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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Time for the third annual Boston UU blog picnic?

Chalicechick has thrown down the gauntlet, rallying Washington D.C.-area Unitarian Universalist bloggers and friends to Scott Wells's proposed meetup. Which reminds me that it really is the time of year when we Boston-area UU bloggers and fans traditionally plan our annual picnic in the rain. Remember our first picnic, to which Chalicechick and TheCSO drove all the way from Virginia? Or our even rainier second picnic? Good times! Who's in?

Posted by Philocrites, March 29, 2007, at 10:14 PM | 5 comments

Harvard's 'New Humanism' conference, April 20-22.

Humanist Chaplaincy at HarvardHarvard's Humanist chaplain, the energetic Gen-Xer Greg Epstein, has pulled together quite the all-star lineup for a conference celebrating the "new Humanism," April 20-22, including novelist Salman Rushdie, singer Dar Williams, and evolution hot-shot E.O. Williams. (Notably missing from the lineup: the anti-religion triumvirate Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, even though Dennett is just up the road at Tufts.) Rushdie will be speaking at a panel on "Abrahamic Humanism" with Rabbi Sherwin Wine, founder of Humanistic Judaism, and Bill Murry, former president of the Unitarian Universalist Meadville Lombard Theological School. (Tiny quibble: There is such a thing as Christian Humanism, and it isn't the same as Murry's naturalistic religious humanism. Then again, I'm not sure Rushdie is necessarily an advocate of liberal or humanistic Islam. So perhaps these are really "post-Abrahamic" humanisms?) Personally, I'm also drawn to hear Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist from India whose "capabilities approach" to human well-being was one of the most exciting ideas I encountered at Harvard. I'm still hoping someone comes along to popularize that concept.

At any rate, here's the conference website: The New Humanism: A Conference Honoring 30 Years of Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, April 20-22. Registration is not too expensive for students, $129 for the rest of us.

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, March 29, 2007, at 09:44 PM | 3 comments

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Dick Cheney, safe in the arms of the Mormons?

I can't begin to describe my disappointment in learning that Dick Cheney will be the commencement speaker at BYU, the Mormon Church's university in Provo, Utah, where almost everyone in my family earned their college degrees. (I grew up in Orem and spent my freshman year there in 1989-90, but transferred to and graduated from the University of Utah.) I can't say I'm surprised — after all, Utah Mormons decided only within the last few months that the war in Iraq isn't going in an entirely desirable direction under the eminently competent and principled leadership of President Bush — but the school really should have turned down this "opportunity."

For one thing, what a disastrous bit of public relations for an increasingly global church to honor the chief architect of American torture, preventive war, and aggressive military nationalism. (I sure hope Cheney's caravan will pass at least a few "Mormons Against Torture" banners while he's in the reddest of states. Dad, you up for it?) For another, why line yourself up with the least popular and most polarizing figure in American life, especially when, frankly, he hasn't lifted a finger for any of the things you seem to really care about? (Some Mormons think Cheney shouldn't have been invited because he hasn't shown much enthusiasm for amending the Constitution to ban gay marriage. He's not conservative enough for some people. But torture, fabricating intelligence, ignoring the separation of powers, yeah, that's okay.)

Happily, some students and faculty are protesting the invitation. One professor told the Salt Lake Tribune: "If BYU seeks to bring a model of abuse of power, greed and political extremism, which seeks to decimate citizens' rights guaranteed by our laws, then Cheney is a perfect choice. But if, on the other hand, the university hopes to offer a model to graduates of love and service to humanity, then better candidates are available." Amen!

Quick: Will seeing Cheney all cozy with the Church's leadership help or hurt Mitt Romney's presidential run?

("Cheney speech at BYU causes outcry," Nathan Johnson, Daily Herald 3.27.07; "Chilly for Cheney at BYU?" Peggy Fletcher Stack, Salt Lake Tribune 3.28.07; "BYU OKs Cheney protest," Rosalie Westenskow, Deseret News 3.29.07; LDS blog reaction: Times and Seasons, By Common Consent)

Posted by Philocrites, March 28, 2007, at 10:33 PM | 12 comments

Monday, March 26, 2007

This week at Power to the churches.

Don Skinner writes that more than 100 Unitarian Universalist congregations are now part of interfaith community organizing groups, which harness churches' power to press for affordable housing, health care, and other local needs. (Don wrote about faith-based community organizing five years ago, too; Rosemary Bray McNatt reviewed books on community organizing in 2003.)

From the archives, in concert with the UUA's push today for comprehensive sexuality education reform in Congress: UUA President William Sinkford argues that sexuality education is a liberal religious issue (Fall 2006) and Cynthia Kuhn, who teaches human biology to medical students, explains why "just say no" sex ed doesn't work (Fall 2005).

In the news this week, Jane Greer profiles a Rochester, N.Y., couple whose peace activism has inspired their UU congregation. Jane also reports that the Belmont, Mass., UU youth service project trip to San Antonio, Tex., went on longer than expected when 49 teens and 9 chaperones ended up stranded in Chicago by a blizzard; members of the UU church in Palatine, Ill., came to their aid. And Sonja Cohen tracks Unitarian Universalists in the media with her weekly roundup of UUs in the news.

Posted by Philocrites, March 26, 2007, at 07:18 AM | 12 comments

Monday, March 19, 2007

UUBlogs-PR: The new publicity email list for UU bloggers.

Update 2.18.08: This service has been discontinued.

Are you a blogger who writes about Unitarian Universalism or for a Unitarian Universalist audience? Are you responsible for publicizing an event, product, or service of interest to Unitarian Universalists? If you fall into either of these categories, UUBlogs-PR may help you connect with resources you haven't had access to before.

UUBlogs-PR is a new Google group — a Web-based email list — for UU bloggers only. Blog authors who focus at least in part on Unitarian Universalism are welcome to join the group at UUBlogs-PR. Publicists may send announcements and press releases to the group. My hope is that a tool like this simplifies the UU publicist's job — helping her locate a wider audience in the UU community — and brings timely and relevant information to blog authors, who may find information they wish to pass along to their readers.

Learn more about UUBlogs-PR below:

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, March 19, 2007, at 10:57 PM | 0 comments

This week at How about that weather?

In "Our Interdependent Weather Forecast," Laura Lee explores how weather shapes human history and how human behavior is shaping the weather — with fascinating tidbits about Napoleon, Hitler, Russian winters, and "Hotlanta." Lee is the author of Blame It on the Rain: How the Weather Has Changed History.

In the news, Don Skinner reports that northern Florida Unitarian Universalists have rallied to the defense of a city manager who was fired after acknowledging he was getting a sex change. And Sonja Cohen tracks an unusually rich week of Unitarian Universalists in the media, with the "Our Whole Lives" sexuality education curriculum on NPR, Rep. Pete Stark's humanism getting a trumpet blast from the "brights," and Pete Seeger talking about his spirituality with Beliefnet.

On a technical note, the magazine's RSS feeds decided to go on vacation last week — just like me! — but I hope we can get them up and running again soon.

Posted by Philocrites, March 19, 2007, at 08:04 AM | 4 comments

Friday, March 16, 2007

National Assoc. of Evangelicals condemns U.S. torture.

On Sunday, the board of the National Association of Evangelicals endorsed "An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture: Protecting Human Rights in an Age of Terror." (Here's the NAE's statement; here's the declaration on the Evangelicals for Human Rights site.) The NAE, which claims the affiliation of 45,000 Evangelical churches in the U.S., is also in the news because the bulldogs of the Christian Right are trying to rein in its emerging interest in "creation care" — known to the rest of us as environmental stewardship. What promising signs from our Evangelical friends!

According to the New York Times, the vote to endorse the anti-torture declaration by the NAE board was almost unanimous. The lone dissenter in the 38-1 vote was the representative of the Institute for Religion and Democracy. But of course! The national chauvinists at the IRD (who have spent twenty years encouraging denominational fights over politics in the mainline Protestant churches) are now getting antsy about the Evangelical leadership's growing awareness of issues of the common good. The IRD is now pushing hard to keep the National Association of Evangelicals out of "political" issues like poverty, torture, and environmental stewardship — issues that presumably make the Institute's wealthy sponsors unhappy. After all, it's not like the Bible has anything to say about our obligations to the poor, the imprisoned, or the world God entrusted to our care. (Noteworthy, too, is the way the IRD's critical essay about the NAE's developing public theology gives such prominence to Ted Haggard.) Apparently IRD's agenda isn't just to the right of the National Council of Churches; it's also to the right of most orthodox Evangelicals.

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, March 16, 2007, at 11:14 AM | 4 comments

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Fellow UU bloggers, interested in press releases?

A question for my fellow Unitarian Universalist bloggers: Would you be interested in signing up for an email list that would allow people to send press releases and other announcements to you?

Every so often, I hear from people — book promoters, event promoters, UUA committees, UUA staff, etc. — who want me to promote something or put them in touch with other UU bloggers who might be interested in what they're hawking. In my attempt to keep my blog narrowly focused on my own interests, I often do nothing with most of these announcements, even though I'm sure many of my readers (and your readers) would be interested in them. I also don't pass queries along to other blogs because I really don't have the time — and when I did once try to locate as many UU bloggers' email addresses as I could, it took forever and didn't generate much response.

But it seems to me that if we set up an email list that allowed bloggers to opt in and out whenever they wanted, and that allowed promoters to reach the group without having direct access to individual bloggers' names or email addresses, that might be of interest to both parties.

The idea I've come up with is a moderated email list. Only bloggers could sign on to receive email; promoters couldn't join the list, but they could send email to the list; the moderators would screen out spam and other illegitimate messages from promoters to insure that the list only distributed useful and potentially interesting information.

Does this idea strike you as useful? amendable? something you'd sign up for? Would you have any interest in serving as a list moderator?

Posted by Philocrites, March 15, 2007, at 08:47 PM | 18 comments

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Breaking news: Minns Lectures start tomorrow!

Here's something I'm frankly shocked not to have heard about before this evening: My doppelganger, Branden Thornhill-Miller, a Unitarian Universalist who is currently a lecturer in the psychology of religion at Oxford, is delivering the 2007 Minns Lectures starting tomorrow. (About the doppelganger part: When we were both students at Harvard Divinity School, Branden and I could sometimes be mistaken for each other with our skinny selves and red hair. When I showed up for community tea one Tuesday during my first year, feeling unjustifiably snazzy in my blue turtleneck, sports coat, and chalice pendant, there was Branden wearing a blue turtleneck, sports coat, and chalice pendant. Curses!)

Branden's a smart guy who has been studying the religious experiences of Unitarian Universalists for a bunch of years now. And he's come back across the pond from Hogwarts Oxford to tell us what he's learned. Here's the schedule for his Minns Lectures, "The Experience of Religious Varieties: Psychology of Religion for the 21st Century" [pdf]. The first four lectures are this week and next week in Boston and Cambridge. The fifth lecture is in Chicago, and the series concludes in Berkeley.

  • Wednesday, March 14, 7:30 p.m. "Psychology of Religion for the 21st Century." First Church in Boston, 66 Marlborough Street.

  • Thursday, March 15, 7:00 p.m. "Religious Refugees and Spiritual Immigrants: The Psychology of Unitarian Universalism." King's Chapel Parish House, 64 Beacon Street, Boston.

  • Wednesday, March 21, 7:00 p.m. "The Modern Missionary Position: The Psychology of Fundamentalist Sects in Global Context." First Parish in Cambridge, 3 Church Street.

  • Thursday, March 22, 5:30 p.m. "What It Means To Be Human: Creativity, Mental Illness, and Religious Experience." Sperry Room, Harvard Divinity School, 45 Francis Avenue, Cambridge.

  • Tuesday, March 27, 5:30 p.m. "Challenges for the Psychology of Religion: Fundamentalism, Meaning-Making, and the Future of Religion." Meadville Lombard Theological School, Chicago.

  • Thursday, April 5. "Homo Syntheticus: Art, Religion, and the Future Human." Starr King School for the Ministry, Berkeley.

Modified 4.24.07

Posted by Philocrites, March 13, 2007, at 08:52 PM | 10 comments

Monday, March 12, 2007

Tuesday at Harvard: Harvey Cox on James Luther Adams.

A reminder, Boston-area James Luther Adams fans and liberal theology junkies: Harvey Cox is presenting this year's James Luther Adams Forum on Religion and Society tomorrow evening at Harvard Divinity School on the intriguing topic, "James Luther Adams: Evangelical Unitarian or Unitarian Evangelical?" The lecture begins at 5:15 and will be followed by a discussion and reception.

I'll see you there!

Posted by Philocrites, March 12, 2007, at 05:38 PM | 1 comments

This week at Five-year-old theologians.

Elaine Greensmith Jordan accompanies a class of five-year-olds to a fine art museum. When the children's questions keep turning to religion, she wonders, "Where was Joseph Campbell when you needed him?"

In the news, Jane Greer reports that Zsolt Solymosi, a Unitarian minister in Transylvania, has launched a 24-hour radio station on the Internet to promote Unitarian values. Programs are offered in Hungarian, Romanian, and English. (You can listen to TUR here.) Don Skinner reports that Meadville Lombard Theological School has appointed ethicist Sharon Welch as the school's new provost. And Sonja Cohen monitors Unitarian Universalists in the media for the news blog.

Posted by Philocrites, March 12, 2007, at 09:36 AM | 0 comments

Saturday, March 10, 2007

New will go live Monday, April 2.

A notice on the front page of the Unitarian Universalist Association's website announces that a "brand new is set to make its debut on the afternoon of April 2, 2007." (There's no permalink to the announcement, but it's likely that most links will change in three weeks anyway.) You'll see a small screen shot of the new homepage, which will take a radically different approach than the current site.

The new site won't affect, but InterConnections, the other publication produced by the Periodicals office, will be migrating to the new site. Here's the PowerPoint presentation about the new site (11.1M) that webmaster Julie Albanese shared last summer at the sparsely attended General Assembly workshop she and I led. I had a small role early on as part of the team that helped develop the information architecture for the new site, but Julie and her colleagues in the Office of Electronic Communication have led the herculean task of redesigning and converting countless pages of content on

Posted by Philocrites, March 10, 2007, at 12:05 PM | 5 comments

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Video-sharing to promote Unitarian Universalism.

I'm pleased to see the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, which invested early in podcasting, also leading the way in using popular video-sharing tools to tell the church's story. The congregation has started using YouTube, the social-networking video site, to host a welcome message from the ministers (featured on the front page of the church's site) and selected worship services. The videos are here on the church site, and here on YouTube. Here's the welcome message:

The Berkeley church isn't the first to make videorecordings of its services, nor is it the first to offer video on its own site. But what strikes me as important and promising is that the church is making good video content so explicitly for visitors — especially by using a service that allows viewers to recommend the videos to their friends and post them on their own blogs, like I've just done.

Two questions: Wouldn't it be great if some of the clever people who have successfully launched podcasts or video-sharing for their UU congregations set up topical blogs to promote the technology and teach other congregations how to use it, too? UU podcasters have a Google group, and they've assembled some basic how-tos on their website, but email lists — even relatively easy-to-search ones like a Google group — strike me as unhelpfully walled off from the way most people search for information these days. (They offer no public search results, no public archive, and no RSS, for example.) Maybe I'm pining for the advent of a dedicated podcasting evangelist — and a dedicated UU video-sharing evangelist.

Second: Are there ambitious and talented UU ministers who are ready to try video-blogging as an evangelism tool, like this amazingly talented and entertaining Episcopal priest?

Posted by Philocrites, March 8, 2007, at 09:53 PM | 3 comments

Monday, March 5, 2007

This week at What's for dinner?

Amy Hassinger starts exploring where her food comes from. As she discovers the unsavory side of American agriculture — the destruction of family farms, the way animals are raised and slaughtered, the ecosystems threatened by agribusiness — she begins to wonder what a "Seventh Principle" approach to food might look like for her family.

(Among the blog responses so far: Katharine, newly converted to vegetarianism and grateful to UU World, makes it to the checkout lane only to be brought up short: "I spend hour after judgmental hour regaling my friends about the horrors of caffeine, red meat and sugar -- and here I am buying not ONE item of 'food' that isn't processed, fatty, sugary or all three." Elizabeth, however, thinks the magazine didn't wag its righteous finger vigorously enough, and wishes it chewed her out for driving a car, too: "I want to read an article in the UU World telling me how unethical it is for me to drive my car in a city with public transportation. I want a faith that says, 'Hey. Get tough. Small adjustments are not going to cut it in these times.'")

In the news, Jane Greer reports that the UUA has filed shareholder resolutions with three companies in which it owns stock — Abbott Labs, Clear Channel, and Valero Energy — urging the corporations to let shareholders vote on executive pay. At the news blog, Sonja Cohen tracks other stories about Unitarian Universalists in her weekly roundup; among them is an op-ed by UUA President William G. Sinkford calling for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. And, with Democratic presidential candidates marking the 42nd anniversary of the Selma, Alabama, Voting Rights campaign, here's a look back at the UUA's role in Selma in 1965 from UU World's archives.

Posted by Philocrites, March 5, 2007, at 07:42 AM | 6 comments

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Philip Rieff on charisma, culture, and prophecy.

'Charisma' book coverTomorrow's Times Book Review includes a fascinating essay about the late sociologist Philip Rieff's posthumous book on "charisma." It's the sort of essay that picks up a bunch of things I realize I've come to believe and suggests that they conflict with other things I believe, leaving me in a kind of suspense about which way I'll come down. In his review, Christopher Caldwell, a conservative whose writing I enjoy, uses Alfred North Whitehead (an intellectual hero of mine), Emile Durkheim, and good ol' Schleiermacher ("father" of liberal theology) as foils, which can't help but rub me wrong — but because it's all in the service of recasting Max Weber's theory of charisma, well, I find that I don't mind. Too much. Or, maybe, not yet.

Caldwell writes (and this is heady stuff):

For Rieff, "all high cultures . . . are cultures of the superego." A culture is a sacred "moral demand system," sharply divided along lines of faith and guilt. Faith means obedience to commandments. Guilt means transgression, not as that word is understood in graduate schools but as it is understood in the Bible — as ostracism, disgrace and death. The system is ruthless, but Rieff shows it to be more supple than it looks. This is one of the windfalls of his long apprenticeship to Freud. Faith and guilt, like yin and yang, imply their opposites. Immoral impulses are always there. "They may be checked," Rieff writes, "but they are not liquidated, they are not destroyed by these interdictory processes any more than the instincts are liquidated or destroyed by therapeutic processes." Indeed, there would be no reason to have rules — a culture — without them.

As Rieff shows in some magnificent passages of biblical exegesis, charismatics — those with charismata, or special gifts of grace — are the moralists in this system. But they do not work by bossing people around or seeking power; they work by submitting to the existing covenant in ways that provoke imitation. So, paradoxically, "renewal" movements tend to be reactionary, and even prophets are backward-looking — they are tethered to, draw their credibility from and seek to intensify previous revelation. These principles are true of Christianity as a whole, in its relation to Judaism. Pivotal here is the passage in Mark 10:17-19, where a rich man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. "Thou knowest the commandments," Jesus replies.

Rieff calls this a "liberating dynamic of submission" and suggests "soul making" as a synonym for the kind of charisma he defends. The discipleship (striving toward God) that exists in a charismatic Christian community has nothing in common with the conformity (following orders) that characterizes modern mass organizations. United in their submission to the sacred, the members of a chain of belief teach through the act of keeping the commandments and learn through imitation — there is no master-slave relation. Such a sacred order is less likely to be corrupt, because it "constantly resists being made convenient for the cadres who come to administer the creed."

So much to chew on. I'll assume that Rieff is not attempting to make a historical case for his idea so much as a typological, philosophical, or psychological one. (The idea that "sacred orders" are less corrupt strikes me as historically implausible, unless there have never been high cultures that are also sacred orders.)

Among the things that intrigue me is Rieff's observation that prophets tend to be reactionary. (The covenant is already given, but the people are violating it; prophets call them back to observance.) I've always wondered how James Luther Adams, who reinterpreted the meaning of "prophet" in ways that made the term popular among progressive Unitarian Universalists, really got around this point when it comes to the biblical prophets. Sure, they called for justice, but always in terms of fidelity to the "original" revelation. He didn't deny the biblical model and its reactive criticism of the social order. As a student of Tillich, however, he took a schematic and universalized view of the covenant that inspired the prophets, and so discounted the reactionary quality of prophecy. For his part, Caldwell (and maybe Rieff, too) doesn't mention the innovative consequences that a reactionary charismatic can inspire: After all, ethical monotheism doesn't show up in the Hebrew Bible until Isaiah introduces it in the midst of calling the Israelites to repentance. The style is reactionary, and so is the substance, but the outcome is also the introduction of a new idea that was not part of the original package (at least from the perspective of textual historians).

Caldwell says that the progressive and anti-traditionalist interpretation of prophecy is rooted in Max Weber's work. He says that for Weber "charisma is a form of transgression, not of faith or discipleship" — and that this line of thought casts charismatics as rebels, not authorities. Sure, okay. But in thinking about American charismatics like Joseph Smith, I have to wonder if there's not a middle ground: Smith was unmistakably reactionary in seeking the restoration not just of the New Testament order but also the patriarchal order of the Old, and his charisma was authoritative and rule-generating. But it would be hard to say that Smith wasn't also transgressive in his time.

In casting Whitehead as a "typical" purveyor of the progressive view that charismatics are rebels, though, Caldwell overlooks several important aspects of Whitehead's thought. For one thing, Whitehead argued that social complexity — a defining characteristic of an advanced civilization — depends on the extent to which the complexity becomes habitual. A complex system works efficiently when very little of it requires conscious thought, or when much of it is habitualized. But Whitehead also understood that habits of mind, while effective for maintaining a social system, may be factually or morally wrong — and that one of the distinctive merits of modern civilization is the presence of critics, scientists, philosophers, and other analysts whose job is to reexamine those habits. Although it's true that Whitehead does highlight the socially disruptive qualities of several major milestones in "the adventure of ideas," and identified himself as a liberal, his basic vision of society tends toward the organic, coordinated, and habituated — qualities that tend to be tagged conservative. (Whitehead also took his prototypical charismatic figures from places other than the Hebrew Bible, too: Socrates and Pericles, for example.) So I guess I'd say that Caldwell/Rieff unfairly downplays the innovative and progressive capacity of charisma and overstates the extent to which a liberal like Whitehead favors transgressive charisma.

But I'm really struck by what Caldwell says about Rieff's view of charismatics: "they do not work by bossing people around or seeking power; they work by submitting to the existing covenant in ways that provoke imitation." Provoking imitation is a wonderful way of describing one of the oldest elements of Unitarian and Universalist views of Christianity. The pre-Transcendentalist American Unitarians often understood themselves as primitivists: Christians attempting to root themselves in the New Testament directly, without dependence on later creeds and church structures. They recognized the charismatic authority of the Bible and of Jesus and saw themselves as disciples. Obviously this view was overwhelmed by Emerson's insistence that ministers become "newborn bards of the spirit" and by Theodore Parker's dismissal of history, and today you'd be hard pressed to find three less popular words among UUs than "authority," "discipline," and "guilt." But one aspect of that early theological liberalism persists: our emphasis on expanding the areas of human life governed by persuasion rather than by coercion. Adams, for example, identified liberalism as opposition to "tyranny, arbitrariness, and oppression." And his model, like William Ellery Channing's or Hosea Ballou's, was persuasion and the commitment of free men and women to the Source of human freedom.

Anyway, that's a long and yet still undercooked response to a very stimulating essay.

("Falling from grace," Christopher Caldwell, New York Times Book Review 3.4.07; buy Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How It Has Been Taken Away from Us by Philip Rieff from

Posted by Philocrites, March 3, 2007, at 10:13 PM | 12 comments

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