Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Dowd on Original Sin

One especially interesting point that Michael Dowd makes in Thank God for Evolution is that the Genesis story of The Fall and Original Sin can be reframed in evolutionary terms. Lessons from Evolutionary Psychology can be applied to the basic questions that millennia ago led our ancestors to create the story of Adam, Eve, the Fruit and the Serpent.

What I'm about to say is a highly truncated summary, in my own words. It's worth it to see Dowd in the original to get it all.

The story of The Fall is an attempt to explain how and why we, as human beings, so often do things that we know aren't good or smart but can't seem to help doing to satisfy some sort of immediate gratification.

Drawing on a body of literature in Evolutionary Psychology, Dowd suggests that The Fall actually offers a useful allegory for the development of human brains from those of our pre-human ancestors. The oldest and most basic part of our brain, which dates back to reptiles and their predecessors, controls three basic instincts: to eat, to reproduce, and to defend ourselves. He calls this our Lizard Legacy. As the higher portions of our brains developed, along came such things as ethical codes that place limits on how we satisfy those instincts. Those are comparable, Dowd suggests, to the "Knowledge of Good and Evil" that is imparted when Adam and Eve eat of the Fruit.

(There's a lot more there, involving the other elements of the brain, but I'm boiling this down for space and time. Do check out the whole thing.)

I think this is some of the most valuable material in the book. I've read enough of the anti-evolution literature to understand that part of what drives its passion is the mistaken belief that equates acceptance of evolution with an "anything goes" kind of ethic. Dowd devotes a significant portion of his book to pointing out that while our "Lizard Legacy" plays an important part in protecting us, it also can lead us astray without mediation and discipline from our other brain functions. A thoughtful reader will see that this is not a prescription for "Anything goes" ethics -- far from it. And it's a good corrective to those of us Religious Liberals who may be too willing to see only humanity's basic goodness and sidestep our capacity for self-centeredness and immense evil.

Rasslin' Science & Religion

We pause in our discussions of Thank God for Evolution to send you over to this video at "Inner Light, Radiant Life".

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Michael Dowd's God (Updated)

Update: Readers are urged to see Dowd's own further clarification in the comments.

Tell me about the God you don't believe in. I probably don't believe in that God either.
~Attributed to various people, including the late Rev. Forrest Church,
Michael Dowd, and others...

In Thank God for Evolution, Michael Dowd tries to square the circle: reconciling Theists and Atheists without insisting that either prove their own or disprove the other position. (He even quotes Richard Dawkins extensively and, largely, favorably.)

He starts by offering a conception or definition of God that is arguably different from the common one of many Westerners, whether they believe in God or not. The standard God-concept is of an infinitely super, sort-of-humanoid being that, while found everywhere in the universe, is nonetheless something apart from the universe. This is the God of the bumpersticker "Worship the Creator, not the Creation".* It's also the God of the famous Atheist Bus Campaign.

Dowd's God is, instead, perhaps most easily understood as "the Universe-plus" -- the "plus" incorporating the ongoing creative force inherent in life and in evolution as well as a not completely definable something more that encompasses everything. It's fairly similar to Marcus Borg's "God we never knew" -- a conception to which Borg gave the name Panentheism (as distinct from "Pantheism," the notion that the universe is God). It's also akin to the Dynamic Deism that David Pyle discusses from time to time. (See especially his response to my questions about his views of Dowd.)

At one point Dowd pretty much directly equates his conception of God and Borg's Panentheism, but then suggests that the term Panentheism might best be replaced as it hasn't adequately caught on. He offers, instead, the term "Creatheism". And here he gets particularly clever -- and I can't quite decide whether I use that term sincerely or with a dash of mocking irony.

"Creatheism" can be pronounced two ways, he observes, and offers himself (a theist) and his wife and collaborator, Connie Barlow (an atheist), as examples: He is a Cre-uh-Theist; she is a Cre-Atheist. In essence (and this is my summary, not his), he looks at this marvelous, creative, evolving universe and conceptualizes the totality of it as participating and residing in God. She sees it as not-God.

It's an approach that will most quickly resonate with liberal Christians who are already on board with, or at least open to, Marcus Borg's thinking, although for some may find too little of the personal God in his conception that is core to their own belief systems.

Whether evangelicals can bridge the gap between their own historic belief systems and what Dowd offers is another question. Some clearly have, and Dowd, who was once one of them, writes in a way that is profoundly respectful of those historic belief systems in order to help more of them cross that bridge. His biggest challenge to them is to let go of literal interpretations of scripture and adopt metaphorical ones instead. He gets enormous credit, in my opinion, for acknowledging and validating the deeper existential needs that such people seek to satisfy with their scriptural interpretations, and offering ways in which his metaphorical gloss and science-based understanding of the universe can continue to respond to and honor those needs. One of his most inspired catch-phrases is this: "Facts are God's native tongue." (I will discuss his analysis of the Fall and Original Sin in evolutionary terms another time.)

But I suspect that for many his reframed theology is simply going to be dismissed as apostasy. On the flip side, I wonder if the most religion-hostile atheists will find this to be a sufficiently new and different vision of God from the one they (often understandably and rightfully) deride that they pay attention to it, or if they simply dismiss it as old wine in new bottles.

And I would love to be proven wrong on either of those pessimistic doubts.

*An aside: The link is pretty much a random one from a Google search. Interestingly, I found almost as many links from Islamic sources as conservative Christian ones when I did the search on the phrase.

Monday, December 28, 2009

"Thank God for Evolution"

Some months ago I started reading Michael Dowd's Thank God for Evolution. Didn't get very far, but that's not the book's fault; I'd been reading a series of books on theology and Christian history, and I just needed a break. I have picked it up again and I'm about halfway through it.

Dowd is probably familiar to many UUs. He's spoken at many of our churches; his wife and collaborator, Connie Barlow, is a UU herself. And he's been featured in UU World. I first heard of him when he spoke at my church about 5 years ago. He gave a great talk, and I admire the work he's doing.

A one-time Pentecostal who believed the Bible literally and later evolved his own thinking and theology, Dowd is now an "evangelist for evolution." His basic position is that a major obstacle, at least in our culture, to the acceptance of the indisputable evidence that science has produced about the age of the earth and how life and even the universe itself have evolved over time is that people long for and even need a mythopoeic (or mythopoetic, if you prefer)approach to information like this that touches so deeply our human identities. He's part of a group of writers, scientists, and others in the loose Epic of Evolution movement for such an approach to convey the science of evolution.

Evolution is a particular hobby horse of mine. As the son of an Anthropologist who grew up in a rural part of the country in which Bible Belt fundamentalism was quite pervasive, I got quite accustomed to arguing the topic with my schoolmates. I read in 8th Grade a terrific account of the Scopes Monkey Trial, written by the science fiction and science fact writer L. Sprague DeCamp; that led me to Irving Stone's biography of Clarence Darrow, who in my high school years, when I eagerly looked forward to becoming a lawyer, was my hero.

But I never had any difficulty in reconciling my acceptance of science and my belief in God. Certainly that wasn't an issue in the Episcopal church where I grew up. And I know there are millions and millions of Christians who feel the same. Indeed, as I've posted before, my experience of awe and wonder at the findings of science have in their own way reinforced my basically theistic worldview. (I recall sometime in my middle-school or teen years arguing the point with a fundamentalist friend, and making the analogy between God and evolution and the many changes in shape a ball of clay might take under our hands as we made a clay figure.)

It's worth noting that in the church in which I grew up, the notion of Jesus as "personal savior" was also not emphasized. Jesus as the Son of God, yes. Jesus as resurrected on Easter, yes. But the meaning of his crucifixion and resurrection were far, far more obscure and complex. "Redeemer" and "reconciliation" were favorite words. But when a new priest came to our parish when I was in, I think, 6th grade or so, he asked me about the popularity of "Jesus Saves" billboards, tracts and bumper stickers -- and in such a way that it was very clear to me he was a bit scornful of the theology they reflected.

By contrast, the fundamentalists around me had a very clear, concise understanding, embedded in that "Jesus Saves" message: Jesus died as the punishment for our sins--but we had to accept that death on our behalf, or we'd get the punishment we deserved, eternity in hell, when we died. That's why, to them, it was so critical to "accept Jesus as your personal Savior."

I don't know when it happened, but sometime over the last 10 or 15 years, a penny dropped for me about why the fundamentalists were so invested in the literal interpretation of the Creation Story: Because it was the fundamental underpinning of the Jesus Saves theology, or, to use the bigger word I've been using these days, Subtitutionary Atonement. Their understanding/definition of Jesus's mission was rooted in the literal Fall, the literal Original Sin of Adam and Eve. Take away that story literally, and it pulls the rug out from under the whole Jesus Saves/Substitutionary Atonement theology.

I recall making that point to Dowd during a talk-back when he visited my church, and I remember he, while taking note of the point, seemed not to think it was that big a deal. And reading his book, I now understand why -- and I see his point.

Among Dowd's goals is to reach out to the fundamentalist and evangelical communities and help them accept the science by reframing the old literal doctrines as meaningful metaphors -- rather than simply rejecting them as silly superstition. Indeed, he's attempted to make this book accessible to Atheists and Evangelicals alike. The details of his approach and argument I'll save for another time. But it's a fascinating and even audacious endeavor, and given his background, if anyone can do it he might be the person.

Thank God for Evolution is a sprawling book, and tries to do many things, perhaps too many. It is part popular science book, part popular theology book, and even part self-help manual, all wrapped up in a polemic on behalf of pluralism, diversity, the environment and science itself. At times the earnestness with which he writes can become a bit much, but I suspect that is for an audience for whom that earnest voice is critical to reach.

I'm looking forward to the rest of it.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Season's Greetings...

Yes, it is Christmas. And at my church this evening, we will also make (belated) note of the Summer Winter Solstice (3 days late) and of Hanukkah, which ended a week ago.

But it's another special day as well: the 102nd birthday of the late I.F. Stone.

From his Wikipedia entry:
In the 1930s and 40s Stone had been a mainstream journalist, appearing on Meet the Press (then a radio show); in 1950 he found himself blacklisted and unable to get work. In 1953, inspired by the example of the muckraking journalist George Seldes and his political weekly, In Fact, Stone decided to start his own independent newsletter, I. F. Stone's Weekly. Over the next few years, Stone's newsletter campaigned against McCarthyism and racial discrimination in the United States.

In 1964, using evidence drawn from a close reading and analysis of published accounts, Stone was the only American journalist to challenge President Johnson's account of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. During the 1960s, Stone continued to criticize the Vietnam War. At its peak in the 1960s, the Weekly had a circulation of about 70,000, yet it was regarded as very influential.

Hundreds of articles originally published in the Weekly were later republished in The I.F. Stone's Weekly Reader (1973), and in three volumes of a six-volume compendium of Stone's writings called A Noncomformist History of Our Times (1989).

Happy Birthday, Mr. Stone...

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Drawing a circle to take him in

My post yesterday was going to be the last thing I wrote on the Keillor matter, and then I saw this article by Fred Small.

I've been an even bigger fan of Fred Small than of Garrison Keillor for 25 years. For those who don't know, Fred is a singer/songwriter in the folk/social commentary tradition. His music is filled with subtle and catchy melodies and his lyrics touch my heart, make me laugh, make me weep. He was -- is -- in my not-so-humble opinion a worthy heir to the tradition of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton. I was thrilled 14 years ago to interview him for a newspaper story. And then I learned of his career change: attending Harvard Divinity School to become a UU minister, and while I was sorry to see him leave the music circuit was very happy for our religious movement to have such a gifted person join our clergy.

But not until this moment did I realize that he was now the minister of the same church where reading a slightly altered "Silent Night" in the hymnal set off Keillor's ill-tempered screed last week. I am so pleased that he has now spoken up and given a firm, gentle, even-tempered and generous -- more generous than I could be right now -- reply to that same screed.

Fred, I hope Mr. Keillor takes you up on his offer. And Merry Christmas to you both.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

And just in time for the Christmas Eve meltdown...

The closet Christian

That's what Ada Calhoun, writing at Salon, calls herself. (Thanks to DairyStateMom for the link.)

Retitled and updated: A personal epiphany

This was originally called "An American in China reflects on Keillor's 'buzz off.' It's grown and changed direction some.

Like a rubbernecker turning around on the highway to go back and stare at the car wreck, I've been monitoring Internet reaction to that GK column, in the blog-UU-sphere but also beyond. I won't post everything I see, but this at resonates especially with me, perhaps because of the 3 weeks I spent in China 7 years ago.

And now, the update:

Some more stuff up today; here is one. And here or two more very strong responses, one responding to Keillor and the other inspired both by Keillor and by a Slate commentator who made a passing diss at UUs.

Which brings me to my 'aha' moment: As one who has for years laughed jokes at the expense of Unitarian Universalism, my spiritual community, I am becoming increasingly embarrassed by my own tolerance of same. Reading this as well as this (the relevant passage begins 8 paragraphs from the end) from Rev. Thom really brought that home for me. And in an indirect way, so did reading this.

It's just hitting me: I still think they can both be very funny men, but on the subject of faith, Bill Maher and Garrison Keillor are two sides of a tarnished coin. I have never liked Bill Maher's cheap shots at Christianity and at religion in general--even at religious beliefs that I find impossible to accept.

The least I can do is to show as much respect toward my own.

Confidential to Chalicechick: At least when it comes to Keillor's jokes about us, you were right all along.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Teach your children well

It was this morning at church, our annual service of Christmas choir music and stories. The minister was about to launch into the children's story, and began by relating various Christmas carol typographical errors that had appeared over the years in church bulletins. He would read the line as written and ask what the line was really supposed to be. The first was "Joy to the Earth, the Savior Resigns..." Of course, these kids were too young to see "reigns" in the "resigns." The adults chuckled.

Then came the next one: "Peace on Earth, Good Will to Me."

"So, what do you think that line was supposed to be?" he asked.

The kids didn't miss a beat--at either service.

"Good will to all!" one piped up.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The last thing I'm going to write on that GK column... least until I write something else.

In the end, I do find the whole Keillor episode a little baffling.

A Talking Points Memo commenter insists it is just satire. Certainly, in the face of things like this, satire would seem all too easy -- and tempting.

But if satire was the intent, it's no Modest Proposal. Instead, a lot of people have missed the point. Including me.

I really did -- and until this evening was still inclined to -- believe that the infamous gay marriage column was satirical. (More on that in a moment.) And yes, I've read Dan Savage's response to Keillor's subsequent apology on that one. I frankly just see saw it differently. But the Christmas column, not so much.

And clearly not so much with other commenters around the Internet.

If Keillor's Christmas column was intended as satire, it fails -- and the gay-marriage-column episode should have been a lesson to him on the perils of the form for his audience.

It fails because, in the end, too many people miss the point. Not just us touchy Unitarians, but Jews as well.

Worse yet, if it was satire, a number of people who have responded in the comments section at Salon, the Chicago Tribune and the Baltimore Sun to roundly endorse his screed never got the memo, either.

And then DairyStateMom and I got to talking this evening, and she offered the opinion that she wasn't so sure the aforementioned gay marriage column was satirical, either. Since I take what she says seriously, I'm having to rethink that, too.

Up to now I've enjoyed his jokes on UUs. He makes fun of Lutherans and Catholics, too, after all. So the jokes about us simply made me feel part of the club. Until this current controversy I had been ignorant of the amount of distaste for him in some UU circles.

Now I'm starting to wonder if I'm just some sort of self-hating UU for laughing.

~DSD, who has long admired that famous Swiftian satire and was beside himself some years ago teaching a night-school college class of students who thought Swift was serious.

Another country heard from

Is it just a coincidence? In the wake of the Keillor flap (and especially his seemingly anti-Semitic throwaway line) this New York Times commentary from the singer Michael Feinstein couldn't have been more timely.

(Thanks to DSM for bringing it to my attention.)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

I'm a huge fan of Garrison Keillor...(updated)

...and I even love it when he pokes fun at us UUs. DSM and I were in the audience the first Saturday in October when they did the skit about the UU-Baptist football game and I laughed as loud as anyone.

But he gets it wrong sometimes. And that's why I'm also all for this plan.

Chalicechick has a lively debate going on the same subject and is much tougher on Keillor than I am. DespiteBecause of our different points of view on his other stuff (especially the infamous gay marriage column from a year or so ago), what she has to say is worth reading.

And for a particularly wry response, don't miss Jess, either.

Further update:

A lot more responses have surfaced in the blog-UU-sphere. Thanks especially to Paul Oakley for his convenient feed shortcut that allows one-stop shopping on the topic!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Media craziness: A case study (updated)

I heard about this story yesterday and at first blush was inclined to take it at face value.

An 8-year-old Massachusetts boy was sent home from school and ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation after he was asked to make a Christmas drawing and sketched what appeared to be a stick figure of Jesus on a cross, the child's father said Tuesday.

I thought about blogging about it or more likely sending it to Lenore Skenazy at Free Range Kids because, although it wasn't directly about child safety overkill, it seemed to be about hysterical school district administrators, a frequent sub-theme of her work. So this morning I was looking for more information and came upon this...
School officials in Taunton, Mass., say the local newspaper -- which first reported the news -- and other outlets got the story all wrong.
...and this:
But school officials say that the account in yesterday’s Taunton Daily Gazette was rife with errors and that the father’s description of what happened is untrue.
Now both of these change the story significantly. Of course, perhaps the school district is shading the truth to protect a bad policy decision. Yet many of the comments on the NPR blog item Boston Globe story AP story simply miss the point and assume the original narrative ("Kid suspended for picture of Christ crucified!") is still the correct one.

To be sure, the boy's father is standing by his story, and it's clear that the newspaper that originally reported it isn't backing off from its understanding of events.

Yet, curiously, the Boston Globe story this morning reports:
After reading the account in the local paper, Mayor Charles Crowley of Taunton asked Hackett to apologize to the boy’s parents. But in a telephone interview late yesterday, he said he stands by the superintendent.

“Dr. Hackett has far more of the facts than I do, and now I understand that the report was not accurate,’’ he said. “Based on her account, I stand behind my superintendent. She is in possession of the facts.’’
Meanwhile, the Taunton paper posted at just after midnight (probably about the same time as the Globe story went to press) its own account in which the mayor is still demanding an apology.

With everyone on the defensive, it seems unlikely that anyone will back off of his or her position now, regardless of what "really" did or didn't happen.

And this happens all the time in the news. All the time. Think about "Balloon Boy" -- the original narrative of that was "kid is likely in terrible jeopardy," and all the TV networks were riveted to it, remember? Not surprisingly a commenter at the Taunton Gazetteweb site--skeptical about the original Jesus-picture story--makes a direct comparison to that case. Then there was the big Time magazine story about the teen moms (also in New England) who supposedly had a pact to all get pregnant--a story that appears to have evaporated as well. Or not. (Probably the most evenhanded summary is here. But Google the words: Time magazine story on "pregnancy pact" and you'll quickly see how the story became fodder for all kinds of ideologically based reaction.)

No one's hands are clean here. Not the news organization that run with sensational stories and decide their jobs are done when key figures don't comment. (In the Taunton case, the stonewalling was due, almost certainly, to the fact school officials are bound by state confidentiality laws.) Not the officials themselves, who unfortunately have to remember the real world they operate in includes media like these ones. (Comments at the Taunton paper web site suggest the publication has some credibility problems with readers; could that have influenced the superintendent to stonewall, too? If so, another bad call.) And news consumers need to look in the mirror, too.

Somewhere down the road, perhaps there will be a follow-up case study.

Or maybe just a TV movie.


I don't promise to keep updating this story, but today's edition of the Gazette indicates the story probably won't die soon.

The paper also has this report on a school board meeting at which the issue arose.

What's noteworthy to me is this: In the text of the story, it says the superintendent
"also refuted “another false [media] report” that Taunton Mayor Charles Crowley wanted Hackett to apologize to the community and the family over the incident. “This is not the case,” she said... A call to Crowley was not immediately returned Wednesday night."

I spent a few minutes just now trying to see if I could find a written version of the superintendent's statement so we could find out what word (if any) was replaced with the bracketed word "media". One possibility is that it's simply an insertion, felt necessary by the newspaper to explain "report". But the paper is silent on the fact that it alone seems to have generated the story of the supposed mayoral demand for an apology.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Clearing the Smog

I've written before about the need for a journalism that succinctly makes sense of the world in a way that is broadly accessible and offers real insight, something too often missing in current forms of the craft, whether arcane, inside-baseball political and policy coverage [either in the mainstream press or on intelligent but highly technical and narrowly focused blogs], the superficiality of celebrity coverage, or the polarized lands of the blogosphere, cable TV or talk radio.

Here's one example of what I'd like to see.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Faith of my Father

"Dad, what's that?"

DairyStateKid#2 and I were headed out the door at way-too-early into way-too-cold this morning, getting him to his bus stop. I was still in pajamas and bathrobe, with boots and winter parka and hat and gloves to keep me warm.

"I'll explain in the car."

"That" is this:

Some 28 38 years ago, upon graduation from college with a degree in Anthropology, my sister won a prize, a small grant that would enable her to travel to a former English colony in Africa. Her husband, a wonderful amateur guitarist and folk music enthusiast, went with her of course. At the encouragement of our father (also an Anthropologist), she chose The Gambia, a tiny West African nation that is surrounded by the former French colony of Senegal. (About a year earlier I had been fortunate enough to go to both countries on a trip with my parents.)

In the Gambia my sister and brother-in-law wound up apprenticed for a year to a kora musician and praise singer who was Muslim.

It is the custom, at least among this particular group of Muslims, to write sayings from the Qur'an on a wooden tablet, then to wash the ink into a bottle. The bottle of inky water would then be worn on one's person as a sort of talisman.

Aware of a particular saying from the Qur'an, my father, through my sister, commissioned their host to make several such tablets--but not to wash off the ink (a request that, my sister later reported, their host found quite puzzling). Everyone in our family got one of these, and when my first marriage ended several years ago, I left mine behind, designating it as belonging to DairyStateKid#1. My mother kindly got me a second one, which, now that I think if it, has been designated as belonging to DSK#2.

My father--we can call him LoneStarStateDad--had grown up attending an Episcopalian church, but when I was growing up he only attended on Christmas Eve and, perhaps, once in a while on Easter. (And when I was confirmed.) His real God was the God of the natural world, and his worship was simply to live in and learn about it as much as he could. But, owing to his personality or perhaps his choice of academic discipline or, more likely, some combination of both, I found him to be a strong influence for pluralism.*  Indeed, when I converted to Unitarian Universalism (and I accept that term for the process even if some don't), I was in some ways coming home to the inchoate faith of my father.

This is the translation of the verse on that tablet, typed out on my father's old typewriter, nearly 3 4 decades ago:

*This is not to take anything away from my mother, EmpireStateMom, who herself is an open and pluralistic person on matters of religion.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Exclusive? Or Universal?

ChaliceChick's LinguistFriend offers a very close reading, based on the translation of the original Greek, of the words commonly rendered as "Peace on Earth and Goodwill To Men" in Luke's Nativity story, and points out that a more accurate reading of the words suggests that "peace is considered to be limited to those who participate in the covenant with God." This is the sort of exclusivist reading that liberal Christians and UUs reject, preferring a much more expansive interpretation. Indeed, such a reading would seem to give some degree of support to Fundamentalist interpretations that suggest salvation really is only for an elect few.

LF suggests it's important for UU "orientation" to include "reconsideration of aspects of historical Christianity and Christian texts."

But, as I commented at the Chaliceblog, the reading is challenging to many more people than UUs or other religious liberals. Serious progressive Christians--that is, serious about their progressivism but also serious about their Christianity--are also likely to find it challenging.

At DairyStateMom's church the overriding message about God and Jesus is that of a boundless and extravagant love from God to humanity, in the person of Jesus. This is not a church, notwithstanding its Calvinist roots, that especially emphasizes the Fundamentalist's Jesus as the atonement for Adam's sin or the only protection from eternal hell. But it is a church that is very serious about its Christian identity.

And the exclusivity reflected in the translation LF cites is certainly is not what that church embraces. I, for one, am quite curious how they and like-minded liberal and open-minded Christians view this.

My answers to a couple of the Pew Survey questions

In the Pew survey discussed in the immediately preceding post, I fit in the 35% who attend religious services in more than one place. Strictly speaking, I suppose, I'm even in the 24% attending services of more than one faith, depending on how far down the road one wants to go in debating whether UUism remains at the far left wing of Christianity or is now essentially non-Christian. (I'll just say that my UU church, which before the merger was a Universalist church, has a stained glass window of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, that is at least as big as any in DairyStateMom's lovely Presbyterian church!)

I would also be among the 49% who had "a religious or mystical experience," but I'm using the term very broadly, which the pollsters appear to do as well.

My own was in its own way very mundane. It was in my college years, riding a bus one summer morning from the campus down to the big city 2 hours away, perhaps on my way to mid-term break or something like that. I had read Alan Watts' The Book, which seeks to interpret Hindu conceptions of God for a Western audience. It is there that Watts introduces the metaphor of the Universe as "God playing hide and seek with God." That particular summer semester, if I remember correctly, I was taking both Astronomy and Botany, fulfilling my science requirements for a liberal arts degree. Now on this bus ride I was reflecting on the twin marvels of both: Astronomy's revelation of how huge the universe is, Botony's of how tiny and complex some of its components are. For me, in that moment the idea crystallized that there is something larger still, some greater coherence that could be called God and yet is beyond words--and that also had little to do with any one particular religious doctrine.

Now this moment didn't send me back to the Episcopal church that I'd pretty much left behind a few years before as a college freshman. And it didn't send me hunting for other religious communities -- it occurred at least 3 or 4 years before I entered my first UU church. What it mostly did was settle, for me, a nagging question about the nature of reality, at least as best as I was capable of doing.

Incidentally, about that UU church that I first attended 3 or 4 years after college: Here's the very first thing I saw, and it completely sold me on the place--the lovely "Rhenberg window":

It's what drew me into Unitarian Universalism, and remains my most important talisman in this faith.

Another sign of UU cultural hegemony

There's a new poll out from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life that documents the religious eclecticism of Americans.

There's much to dive into here--far more than I can get to in one post right now.

But to start with, it's one more example of how the pluralistic values at the heart of Unitarian Universalism are mirrored in the wider culture far beyond our own tiny numbers.

To be sure, there's also a much larger discussion to which this can give rise, about the tension within religion between being a cultural force and a counter-cultural one. I may try to post some thoughts about that later, too.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Completely frivolous posting

In which DairyStateDad shamelessly seeks vicarious glory by hitching a ride on another great contest by Lenore Skenazy.

'Cos we saw how successful trying to get a discussion going was.

Data Smog

Data Smog is the name of a 12-year-old book (I haven't read it, yet) about the rapid proliferation of information on the Internet making it increasingly impossible to tell fact from fiction.

It is by now an old and widely perceived problem, but recent events -- getting to the bottom of the real story about the meaning of the hacked Climate Change e-mails; accurately understanding what to make of Sarah Palin, her book, and the facts and myths of her political life; separating, likewise, the myths, facts, hopes and fears behind the current health insurance reform legislation -- just underscore its nature.

It's not uncommon to hear media critics, especially bloggers, complain about the way the media "filter" the news, yet with so much of blogging devoted to opinions and interpretations of isolated news nuggets through a particular ideological lens, the degree of "filtering" is even greater in the blogosphere. Again, not an especially original notion.

And I'll add that I know that the media do display all kinds of bias, subtle and not so, where ideology, class, and other factors of point-of-view are concerned.


New-media triumphalists dismiss the diminution of leading journals and passing of once-revered journalists as a good thing, urging us all to read more widely and "make up our own minds" about the news of the day. Increasingly, though, I find such prescriptions facile and naive.

Who's got the time?

I suspect that among the media models yet to emerge will be one that is highly digested, comprehensive but succinct, well researched enough to persuade readers it knows what it's talking about, and thus brave enough to tell us right out what is important, what isn't, and what's absolutely irrelevant drivel. But, of course, anyone who disagrees with its conclusions will just write it off as biased, cranky, or both.

And whether it will gain enough readers to provide the necessary revenue to sustain it is an open question.

PS: I was gonna do all kinds of snazzy, awesome links up in that second graf to make this whole post look that much more hip and Internetty, but I'm just too damn busy.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Faith-based groups and health insurance reform

Catholic forces have been blamed for threatening to throw health care (or at least health insurance) reform under the bus in the name of stopping abortion. Yet other Catholic forces, allied with other faith groups, are trying to turn up the heat on insurance companies to help promote health care reform.


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Fish in a barrel, No. 1

Mathew Staver, dean of Liberty University's law school in Lynchburg, Va., finds a holiday season bus ad campaign that denies god "insensitive and mean." This about an ad with the benign tagline of "Be good for goodness' sake."

I'm sorry, but I can't muster up any sympathy for someone who is part of a religious community that tells me, and the rest of the world, that we will burn in hell for eternity for not accepting their particular definition of who Jesus was and what his purpose was on Earth.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Rebutting the "War on Christmas" meme

We went to DairyStateMom's church yesterday, which I always find bracing. For the First Sunday in Advent, the senior pastor introduced what will be a series of sermons on the 4 canticles that punctuate Luke's narrative of the birth of Jesus.

She also took time to admonish (in a gentle and humorous but nonetheless firm manner that is her hallmark) those in the congregation who wanted Christmas carols in the liturgy before December 24. And in the same vein, she addressed the overweaning commercialism that surrounds the holiday, and made the cogent point that Christmas is not found in those commercial venues, but in the church.

Which strikes me as the ultimate rebuttal to the phony claims of a "war on Christmas." As The Rev. John Buchanan at 4th Presbyterian in Chicago said in a sermon some years ago (and I'm liberally paraphrasing), the commercial adoption of "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings," besides being sensitive to the multicultural and multi-faith world we live in, renders to God the things that are God's: Intentionally or not, it respects the religious dimension of Christmas by not trying to appropriate it.

Update: The Rev. Victoria Weinstein, a/k/a PeaceBang, preached on Christmas commercialism this weekend, too. I like what she had to say.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

More like this, please

In the New York Times of November 23: Three Clergymen, Three Faiths, One Friendship

What distinguishes the “amigos,” who live in Seattle but make presentations around the country, is a unique approach to what they call “the spirituality of interfaith relations.” At the church in Nashville, the three clergymen, dressed in dark blazers, stood up one by one and declared what they most valued as the core teachings of their tradition The minister said “unconditional love.” The sheik said “compassion.” And the rabbi said “oneness.”

The room then grew quiet as each stood and recited what he regarded as the “untruths” in his own faith. The minister said that one “untruth” for him was that “Christianity is the only way to God.” The rabbi said for him it was the notion of Jews as “the chosen people.” And the sheik said for him it was the “sword verses” in the Koran, like “kill the unbeliever.”

h/t to DairyStateMom for the link.

And Happy Thanksgiving to all

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Prayer Cards online

Broad Street Ministry is a Presbyterian-connected, progressively oriented, alternative church community in Philadelphia. I recently learned of it tangential to an article I'm working on.

At the community's weekly bible study, participants can submit prayer cards that are read as part of the service. Then they are posted online with identifying information redacted so that the world can participate in praying with the supplicants. To read it is a moving experience, cracking open the heart to see inside the lives and faiths of a diverse group of people.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Santa stories

This blog post at Free Range Kids, and the comments it generated, reminded me of a few largely-unrelated-to-each-other Santa Claus tales, offered here in no particular order.

1. About 20 years ago I had a boss (younger than I was, even then) who was an Evangelical Christian. Three details that I recall in particular. One, as a young father, he and his wife had occasion to take his child one Sunday to be christened. What I remember specifically is they didn't call it baptism, but a "dedication" -- which was intriguing to me, because, of course, that's what we UU's typically call it. (I was myself not yet a father, but had already witnessed several beautiful dedication ceremonies at my UU church.) Now I knew better than to assume he was "just like me" because of that -- I fairly quickly inferred that his non-denominational church was a practitioner of adult baptism, as is common among many Evangelicals. Still I was intrigued by the commonality, however superficial. A second detail was his disapproval of Halloween as a holiday -- something I had not at that point come across among Evangelicals. But the third detail (and really the point here) is that he and his wife made a point of not telling their children about Santa Claus. His reasoning actually made sense to me. He felt that telling kids about a mythical supernatural being, knowing that sooner or later they would learn the truth of its non-existence, would simply set them up to lose faith in God in a similar fashion later. By not pretending in the existence in Santa, he felt, they were not creating the sort of cognitive dissonance or breach of trust between child and parent that could prompt later skepticism in the existence of God.

2. In a somewhat similar vein, I had a high school English teacher who also wouldn't tell his children about Santa. He had a very different reason, however. He described growing up in relative poverty. When he was in 8th Grade (I'm pretty certain about this detail), his family got for Christmas an expensive television. He was absolutely certain that there was no way his family could have afforded that, so his only explanation, even at that late age in his life, was that it was from Santa and that Santa, therefore, was real. Eventually he learned the truth (and just how they were able to get this expensive TV, I don't think he ever told us); he was so ashamed at his credulity that he decided it was wrong to perpetuate the Santa myth with his own kids, and so he didn't.

3. And now to the story I thought of first when I read the FRK post. Some years ago, my church had an intern minister. One Sunday in early December she preached a sermon in which she made direct reference to the shedding of the Santa myth. It was mostly in passing, in the service of a larger point that, quite frankly, I've forgotten. Fast forward to the end of the service. Out in the vestibule, as people are getting ready to leave, I see friends consoling one of their children, who might have been as old as a 4th grader at the time. He was sobbing. Later, I learned why: he had skipped Sunday school that morning and sat upstairs with his parents -- and not until he heard the sermon did he realize that Santa was, indeed, an imaginary being. To say that he was completely flummoxed by the experience is an understatement. (I believe that the intern who had been inadvertently responsible for his disillusionment was taking part in the effort to console him.) Now, I want to point out that the parents involved did not hold it against the intern minister in the least for having accidentally shattered the myth (nor, I think, would I have, nor did anyone that I know of). But, more to the point, they acknowledged that they didn't even realize that their son still believed it literally at that age.

I do have a fond, wistful recollection of when DairyStateKid#1 first figured out that Santa might not be real (at about the age of 7 or so), and diffidently brought that up with his mother* and me. It was a very sweet moment. If I remember rightly, he actually expressed a bit of sadness about it all and decided to willfully believe a little longer because of that, even though he knew "the truth." DSK#2, meanwhile, I think pretended to believe to a much older age, and we all dutifully played along. I see no big problem in the Santa myth myself, obviously. I suppose if I wanted to rationalize it intellectually I'd say something like, well, it is an opportunity to help teach about how myths and stories come about, represent deeper truths, or blah blah blah. But mostly, it's just harmless fun, as far as I'm concerned.

Besides, I always rather liked what a friend used to tell his kids about believing in Santa: "You know what happens when kids stop believing in Santa? Their parents have to buy them presents!"

*not DairyStateMom, for regular readers...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

On hate crimes, comic strips, and offending the reader

For most of my life, I probably was a reflexive supporter of the notion of prosecuting certain acts as "hate crimes" and of extending the umbrella of hate crime legislation to protect more and more marginalized groups.

Over the years, I've come to conclude that the attempt to define and prosecute hate crimes is misguided. I says this somewhat reluctantly, because I do believe the desire to recognize and prosecute hate crimes comes from a basically honorable motivation.

The blogger Andrew Sullivan first got me thinking about this differently (the link is to a representative comment by him on the subject), and just recently Paul Oakley's take on the issue was for me compelling enough to clarify my own thinking once and for all.

Now comes word that, in response to pickets, the paper Newsday is apologizing for, and wishing it hadn't published, a cartoon mocking the notion of hate crimes.

The timing, I'll admit, was unfortunate. Just a week before the cartoon ran was the one-year anniversary of the death of an Ecuadorean immigrant at the hands of teenagers who stabbed him to death. And the paper's coverage of immigration issues became a lightning rod for protesters. I'm unable to judge the paper on that specific subject, but I do know that Newsday has a long and basically good reputation for serious community and investigative journalism, although its ownership has changed recently.

But the fact is, the cartoon in question (an episode of Mallard Fillmore) makes a point, although perhaps not as deftly as one would want. And I say this as a non-fan of Mallard Fillmore who was quite happy when one of our local papers dropped the strip a few years ago.

The strip (description courtesy of Richard Prince, quoting a Newsday report on the controversy)
depicted a larger dinosaur chasing a small one. The bigger one says, 'I'm not chasing you because you're a pachycephalosaurus. . . . I'm chasing you because you're delicious.' The smaller dinosaur responds, 'Oh, thank goodness. I was worried that this might be a hate crime.'

Dead is dead. Beaten is beaten. Maimed is maimed. Raped is raped. Doesn't it make sense to punish people based on the consequences of their actions, rather than the thoughts in their heads? If a mugger kills me for my wallet, or kills my friend because he's gay, does the reason for the killing really warrant a different kind of sentence?

Now I'm not against labeling an act, where appropriate, as a hate crime--but I see that basically as a sociological exercise. I just have trouble seeing how that's relevant from the strict standpoint of criminal justice.

One other thing disturbs me about the Newsday episode.

"We expect the cartoons we publish, many of which are nationally syndicated, to amuse, stir and entertain, but never to offend," a spokewoman for the newspaper said in a statement.

Hmmm... Regardless of my own opinion on hate crimes -- is never to offend really the standard that the paper expects to reach? That seems to set the bar so high that all that would pass is pablum.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Rewriting nursery rhymes

Lenore Skenazy, author of "Free Range Kids" and proprietor of the blog of the same name, runs a weekly humorous contest in The Week. Her two careers converged recently when she
"was fed up with that pre-school TV show in England that had tinkered with the ending of Humpty Dumpty [and] changed the ending to, “All the kings horses and all the kings men/Made Humpty happy again.”
The result: A contest asking readers "to come up with another nursery rhyme with a new ending suited for today’s supersensitive, easily traumatized kids."

Monday, November 9, 2009

Profit in paranoia

Parents are perhaps more frightened for their children than in any generation in memory--to the point of irrationality. Why? Media sensationalism and a collapse of critical thinking play a role. But as Deep Throat told Woodward, Follow the Money: There's profit in paranoia. My friend Lenore Skenazy is a voice for sanity.

If you read nothing else about the Fort Hood tragedy... this.

Money quote:
Nothing excuses what Major Hasan did. Nothing. And, we cannot allow those who peddle hatred and fear to distract us from looking at the full complexity of why this terrible tragedy happened. If we do not look deeply into what drove him to kill so many people, if we allow ourselves to be distracted by what is on the surface, then we have not lived up to the price that has already been paid.

But really, read the whole thing.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Introductions to Unitarian Universalism

A friend who is "an agnostic or atheist" but looking for a spiritual connection has decided to look into a local Unitarian Universalist church "because anything else would seem like a fraud." She asks for suggestions on which of the many books about Unitarian Universalism might give her some further introduction and insight. Of course I've suggested "A Chosen Faith" by Buehrens and Church, but I thought I'd ask my 2-1/2 readers and any passers by if they have suggestions as well. What book/s would you recommend to someone who would like to learn more about this faith? Post in the comments, please.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sad about Maine

We had had a glimmer of hope that the people of Maine might, indeed, become the first state to ratify marriage equality at the ballot box. It was not to be.

I do have faith, though, that somewhere, sooner or later, it will happen.

Where we live, our fellow residents fairly soundly passed a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage three years ago.

Since then, though, we've been seeing billboards like these pop up around the area.

They touch me every time I see them.

And I think that's what it's going to take: More and more people finding out that people who live near them and interact in their lives just happen to be gay. Over time, I hope they'll come to see that the rights and privileges all of us get who are fortunate enough to be able to marry the partner of our dreams belong to those whose partners, and dreams, are different from their own.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Twice-a-year Churchgoers: Guest post from DairyStateMom

PeaceBang, on hiatus from her regular blog, has been scratching her blogging itch on FaceBook. One post there yesterday particularly struck DairyStateMom (who was the original PeaceBang reader and fan in our house). She responded briefly at FB, and then we talked about it some last night and this morning.

A later comment from PB
I always make a heartfelt invitation on Christmas Eve for people to join us at other times. And I really do feel it. I also feel for the people whose lives are obviously so harried that they yearn for community but honestly don't know how to go about becoming part of one. But I am just SO TIRED of meeting people at various events who seem to take some pride in informing me why they don't go to church (they're too enlightened, etc.) but "we love what you do at Christmas - it's so pretty." Someday I'm just going to speak my mind to them.
(emphasis added) helped us understand her original comment more sympathetically, but DSM felt moved to articulate her reaction to the overall thread, and I am posting her thoughts here:

First, let me be really clear: I’m COMPLETELY sympathetic with the emotions PB is expressing in her later posts, which gave a much friendlier picture of where she was coming from than her original (as she admitted “not very nice”) remark.

It’s just awful when another is eager to criticize one’s own hard work or one’s community, particularly when they’re equally eager to be morally or intellectually superior to oneself. (“I don’t come to church regularly because I’m just too rigorous a thinker for any such community.” Oh, please. Let me slap your head; perhaps you won’t be quite so rigorous then.). And I can’t help thinking that PB is probably much kinder when she meets and talks with these folks than her initial FB remarks were.

Further, it seems to me that good manners for the visitor suggest that timing, as always, is everything. Standing in the post-Christmas service greeting line with a hundred other people behind you is probably not the best moment in the world to tell a minister that you felt really annoyed when he said X or Y or Z in the sermon. Visitor: if you want your words taken seriously, why not ask for a little of the minister’s appointment time in a week or so, when things have calmed down a little bit?

All that said, let me make a case for the need (or anyway the inevitability) of such visitors, and the corresponding need to treat them in an welcoming a fashion as possible, despite their high annoyance factor. (Or as annoying and difficult people were called in at least one congregation I belonged to in the past, the EGRs, for Extra Grace Required.)

It seems to me as a thoughtful (I hope!!) churchgoer that clerics almost constantly struggle with a certain tension.

First, they are called to create a community, which needs to include some amount of challenge and risk for its members, or it winds up in a much-too-comfortable place that helps no one’s spiritual growth.

Simultaneously, they are called to welcome the stranger, who may not now or ever be ready for the challenges of a community, or at least not the one the minister serves right then.

Could anything be tougher?! On the one hand, one can take for granted that one’s audience understands certain conventions, gets the inside joke, will have heard the echo of last month’s series of sermons in today’s sermon, and so forth. On the other hand, none of those things are true. Pace Charlie Brown, AUGH!

And yet.

Dizzy Dean, when asked by his play-by-play man to praise an outfielder for a spectacular catch, said “That’s his job!” And so it is here. It’s the job of the minister to be the spur to her own community while maintaining a sense of welcome and tolerance for the new and grumpy and annoying. It’s the job of the minister to meet people where they are, wherever that happens to be.

All visitors, but especially the C&Es (Christmas & Easters, or Santa-Bunnies, if you will), bring fresh eyes to a church’s service, and if all people are God’s children (or are inherently worthy and dignified), then surely even the most annoying visitor has special eyes with which to see what others might not. Any fresh perspective -- even from someone who’s only too eager to tell you where you screwed up -- is helpful.

And may a non-UU gently point out that UUs pride themselves -- rightfully so! -- on meeting all people where they are in their journey? How better to do that than to be much gentler than people might rightly expect or imagine. How much more necessary when one remembers that some people come to UU churches having been deeply wounded by experiences in another denomination. Such experiences might well include having their own perspective dissed or ignored; so again, what a great opportunity to show them how blissfully different this church is.

Annoying people are also another branch of diversity. Diversity in congregations is taken as A Good Thing. But why?

Because the more different kinds of people who are there means that there is at least the potential for more points of view, more ways of thinking, more ways of expressing, more ways of living, more ways of loving.

Because then each of us sees clearly that Our Way Is Not The Only Way.

Because then all of us have more chances to hear God's voice among all those voices, because we never know in whose mouth God will put the words that we need to hear just then.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Mainline Christians vs. Biblical Literalists

 Chalicechick ponders the shared literalism of atheist Christopher Hitches and evangelical pastor Douglas Wilson and wonders why Wilson is so moored to a literal understanding of Jesus. Go read the whole post, then come back for my thoughts, which expand on a comment I've left there.

[*humming to myself*]

Ok, glad to see you back.

CC gets to my biggest beef with the New Atheists: that they tend to be as literalist about the Bible as the fundamentalists/conservative evangelicals. Then they either impute that literalism to liberal and mainline Christians -- or else (as Sam Harris does) castigate the mainliners for not speaking out more strongly against the fundamentalists.

But if anyone is going to speak up for metaphorical understandings of Jesus, it's not gonna be Douglas Wilson. He's very much in the conservative wing of Christian thinking. A far more provocative -- and effective, I contend -- pairing would have been to put Hitchens up against someone like John Buchanan, editor of the Christian Century and pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago (DairyStateMom's old church).

You'd run into another problem there, though. Mainline Christians do seem to be loath to call out Evangelicals on a lot of the doctrinal stuff. Sam Harris is strictly speaking accurate on this charge. There are probably many reasons why that is. What follows is based more on my speculation than detailed investigation, with all the potential risks thereto. That said...

One probable reason is that the folks in their pews represent a broad spectrum of understanding about various pieces of doctrine. Take a mainline Christian preacher who didn't literally believe in the virgin birth: why would she or he want (in a sermon, say) to insult those parishioners who do? Why even need to go there? If the preacher is going to make parishioners uncomfortable, better to do so about something here and now that matters -- like speaking up for gay equality (as Buchanan has done). And similarly, when communicating with the wider world, I suspect many mainline pastors feel that it's unseemly -- and ultimately un-Christian, that is, uncompassionate -- to insult fellow Christians around such doctrinal matters.

In a similar vein, when Marcus Borg writes about non-orthodox understandings of God and Christ, his audience probably isn't made up of fundamentalists. It's more likely to consist of people who grew up in the church but became estranged from a belief system that came to seem irrational to them, yet still find a need and desire to connect with God and Jesus in some way.

On on the other hand, if there aren't many, or even any, literalists in our aforementioned hypothetical pastor's congregation, why spend any time tearing down the literalists then, either? That's not what parishioners need to hear, after all. Far better to point out the way Jesus welcomed even the outcasts, and what that calls us to do today.

A while back, I do recall the senior pastor at DairyStateMom's current church preaching very pointedly about the errors of Joel Osteen's approach to the Bible. But her critique was its self-centeredness, not its literalism. Personally, I think the point she made was the more important one.

For some mainliners, the literalist mindset may actually be fairly far out of their current everyday experience, and therefore something they don't feel a need to confront at all. I got a sense of this when I asked another pastor at DSM's church how kids deal with the topic of evolution. (I asked in part because their vacation Bible school focused on creation, and the whole evolution thing is a personal hobby horse for me, the son of an anthropologist.) Her response: It's never really come up, and perhaps that's because "we don't embrace a literal interpretation of scripture..." The primary message was that everyone is in God's image, and therefore is worthy of love and caring.

I do wish sometimes that mainline Christians would be more willing to directly confront and critique the more negative and even destructive interpretations of Christian doctrine held by some of their evangelical bretheren and sisteren. I know many Christians who despair at the way fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals have appropriated the term "Christianity" to the exclusion of more progressive Christians. (Interestingly, when I did some Googling on that, the first example to come up India. But the person seeking the confrontation appears to be a journalist, not a cleric.) In the end, though, I can understand why they don't. As DairyStateMom puts it, it may feel a little too much like airing dirty laundry in public -- about matters that for them just aren't that important.

Not dead yet?

A student (not mine) writes why reading ink on paper is better than reading a screen. Now if we can just get them to pay for the experience.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Apocolypse Now?

The item below arrived in the mail over the weekend. We thought it was a Jehovah's Witnesses tract at first.

Turns out it was from the Wilson Quarterly.

....The Wilson Quarterly?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

R.I.P. Jerry Bracey

In one of my freelancing hats I provide editing services to a network of education policy scholars writing on various aspects of education reform. One of them was Jerry Bracey, who, I've just been informed, passed away the night before last.

I met Jerry once and had the pleasure -- and it was a pleasure -- of working with his copy many times. Few could see through the cant and disingenuousness of so much of what passes for scholarship on education matters as he did, or write about it with such vigor and clarity. If I were to summarize the bulk of his work that I got to see, it would come down to this: Jerry standing on street corner, megaphone in hand, calmly pointing out to anyone who was willing to listen, "The Emperor has no clothes!" -- and providing the evidence to prove it.

The person who informed me of Jerry's passing writes about him far more eloquently than I could, and I print his thoughts with his permission:
The thought I keep having about Jerry is how his integrity and brilliance so often shown through, even overshadowing his irascibility -- or maybe it was that integrity and brilliance that created the irascibility. His contributions to those of us who worked with him -- including the two-dozen items he authored for us (he was finishing one up this week) -- were great. But his larger body of work was even greater -- consistently dedicated to statements of unvarnished truths and a dominant feature on the educational landscape for decades.

A couple days ago, John Thompson, on the "This Week In Education" blog speculated about paying pundits for their performance: "Pay them only for what they get right, or for judgments based on strong evidence."

His first thought was this:

"But if we evaluate on cold hard accuracy, the top bonuses would go to Gerald Bracey, and think of how blunt Bracey would be after receiving the full recognition he deserves."

We're going to tremendously miss that person and that voice.

I can think of no more fitting epitaph.

Via the above link (John Thompson on Alexander Russo), a sampling of Bracey's recent work at HuffPost.

Thoughtful words, and a conundrum

Boston Unitarian has an interesting and thoughtful meditation today. (h/t: PeaceBang's Facebook page)

On a tangent, it brought to mind a curious paradox that my own church's minister related in his sermon this past Sunday. (Perhaps this is old news to others, but it was a new one on me.):

Question: What is the only* religious denomination whose name specifically refers to religious doctrine? (Not practice [Baptist], not governance [Presbyterian or Episcopalian], not historical roots [Lutheran or Roman Catholic]...)

Answer: Unitarian Universalism, which is arguably the most non-doctrinal, at least of western religions...

*If you wish, feel free to temper "only"...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Should stupidity disqualify an advice columnist?

That's the question DairyStateMom asks regarding the campaign by some bloggers to get DoubleX advice columnist Lucinda Rosenfeld fired from her job for telling a letter writer... oh it's too long for me to summarize, just read it yourself.

Says DSM:
Should an advice columnist (or any opinion columnist) be removed for giving, well, bad advice? I don't think there's any question at all that the columnist gave a moronic response to the letter writer (taking Broadsheet's summary as accurate). Is that really the issue though? Do we fire columnists for stupidity?

Well, I guess some people think we should...

"Crush" Videos: The Religious Dimension

You laugh? Jeremy Biles is both thoughtful and serious.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Sorting out the frustration among Obama's supporters...

...and mapping a way forward: "We got what we wanted".

I think Barack Obama was elected because the American electorate was captivated by his willingness to engage his opponents in dialog and debate. What a breath of fresh air!...

We got what we wanted. But he can't compromise when only one side is debating. Time to raise our voice.

Abraham and Isaac

In college, after I'd walked away from the Episcopal Church for the most part, but before I discovered Unitarian Universalism, I became quite absorbed in the story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac. I wrote an essay about it for my Advanced Exposition writing class, using the story as as a metaphor for fanaticism that puts an abstract cause above more immediate moral obligations. (The professor gave me a B, but suggested I rewrite it for a higher grade, taking into account Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, which I did.) For a subsequent playwriting class I wrote a one-act about the story, ending it with Abraham cursing God, even after Isaac has been saved, for what he sees as God's mercurial nature.

So, of course, I found these these recent items especially interesting to read...

Friday, October 9, 2009

In this together

On the NY Times web site, a column from Roger Cohen of the International Herald Tribune succinctly frames the mindsets in favor of--and opposing--health care reform:

Whatever may be right, something is rotten in American medicine. It should be fixed. But fixing it requires the acknowledgment that, when it comes to health, we’re all in this together. Pooling the risk between everybody is the most efficient way to forge a healthier society.

Europeans have no problem with this moral commitment. But Americans hear “pooled risk” and think, “Hey, somebody’s freeloading on my hard work.”

I am witness to the fact that Americans can embrace a "we're all in this together" philosophy and that such an approach can help lower the cost and spread the availability of health care. More than two decades ago I covered health and medicine in Rochester, New York. At the time Rochester had an impressive system that helped hold down health care costs, achieve better outcomes, and broaden the reach of health insurance across the population. I covered this system on an ongoing basis for the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle and later wrote about it for the Washington Monthly.

It was a complex system that centered on hospitals agreeing to accept essentially a yearly cap on their revenues, which was the focus of my Washington Monthly story. But another part of what made it work is that employers and insurers agreed to "community rating" -- which meant that the entire population, rather than each workplace or other sub-group, was considered one "risk pool." This raised the cost of insurance for the lowest-risk groups (the young and wealthy), but lowered it for those at highest risk, and contributed overall to a better quality of life where health care was concerned.

I haven't been back to Rochester in many years and I've heard second-hand this progressive system is no longer in place. (That's an unfortunate contrast to predictions people made when I wrote about it that it would become a national model.) I'm not sure why it was dissolved, and I do plan to look into that question some time, but based on how it was working when I was there, all I can say is, more's the pity.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Shameless nepotistic promotion

DairyStateDad comes from a religiously eclectic family. We grew up in the Episcopal church with close ties to the Quakers. As adults, the three of us have found different paths. I'm a Unitarian Universalist; one of my two older sisters converted to Judaism, while the other has been a pillar of the Quakers, a/k/a the Religious Society of Friends, for virtually all of her adult life. She is also one of the mostly deeply spiritual people I've ever known.

And today she holds forth on a topic dear to her heart and mine as she makes an appearance on a blog that interprets Quaker beliefs and practice for a broader audience.

Why biblical translation matters

A thoughtful essay on the subject, by a Baptist (and Southern Baptist, at that!) minister, published by the Chicago Divinity School's twice-weekly "Sightings" newsletter.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Religion as challenging -- or not

DairyStateMom and I are fans of a syndicated religion column called The God Squad, by Rabbi Marc Gellman. In a recent column, he answers a letter writer whose Christianity is that of Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong -- viewing traditional Christian doctrine about the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, Transubstantiation of the communion elements, and the Trinity as mythic and symbolic rather than literal. The letter writer worships at a mainline Lutheran church and is comfortable there, but raises the question of whether he or she* really counts as Christian:
Theologically, I'd probably be better off at a Unity Church, or perhaps Unitarian, but I find the approaches of both more of a philosophy than religion.
The letter writer is responding in part to an earlier Gellman column in which the rabbi asserts:
If you believe Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, who came to earth to die and be resurrected for your sins, then you're a Christian. If you don't, you aren't. Period.
As an aside, I vaguely recall the earlier item in which that remark -- which of course is standard Christian doctrine -- appeared, and I was moved at the time to respond to him, but didn't. Like the letter writer I would take issue with his cut-and-dried definition of being a Christian, however widely accepted it might be. There's a lot to unpack in those words, and I know many Christians for whom that definition falls short or misses the mark.

Back to the letter in question. Gellman's response is basically reassuring:
Frankly, what you are is less important to me than what you're trying to become. Let's leave to God the final judgment about whether or not you are, in fact, a Christian.

What is clear is that you're a Christian in your spiritual journey. You're honest enough, however, to realize that what you believe is different from the teaching of Christianity. Such honesty is refreshing. Many people are so wrapped up in their own egos that they insist the teaching of their faith is ever and always just exactly what they believe.

I encourage you to live with that difference and pray about that difference. God is not through with you yet, and you're not through with God or Christianity. The great Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig was once asked if he observed one of the ritual commandments of Judaism and he answered, "Not yet."

You haven't yet entered the mystery of Transubstantiation and Incarnation. Maybe you never will, and maybe the reason is that you're right and these are just symbolic truths. But maybe there is truth in these teachings that you can and will discover. The point is, you are comfortable in a traditional faith community, even if you're not yet comfortable with its full theology.
He concludes:
The best course is not to join a church that never challenges you, but to humbly affirm both your conscience and your inherited faith.
And that's the theme I want to pick up here.

The implication that liberal religion is inherently inferior because it doesn't challenge us is a pretty common theme in critiques of Unitarian Universalism. Yet embedded in that critique are two assumptions.

The first is that religion by its nature should challenge us. That certainly fits the prejudices of many of us -- me included -- yet I find that it's a bit more slippery conceptually. Fundamentalist Christianity's belief in the literal accuracy of Genesis or in the necessity and sufficiency of belief in Jesus to save myself from an afterlife of eternal torture in hell challenge my beliefs in reason, science, and Divine Love. But for me, that's just a clue that those Fundamentalist beliefs are really off the mark.

On the other hand, "Love your enemy" is a profound challenge to which I'm much more willing to pay attention. In one form or another I encounter that in my own church as well as DairyStateMom's mainline Presbyterian church. Moreover, as challenging as her church and its pastors are (in the best of ways), I also find they emphasize just as much the deep comfort Jesus offers as the embodiment of God's love.

The second assumption is that there is in fact something unchallenging about liberal religion.

On this one I'm really torn, finding the claim at once to carry a grain of truth and yet be ultimately facile. I don't yet have a clear-cut answer to my conflicted response. Indeed, anytime I try to answer it in my head, what comes out is either tiresome, "tough-minded" UU bashing or else simpering, smug UU defensiveness.

I guess, to paraphrase the rabbi, I am not finished with this post yet.

*Curiously, while drafting this post I assumed the letter writer to be female and used the pronoun "she." Reading through it, however, I find that there's no clear declaration of gender.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Beacon Street Girls

Have you ever heard of the Beacon Street Girls?

In turns out this is a series of novels for middle-school-aged girls -- or at least, about middle-school-aged girls. (I find that in children's literature the audience is often younger than the characters, so that books about high-schoolers are read by middle-schoolers, and those about middle-schoolers are read by elementary-aged kids. But I digress.)

I've come across the series in a paper I'm editing for a client. Where there's a Beacon Street, I thought, there just might be some Unitarian Universalists, so I Googled the series title (in quotation marks) and the word "Unitarian" to see if anyone was making a direct link between the two.

Got a lot of hits, but nothing that really paid off. The closest was in the form of fan discussions on the publisher's web site, where there were lively discussions among self-identified Christians and UUs on topics such as favorite Bible verses.

But I have to say the upbeat, wholesome, diverse and socially conscious BSG characters do strike me as reflective of a kind of UU-earnest identity.

Of course, I'm not saying these are exclusively UU attitudes, or that these characters are either explicitly or even necessarily UU. (Yes, fans, I'm aware that at least one character is Jewish.) Yet I do find hints here of how the wider secular culture, in at least some superficial ways, mirrors certain UU outlooks and values. (The most recent exhibit: Army Wives' two-episode arc about a couple's decision to have their infant dedicated at a UU church before mom deploys to Iraq.)

This poll from mid-2008 tells that story in a different way. As I said to a fellow UU not long ago, perhaps we'll never grow that much as a religious movement, but are we "winning" the larger cultural debate more than we realize?

Friday, September 25, 2009

R.I.P. Forrest Church

In Memoriam: Rev. Dr. Forrest Church: Theologian, Author.

"A Chosen Faith" (co-written w/ The Rev. John Buehrens) is an eloquent and concise explication of Unitarian Universalism. "The American Creed" is an equally eloquent explication of the Declaration of Independence and how our understanding of it has evolved and grown. I haven't yet read "Love and Death," but want to. And I look forward to the release in November of Church's final book, "The Cathedral of the World."

Sometime back I heard him interviewed on a podcast of the Diane Rehm show. Search it out. One comment of his I recall is his reply to someone who declares himself an atheist:

"Tell me about the God you don't believe in. Chances are, I don't believe in that God either".

Forrest Church may not have been the first person to say that, but he's the first person from whom I heard that.

Take a look as well at Jess's Journal.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Judge not?

PeaceBang, whose regular blog is on long-term hiatus, has a thought-provoking comment today on her public Facebook page questioning Jesus's famous admonition to "Judge not, lest ye be judged." Doesn't Jesus in fact judge all the time? she asks.

Of course, we religious liberals tend to love that particular biblical verse and delightfully fling it at the narrow minded on the religious right.

In fact, though, I think Jesus meant exactly what he said was attributed to him. The remark is of a piece with "Turn the other cheek," "do not stop him from taking your tunic, also," "go with him two miles" and "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?"

It's also of a piece with the First Principle of Unitarian Universalism: Recognizing the Inherent Worth and Dignity of Every Person. As I had occasion to be reminded yesterday in my own church, this is a far more demanding and even potentially confrontational principle than it would seem at first.

Now I do understand where PB is coming from on this. Judgment from time to time seems essential to a well-ordered community. Taken at face value, "Judge not" could be seen as a prescription for passivity. But Jesus clearly was not passive, and the example he sets in the Gospels is, I think, only superficially one of passivity. I don't think "judge not" is the same as "don't hold another accountable." (Indeed, I think accountability is part of respecting the other's inherent worth and dignity.)

I also understand (as Brock and Parker argue, in Saving Paradise and elsewhere) that such verses can be misused to condone collaboration in one's own oppression -- and that they should not be.

Yet, if we really do believe in Universal Salvation as our Universalist forebears did, then we, too -- and, we evidently believe, Jesus -- are essentially saying that salvation ultimately transcends judgment.

"Judge not..." is in fact a far more demanding prescription than it seems at first blush -- and I think that's exactly what it is supposed to be. What I glean from "Judge not..." and from the other verses I've cited above, as well as from a radical respect for the First Principle, is the importance of humility, refraining from presumption about others' motives or attitudes, and, most of all, that it is as important to listen to those with whom we disagree as it is to stand up and insist on what we know is right. And this is part of what I believe is the Real Kingdom of God.

For instance, as practiced by groups like this one.

I'm indebted to ogre's comment that puts the original "Judge not..." command more completely in its original context.

Separately, PB is now suggesting her original comment was meant in irony or sarcasm. I'm afraid I don't really follow that, but ...

Update #2
Well, not PB but a commenter offers an explanation of the "irony" element, which is along the same lines as ogre's well-taken comment here.