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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Catholic college selects UU church member as dean.

Here's a story that inspires my dreams for the possibility of Unitarian Universalist ecumenism: A fine Catholic liberal arts college near Burlington, Vermont, has selected a popular professor and chair of its religious studies department as the next dean of the school. Professor Jeffrey Trumbower, who has taught at St. Michael's College since 1989, is the author of Rescue for the Dead: The Posthumous Salvation of Non-Christians in Early Christianity and Born From Above: The Anthropology of the Gospel of John. What does this academic news have to do with Unitarian Universalism?

Trumbower attends the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington, which wouldn't necessarily be news, but Out in the Mountains puts it bluntly: "Gay Unitarian Appointed St. Mike's Dean."

Trumbower came to St. Mike's in 1989, after completing his dissertation. He was not familiar with the area before he came, and when he arrived, he "started going to the church at the head of church street. I resonated with that community and realized that I was home spiritually." Trumbower met his partner here in Vermont. They have been together for ten years.

In addition to overseeing curriculum and faculty development, Trumbower especially looks forward to continuing to work with students: "A huge percentage of our students are involved in social justice activities. This aspect of the college is really great. I see that continuing."

During his time at the college, Trumbower has also attended some meetings and events sponsored by Ally, a student-led group that identifies itself as a "gay-straight alliance." Mike McCaffrey, a member of Ally, said that Trumbower's appointment "shows a dedication that St. Mike's has that other institutions might not. I think it will definitely open up some doors for not only him but for other lgbt students and staff."

("St. Michael's Names Jericho Resident Dean," college press release 4.22.05; "Outside the Box: Gay Unitarian Appointed St. Mike's Dean," Stacey Horn, Out in the Mountains May 2005)

Posted by Philocrites, May 31, 2005, at 08:16 AM | 0 comments

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Unitarian Universalist youth unhappy with YRUU.

Radical Hapa brings us the demands of a group of Unitarian Universalist youth leaders who want the Steering Committee of YRUU (the troubled denominational youth organization) to relinquish control over the continental leadership conference that elects Steering Committee members. The Steering Committee, you'll recall, is in a stand-off with the UUA administration and the UUA's Youth Office. Sounds like the other shoe dropping to me.

Posted by Philocrites, May 29, 2005, at 08:07 PM | 3 comments

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Chaplain at 'the galactic headquarters of scientism.'

Rich Barlow seems to be profiling Boston-area college chaplains one by one. This week it's the Rev. Amy McCreath, the priest who runs the Episcopal chaplaincy and its Technology and Culture Forum at "the galactic headquarters of scientism" (aka MIT).

McCreath said she counsels several students a year who attend forum events and then find themselves questioning whether careers in science are what they really want. By hearing speakers from journalism, nonprofits, and other fields beyond science, students sample career options they might not have considered.

Scientists are stereotypically an agnostic bunch, and about 1,000 students, one-tenth of MIT's undergraduate and graduate enrollment, participate in religious activities, McCreath said. Still, religion is the launching pad for some students' ethical questions. . . .

"Serving Episcopal students through worship, Bible study, and doing pastoral care is important, but it's not enough," McCreath said. "To really join God and what God is about at a place like MIT necessitates being out in the midst of the academic and technical life of the institute."

I haven't met McCreath, but Mrs Philocrites — and some of our other friends who have been involved in religious activities at MIT — give her a thumbs-up.

Humanist in the basement of Harvard's Memorial Church.

Two weeks ago, I meant to mention an earlier Barlow column about Harvard's humanist chaplaincy — which for more than three decades has been the work of Thomas Ferrick, a nice enough man who, strangely, never once seemed to reach out to the Unitarian Universalist students at Harvard Divinity School in the four years I was there. The good news in the story is that Ferrick has an heir apparent in 28-year-old Greg Epstein.

Unitarian Universalists will be intrigued to see that our "language of reverence" controversy is also playing out among Harvard's humanists:

"The two things that I think we [humanists] need to learn how to do," [Epstein] says, "are to sing, in the metaphorical sense and the literal sense, and to build."

Liberal and conservative believers bicker over the particulars of belief, and humanists are no different, frequently disagreeing over the meaning of humanism and even vocabulary. Take a simple word like faith.

"I personally see a humanist as a person of faith," Epstein says. "Humanism is a faith that people do have the strength to solve enough of their problems, if they work together and they care about one another, to live meaningful lives" without a belief in an almighty god.

But as he talks, senior Kerry Dingle, joining him and other humanists for a group interview, shakes her head. "I really, really hate the word 'faith,'" she says. "Faith is by definition believing something without evidence."

Raised Catholic, Dingle spurned the sacrament of Confirmation when she was 14 "because I didn't really believe in it."

"I grew up with religion," she adds. "I've determined that there's nothing that religion has to offer me. People can talk to me until they're blue in the face about their religion, and it's not going to make a difference."

Epstein, 28, offers a more seasoned take. Just as believers can learn from humanists, he says, "I do think that there's a tremendous amount that we can learn from religious people. I'm particularly appreciative of the way that they take care of one another . . . I believe that there's a word, the human 'spirit,' that does signify something that we do believe exists, which is an emotional desire to live a good life and to search for sources of inspiration and empowerment."

Cutler acknowledges feeling hostility toward conservative evangelical Christians, but also says: "They were in the Sudan and advocating for intervention in the Sudan long before almost anyone else. I don't think the humanist community can assert itself, unless it's willing to take action."

("At MIT, a New Dimension of Ministry, Rich Barlow, Boston Globe 5.28.05, reg req'd; "For Harvard Humanists, End of an Era," Rich Barlow, Boston Globe 5.14.05, reg req'd)

Posted by Philocrites, May 28, 2005, at 04:11 PM | 1 comments

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Who can trust parents with a child's religious education?

Wow: A county judge in an Indiana divorce case last year banned both parents from exposing their son to "non-mainstream religious beliefs and practices." Even more alarming is the judge's explanation for this egregious intrusion on parents' rights to raise their children in their own faith:

Cale J. Bradford, chief judge of the Marion Superior Court, kept the unusual provision in the couple's divorce decree last year over their fierce objections, court records show. The order does not define a mainstream religion.

Bradford refused to remove the provision after the 9-year-old boy's outraged parents, Thomas E. Jones Jr. and his ex-wife, Tammie U. Bristol, protested last fall.

Through a court spokeswoman, Bradford said Wednesday he could not discuss the pending legal dispute.

The parents' Wiccan beliefs came to Bradford's attention in a confidential report prepared by the Domestic Relations Counseling Bureau, which provides recommendations to the court on child custody and visitation rights. Jones' son attends a local Catholic school.

"There is a discrepancy between Ms. Jones and Mr. Jones' lifestyle and the belief system adhered to by the parochial school. . . . Ms. Jones and Mr. Jones display little insight into the confusion these divergent belief systems will have upon (the boy) as he ages," the bureau said in its report.

While I can imagine parents who "display little insight" into any number of childhood conundrums, I marvel at the thought that a judge would defer to a third party's belief system over the objections of a child's parents and bar them from practicing their religion with their own child. According to the father's attorney:

"Religion comes up most frequently [in divorce proceedings] when there are disputes between the parents. There are lots of cases where a mom and dad are of different faiths, and they're having a tug of war over the kids," Falk said. "This is different: Their dispute is with the judge. When the government is attempting to tell people they're not allowed to engage in non-mainstream activities, that raises concerns."

I'd say it does. ("Judge: Parents Can't Teach Pagan Beliefs," Kevin Corcoran, Indianapolis Star 5.26.05; thanks, Jason!)

Update 5.27.05: From today's update on the story:

Debate swirled in pagan religious circles locally and nationally after The Indianapolis Star reported on the case Thursday. [The father, Thomas E.] Jones, 37, said he posted messages on two Web sites Thursday in an attempt to keep pagans from sending e-mail and letters of protest to [Judge] Bradford.

"I've posted pleas for them to leave him alone," Jones said. . . .

Experts say an appellate ruling is likely to go in Jones' favor.

"Parents have a constitutional right to direct the upbringing of their children. That has been settled for nearly a century," said [Northwestern University law professor Andrew] Koppelman, an expert in constitutional law.

"This case has got to be reversed, given the lack of explanation by the judge. It would be bad enough if he had singled out Wicca, but he has phrased it in such broad terms there's an argument the child could not be allowed to attend Jewish or Muslim services."

Before the appeals court would consider constitutional issues of religious freedom, however, it's more likely to fault a decision by one of Bradford's commissioners to include the one-paragraph restriction without showing actual or potential harm to the child, said an Indiana family law attorney.

"This decision should be frightening to people of any faith, because who decides what's mainstream?" said Donna Bays, chairwoman of the Family Law Section of the Indiana State Bar Association. "I have never seen a judge put anything like that in any order involving parties who were in agreement. "

Bonus! There's a Unitarian Universalist angle to this story:

Jones said he is not trying to force religious beliefs on his 9-year-old son, who attends a local Catholic elementary school and a Unitarian church.

("Paganism Ruling Stirs Outcry," Kevin Corcoran, Indianapolis Star 5.27.05)

Posted by Philocrites, May 26, 2005, at 10:12 PM | 2 comments

Roosevelt Institution: Undergrads making policy!

What an inspiring bunch of college students at Stanford! The New York Times yesterday described a new think tank founded and run by undergraduates. Meet the Roosevelt Institution:

"Every college campus is a think tank, and we already have 15 million potential members," said [Quinn] Wilhelmi, a [20-year-old] religious studies major. "All we're doing is organizing those existing voices and creating a mechanism by which students are given a part in the policy process."

The institution has already attracted hundreds of members at Stanford and is expanding nationally. Membership is free and does not require submission of a paper. New branches are popping up at 30 other universities across the country, and students at Yale, Columbia and Middlebury are among the first to organize their own Roosevelt Institution chapters based on the Stanford model.

The groups are linking up through the institution's Web site, . . .

Named for Presidents Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt, the group is organized around more than a dozen policy committees, focusing on issues like international development and progressive religious perspectives.

You can help support this fascinating and worthy project. ("Hoping To Make Policy Waves, and Graduate, Too," Michael Falcone, New York Times 5.25.05, reg req'd)

Posted by Philocrites, May 26, 2005, at 09:47 PM | 0 comments

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Happy birthday, organized Unitarianism!

One hundred eighty years ago today, the American Unitarian Association was organized in Boston. Across the pond, coincidentally on the very same day, the British Unitarian Association was founded. What's with May 25 and Unitarian milestones? Oh yes, it's also Ralph Waldo Emerson's birthday! Peacebang sings his praise.

Posted by Philocrites, May 25, 2005, at 10:35 PM | 0 comments

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Uh oh: Here come the Christian humanists!

The polite fiction that Mrs Philocrites and I are an "interfaith couple" because she is Episcopalian and I am Unitarian Universalist — a fiction maintained more by the UUs than by the Episcopalians — will clearly evaporate if mainline Protestants adopt a label I already claim: Christian humanist. Sure, the phrase juxtaposes two theological positions that many Unitarian Universalists believe stand in opposite corners — which is always fun! — but the Christian Century puts in a good word for abandoning "liberal Protestant" or "mainline Protestant" and explicitly embracing the larger tradition in which my theological liberalism clearly belongs:

Humanism captures liberal Protestantism’s emphasis on intellectual exploration, on doing theology in conversation with other modes of knowledge. Since the Renaissance, humanism has designated a movement that takes learning seriously and celebrates the ability of scientists, poets and historians to expand knowledge and shape the world. Christian specifies that this appreciation of human freedom and potential is not ungrounded or unlimited, and that human identity is not simply whatever humans want it to be. As creatures of God, humans are most truly themselves when fulfilling divine purposes. And it is “in Christ,” the divine and human one, that we learn what it means to be fully human.

The magazine's subtitle puts it simply each week: "Faithful living, critical thinking." That's the goal of my ecumenical household.

Sadly, though, if liberal Protestants abandon the much-abused word "liberal," we Unitarian Universalists will be virtually alone in openly claiming the liberal theological tradition. And it seems that as UUs struggle to recognize distinctions between liberal theology and liberal (partisan) politics, we're growing unsure about the term ourselves. (Most "conservative" Unitarian Universalists have, in my view, simply embraced one among several varieties of liberalism — which is why I refuse to abandon the word liberal in a Unitarian Universalist context.)

So I'll be glad to see Christian humanism catch on — but I'm not throwing in the towel on liberalism. "Mainline," however, really is a polite fiction that needs to go.

("Term Limit: Rethinking 'Liberal Mainline'," Christian Century 5.31.05; thanks, Chuck!)

Posted by Philocrites, May 24, 2005, at 08:38 AM | 26 comments

Monday, May 23, 2005

Divestment or dialogue?

Michael Paulson reports that Bishop M. Thomas Shaw, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, has decided to oppose efforts to divest Episcopal Church funds from Israel:

Shaw's statement, nearly four years after he provoked the ire of local Jewish leaders by joining a pro-Palestinian demonstration in front of the Israeli consulate, paves the way for a joint Jewish-Episcopal trip to Israel and Palestine this winter during which each group will introduce the other to different perspectives on the Middle East conflict.

Shaw is bucking a trend that has swept the liberal denominations — with the happy exception of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. Paulson writes:

Some denominations have decided not to pursue divestment, including the Unitarian Universalist Association, based in Boston, according to spokesman John Hurley.

"For UUs and other people concerned about peace in the Middle East, frustration with the lack of progress makes ideas like divestment seem very compelling," says a letter that the Unitarian Universalist Association sends to people who ask about divestment. "However, in addition to the Unitarian Universalist Association's commitment to a just and lasting peace in Israel/Palestine, we are also committed to maintaining good interfaith relationships here at home."

("Bishop Backs Off Push To Divest Funds," Michael Paulson, Boston Globe 5.23.05, reg req'd)

Posted by Philocrites, May 23, 2005, at 08:24 AM | 10 comments

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Coming of Age season: Let's party!

It's Coming of Age season in Unitarian Universalist congregations — the time of year when young teenagers enrolled in the Coming of Age program present their individual "credos" to their congregations. Religious educators, ministers, and others involved in the endless Unitarian Universalist bout of anxiety known as revising the Coming-of-Age curriculum will find Mark Oppenheimer's article about bar and bat mitzvahs in today's Boston Globe interesting. For instance:

The ritual's origins are impossible to trace; neither the concept of the newly vested boy nor the ceremony to honor him is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Most Americans, Jewish or Gentile, would be surprised to learn that the ritual seems not to have existed until the Middle Ages, and it was not celebrated with a party until about the 16th century. For most of the 20th century, few boys in the Reform movement, now Judaism's largest, even practiced the bar mitzvah. When my father, for example, was 13, his Reform temple in Pittsburgh offered only "Confirmation," a ceremony for adolescents loosely modeled on Protestant rites. (The lack of a family precedent may be one reason that, growing up in Springfield in the 1980s, I too never became a bar mitzvah boy.)

Oppenheimer, author of Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America, spends most of his essay justifying the lavish bar/bat mitzvah parties people throw for their kids — a practice that influenced several very nice Coming of Age parties thrown by parents for the kids in the COA programs I led in a certain wealthy town near Boston — but one other paragraph will also interest Unitarian Universalists:

In Fayetteville, Ark., Jacob Newman celebrated his bar mitzvah with a potluck lunch in the Unitarian church. There's no synagogue building in a town with so few Jews, and even his guest list was overwhelmingly gentile. And there's not much money in Fayetteville, no cavernous banquet halls or expensive caterers. So he celebrated in a way fitting for his time and place. Had he lived in Newton, he might have done things differently.

Which is another way of saying that Unitarians probably do things differently in Newton than in Fayetteville, too.

What does Coming of Age look like in your Unitarian Universalist congregation?

("My Big Fat American Bar Mitzvah," Mark Oppenheimer, Boston Globe 5.22.05)

Posted by Philocrites, May 22, 2005, at 07:41 PM | 3 comments

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Hymns to Mammon.

Business Week, 'Evangelical America,' 5.23.05My Irony introduces the New Commodified Version — a series of biblical texts slyly redirected to the worship of the Unseen Hand, the god of laissez-faireans everywhere. For example: "Search me, O Market, and know my heart" (Psalm 139); "In the beginning was the Market, and the Market was with God, and the Market was God" (John 1); and especially:

O Washington,
You who bring good tidings,
Get up into the high mountain;
O Wall Street,
You who bring good tidings,
Lift up your voice with strength,
Lift it up, be not afraid;
Say to the cities of America, "Behold your god!" (Isaiah 40)

The full texts are provocative mirrors not just to the ideology of, say, the Christian right, but to the generally secular worldview most of us take for granted.

P.S. Oh, yes: On a related topic, see Business Week's cover story on the big business that is Evangelical Christianity: "Earthly Empires," William C. Symonds (5.23.05).

Posted by Philocrites, May 21, 2005, at 03:17 PM | 0 comments

Theology at the UUA General Assembly.

Now that I have a printed program for the upcoming General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations —June 23 through June 27 in Fort Worth, Texas — I’m calling attention to a few programs I find especially noteworthy.

If you’re interested in liberal theology, what does the General Assembly program have to offer? Here’s my highly selective guide:

And what other theological or quasi-theological programming is scheduled?

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, May 21, 2005, at 11:20 AM | 3 comments

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Former King's Chapel verger in the news.

Those of us who have known Ed Barrett — the unfailingly courteous verger at King's Chapel in Boston until his retirement on Easter this year — were in for a delightful surprise in this morning's Boston Globe: There he was, the lead feature in the City/Region section! The story doesn't mention his role at the church, where I first met him when I visited Boston almost ten years ago and where I came to look forward to his smile, outstretched hand, and greeting — "Good to see you, Mr Walton!" — each Sunday morning. Instead, the story describes Ed's civic attentiveness.

He attends almost every City Council meeting — and not a few state government meetings, too. Councillor James Kelly tells the Globe: "Eddie Barrett is indeed a fixture in the City Council. He can tell you as much about City Council for the past decades . . . as anyone in the city." And yet, even though I've regularly run into Ed Barrett all over town and always enjoyed talking with him, I had no idea. He's not shy, but he's also so courteous and un-self-aggrandizing that I never realized everything else he's up to! Good job, Mr Barrett!

("City Council's Quiet Observer Shows Up on Time, Nearly Every Time," Madison Park, Boston Globe 5.19.05)

Posted by Philocrites, May 19, 2005, at 10:10 PM | 1 comments

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Let's talk about blogging at General Assembly.

I can imagine at least two things Unitarian Universalist bloggers (and would-be bloggers) may want to do as a group at next month's General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations: We'll want to meet each other, of course, and we may also want to offer something slightly more formal — you know, "Everything You Always Wanted To Know about UU Blogging, But Were Afraid To Ask," that kind of thing.

So: Who's planning to be in Fort Worth? I know John and Jess will be there; Phil Lund, Joseph Santos Lyons, and I will be there in our day-job roles; Peter Bowden ("Adventures in Small Group Ministry" guy, en route to is likely to be there; Greg will be there to talk about his life as a Marine in Iraq. Who else?

What sort of gathering would you find most worthwhile? If you're simply interested in UU blogs, your feedback would be useful here, too. A picnic might be hard to pull together, but I'm sure we're creative enough to come up with a good Interdependent Web event at G.A.

Update: We're now trying to identify a good time to meet.

Posted by Philocrites, May 17, 2005, at 07:21 PM | 14 comments

I love news stories about growing UU churches.

The Exeter, N.H., News-Letter features a picture of the growing First Unitarian Church in its story today about growing congregations; the Unitarians get the last four paragraphs of the story. Check out "Churchgoing Is Up" (Adam Dolge, Exeter News-Letter 5.17.05). The story concludes a three-part series on church growth. Here's part one and part two.

Posted by Philocrites, May 17, 2005, at 06:35 PM | 0 comments

Happy anniversary, Massachusetts!

 Hillary and Julie Goodridge celebrate their wedding in Boston last March Today is the first anniversary of the first legally recognized marriages of same-sex couples in the United States. Mrs Philocrites and I — who are approaching our second anniversary — say hooray!

Last year, we joined the huge midnight party that greeted couples (and their kids) as they received the first marriage licenses at Cambridge City Hall. What a celebration. And how is gay marriage going over in Massachusetts? Lesbians have embraced it more than gay men, according to the Times: Almost two-thirds of the 5,400 same-sex couples married in Massachusetts this past year are female (which surprises no one). The rest of us seem to be adjusting quite nicely to the Biggest Change in Traditional Marriage since no-fault divorce was introduced to romantically-motivated tract-house monogamy more than 3,000 years ago* (right, Brother Romney?). Even though a surprising 46 percent of Americans favor recognizing Massachusetts same-sex marriages in their own states — 50 percent oppose it — the Boston Globe reports that support for gay marriage in Massachusetts has risen to 56 percent. More importantly, as public support slowly solidifies, political support for marriage is getting even stronger: The anti-gay marriage amendment that narrowly passed the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention last March may be doomed.

The amendment passed last year by four votes; gay marriage supporters picked up four seats in November's legislative elections — and the conservative Speaker of the House stepped down. The Senate Republican leader who co-sponsored the amendment publicly acknowledges he's reconsidering his support, and conservative groups including the Roman Catholic bishops are likely to withdraw support from the amendment because it would create civil unions in place of same-sex marriage.

So there's the silver lining to the storm cloud that continues to threaten Americans who are gay or lesbian. The culture is changing, however, even if it looks like everything's backlash outside of Massachusetts . . . oh, and also Connecticut and California and New Jersey and Hawaii and Maine and Vermont and the District of Columbia.

And why, exactly, does straight married guy Philocrites favor gay marriage? Let me explain.

("Even in Gay Circles, Women Want the Ring," Genia Bellafante, New York Times 5.8.05, reg req'd; "One Year Later, Nation Divided on Gay Marriage," Scott S. Greenberger, Boston Globe 5.15.05, reg req'd; "Passage of Marriage Amendment in Doubt," Raphael Lewis, Boston Globe 5.16.05, reg req'd; "We Do: As Same-Sex Marriage Comes to Massachusetts, Deeper and Broader Trends Have Made the Rest of the Country More Tolerant, Too," Neil Miller, UU World May/June 2004)

Posted by Philocrites, May 17, 2005, at 08:43 AM | 2 comments

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Last week's must-read religion articles.

Trying to understand what's happening in the American religious landscape these days? You must read these three articles:

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, May 15, 2005, at 05:14 PM | 4 comments

Whose Evangelicalism can broaden Christian politics?

This week's New Republic features three articles that will be of particular interest to liberal Christians and other people unhappy with the rising political clout of conservative white Evangelicals. None of them offers good news, although their analysis is illuminating. The first — to which I'll dedicate this post — is Michelle Cottle's article about attempts to broaden the Evangelical political agenda, with Jim Wallis on the left and Rich Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals on the right.

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, May 15, 2005, at 04:16 PM | 1 comments

Classes of Philocritics.

It's time to bring back the Philocritics poll and discussion question! Conveniently, the New York Times launched a two-week series of articles today about class in America — so let's talk about class.

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, May 15, 2005, at 03:20 PM | 5 comments

Saturday, May 14, 2005

'Sojourners' reader: 'Unitarian Jihad' misses the mark.

The progressive Evangelical magazine Sojourners reprinted part of Jon Carroll's "Unitarian Jihad" column in its May 4 e-mail newsletter, prompting the following reply in this week's newsletter:

I am part of an organization that works to influence [Michigan] state policy on behalf of low-income people, and the Sojourners e-mails often provide a breath of fresh air during my workday as we fight what often seem to be losing battles. Though I appreciate your analyses and viewpoints immensely, I was disappointed to see that you reprinted the satire "Unitarian Jihad" [SojoMail 5/4/2005]. As a person of faith currently making my spiritual home in a Unitarian church, I would like to say that the author of the satire seems to have no idea what the Unitarians stand for or how they conduct their witness in the world. While it is true that many Unitarians seem to be unaware of the climate of dialogue and the appeal to "faith informed by reason" that takes place in the best of evangelical churches, it is equally true that many evangelicals wrongly see Unitarians as morally relativistic, solipsistic or even anti-Christian (I urge evangelicals who are under this impression to read the Unitarian Universalist Statement of Principles and Purposes.) In fact, Unitarians and evangelicals can and have made common cause in appealing to the moral obligations of people of faith to contribute to a more just society. Divisive pieces like this do nothing to bridge what is often a lack of understanding between the two approaches to faith.

Bless you, letter writer Peter Ruark, for affirming and proclaiming the Unitarian Universalism of the future and downplaying, overlooking, or simply not knowing about the ineffectual dithering of many of us in the more recent past. May your numbers grow!

And may the people who thought, I think I'll check out Unitarianism, after reading about the "Unitarian Jihad" find churches that resemble Ruark's vision rather than the endless church basement discussions of how the world should work that Carroll parodied. We should be better than the jokes about us, but I'm not Pollyanna enough to pretend that, on the whole, we are. Yet.

(Thanks to reader L.R. for calling the letter to my attention.)

Posted by Philocrites, May 14, 2005, at 02:15 PM | 15 comments

Thursday, May 12, 2005

UUA-UCC sex ed curriculum in the news.

Bella English writes in today's Boston Globe about the vogue among teenage boys for online porn. She talks to alarmed parents, adolescent psychologists, and boys and girls about the phenomenon — including a dozen eighth- and ninth-grade Unitarian Universalists enrolled in the "Our Whole Lives" comprehensive sex-ed program developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations and the United Church of Christ.

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, May 12, 2005, at 08:43 AM | 5 comments

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Interfaith studies in an era of religious conflict.

In his introduction to a special issue of CrossCurrents focused on interfaith work, Eboo Patel writes:

In the rush to denounce Samuel Huntington's clash of civilizations thesis, progressive religious intellectuals forgot that, at bottom, Huntington was repeating the argument that we have been making for decades. It runs like this: What matters most to most people is religious identity; people who share religious traditions have, over the course of history, grouped together to form cultures and civilizations; different cultures and civilizations are now in more frequent and intense contact than ever before; the nature of these interactions will play a decisive role in shaping our future. It was Huntington's conclusions that we took issue with—namely, that civilizations are inevitably at odds with one another and that the only chance for a stable and liberal world order is the continued domination of the West. The problem of our historical moment is that the corridors of power are filled by people who have downplayed the parts of Huntington's theory that we agree with and are mobilizing military power behind the parts we disagree with.

Aha! A light goes on!

Patel suggests that the emergence of an academic discipline of interfaith studies could help address two pressing needs. First, people trained to understand more than one faith tradition and how they interact could help resolve intergroup conflicts:

Not unlike a masters in urban studies or community development, these practitioners would play a crucial role in religious, nonprofit and governmental institutions worldwide, doing everything from strengthening civil society by creating interfaith councils to advising immigrants on how to build religious institutions to resolving conflicts between faith groups.

But religious groups themselves need people who understand other religious groups:

The first institutions who should hire interfaith specialists are faith communities. Not only as staff members who know how to relate to other religious communities (many religious institutions currently have an 'Interfaith Officer' on staff), but also as people who can help Lutherans or Catholics or Jews articulate their religious identity in a world of Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims (and vice versa). In other words, people versed in interfaith studies are not only useful at the boundaries between faith communities, but within them as well, helping those communities develop identities that are rooted in their own distinct histories but in relationship with those who believe, behave and belong differently.

Since there isn't yet a discipline of interfaith studies, we amateurs must make do through all manner of formal and informal interfaith partnerships. In a followup essay, Patel describes a real-world dilemma he confronted in his work with the Chicago Youth Council's interfaith work: Should the group pursue the common vision its small and not fully representative participants agree on, or should they invest more time first trying to bring other groups to the table before picking a common goal? He asks the question this way: How can interfaith organizations pursue inclusivity and justice at the same time, since different religious communities will opt out of participation if the group welcomes too broad a spectrum of faiths or if it adopts a goal that runs contrary to some of the group's moral or political commitments?

Being practically inclined myself, I'd suggest that any interfaith cooperation a religious community can do with another represents a meaningful beginning. And since much interfaith cooperation is motivated by each group's interests rather than by any magnanimous commitment to pluralism per se, I'd hope that liberal religious communities think of long-term as well as short-term goals in their interfaith work.

Patel points out that minority faiths often make controversial interfaith partners. (Who invited the Scientologists? Or the Wiccans? Or even the UUs?) Individual Unitarian Universalist congregations will fall in different places along the ecumenical and interfaith spectrum: Some Massachusetts congregations actually participate in local councils of Christian churches, whereas in other parts of the country UU churches are explicitly disinvited. Some goals might be meaningfully accomplished in groups made up of the minority faiths excluded from ecumenical organizations, but other goals might require participation with Christian communities.

One of my Harvard Div School dorm-mates was an AME woman minister who had led her southern California congregation in interfaith work with a Mormon congregation and, if I'm remembering correctly, a Unitarian Universalist congregation. That's interesting! The partnership grew out of communication among the communities' leaders, who found that they enjoyed each other's company and thought their congregations could learn a lot from each other. The AME congregation distrusted the Mormons, who had doubts about the UUs, who were excited about interracial cooperation but had "issues" with Christianity. And yet she reported that the congregations had several meaningful interactions. It's a start.

There's never just one approach — and since few religious communities are likely to participate in interfaith work simply for the sake of interfaith dialogue, you might as well start by finding some common interest with a handful of religious neighbors and see what happens and what you can learn. Pending the arrival of professional interfaith workers, of course.

("Editorial," Eboo Patel; "The Pitfalls and Possibilities of Interfaith Work," Eboo Patel, CrossCurrents Spring 2005)

Posted by Philocrites, May 11, 2005, at 07:08 PM | 3 comments

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Unitarian history at the Spiritual Progressives forum.

Dean Grodzins, Meadville Lombard assistant professor of history and president of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society, kicks off Day Two of the Rockridge Institute's online conference for "spiritual progressives" with a short history of how Unitarians split from Calvinist Congregationalists over a difference of opinion about the "strict father" or "nurturant parent" frame. He points out an often overlooked fact about 19th-century American Christianity:

Theological “liberals,” for example, often took “conservative” stands on political issues, while theological “conservatives” were frequently reformers. So, for instance, in the most important 19th-century American political debate, over whether to abolish slavery—a debate that culminated with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery in the United States (1865)—there were theological “liberals” who defended slavery and theological “evangelicals” who crusaded to abolish it (the reverse was also true).

And yet Grodzins concludes that antislavery activists were motivated by nurturant parent theology. I'm unconvinced. A significant number of Unitarians grew increasingly militant between the 1840s and the 1860s. We've already looked at the support given by the Transcendentalists — the group of Unitarians most involved with abolitionism — to John Brown's violent rebellion. By the start of the Civil War, northern Unitarians were as gung-ho as anyone about the righteousness of the fight. It's hard to read Unitarian Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" without thinking that the parlor religion of the previous generation of Unitarians had evolved into a liberal form of the "strict father" frame. (Later, of course, Howe took a very different approach and launched the Mother's Day of Peace — perhaps reembracing the nurturant parent frame.)

Several forum participants also noticed the disconnect in Grodzins's essay, and point out the historical role of "progressive strict father" framing, including theologically conservative progressive populism and even "liberal apocalypticism." For more on this history, see E.J. Dionne Jr's "Faith Full: Why Liberals—Not Conservatives—Are the True Heirs to America's Religious Tradition, and How They Can Take It Back," New Republic 2.25.05, sub req'd — an essay that could as easily have been titled "What Would William Jennings Bryan Do?"

Posted by Philocrites, May 10, 2005, at 11:26 PM | 0 comments

Richard John Neuhaus, foe of 'editorial error.'

On Sunday, I noted First Things editor Richard John Neuhaus's circumlocutory expression of unsurprise at the forced resignation of America editor Thomas Reese:

"It would be fair to say that during the pontificate of John Paul II that America apparently saw itself or at least certainly read as a magazine of what some would describe as the loyal opposition. And, needless to say, there's dispute over the definition of 'loyal' and the definition of 'opposition.'"

Great stuff from a guy who insists that "[i]ntellectual freedom and integrity require that all pertinent evidence and lines of reasoning [i.e., "intelligent design"] be taken into account" in teaching biology. Today's Boston Globe report on the ouster of Reese as editor of the Jesuit magazine America shows just how strongly Neuhaus believes the same principle of intellectual freedom and integrity applies to subjects involving the church:

"A lot of people were unhappy with America, including people in Rome," said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, a New York-based journal on religion. He said he knew many Catholics, including bishops, who were unhappy with Reese's stewardship of America, which, he said, "had kind of a carping attitude toward the pontificate of John Paul II."

"Just as you don't expect Planned Parenthood to give a platform to the prolife position, there's no reason why a Catholic journal should provide a platform for positions that are clearly contrary to those of the church, and that was an editorial error that caused Tom a lot of trouble," Neuhaus said.

I'm glad Neuhaus is protecting the religious world from carping! The last thing we'd want is a Catholic journal — any Catholic journal — providing a platform for points of view not already endorsed by the Vatican. We wouldn't want any editorial errors, would we?

("Editorial Ouster Worries Catholic Publications," Michael Paulson, Boston Globe 5.10.05, reg req'd)

Posted by Philocrites, May 10, 2005, at 10:04 PM | 2 comments

Sunday, May 8, 2005

Lakoff hosts two-week progressive religious forum.

George Lakoff's Rockridge Institute — famous for the notion of "framing" in political discourse — is sponsoring an ambitious if mildly quixotic online symposium for religious progressives starting Monday. For the next two weeks, the forum will invite responses to a series of daily themes like "What is progressive spirituality?" (Monday, May 9) or "Conceptualizations of God" (Friday, May 12). The goal?

We want to explore the common ground between spiritual and secular progressives—to talk about who we are and why we believe what we do. What do spiritually progressive values have to say about policy issues like the environment, healthcare and war? How do spiritual progressive frame their beliefs? What unites the progressive movement? Why has this unity been so difficult to achieve? And what action can we take to promote our shared values?

Could be interesting, although the last time many of the same older theologians and activists tried to reframe American religious politics through marathon online discussions, they came up with prose by committee that attracted no attention at all. It's an interesting group of people Rockridge has lined up, though: Marcus Borg, Harvey Cox, Rebecca Parker, William Sloan Coffin (he uses the Internet?!), Michael Lerner, Rosemary Radford Ruether — you get the picture. Daniel Schultz, the famous Pastordan at Daily Kos and Faithforward, is the forum's blogger-facilitator.

Why am I not jumping up and down for joy? Actually, I am, although I suspect that the much-anticipated religious left will fumble around for a bit longer before finally finding its groove. At some point it simply must grow broader than the Jim Wallis, Michael Lerner, and Bob Edgar Show — each of whom I greatly admire. Experimental networks of religiously oriented political activists keep springing up, mostly to no avail, but someone is going to put the pieces together eventually in a way that makes a difference. Hopefully with some local congregational or social oomph.

My enthusiasm is limited by two things: I may not actually be a "progressive." And I continue to think that the most effective challenge to the Christian right will not come from the left but from someplace closer to the center. Or, to put it another way, a truly visionary alternative to the Christian right will probably have some sharp critiques to point at the left, too.

Nevertheless, I've signed up. You can, too.

Posted by Philocrites, May 8, 2005, at 11:47 PM | 3 comments

Site maintenance and comment privacy.

I've done a bit of tinkering with the site this weekend: I've changed how comments are published so that other visitors cannot get access to your e-mail address when they read your comment; hopefully this change will encourage commenters to use a functional e-mail address that I can use to reach you without also opening the door to spammers and other unwelcome correspondence.

I've also pruned the list of links on the front page, eliminating broken links and a bunch of fine blogs and publications that I simply don't read anymore. I've expanded the religion blog list, including quite a few members of the Progressive Christian Blogger Network whose writing I've come to value highly, but I have removed the PCBN blogroll. (You can always find it at PCBN headquarters.) And I've added very brief notations to a lot of the links.

I always appreciate your suggestions and comments about this site.

Posted by Philocrites, May 8, 2005, at 09:11 PM | 3 comments

'Boston Sunday Globe': All religion, all the time.

Today's Globe is so chock-full of religion I'm not sure who's going to get more — the church-goer or the brunch-eater with the paper. Starting from the front:

You'll also notice that the Globe now requires registration.

Posted by Philocrites, May 8, 2005, at 09:41 AM | 1 comments

The housewife theory of history.

In honor of Mother's Day, here's a fine little essay from Orion: "The Housewife Theory of History" by Rebecca Solnit (May/June 2005).

Posted by Philocrites, May 8, 2005, at 09:12 AM | 2 comments

Trading Spaces: Mormon-Southern Baptist edition.

Nineteen-year-old Southern Baptist Annie guest blogs at the Mormon-themed Nine Moons to ask, "what would it take for me, a strong Southern Baptist, to be converted into the LDS church? And what would it take for you, a strong Mormon to be converted into the Southern Baptist church?" A fascinating conversation ensues. (Thanks, Dave!)

Posted by Philocrites, May 8, 2005, at 09:07 AM | 0 comments

Saturday, May 7, 2005

ABC: Focus on the Family is religious? Who knew?

ABC rejected ads from the United Church of Christ because, the network said, it doesn't allow any religious advertising. But the network ran a Focus on the Family ad last Sunday that said, "We'll be there with parenting advice, and a faith-based perspective that can make all the difference." The New York Times reports that the United Church of Christ is not pleased; here's the church's own reporting on the matter.

Perhaps ABC's ad folks have been living under a very large rock for lo these many years, because it would be hard to argue that Focus on the Family isn't religious. It's like saying that Philocrites does not have red hair. (Okay, orange hair.) But wouldn't you think that an ad offering "faith-based" advice is offering a "religious" message? If you're bothered by the network's preferential treatment for the holy warriors of Colorado Springs, visit the UCC's Accessible Airwaves campaign.

Posted by Philocrites, May 7, 2005, at 12:39 PM | 0 comments

Pope wants less dialogue in 'America.'

The Vatican has forced the editor of America, the Jesuit magazine, to resign because the magazine had published articles critical of some church positions. Laurie Goodstein reports on the front page of the Times:

In recent years America has featured articles representing more than one side on sensitive issues like same-sex marriage, relations with Islam and whether Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should be given communion. Church officials said it was the publication of some of these articles that prompted Vatican scrutiny.

Even a few conservative Catholic editors expressed surprise about the Rev. Thomas J. Reese's resignation.

"I'd think of him as sort of a mainstream liberal," said Philip F. Lawler, the editor of Catholic World News, a news outlet on the more conservative end of the spectrum. "I think he's been reasonably politic. I watched him during the transition, and I cannot think of a single thing I heard that would have put him in jeopardy."

And First Things editor the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus offered the Times this George Willicism:

"It would be fair to say that during the pontificate of John Paul II that America apparently saw itself or at least certainly read as a magazine of what some would describe as the loyal opposition. And, needless to say, there's dispute over the definition of 'loyal' and the definition of 'opposition.'"

Needless to say, I will be intrigued to see Neuhaus tackle the question of how (and where) dialogue should be conducted among Catholics. Imagine, for example, how he might approach the "theory" of papal infallibility now that we've seen how he approaches the "theory" of evolution:

Intellectual freedom and integrity require that all pertinent evidence and lines of reasoning be taken into account in forming speculations, hypotheses, and theories regarding that great question.

Or should Catholics simply conclude that the Vatican has already taken all pertinent evidence into account — the impertinent evidence having been summarily dispatched — and that you can just take the rest of your lines of reasoning right on out the door? Scientists should remain in a state of perpetual suspense about the adequacy of their theories because after all a theory just can't compete with a doctrine, but in matters of faith you can just stop asking questions before someone disputes the amount of "loyal" in your "opposition." It's all so suddenly clear!

("Vatican Is Said To Force Jesuit Off Magazine," Laurie Goodstein, New York Times 5.7.05, reg req'd; "Editor of Jesuit Weekly Is Ousted," Mary Voboril [Newsday], Boston Globe 5.7.05, reg req'd)

Posted by Philocrites, May 7, 2005, at 12:11 PM | 1 comments

Friday, May 6, 2005

More holy numbers in the news.

Check this out: Vermont courts have ruled that a vanity license plate cannot say "JOHN316" because some people might think the state-issued plates were offering a state-sponsored opinion about how much God so loved the world. Hmm: Would "ECCL12" be acceptable?

("License Plate Request Heads to Federal Court," Alan J. Keayes [Rutland Herald], Barre-Montpelier Times Argus 5.4.05)

Posted by Philocrites, May 6, 2005, at 10:45 PM | 7 comments

Thursday, May 5, 2005

Do liberals remember a mythical Vatican II?

In last week's Boston Phoenix, Michael Bronski splashed cold water on liberals who have been pining for the glory days of the Second Vatican Council:

For decades, the American liberal establishment and American Catholics have held on to a fantasy of the Second Vatican Council, which lasted from 1962 to 1965, as the defining moment of post-war Catholicism, not just for Europe and the Americas, but for the world. To many people, John XXIII was the Kennedy pope, and Vatican II was his Camelot — a glorious, Roman Catholic version of the New Deal and the New Frontier that would move Catholicism from the medieval past into a rosy future of social equality, in which mass would be celebrated in the vernacular, nuns’ habits would be modernized, and the popemobile would replace the traditional gestatorial chair as a form of papal transportation.

While John XXIII was, indeed, a progressive pope in many ways — his obvious love for the people stood in direct and moving contrast to the public austerity of his immediate predecessor, Pius XII — it is important to remember that he upheld traditional Catholic morality vigorously, in encyclical after encyclical. . . .

The reality is that despite the efforts of dissident elements, the Church has rarely changed its position on sexual matters and is not about to do so now. But there is a second liberal illusion about the Vatican and the Roman Church that goes hand in hand with this: that the Church does not have a great deal of power. In fact, having relocated its strength outside Europe and North America, the Roman Church is more powerful now than it has been for almost 200 years.

("Pope and Circumstance," Michael Bronski, Boston Phoenix 5.5.05)

If you're a liberal Catholic looking for a place within Roman Catholicism, be sure to put Commonweal on your reading list. Here's the liberal lay Catholic magazine's Benedict XVI coverage.

If you prefer a bit of visual comedy instead, see the animated Excommunicator at Ship of Fools, the "magazine of Christian unrest."

Posted by Philocrites, May 5, 2005, at 07:29 PM | 2 comments

Unitarian Ascension Day: Dedicate an elevator!

Coincidence? You be the judge: The venerable Unitarian Universalist church in Harvard Square has just completed installing an elevator to make all five levels of its facility accessible to people who can't climb stairs. The ribbon-cutting is this afternoon — and today, in the Western Christian calendar, happens to be the Feast of the Ascension.

("Celebrate Accessibility: Old Church Now Open to All," Chris Helms, Cambridge Chronicle 5.5.05)

Posted by Philocrites, May 5, 2005, at 05:32 PM | 1 comments

'We the Christians...'

Oh, wait! That's not how the Constitution begins. NPR's "Morning Edition" reported this morning on pseudo-historian David Barton's quest to Evangelize the past. The news program's Web site — which promises an audio file of the report later this morning — includes a sampling of the historical texts invoked by various sides in the ongoing debate about whether George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards intended to let heathens like John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison infect this country with their modernist so-called Enlightenment crazy notions about secular government when they were writing the Constitution of the Christian States of America.

Look, the "wall of separation" between college campuses and the state isn't supposed to be an absolute barrier; people should be allowed and even encouraged to bring their book learning into the public square. Just because some people "believe" that Judge Roy Moore and Thomas Jefferson meant different things when they used the word "religion" doesn't mean that people can only hold those opinions privately. Go ahead, people of history degrees, speak your truth! Down with activist judges and their two-and-a-half-ton monuments!

Posted by Philocrites, May 5, 2005, at 08:47 AM | 3 comments

Eliot Church in the news.

It's fun to see friends in the news — when the news is good:

The Eliot Church of South Natick, a member of the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association, announces the ordination of David B. Miller.

The service will be conducted as part of the worship service on May 15, 10 a.m., in the church sanctuary. The Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot, pastor, will lead the service.

Congratulations, David! Adam, of course, is the blogging reverend of Unity. ("Eliot Church To Ordain New Minister," Dover-Sherborn Press 5.5.05)

Posted by Philocrites, May 5, 2005, at 08:09 AM | 0 comments

The new and improved number of the beast.

So it turns out that 666 — the infamous number of the beast — is wrong. Whoops! Scholars have been using some high-tech methods to examine a cache of ancient Greek manuscripts called the Oxyrhynchus Papyri and have discovered the earliest known version of Revelation 13:18. Instead of 666, it gives the unglamorous number 616 instead.

National Geographic says that the documents aren't only of interest to biblical scholars and apocalyptically-minded Christians; classicists are rejoicing, too:

Using a technique called multi-spectral imaging, researchers have uncovered texts that include

• parts of a lost tragedy by Sophocles, the 5th-century B.C. Athenian playwright;
•sections of a long-vanished novel by Lucian, the second-century Greek writer; and
• an epic poem by Archilochos, which describes events that led to the Trojan War.

Hellenistic culture wasn't all literature and revelation, though:

About 10 percent of the Oxyrhynchus hoard is literary. The rest consists of documents, including wills, bills, horoscopes, tax assessments, and private letters.

Oxyrhynchus Hoard: It's a blog name waiting to happen.

("Beast's Real Mark Devalued to '616'," Chris Wattie, National Post 5.4.05; "Papyrus Reveals New Clues to Ancient World," James Owen, National Geographic News 4.25.05)

Posted by Philocrites, May 5, 2005, at 06:27 AM | 6 comments

Monday, May 2, 2005

Weekend reading.

Bless you, Boston Globe Ideas section! This weekend's good reads include:

  • Peter Dizikes's "Evolutionary War," about philosopher of science Michael Ruse's new book that argues that some advocates of evolutionary biology — Richard Dawkins, for example — are making unnecessary enemies among religious people:

    Ruse asserts that popular contemporary biologists like Edward O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins have also exacerbated the divisions between evolutionists and creationists by directly challenging the validity of religious belief - Dawkins by repeatedly declaring his atheism ("faith," he once wrote, "is one of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate"), and Wilson by describing his "search for objective reality" as a replacement for religious seeking.

    All told, Ruse claims, loading values onto the platform of evolutionary science constitutes "evolutionism," an outlook that goes far beyond the scientific acceptance of evolution as a means of explaining the origins and development of species. Provocatively, Ruse argues that evolutionism has often constituted a "religion" itself by offering "a world picture, a story of origins, and a special place for humans," while its proponents have been "trying deliberately to do better than Christianity."

    I've examined scientism in a Unitarian Universalist context in "Science and Its Metaphors" (UU World, Sept/Oct 2003).

  • Celia Ween's "Peering Into the Darkness," an article about a conference on the psychology, theology, and philosophy of evil.

  • And especially Katharine Dunn's "The Art of (Un)uselessness," about the Japanese art of chindogu. You must learn about the hay fever hat.

    Posted by Philocrites, May 2, 2005, at 08:51 AM | 7 comments

  • Ten bloggers went on a picnic.

     Unitarian Universalist bloggers gather in Milton, Mass. Thanks to everyone who made our picnic on Saturday such a success: Fausto, who arranged the facilities; Fausto and Mrs Fausto for grilling up the burgers and hot dogs; Mrs Fausto and Mrs Philocrites, who fled the geeky after-lunch conversation and cleaned the dishes and put the food away; Peacebang for bringing the camera; Chalicechick and the CSO for making the long drive from Washington (!); and everyone who came for the great conversation and good cheer. Head over to Coffee Hour for the full report.

    Posted by Philocrites, May 2, 2005, at 08:36 AM

    Philocritics in the aggregate.

    Partly because I haven't given a traffic report in several months, and partly because March and April brought a surge of new readers to this site, I'm offering an extended review of recent stats — after the jump. I'll also be reviving the Philocritics Poll, but because data are so dull, I'll put the poll in a separate post. Thanks to everyone who stopped by, and thanks especially to all new readers who've made Philocrites part of their week's reading. I always welcome your comments and suggestions.

    Click to continue . . .

    Posted by Philocrites, May 2, 2005, at 08:26 AM | 0 comments

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