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Friday, May 28, 2004

Going on a blogging diet.

Over the course of the next week, I plan to spend a lot of time on other projects — reading books, for one thing — so I hope you won't feel abandoned if you don't find much new content here. While I'm busy with other things, I'll point you to some sites that I find rewarding but haven't said much about in a long time: Poetry DailyFaith & Values (did you know that they have a series of faith-related television programs available on-line as well as on the Hallmark Channel?) — and Worthwhile Magazine. Enjoy!

Oh yes, my favorite also-ran for president, Gen. Wesley Clark, offers sane advice about Iraq in the Washington Monthly and the New Republic.

Feel free to suggest good reading to each other (and to me!) in the comments.

Posted by Philocrites, May 28, 2004, at 05:57 PM | 2 comments

Where exactly does the buck stop?

Dan Kennedy assesses the nightmare developing in Iraq, and observes:

Abu Ghraib is only the most startling in a series of weird and terrible events that have undermined public support for the war. From the videotaped beheading of American civilian Nicholas Berg to the assassination of Iraqi Governing Council president Izzedine Salim, from the US attack on what may or may not have been a wedding party to the raid at the home of former neocon favorite Ahmad Chalabi, who’s been accused of spying for Iran, the news out of Iraq in recent weeks has been confusing, contradictory, and unrelievedly awful.

The Bush administration is being abandoned literally left and right. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman — arguably the most important liberal supporter of the war — wrote a piece two weeks ago that began, "It is time to ask this question: Do we have any chance of succeeding at regime change in Iraq without regime change here at home?" (Friedman’s answer: hell, no!) Conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan, a strong supporter of the war, recently wrote on his weblog,, "The one anti-war argument that, in retrospect, I did not take seriously enough was a simple one. It was that this war was noble and defensible but that this administration was simply too incompetent and arrogant to carry it out effectively. I dismissed this as facile Bush-bashing at the time. I was wrong." Conservative pundit Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a bastion of the Eastern establishment, has called for Rumsfeld’s resignation, as has the conservative and largely pro-Bush magazine the Economist. And USA Today founder Al Neuharth, as plain-vanilla an opinion-monger as you’ll find, recently wrote a column for his old paper calling on Bush to pull a Lyndon Johnson — that is, to end his presidential campaign and let the Republicans nominate someone else. Neuharth called the war "the biggest military mess miscreated in the Oval Office and miscarried by the Pentagon in my 80-year lifetime."

Folks, the buck stops with each of us on November 2.

Posted by Philocrites, May 28, 2004, at 05:28 PM | 0 comments

The U.S.S. Hillary Clinton.

I'm not a sci-fi reader, but I've just been pointed to a Publisher's Weekly blurb about a novel with quite a premise: Twenty years into the "War on Terror," a ship named after the second President Clinton — "the most uncompromising wartime president in the history of the United States" — sails through a wormhole back in time and ends up in the middle of World War II. John Birmingham's Weapons of Choice will be released on Tuesday. If you read it, feel free to tell me how the future turns out.

Posted by Philocrites, May 28, 2004, at 05:12 PM | 1 comments

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Suffering servant wanted.

Harvard Divinity School's answer to The Onion is The Skeptic. Here's an "upcoming summer field education placement" notice from the May issue:

Ninth Church of God in Heaven, Swampscott, MA
Ninth Church is seeking an intern for the year 2004-5. Responsibilities will include, but are not limited to: organizing and working with youth group; lesson planning and implementation for Sunday School and Adult Education; scheduling or worship services; music leader and piano player for all services (proficiency with guitar, flute and harmonica also encouraged); weekly preaching; light administrative duties, including phone call management, copying, coffee-maker supervision, janitorial 'assisting,' daily opening and locking up of worship space and office. Additional options for Arts of Ministry may include responsibility for the pastor's laundry and shining his shoes. There is no stipend, travel subsidy or supervision for this field site.

Sometimes satire comes dangerously close to the truth.

Posted by Philocrites, May 27, 2004, at 05:39 PM | 2 comments

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Sinkford responds to Parker.

I hadn't been paying close attention, so this may not be news to some of my readers, but Unitarian Universalist Association President Bill Sinkford has responded to Rebecca Parker's letter in the first exchange in what appears to be a series on the "language of reverence." Both letters are pdf documents that will download directly to your computer. (We had discussed Parker's letter earlier on this site.)

The most interesting passages in Sinkford's response, in my view, come near the end:

There are, for me, at least two important threads woven into the fabric of this conversation. One is whether we can name the holy, can we speak of that which transcends our ego and which calls us to the making of justice? Can we speak about God? But there is a second thread. Can we engage with the Judeo-Christian tradition? Can we reflect on those stories, using them to help us grow our souls, just as we reflect on stories from every other faith tradition on the planet? Or, because they carry too much emotional baggage, must be [sic] avoid the challenge and the wisdom of the tradition out of which we grew? I believe that both of these threads of conversation need to be a part of our dialogue.

Sinkford concludes by asking Parker: "What would Unitarian Universalism miss, what spiritual issues would we fail to address if we elected to avoid the Judeo-Christian tradition on our spiritual journey?"

Great questions! In response to the two threads he identified, we have no choice but to name the holy. The danger isn't in naming the holy, it's in believing we control, comprehend, or can direct the holy — believing, in other words, that naming is the same as owning. We simply must speak about God. And as long-time readers of this site know, I can't imagine being a Unitarian Universalist who neglected the biblical traditions. Of course I think UUs should be engaged with these sources, but I wonder what you think.

Posted by Philocrites, May 26, 2004, at 06:24 PM | 3 comments

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Matthew Gatheringwater says adieu.

If you want to enjoy Matthew's unusually fine writing and his sharp insights on Unitarian Universalism, now would be a good time to browse through his archives. He's pulling the plug on his blog June 21. I will keenly miss it.

Posted by Philocrites, May 25, 2004, at 05:26 PM | 1 comments

Strayhorn repents.

This just in on the Texas state comptroller's denial of the Red River Unitarian Universalist Church's status as a religious organization: "Strayhorn reverses herself on church's tax status" (Victoria Advocate, 5.25.04). Here's the comptroller's statement. (Thanks, Eric!)

Posted by Philocrites, May 25, 2004, at 05:12 PM | 1 comments

Monday, May 24, 2004

Hillary and Julie Goodridge in 'People.'

[Updates below.] Here's something you won't find everyday here at Philocrites: a recommendation to pick up the latest issue of People magazine. (That would be the May 31 issue, with Gwyneth Paltrow and her baby on the cover.) The photos from the marriage of Hillary and Julie Goodridge are priceless — and when will you see the Unitarian Universalist Association headquarters in People again? (Bill Sinkford and Kay Montgomery look good, too.) And, in case you missed it, the New York Times featured the couple's wedding announcement this weekend.

My officemates and I blew bubbles from our perch high above Beacon Street as the couple and their daughter, Annie, drove off in a blue VW Beetle — yup, it said "Just Married" on the back window and it was trailing cans. Sadly, our bubbles floated up and away over Boston Common, so I can't take any credit for the ones you'll see in the photo. What a glorious day that was!

Update 7.21.06: Bay Windows reported on July 20 and the Boston Globe followed up on July 21 with the news that the Goodridges have separated.

Update 7.23.06: In today's Globe, columnist Eileen McNamara writes about the terrific pressures the Goodridges have felt as the public face of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. These days, she writes, "a social movement gains legitimacy only when it can be personified on the cover of People magazine." But the price is very high.

It takes broad shoulders to carry a social movement. No single person, no single couple should bear that load alone, even symbolically.

More than 7,000 couples have married since same-sex marriage won legal recognition in Massachusetts. Most of those unions are the successful culmination of deep and abiding commitments. Some of those unions have frayed at the edges. But no marriage carried the dual pressure of private promise and public symbol as that of Julie and Hillary Goodridge.

("A heavy, symbolic load," Eileen McNamara, Boston Globe 7.23.06, reg req'd)

Update 2.3.09: The Boston Herald gets itself in a lather with its scoop that Hillary and Julie Goodridge have filed for divorce. Boston Phoenix media critic Adam Reilly says "the story isn't quite the scoop it pretends to be," since the Globe reported on the couple's separation more than two years ago.

Bay Windows editor-in-chief Laura Kiritsy also responds to the Herald's scoop: "Despite the Herald's assertion about the women not wanting to be 'poster partners for gay divorce,' they have actually modeled what a successful separation and divorce might look like — by staying out of the news, for instance — unlike messily divorcing heterosexuals such as Britney and KFed, Madonna and Guy, and Paul McCartney and Heather Mills."

("Landmark Jamaica Plain couple calls it quits," Laurel J. Sweet, Boston Herald 2.3.09; "The Herald's selective Goodridge scoop," Adam Reilly, The Phoenix 2.3.09; "Goodridges file for divorce," Laura Kiritsy, Bay Windows 2.3.09)

Posted by Philocrites, May 24, 2004, at 05:43 PM | 2 comments

Saturday, May 22, 2004

When is politics theology? And vice versa.

Two articles in the New York Times worth reading in juxtaposition: On the front page, "Conservative Group Amplifies Voice of Protestant Orthodoxy" by Laurie Goodstein and David D. Kirkpatrick, and Peter Steinfels's "Beliefs" column, "A Thorny Issue Begets Much Reading" (reg req'd).

I think it's indisputable that "the church elite in the mainline denominations are to the left of the people in the pews," as Diane Knippers, one of the founders of the American Anglican Council and president of the neoconservative Institute on Religion and Democracy, says. I also find it disheartening how many religious liberals just skip theology on the way to the protest rally. But this doesn't mean that theological and political conservatives occupy the moral high ground. It does mean that liberals have their work cut out for them, though.

One of the most vexing problems in the church today is that most people have already arrived at their conclusions, would prefer not to know how they got there, and have no interest in what other people think. Steinfels reviews The Way Forward? Christian Voices on Homosexuality and the Church, a 1997 collection of essays that happens to include liberals like Rowan Williams and Jeffrey Johns, who have both become much better known in recent years as the archbishop of Canterbury and the priest he asked not to become the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion. Steinfels writes:

Despite the inevitable unevenness of any collection like this, and a disappointing sense that the evangelical authors of the St. Andrew Day's Statement have not quite engaged their critics, "The Way Forward?" operates at a level far above the usual battling about a handful of biblical passages and the usual volleying of stereotypes and sentimentalities. Yet to read these essays is almost to despair.

For one thing, simply by way of contrast, they bring to mind how rarely it is acknowledged that the current debates about homosexuality involve matters that remain unsettled, matters about which serious thinking is still required and about which more than one side may have points worth considering. The prevailing attitudes are quite different: Either resistance to revising the traditional Christian teaching (or the traditional legal arrangements) can only be the fruit of bigotry or uninformed fundamentalism; or the demand for change must spring from accommodation to a permissive culture or surrender to relativism, individualism, hedonism, etc., etc.

But still more daunting is the fact that these theological essays are in fact genuinely theological. The St. Andrew's Day Statement begins its brief exposition of underlying principles with the straightforward declaration, "Jesus Christ is the one word of God. He came in human flesh, died for our sins, and was raised for our justification." And the essays, even where they attend to empirical and cultural issues, make God and God's self-revelation, whether in Scripture, creation or tradition, the framework for their judgments.

This is not, in other words, psychology or sociology or political philosophy presented in a religious wrapper. It is theology. It is a theological exploration of a theological question. And who, in the sound-bite-driven state of religion no less than of secular culture, actually has the patience, the appetite or the resources for that?

And that is the problem with the conservatives, whose talk of "gracious" separation is really a quest for the power to kick liberals out the door, and a problem with the liberals, who sometimes say they want "dialogue" while looking down on people who don't already agree with them. It is easier to see enemies than to hear what the Spirit is saying in their lives.

Yes, I think the well-funded Institute on Religion and Democracy is sowing division — Schism R Us! — but I also think liberals do themselves and the church a disservice when they fail to notice that their opponents sometimes tell the truth. Is it a problem when denominational structures don't represent their members? Yes. So should the denominations simply adopt whatever is the more popular position? No. But they must find ways to offer the theological, scriptural, and pastoral resources that will help bridge the gap. Since it is more likely that liberals will learn to take theology seriously than that conservatives will learn to take dialogue seriously, we have our work cut out for us.

Posted by Philocrites, May 22, 2004, at 01:05 PM | 0 comments

What is going on in Texas?

So the Texas state comptroller denies a Unitarian church's application for tax exempt status, even though the criteria she uses has been overturned by a judge — in 2001, a ruling upheld by an appeals court and, in April of this year, by the state supreme court. I'm confused: When did the Unitarian church apply? And when was it turned down? The Fort Worth Star-Telegram has reported on this story twice this week without ever reporting these basic facts. This matters, because it seems that the newspaper is chasing its own tail.

The congregation appears to have been turned down quite some time ago — although I still don't know when — and had filed an amicus curiae brief in the Ethical Culture Society's three-year-old suit against the comptroller's policy.

And yet, the newspaper's followup story in today's paper (reg req'd) — by the reporter who got pretty much everything wrong when he wrote about UUA President Bill Sinkford's visit to Fort Worth back in 2003 — freshens itself up only by noting that the general counsel to the comptroller commented "this week" on the case. Hey! Is it news that somebody rehashed the justifications for an old policy? How old is the case? When was the church denied its exemption?

Read the opening paragraph and note just how much of a newspaper-makes-news, reports-on-followup story this is:

Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn stirred up a firestorm this week after her office denied tax-exempt status to a Unitarian Universalist church in Denison.

The firestorm didn't erupt because the comptroller denied the tax status this week; the newspaper generated the firestorm on Tuesday when it ran a non-news story that nowhere mentioned when the application was made, or turned down.

But a bunch of Knight-Ridder newspapers printed the story earlier in the week, and a bunch more published it on their religion page today, which means the firestorm is guaranteed to continue — even though the Unitarian Universalists in Texas think the story is "dead in the water." Another great moment in religion reporting.

Posted by Philocrites, May 22, 2004, at 12:06 PM | 2 comments

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Texas' taxes.

I'll push pause on the multiple projects that have crowded out all thoughts of blogging this week to put in my two cents on a story a bunch of you have called to my attention: According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the elected state comptroller of Texas, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, has determined that a Unitarian church is not a legitimate religious organization, at least for state tax purposes.

Update 5.21.04: Bob Hill, district executive of the Southwest Unitarian Universalist Conference, says Strayhorn's policy is "dead in the water." Thanks to Steve Caldwell for the news.

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, May 20, 2004, at 06:11 PM | 6 comments

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Military preparedness.

Feeling that we might be a little stretched in Iraq? James Fallows reported back in March:

The military's people, its equipment, its supplies and spare parts, its logistics systems, and all its other assets are under pressure they cannot sustain. Everything has been operating on an emergency basis for more than two years, with no end to the emergency in sight. The situation was serious before the invasion of Iraq; now it is acute.

What does "acute" look like? Two alarming statistics:

This year nearly 40 percent of the U.S. presence in Iraq will be from the Guard and the Reserves. . . .

The military press has been abuzz with the news that four divisions, representing nearly half the Army's active-duty strength, are now officially in the two lowest readiness categories, because of their service in Iraq.

And Nick Confessore notes at Tapped:

[A]fter a couple of years of dipping into the main reserves — essentially chewing through them to sustain post-9/11 deployments, the Afghanistan occupation, and then the Iraq invasion — we're now dipping into the inactive reserves. And if we still need more manpower after that — well, then we start drafting.

And President Bush thinks the secretary of defense has been doing a "superb" job?

Posted by Philocrites, May 18, 2004, at 06:31 PM | 5 comments

'Only marriage will really do.'

Gay Marriage by Jonathan RauchLight blogging this week — many deadlines! — but with so much media attention on gay marriage in Massachusetts I thought I should put in a plug for the book I'm currently reading: Jonathan Rauch's Gay Marriage: Why It's Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, an eloquent, moving argument for strengthening marriage by extending it (gradually, state-by-state) to same-sex couples.

The Washington Monthly excerpted part of the book in April — read "Dire Straights" — and for Unitarian Universalists, ministers, and the rest of us, it makes more compelling reading than the policy prescription taken from the book in the Atlantic Monthly excerpt, "A More Perfect Union."

The super-short version of his argument is this:

There is no substitute for marriage, and trying to concoct one is a hazardous business. Civil unions and other forms of non-marital partnership cannot give gay couples the essential social benefits of marriage, even if the legal benefits are comprehensive. Conservatives may argue that allowing gay marriage endangers matrimony for straights; in fact, creating alternatives to marriage, such as civil unions, is far more likely to undermine the institution of marriage. Both for gays and for society, only marriage will really do. Only marriage is marriage.

He describes marriage as a remarkable "social technology," and explains:

For most people, marrying, especially for the first time, is a very big decision. Not for everyone: Some people exchange vows in Las Vegas as a lark. But for most, getting married is a life-changing event, one which demarcates the boundary between two major phases of life. Why should marrying be such a big deal? Partly because the promise being made is extraordinary. That answer, however, begs the question. Why do people take this promise so seriously? The law has made it ever easier for two people to marry, no questions asked, no parental approval needed, no money down. Divorcing is easier, too. Under today's laws, young people could casually marry and divorce every six months as a way of shopping around, but they don't. Most people can expect that marriage will result in parenthood, and parenthood is certainly a momentous thing. Yet even people who, for whatever reason, do not want or cannot have children take marriage seriously. So the questions remain. Why do we see marrying as one of life's epochal decisions? What gives the institution such mystique, such force?

I believe the answer is, in two words, social expectations.

When two people approach the altar or the bench to marry, they approach not only the presiding official, but all of society. They enter into a compact not just with each other but also with the world, and that compact says: "We, the two of us, pledge to make a home together, care for one another, and, perhaps, raise children together. In exchange for the caregiving commitment we are making, you, our community, will recognize us not only as individuals but also as a bonded pair, a family, granting us a special autonomy and a special status which only marriage conveys. We, the couple, will support one another. You, society, will support us. You expect us to be there for each other and will help us meet those expectations. We will do our best, until death do us part."

In every marriage, social expectations are an invisible third partner. Friends, neighbors, parents, and in-laws heap blessings and congratulations on newlyweds, but their joy conveys an implicit injunction: "Be a good husband or wife. We're counting on you." Around the pair is woven a web of expectations that they will spend nights together, socialize together, make a home together—behavior that helps create a bond between them and makes them feel responsible for each other. ("It's one a.m. Do you know where your spouse is?" Chances are you do.) Each spouse knows that he or she will get the first phone call when the other is in trouble or in need, and each knows that the expected response is to drop everything and deal with the problem.

In the book (but not in the article), he goes on to identify the crucial social function of marriage by quoting the famous wedding vow that has been part of the English-speaking world since the Book of Common Prayer was written in the 16th century — the promise each spouse makes to the other "to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part."

Rauch contends that "marriage-lite" options like civil unions, domestic partnerships, private contracts, and similar innovations (popular in Europe and among many left-liberals in the U.S.) essentially give away the benefits of marriage without imposing the obligations. In many parts of the country, these halfway measures may be the only way to extend some legal recognition to gay couples anytime soon, but as a long-term measure they threaten marriage much more than allowing same-sex couples to wed.

Instead of having to decide whether to jump across a boundary society sets for you (marriage), what if you could just pass from one sort of arrangement to the next, with society adjusting to whatever boundaries you set as you go along? Wouldn't it be nice if there were a halfway house? A way to get health insurance without having to say "till death us do part"? Actually, a lot of people, gay and straight, would like a halfway house: or, to be more blunt about it, a free ride. Throughout most of history, society has been smart enough to deny it to them.

Rauch was also interviewed by the Boston Globe on Saturday; see "Writer urges civility on gay marriage." Sarah Cohen interviews him for the Atlantic in "A modest (marriage) proposal."

Posted by Philocrites, May 18, 2004, at 05:44 PM | 1 comments

Monday, May 17, 2004

Change. Hallelujah!

The first couple to receive their marriage license from the City of Cambridge last night summed up the significance of the day in a simple, profound statement. The Boston Globe quotes Susan Shepherd:

"There's a kid somewhere that's watching this," she continued, fighting back tears. "It's going to change his whole life."

("Free to marry: Historic date arrives for same-sex couples in Massachusetts," Yvonne Abraham and Rick Klein, Boston Globe 5.17.04)

Posted by Philocrites, May 17, 2004, at 05:25 PM | 1 comments

Saturday, May 15, 2004

In praise of strategic thinking.

Steve Caldwell (in the course of our "Make Way for Polyamory?" conversation) objected to my advocacy of strategic thinking. So let me try to be clear about what I'm saying, both in general terms and also specifically about "polyamory," which I continue to view as a marginal issue for organized, institutional Unitarian Universalism.

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, May 15, 2004, at 01:24 PM | 24 comments

Two important Catholic statements.

Archbishop Sean O'Malley finally realized that some of his fellow opponents of civil marriage rights for same-sex couples are downright nasty, and urged Roman Catholics to be courteous in opposing gay marriage:

Roman Catholic Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley yesterday expressed "deep sadness" at the impending legal marriages of same-sex couples in Massachusetts, but cautioned Catholics not to express "anger against or vilification of any group of people, especially our homosexual brothers and sisters."

He was planning to issue the statement this weekend, but decided to release it on Thursday after a group of prominent Catholic laypeople, theologians, nuns, and priests issued an even more conciliatory statement "calling for 'all of our brothers and sisters in the Commonwealth to treat same sex couples with respect and to do no harm to them or their families.'"

That statement did not criticize O'Malley or other bishops, but organizers said it was driven by frustration with a variety of statements from the bishops, including the decision by the Massachusetts Catholic Conference to distribute to parishes a video on marriage that critics found offensive.

"Some of us felt very strongly that, given the harsh negative tone that some church leaders took during the spring, someone needed to take the high road and call folks back to a more Gospel-oriented and gentle place, as well as remind people of the need for more civic discourse," said Larry Kessler, founding director of the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts and one of the organizers of the letter.

Another organizer, the Rev. Walter H. Cuenin, emphasized the call for discussion that he said has been missing thus far within the Catholic Church. "The letter is not meant as criticism, but certainly over the last several months, as this issue has been so controversial, we've seen the need for the church to find a way to express its teaching, but at the same time to do it in a way that doesn't alienate gay Catholics," said Cuenin, pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Newton.

Cuenin said he was delighted by O'Malley's statement yesterday. "He presents the teaching of the church, but his whole tone was very pastoral," Cuenin said.

("Archbishop warns against vilifying homosexuals," Michael Paulson, Boston Globe 5.14.04)

Some of the "pro-family" folks, however, have taken offense at the archbishop's statement:

Some pro-family activists say they resent the implication in both statements, complaining that such comments play into the hands of those who would falsely paint the pro-life/pro-family movement as one prone to hostility and violence. Catholic World News reports that one Boston Catholic supporter of traditional marriage said he took offense at being "smeared by my own side."

I grant that most opponents of same-sex marriage are kind-hearted and nonviolent people. But, dear friends, there's no "falsely" involved in the implication that some of your allies are nasty. Who gave people the impression that anti-gay people are "hostile" or "violent"? I'd nominate as "hostile" the so-called ministers who carried signs saying "God Abhors You" and "Homosexuals are Possessed by Demons" outside the Massachusetts State House back in March.

Sometimes you have to condemn the misbehavior of your own allies rather than always blaming your image problems on your opponents.

Posted by Philocrites, May 15, 2004, at 10:39 AM | 1 comments

Time to celebrate.

Sometimes I love my city:

Cambridge officials said plans are underway for music to be played and wedding cake to be served at a City Hall celebration at 11 p.m. on May 16, followed at midnight by the clerk’s office opening its doors to the first samesex couples in Massachusetts to file forms announcing their intention to marry.

Mrs Philocrites and I will be there to celebrate. Provincetown and Northampton don't seem to mind letting Cambridge go first. The town manager of Provincetown says, "We're letting Cambridge be the Dixville Notch of same-sex marriage."

Posted by Philocrites, May 15, 2004, at 09:50 AM | 1 comments

'Joan of Arcadia.'

Mrs Philocrites and I have become big fans of the CBS girl-meets-God-in-disguise drama "Joan of Arcadia," but last night's episode really went off the deep end in the last minute or two with a fantasy sequence about the sculptor Rodin. We have probably seen only a third of the episodes this season — I can't seem to make the VCR programming feature work, and we do sometimes have a life on Friday evenings! — but from what we've seen, it's the most intriguing drama and the most theologically interesting show on television.

Posted by Philocrites, May 15, 2004, at 09:31 AM | 2 comments

Friday, May 14, 2004


When we were in divinity school, a good friend and I came up with our Top Ten Pet Peeves about seminary. I wish I knew where the full list had gone — we wrote it up sitting on the porch drinking Miller Genuine Draft one muggy summer day — but I do remember the pet peeve that annoyed me most: Sociopastoralism, the compulsion to transform every social interaction into a display of "ministerial presence" and invasive concern.

My favorite instance of sociopastoralism came in the aftermath of a "candle of joy and concern" I lit one Friday at the Unitarian Universalist student worship service. My grandfather had just died, and being a good UU I decided to share the news with my community. After the service, one of my classmates — a woman my mother's age — came up to "comfort" me, wrapping me in an interminable hug. At first, I thought, how kind. (Being a minister-in-training myself, I always gave people the benefit of the doubt.) And then, as the hug continued, I thought I'd try a little pat-n-release. No luck. The hug continued. So I tried the squeeze-n-release. Still stuck. It slowly dawned on me that this hug wasn't about me: It was about her, being "ministerial." I had to verbally thank her, while patting and squeezing, to bring the unwanted hug to an end.

That's how I learned not to participate in "joys and concerns" unless I wanted to be part of the drama of publicized compassion, a tight little circle of earnest care-givers and care-seekers that does not happen to encompass all the real needs for compassion in a congregation. How can this be? Many people are like me: They want the people they know and trust to join them in celebration or sorrow, and they really want other people to maintain a respectful but kind distance — not aloofness or unconcern, but some acknowledgment that going to church together doesn't transform us all into intimates. The church helps us expand the circle of those we can genuinely care for, but I'm sure many people are like me in not seeing a worship service as a soul-baring cozy-fest with 100 or more best friends.

Which brings me to Matthew Gatheringwater's insightful essay, "Red Rover Religion" (May 7), which begins:

As we entered the chapel, it became clear that we were expected to link hands with the people in front of and behind us. Someone was singing near the front of the line and others began to join in the song but I didn't know the words or the tune. The line of people slowly spiraled into a double circle of chairs facing a central altar. As they stopped singing and sat down, I thought, "This congregation has literally just curled up around itself, facing inward."

Ah, comfy church! For more — much more — on what's wrong with this style of liberal worship, see David Bumbaugh's essay, "God, Worship, and the Tyranny of Intimacy" in the Journal of Liberal Religion. In a nutshell: Our artificial forms of intimacy actively repel newcomers, seekers, and strangers. They are the opposite of welcoming.

Posted by Philocrites, May 14, 2004, at 05:11 PM | 4 comments

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Liberal hawk watch.

Very few of the liberals who supported the idea of removing Saddam Hussein from power think George W. Bush has done an even remotely adequate job of securing the peace in Iraq. One of the most prominent liberal hawks, the New York Times's Thomas L. Friedman, throws in the towel today:

I thought the administration would have to do the right things in Iraq — from prewar planning and putting in enough troops to dismissing the secretary of defense for incompetence — because surely this was the most important thing for the president and the country. But I was wrong. There is something even more important to the Bush crowd than getting Iraq right, and that's getting re-elected and staying loyal to the conservative base to do so. It has always been more important for the Bush folks to defeat liberals at home than Baathists abroad. That's why they spent more time studying U.S. polls than Iraqi history. That is why, I'll bet, Karl Rove has had more sway over this war than Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Bill Burns. Mr. Burns knew only what would play in the Middle East. Mr. Rove knew what would play in the Middle West.

I admit, I'm a little slow. Because I tried to think about something as deadly serious as Iraq, and the post-9/11 world, in a nonpartisan fashion — as Joe Biden, John McCain and Dick Lugar did — I assumed the Bush officials were doing the same. I was wrong. They were always so slow to change course because confronting their mistakes didn't just involve confronting reality, but their own politics.

("Dancing alone," Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times 5.13.04, reg req'd)

Posted by Philocrites, May 13, 2004, at 05:42 PM | 0 comments

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Aiming for improved readability.

You may have noticed: I've modified the design of this site. Your comments and tweaks are welcome. I had heard over the past six months that the old white text on dark-blue background was hard on many readers' eyes. And I had started thinking my three-column approach was a bit confusing. So here's a new design. What do you think?

Posted by Philocrites, May 12, 2004, at 08:57 PM | 10 comments

Developing a same-sex marriage ceremony.

Scott Wells, at his new liturgy blog Collect Call, offers some tips on crafting a religious ceremony for same-sex couples who have already been joined in a "holy union" ceremony but who now are marrying under the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

And planning for a divorce. Meanwhile, lawyers in Massachusetts are trying to figure out what a same-sex marriage pre-nuptial agreement might look like. See "Facing the 'prenup'" by Kimberly Blanton in yesterday's Boston Globe. The Boston-area gay and lesbian paper Bay Windows also offers some planning tips.

Posted by Philocrites, May 12, 2004, at 07:39 PM | 0 comments

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Religion in 'The New Republic.'

A lot of my Unitarian Universalist friends have expressed something between amusement and dismay that I'm so fond of The New Republic, which is supposedly only "liberalish." But I still think ministers and anyone else with an interest in the unshallow waters of American culture should be reading it. Take these recent articles on religious subjects, for example:

  • "Under God and over: What America can learn from its atheists" by literary editor Leon Wieseltier, paired in a "God Bless Atheism" issue with Alan Wolfe's review of two biographies of nutty atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair and two new histories of free-thought and doubt, "Among the unbelievers: The strange career of atheism in America" (4.12.04, sub req'd).

  • "God's realist," theologian David Tracy's review of The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War and the legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr (4.26.04, sub req'd). I'll be clipping this one for future reference.

  • "The resurrection of the body: Medicine and the pursuit of happiness in America" by Jackson Lears (4.26.04, sub req'd), an extraordinary review of recent books on medical technology and the impact of technology on the human body.

  • "Like a prayer: Kabbalah goes to Hollywood" by Yossi Klein Halevi (5.10.04, sub req'd), in which we find out what Madonna and Britney's little red wrist-bands mean, and how the Los Angeles-based kabbalists of The Centre are on a quest for physical immortality.

  • "Foreign minister: Dr. K.A. Paul versus American Christianity" by Michelle Cottle (5.17.04), in which we meet someone I simply can't believe we haven't heard about before:

    Over the past two decades, Kilari Anand Paul, a self-described "Hindu-born follower of Jesus," has cultivated a peculiar specialty as spiritual adviser to the scum of the earth. Liberia's Charles Taylor, Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic, and Iraq's Saddam Hussein are among the more infamous butchers to talk with Paul about the moral implications of running a brutal, repressive, and occasionally genocidal regime. In fact, Dr. Paul, as everyone calls him (thanks to an honorary degree from Living Word Bible College in Swan River, Manitoba), has counseled scores of corrupt political leaders at all levels of government, as well as warlords, rebels, and terrorists from Mumbai to Manila to Mogadishu. By Paul's estimate, he has gone mano a mano with the leaders of every significant terrorist and rebel group in the 89 countries where his ministry operates. 

And those are just the highlights in the last month. You don't need to subscribe to the print edition to read the online content; the magazine also offers a cheaper digital-edition subscription.

Posted by Philocrites, May 11, 2004, at 09:18 PM | 1 comments

Monday, May 10, 2004

How universalist is Mormon theology?

The LDS bloggers at Times and Seasons ponder the question. (Interesting trivia: Joseph Smith's grandfather was a Universalist!) My two cents: The Mormon doctrine of damnation tends overwhelmingly in the universalist direction, since almost everybody receives a "glorified" state after death and there are strong indications of universalism in some of the early Mormon texts. Getting yourself thoroughly and technically damned is pretty hard. But, paradoxically, Mormons also tend to treat what they call "exaltation" — the super-salvation available only to the temple-going faithful, and which looks rather like deification — in the same way that the Puritans and other Calvinists treated "salvation." From a theological point of view, all the rest of us are going to some part or another of heaven, but because the Mormons are going to a much higher heaven, our heaven is going to be a relative hell.

The psychology of Mormon practice is another thing, however. One of the marvels of theology is that a universalist doctrine of salvation can effectively relapse into the psychology of Puritanism, as it has in orthodox Mormonism with its emphasis on right behavior.

Posted by Philocrites, May 10, 2004, at 05:34 PM | 3 comments

Liberal denomination in the news.

The front page of today's Boston Globe presents a long profile of the Unitarian Universalist Association's widespread support for gay marriage: "Unitarians looking to gay marriage: Denomination set to 'make history,'" by Michael Paulson.

(And here's the cover story of the May/June UU World, the denominational magazine where I work: "'We Do': As same-sex marriage comes to Massachusetts, how deeper and broader trends have made the rest of the country more tolerant, too," by Neil Miller.)

Update: There's more: "For town that denied rights, altar is now set," by Yvonne Abraham in Saturday's Globe, describes the wedding plans of the plaintiffs in the Goodridge decision — four of which will involve a Unitarian Universalist minister. (Although the article doesn't mention it, so will the Goodridge wedding. That makes at least five out of the seven couples in the case.)

And Michelle Deakin writes in the cover story of Sunday's Boston Globe Magazine about parents' diverse reactions to their adult gay children's marriage plans. The first part of the story features a Unitarian Universalist:

When [Anne] Toran learned that Katy was a lesbian 16 years ago, she cried. "It wasn't because she was any less my baby. She is my baby," Toran says of her youngest daughter, who's now 38. "It was because I thought her life would be more difficult than my other daughters'. But it hasn't turned out that way."

It was Katy's coming out that spurred Toran to come out as an activist. "My agenda from the day Katy told me she was a lesbian has been that this is one of my children, and she is the same as my other children, and she deserves the same of everything," says Toran. That has meant major changes for Toran, a lifelong Catholic who was educated in parochial schools and shepherded each of her daughters through a Catholic upbringing. She abandoned that church after hearing the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Falmouth speak out at the first of many gay rights rallies she has marched in, and she has embraced a more liberal religious philosophy ever since. With her mother proudly in attendance, Katy, who works in San Francisco as a transit planner, and her partner, Joanna Totino, had a commitment ceremony at Toran's church four years ago. When they make their annual visit to the Cape this summer, Katy and Joanna will get a marriage license, with their baby daughter in tow.

("The (new) parent trap: With Massachusetts on the brink of making history by becoming the first state to allow gays to legally marry, the parents of many gay couples find themselves torn between the love for their children and a traditional view of marriage," Michelle Bates Deakin, Boston Globe Magazine 5.9.04)

Posted by Philocrites, May 10, 2004, at 08:22 AM | 1 comments

Saturday, May 8, 2004

Perfect day at Fenway.

Mrs Philocrites' parents are in town for the weekend, and her dad wanted to watch a baseball game at Fenway Park. What a game to see! (Thanks to the scalpers, but that 120% mark-up was worth it today.) Curt Schilling pitched all nine innings, Pokey Reese hit an in-the-park homerun down the right field line — and then hit another over the Green Monster — and Jason Varitek (my personal hero while Trot Nixon is on the DL) stole second base twice.

My handful of Mormon readers will be pleased to learn that today was also LDS day at Fenway Park: My first clue came when a teenager wearing a "Old Nauvoo" T-shirt crossed in front of us in the line into the stadium. During the pregame show, a Mormon young woman who happens to work at Harvard Divinity School was introduced on camera for bringing 100 or more people from the Longfellow Ward of the LDS Church in Cambridge, and sure enough, if you looked up above the Red Sox bullpen, there they were: row after row of white-shirted, tie-and-nametag-wearing Mormon missionaries! I assume the non-missionary faithful were scattered elsewhere in the crowd.

Should we "Red Sox Theology Watch" fans consider today's game an answered prayer? Is Boston's formerly existential baseball team the new BYU, God's chosen team? We only have the evidence to go on: Boston 9, Kansas City 1.

Posted by Philocrites, May 8, 2004, at 11:33 PM | 1 comments

The disaster of Bush's failure.

How badly has President Bush damaged our ability to meet the real threats from failed states, international terrorism, ethnic cleansing, humanitarian disasters, and anti-democratic ideologies? Consider former neo-conservative David Brooks's "Crisis of Confidence":

Believe me, we've got even bigger problems than whether Rumsfeld keeps his job. We've got the problem of defining America's role in the world from here on out, because we are certainly not going to put ourselves through another year like this anytime soon. No matter how Iraq turns out, no president in the near future is going to want to send American troops into any global hot spot. This experience has been too searing.

Unfortunately, states will still fail, and world-threatening chaos will still ensue. Tyrants will still aid terrorists. Genocide will still occur. What are we going to do then? Who is going to tackle the future Milosevics, the future Talibans? If you were one of those people who thought the world was dangerous with an overreaching hyperpower, wait until you get a load of the age of the global power vacuum.

In this climate of self-doubt, the "realists" of right and left are bound to re-emerge. They're going to dwell on the limits of our power. They'll advise us to learn to tolerate the existence of terrorist groups, since we don't really have the means to take them on. They're going to tell us to lower our sights, to accept autocratic stability, since democratic revolution is too messy and utopian.

That's a recipe for disaster. It was U.S. inaction against Al Qaeda that got us into this mess in the first place. It was our tolerance of Arab autocracies that contributed to the madness in the Middle East.

To conserve our strategy, we have to fundamentally alter our tactics. To shore up public confidence, the U.S. has to make it clear that it is considering fresh approaches.

We've got to acknowledge first that the old debates are obsolete. I wish the U.S could still go off, after Iraq, at the head of "coalitions of the willing" to spread democracy around the world. But the brutal fact is that the events of the past year have discredited that approach. Nor is the U.N. a viable alternative. A body dominated by dictatorships is never going to promote democratic values. For decades, the U.N. has failed as an effective world power.

We've got to reboot. We've got to come up with a global alliance of democracies to embody democratic ideals, harness U.S. military power and house a permanent nation-building apparatus, filled with people who actually possess expertise on how to do this job.

It sounds like Brooks has abandoned Weekly Standard neoconservatism for New Republic liberal nationalism.

Meanwhile, you still have a day to read or download human rights scholar Michael Ignatieff's cover story from last weekend's New York Times Magazine, "Lesser Evils." His argument — that unless liberal democracies and the U.S. especially find ways to carefully manage the dangerous tools we need to fight "destructive jihadist terrorism with its totalitarian ideology" (Joschka Fischer's phrase), we're in danger of losing not just the "war on terror" but the freedom our societies enjoy — has become even harder to bear and more urgent to understand since the story broke about prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. I urge you to read it.

Posted by Philocrites, May 8, 2004, at 09:34 AM | 0 comments

Tuesday, May 4, 2004

If I had a million dollars.

We're dreaming big dreams over at Coffee Hour, where Tom Schade asks what we'd do for Unitarian Universalism if we won the lottery. I'm amazed by a recurring theme in the responses so far:

Mark Brooks wants a seminary education for laypeople. (Ooh! I like the sound of that!) Scott Wells has a long list, but at the end he wants "locally-based lay training programs" that would train leaders of small congregations that can't afford a minister. And Chutney would give 3/7 of his jackpot to fund programs to help laypeople "ask themselves individually and corporately what UUism stands for and why that matters."

I pick up on these educational themes because Tom's question made me think immediately of the long-expired Unitarian Laymen's League, which functioned as an extra-denominational evangelism and service organization until the Unitarians and Universalists merged in 1961. The Laymen's League was responsible for the "Are You a Unitarian?" ad campaign in the post-war period; they sponsored preaching tours and special events to introduce Unitarianism to unfamiliar places; they even produced their own paperback hymnal (a condensed version of the AUA's official hymnal) for use at Laymen's League events. (If you know more about the history of this organization, I'd love to hear from you.)

If I stumbled onto millions of dollars, I'd send a good chunk to pay off the Philocrites family debt to Harvard Divinity School, and then I'd consider setting up something like a cross between the Laymen's League and the current Leadership Schools. In some districts the Leadership School retreats provide crucial theological, liturgical, and organizational leadership training for lay leaders. I'd love to see more programs like them all across the continent.

Posted by Philocrites, May 4, 2004, at 06:37 PM | 0 comments

Keeping up with comments.

A new development here at Philocrites: Whenever you leave a comment on the site, your comment will generate its own permalink — its very own Internet address for future reference. If you're in the habit of following the conversation on this site by visiting the front page and seeing who is listed in the "Recent Comments" section, you can now click the name of a commenter and go directly to that comment. No more scrolling through my commentary and all the comments you've already read. Of course, if you're coming to a conversation a bit late, click the title of my entry (it's in italics) and start from the top.

Posted by Philocrites, May 4, 2004, at 05:56 PM | 0 comments

Sunday, May 2, 2004

Introducing Coffee Hour.

You've been there before: It's the bazaar next door to the sanctuary, the place all the Unitarian Universalists go after a Sunday morning service to grab a cup of fairly-traded coffee, find a friend, navigate around the card tables strewn with social-action petitions, groan about (or praise!) the choir, amend the sermon, buy a book, look for brunch partners, or lurk hoping to overhear something really interesting. The walls of the parish hall are covered with bulletins and posters for this or that committee; the brochure rack invites you to "Meet the Unitarian Universalists" and hear the voices of UU theists, humanists, Christians, feminists, and on and on. It's a lively place — so lively, in fact, that although ministers might not want to admit it, some people in the congregation show up only for Coffee Hour.

Surely you're thinking: What a great model for a group blog! Thanks to My Irony's Chutney, a group of us UU bloggers have been talking for the last month about ways to expand and enrich the on-line conversation about Unitarian Universalism, liberal religion, and the UUA. Today we're debuting Coffee Hour, an interactive group blog.

Each month — maybe more frequently, if the conversation really takes off — one of the bloggers will announce a new discussion topic. Respond on your blog, or chime in at Coffee Hour. (The current buzz this month is Hit the Jackpot, by Prophet Motive's Tom Schade.) What if you don't have much to say on the discussion topic? Start your own discussion in Talkback, take the poll, or suggest a topic for a future discussion. Or wander off to one of the UU blogs and discussion forums listed on the front page. Whether you have your own blog or just want a place to talk with other UUs, we hope Coffee Hour becomes a part of your week.

If you have questions about the site, start with our frequently asked questions. Still wondering? Leave a comment here or e-mail Coffee Hour Feedback.

Posted by Philocrites, May 2, 2004, at 02:15 PM | 1 comments

Traffic report.

Thanks to new links in April from Barking at the Moon (Watts Martin's "grumblings from the coyote's den"), Jesus Politics (thanks to a mutual introduction by Michael of Public Domain Progress), ArchPundit, and newly-discovered Unitarian Universalist bloggers The Edge (by Erik Walker Wikstrom, a UU minister with another blog, too) and Wondrheart's Medical Adventures (on her way, amazingly enough, to a heart/lung transplant).

Three new links bring me particular delight: Philocrites is now listed under the Humanities index at SciencePort, and two Mormon blogs have added Philocrites to their rolls — the exceptional Times and Seasons (where liberal and conservative Mormons including a bevy of top-notch Mormon scholars blog together) and Dave's Mormon Inquiry. As a post-Mormon myself, I see Mormon blogs serving a function that even magazines like Dialogue and Sunstone never quite seemed able to do: they have set up bridges across Mormonism's ideological chasms and given younger intellectual Mormons a way to engage the larger world of ideas. I would have given quite a lot for such a community when I was an Ezra Taft Benson scholar at BYU in 1989. Instead, I left BYU and ended up a Unitarian Universalist! (No regrets, folks.)

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, May 2, 2004, at 02:00 PM | 1 comments

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