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.

An unintended vacation from blogging

Between being away for a long weekend last week, and then coming back to a lot of work to get done in a short time, I've been offline here and also out of touch with the blogs I usually read. And look at what I've missed.

Well, I'll try to catch up sometime this week...

Monday, September 14, 2009

A short apology

I've been away and off line for several days and thus haven't been able until now to moderate comments.

I hope to be back with more to post of substance tomorrow or Wednesday. In the meantime, talk amongst yourselves.

Friday, September 11, 2009

A long time ago...

...meaning back in Middle School and High School, DairyStateDad wanted to be a lawyer.

(I was telling DairyStateKid #2 this yesterday and he asked why. I said because I envisioned lawyers as helping folks who were wrongfully accused of crimes or who were harmed by others and sought justice. By which I meant product liability plaintiffs' lawyers and malpractice lawyers. OK, remember, this was the naivete of adolescence. Early adolescence.)

Then I discovered film-making and later I discovered journalism and that was the end of that. But I still have a fascination with the law and write about it when I have an opportunity. And notwithstanding the fact that I laugh at most of the jokes that people make about lawyers, I generally admire the law and people who practice it. Good thing too, given that DairyStateMom, although not a lawyer herself, works very closely with them.

But I've always felt just a little bit frustrated with the standard adversarial system of law. Winston Churchill's line about Democracy being "the worst system, except for all the others" has a ring of truth.

This post really captures exactly why.

Yes. Yes. A thousand times, Yes.

Sluggish consumer spending: Not a problem, but an opportunity.

Let's build a society where consumer goods are not the be-all and the end-all, but rather tools to enrich our relationships with one another or tools to our enjoyment of our own minds and bodies.

Thank you, RevMary...

And an acknowledgment:

1) It's easy for a white, middle-class, middle-aged guy, who's basically got all he and his family needs need and now just has to pay for it, to embrace scaling back.

2) For the entire society to embrace this ethic will be deeply, deeply challenging.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Council of Nicaea: Toady to Constantine, or something more subtle?

For Progressive Christians, Constantine is a favorite target, someone to blame for leading Christianity astray and shifting it from a radically egalitarian religious insurgency to an arm of the empire against which it initially represented a soft rebellion. Those of us who find the Nicene Creed too constricting or simply not credible,* notwithstanding our own Christian belief (however defined), also can blame him for that.

In Saving Paradise, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker recount the story behind the Council of Nicaea at which the creed was composed. At first, it looks like we're going to get a simple confirmation of the anti-Nicene position, as they point out that it was written by a small minority of Christian bishops then practicing:

"Although [Constantine] invited fifteen hundred bishops to his summer palace in Nicaea, Anatolia, in 325, all expenses paid, only about 300 attended..." (page 107).

(Constantine, they note, was a convert to Christianity but had not actually been baptized, and would not be until near the end of his life.)

Yet are things ever as simple as they seem? Brock and Parker observe that even if the Council represented a rump group of bishops, the creed they wrote made a subversive assertion. In claiming that Christ was of the same substance as God, rather than subordinate, they were expressly denying that the emperor -- who like his predecessors was referred to as the "son of God" -- was on a par with Christ. (For more on how calling Jesus the Son of God was a direct challenge to imperial claims, see God and Empire by John Dominic Crossan.)
"In affirming that Christ had this highest possible status [ie: 'being of one substance with the Father'], they gave themselves and every baptized Christian who shared in Christ's divinity greater spiritual power than the unbaptized emperor Constantine."
So does that mean that those who disagreed with that wording were the Constantine toadies? Not necessarily. Arius, who was on the losing side of the substance/subordinate quarrel,
"regarded Jesus as divine, but saw him as a 'creature' descended from God, not as a creator alongside God. He held to a strong monotheism...For the Arians, the equality of Jesus with God would have capitulated to Roman polytheistic values and compromised the one supreme God" (page 109).

* Another time I'll explain the role that both the Nicene and its simplified version, the Apostle's Creed, had in leading me away from the Episcopal Church in which I was baptized and later confirmed. But for now I'll share the way a pastor at DairyStateMom's church, quoting another, reconciles the words of the creed with the rationalist, skeptical worldview of 21st century prospective members: "Think of it as poetry, not geometry."

"The arc of the universe is long...

...but it bends towards justice."

I've been comforting myself in these challenging times with that aphorism made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr., who in turn borrowed it from our UU "saint" Theodore Parker. This post at Salon, on the eve of last January's inauguration, may be months old, but for me it's a breath of fresh air right now.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Can we all get along? Part 1

For the last several days I've been trying to draft, in my head, something about polarization. Mostly I've been thinking about it in the context of politics and policy, but this morning its relevance to Unitarian Universalism was brought home to me by some others.

I still want to write about this, but won't be able to for a few days, I suspect. So here are some thoughts on the topic from Lizard Eater and from Paul Oakley.

Update: One more post that ties into this subject.

Friday, September 4, 2009

On second thought...


After calling advertising a "devil's pact,"I suppose I'd better not turn on the "monetize" function here.

Oh well, there's always Emerson.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Blogging as bloviating

For a while I blogged rarely at Talking Points Memo, also as DairyStateDad. (I'm still registered there, I think, but I gave up political blogs around the time of the election and try to stay as far away from them as an AA member stays from taverns. Usually.)

In a fit of nostalgia I was looking over my posts there. Many never garnered any comments, others only one or two. But this one resulted in an amazing 229!

It was early May of 2008. Obama was the all-but-declared winner. My question was, how would he gracefully not offer the VP nomination to Hillary Clinton without risking the wrath of her loyalists? Well, you can bet that set off a lively bar fight, as people speculated on her inevitability as VP, or, alternatively, who would be chosen in her place. (No one--no one--in that thread predicted Biden. And no one suggested she might by Secretary of State. Oh... and in retrospect the fact that some seriously proposed Edwards [this was before his admission of the affair with Rielle Hunter] is breathtaking.)

OK, old news. Among other things it was a reminder about how much vicious enmity there was at times between Obama and Clinton supporters at the height of the primary race. That seems so 2008.

But the amusing part is the amount of energy people (self included) put into making arcane predictions and complicated calculations, and all of it best forgotten within months.

To be sure, the blogosphere wasn't alone in being rife with so much wrong-headed speculation. The mainstream media does it all the time, too. (Think of the obituaries some were writing for the Democrats in early June of '08.) As a journalist I tend to be cautious about predictions, although one editor keeps trying to get me to lighten up: "If you're right you'll look like a genius. If you're wrong no one will ever remember."

It's human nature to speculate to no end, for political junkies, sports junkies, the followers of Hollywood gossip or even those oh-so-serious of us who try to dope out what's going on in world affairs.

And sometimes the speculators get very, very lucky. True story: I worked at a Gannett paper in Rochester, N.Y., 25 years ago. Gannett had just bought the Detroit News. One of my colleagues was absolutely convinced that the then-editor of the Rochester paper would be tapped to run the News. He knew I had sources who might be aware of that prospect; I checked and they had heard absolutely nothing. Months later, however, that's exactly what happened.

Which brings me to, so what?

Initially I planned to wind this up with a puffed-up promise that this blog would be different and that this post would stand as a peremptory challenge to myself not to fall into that trap. But who am I kidding? And why limit myself? So I won't swear-off speculative bloviating entirely. I'll just remind myself that, of all the sub-genres of blogging, as fun as it is, it's probably among the least useful. Unless, of course, I turn out to be right and end up looking like a genius.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Appropriation of a deadly kind

Around Unitarian Universalism and in the UU Blogosphere {The Blog-UU-sphere?) especially there's been a lot of talk about, and criticism of, appropriation.

The eclectic nature of Unitarian Universalism makes it especially vulnerable to appropriation as well as accusations of appropriation. This blog got started as an unintended consequence of the fact that I've been commenting a lot on the topic on other UU blogs.

In a nutshell, I believe that while concern over appropriation is valid, at times it becomes overblown, even wildly so. Sometimes it becomes like the casual accusation of "racism" or "fascism" in certain contexts -- to the extent that it actually diminishes real appropriation that is wrong and, in some instances, even harmful.

Like this one.

(For a little more context, check here.)

The "Judeo-Christian tradition" of selfishness?

Happened to spot this press release (excerpt only here) while trolling the wire services yesterday afternoon:

"Rules for Conservative Radicals," a New Book by Michael Patrick Leahy, Shows
How "Buycotts" and Tea Parties Can Change the Political Landscape

ST. LOUIS--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Sep. 01, 2009-- As the Health Care Reform Town Hall meetings and Tea Parties heat up and the August Congressional summer session winds down, conservatives finally have a play book to help them gain traction on the slippery slope to socialism that they feel this country appears to be heading. "Rules for Conservative Radicals," written by Michael Patrick Leahy takes the Alinsky viewpoints expressed in "Rules for Radicals," and puts a moral, ethical, conservative spin on them.

"The problem that conservatives have with Alinsky is that, for him, the ends justified the means," explains Leahy. "I’m suggesting that we take the successful Alinsky rules, we update them, apply them to new social networking technology, and implement them in the Judeo-Christian tradition."

Hmmm... what Judeo-Christian tradition would that be?

This one?
"He will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; he will crush the oppressor."
This one?
"Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute."
Or maybe this one?
"There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales, and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need."

(Credit where due: I got a leg up on this topic from a post by Monte Asbury at "The Least, First."

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Hello again

Several years ago I blogged for about 3 days and then took it down. I may be back. Lately I've been commenting on a number of blogs using the DairyStateDad identity, so I figured I'd revive it.

I expect to post spasmodically here on writing, on religion and culture, on politics and policy, on journalism, and on whatever else trips my fancy.

I hope future entries will be more interesting than this one.