Tuesday, January 31, 2006
The cover story of this week's Nation profiles three new groups trying to help liberal student groups on college campuses, Campus Progress, YP4, and the Roosevelt Institution. More power (and money) to them!
I've been nominated by readers in six categories in the second annual Unitarian Universalist Blog Awards. Thank you, nominators! I'm glad we have until February 10 to vote because I can see that it will take a while to review the nominations. Let the voting begin!
P.S. Good blog reading this week: Doug Muder wonders if church life isn't overly feminized. PeaceBang affirms worship that makes you squirm. (Amen!) Dan Harper discusses administrative approaches to ensuring "spiritual safety" in a congregation. And James Field launches a "what's right with UUism" conversation.
Monday, January 30, 2006
Although I'm delighted to see that Patrick Murfin has joined the interdependent web of Unitarian Universalist blogs, I find it odd that his essay on Unitarian anti-Catholicism overlooks any theological or doctrinal root for the sentiment. Murfin focuses, like a good marxist, on class antagonism between the English Protestant New Englanders and Roman Catholic Irish immigrants. I wouldn't try to quarrel with this line of thinking because I think it's true so far as it goes, but sheer bigotry does not adequately account for the phenomenon. Murfin's essay misses the fact that many early 19th-century Unitarians were also registering a profound theological objection anchored in their own political theology.
He also assumes things about the ethnic and religious backgrounds of contemporary New England Unitarian Universalists that I don't think hold up under scrutiny. Every UU congregation I've visited in Massachusetts has large numbers of former Catholics — many more, in most cases, than "legacy" Unitarians with brahmin roots. Additionally, the anti-Catholic bias in Massachusetts strikes me as overwhelmingly a Catholic phenomenon these days: Ex-Catholics are much angrier and more anticlerical than most Protestants I know. Politically, of course, the state is center-left and increasingly independent, but continues electing center-left Catholic Democrats to the legislature and socially moderate fiscal conservatives as governor. So I don't see a political struggle that pits marginal UUs against Catholics anymore. (Not to mention the fact that the UUA and every other religious body in the state lined up with the four Catholic dioceses against the angry Catholic state senators who wanted to force financial statements out of churches, which the press — unable to see anything except Catholicism — barely noticed. The bill failed in the House.)
But back to theological history. I have suggested before that early Unitarianism wove together two different lines of thought. The first is what we usually think of when we say "unitarian." I call it our heretical legacy, and it's the more obvious part: Because religious liberals were willing to stand up for Christian doctrines that fell outside of the orthodox tradition, they were labeled "unitarians."
While this is the better-known aspect of early Unitarian theology, it is not the characteristic that lives on with particular vigor in contemporary Unitarian Universalism. (We may assume that Jesus isn't co-substantial with God, but most of us hardly care.)
The other line of thought that animates early Unitarianism is what I would call the democratic legacy. This is the line of thought that protested against the imposition of any particular dogma by the state or similarly empowered agency. It's a political idea, and for Protestants in revolutionary New England, the most compelling example of church-state coercion was Rome. For Unitarians, of course, the more immediate context was the dispute over the place of doctrine in determining who could join the local congregational church. The pope looked to them like a worldly king using coercive and hierarchical power to impose theological and intellectual conformity; as heirs to Protestantism and the Enlightenment, they didn't have many affirmative ideas of the pope or Catholic ecclesiology to draw on. And the pope was not exactly a big proponent of democracy or modernity back in the 19th century.
The Unitarians objected to bishops and popes as part of their theological commitment to democracy. I don't dispute the fact that this theological idea got mixed with nativism and economic anxieties about immigrants, nor do I dispute the observation that many Unitarians expressed — as many contemporary UUs continue to express — deep illiteracy and bigotry about other religions. But I think it's inaccurate and misleading to suggest that American theological liberals — who objected to kings and popes as part of the same agenda — were simply bigots. They weren't; they saw the papacy as an affront to true Christianity and true liberty. They were Protestants.
(It should be obvious but apparently isn't that the reason 20th-century Unitarians celebrated the Second Vatican Council is that they saw the Roman Catholic Church finally turning toward democracy and openness.)
Changes later in the nineteenth century complicated matters, however. The Romantic movement helped change how Americans understood the past. You can see the change vividly in Boston: The "Old South Meetinghouse" from the Revolutionary era is plain red brick with a tall white steeple; the new "Old South Church" built by the congregation in the late-1800s is an ornate Gothic structure influenced by Italian cathedral architecture. Think about that transition: The Puritans' great-great-grandchildren had embraced the architectural style — and the liturgical stagecraft — they had condemned as "popery." You can see the same thing in the rise of gothic architecture among the Unitarians and Universalists right on into the early 20th century. These Protestants had fallen in love with the medieval, although they were still prone to anti-Catholicism.
There were other changes, too. Leigh Eric Schmidt's wonderful new book, Restless Souls, traces the modern meaning of "mysticism" to the Transcendentalists, a group of largely Unitarian thinkers who, Schmidt says, rehabiltated the idea of the hermit, the religious solitary, an idea that had been scorned by Protestants in America for 200 years. They also broke the idea of mysticism — or what we now call "spirituality" — away from the church. (This is part of what Murfin alludes to in saying that the Transcendentalists were not as anti-Catholic as some other Unitarians. One could complicate this claim all over the place, but I'll move on.)
My favorite mid-century Unitarians took things a scandalous step further: Henry Whitney Bellows, in his 1859 "Suspense of Faith" address, used "Catholicism" to typify the unifying and social dimensions of religion and "Protestant" to typify the diversifying and individual dimensions of religion. He argued that Unitarianism had already swung as far to the Protestant pole as it could without detaching itself from history. (Oops!) His thesis wasn't well received, but the broad-church Unitarians like Bellows and Frederic Henry Hedge became keenly interested what we would now call the "living tradition" — the way that a historic tradition grows and changes while maintaining vital connections to its past. For Bellows and Hedge, this meant recognizing that Unitarianism wasn't so much a radical break with Christian tradition as a new development within it. They embraced Catholicism as part of our tradition even as they celebrated their liberal democratic Protestantism.
Quick recap: Unitarian anti-Catholicism, no matter how much it also reflected ethnic or economic bigotry, also often reflected a theological and political principle. We'd be seriously misled to overlook the importance of that principle. And the Romantic movement and the changes it introduced in American intellectual culture gave Unitarians new ways to understand and reappropriate aspects of Catholicism. Do either of these points excuse 19th- or 20th-century Unitarians from charges of anti-Catholic bigotry? No. I'm just saying that intellectual history is still important.
Don Skinner writes about the challenges of maintaining vital congregational "covenant groups" in this week's edition of UUWorld.org. He also reports on the end of the controversial six-year court battle launched by First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City over a real estate deal between city hall and the LDS Church. And he reports on grants distributed to Gulf Coast congregations and community groups, which have now reached $750,000 from the $3.5 million given to the UUA-UUSC fund. (It's a Don Skinner special edition!) Sonja Cohen's news blog, meanwhile, is tracking vandalism, Maryland gay marriage advocacy, and charming small-church fundraisers.
Sunday, January 29, 2006
[UU readers may look the other way while I indulge the, um, palian side of my Unipalianism in this post.]
Today Mrs Philocrites and I got to attend church together because one of the bishops was visiting the Episcopal church where my wife leads the programs for childen and families. (Normally I can't worship with her because she's either leading the "children's chapel" during the first half of the service or assisting with the eucharist.) At a church forum after the service, the Rt. Rev. Gail Harris answered questions from the congregation, and naturally the congregation was very interested in the tensions that have torn the Anglican Communion following the consecration of the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire. Harris served on the denominational nominating committee that spent the last three years (!) identifying candidates to run for the office of presiding bishop, the head of the Episcopal Church in the United States.
Not having closely followed religion news last week, I hadn't heard that the nominating committee announced four candidates on Monday. Instead, I listened to Harris introduce them. They are the Rt. Rev. J. Neil Alexander, bishop of Atlanta; the Rt. Rev. Edwin F. "Ted" Gulick, Jr, bishop of Kentucky; the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, bishop of Nevada; and the Rt. Rev. Henry N. Parsley, Jr, bishop of Alabama. (Don't you love that there are two juniors in the group? How Episcopalian!)
Not being the closest follower of Episcopal Church politics and knowing that an endorsement from a UU is good news for no one, I'm going to refrain from picking a favorite. This may, however, be the summer in which the Philocrites household ends up at two different denominational conventions. Oh joy.
Friday, January 27, 2006
Today's the deadline for nominations to the second annual UU blog awards. I had a great time browsing through the 2005 archives of some of my favorite Unitarian Universalist bloggers, and I've nominated a bunch of people. (An observation for Word Press users: Most of you don't offer a very easy way to find past entries chronologically, so I hope you'll nominate some of your own entries — I didn't have the time to be very comprehensive in my search.)
In other blog news, MyIrony has retired and taken up a new life at Making Chutney. If you are a recovering fundamentalist, you'll also want to note Chutney's other project, Healing Hagar. And, although I updated my Guide to UU Blogs less than a month ago, a bunch of new ones have dashed across my radar this month. I wish I could remember you all! If your blog isn't on my list, please indulge in a bit of self-promotion and let me know about your blog in the comments.
Thursday, January 26, 2006
A letter to the editor in the Boston Globe this week recalled the role of Beacon Press, the independent press owned by the Unitarian Universalist Association, in publishing the Pentagon Papers. The Rev. Edwin A. Lane writes:
H.D.S. Greenway raised the question of "a free press, and the government's right to keep its secrets" (op-ed, Jan. 17). A central issue is the government's abuse of the classification procedure for political protection when national security is not an issue.
When The New York Times and The Washington Post began publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971, they were stopped by the government. Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska then read them into the Congressional Record, but the government refused to print them. Gravel then sought a private publisher and, after he was turned down by more than 30, Beacon Press, the publishing arm of the Unitarian Universalist Association, agreed to publish them.
This resulted in the following: a phone call from President Nixon urging Beacon director Gobin Stair not to publish them; the tapping of my phone when I was chairman of Beacon's board; and government agents secretly going through Beacon's and the UUA's bank records, gaining access to who made donations.
The Pentagon Papers were the political story of how we got involved in the Vietnam War. They did not contain material that threatened national security. Indeed, Beacon offered to delete selected material if the government asked us to do so on a national security basis. The government refused.
A court procedure for permission to engage in surveillance of citizens is essential both to protect citizens' rights and to make governmental decision-making transparent to public scrutiny.
EDWIN A. LANE, Wellesley
The writer was chairman of the board of Beacon Press when Beacon published the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
("The Pentagon Papers and government surveillance," Edwin A. Lane [letter], Boston Globe 1.24.06, reg req'd)
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
A request to readers with websites: If you're already using Google Analytics and have an invitation code to share, wouldn't you love to invite me? Drop me a line. Many thanks!
Update 2.18.06: Please note: I don't have any invitations, and I suspect I won't be getting any. I've turned off comments to discourage false hopes. Sorry!
Monday, January 23, 2006
I'm sorry for the lull here recently, but free time has been scarce. While I'm preoccupied, why not pick up the January/February issue of The Atlantic? It took me three lunches to get all the way through the illuminating cover story about Cardinal Ratzinger's rise to the papacy, but if you want to keep up with my lunchtime reading, I'm currently digesting these essays about religion in American politics: "Why the culture war is the wrong war" by E.J. Dionne Jr. and "Tribal relations" by Steven Waldman and John C. Green. There's an especially useful graphic showing the "twelve tribes" of American religious politics with the second essay; Waldman and Green have written a briefer version of the same analysis for Beliefnet.
And yes, I know it violates the gospel of blogging to recommend articles that aren't available for free online — but I'm really suggesting that you go out and pay a few dollars to pick up a dead tree magazine. What can I say? I don't have time to keep up with the Internet these days. Be back soon.
Saturday, January 21, 2006
Here's a great recycling story: The owner of a Watertown, Mass., diner has cut the restaurant's heating costs dramatically — and not simply because we've been enjoying a warm spell this week. The Boston Globe reports:
The owner of Deluxe Town Diner found a way to slash his fuel bill for heating and hot water to $0 during some weeks this winter: a new system that runs on the 30 or 40 gallons of vegetable oil he uses every week for cooking fries, plus oil he collects from a nearby pizzeria and a pair of Chinese restaurants.
That's cool. ("From tasty to toasty: Used cooking oil heats a diner," Peter J. Howe, Boston Globe 1.21.06, reg req'd)
My recommendation: An independent but perceptive group should prepare a "Denominational Politics for Dummies" guide that explains (preferably in entertaining and wholly unbureaucratic language) how decisions really get made at various levels in the Association. The point? Show constituencies that aren't already shaping the decision-making process how they could actually make changes. Brainstorming is great, but if you want to make change, my question to you is this: You and what army?
I've been following the progress over at the annual UUA certification of congregations. With about one quarter of all UU congregations having certified, it looks like growth is slower this year. Let's compare:
Thursday, January 19, 2006
They're back! John Cooley, the mastermind behind the UUpdates RSS aggregator, has set up a handy site for nominations and voting in the second annual Unitarian Universalist blog awards. What a year it was! Think of the blogs that joined us in 2005 — Socinian, Peacebang, Lo-Fi Tribe, and Never Say Never to Your Traveling Self are among my favorite newcomers — and the conversations so many readers have joined (and lurkers have enjoyed from the sidelines). Spend some time between now and January 27 browsing the archives of your favorite UU blogs and nominating your favorite posts and writers.
If you're tempted to nominate yours truly, here's a run-down of my favorite entries for 2005:
- Should you bring imagination to your religion?: In which I comment on UU unbelief and the "language of reverence" debate. (2.23.05)
- Why liberal Christians should read The New Republic, Part 1: I never got around to writing part 2, so this post should really be called "The organic infrastructure of liberal churches." (2.24.05)
- What's next for UU blogs?: My challenge to readers tempted to start blogging. (3.10.05)
- A denomination embraces blogs: My report on the United Church of Christ's online marketing initiative. (3.12.05)
- 'If UU Christians are so oppressed...': Why did UU Christians take to blogging so early? (3.19.05)
- How's the Unitarian Jihad doing?: A creative burst of comments on riding a 'net fad's wave. (4.12.05)
- Every flag will bend and every tongue confess: How much lowered-flag time will the leader of your religion get? A pope's funeral post. (4.16.05)
- Just Us Sunday: The rest of you get the hell out: My critique of Senator Frist's involvement with the Christian nationalist "Justice Sunday." (4.22.05)
- This just in: Cardinal Law was too liberal: On the vile anti-liberalism of Rick Santorum. (7.14.05)
- 'Moral values' decisive in Bush's victory after all: Now you know. (8.10.05)
- Purifying the church, one 'liberal' priest at a time. The Boston Archdiocese's brazen purge of liberal priests. (10.2.05)
- How Jesus approached the imperfect. A reflection on Taize. (11.8.05)
- 'The echo of a tune we have not heard.' Thinking with C.S. Lewis. (12.6.05)
- A religion still seeking definition. All I did was pose a question; 73 comments followed. (12.22.05)
And thanks to each of you for reading this site, sending tips and feedback, responding with your comments, and spreading the word. I'm very grateful.
Monday, January 16, 2006
Thomas Mikelson celebrates Martin Luther King Jr's theological legacy; Don Skinner writes about churches that are podcasting the living tradition; and Sonja Cohen tracks Unitarian Universalists in the media. And while you're visiting UUWorld.org today, why not sign up for the magazine's weekly email newsletter? (Yup, I'm promoting my own work.)
Sunday, January 15, 2006
You can find agendas, reports, and related documents on the Board of Trustees section of the UUA website. Board meetings are open to the public.
Saturday, January 14, 2006
The Boston Globe's Spiritual Life column discusses the Unitarian Universalist Association's unprecedented opposition to the confirmation of Samuel Alito this morning. Rich Barlow interviews Rob Keithan, director of the UUA's Washington Office, who "says his denomination's stand is partly in reaction to conservative churches advocating for judges who oppose abortion and gay marriage." The story also rightly notes that Keithan is acting at the request of the General Assembly:
It was fear of conservative judicial decisions that spurred the UUA's 2004 General Assembly — the policy-setting conclave of delegates from member congregations — to declare that the church would oppose federal court nominees "whose records demonstrate insensitivity to the protection of civil liberties."
("Churches weigh in on court nomination," Rich Barlow, Boston Globe 1.14.06, reg req'd; "Unitarian Universalist Association opposes Alito's confirmation," Tom Stites, UUWorld.org 12.12.05)
Tuesday, January 10, 2006
It's time for a crash course in the deeply antidemocratic legal theories of President Bush's favorite lawyers, including Samuel Alito: the "unitary executive" doctrine, especially as applied to torture and the circumvention of Congressional laws about surveillance. In today's Boston Globe Charlie Savage gives some background on the tyrannical doctrine Alito promoted in the Reagan administration and which Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, and Harriet Miers seem to have embraced in formulating Bush's pro-torture, pro-domestic spying, and pro-permanent detention policies:
Monday, January 9, 2006
On the heels of our discussion of the doldrums into which Unitarian Universalist theology has sunk, I'm going to try offering a followup question or two. Here's the first:
What do you want to read?
I assume that part of the problem with contemporary UU theology is a simple lack of material. There's not much supply: Beacon Press rarely publishes theology, and their books are always directed at a non-UU audience. Skinner House has been expanding, and now publishes books of UU history, theology, and religious commentary. Meadville Lombard has published a handful of titles. In a few cases, a self-published book by a UU minister or scholar has attracted an audience. But taken together, we're talking here about four or five books a year. And, truth be told, these books rarely sell well. Not only is there little supply, there's little demand for Unitarian Universalist theology books.
The periodical well is not very deep, either: UU World goes in the mail only four times a year, and given the range of needs it is expected to meet for its 126,000 subscribers and the institutions it serves, one magazine can only do so much. UUWorld.org is starting to publish online-only essays, but doesn't yet have a track record for initiating theological conversations. (Of course, if you would read it and respond or improve on it on your blogs . . .)
Meanwhile, the circle of Unitarian Universalist periodicals keeps getting smaller. Several affiliate organizations publish annual (or biennial) journals. (There's good material in the Unitarian Universalist Christian and religious humanism, but unless you're a devoted partisan of the UU Christian Fellowship or hUUmanists — or you're spending your days in a theological library — I'll bet you're not reading either one.) Both the Journal of Liberal Religion and UU Voice are attempting to survive by publishing on the Internet, but the conversations generated by either one are quite small and generally restricted to small circles of clergy.
A few blogs occasionally take up theological themes or issues, but let's all admit that few of us read blogs strictly because they feature "theology." But blogs do open up inexpensive new publishing opportunities, and as we've all seen, the growing community of UU blog readers and writers is opening up space for some great conversations. I don't think blogs are enough, though.
So I'd break down my question like this: If the bunch of us feels dissatisfied with the current state of UU theology, would we read a new crop of publications — specialized blogs, online magazines, new periodicals, books? Would we contribute essays or feedback to group blogs, online magazines, periodicals, or books? And if it's not "theology" so much that we want to read and think about and write ourselves, what is it?
Harold Babcock ponders Transcendentalism and the Hindu concept of darshan in an essay about learning to see the sacred in images. Jane Greer marks the first anniversary of the South Asian tsunami with a report on the relief work funded by Unitarian Universalist contributions through the UU Service Committee. As always, Sonja Cohen keeps track of Unitarian Universalists in the media in the magazine's news blog.
Wednesday, January 4, 2006
Forget about the symbolic politics on the religious right and the religious left for a minute. Here's a story about a local coalition of religious organizations that crosses denominational, theological, and political lines and that is exerting real political pressure on the Massachusetts legislature to bring healthcare to more people.
Scott S. Greenberger wrote last week about the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization's push to expand health coverage in the state. He focuses on the Rev. Hurmon Hamilton, minister of a Presbyterian church in Roxbury, and Rabbi Jonah Pesner, from the largest Reform temple in Boston. The story plays up several cliches about religious communities — the religious leaders are "waging their fight to expand healthcare coverage on a different, higher plane," for example — but it also points to the Industrial Areas Foundation-style community organizing that is at the heart of GBIO's efforts:
Hamilton and Pesner . . . are leaders of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, which has used moral suasion to become an influential force in Beacon Hill's healthcare debate. Inside the velvet glove, though, is a real threat: If legislators don't pass a healthcare bill to their liking, the group and its allies will push a 2006 ballot measure that would force the state to cover everybody. Backers of the ballot effort have collected more than 112,000 signatures.
The key to GBIO's work is helping diverse religious communities identify real community needs that their members are personally invested in addressing. The interfaith group's organizers help focus and coordinate that personal investment into political power. At its heart, GBIO helps religious communities recognize that they have political clout, and that they have more political clout when they work together.
What I'd especially like to emphasize is that the coalition of religious communities involved in GBIO isn't "left" or "right," theologically or politically — and that the battle lines are not partisan. They don't get involved in "culture war" fights.
One could argue the merits of a particular healthcare proposal — but I'm not praising or disputing the specific proposal GBIO is pushing for. Instead, I'm pointing to this single, significant fact: In our democracy these days, very few groups actually represent the needs or interests of everyday people. Many represent business interests; others represent so-called interest groups, from the Sierra Club to the Christian Coalition — but few of these lobbying agencies actually mobilize local forces around issues that the local people themselves have identified as important.
Because congregations are among the "thickest" local groups around, however, they can play a significant role in democratic life. The GBIO-IAW model shows one way this can be done, and it's a model that helps congregations reach across denominational, socioeconomic, and ethnic lines. I cheer for that.
A few years ago, Rosemary Bray McNatt reviewed some books about community organizing for UU World and observed that the IAW model of community organizing has often been difficult for Unitarian Universalists to embrace. Don Skinner profiled some UU congregations involved in community organizing back in 2002.
I'd love to hear recent stories about ways UU congregations have successfully — or unsuccessfully — tried to participate in programs like these.
("Interfaith leaders invoke morality in healthcare debate," Scott S. Greenberger, Boston Globe 12.29.05, reg req'd; "Power, religious faith, and social change," Rosemary Bray McNatt, UU World Mar/Apr 2003; Grassroots work joins UUs, others," Donald E. Skinner, UU World Mar/Apr 2002)
I'm not sure how many of my readers are aware that UUWorld.org publishes articles that do not appear in the quarterly UU World magazine. This week, for example, Victoria Weinstein writes about taming the resolution bully, Donald Skinner reports on the emotional and psychological aftermath of the hurricanes on UUs in Florida and along the Gulf Coast, and UU news blogger Sonja Cohen writes:
And while all those other media folks are sweating over their lists of the year's 1,000 greatest advertising gimmicks and the 200 greatest smiles, we can relax and enjoy the holiday, because we UUs don't need a list of 50 or even 10; we just need seven.
That's right: Sonja has come up with The Seven Principle news stories of 2005.
RSS for the news blog is already available; RSS for the rest of the site is in testing right now and will be available soon.
Tuesday, January 3, 2006
As 2006 begins, we check in with the latest from the UUA on-line certification of congregations:
Sunday, January 1, 2006
More than 124,000 unique visitors stopped by Philocrites in 2005. And, for the first time, the site logged more than 1 million page views in a year. I feel faint. Thanks, everyone! There's more fun year-end data below: