, we say something about Universalism whether we intend to or not. What is absence [sic] is often as virtually present, strikingly, as that which is actually present.
She writes about the nominated sermon:
It was delivered back in 1997, but I find its perspective strikingly relevant today given the current tensions over the issue of reverence (language, approach, etc.). And denominational growth, as well — something that periodically troubles me about UU discussions about growth is the tendency for certain members to put down or disparage other religious traditions/denominations in talking up why UU-ism is so great. It's not that I can't empathize with the fact that many of these people are speaking about congregations/denominations that failed to meet their religious needs, but at some point I feel there's going to have to be a more concerted, collective effort to be mindful that "interdependent" includes "interfaith," and that interfaith is more than incorporating the interesting bits of other traditions into UU rituals and [religious education].
The sermon strikes me as more thought-provoking than well-written, but it also reminds me of William James's observations in the final chapter of The Varieties of Religious Experience, where James explains his notion of "the more":
Apart from all religious considerations, there is actually and literally more life in our total soul than we are at any time aware of. . . . Let me then propose, as an hypothesis, that whatever it may be on its farther side, the "more" with which in religious experience we feel ourselves connected is on its hither side the subconscious continuation of our conscious life.
By the way, 2003 is the hundredth anniversary of the publication of James's book, and if it no longer represents current perspectives in the psychology of religious experience, it's certainly worth a read.
Update. In the bright light of day, I've corrected some spelling and filled in some omissions in this post.
Update 8.23.07: Click here for my first response to Mark Lilla's essay "The Politics of God" (New York Times Magazine 8.19.07).
Since we're discussing his New Republic article, "The End of Politics" (6.23.03; sub req'd) — incentive to subscribe, don't you think? — I thought people might be interested in two other pieces, which I had collected in my long-neglected War Reading department: "The new age of tyranny" (New York Review of Books 10.24.02), and "Why are deep thinkers shallow about tyranny?" (interview by Eric Alterman, New York Times 11.10.02).
[Obsolete links removed 4.6.06. —Philo]
Wednesday, June 18, 2003
I love abstractions, I love
to give them a nouny place to live,
a firm seat in the balcony
of ideas, while music plays.
Will Shetterly complained, with some justification, that I took unfair advantage of his comments about nationalism, imperialism, and Israel by pitting him against Mark Lilla and Paul Berman:
Hey, I didn't conclude that nationalism sucks! I said, "I want to say that nationalism sucks. But in those two cases, it's not nationalism that's the root of the problem." What I concluded, in my bumbling, blogging way, was that imperialism sucks. And I think what I was stumbling toward was the notion that conquest sucks.
I had responded with passages from two essays that have really provoked my thinking, not to pit authorities against Will so much as to challenge fairly widespread assumptions that I think are creating real mental stumbling blocks for many liberals. I picked on Will, I must admit, because of this comment: "The US let itself be corrupted in 1846, Israel in 1967." There is no such thing as national innocence, and it strikes me as dangerous to link liberal notions — like democracy or human rights — to the dream of innocent states. But Will is on to something: American nationalism has had an international aspect for well over a century, and I do think liberals need to come to terms with this fact. Conquest isn't a liberal goal in and of itself, and I wouldn't clamor for it, but I probably don't classify as much U.S. foreign policy under the imperial heading as Will might. (Clearly I have picked up a Wilsonian streak from so many years reading — and resisting — the New Republic.)
Bloggers give their abstractions more than a "nouny place to live"; we sometimes transform their balcony into a stadium, and send the abstractions out fighting. And potent abstractions like "nationalism," "empire," and — for a host of complex reasons — "Zionism" are accompanied, you might say, by some extremely discordant music. That can obscure the fact that the real pleasure of blogging is the play of ideas. Will was playing with some ideas to see how they settled together, and I was too. "Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul," Emerson wrote, and Will provoked me — roused me, in fact, from that wedding-planning hiatus I had announced. So much for good intentions!
Just as I suspected, those Nation and National Review magazine cruises are chock full of true believers and tend to be, well, a tad geriatric, according to Rachel Donadio's "Eggheads of the Caribbean" and Eric Wemple's "Abandon Ship!" (Thanks, Romanesko.) As a subscriber, I'm glad the New Republic has abandoned its cruise — I'm sure it's because its other readers are all cool young people like me. (The fiance, reading this, rolls her eyes . . .)
Tuesday, June 17, 2003
You've read the rules for our summer-long quest for great Unitarian Universalist sermons. Now read the first entry: "Life Drawing Lessons" by the Rev. Mark Belletini, preached Oct. 14, 2001, to the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, Ohio. Here's a line from the sermon:
[A]nything that helps you to see the world clearly and nakedly, to respond to the world with the fullness of your being, to struggle to understand all things accurately in their interdependence, is devotion, as basic a need as food and water.
The anonymous nominator writes about the sermon: "I don't exactly know why I love it so much. I guess because it's personal and yet it applies to so many of us. It gives us permission to take care of our souls. And the language and stories are beautiful and poetic." Check out Belletini's other sermons, too — and if you find one that you think is exceptional and well-written, nominate it! Who's next?
This is the story to watch. According to Neil MacFarquhar in the New York Times (reg req'd):
In Iran today, several hundred dissident intellectuals, including several clerics, issued a statement supporting the right of Iranians to criticize their government. Further, the statement denounced as "heresy" the possession of absolute power — a reference to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
We're not just talking a petition here. Students have been demonstrating for nearly a week, and the statement by the intellectuals — including several aides of President Khatami — may signal that the protests will spread beyond their student base. Flashes of 1989 in Tiananmen Square . . .
Monday, June 16, 2003
I rarely read a book review with my hand over my mouth, but Dale Peterson's Eating Apes is guaranteed to make you squirm. ("Almost Cannibalism," David Quammen, New York Times Book Review 6.15.03, reg req'd)
Gnostic or doubter?
The novelty of ''Beyond Belief'' lies, I think, in the polite confrontation Pagels arranges between John and Thomas. She maintains that the fourth Gospel itself plays what might be called (though she does not put it like this) a political game. The disciple Thomas speaks only in John's Gospel, and he is rather coolly presented, said not to have been present with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to them after the Resurrection, and condemned for all time to be the one who doubted. On the other hand we are allowed to assume that John was ''the disciple whom Jesus loved'' — a privileged and authoritative confidant. (Pagels points out that John puts Peter down in a similar way: the ''beloved disciple'' beat him in the race to be first to the empty tomb.)
The dissident voices of Nag Hammadi, silent for centuries, uttered much that was understandably thought dangerous. Some denied the physical resurrection; all suggested a Christian way of life foreign to all that has remained familiar. An interesting exercise in ''counterfactual'' history would be to guess how different the future of Europe might have been if the Gospel that was added to those of Mark, Matthew and Luke had been not John's but Thomas's. ("Another Gospel Truth," New York Times Book Review 6.15.03, reg req'd)
That would be interesting. (Alfred North Whitehead indulged a similar bit of counterfactual history when he wondered how Europe might have developed if Revelation had been replaced with Pericles' speech to the Athenians! Now there's something to chew on.) Incidentally, my own hagiography of Thomas (as portrayed by John!) is here.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, babysitter.
"He does put me almost beside my propriety, never quitting me, and continually thrusting in his word between the clauses of every sentence of all my reading, and smashing every attempt at reflection into a thousand fragments." Ah, parenting! ("Hawthorne and Son," New York Times Magazine 6.15.03, reg req'd)
Sunday, June 15, 2003
These three sermons each won $10,000 in the first annual Richard Borden Sermon Contest for excellence in Unitarian Universalist sermon-writing. Congratulations! So now I feel inspired — not to write a sermon, but to enlist you, gentle readers, in a quest for other outstanding examples of liberal sermonizing. Put Google (or Inktomi) to good use and see what comes up. It's the first-ever Philocrites Treasure Hunt!
Philocrites can't offer a cash prize — although I wouldn't mind finding something that deserves a spot in a certain magazine — but the contest offers something even better: something to read while skipping all those Summer Forums. (Unitarians, after all, are said to be the only people God trusts enough to give the summer off — so what are they doing sitting in church talking about the Sierra Club? Give me a hymn-sandwich, thank you very much, but with air conditioning. That's all I ask.)
Here's the deal: Find an especially well-written sermon originally delivered in a Unitarian Universalist or independent liberal church or to a UU audience. Send me a link, tell me what you liked best about it, and how you'd like to be identified as the nominator. (Initials, one name only, or even pseudonyms work for me. I won't blow your cover!) The only limitations are: Don't nominate yourself and don't nominate me. (Flattery will get you nowhere, but feel free to read 'em.) Nominate as many sermons as you like, but each one has to be excellent.
There's no deadline, so if you don't find a great sermon until midway into the World Series, that's okay: send it in. I'll keep you updated. Start your search engines!
A great Boston Globe Ideas section today. James Ryerson writes that "an individual can take a vacation, but it takes a society to create a holiday." He has more on the 40-hour work week, the French Revolution's attempt to make the week 10 days long, and Jones v. German Insurance Co. (1899), which you definitely want to know about. Also this week:
The case of the disappearing case.
Thomas Powers writes about those disturbingly still-missing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: "[I]nternational law accepts only a very narrow range of justifications for war, and chief among them is the threat posed by weapons and armies. An admission that the United States went to war for reasons having nothing to do with Saddam Hussein's weapons, or the threat he might use them, would be close to a confession that the invasion of Iraq was illegal under international law—something bound to cause President Bush personally, and the United States generally, real trouble for years to come."
Can you forecast genocide?
Barbara Harff has idenitified six indicators for an outbreak of mass slaughter — but James Fearson and David Laitin boil it all down to low per capita income. Christopher Shea explains.
Saturday, June 14, 2003
Will Shetterly is disturbed about Israel's behavior, and concludes that "nationalism sucks." Mark Lilla, author of The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, has been thinking about contemporary anxieties about nation-states and about the Jews, too, but his thinking is a lot less partial than Will admits his to be. In "The End of Politics: Europe, the nation-state, and the Jews" (The New Republic, 6.23.03, sub req'd) he writes:
But what are the serious alternatives to the nation-state as a form of political life? Historically speaking, we know what they are: tribe and empire, neither of which Europeans wish to restore as their preferred form of political association. Between those extremes there have been short-lived experiments with small, defenseless republics and weak, ephemeral leagues or alliances.
Paul Berman, incidentally, has written about the America Will Shetterly looks back at nostalgically — the republic prior to 1846, Will says, before the US took on some of the qualities of empire — but Berman suggests that such a republic would have had a short life span:
Let us recall that U.S. democracy, in its Northern rump, might perfectly well have accepted the departure of the Southern states. In the North, a good many respectable leaders of the Democratic Party, not just the Irish mobs in New York's streets, advocated just such a passive acceptance. A shrunken United States would have had to accommodate the fearsome British and French imperialists (everyone forgets the French, but they were expanding just then into Mexico), not to mention the Spanish Empire in Cuba. A rump United States might not have survived for very long under those circumstances. Still, it might have prospered in the meanwhile. It might even have benefited from the amputation of its Southern half, might have become a second Canada or something still more adventurous in time: a Sweden of the New World, a social-democratic land of New Deals uninhibited by Bourbon alliances, a virtuous center of commerce and industry. A republic, in short, such as the many little republics of Florence and other cities in the Middle Ages, which blossomed splendidly for a few decades and then, in their defenseless condition, were invariably crushed under the heel of some marauding army. That was definitely an American possibility. ("Resolved: What Lincoln knew about war," The New Republic 3.3.03.)
But back to Lilla:
Here there is an extraordinary paradox that deserves to be savored. For centuries Jews were the stateless people and suffered at the hands of Europeans who were deeply rooted in their own nations. The early Zionists, from Hess to Herzl, drew a very simple lesson from this experience: that Jews could not live safely or decently until they had their own state. Those who claim today that the state of Israel is the brainchild of nineteenth-century European thought are not wrong; this is hardly a secret. But the point is often made with sinister intent, as if to suggest that Israel and the Zionist enterprise more generally represent some kind of political atavism that enlightened Europeans should spurn. Once upon a time, the Jews were mocked for not having a nation-state. Now they are criticized for having one.
And not just any nation-state, but one whose founding is still fresh in living memory. All political foundings, without exception, are morally ambiguous enterprises, and Israel has not escaped these ambiguities. Two kinds of fools and bigots refuse to see this: those who deny or explain away the Palestinian suffering caused by Israel's founding, and those who treat that suffering as the unprecedented consequence of a uniquely sinister ideology. The moral balance-sheet of Israel's founding, which is still being composed, must be compared to those of other nations at their conception, not to the behavior of other nations after their existence was secured. And it is no secret that Israel must still defend itself against nations and peoples who have not reconciled themselves to its existence—an old, but now forgotten, European practice. Many Western European intellectuals, including those whose toleration and even affection for Jews cannot be questioned, find all this incomprehensible. The reason is not anti-Semitism nor even anti-Zionism in the usual sense. It is that Israel is, and is proud to be, a nationstate—the nation-state of the Jews. And that is profoundly embarrassing to post-national Europe.
Consider the issue from the perspective of a young European who might have grown up in the postwar world. From his first day of school he would have been taught the following lesson about twentieth-century history: that all its disasters can be traced to nationalism, militarism, and racism. He might even have learned that Jews were the main victims of these political pathologies, and would have developed a certain sympathy for their plight. But as he grew up he would have begun to learn about contemporary Israel, mainly in light of the conflict with the Palestinians, and his views would probably have begun to change. From his own history he would have concluded that nations are suspect entities, that the distinction they make between insider and outsider is immoral, and that military force is to be forsworn. He would then have likely concluded that contemporary Israel violates all these maxims: it is proudly independent, it distinguishes between Jew and non-Jew, it defends itself without apology. The charges that Zionism is racism, or that Israel is behaving like the Nazis in the occupied territories, undoubtedly have roots in anti-Semitism; but frustration with the very existence of Israel and the way it handles its challenges has a more proximate cause in European intellectual life. That cause is the crisis in the European idea of a nation-state.
Replace "European" with "Unitarian Universalist." Sound familiar? I'm no imperialist, and I'm queasy about the chauvinism that patriotism can descend into, but I think liberals must come to grips with some basic realities. One is that the nation-state is a liberal achievement. It is a dangerous achievement, and it isn't the kingdom of God by a long shot, and it can't be pacifist unless it is protected by a bigger state or empire — but it is what we have, and what the Jews have managed to achieve in Israel. Liberals ought to embrace the twin goals of assuring both the viability and the humanity of the nation-states on which their liberal societies depend.
That's the title of a good book by the Unitarian minister Forrest Church. Sadly, it's also a phrase that doesn't currently make a lot of political sense in the US. Amy Sullivan argues in the Washington Monthly that Democrats are making a fatal mistake by keeping religion under wraps in national politics. "Disaffected evangelical and Catholic moderates could find a natural home in the Democratic Party, which shares their values of social justice, concern for the earth, and economic equality," she writes. "They're not looking for a tent revival at the Democratic Convention. They're just looking for a little respect."
Friday, June 13, 2003
I highly recommend the work of New Republic contributing editor and Jerusalem Post reporter Yossi Klein Halevi. (I reviewed his extraordinary book, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden, in UU World a few months ago; whether your interest is spiritual or political, it's a must-read about the situation(s) confronting Israelis and Palestinians.) So I'll also put in a strong recommendation for his New Republic article last week about "the first pilgrimage by Arab and Jewish Israelis to Auschwitz." He writes: "Our starting point is political despair."
Sadly, the conversation among Unitarian Universalists about the conflicted and tortuous history in the Middle East is really quite appalling. (Read through these archives for a taste of the "moderate" forum on the issue. Or, if you want to see the "partisan" take on the issue — something I have no stomach for — you can join this forum.) This year, one of the proposed "study-action issues" for consideration by the UUA's General Assembly focuses on the plight of indigenous peoples — where we find this astoundingly selective question: "How does the United States government’s treatment of indigenous peoples compare to contemporary cases of ethnic cleansing, such as in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Palestine, and South Africa?" It would be fascinating to see what "lessons" we might draw from such a dangerously loaded question.
My Irony, Philocrites, and My Dog Wants To Be on the Radio are kicking around ideas for something like a "blogring" for Unitarian Universalist bloggers — maybe even a "metablog." Whoa, we're coming up with new ideas faster than a Unitarian can learn to clap on 2 and 4! I tell you, we will drag religious liberalism into the late 20th century if it kills us.
So that's the news. I've been collecting UU bloggers — ones that tend toward public commentary more than personal journaling, anyway — over in that blue bar to the right. Let one of us know if you want to be part of this bit of on-line community building.
And here's the improved: Across, Beyond, Through has mastered Blogspot and left it in the dust. Check out the new site. Very nice. I have Movable Type envy. Maybe in August I'll have time to give it a try.
Wednesday, June 11, 2003
We interrupt this blog for several days of on-site wedding planning! (Yes, it's true. In July there will be a Mrs. Philocrites, though she prefers "Ms.") But while I'm away, if any more Unitarian Universalist bloggers should stumble across this site, do visit the other "UU blogs" over on the right of your screen — and drop me a line! I'm not abandoning you all, but it's likely that posting will be infrequent over the course of the next month.
Samuel G. Freedman interviews theologian James Cone, who says of the new movie Bruce Almighty, "The use of a black God reflects how much white Americans can relax with the idea of racial inclusiveness, provided it doesn't challenge their power." But Michael Eric Dyson and Gerald Early say that Freeman's divine role is just the latest version of Uncle Tom: "We have here another instance of a wise black person helping a white person achieve insight, realize his humanity," Early says.
Tuesday, June 10, 2003
From Timothy Burke, on the silence of anti-terrorist right-wingers when it comes to Eric Rudolph:
It is not because I believe being “in the middle” is somehow an intrinsically good thing, or that everyone should seek balance, or that neutrality and objectivity are desirable and achievable. Strong sentiment and distinct philosophical positions are a good thing. Bland, safe, calculatedly moderate arguments carry no necessary virtue.
I am viscerally repelled, however, by the profusion of thinkers and speakers, bloggers and otherwise, who seem unable to recognize that once you make a stand on principle, your flag is planted there for all to see. If you’re going to surrender your principles and lower that standard, then have the guts to say so. If you’re going to continue to hold other people accountable for moral and philosophical inconsistency, then have the courage to hold the line when the fault lies with people you normally count as allies. In fact, that’s when it matters most to speak up and be counted. . .
There are two absolutely basic things that a public intellectual is obligated to do. The first is to seek out issues, questions and problems which are highly relevant to your basic principles and philosophies , and apply those philosophies with rigor and honesty, making your core views as transparent as possible in the process. The other is to seek out those problems and questions which your own philosophies cannot deal with adequately, to expose and confess your own contradictions and limitations. Most public thinkers fail both tests, often badly, pursuing only the easy chance to score points for their own team.
Will someone with delegate credentials please make this point during the UUA's General Assembly "social justice" plenary sessions later this month? Please?
Adam Cohen writes in the New York Times today about conservative Alabama Governor Bob Riley's theological argument for progressive taxation (reg req'd).
[Riley] has framed the issue in starkly moral terms, arguing that the current Alabama tax system violates biblical teachings because Christians are prohibited from oppressing the poor.
Finally, a close reader! Cohen adds:
Alabama's tax-reform crusade is posing a pointed question to the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family and other groups that seek to import Christian values into national policy: If Jesus were active in politics today, wouldn't he be lobbying for the poor?
Yes, he would — especially in a place where the tax burden is so outrageously regressive: "The state income tax kicks in for families that earn as little a $4,600, when even Mississippi starts at over $19,000. . . . Alabamians with incomes under $13,000 pay 10.9 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes, while those who make over $229,000 pay just 4.1 percent." Back to you, Christian Coalition.
Monday, June 9, 2003
What happens when Juergen Habermas and Jacques Derrida issue a political manifesto? (Analysis by Junius.)
Sunday, June 8, 2003
Guess the year that the Reverend Arthur Buckminster Fuller "lamented the replacement of a previously less militant Boston Catholicism by 'an organization hostile to liberty.'" For more on Unitarian-Catholic relations in the 19th century, see John T. McGreevy's Catholicism and American Freedom: A History and Jenny Franchot's Roads to Rome: The Antebellum Protestant Encounter with Catholicism.
Who knew? (William Dalrymple, New York Times 6.7.03, reg req'd)
Shavuot and Pentecost.
Are there Ten — or maybe Twelve — Commandments? And what do they really mean? (Peter Steinfels, New York Times 6.7.03, reg req'd)
Saturday, June 7, 2003
A bit of family news: My brother Richard, who is getting ready to ride in the equestrian events in the Special Olympics World Games in Dublin, Ireland, later this month, was featured along with my parents in the Salt Lake Tribune today. For several years he has worked with a program called Hoofbeats to Healing in Lehi, Utah — a physical and cognitive therapy program that uses a horse instead of a therapist's couch!
David Walton admits he was skeptical a horse could help his son.
"We'd experimented for 20 years to try and help him, and everything we'd tried had been relatively unsuccessful," David Walton said. "I didn't see how doing something with horses would be different, and I didn't think he'd have the energy or resolve. I was wrong."
Richard won his English and Western equatation events on Friday, and is one of 12 athletes selected to represent Utah in the World Special Olympics held in Dublin, Ireland, June 21-29.
"I have a natural touch with them," Richard said of the horses. "Horse riding helps me think better."
Richard's condition makes it difficult for him to process much information at one time, but horseback riding helps him learn to do so. His body is constantly flowing and moving with the horse's movements, while his mind must process what he needs to do next.
Before he became involved with horses, Richard could follow only one or two written instructions at a time.
Now he can follow so many directions, "we don't even have to think about it," his father said.
The first time I watched Richard with horses, I was surprised to see not only how well he interacted with the animals but also how well he could communicate about them. Conversation had not been his strong suit, but in the horse barn he can readily explain grooming, riding techniques, and the characteristics of each animal. The horses, meanwhile, play a central therapeutic role. Tammy, his coach, explained that horses have an acute sense of human emotions and intentions. Richard was practicing low jumps during one of my visits, and when the horse would veer off to one side rather than leaping over a hurdle, Tammy would ask him what happened. Sometimes Richard had given the horse an unclear or improper signal and command; sometimes the horse had sensed that Richard didn't feel comfortable with the jump. In each case, Richard analyzed what had happened, described it to Tammy, and then tried again. Of course, it was a lot of fun — but Richard was also developing relational and communication skills that had never come easily to him. The program has been perhaps the best thing that has happened to my brother. I'm very proud of him and can't wait to hear about his trip to Ireland.
Friday, June 6, 2003
From Alfred North Whitehead's Science and the Modern World: "Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of all present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest" (191-192).
Doug Muder reports on Dennis Kucinich's recent campaign stop in New Hampshire: "Kucinich has missed his calling. Rather than running for president, he should be hosting a show on MSNBC." Muder has covered four candidates' visits so far; you'll want to read his reports on John Edwards, John Kerry, and Howard Dean, too.
Wednesday, June 4, 2003
You're probably as pleased as I am that Philocrites is now a "wiggly worm." It wasn't that long ago that I was an "insignificant microbe." UU bloggers might join the ecosystem — and we'll ascend together!
Thomas L. Friedman writes today that "there were actually four reasons for this war: the real reason, the right reason, the moral reason and the stated reason" (reg req'd). But even if you opposed the stated reason and the real reason, the stakes involved in the outcome of the war are still quite high: "Mr. Bush's credibility rides on finding W.M.D.'s, but America's future, and the future of the Mideast, rides on our building a different Iraq."
Meanwhile, Dan Kennedy wonders why Saddam didn't make it obvious that there weren't W.M.D.'s in Iraq — if it turns out that there really weren't any after all — and adds more on Saddam's game of chicken here.
Monday, June 2, 2003
"Our god is not a braggart, is not needy, does not require worship, does not claim credit," Chutney proposes — so let's not capitalize. There's more... Will Shetterly is looking for a flexible definition of God, too, and offers these samples — and he gets response!
"I prefer coffee, you prefer champagne. We have different tastes. There is no more to be said." That is relativism. But [Johann Gottfried] Herder's view, and [Giambattista] Vico's, is not that: it is what I should describe as pluralism — that is, the conception that there are many different ends that men may seek and still be fully rational, fully men, capable of understanding each other and sympathising and deriving light from each other, as we derive it from reading Plato or from the novels of medieval Japan — worlds, outlooks, very remote from our own. Of course, if we did not have any values in common with these distant figures, each civilisation would be enclosed in its own impenetrable bubble, and we could not understand them at all . . . Intercommunication between cultures in time and space is only possible because what makes men human is common to them, and acts as a bridge between them. But our values are ours, and theirs are theirs. We are free to criticise the values of other cultures, to condemn them, but we cannot pretend not to understand them at all, or to regard them simply as subjective, the products of creatures in different circumstances with different tastes from our own, which do not speak to us at all. (11)
There is a world of objective values. By this I mean those ends that men pursue for their own sakes, to which other things are means. I am not blind to what the Greeks valued — their values may not be mine, but I can grasp what it would be like to live by their light, I can admire and respect them, and even imagine myself as pursuing them, although I do not — and do not wish to, and perhaps could not if I wished. Forms of life differ. Ends, moral principles, are many. But not infinitely many: they must be within the human horizon . . .
What is clear is that values can clash — that is why civilizations are incompatible. They can be incompatible between cultures, or groups in the same culture, or between you and me. You believe in always telling the truth, no matter what; I do not, because I believe that it can sometimes be too painful and too destructive. We can discuss each other's point of view, we can try to reach common ground, but in the end what you pursue may not be reconcilable with the ends to which I find that I have dedicated my life. Values may easily clash within the breast of a single individual; and it does not follow that, if they do, some must be true and others false. Justice, rigorous justice, is for some people an absolute value, but it is not compatible with what may be no less ultimate values for them — mercy, compassion — as arises in concrete cases. (11-12)
How does Berlin's thinking about pluralism apply to the Unitarian Universalist search for unity amid our theological diversity? More soon...
Prof. Chutney is teaching a crash course in twentieth-century theology over at My Irony [update: My Irony has gone off the air]. The introductory lecture compares and contrasts philosophy, theology, and mythology. A brief second lecture dismisses a lot of post-WWII theology as stagnant — although I feel like protesting on behalf of Paul Tillich. Lecture three discusses liberation, political, and process theology. And lecture four assesses postliberal and "radical orthodox" theology. Good stuff — and brief, too!
My own theological thinking is probably a some kind of process-postliberal hybrid. I buy the postliberal contention that a religion is very much like a language that must be learned, and that one can't adequately "translate" one religion into another. This approach rejects the "perennial philosophy" view of religion (made famous by Joseph Campbell) that there are many paths up the mountain. Instead, there are many mountains. You pick your path, and each path promises a different outcome. We can talk about the differences, and we may even find analogies and similarities, but the different religions just aren't the same at a fundamental level.
But I also take process philosophy seriously in its attempt to see how modern science informs our ideas about the world; I find the postliberal deference to ancient dogmatic formulations a bit precious. Language evolves, after all, so why get so hung up about maintaining a fifth-century definition of Christianity's "grammar"? Science has changed how we view the world, and those changes have implications for religion. Too much of process theology, though, follows Whitehead's Process and Reality and picks up on his highly elaborate metaphysical structure. I wish the theologians had paid less attention to the "phases of concresence" and more to the historical observations he makes in Religion in the Making, Adventures of Ideas, and Science and the Modern World. When Whitehead is describing the intellectual development of Christian theology, I love him. When he starts defining God, I get a bit lost. But I appreciate his interest in broadening the theological view beyond the boundaries provided by orthodox Christian theology.
The basic problem for postliberal theology is that its "cultural-linguistic" approach seems to assume that Christianity is somehow hermetically sealed off — a language that its believers adopt in place of the cultural language of, say, secular American culture. And yet even orthodox believers and faithful churchgoers don't just "speak" Christianity; they continue to inhabit several other cognitive universes, many of which they probably experience as inseparable. Since you can't move to Christendom, you end up being a citizen of multiple kingdoms, speaking a patois of the sacred and profane. This is what I wish postliberal theology acknowledged: No one is really "a Christian" in the postliberal sense, because every believer continues speaking as many dialects as their lived experience requires: professional, national, regional, familial, even tribal dialects with vocabularies and grammars all their own. And just as slang and neologisms and even new grammatical patterns emerge in languages, they do in religion too — but we call them heresies.
So I guess I would be interested in post-orthodox postliberal theology. James Luther Adams, anybody?
Sunday, June 1, 2003
I think I'll start a bit of running commentary on Alfred North Whitehead, my favorite philosopher. And since Unitarian Universalists are currently discussing religious language, I'll start with a passage from Whitehead's essay "The New Reformation" in Adventures of Ideas:
So far as concerns religious problems, simple solutions are bogus solutions. . . .
For religion is concerned with our reactions of purpose and emotion due to our personal measure of intuition into the ultimate mystery of the universe. We must not postulate simplicity. The witness of history and of common sense tells us that systematic formulations are potent engines of emphasis, of purification, and of stability. . . .
Thus the attacks of the liberal clergy and laymen, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, upon systematic theology was entirely misconceived. They were throwing away the chief safeguard against the wild emotions of superstition.
Several themes are apparent here. First, religion cannot be reduced to ethics. Religion is not simply "what should we do?" but "how shall we respond to the ultimate mystery?" I think this is what Bill Sinkford finds inadequate in the UUA's Seven Principles — which are, after all, agreements only on the shared goals of the Association, not assertions about the nature of things. A call for a "vocabulary of reverence" is a call for sustained attention to religious motivations and intuitions.
And this is where Whitehead's second theme becomes important: Religious response, without critical formulation, degenerates very quickly into superstition. (The vogue for spiritualism among nineteenth-century Unitarians and Universalists strikes me as an example of what happens to liberal religion when it prefers intution entirely over rational reflection.) But Whitehead's third theme — that "simple solutions are bogus solutions" — is a reminder that the quest for a lowest common denominator is a terrible approach to take in theology.
What Unitarian Universalism needs isn't traditional religious language tossed into the Principles like croutons in a salad. The Principles seem just fine to me: they are simply statements about goals. But liberal congregations do need to think about their own local covenants, and about the themes and priorities of their worship services and their public witness. There's still a lot of mileage in the old Unitarian covenants, "We unite for the worship of God and the service of humankind," a statement that links mystery to ethics and tradition to modern problems without seeking definitional clarity — which is, after all, a never-ending task that belongs to each person. The liberal church has no authority to define the terms of the solutions for people, but it can help identify the problems. More later . . . I have to go to church!
In case you're not completely bored with celebrations of Ralph Waldo's 200th birthday (last week, in case you missed it), here's George Scialabba's super-succinct overview of Emerson's life and significance. It's also a review of Harvard English professor Lawrence Buell's new book Emerson, which Scialabba finds "far too knowing, judicious, and disfigured by literary-critical jargon." Alas!