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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Galloping toward the Philocrites summer hiatus.

Origami horse, Peabody Essex Museum, SalemSoon it will be time for this blog to enjoy some rest 'n' relaxation. While I'm away, be sure to keep up with other UU blogs at UUpdates. Don't miss new stories at, either: Sign up for the magazine's weekly email newsletter. And if you'd like the easiest way to find out when I post something here again, sign up for Philocrites via email:

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If New England readers still need another day trip to make the summer complete, may I recommend the Origami Now! exhibit at Salem's Peabody Essex Museum. When Mrs P and I visited a few weekends back, there were adults on hand to help kids fold their own origami creatures, but the art is marvelous for all ages. Here are more of my photos from the exhibit. And just this past weekend, I visited the Boston Aquarium for the first time. I know! Eleven years in Boston and I never went inside. It's now one of my favorite places. The special jellyfish exhibit is beautiful and disturbing: Global warming is apparently turning out great for jellies, bad for the fish we like to eat.

See you again when I've added a few more freckles to my face. Don't worry, PeaceBang, I've got moisturizer with sunscreen.

Posted by Philocrites, July 31, 2007, at 07:48 AM | 2 comments

Monday, July 30, 2007

This week at Church on Wednesday.

Tom Stites writes that many congregations are gathering in the middle of the week for worship, dinner, and other programs. Concentrated midweek programming offers "stronger connections and deeper religious lives for members and friends; greater ease for new people in finding their place; and a respite for people with busy lives."

In the news, Jane Greer reports that Star Island, the UU-affiliated summer conference center off the coast of New Hampshire, has reopened after a monthlong closure by the fire marshal. Star Island lost approximately $1 million in revenues while closed. Don Skinner begins a series of articles about the UUA's Gulf Coast congregations as the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches; in the first story, he reports on the Community Church of New Orleans, which has moved back into its old neighborhood, meeting in a house next to its ruined church. And Sonja Cohen rounds up a week's worth of Unitarian Universalists in the media.

Posted by Philocrites, July 30, 2007, at 07:47 AM | 0 comments

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Isaac Newton's anti-Trinitarianism in the news.

I planned to ignore Boston Globe op-ed columnist Jeff Jacoby's wildly anachronistic paean to Isaac Newton, whom he tried to offer as a poster boy for Intelligent Design advocates. But the letters to the editor in response to Jacoby bring up a peculiarity he failed to note: Newton was no poster boy for the "fundamentalists" of his day, and may not be an ideal paragon for religious conservatives today, either. MIT professor and Newton scholar Thomas Levenson calls attention to Newton's anti-Trinitarianism, for example:

Isaac Newton was no Christian in any orthodox sense, and his heretical views could have cost him dearly. During his Cambridge University years, Newton denied the divinity of the Trinity and the co-equal status of Jesus with God the Father. Newton kept quiet about his growing commitment to this Arian heresy, but even so it nearly lost him his job. . . .

Newton's religious and scientific views were both deeply embedded in the great issues of his time, now three centuries gone. Jeff Jacoby's attempt to give cover to his own views on science and religion today by invoking Newton as a kind of patron saint fails on many counts, including the fact that while Newton's specific religious beliefs are under challenge now, they were then, too.

("Isaac Newton, in his time — and ours," Thomas Levenson (second letter), Boston Globe 7.28.07; earlier: "A teacher with faith and reason," Jeff Jacoby [op-ed], Boston Globe 7.22.07; related: "Newton's views on the corruptions of scripture and the church," The Newton Project)

P.S. While I'm mentioning anachronisms, I'd also like to suggest that anti-Trinitarianism may actually be anachronistic in contemporary North American Unitarian Universalism, too. It has seemed to me that the real importance of Arianism, Socinianism, and other forms of unitarian Christology in the early modern period was not their arguments against Chalcedonian doctrines of Christ's dual nature and the Trinity, rather that they introduced and developed liberal forms of interpreting scripture and tradition: They insisted on experiential and/or rational evidence beyond appeals to orthodox authority. It's the nascent liberalism of the anti-Trinitarians, not their particular doctrinal conclusions, that should matter to us. And as contemporary interpretations of the Trinity have emerged in the broader Christian world — interpretations that UUs tend to ignore entirely — our old-fashioned critiques can become anachronistic and even atavistic.

You might say that unitarianism has become dogmatic for us — the Trinity being something that a "good" UU simply cannot believe in because we are, by default, anti-Trinitarians. I'd suggest instead that UUs celebrate theological liberalism as a method rather than as a set of theological conclusions.

Posted by Philocrites, July 29, 2007, at 08:20 AM | 36 comments

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Hehir, former HDS dean, now Archdiocese's policy advisor.

Interesting! J. Bryan Hehir, a Jesuit priest and scholar and the only Roman Catholic to have served as dean of Harvard Divinity School, is leaving his post as head of Catholic Charities of Boston to become Cardinal Sean O'Malley's public policy advisor. (I attended HDS when Hehir was on the faculty, and he became chair of the school's executive committee — the title he took instead of "dean" when he replaced Ronald Thiemann — in 1999, my last academic year there. I liked his dry, very orderly lectures but didn't study with him. My fellow James Luther Adams fans will want to note as well that Hehir gave the 2004 JLA Forum on Religion and Society at Georgetown University; his lecture topic: "Three Issues in Catholic Social Thought: Engaging James Luther Adams." I didn't make it down to D.C. for that lecture.)

Michael Paulson writes:

[H]is primary responsibility will be to advise O'Malley on a variety of public policy matters, including the archdiocese's relationship with the Legislature, its ownership of a struggling hospital chain, and the future of its school system. Hehir also will continue to serve as a primary troubleshooter for O'Malley.

Church officials regard Hehir as a pragmatist who is valuable to O'Malley because of his analytical and negotiating skills. Hehir has been an advocate of greater lay involvement in church adminis tration, declaring in 2003, "We've got to treat adults as adults in the church."

Notable from the omnipresent culture-war angle:

But Hehir has been viewed with suspicion by conservatives, including some bloggers who have fretted about his influence on O'Malley. O'Malley's predecessor, Cardinal Bernard F. Law, was so unhappy with Hehir's association with Harvard's liberal divinity school that he asked him to leave the post, and some conservatives criticized Hehir for his 2005 decision to allow Catholic Charities to honor Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who supports abortion rights.

Paulson also introduces Hehir's replacement at Catholic Charities, one of Hehir's former students at the Kennedy School of Government and the first woman to lead the nonprofit organization, Tiziana Dearing. Here's the Catholic Charities press release.

("Key aide tightens ties to O'Malley," Michael Paulson, Boston Globe 7.28.07, reg req'd)

Posted by Philocrites, July 28, 2007, at 09:13 AM | 0 comments

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Should I blame Burger King or The Simpsons?

Philo SimpsonD'oh! [But updated!] Prompted by the good people of Crooked Timber, I thought I'd get myself Simpsonized — and I'm pleased with the results. But the Burger King site that generates customized Simpsons characters seems to hate Macintosh computers. I couldn't get Simpsonized using Safari at all. Undaunted, I tried Firefox and was able to generate good ol' Philo Simpson. But I can't save my avatar, create an account, order up some gear with my likeness emblazoned on it, or any of the other entertaining options the Whopperkin want to me to do. Hmmph. That's just some evil Flash. And I would have bought a mug, because I am that vain. I'm sticking with Krusty Burgers.

Updated 7.27.07: Okay, I was able to download Philo using Firefox on a Mac earlier this morning. I may yet try to order a mug.

Posted by Philocrites, July 26, 2007, at 05:23 PM | 4 comments

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Pastoral problem: Minister dies after wedding rehearsal.

An obituary in yesterday's Boston Globe reported that retired UU minister Richard Kimball, 72, died in his sleep while away from home to officiate at a wedding:

Rev. Kimball was in Westerly, R.I., last month to perform a wedding when he died unexpectedly on June 23, hours before the ceremony. He had attended the rehearsal the night before and retired to a bed-and-breakfast. When he did not arrive to perform the ceremony at 2 p.m. the next day, it was discovered that he had died during the night. The wedding was performed by another minister who had been at the rehearsal and had listened to Rev. Kimball interact with the couple.

I'm pondering how that other minister stepped into Kimball's shoes. What an unusual pastoral emergency!

("Richard Kimball, 72, his ministry not limited by church walls," Gloria Negri, Boston Globe 7.24.07)

Posted by Philocrites, July 25, 2007, at 08:29 AM | 4 comments

Monday, July 23, 2007

This week at Love the contradictions.

Rob Hardies writes that our complex world needs people who can love it in all its contradictions:

We need a spirituality that moves us beyond fight and flight, one that sees complexity not as an enemy but as a friend. We need a spirituality that views paradox as a creative opportunity and contradiction as a stimulant. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, "With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do." But what kind of spirituality allows our souls to embrace contradiction and complexity? The kind that lets me do what the school psychiatrist charged me to do: love the tensions in my life.

His essay is excerpted from a new collection of essays, The Seven Principles in Word and Worship; Rob writes about the third principle: "acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations."

In the news, Michelle Bates Deakin profiles Leon Spencer, honored at the General Assembly with the UUA's Distinguished Service Award. And Sonja Cohen tracks Unitarian Universalists in the media for's news blog.

P.S. Did you know that you can sign up a weekly email newsletter from

Posted by Philocrites, July 23, 2007, at 06:50 AM | 2 comments

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Turned away from a General Assembly event?

If you attended the UUA's General Assembly in Portland in June and had the misfortune of getting turned away from an overcrowded lecture or event, you have until Wednesday to request a free CD of that event. GA Planning Committee chair Beth McGregor writes:

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, July 22, 2007, at 01:35 PM | 0 comments

Friday, July 20, 2007

The uterus factor with Bill O'Reilly.

Debra Haffner, a Unitarian Universalist minister and director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, was a guest on "The O'Reilly Factor" last night talking about Barack Obama's support for age-appropriate sex education for elementary school students:

(Video thanks to News Hounds.)

O'Reilly seems mildly perplexed that Haffner is offering such sane advice — here's more where that came from — right up until the moment that she suggests telling young children that the baby in mommy's tummy is actually in her "uterus." Whoa! "You're blasting them out of their childhood!" he says. Behold the frightful power of Latinate body-part names. At her blog, Haffner says she enjoyed her conversation with O'Reilly although she's now receiving hate mail from other anti-uterusians. (Update! But see some of the great comments from appreciative social conservatives, like this great one from Pam.)

Meanwhile, one of Haffner's fellow UU bloggers, a mother of four young kids, describes the age-appropriate candor about body parts in her home:

With Little Warrior, we're teaching her all the names of her body parts. Elbow. Cheek. Chin. Belly. When she jabs her little finger below the waist, what do you say? Well, we say "vulva." Are there actually parents who get a horrified look on their faces? No, no, that is THE AREA WHICH MUST NOT BE NAMED. The Voldemort of the human body.

Which reminds me: No spoiling of plots around here this weekend. I haven't read a word of the Harry Potter books — I got hooked on Lemony Snicket instead back in the day and now I'm just out of it — but I'm sensitive to all the readers who won't be going to bed tonight. I did take an age-appropriate Harry Potter quiz today at the urging of my coworkers, however, and I am apparently either Hermione Granger or (gasp!) Severus Snape. That is so much more helpful than a Myers-Briggs type.

Posted by Philocrites, July 20, 2007, at 05:46 PM | 10 comments

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Hitchens: UUs 'don't give me enough to disagree with.'

At last we know what Christopher Hitchens, the latest dogmatic crusader against religion, thinks of Unitarian Universalism. Hitchens discusses Unitarians in an interview on the Atlantic Monthly's website:

[Jennie Rothenberg Gritz:] One complaint you've gotten a lot is that you lump all religious people together, throwing the moderates in with the extremists. What's your opinion on Unitarians, for instance?

[Christopher Hitchens:] They say Unitarians believe in one God maximum. And they do produce the Jefferson Bible. They keep it in print. Good.

I once read that only six percent of Unitarians consider God to be their primary religious motivation. Most of them are more focused on social justice and community service.

I've spoken at Unitarian churches very often. It seems to me, again, that they don't give me enough to disagree with. But as for lumping them in, I'll say this. Have you read Camus's La Peste? At the end, the plague is over, the nightmare has dissipated, the city has returned to health. Normality has resumed. But he ends by saying that underneath the city, in the pipes and in the sewers, the rats were still there. And they'd one day send their vermin up again to die on the streets of a free city.

That's how I feel about religion. Thanks to advances of science, education, political tolerance, pluralism and so on, religion can now be one option among many—who cares who's a Unitarian or who's a Congregationalist? But in the texts, the actual texts, there is always this toxin that's ready to be revived. What I say is, "Do you believe this stuff or don't you?" In other words, "In what respect are you different from a humanist?" The authority of the texts is always on the side of the extremists, because they do say what they say. So be aware of this danger. That's all I'm arguing.

Weirdly, Hitchens then goes on to berate Reform Jews and Unitarians — two openly liberal, modernist religious movements — for conscientiously revising their traditions while attempting to maintain some connection to their traditions. Why is this weird? Because he says that his family holds "a rather vestigial Passover seder so our daughter knows what the tradition is." And he wants kids to be familiar with the King James Version of the Bible. (But then how will he keep the rats in the sewer?) He favors religious literacy of a sort — and yet he's steadfastly oblivious to the academic disciplines of religious studies that could help him understand why and how people are religious beyond slavish devotion to dogma and he dismisses all forms of liberal theology before even acquainting himself with it.

Of course, it's always worth keeping in mind that Hitchens's definition of religion is grotesquely limited to one that a particularly obnoxious fundamentalist Protestant might hold: "Religion is saying that you know the mind of God and you want to obey His revealed commandments, on pain of losing your soul, at least," Hitchens says. "People who really live their lives in fear of that — God-fearing, as they used to say — I can respect. [Although they're bonkers!] People who are somewhere between Unitarianism and Reform Judaism — it just seems weak-minded to me."

("Transcending God," Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, Atlantic Unbound 7.12.07)

Posted by Philocrites, July 17, 2007, at 06:08 PM | 25 comments

Monday, July 16, 2007

This week at Stem cells, carbon offsets.

Molly DeHaas Walsh urges religious liberals to support embryonic stem cell research. In the news, Michelle Deakin reports on UU carbon offsets. And Sonja Cohen tracks Unitarian Universalists in the media for the news blog.

Posted by Philocrites, July 16, 2007, at 07:57 AM | 0 comments

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Times ordains a porn star to the priesthood.

If you just about choked on your Cheerios reading the New York Times Style section this morning — "From Man of the Flesh to Man of the Cloth"! — be sure to read the followup report at the Episcopal News Service blog, EpiScope, which debunks all the parts of the story about Ronald Boyer (who until recently performed as "Rod Fontana") becoming a priest. The rector of the Episcopal church Boyer and his wife have been attending, Hank Mitchel, tells EpiScope that Boyer "has a long, long way to travel and a lot of spiritual growing to do before we can even think about thinking about a leadership role."

Update 7.22.07: The Times acknowledges the errors.

Posted by Philocrites, July 15, 2007, at 02:52 PM | 3 comments

Monday, July 9, 2007

This week at Your life story.

Marshall Hawkins writes that most of us spend so much of our time writing the stories of our lives that we forget to take time to read them. But it's in reflection, he says, that we find and make meaning.

In the news, Don Skinner writes that seven UU congregations took part in Florida's largest gay pride festival, making Unitarian Universalism the most prominent faith community at the event, according to Manish Mishra, minister of the UU Church of Saint Petersburg. Jane Greer reports that 90 percent of the members of the Unitarian Church of Staten Island, N.Y., doubled or tripled their financial pledges in response to a "high-five" challenge.

Last week's edition of Unitarian Universalists in the Media is finally available after a weeklong technical glitch, with a roundup of stories about the General Assembly. Expect a fresh edition of the news blog at the end of this week.

P.S. One of last week's stories, Barbara Merritt's "Excess Baggage," climbed the charts at the "social news" site Reddit yesterday, bringing thousands of new visitors to the magazine. The story reached #11 late Sunday afternoon. (Here's the Reddit discussion forum about the article.) Do you use social news sites like Reddit, Digg, StumbleUpon, or Newsvine? Thanks to Reddit user and reader bertrand, who recommended the story, something like 10,000 new visitors came by yesterday. How cool!

Posted by Philocrites, July 9, 2007, at 08:37 AM | 0 comments

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Step right up to the discussion of UU polyamory.

I have almost nothing to add to the discussion of "polyamory" and Unitarian Universalism over at The Lively Tradition. After all, LT is very competently taking the sort of position I'd take. For anyone who is interested in a previous go-round on this issue, I'll point back to my commentary on polyamory from 2004:

Here's the short version of my perspective, from the second post:

I have argued that suggesting that polyamory represents any sort of "next step" in Unitarian Universalist marriage ethics plays directly into one of the more viscerally compelling (if logically implausible) arguments against same-sex marriage. When conservatives charge that polyamory is next on the slippery slope, how is it helpful to have liberals urging us to start slipping? . . . Is there a slippery slope or isn't there? Look: a strictly "strategic" argument against polyamory essentially concedes that the conservatives are right — polygamy is next on our agenda — but hopes nobody will notice if we don't bring it up just yet. I'm saying that this would be a foolish way to go.

Which leaves three options. The first option is to ignore polyamory. (But it won't go away. It has an advocacy group that wants press coverage and congregational and denominational recognition.)

The second is to acknowledge that Unitarian Universalists have no principled reason to participate in civil marriage at all. By this logic, we're only really committed to individual sexual freedom and object to any legal, religious, or societal constraints on it that aren't established by the participants themselves. This would mean that our churches should stop celebrating marriage ceremonies and our ministers should stop signing marriage licenses — permanently. If marriage is oppressive, wrong, and disciminatory by its very nature, then let's get off that bandwagon altogether. (The chances that our society will buy this line of thinking are nil. The chances that UUs will buy this line of thinking are perhaps somewhat higher.)

The third option is to recognize that the liberal church does have a stake in some social institutions, including marriage. We may not have done much thinking about it lately, but in practice Unitarian Universalists recognize that marriage is a good thing not just for the couple but for the community, that improving and strengthening marriage is a liberal goal, and that our advocacy of gay marriage is rooted not in sexual libertarianism but in a deeper recognition of the value of marriage itself. That's why Unitarian Universalist leaders should oppose calls for the legal or religious recognition of polygamy on principled grounds, and not merely strategic grounds. It is inconsistent with our goals for marriage.

As for comments on this site, I have absolutely no interest in arguing about the merits of polyamory itself. For that conversation, please do visit The Lively Tradition. If you have something to say about the church's relationship to society or to the state, especially regarding marriage, have at it.

Posted by Philocrites, July 7, 2007, at 07:38 PM | 8 comments

One more try with my Guide to UU blogs.

I hope I've caught the Javascript that has been causing my Guide to Unitarian Universalist blogs to crash on Windows machines running Internet Explorer 7. (Current theory: My CrazyEgg click counter, which helped me see how people were using the guide.) Especially if you use IE, please visit the guide one more time and tell me if it loads or if it still crashes. Thanks for your patience — and feedback!

Posted by Philocrites, July 7, 2007, at 09:24 AM | 10 comments

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

A joke about liberal religious sectarianism.

I'm still making my way through recordings of the General Assembly events I would love to have attended in Portland. Right now, I'm enjoying Paul Rasor's Murray Grove lecture on "Universalism and the Sectarian Element in Liberal Religion." In it, he tells the following joke ("shamelessly stolen and rewritten" from an old Baptist joke, he said) to illustrate how sectarianism persists even in today's tolerant, expansive, inclusionist Unitarian Universalism:

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, July 3, 2007, at 09:15 PM | 10 comments

Monday, July 2, 2007

This week at Fireworks, GA, and affiliates.

How to have a hectic week in publishing a small magazine on the Web: Have two staff members get stuck flying home through Dallas while three of us have to take a sick day, then discover a pesky technical problem with the news blog and run into file compatibility problems with an essay you're preparing for publication. Delays! So, without further ado, a late edition of "This week at":

Meg Barnhouse likes fireworks — during church services! (She and Doug Muder are's two new columnists.) Meanwhile, Barbara Merritt tries to take her nonmaterialist values on vacation. And from the archives for the Fourth of July, Forrest Church asks, "What would Jefferson and Adams do?"

In the news, Tom Stites and I offer a news roundup from the UUA General Assembly in Portland June 20-24. Tom also reports on the UUA Board's decision June 25 to accept only two more independent affiliate organizations. (Tom retired June 30 after ten years with UU World — and spent his last week on the job covering GA and board business. Thanks, Tom!)

The General Assembly story reports on a major presentation by Daniel Ellsberg, former Sen. Mike Gravel, and former UUA President Robert West about Beacon Press's publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Last fall, ran this essay by Allison Trzop, whose Master's thesis initiated plans to bring Ellsberg, Gravel, and West together at GA. See also Doug Muder's front-page essay at DailyKos and Democracy Now host Amy Goodman's essay and video report about their presentation. Goodman moderated the discussion.

As I mentioned, the news blog hit some technical snags this week that we haven't figured out yet. In happier technological news, we're beta-testing our "printer-friendly version" tool; try it out on this week's stories and let me know how things print. Send the link to the article you printed to and mention which operating system and browser you use. Thanks!

Posted by Philocrites, July 2, 2007, at 08:08 PM | 3 comments

Trouble-shooting my Guide to UU blogs.

Hmm. Of the 28 readers who've written in about their success or failure at loading my Guide to Unitarian Universalist blogs, all the IE 7 users and all but two of the IE 6 users are having problems. Only one Mac user (using Firefox) had trouble.

So now I'm going to try a test and I'd like to hear back especially from Internet Explorer users. (First variable to test: the Amazon banner ads.) Are your results any better this time?

Posted by Philocrites, July 2, 2007, at 07:21 PM | 8 comments

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Having trouble with my Guide to UU blogs?

I've heard from a few readers that my Guide to Unitarian Universalist blogs doesn't load successfully on their computers. So I'd like to do a quick survey to try to identify the problem. Please let me know whether you can successfully load the guide on your browser, and tell me what operating system (Windows NT, Windows XP, Mac OS 10, etc.) and browser (Internet Explorer 6.0, Firefox 2.0, etc.) you're using. It may also be relevant to add what kind of Internet service you have: dialup, DSL, cable, etc.

I'm thinking of breaking the guide out of the blog and publishing it without all the many comments that have made it so very long. But I'm not entirely sure it's causing people problems simply due to its size.

Thanks for your help!

Posted by Philocrites, July 1, 2007, at 01:05 PM | 20 comments

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