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.