Saturday, September 30, 2006
Here's an intriguing announcement from Andover-Newton Theological School in Massachusetts:
On Wednesday evening October 25th, Andover Newton Theological School (ANTS) will host an historic dialogue between the national leaders of the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).
Rev. John Thomas, General Minister and President of the UCC and Rev. William Sinkford, President, of the UUA, will reflect on the historical affinities and divisions between their denominations, and then go on to explore current realities and future possibilities. This exchange is of interest to clergy and congregants in both denominations because, despite theological differences and the historical controversy that led to their split, in recent years there has been a growing solidarity of the two groups. On a number of issues of progressive religious conviction and social justice the two share common perspectives, and in some communities there are some churches that have become aligned with both denominations.
The program, which will begin at 7:00 PM in Noyes Hall on the Newton campus, will be moderated by Rev. Nick Carter, President of Andover Newton. Joining the principal speakers will be Dr. Elizabeth Nordbeck, Moses Brown Professor of Ecclesiastical History at ANTS (and specialist in New England church history), and Dr. John Buehrens, minister of First Parish in Needham (UUA), author and former president of the UUA. The program is open to the public.
Thursday, September 28, 2006
Since Chutney and Mike have both mentioned the possibility of a Spirit-oriented or "pneumatological" liberal theology, I thought I should mention that I took an amateur crack at the topic back in my first year in seminary. Greatly inspired by James Luther Adams (whom Max Stackhouse had described as a pneumatological theologian), I wrote a paper called "Authority in the Spirit: Developing a Doctrine of the Liberal Church."
I'll warn the philosophical heavy hitters that it leans rather too much on secondary sources, but I was studying to be a minister back then, and I've since discovered that Mrs Philocrites is much better suited to the Ph.D. track than I was. Nevertheless, its basic themes still make a lot of sense to me.
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
I heartily endorse Fausto's recommendation that you listen to Scott Tayler's sermon, "The Religion of 9/12," delivered to the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York. I've listened to it twice already, moved and deeply impressed each time. That's good church. His theme, drawn out of competing interpretations of the story of Noah and the flood, is the dangerous dream of "salvation by elimination."
You can listen to the mp3 file either by streaming it over the Web or by downloading it to your computer. You can also subscribe to the church's podcast, which is what I did. (I use iTunes on the Mac, so I copied the subscribe link, opened iTunes, clicked the "Advanced" menu, selected "Subscribe to Podcast," and pasted the link into the box. The sermon loaded right into iTunes, and I copied it onto my iPod. Almost simple!)
Monday, September 25, 2006
At last, Peter Steinfels's American Prospect review of several much-discussed books about the dangers of the religious right is available to non-subscribers. Steinfels, the religion columnist for the New York Times and the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Catholic Church in America, pays particular attention to Kevin Phillips's American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century, Michelle Goldberg's Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, and James Rudin's The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right’s Plans for the Rest of Us. And he sees two basic problems:
First, he argues that they significantly overstate the influence of genuinely "theocratic" fringe movements in the Evangelical world and in conservative Christian circles generally:
Christian Reconstructionism and its weird "dominion theology" probably play a greater role in the writings of the religious right's critics than they ever have in the wider evangelical world. That wider evangelical world is precisely what is missing from these books. Rudin has a chapter focusing on such matters as evangelicals' enthusiasm for Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and the takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention by theological and political conservatives. But neither he nor Phillips nor Goldberg make any reference to the extensive studies of evangelicals and other conservative believers by Alan Wolfe, Christian Smith, and a raft of social scientists. Phillips tries to lend scholarly authority to his foreboding of theocracy with a blizzard of (selective) facts and figures concerning Christianity over many centuries and several nations, but when it comes to the present-day confluence of religion and politics he takes his cues from a familiar set of anti–religious-right articles, books, and Web sites.
It is symptomatic that of Phillips's hundreds of footnotes dealing with, for the most part, Protestant theology and politics, only one refers to Christianity Today, the flagship monthly of the nation's wider evangelical world. Theologically and politically, Christianity Today is unquestionably conservative. It is also moderate, reflective, and self-questioning, especially about evangelical ventures into politics. The danger of theocracy might look a little different if, alongside right-wing partisans and theological crazies, these writers had paid a little attention to this leading journal that in recent months has published articles like "Five Reasons Why Torture Is Always Wrong" and "The ACLU Is Not Evil."
Furthermore, over-emphasizing the Christianists within the Republican Party, Steinfels says, distracts attention from the factions that are really setting the G.O.P.'s agenda:
K Street and the lingering doctrine of supply-side economics, not Christian Reconstructionists and biblical inerrantism, drive the administration's fiscal follies. The officials sending the United States to war in Iraq — Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, Libby — did not come from the religious right, let alone the larger evangelical constituency.
There's another problem with these books, Steinfels argues:
They draw bold and broad lines between empiricism, science, tolerance, rationality, and democracy, on the one hand, and faith, theology, revelation, persecution, irrationality, and authoritarianism, on the other; and they assign whatever they like or dislike to one side of the divide or the other. This dualism disregards rational dimensions of faith and theology (as well as faith dimensions of science and rationality) and neglects the historical reality that the modern world of empiricism, science, and Enlightenment reason has produced its own irrational nightmares. Treating the moral questions that agitate conservative Christians as obviously settled beyond all reasoned argument does not just target theocrats. It sprays bullets widely into the ranks of moderate evangelicals, conservative Catholics, and even many centrist and liberal believers.
For Unitarian Universalists, the danger here is that when we allow our fear of others to overwhelm our interest in understanding them, we begin to demonize them, losing sight not only of their kinship with us but also misinterpreting the nature of our disagreements with them. There are important theological and political disagreements between theological liberals and theological traditionalists, of course, but secularist alarmists are not our best guides to these disagreements.
("Be not afraid," Peter Steinfels, American Prospect 9.12.06)
David Hubner writes about the dangers of perfectionism, which may afflict religious liberals more than most. He writes:
We Unitarian Universalists gave up our Calvinist forebears' concept of Original Sin — that humanity was in its nature flawed and incapable of moving toward good. That was a positive step for a prevailing religious understanding that at the time left little room for the worthiness of human aspiration or human reason. But along the way it seems that many Unitarian Universalists and others in our culture have moved to an expectation of the possibility of human perfection that in its own way is as unrealistic and harmful, I think, as was Original Sin.
In the news this week, Don Skinner reports on more honors bestowed on the Unitarians Martha and Waitstill Sharp for their work saving refugees from the Nazis in the 1940s. The US Holocaust Museum and the US Senate honored the Sharps earlier this month, following their designation as "Righteous Among the Nations" by Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Authority in June. Representatives of the UU Service Committee, which the Sharps helped found, urged people to turn their attention to the ongoing genocide in Darfur.
Meanwhile, in the magazine's news blog, Sonja Cohen tracks additional coverage of the Holocaust Museum ceremony and finds a syndicated columnist defending Starr King's statue in the US Capitol, among other things.
Monday, September 18, 2006
Recently there's been quite the surge in online activity from religious activists identified in one way or another with the "religious left." Faithful Democrats, for example, is a community site for Democrats who are also Christians. I met some of the folks involved in launching this site at the Progressive Faith Blog Con back in July, but I really had no idea they were putting together something so cool. One of the sponsors of the Blog Con, an organization called Faith in Public Life, has also launched its website and blog — and they're offering a daily email of religion and public life news, which I appreciate getting.
Prominent figures are also taking to the blogosphere. The Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, is promoting his new book with a blog of the same name, Middle Church: Reclaiming the Moral Values of the Faithful Majority from the Religious Right. (How I wish he didn't have to embrace the idolatry of the flag-draped church with the site's design.) And Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners and the head of Call to Renewal, is blogging away — this week debating Ralph Reed! — at another blog named for a much-talked-about book, God's Politics. Wallis's blog is a joint production of Sojourners and Beliefnet.
(Faithful Democrats, Faith in Public Life, and God's Politics all feature links to Philocrites, for which I'm very grateful.)
UUA President William G. Sinkford says it's time for Unitarian Universalists to "put our energy into a sustained and effective fight for comprehensive sexuality education."
In the news, Don Skinner reports on the California legislature's decision to replace a statue of a 19th-century Universalist-Unitarian statesman with a statue of Ronald Reagan. Skinner also reports on a fire Tuesday morning that destroyed the buildings of the UU congregation in Rock Tavern, New York. And Jane Greer reports on the Canton, New York, congregation's organic garden, which provides fresh produce to 16 area food banks.
And in uuworld.org's news blog, Sonja Cohen tracks additional coverage of the Rock Tavern fire and picks up early coverage of a ceremony at the U.S. Holocaust Museum honoring UUSC co-founders Martha and Waitstill Sharp for their heroism during World War II. (More on that story next week.)
Sunday, September 17, 2006
Was Brother Roger, the founder of the ecumenical community at Taizé, a convert to Roman Catholicism? (I realize this question won't be of great interest to most of my Unitarian Universalist readers, but I'm indulging one of my idiosyncratic interests here.)
Saturday, September 16, 2006
If you miss the kinds of conversation that take place in graduate seminar rooms, Michael Hogue, a young scholar at Meadville Lombard Theological School, is trying to launch a "new Reformation" in liberal religion at a new Meadville-sponsored blog.
I'll confess two things up front about his project: When I heard Hogue deliver his speech calling for a new Reformation at G.A. this summer, my early hopes quickly faded: The substance of his critique is not at all new, though he delivers it with passion and sincerity. (I heard a much better version from Paul Rasor at G.A. two summers before.) In the 1930s, James Luther Adams introduced the style of liberal theology Hogue is trying to practice. You could call it "salvage theology": pull apart key concepts in the tradition in order to expose "demonic" aspects and recenter attention around the enduring "divine" impulses. Unlike Adams, though, Hogue doesn't yet offer a way forward. Instead, he tells us what a way forward would look like. Instead of a proposal, a prolegomenon.
Regrettably, the conversation really does sound like graduate school. It's salvation by scholarship, a dismal prospect. If Unitarian Universalism were faced merely with a shortage of academic theologians, the rest of us might be cheered to know that what few of them there are had set up a forum to talk shop. But when most UU ministers, seminarians, and theologically curious laypeople like me talk about a theological crisis in Unitarian Universalism, we aren't worried about hermeneutics, phenomenology, or the phases of concrescence. It's not the absence of high-level abstraction that depresses us; it's the absence of gospel. What are we about? What's the point?
There's no gain in describing what a better theology will be like. Analytical thought is best applied to something at hand: We are, bless our wandering hearts, already practicing a popular theology. The critical task is to analyze that popular theology to see what is life-giving in it and what is dragging us down. And if, as no small number of us suspect, we have arbitrarily cut ourselves off from a larger religious conversation and even from our own wise and sustaining traditions, the trick will be to help reconnect the popular theology to those conversations. This is not fundamentally an academic task; it's a pastoral one.
But there are things I wish to commend about Hogue's project. First, good for him for being ambitious enough to launch such a conversation. It takes moxie to set out to revive "theological literacy" within Unitarian Universalism. (One could say that it's also a bit presumptuous for a non-UU, freshly hired by a UU seminary, to reform us. I'd be very interested to know, for example, how deeply he has mined the Unitarian and Universalist theological traditions. As a proponent of "liberal religion" who is not himself a Unitarian Universalist, Hogue could clarify what, precisely, the tradition he is championing includes and what it does not — and whether that tradition requires churches or can evolve independently in seminar rooms.) I don't mean to be unhelpful with this criticism: If he does nothing more than help younger UU scholars find each other, that will be a good and important achievement.
Second, I am genuinely interested in what "theological literacy" means in a Unitarian Universalist context. I'm content to let the academics hash out the finer points of metaphysics, hermeneutics, and all that jazz. (No one should ever hope that we will all become philosophers.) But the rest of us could benefit from clear, succinct introductions to the range of liberal religious responses to basic theological questions.
Third, Hogue's discussion of the "crisis" in liberal theology reminds me once again to recommend Gary Dorrien's wonderfully illuminating overview of the last fifty years: "American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, Decline, Renewal, Ambiguity" (CrossCurrents 55:4, Winter 2005-2006). Dorrien is one of the leading interpreters of the broad tradition Hogue seems to want to explore. How does Hogue see liberal religion's relationship to this tradition of thought?
Finally, good for Hogue for making use of blog technology (if a bit clumsily) to launch this conversation. It's great to see Meadville embracing a tool like this, and I'm sure that over time better uses of the technology will enable all sorts of dialogue that could not have been possible before. The best thing about a blog is that it is both interactive and highly mutable: A blog can be reconfigured and the direction of the conversation shifted whenever necessary. I'll be very interested to see how Hogue's conversation evolves.
Although this post may sound like a rather backhanded welcome to the UU blogosphere, I really am pleased to welcome Hogue to the "interdependent web" — and to the community of people who care about the liberal theological tradition.
Thursday, September 14, 2006
My favorite part of The Onion's faux news about forgotten summer interns at "Beacon Press" is the snappy picture of the "Beacon Press" staff. If you saw a photo of the staff of the real Beacon Press, you'd think they were a smart and engaging bunch to work with, and I always have a great time when I walk up Beacon Hill to meet with my colleagues there, but I'd like to clarify something: There is not a room owned by the UUA in Boston so sleek and shiny as the one in the picture, nor is there a staff group that looks this, well, corporate. Not even the Stewardship and Development staff puts on that much starch. Not even I do.
Oh, yes: If you'd like to be an intern at the real Beacon Press, here's what you need to know.
The two most illuminating analyses I've read of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath appeared in the New Republic and the New Yorker earlier this summer. (Get yesterday's analysis here today!)
The first is Washington Post reporter Michael Grunwald's indictment of the Army Corps of Engineers' comprehensive failure to protect the city from flooding.
For all the complexities of the catastrophe, two basic things went wrong during Katrina. The levees broke, and the response was slow. But while both of those failures were government failures, the first was much more important. If the levees had not breached, the New Orleans bowl would not have filled, and no one would have cared about Brownie's job experience with Arabian horses. FEMA's incompetent response to Katrina did reveal the federal government's lack of preparation for a potential terrorist attack, and the disarray at the Department of Homeland Security; but it was not what killed 1,000 people and inflicted $100 billion in damage.
Grunwald's essay — ostensibly a review of several books about the catastrophe — is available online only to subscribers, but if you care about the politics of public works projects and want to understand how federal, state, and local government all contributed to the disaster, stop by the library and read it.
Then, knowing how unsafe the Army Corps had made the city, it's especially sobering to read Dan Baum's August 21 New Yorker article about largely failed attempts to plan the city's rebuilding. He shows the foot-dragging, political maneuvering, and — more importantly — the competing goods that have left the Lower Ninth Ward exposed and neglected. It's one of the best magazine stories I've read about the realities and complexities of racial segregation in the U.S.
(Progmation: Hurricane Katrina was a man-made disaster, Michael Grunwald, New Republic 8.14.06, sub req'd; The lost year: Behind the failure to rebuild, Dan Baum, New Yorker 8.21.06)
Monday, September 11, 2006
W. Frederick Wooden was the minister of the Unitarian Universalist church just across the Brooklyn Bridge from the World Trade Center when terrorists attacked five years ago. Now he takes a look at American myths 9/11 shattered — myths he believes many of us still cling to. It's time, he says, for religious liberals to build something new in the rubble of our old ideas. (Update: Wooden's blog, The Ranting Rev, offers a call for lamentation today.)
In the news this week, Don Skinner reports on UUA President William G. Sinkford's trip to Kyoto, Japan, for the World Assembly of Religions for Peace, where Sinkford presented the first Dana Greeley Peace Prize to an interfaith women's organization from Liberia. Greeley, the first president of the UUA, was one of the founders of the World Conference of Religions for Peace. Skinner also reports about a knitting circle at a UU church in California that knits tiny hats for newborns in developing nations. And Sonja Cohen is keeping track of Unitarian Universalists in the media at uuworld.org's news blog.
Wednesday, September 6, 2006
Two things to ponder today: The statue honoring Thomas Starr King, the dynamic pre-Civil War minister of the Unitarian church in San Francisco, has been booted from the U.S. Capitol's National Hall of Statuary to make room for a statue of Ronald Reagan. Starr King was a devout Republican in his day, but my, my, how times have changed. Californians who aren't students in the GTU no longer know who he was — and Unitarian Universalists don't have the clout to defend him.
Meanwhile, the only UU Republican currently serving in Congress — 12-term Rep. Nancy Johnson from the 5th Congressional District in Connecticut — is fighting to keep her seat in the midst of her state's ferocious Lieberman-Lamont war. I'd love to hear from Connecticut UUs about Johnson. Does it matter to how you vote that a fellow UU is on the ballot? Are you a moderate Republican? A moderate independent? A political conservative in a liberal church? A Lieberman supporter? An antiwar anti-Republican? A lifelong Democrat tired of "moderate" Republicans siding with the Right?
(The only other UU in the House of Representatives, by the way, is Pete Stark, D-Calif. Kent Conrad, a moderate Democrat from North Dakota, is the only Unitarian Universalist in the Senate.)
And for the rest of us: Would a candidate's Unitarian Universalist affiliation have any impact on your likelihood to vote for them? What if their party affiliation differed from your own? I'll confess that, although I can't recall ever voting in an election where a Unitarian Universalist was on the ballot, I don't think a candidate's Unitarian Universalism would make much difference to me. But if Johnson loses, I do feel that a very old chapter in Unitarian Universalist culture will finally close: The old Yankee Republicanism, which used to dominate New England Unitarian Universalism, and which Thomas Starr King championed when he moved to California in the 1850s, will have run out of steam.
(Reagan wins another vote, to a place in Congress, Jesse McKinley, New York Times 9.5.06, reg req'd; Lieberman's run shadows House campaigns in Connecticut, Jennifer Medina, New York Times 8.27.06, reg req'd; Election Guide: District 5 in Connecticut, New York Times)
Tuesday, September 5, 2006
Doug Muder reviews Sam Harris's best-selling attack on the irrationality of religion, The End of Faith, along with Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell — and finds that both books make no room for liberal religion. He also looks at something Harris and Dennett find incomprehensible: a proponent of liberal Islam. (Doug has expanded on his review over at his blog, Free and Responsible Search. Discuss his essay here. In another post he asks, Why can't we "just say no" to irrationality? And be sure to read his follow-up post about heroes and martyrs.)
Meanwhile, longtime contributing editor Warren R. Ross finds Harris's book provocative, but he wondered why Harris never mentions Unitarian Universalism — so he called him up and interviewed him. Find out what Harris thinks about Unitarian Universalists — and what a handful of UU ministers, including UUA President William G. Sinkford, think of Harris's critique of tolerance.
Also this week: Jane Greer profiles Ilene Corina, a UU who became a prominent patient safety advocate after her son died from a routine tonsilectomy. Don Skinner reports on a Baton Rouge team of UUs that volunteers once in month in New Orleans and describes events marking the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans' three UU churches.
Finally, be sure to see Sonja Cohen's lament for Pluto in the magazine's news blog. A new mnemonic, friends: Many Very Educated Minds Just Snubbed Unitarian's Ninth Planet.
Friday, September 1, 2006
Thanks to a tip from Spirituality and Sunflowers, I see that many Unitarian and Universalist classics are among the books in Google's new digital library. I have just downloaded Frederic Henry Hedge's overlooked classic of post-Transcendentalist Unitarian theism, Reason in Religion (1865), a very brittle copy of which I had read in the Andover-Harvard Theological Library some years ago. Google's copy is personally inscribed from Hedge to George Bancroft.
I see that Google isn't the only source, however. The University of Michigan also has a digital copy in the public domain, somewhat more navigable — and you can buy a reprint from them for $45.95.
The trick will be to build a catalog of the these titles so that they're easy for scholars, students, ministers, and other researchers to find them.
Update 9.2.06: I should add that the one chapter from Hedge's book that I'd put on a seminarian's reading list is Part II, Chapter V, "The Spirit in the Letter" (pages 301-316), which answers Ralph Waldo Emerson's denigration of institutions, history, and liturgy while preserving key Transcendentalist insights.