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I’m a Universalist at heart, and Universalism is a hope-filled faith, so as I look ahead to 2011 I can’t help but seek out signs of hope within Unitarian Universalism. Here are some of the things that give me hope for the coming year:
Community ministry: Most of our local congregations continue to stagnate and even decline, and they are not very good advertisements for our faith tradition. But our Unitarian Universalist community ministers are out doing all kinds of good work in the world; they serve as hospital chaplains, military chaplains, directors of non-profit organizations, social service providers, etc., etc. These are the people who are out there letting people know who we are. We have to figure out how to support these people without locking them into the weird narrow conception of congregational polity that now dominates us.
Three experiments in new congregation starts:
This coming year, I’ll be watching three very different approaches at starting new congregations. Each of these three new congregations does not fit the typical model of new congregation starts within Unitarian Universalism — no fellowships here, no existing congregation supporting a new congregation, no extension ministry, no support from the Unitarian Universalist Association. One is a project to revitalize a moribund church; another focuses on serving the wider community rather than members and friends; and one an entrepreneurial church start common in other denominations but not within Unitarian Universalism. Continue reading
The year in Unitarian Universalist growth initiatives may be summed up quite simply: there continue to be fewer Unitarian Universalists, few local congregations seem to have any interest in taking the simple steps necessary to grow, and hardly anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit is stepping forward to start new and innovative Unitarian Universalist communities.
As an extreme example of Unitarian Universalism’s lack of initiative, let’s look at the San Francisco Bay area, where I live. The San Francisco Bay area comprises nine counties, 7,000 square miles, and 7.4 million people. A poll by the Pew Forum in 2008 determined that 0.3% of U.S. adults call themselves Unitarian Universalists, and therefore we’d expect there to be at least 22,000 Unitarian Universalists in the Bay area. Since the Bay area population tends to be liberal, well-educated, and open-minded, however, I would expect there to be more Unitarian Universalists than the national average. Conservatively, I’d guess there should be something like 30,000 to 40,000 Unitarian Universalists in the Bay area — yet there are fewer than 4,000. In all of California, the most populous state in the U.S. with a population of more than 37 million people, there are only 16,089 Unitarian Universalists (according to the 2010 UUA Directory).
If this isn’t bad enough, there is only one so-called “emerging congregation” (that is, a relatively new congregation not yet admitted as a full member of the Unitarian Universalist Association) in the Bay area, and that one new congregation is actually a group of people who left the Oakland church in the middle of a conflict over whether or not the music director should be fired. Because conflicts typically drive some people away from religion entirely, I’d guess that this emerging congregation actually represents a net loss of Unitarian Universalists in the Bay area.
And if that isn’t bad enough… Continue reading
The phrase “liberal religion” continues to provoke unbelieving stares from the many people who believe that religion is, by definition, conservative. And that sums up the state of liberal religion in 2010. Much of the U.S. population still believes that in order to be religious, you must doubt scientific knowledge, believe in things that are difficult to believe in, and at least pay lip service to an ethical system that is at odds with mainstream U.S. culture.
Most U.S. media (including news outlets, movies, television, etc.) continue to portray white Protestant evangelicals as normative when it comes to religion; Catholics, Jews, and Mormons are thrown in as amusingly eccentric variations on white Protestant evangelicalism (the Jews are practically Protestant in U.S. pop culture, except that they don’t believe in Christ). The Black church is rarely noticed, except in media offerings aimed squarely at the African American market; other ethnic Christians, including Hispanics and various Asian Christians, are mostly ignored by the media.
As for liberal Christians, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews, and liberal Muslims — U.S. media and U.S. pop culture basically pretend they don’t exist, except when news outlets decide to run yet another story about how mainline Christian churches are declining in membership. Neopagans, many of whom are religious liberals, get even worse treatment by U.S. media — they are portrayed as if they are something out of a Stephen King horror novel. The only religious liberal group that gets some positive mention by U.S. media are liberal Buddhists, probably because the media like the saffron color of the Dalai Lama’s robes.
And Barack Obama is not helping increase understanding of religious liberalism. Continue reading
I’ve been trying to read the new sociological study of U.S. religion by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010). But I’ve gotten stalled on page 18. That’s where Putnam and Campbell define a scale of religious intensity, or religiosity. They measure religiosity “with a series of questions that tap into different ways of being religious, including both behaving and believing.” And here are the six questions they use to measure religiosity:
How frequently do you attend religious services?
How frequently do you pray outside of religious services?
How important is religion in your daily life?
How important is religion to your sense of who you are?
Are you a strong believer in your religion?
How strong is your belief in God?
Using this scale, I automatically cannot rate at the highest level of religiosity. Why? Because I don’t pray (outside of the pastoral prayers I may say in Sunday services). I also get knocked down the scale because, depending on how you define “God,” I don’t have a strong belief in God. Indeed, if I have to use the word “belief” to express how I know God, then as a non-Cartesian empiricist I would have to say I don’t “believe” in God any more than I “believe” or “disbelieve” any sensory impression.
Putnam and Campbell admit one could raise some possibly valid objections to the way they measure religiosity. In particular, they admit that “readers may wonder whether these particular questions favor one religious tradition over another….” This is an objection that anyone who is a Unitarian Universalist would raise, since probably half of us don’t believe in God, including some of our most religious Unitarian Universalists. Putnam and Campbell go on to say:
…This is a common concern when social scientists study religion, as religiosity is sometimes measured with questions that are normative within Protestantism, specifically for evangelicals. …we acknowledge the concern that perhaps this particular religiosity index is inadvertently biased toward evangelical Protestantism, or some other religious tradition.
From my point of view, their measure of religiosity is clearly biased toward evangelical Protestantism. Which doesn’t make me eager to read the rest of the book. Which also makes me realize the extent to which evangelicals dominate the public conversation about religion in the U.S. And which also makes me want to force Putnam and Campbell to spend some time reading the work of linguist George Lakoff.
It was warm all day today, with occasional rain showers. By the time I got home from work, and Carol and I got out to take a walk, it was ten o’clock. We stepped out on to the front porch. “Let me grab a hat,” said Carol, and went back inside for a moment. “Boy, it got chilly,” I said. “This is the way it should be,” said Carol. I agreed with her. I don’t miss snow, but I do find it disconcerting when it gets too warm in the middle of winter.
Some tired Beatles song was playing on the television. I think it was a program on the local public television station. Carol let out a pointedly critical remark to the effect that she could not understand why anyone would want to hear that tired old Beatles song for the sixty-fifth thousandth time.* I agreed with her. The first time I heard that recording of the Beatles chanting about some sergeant named “Pepper” I thought the song was a mildly entertaining song; not one of their best, but good enough. The one thousandth time I heard that same recording of that same song (it was probably in a shopping center, for the Beatles have become the soundtrack of consumerism) I still thought the song wasn’t bad, but I was tired of hearing that same performance over and over and over again. Too much repetition will make anything seem dreadful, and by the sixty-fifth thousandth time I had heard that same recording of that same damned song, I hated it. With jazz and classical and folk music, it is considered a virtue to re-interpret a song or a musical composition in a new and fresh way; but with rock and rap and pop music, we are supposed to make the song sound exactly like the hit recording of it. Thus when you have to sing John Lennon’s “Imagine” in a Sunday service, all the Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers are trying to sing like John Lennon’s hit recording of that song. It’s really boring.
* This is an indirect quote because Carol told me I am no longer permitted to quote her directly, adding, “You always misquote me.”
Anyone who knows the Christmas story knows about the inhospitable innkeeper who wouldn’t allow poor pregnant Mary to stay in the only inn in town. Unfortunately, that’s not what the story originally said in the ancient Greek, according to Stephen Carlson of Duke University in The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: Καταλυμα in Luke 2.7, New Testament Studies 56 (2010), pp. 326-342.
This apparently is a scholarly argument that has been going on for centuries, and at least one Renaissance scholar was reprimanded by the Inquisition for daring to show that “καταλυμα” in this context does not mean “inn.” Carlson summarizes his thesis as follows:
Putting these exegetical conclusions together, the entire clause should be rendered as ‘because they did not have space in their accommodations’ or ‘because they did not have room in their place to stay’. This clause means that Jesus had to be born and laid in a manger because the place where Joseph and Mary were staying did not have space for him. Luke’s point is not so much any inhospitality extended to Joseph and Mary but rather that their place to stay was too small to accommodate even a newborn.
Rats, there goes this Sunday’s Christmas pageant.
I found the following in the executive summary of Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, prepared by the “Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America,” Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. This paper seems to indicate that many of the things I value most — social equality, racial diversity, breaking down class distinctions, changing the world, etc. — are positively associated with just being a part of a religious community. Note that the paper is silent on the matter of specific beliefs. I’d hypothesize that what’s most important about religious community is not specific beliefs, but rather the fact that a religious community is organized around high ideals with ethical implications.
What is the impact of this religious engagement? Involvement in communities of faith among all goers collectively is strongly associated with giving and volunteering. Indeed, involvement in religious community is among the strongest predictors of giving and volunteering for religious causes as well as for secular ones. Religious communities embody one of the most important sources of social capital and concern for community in America. Religious people are great at ‘doing for.’
Moreover, religious involvement is positively associated with most other forms of civic involvement. Even holding other factors constant (comparing people of comparable educational levels, comparable income, and so on), religiously engaged people are more likely than religiously disengaged people to be involved in civic groups of all sorts, to vote more, to be more active in community affairs, to give blood, to trust other people (from shopkeepers to neighbors), to know the names of public officials, to socialize with friends and neighbors, and even simply to have a wider circle of friends. Interestingly as well, Americans are more likely to fully trust people at their place of worship (71%) than they are to trust people they work with (52%), people in their neighborhood (47%) or people of their own race (31%).
Another distinctive feature of religious involvement is that it is less biased by social standing than most other forms of civic involvement. Poorer, less educated Americans are much less likely to be involved in community life than other Americans, but they are fully as engaged in religious communities. Conversely, religiously engaged people have, on average, a more diverse set of friends than those who are less engaged in religion. Holding constant their own social status, religiously engaged people are more likely than other Americans to number among their friends a person of a different faith, a community leader, a manual worker, a business owner, and even a welfare recipient.
I cannot resist adding a caveat: As always, it’s wise to remain skeptical of such studies; it’s especially important not to confuse correlation and causation.