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Friday, March 31, 2006

Going to church to learn science.

The UU church in Overland Park, Kansas, is sponsoring free classes on evolutionary biology. "We hear a lot about evolution in the news, but most of us haven't taken a biology class in 10, 20, or even 50 years," says Thom Belote, the minister there (as well as my friend and occasional guest blogger here at Philocrites). "Whether you are a high school student getting ready for a test or someone who could use a refresher, this class will help you be more informed about evolution." The instructors are biology professors and science teachers.

Posted by Philocrites, March 31, 2006, at 07:07 AM | 6 comments

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

General impressions of 'Knocking on Heaven's Door.'

We jumped to a heady start with our book discussion, largely dismissing Mark Oppenheimer's definition of religion (which I don't think he really relies on much anyway). But before we get to what he means by "counterculture," I'd love to know what you thought of the book as a whole. Have you enjoyed reading it? Did you learn anything important?

The parts of the book that really made me sit up and take notice came in the final two chapters, much of the same material that Kevin writes about. (I'll say more about Oppenheimer's conclusions later.) It's also quite possible that I have a somewhat quirky appreciation for writers who take us seriously but also don't give us the benefit of the doubt. I suppose I find criticism more engaging than adulation.

Oppenheimer, who's even younger than I am, expanded the book out of an undergraduate paper he wrote about Unitarians and gay clergy (aha! says Jeff). He told a group of Yale students, "When I came to Yale as a freshman, I had never been religious"; he came to appreciate religion by meeting "religious" classmates and studying religious history with Harry Stout. He acknowledged criticism that he is "too denigrating of liberal religion." It has often been my impression that nonreligious scholars often find highly demanding or rigorously orthodox religions more interesting — more exotic — than moderate or liberal ones, which may be a factor in Oppenheimer's book overall, even though his own viewpoint seems liberally inclined. (He's the editor of the New Haven Advocate, writes about religion for Slate, and has written a new book about the American bar mitzvah.)

Let's treat this post as an opportunity to be chatty about the book; we can get back to heavy lifting later. Was is it a good read?

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, March 29, 2006, at 08:11 AM | 5 comments

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

United Church of Christ marketing 2.0.

Yesterday the United Church of Christ launched a new marketing initiative with enough verve (and, it appears, just enough resources) to serve as a test case for other liberal denominations who hope to advertise their way to relevance. (You can help them succeed by donating to the campaign.) The denomination's new "ejector seat" TV ad — rejected once again by the broadcast networks — is airing on cable TV and on the web. This time, the church is simultaneously placing ads on blogs, introducing an online ministry called Rejection Hurts, opening a web community called i.ucc.org, and — perhaps most significantly — setting up an advocacy effort aimed at pressuring TV's talking-head shows to start inviting the leaders of mainline denominations as guests.

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, March 28, 2006, at 07:01 PM | 9 comments

Blog update: What to read, what to wear.

Good links for you: PeaceBang offers some very funny and much-needed fashion advice for ministers (and follows up with Makeup 101). Her post on one senior minister's extraordinary call to generosity, meanwhile, is a perfect example of a meaningful sacrifice rooted in UU beliefs — which, in Mark Oppenheimer's highly contested definition of religion, might make it a defining religious moment for the people who were there.

How one blog is changing my spiritual practice: For several weeks I have been praying for people I don't know, which, given an uncertain theology, I've generally found it easy not to do beyond sort of generalized prayer for people in need. The blog of a UU seminarian who learned that her infant daughter has kidney cancer has been riveting, unsettling, and deeply moving to read. I scan or dash through most blogs, but each morning when I read The Journey, I just sit there. And then I pray. And when I'm in church, I silently pray again for "Lizard Eater" and "Little Warrior" because I don't know their real names but my thoughts turn to them and their family. I feel an odd gratitude that she has been sharing this painful journey with the rest of us.

Finally, I've updated my guide to Unitarian Universalist blogs for the first time in almost four months. (Sorry!) More ministers especially have joined the throng. If you see things that need correcting or have a blog you'd like included, please let me know.

Posted by Philocrites, March 28, 2006, at 07:36 AM | 2 comments

Monday, March 27, 2006

Oppenheimer's definition of religion.

So what do you think of Oppenheimer's definition of religion? He makes a point of avoiding an essentialist definition and tries to find a descriptive "family resemblance" definition instead. (I strongly favor this kind of approach.) He offers a two-part definition. First, "religion is commitment to a set of beliefs that requires meaningful sacrifice." That should be fun to discuss. Second, in the American context, he suggests that "we know that an American has picked a religion when we see that she does not have two religions." His nutshell version is this: "We may say that a religion is a sacrificial system whose adherents do not ascribe to another religion" (16).

This definition allows him to distinguish between seekers (who can dabble in everything from Yoga to est without necessarily threatening their good standing in a more conventional religion) and joiners, and it allows him to avoid dogmatic definitions that require particular beliefs such as supernatural beings (since there are religions without gods). It presents a real dilemma for some UUs, however. I was especially struck by this statement in his discussion of Jews for Jesus: "It is not that we know a Jew when we see one; rather, we know that they are not Jews when we see them being Christian." That helped illuminate for me the continuing awkwardness many "JewUs" feel about Unitarian Universalism's history, and especially the threat some Jews in UU congregations feel from UU Christians.

But let's play with his definition. Religion is a sacrificial system whose adherents do not ascribe to another religion. Can this definition help us understand Unitarian Universalism?

Posted by Philocrites, March 27, 2006, at 08:10 AM | 15 comments

Keep up with our counterculture conversation.

As we get ready to kick off our discussion of Mark Oppenheimer's fun and provocative book, Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture, a few housekeeping details:

I've set up a page where all my posts related to the book will go, primarily so people who join the conversation later will find an easier way to get up to speed. I'll promote the conversation in the sidebar and link to that page.

I apologize in advance to bloggers who would like to use trackback to participate: I had to turn off that feature long ago to escape the spam, but I hope you'll post a link to your own entries in the relevant comment string.

I haven't tried leading a book discussion via blog before. My goal is to post something related to a key issue raised by the book each week but then to say more in the comments rather than post multiple blog entries as the conversation evolves. I hope this keeps things relatively simple to follow.

Finally, you'll notice that when people do leave a comment, there's a link near their name that says "Permalink for this comment." When you respond to someone else, you can include that link in your comment to make it easier for others to see what you're responding to.

Have at it!

Posted by Philocrites, March 27, 2006, at 08:07 AM | 0 comments

This week at uuworld.org.

Not every Unitarian Universalist is an "exile" from another religious tradition, Barbara Wells ten Hove writes, so why don't we focus more on the experiences of lifelong UUs among us? (She writes in response to an earlier UU World sermon excerpt by Victoria Safford.) Meanwhile, Don Skinner offers a round-up of UU events marking the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and Sonja Cohen links to a number of related war anniversary news stories in the ol' news blog.

Posted by Philocrites, March 27, 2006, at 06:20 AM | 2 comments

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Richard John Neuhaus's deputy turns on him.

What a startling New Republic cover story! Damon Linker, the former editor of the influential neoconservative religious magazine First Things, turns against the political theology of his former boss, Roman Catholic intellectual and Bush adviser Richard John Neuhaus, the magazine's prime mover. (I read the story online because I couldn't wait for my TNR subscription's increasingly tardy delivery, but you may find it easier to stop by the bookstore next week and buy a copy of the "Father Con" issue.) Linker is also finishing a new book, The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege, the title of which suggests that his enthusiasm for First Things isn't what it used to be. That's worth an interview; I hope Commonweal gives him a call.

Linker's 8,800-word review of Neuhaus's new book, Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth, provides an overview of Neuhaus's ideas and influence — but you may be asking yourself, Neuhaus who? Why should you care about some high-brow conservative theology journal? Linker explains:

Countless press reports in recent years have noted that much of the religious right's political strength derives from the exertions of millions of anti-liberal evangelical Protestants. Much less widely understood is the more fundamental role of a small group of staunchly conservative Catholic intellectuals in providing traditionalist Christians of any and every denomination with a comprehensive ideology to justify their political ambitions. In the political economy of the religious right, Protestants supply the bulk of the bodies, but it is Catholics who supply the ideas.

Several Catholic writers have contributed to fashioning a potent governing philosophy for traditionalist Christians, but the one who has exercised the greatest influence on the ideological agenda of the religious right is Richard John Neuhaus—a Catholic convert from Lutheranism, and a priest who for the past two decades has attempted to lead an interdenominational religious insurgency against the secular drift of American politics and culture since the 1960s. In his voluminous but remarkably consistent writings, Neuhaus has sought nothing less than to reverse the fortunes of traditionalist religion in modern America—to teach conservative Christians how to place liberal modernity, once and for all, on the defensive. Any attempt to come to terms with the religious challenge to secular politics in contemporary America must confront Neuhaus's enormously ambitious and increasingly influential enterprise.

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, March 26, 2006, at 04:06 PM | 7 comments

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Gary Dorrien will address UU Christian conference.

How exciting! Gary Dorrien, who is now the Niebuhr Professor at Union Theological Seminary, is the keynote speaker at the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship's "Revival" conference in New York City this November. (My apologies to UUCF executive director Ron Robinson: I hadn't noticed the announcement before.) Dorrien is the leading historian of the liberal theological tradition in the United States; the first two volumes of his trilogy, The Making of American Liberal Theology, are indispensible. I heard him discuss the upcoming final volume — on theologians active in the second half of the twentieth century (James Luther Adams among them) — at the American Academy of Religion convention in Philadelphia last November; I'm eager to get a copy when it's published this fall. (I praised the first volume and its discussion of Unitarianism's contribution to American liberal theology in a UU World review back in 2002.) Dorrien is also the author of an intellectual history of the neoconservative movement, so I can't wait to hear what he has to say.

Also featured at this year's Revival: Jim Mulholland, an Evangelical Quaker and the coauthor of a book promoting the doctrine of universal salvation that has caused a stir among Evangelicals. [Update 3.26.06: See Kenneth's clarification about Mulholland's denominational affiliation.]

The first weekend of November is a great time to be in New York. I hope to see you there.

Update 3.31.06: Don't know how I missed this, but Dorrien is also the author of a new book, Imperial Designs: Neoconservatism and the New Pax Americana, which I learned about from his essay about Iraq in this week's Christian Century. He is — how shall we put this? — not a fan.

Posted by Philocrites, March 25, 2006, at 05:29 PM | 4 comments

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Next week: Counterculture and you!

A reminder that we'll start discussing Mark Oppenheimer's Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture next week — as announced and briefly reviewed by your truly. I think I'll try to restrain myself and focus on the Introduction next week, so don't worry if your copy is only now arriving. It's a good read, lively and provocative, and not long.

Posted by Philocrites, March 23, 2006, at 07:42 AM | 1 comments

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Globe religion reporter blogs from Rome.

The Boston Globe's fine religion reporter Michael Paulson is blogging from Rome as Archbishop O'Malley gets his scarlet zucchetto. I hope he keeps it up when he gets back to Boston.

Update: Apparently O'Malley now has his own copy of Michelle Deakin's excellent Skinner House book, Gay Marriage, Real Life: Ten Stories of Love and Family. Paulson writes that Charles Martel, a gay Catholic with the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry, sent Paulson a note in response to his interview with the archbishop. Martel writes:

"A couple of weeks ago I sent O'Malley a letter on RCFM stationery identifying myself as a board member and also as project coordinator of Roman Catholics for the Freedom to Marry. I sent him two books, one about ten gay couples, and one by a lesbian about her life and her marriage to her partner Kathleen. I happened to meet both of these authors at a book reading, and asked each of them to inscribe a note to the archbishop. (neither of them ever imagined that kind of a request!!) I received a letter last week from the archbishop's secretary that was very cordial and gracious, expressing appreciation for sending the books. This is the first time I have ever received any reply to a letter to the archbishop."

Okay, I can't be sure that Martel sent Deakin's book, but the odds are good!

("A Globe conversation with Archbishop O'Malley," Michael Paulson, Boston Globe 3.19.06, reg req'd)

Posted by Philocrites, March 22, 2006, at 05:48 PM | 1 comments

SUV song's Unitarian Universalist connections.

When I read about "90-Pound Suburban Housewife Drivin' in Her SUV," a country song first broadcast to a wide audience on NPR's "Car Talk" in January, of course I had to hear a clip. And then, at the song's official website, I began reading the bios of the songwriters. As Mrs Philocrites read over my shoulder, I said, "There's got to be a UU connection." Sure enough: Rozanne Gates, a former big-time actor's agent, and her life partner Suzanne Sheridan, a singer-songwriter who wrote for the newly rediscovered "Electric Company," are active members of the Westport, Conn., church. Sheridan is part of The Key Ingredients, "a spiritually-based, Unitarian-gospel, three-part harmony, guitar-driven, musical powerhouse." I want to meet these people.

("Tiny women, big vehicles add up to a quirky hit song," AP, Boston.com 3.19.06)

Update 5.3.06: CNN featured the songwriters in an amusing segment yesterday; see it here.

Posted by Philocrites, March 22, 2006, at 07:38 AM | 6 comments

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Happy birthday, Sebastian.

In honor of Johann Sebastian Bach's 321st birthday, I'm linking back to what may be my dorkiest personal post ever. Love that guy.

Posted by Philocrites, March 21, 2006, at 10:36 PM | 1 comments

Changes to UUA General Assembly plenaries.

Okay, Unitarian Universalist denominational politicos, here's something to sit up for: In the tentative agenda [pdf] for this summer's General Assembly, Moderator Gini Courter announces two major changes to our denominational business process. Yawn!, I hear you say. (Yes, I especially hear yawns from my clergy friends, who rarely attend plenary sessions.) No, no, the idea here is to cut down on G.A. yawning. We all want that. Keep reading.

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, March 21, 2006, at 10:09 PM | 0 comments

Monday, March 20, 2006

Catholicism's Episcopal Church growth program.

My favorite letter to the editor so far in response to the Archdiocese of Boston's decision to stop all adoptions rather than serve a tiny fraction of same-sex couples is from Susan Beale (it's number 4):

Things were so much easier in the '60s. Back then, when my parents were looking to adopt, Catholic Charities could simply send a short rejection letter, like the one my parents received, explaining that it was not the organization's policy to place children in "mixed marriages." (Dad is Episcopalian.) My parents went to Child and Family Services, which, thankfully, my brother and I can say, had no such qualms. Forty years later, I'm pleased to announce that our family is no longer mixed. Today we're all Episcopalians.

A good reminder that for most its history, Catholic Charities' adoption work was inherently discriminatory; its little foray into nondiscrimination in the last 20 years is atypical. Meanwhile, here's a great place to learn more about the Episcopal Church.

(Letter to the editor, Boston Globe 3.19.06, reg req'd)

Posted by Philocrites, March 20, 2006, at 05:05 PM | 0 comments

Catholic Charities' tragic gay adoption ban.

If you pay attention to the links I collect in my scrapbook (here on the front page sidebar or all by itself), you will have noticed that I've been following the decision of the Roman Catholic bishops in Massachusetts to seek a religious exemption to the state's antidiscrimination policies governing adoptions. Catholic Charities wants to opt out of providing adoption services to same-sex couples. It's turning into a tragic story — and soon you'll be seeing stories like it where you live. Here's the short version, followed by questions I'm wondering about:

The four Catholic dioceses in Massachusetts began looking for ways to bar same-sex couples from seeking to adopt using services they provide after the Vatican declared — in a cruelly ironic phrase — that placing children with gay adoptive parents "does violence" to the children. State law governing adoptions, however, has forbidden discrimination based on sexual orientation for many years. But Catholic Charities — the social service arm of the Archdiocese of Boston — has placed 13 of 720 children with same-sex couples since it signed a contract to help find homes for children in the state's custody back in 1987. Its board, made up of 42 prominent lay Catholics, voted unananimously in December to continue placing children with eligible gay parents despite the Vatican statement; seven board members resigned earlier this month when the bishops insisted on barring gay parents, and another board member quit a short time later. Finally, when Gov. Romney said he couldn't grant an exemption without legislative action and legislative leaders said there wasn't a chance they'd change the law, Catholic Charities announced that it would halt all adoption services in June, ending a service it has provided for more than a century.

Everyone acknowledges that Catholic Charities has done outstanding work, especially in finding homes for foster children with special needs. Everyone acknowledges that it's tragic for the agency to stop doing work it does so well. But what's the solution?

Politically, it's silly for conservatives to think that the legislature would give the Archdiocese what it's asking. Ever since the clergy child sex abuse scandal began, the Church has lost tremendous political clout and has shown a peculiar knack for pissing off politicians. (Remember how Boston and state pols reacted to parish school closings? I thought I was watching a mutiny.) Legislators know that any bill that grants an exemption to the Church in its dealings with vulnerable children isn't going far — even if everyone agrees that Catholic Charities and the Rev. Bryan Hehir are worlds apart from Cardinal Law and the child-molesting clergy he protected for years. There's just no political gain in siding with the Church against people who want to adopt neglected kids.

Ironically, the superabundance of Catholics in the legislature also works against the Church because legislators, frustrated at having no real voice for reform within the Church, have tried forcing reforms using secular legislation recently — as the state senate tried doing in launching its ill-considered financial disclosure bill last fall. If there were more non-Catholics in the legislature, the Church might actually make some headway arguing about the free exercise of religion. But in Catholic Massachusetts, we non-Catholics just live here — watching Catholics and frustrated Catholics and ex-Catholics work out their issues on Beacon Hill and in the op-ed columns of the Globe.

My questions: Could the Department of Social Services simply handle the adoptions directly rather than outsource the work to nonprofit organizations like Catholic Charities? Yes, but probably not without a lot more funding. Catholic Charities received $1 million in state funds in 2005 for handling adoptions for DSS — but Catholic Charities receives millions more from corporate, foundation, and individual donors, and it offers many programs beyond adoption services. (Total revenues in 2005: $37 million. I don't know how much came from other government funds.) I've unsuccessfully tried to find information about Catholic Charities' total budget for adoption services, but I suspect the state's $1 million covers only part of the total expense.

Michael Levenson reported that "of the 866 children adopted from the state Department of Social Services [last year], 91 went through private agencies, and 28 of those through Catholic Charities." But those 28 were the "most troubled foster children, including those with HIV and AIDS, mental and emotional problems, and histories of abuse."

What this means, I think, is that the state chose a less expensive and politically expedient route by outsourcing adoptions to Catholic Charities and seven other organizations. Subcontracting the work pleases anti-tax conservatives who want social services spending kept low while satisfying liberals who want to provide an important social service. But private donors are funding what the taxpayers won't — and that's a problem because the state does run into trouble trying to promote an important principle, equal access under the law, through privately subsidized and faith-based service programs.

Can the other adoption providers do the work as effectively while complying with state regulations? I hope so. I hope the Globe will tell us more about how adoptions are done in the state. But again, it's possible that the scale of Catholic Charities' work and the infrastructure supported by its broader funding and range of services allowed it to work more efficiently than other agencies can.

Are religiously motivated service agencies better able to do certain kinds of work than secular agencies? Maybe. Despite the abysmal salaries of social workers, nothing would seem to compare to nuns' vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity — and nuns used to provide much of the workforce for Catholic service agencies. That has changed in recent decades, of course, as vocations have plummeted. What motivates people to invest time and money in difficult social service work, whether it's religiously oriented or secular? If a religious charity is, in fact, better able to serve the needs of most vulnerable children, we liberals need to find a way to account for that fact. But I'm not convinced yet that it's true.

The state has a legitimate interest in wanting its laws and regulations governing its social services to apply to its subcontractors. This is where the problem with "faith-based initiatives" comes up, because religious service providers are often oriented around different values sets than the secular state. Equal access matters in a democratic republic, but that's not the same thing as the Christian value of hospitality or charity. Equal access is not a Catholic ideal. (It's worth noting that Catholic Charities began offering adoption services more than 100 years ago to prevent Protestant parents from adopting Catholic orphans. It began as a community preservation tactic, and was inherently discriminatory.) Personally, I find it hard to justify outsourcing important government services to groups that do not and cannot consider themselves accountable to the people.

Final question: Why were all 13 of the children adopted by same-sex couples "difficult cases"? Did Catholic Charities discriminate against same-sex couples by only allowing them to adopt after all other options had been exhausted?

Media coverage:

All Boston Globe stories by Patricia Wen unless otherwise noted:

Posted by Philocrites, March 20, 2006, at 08:23 AM | 3 comments

This week at UUWorld.org.

Former executive director Richard Scobie describes meeting with Archbishop Oscar Romero during the first UUSC fact-finding mission to El Salvador in 1977. "Tell the world what is happening here," the archbishop told the UUSC delegation. (He was assassinated while saying mass three years later; the anniversary of his murder is this week.) For the next fifteen years, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee led bipartisan congressional delegations to the country to give them a first-hand look at the human rights crisis in Central America. Scobie's article is an excerpt from his fascinating memoir about the UUSC, To Advance Justice.

Also this week: It's spring! In honor of the season, Linda Buckmaster offers a poem and Jane Greer describes the outdoor labyrinth at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church in Charlottesville.

In the news: Don Skinner reports on new programs that help congregations get involved in socially responsible investing. And, in the news blog, Sonja Cohen reports that Davidson Loehr preached a doozy last month.

Posted by Philocrites, March 20, 2006, at 07:44 AM | 0 comments

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Seeking a cultural historian of libertarianism.

Here's something I'd like your help with: I want to find a historian who has studied American libertarianism as a social or cultural movement. I'm not interested in arguments for libertarian ideas or policies, nor am I interested in libertarian histories. Instead, I want to find someone who can tell an academically sound story about the people, institutions, and periodicals that have advocated libertarianism in the U.S. Any suggestions?

Posted by Philocrites, March 18, 2006, at 06:01 PM | 3 comments

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Shall we plan a second bloggers' picnic?

Would you believe that it was almost a year ago that we began kicking around ideas for the first-ever Boston-area Unitarian Universalist bloggers picnic? Our planning paid off in a gathering of ten bloggers, plus partners and kids, around a table heaped with food. (Here's the full Coffee Hour report.) Chalicechick and the CSO even trekked all the way from DC!

Picnic05 was held on April 30. Let's start brainstorming Picnic06. (I feel slightly perverse trying to imagine a picnic just after a day of blowing snow here in Boston, but spring is really on its way. So I'm told.)

Where else is there a critical mass of UU bloggers? DC and Atlanta seem to have strength in numbers, but I think the Atlantans all see each other regularly anyway.

Posted by Philocrites, March 16, 2006, at 07:18 AM | 13 comments

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

What more do you want?

A sermon delivered to the First Parish in Concord, Mass., on Sunday, March 12, 2006, by Christopher L. Walton.

My food my parent my child I want you my own
My flower my fin my life my lightness my O.

—Robert Pinsky, "The Want Bone"

[Jesus] was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread." Jesus answered, "Scripture says, '[Human beings] cannot live on bread alone.'"

óLuke 4:2–4, New English Bible

I edit the Unitarian Universalist Association's magazine, UU World, from an office next door to the Massachusetts State House in Boston. I'm lucky enough to have a window that looks out on Boston Common. No matter the season, it's a wonderful view, especially in the late afternoon when the sun begins to go down and the buildings on Beacon Hill glow orange and the gold dome shines and the sky to the east turns an even brighter blue. What more could I ask for?

Working next to the State House also means that almost once a week I hear the emphatic but muffled chants of some group of protesters or another. I can't make out exactly what they're demanding—but no matter what cause they're advocating, they all use the same chant.

A person with a megaphone barks "Whaddawe want?" and the crowd shouts back, "RrrrMmmrrr." The megaphone shouts "When do we want it?" and the crowd says, "Now!"

Sometimes I take a break and walk down the street to see what the fuss is about. Health care, slot machines, arts funding, deregulation, reregulation, tax cuts, spending increases, marriage equality, traditional marriage: Some passionate group of people, a dozen sometimes, a few hundred others, is demanding it.

"Whaddawe want?" The group knows the answer. They can boil it down to one word, sometimes all the way down to two syllables. Justice. A contract. Tax relief. Day care. "When do we want it?" "Now!"

Sometimes, I want what they want, too. But the repetitiousness got on my nerves; cynicism set in. And then I realized I was being offered something a little bit like a Buddhist koan—a puzzle for the spirit—every time the protesters arrived. No matter how many gathered, I always recognized the question immediately. What do you want? I understood the second part of the question, too: When do you want it? And who could miss the certainty of the last word, or fail to relate to its urgency? Now.

But listening to the protesters from my office down the street, I never could make out the most important part—the answer—unless I got out of my chair and walked up the hill.

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, March 15, 2006, at 08:10 AM | 3 comments

Monday, March 13, 2006

This week at UUWorld.org.

Jeff Wilson looks at less peaceable moments in Buddhism in an essay about the problem of trying to identify some religions as "peaceful" and others as "violent." Jane Greer introduces the Unitarian Universalist congregation closest to the Arctic Circle. Don Skinner profiles a new community ministry in California that helps congregations minister to people with mental illnesses. And news blogger Sonja Cohen keeps on eye on UU headlines in the media.

Posted by Philocrites, March 13, 2006, at 08:02 AM | 1 comments

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Meet the man Abu Ghraib turned into a symbol.

Ali Shalal QaissiToday's New York Times profiles one of the people who was abused, humiliated, and photographed by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib — and whose image became the immediately recognizable icon of American mistreatment of prisoners in our terribly misdirected "war on terror." (The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee's Stop Torture Permanently logo, which I'm currently using on this site to promote the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, uses that alarming icon.) Ali Shalal Qaissi was arrested in October 2003, he said, "because he loudly complained to the military, human rights organizations and the news media about soldiers' dumping garbage on a local soccer field." He spent almost six months in Abu Ghraib.

Mr. Qaissi is today a self-styled activist for prisoners' rights in Iraq. Shortly after being released from Abu Ghraib in 2004, he started the Association of Victims of American Occupation Prisons with several other men immortalized in the Abu Ghraib pictures.

Financed partly by Arab nongovernmental organizations and private donations, the group's aim is to publicize the cases of prisoners still in custody, and to support prisoners and their families with donations of clothing and food.

I'm very grateful to learn about the person who was transformed into this terrible image.

("Symbol of Abu Ghraib Seeks to Spare Others His Nightmare," Hassan M. Fattah, New York Times 3.11.06, reg req'd)

Update 3.14.06: Salon has now challenged the Times's identification of the person in the Abu Ghraib photographs:

Army documents obtained by Salon contradict the Times' account. An official report by the Army's Criminal Investigation Command (CID) concluded that the photo the Times said showed Qaissi actually showed another detainee, named Saad, whose full name is being withheld by Salon to protect his identity. According to the official report, this second detainee was nicknamed "Gilligan" by military police at Abu Ghraib.

The documents were among many photos and files obtained by Salon last month, from a uniformed member of the military who spent time at Abu Ghraib and is familiar with the CID probe.

In an e-mail interview, a spokesman for CID confirmed that investigators had concluded the photograph shown on the front page of the Times was not Qaissi. "We have had several detainees claim they were the person depicted in the photograph in question," the CID spokesman told Salon. "Our investigation indicates that the person you have cited from the NY Times is not the detainee who was depicted in the photograph."

Ethan Bronner, the deputy foreign editor of the Times, said the newspaper was now investigating the possibility that two people were depicted in the photographs. He said the newspaper was no longer certain that the picture it ran on the front page depicted Qaissi. "Serious legitimate questions have been raised," Bronner said.

The Salon story adds:

A lawyer representing Qaissi confirmed to Salon Monday night that the Times had made a mistake. "He [Qaissi] believes that there are two different people depicted in the photographs," said Jonathan Pyle, of Burke Pyle LLC. "Ali believes that the picture of himself is the one with his arms pointed diagonally down." Qaissi uses this photograph on his business card.

("Identifying a Torture Icon," Michael Scherer, Salon 3.14.06, via Romanesko; see also "Web Magazine Raises Doubts Over a Symbol of Abu Ghraib," New York Times 3.14.06, reg req'd)

Update 3.18.06: The Times follows up today, confirming that Qaissi is not the man in the most famous picture from Abu Ghraib. No one seems to know what has happened to Abdou Hussain Saad Faleh, the prisoner who was photographed standing on top of a cardboard box with wires attached to his outstretched arms. ("Cited as Symbol of Abu Ghraib, Man Admits He Is Not in Photo," Kate Zernike, New York Times 3.18.06, reg req'd)

Posted by Philocrites, March 11, 2006, at 04:44 PM | 16 comments

A handful of liberal religious definitions.

A reader asked me for some definitions from a Unitarian Universalist or liberal religious perspective. What do we mean when we talk about theology, religion, faith, and worship? Here's my take:

"Theology" in UU circles usually refers to critical reflection about our religious practices, stories, and terms. It's "thinking the faith."

"Religion" is a more general term. It can refer to the practices and ways of life of a group of people, organized around some self-conscious ultimate commitments. These commitments can be values-oriented — like the Seven Principles, or the Humanist Manifesto — rather than theistic. The ways of life that are recognizably religious are usually social: People practice a religion either in a group or in reference to a group.

"Faith" is, for me, the most nebulous of these terms — at least as UUs use it. It's often a generic term for religion, as in the awful phrase "people of faith." But it's also a term for the ultimate commitments people orient their lives around. They may feel or believe that their commitments are rationally defensible, proven, or self-evident — but in practice, people are religiously or philosophically committed before they have developed a thorough theological or philosophical defense of their commitment. Experientially, faith is your presumption that your worldview is reliable and worth holding.

Finally, "worship" refers to practices — often communal, sometimes private — that focus one's attention on one's religious commitments, that embody one's faith. Sociologically, worship is what a religious community does together when it is concentrating on being religious.

The key point I'd want to make about the history of these terms in Unitarian, Universalist, and liberal religious communities is that the liberal Protestant heritage is both real and generalized in these terms: UUs acknowledge — even when they're very strongly resisting — the Christian origins of all four terms, but each term has been generalized in our use as we've come to appreciate and embrace other religious traditions and distinctively modern worldviews. I believe that this kind of generalization and liberalization of terms is entirely legitimate. I recognize, however, that orthodox and secularist critics of liberal religion often insist that only the "orthodox" definitions are true, but I disagree.

How would you define these terms?

Posted by Philocrites, March 11, 2006, at 09:50 AM | 6 comments

Friday, March 10, 2006

Brainstorm a progressive religious blog conference.

Back in December I heard about early plans for a progressive religious blog conference, an interfaith gathering of bloggers open to theological and liturgical liberals and politically left-of-center religious people — all the people excluded, in other words, from last fall's highly successful "GodBlogCon." What a great idea! But great ideas come to nothing all the time; it takes a lot of work to make an idea a reality. Slowly but surely, it looks like the "Progressive Faith Blog-Con" is becoming real.

The conference will be July 14 through 16 at Montclair State University in New Jersey. One very positive sign is that Velveteen Rabbi is coordinating the workshop slots — and she is looking for fellow brainstormers. Other conference supporters include the extraordinary Real Live Preacher and my fellow Blog Heaven member, the Zen-Humanist Woodmoor Village. If you have passion for this kind of organizing and fraternizing, do volunteer to help.

Posted by Philocrites, March 10, 2006, at 05:43 PM | 10 comments

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Garry Wills, apostle to the Cantabrigians.

An event for my fellow residents of Cambridge: Garry Wills discusses his new book, What Jesus Meant, at my favorite bookstore next Monday. Pick up a copy from the Harvard Bookstore — or be evil while sending a few pennies my way and order it from Amazon.

Posted by Philocrites, March 7, 2006, at 07:26 PM | 2 comments

Monday, March 6, 2006

This week at UUWorld.org.

Forrest Church takes on the "cartoon controversy" and challenges the absolutism of both Muslim fundamentalists and Western champions of incendiary free speech. Also in this week's edition, Jungian film analyst Jeffry John Stein unpacks myths of terror in the five films nominated for this year's best picture Oscar — and preternaturally picked Crash as the best of the bunch.

In the news: Donald Skinner reports on pro-choice South Dakota UUs' efforts to block the state legislature's egregious challenge to Roe v. Wade. (The governor signed the legislation today.) And Jane Greer interviews the new interim director of the UUA's international office, Partner Church Council director Cathy Cordes, and provides a summary history of the UUA's international relationships. Finally, the news blog has lots of marriage equality news — and a sad story about UU religious education gone awry.

Note: In the interest of timeliness, news stories are now being published on Friday; featured stories are still published each Monday.

Posted by Philocrites, March 6, 2006, at 11:35 PM | 0 comments

Sunday, March 5, 2006

Jon Stewart and me.

Three hundred and sixty-six days ago, I woke up to an email from my sister-in-law in Los Angeles — and several other friends and readers — whose mouths had dropped open when they saw a picture of this blog in a hilarious segment of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." I've never figured out exactly how the show's producers came across this site in their quest for easy-to-parody lefties — Eschaton and I were the segment's two featured liberals — but now that last week's episode of "The Colbert Report" featured a pitch-perfect send-up of Unitarian Universalism [Windows MediaPlayer req'd], I've decided that someone in the Jon Stewart empire simply must have UU connections. Only an insider could know all the subtleties of our advanced metaphysics. Keep up the good work, Top Secret Agent Waldo! But why didn't you offer me tickets to the Academy Awards?

Posted by Philocrites, March 5, 2006, at 02:41 PM | 6 comments

Saturday, March 4, 2006

Philocrites in the pulpit.

Boston-area readers may be interested in hearing me preach next Sunday, March 12, at the First Parish in Concord. Services are at 9 and 11 o'clock, with the excellent adult choir singing in the first service and a folk-jazz trio playing in the second.

Posted by Philocrites, March 4, 2006, at 05:17 PM | 2 comments

Thursday, March 2, 2006

Getting ready to talk about counterculture.

Wouldn't you like to read a short, vigorously argued, engaging book of contemporary religious and cultural history so we can discuss it in a few weeks? Sure you would! I thoroughly enjoyed Mark Oppenheimer's Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture, which I reviewed for the current issue of UU World, but I didn't have enough space in that review to say nearly as much about the book as I would have liked. Rather than just launch a series of responses to the book here, I'd love to engage the book with you.

Unitarian Universalist readers should read at least the introduction, the first chapter (which describes Unitarian Universalists' embrace of gay rights in the early 1970s), and the conclusion — but the chapter on Southern Baptists will intrigue congregational polity-watchers, too.

Oppenheimer argues that the counterculture of the sixties was characterized by a style more than any particular ideology. UUs interested in the legacy of the black empowerment controversy in the UUA will find his conclusion about the nature of this countercultural style especially provocative, but his arguments helped me understand denominational (rather than congregational) behavior in all sorts of new ways. But let's not get ahead of ourselves: Get a copy of the book, read it, and sometime near the end of March or beginning of April I'll start posting some questions and additional thoughts about the book.

The publisher hasn't released a paperbook edition, unfortunately, even though the book is a couple years old, but public and university libraries are likely to have a copy. Amazon has hardcovers at a discount if you don't mind spending $30 or so for a book; you can click the book's cover over in the sidebar, or click here.

Posted by Philocrites, March 2, 2006, at 10:24 PM | 5 comments

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Here's your real chance to fix the UUA.

Okay, all ye reformers and would-be reformers of Unitarian Universalism: Here's your real opportunity to help chart a new course. The denominational Commission on Appraisal — the independent board empowered to review any aspect of denominational life that could use some critical rethinking — needs a new member. The deadline for applications is March 18. (The commission is elected by the General Assembly, but a resignation has opened up a one-year term through June 2007.) Apply.

Posted by Philocrites, March 1, 2006, at 10:09 PM | 4 comments

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Posted by Philocrites, March 1, 2006, at 07:59 AM

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