grasping at space

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  • Monday, April 25, 2005

    On UU orthodoxy

    What motivation do fundamentalists have to evangelize that UUs might lack?

    For one thing, the belief in a literal hell. It's hard to go out and save people if you don't believe there's anything to save them from. But there are plenty of figurative hells that feel real enough to the people trapped in them. My hell was the church I was raised in. I had to save myself from that.

    For another thing -- and Phillip Lund has discussed this recently -- an organizing principle for our religion. Lund cites two articles, here and here, speculating that UUism is dying out for lack of a "Unitarian identity." There's a name for what these three writers are talking about, and they all seem understandably reluctant to use it: orthodoxy.

    There are at least two viable paths toward a Unitarian orthodoxy: (1) a Socinian revival, and (2) a substantial revision of the Seven Principles.

    Monday, April 18, 2005

    More about why religious liberals must evangelize

    "The people in the chapel had the feel of those left behind not by God, but by our world. They weren't losers, but they'd lost out." Lisa Lambert. Read more at TomDispatch.

    Friday, April 15, 2005

    The Unitarian Universalists and the Unitarian Jihad meet in the marketplace of ideas

    Irony of ironies. People who are worried about the Unitarian Jihad being taken too seriously are taking the Unitarian Jihad too seriously. See John Cullinan for exhibits A and B.

    To be fair to Cullinan, he does have a good point in exhibit A when he talks about the ascendance of the UJ as potentially causing more people to call themselves “Unitarian” without actually adding to the membership of the Unitarian Universalist church. But, to be frank, I don’t think he takes the point quite far enough, so here’s my two cents.

    I was raised a Biblical literalist, and when I was 22 I finally worked up the courage to leave the only church I had ever known. Leaving the church did not immediately free me from the years of psychological conditioning and indoctrination. I spent quite some time continuing to believe, even against my better judgment, that I was rebelling against God and would surely go to hell. I couldn’t bring myself to set foot in another church, because, first of all, I was still influenced by my conditioning to believe that there was only one right way to worship God, and second, even if I had been immediately able to overcome that conditioning, I didn’t know of any denominations in which some form of Biblical literalism was not the norm.

    In the marketplace of religious ideas, the fundamentalists are the most visible suppliers, and I simply didn’t have the taste for what they were selling. I couldn’t work up a rabid, irrational hatred for homosexuals. I couldn’t categorically deny large bodies of scientific knowledge. I couldn’t agree with the notion that material wealth is the outward sign of spiritual purity. I couldn’t believe that good people who didn’t believe in God or didn’t go to church were going to spend eternity in hellfire. And Christianity’s most vocal salespeople seem to sell all of these things.

    Over the course of several years, I did manage to discover that there was such a thing as religious liberalism, and last year, at the age of 33, I discovered UUism. My only complaint against the UU’s is simply that it shouldn’t have been entirely up to me to make the discovery. The UU’s need to be more visible in the marketplace. They need to be out there, spreading the good news.

    The word “gospel,” we would do well to remember, is derived from the Old English words for “good news.” When was the last time you heard legitimately good news from a proselytizing fundamentalist? Increasingly, it seems, their message can be reduced to the words, “You’re going to hell, and we’re not.” I don’t consider that good news, and yet they don’t have any problems getting people to come to their churches, if for no other reason than that their ideas are in the marketplace, being heard.

    I could have used some good news when I was 22. It would have been great to go out into the marketplace of religious ideas and hear that having sex with someone you love, whatever his or her gender, is not an abomination in the eyes of God; that the Bible does not trump scientists’ observations of the world we live in; that making money is not necessarily the same thing as doing good; and that there is nothing morally reprehensible about enjoying the world that you happen to be stuck living in.

    The manifesto of the Unitarian Jihad (for that is what it has become, whatever Jon Carroll intended) happens to have a lot of good news in it: God doesn’t care what we read, what we eat, or whom we sleep with. It isn’t necessary to have a moral code in order to be a good person. Political belief and personal faith are not the same thing. The world is not out to get you. And these ideas are now in the marketplace – thanks not to the Unitarian Universalist Church, but to the people who are keeping Carroll’s satire in circulation.

    To any UU’s who are offended by the Unitarian Jihad or dismayed by the UJ’s “success,” I recommend that you get the hell out of your comfortable little church and become missionaries. Your ideas don’t do anyone any good if you keep them within your private little enclave. There are people out there who need to be saved. God knows I needed you when I was 22.

    P.S. I’m glad Phillip Lund understands.

    Tuesday, April 12, 2005

    God asks for feedback

    Click here for the survey.

    Saturday, April 09, 2005

    When silence is cheaper than talk

    I have just begun reading The Supreme Identity, by Alan Watts. The following is excerpted from his Preface to the First Edition.

    I am not one who believes that it is any necessary virtue in the philosopher to spend his life defending a consistent position. It is surely a kind of spiritual pride to refrain from ‘thinking out loud’, and to be unwilling to let a thesis appear in print until you are prepared to champion it to the death. Philosophy, like science, is a social function, for a man cannot think rightly alone, and the philosopher must publish his thought as much to learn from criticism as to contribute to the sum of wisdom.

    This passage brought to my mind the Applied Ethics class I took last year as part of my paralegal education. I found the class so frustrating that it inspired two bouts of nausea, particularly because class discussions constituted 15% of the grade, and initially the topics for discussion provided in the textbook were so lightweight and banal that everyone in class seemed lukewarm on participating. After the first two weeks of class, I decided that my strategy for the term would be to actively avoid participating in the class discussions and concentrate on the other 85% of the grade, which included five essays and an oral presentation at the end of the term.

    My first essay, though I didn’t intend it at the time, turned out to be the opening statement in a written debate with the instructor which lasted most of the term. The essay was, as she described it in her feedback, about “the ethical implications of our ethics class.” Her feedback went on to attempt to persuade me that the weightiness of the subject matter was irrelevant, and that I should treat the class as a learning opportunity.

    By the time I received this feedback, the instructor had tried to juice up class discussion by deviating somewhat from the textbook in order to talk about current events, which naturally led to discussion of the war in Iraq. I didn’t change my strategy, but simply maintained my silence, even when a classmate suggested, with apparent seriousness, that everyone in the Middle East should be extinguished before they became terrorists. It was with these comments fresh in my mind, along with the feedback from my instructor, that I began brainstorming for what would become my third essay for the class.

    I’ve come across some notes from that brainstorming session, and here’s a passage which didn’t make it into the final draft: “Opinions are like a particular body part which everyone has. It is extremely rarely essential to allow any person to become intimately familiar with that body part, and it is generally considered in very poor taste to expose that part for the whole world to see.” In the end, I decided it would be equally in very poor taste to put a statement like that in my essay. Here is the final draft of that essay, which I titled, “The Intellectual Consequences of Insisting on a Right to One’s Opinion, or, the Value of a Little Silence in Situations in which Talk is Cheap.”

    In spite of the fact that I find myself in this class, I still value the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech. And while I suppose that it is true that each individual can learn something in every situation, not all learning situations are created equal. A Ku Klux Klan rally, for example, would be a great learning opportunity only if I were not already aware of the fact that stupid racists make me uncomfortable. By the same token, this class might be a great learning opportunity if I were not already painfully aware of the fact that, while everyone has opinions, very few people care to go through the trouble of making their opinions morally and ethically respectable or consistent with known facts. This class makes me sick, and I don’t mean that in the banally insulting sense; I mean that the class literally makes me physically ill, particularly during last week’s discussion in which someone actually had the poor taste to wish that people unfortunate enough to have been born in the Middle East be bombed out of existence.

    A verse in the Tao Te Ching states that one who knows does not speak, while one who speaks does not know. I don’t regard myself a sage, and I don’t quote this verse in order to make me look like a sage by virtue of not speaking in class. I also don’t quote this verse because I am under the false impression that this idea originated with the Taoists. We say that talk is cheap, which expresses the age old idea in a modern way. I would extend the metaphor by saying that not only is talk cheap, but if talk were a commodity, its value would be trending sharply downward. I say this because I have encountered too many people, both in and out of this class, who act as if the First Amendment excuses them from having to justify any nonsense which comes out of their mouths. The First Amendment is strictly a legal right. A person who expects to preserve their intellectual integrity has an obligation either to back up that nonsense or to retract it.

    Maybe I should have answered that person. Nobody made her back up her statement. I didn’t make her back up that statement. At the time, I thought that the best course of action for me would be not even to look at her; that way, I wouldn’t be sure who actually made the statement, and she would get a chance to make a better intellectual impression on me the next time around. I still don’t know who made the statement, and perhaps I was wrong to let her off the hook that easily.

    A few years ago, I was in a similarly unpleasant situation in which I overheard a conversation involving a Christian man, not merely a layman, but someone regarded as having moral authority within his congregation. At the time, he was not speaking in his authoritative capacity, but was having a casual conversation, the topic of which was the alleged gang problem in our mutual hometown of Salem…. This moral authority figure, during the course of this casual conversation, said that the solution to the gang problem was to have the cops go out and shoot fifty or sixty gang members. Having overheard, I immediately called him on the carpet for it. And his only defense was to lamely state that he had a right to his opinion. I let it go at that.

    While it might have been true in the strictly legal sense that he had a right to his opinion, what about his obligation to make his personal opinion consistent with his religious beliefs? A person who is a Biblical literalist, as he is, should give up the notion of having a right to an opinion in conflict with the moral laws that he otherwise claims to uphold.

    In that situation, I was reasoning deductively. I concluded that if he chose to live by a set of religious beliefs that forbade murder, then he was wrong to hold an opinion advocating murder, regardless of what legal rights he might have to that opinion. The recent situation in class requires me to reason inductively. I know that she has advocated mass murder in class, but I can’t “work backwards” to figure out what her larger belief system is, and whether the opinion is consistent with that belief system. But if she is like most people, her belief system, whatever it might be, probably also forbids murder. So in effect, people like this woman and like this religious man use their First Amendment rights as an excuse to talk without thinking.

    In conclusion, I don’t feel that I have to be satisfied with finding myself in a situation in which 15% of my grade hinges upon my willingness to share opinions with people to whom I would prefer to remain a stranger, especially when the situation lends itself so well to such nonsense. I just wish that other people in the class shared my aversion to the situation and followed my silent example. There’s no sense in making talk any cheaper.

    In the interest of allowing the other side of the debate to be heard, here is my instructor’s feedback.

    I am trying hard not to be judgmental. It certainly appears that you are not giving us the same benefit. I did not create this class, as you did not. But for two hours every week, we both exist within its structure.

    This is a discussion class. Whether that seems palatable to you or not, it is true. Your paper contains a secondary theme of criticism for your fellow classmates. You have chosen to not talk in class or to direct your criticism in any direction whatsoever. I find your reasons for not talking to be suspect…. If you have something to say, I recommend you speak up.

    (In all fairness, I should also state that I have a lot more respect for my instructor now than when I was taking her class.)

    While I continue to stand by many of the points I made, the theme of my essay certainly seems to stand in opposition to the Alan Watts passage. Of course, Watts had in mind something different from stating opinions in everyday conversation. Watts wrote a shelf full of books on his philosophy of religious syncretism, and his concern, as expressed elsewhere in that preface, was that the intellectual work he was undertaking was more than one person could complete in one lifetime.

    But there’s no reason why the passage can’t apply to everyday conversation. It’s true enough that most people (and certainly this includes myself, whether or not I care to admit it) open their mouths with the notion that they are contributing to the sum of wisdom, and not in order to learn from criticism. But conversation – the beginning of the exchange of ideas – is the necessary first step in distinguishing good ideas from bad. When someone shares an idea and no one responds, the person can draw a conclusion, right or wrong, about the value of the idea. An idea kept within one’s own head is as much in a vacuum as is an idea to which no one responds, and that person can draw a similar conclusion. Either person may flatter herself about the quality of the idea, but the first person at least has had the courage to put her idea in a forum. The first idea is silently evaluated by those who hear it; the second idea is never evaluated because it is never heard.

    The act of sharing an opinion is necessarily the act of going out on a limb, and the sharer of the opinion risks having the limb sawn off by anyone who hears the opinion. Not taking the risk is the act of greater arrogance.

    Tuesday, April 05, 2005

    Thank you, "Anonymous"

    Three weeks ago, I completed my paralegal coursework and started looking for a job. No luck yet. The sudden abundance of free time perhaps should have led to more blogging, but as work tends to expand to fill the time available, so apparently does the lack of it, and the looking for it. So perhaps what I really need is not time, but motivation, and if the kind comment that my good friend and former classmate left on my previous post doesn’t motivate me, I can’t imagine what the heck will.

    Time to put my brain to work. Back soon.