Monday, November 26, 2007
Patrick O'Neill offers a Unitarian Universalist view of evil that emphasizes human possibility even in the face of grievous abuses. From the archives: William F. Schulz, at the time executive director of Amnesty International USA, looks at the evil of terrorism. "Terrorists commit vicious human rights crimes," he wrote in 2004. "But they also thrive on the crimes of others."
In the news, Don Skinner reports on Unitarian Universalist congregations that have welcomed transgender people.
Technical difficulties interfered with the publication of last week's edition of Unitarian Universalists in the media. Now that the holiday weekend is over, I hope we'll be able to get the news blog fixed soon. Update! The news blog is back!
Sunday, November 25, 2007
The Boston Globe offers an indifferent review of Philip Gura's new book, American Transcendentalism: A History. Philip McFarland says that, "despite its compact form in a text of just over 300 pages, Gura's expert account is comprehensive." That's as far as his praise goes. The review makes McFarland seem out of his depth, however. Consider the final paragraph:
The general reader encountering so complex a story, unclear perhaps about terms left undefined ("positivism," "Fichtean idealism"), awash in proper names of barely distinguishable minor clerics and the unmemorable long titles of their numerous theological writings, may wonder whether the professor's history is comprehensive to a fault. True, it is not a primer. It is not an introduction to the movement or a joint biography of its major figures: Emerson, Ripley, Thoreau, Parker, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody. Such books do exist, however. And despite arresting passages in "American Transcendentalism" — concerning Brook Farm, Alcott's Fruitlands, Fuller's amazing, absorbing life — that same general reader whom many of us are may long for the simpler, more focused treatment of the subject that this thoroughgoing study never set out to provide. The serious student and scholar, meanwhile, should find in such comprehensiveness all that is wished for.
In other words: This intellectual history frustrates me because I don't want to read an intellectual history. What a let-down!
A few Episcopal bloggers are reading Doug Muder's UU World cover story about class and liberal religion to make sense out of the growing divide between socially and theologically conservative Episcopalians and the more moderate and theologically liberal Episcopalians who now dominate the U.S. church. Check out "Classism and the Maze of Schism" by Elizabeth Kaeton at Telling Secrets and "Still More Questions" by Allen Mellen at Morningsider.
Saturday, November 24, 2007
I hadn't updated my Guide to Unitarian Universalist Blogs since August. Since then, I've cut 17 blogs from the list (due primarily to inactivity) and added 15. Do you have a Unitarian Universalist I should know about? You may also want to add your blog to the UUpdates aggregator.
Friday, November 23, 2007
Are you a Facebook user just dying to share the love you feel for, say, UU World magazine or, say, this humble blog? This is your lucky day! You can now become a Facebook fan of UU World — the magazine's Facebook page includes a feed of uuworld.org stories, among other nice things — and you can rescue me from humility by declaring yourself a fan of Philocrites, too. (UU World also has lots of MySpace friends.)
On a related note, I've been applying a simple rule to friend requests in Facebook: I accept friend requests from people I know personally and can imagine having a drink with, but not from people I haven't met. I hope people don't take it too personally when I turn down their requests. What do you do?
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Ah, the good old days! Eve LaPlante, author of two recent books about life in Puritan New England, describes the penitential days of fasting and thanksgiving practiced by the hard-scrabble Pilgrims and Puritans in the 1600s:
The holiday that gave rise to Thanksgiving — a "public day" that they observed regularly — was almost the precise opposite of today's celebration. It was not secular, but deeply religious. At its center was not an extravagant meal, but a long fast. And its chief concern was not bounty but redemption: to examine the faults in oneself — and one's community — with an eye toward spiritual improvement. . . .
Colonial governments called for public days several times a year, often in response to political, social, agricultural, and meteorological changes, especially disasters. Though the Puritans were aware of randomness in nature, they tended to see a sign of divine vengeance in frightening occurrences such as droughts, epidemics of smallpox, and children's deaths. During a drought, for instance, the court in Boston would declare a public fast day, calling for people to repent for their sins and ask God for help. Once the drought was over the colony would share in a public day of thanks. On these days families prayed at home, reading Scripture aloud and singing psalms, and then attended compulsory lecture services at their meeting houses. In the cycle of fast and thanksgiving days, the community alternately pleaded with and expressed thanks to God.
At the heart of these ceremonies was repentance — or, more specifically, the hope of redemption through repentance. Despite the seeming bleakness of the core Calvinist belief that humanity is fundamental depraved, Puritan theology always left a door open to sinners: If a sinner would only repent, he might return to grace.
Good times! Not until after Americans got tired of having their government call the nation to prayer — in the controversial and partisan decisions of John Adams and James Madison, about which Forrest Church writes in his new book and for UU World — did the modern Thanksgiving celebration take shape:
Our modern concept of Thanksgiving was a later 19th-century invention. During the bloody Civil War, Abraham Lincoln blended the sentimental myth of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a harvest feast with the public need for a celebration of national unity. In 1863 Lincoln declared Thanksgiving an annual federal holiday, beginning a tradition honored by every president since. By linking the day to the Pilgrim-Indian harvest feast, we focus on food rather than on the actual activities and rationale for early-American fast and thanksgiving days.
("The opposite of Thanksgiving," Eve LaPlante, Boston Globe 11.18.07)
Monday, November 19, 2007
The experts it features are fake, the science is questionable, and not one of the quotes it attributes to Ralph Waldo Emerson can be found in his work — but, Fred Small writes, the extremely popular film and book about positive thinking The Secret isn't entirely bunk. What do you think?
From the archives for this Thanksgiving week: Galen Guengerich offers a Unitarian Universalist theology of gratitude and Kimberly French writes about the Pilgrim roots of the UU congregation in Plymouth.
In the news, Don Skinner reports that a UU congregation in Oregon has planted a parking lot. Jane Greer reports that All Souls Church in Washington DC is sponsoring an exhibit honoring 186 years of clergy activism. (The news blog, Unitarian Universalists in the Media, took a break last week.)
Saturday, November 17, 2007
I enjoyed meeting Philip Gura at Harvard Divinity School on Wednesday, where he delivered a lecture based on his new book, American Transcendentalism: A History. (He said he'll be speaking at the UUA General Assembly in June; he's a UU himself.) The book, which was released last week, is starting to generate some coverage.
Adam Kirsch reviews Gura's "welcome and informative new history" at length for the New York Sun. "The first chapters of Mr. Gura's book are devoted to a dry but rewarding analysis of the theological ideas that caused a ferment in Boston Unitarian circles in the early 1830s," he writes. (I'm not finding them all that dry, since I'm squarely in the book's target audience — what, with my English degree and interest in the history of theology and American culture — which makes me think I'm going to get a kick out of the later chapters.) Kirsch highlights Gura's emphasis on figures other than Ralph Waldo Emerson, who usually dominates studies of the Transcendentalist movement:
[T]he central argument of Mr. Gura's book is that Emerson's sovereign egotism represented only one side of Transcendentalism, and not the most admirable one. To Mr. Gura, Emerson's unremitting focus on the individual — his insistence that "nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind" — shades all too easily into mere selfishness. . . .
[He] insists on the tension in Transcendentalism between "those who remained primarily interested in theological and social reform, and others who gravitated toward belles lettres." By using the slighting term "belles lettres" for the work of Emerson and Thoreau, Mr. Gura makes clear which side of the divide he is on. In place of the literary Transcendentalism of Concord, he elevates the political Transcendentalism of Boston, where radical reformers like Parker and Brownson came to grips with poverty and slavery.
Kirsch thinks Gura gives the Transcendentalist reformers too much credit, however. "His admiration for Brook Farm, in fact, is a perfect example of his readiness to credit the Transcendentalists' good intentions while forgiving their bad results. . . . [T]he self-admiring dilettantism of Brook Farm did absolutely nothing to help the Boston poor."
Rich Barlow's religion column in Boston Globe, meanwhile, offers a Q&A with Gura this morning that highlights the Transcendentalists' Unitarian connection.
Updated! The UUA Growth Team invited a dozen ministers to a "consultation on growth" in Louisville last week, and one of the participants — Christine Robinson, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque — is blogging about the consultation and some of the conversation there. If you're interested in UU congregational development and church growth, check out Christine's posts at iMinister:
Growth consultation: the mix of participants and "centered energy" (11.14.07)
Growth consultation II: the purpose of the church (11.15.07)
Growth consultation III—redevelopment: congregational redevelopment and trust (11.16.07)
The other side of the story: love as a method; what would lay leaders have said (11.16.07)
Afflicting the comfortable: Different philosophies of "prophetic ministry" (11.17.07)
Growth: goal or outcome?: A generational divide marked the answers (11.18.07)
Saying yes, saying no: Visionary volunteers and fierce shepherds (11.19.07)
Growth consultation and transition wisdom: What ministers and congregations take for granted (11.26.07)
One last comment about growth: "With a second minister, we added a medium-sized congregation worth of members" (12.19.07)
I'll add links to other posts and resources that come out of the consultation if I hear about them.
Update 11.26.07: Here, for example, is a blog post about the growth consultation by another minister who attended, Marilyn Sewell.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Jeff at Transient and Permanent has rounded up a pretty thorough guide to Unitarian Universalism-related and liberal religion-related sessions at this weekend's American Academy of Religion conference in San Diego. As I've mentioned before, two events are especially aimed at bringing scholars together who are focused on (or interested in) Unitarian Universalist topics. I wish I could be there!
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
I am amazed to learn that, my profound admiration for his theological writing notwithstanding, I had never comprehended that November 12 is James Luther Adams's birthday. (Since my birthday is November 11, you'd think I would have noticed!) Thanks to James Ford's tribute to Adams yesterday, now I know. Adams was born in 1901 and died July 26, 1994.
I've written before about Adams's significance as a liberal Christian (and Unitarian Universalist) theologian. In 2005, I praised Kim Beach's excellent book about key themes in Adams's theological work for UU World. Earlier this year I commended Gary Dorrien's new three-volume history of American liberal theology in part for its inclusion of Unitarian theologians; he gives Adams a prominent place among 20th century liberal theologians.
I've also referred to him a lot when theology comes up here at Philocrites, though as I scanned back through those posts last night I realized most of the references only make sense if you're already familiar with his work. If you're not familiar with Adams, start with James's post. The Essential James Luther Adams is a good first book if you're not academically inclined. The James Luther Adams Foundation offers a guide to his other books, among other resources. (I'm the volunteer webmaster.) See also his bio at the Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography and at Notable American Unitarians.
Happy birthday, JLA!
Monday, November 12, 2007
Kimberly French looks back at Twilight Zone writer Rod Serling, a Unitarian whose television scripts and public statements challenged prejudice in the 1950s and '60s. From the archives: Novelist Will Shetterly explores liberal religious dimensions of science fiction and fantasy.
In the news, Don Skinner reports that the UUA's health insurance program has completed a successful first year with 620 enrolled employees and 228 participating congregations nationwide. (The program's open enrollment period ends November 30.) Sonja Cohen, meanwhile, tracks another week of Unitarian Universalists in the media.
Saturday, November 10, 2007
What happened at the October 30 Congressional subcommittee hearing on the periodicals postage rate increase? (I've discussed the postage increase here before and written about it for UU World, the magazine I edit. I also submitted written testimony to the subcommittee on behalf of UU World and its publisher.) No news, really, but the Association for Postal Commerce has published a summary of each person's testimony before the subcommittee, which does provide a good glimpse into the differences between the big publishers and the public-interest, non-profit, and smaller-circulation publishers. The summary also includes links to the written testimony of the subcommittee's guests. Happily, the Representatives who attended seem to have heard the concerns of the almost 100,000 readers who contacted Congress about the rate increases.
There's not much on the blogosphere about the hearings: In a blog post published on the day of the subcommittee hearings, The Nation's John Nichols quotes from some of the testimony submitted by independent magazine publishers (including my own). And FAIR's Hilary Goldstein and Isabel Macdonald wrote about the hearings for The Huffington Post, though I can't tell whether they actually attended. (Beware: Each time I've visited the Huffington Post story, the site tries loading truly obnoxious pop-up ads that want me to download something. Shame!)
Friday, November 9, 2007
Heads up, General Assembly junkies:
The Committee on Committees of the UUA Board of Trustees is accepting applications to be considered for membership (five plus a Board liaison) on the Fifth Principle Task Force. The Task Force was approved by the Board in October, 2007 and is charged to present recommendations on the future configuration and content of General Assembly. Members must be very familiar with all aspects of General Assembly, including pre-GA functions, as well as the role of General Assembly in the democratic processes of the Association. The Task Force will begin its work prior to GA 2008 and provide a final report to the UUA Board of Trustees by April 2010. . . . The deadline for applications is December 7, 2007.
The Times has a fun piece on P.T. Barnum's Manhattan — there's even an audiotour you can download to your mp3 player to accompany your visit to sites associated with the brilliant marketer and self-proclaimed "prince of humbugs" — which makes this an ideal time to mention that Barnum was a devoted Universalist. Hank Peirce wrote about Barnum's Universalism and his support for the Universalist-sponsored Tufts University for UU World back in 2002; and here's Alan Seaburg's Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography entry about Barnum.
("When Barnum took Manhattan," John Strausbaugh, New York Times 11.9.07; "P.T. Barnum: The greatest faith on Earth," Hank Peirce, UU World Sept./Oct. 2002; "P.T. Barnum," Alan Seaburg, Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography)
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
This is really more of a technology update than anything else, but Beliefnet has launched a beta version of a new tool for its religious discussion forums. Here's the Unitarian Universalism forum; the old forums are here.
I've never particularly enjoyed the discussion-board format — although some of my earliest contributions to the Web linger on in Google's archive of soc.religion.unitarian-univ — and I launched a blog in part to escape them and the even more tedious email lists. Nevertheless, some people love 'em, and Beliefnet continues to introduce many people to Unitarian Universalism, so if part of your personal calling is to help newbies make sense of liberal religion, check out the new forum.
P.S. There are other UU-related discussion boards out there; please feel free to promote your favorites in the comments. (I apologize for blanking on their addresses at the moment.)
An announcement for Boston-area readers who share my interest in American cultural and religious history, related to a book I'm currently reading with great interest:
The editors of Harvard Divinity Bulletin cordially invite you to attend a talk by Philip Gura titled "A New History Of American Transcendentalism." This event will take place on Wednesday, November 14, at 5:15 pm on the HDS campus in the Sperry Room, Andover Hall, followed by a reception and book signing in the Braun Room. Gura is William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Carolina, and author of the new book American Transcendentalism (Hill and Wang).
Gura will also be making three other Boston-area appearances:
American Antiquarian Society
185 Salisbury Street
11/15/2007 2:00 PM
Old South Meeting House
310 Washington Street
11/16/2007 12:15 PM
65 Main Street
11/18/2007 2:00 PM
A Chicago-area high school principal suspended and threatened to expel two dozen students who took part in a protest against the Iraq war at school. The principal claims that the protesters were suspended for disruption, not for expressing their views — although the students say they moved the protest at the administration's request and police officers on the scene said the protest was peaceful and orderly. It gets better, though:
Parents also complained that deans, teachers and coaches singled out certain athletes and honor students and persuaded them to drop out of the protest.
Rita Maniotis, president of the school's parent-teacher organization, said the school called her husband to say that their daughter, Barbara, a junior, was participating in the protest and that he should come to get her. He did so, and she was suspended for five days. But other parents were not called and not able to intervene, Ms. Maniotis said. "There's no rhyme or reason to the punishment doled out," she said.
("Students call protest punishment too harsh," Crystal Yednak, New York Times 11.7.07)
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
For local readers, here's where I'm collecting information to make up my (last-minute) mind about Cambridge city council and school committee elections today.
Monday, November 5, 2007
In an excerpt from his new book on the religious politics of America's first five presidents — George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe — Forrest Church tells the story of a culture war most of us have forgotten: the thirty-year battle between the proponents of divine order and the proponents of sacred liberty that defined the separation of church and state. (I'll write more about Church's fascinating book later this week.) From the archives, Peg Duthie writes about the ironies of the ways we UUs claim historic figures in "Was Thomas Jefferson really one of us?"
In the news, Jane Greer reports on the October meeting of the UUA board of trustees, where trustees expressed concerns about security procedures at the 2008 General Assembly site. Don Skinner provides an update on UUs affected by the fires in southern California. And Sonja Cohen tracks this week's Unitarian Universalists in the media.
Saturday, November 3, 2007
The Winter 2007 issue of UU World is beginning to arrive in mailboxes, but you don't need to wait for your copy to arrive to start reading articles by Forrest Church, Kate Braestrup, Robert Fulghum, and others. Browse the issue online! (What? You don't have a subscription? Members of congregations affiliated with the UUA receive a subscription as a benefit of membership, but others can subscribe for only $14 a year.) Keep up with UU World's online-only news and extra features by signing up for a free weekly email newsletter, or take advantage of the magazine's RSS feeds.