Category Archives: Theology

Calvinism and me

I had a long talk about theology with a Calvinist friend the other day. While we disagreed on some really basic points — he doesn’t accept universal salvation, I don’t accept the need for belief in God — we really had quite a bit in common. As the descendant (both literally and religiously) of the Puritans, I’m quite comfortable talking with Calvinists. They believe human beings are fallen beings who are made in the image of God; I’m quite sure that human beings are utterly fallible and basically irrational beings who are also capable of astonishing goodness. Calvinists believe that God elects some persons for salvation regardless of what those persons do with their lives; as a Universalist I’m quite sure that if there is a heaven, we all get to go there regardless of what we do with our lives because love will overcome all obstacles (Universalist compost theology refines this point by saying we all get to break down into our constituent organic components and re-enter the ecosystem after death).

I think most of all I’m comfortable with Calvinism because of Calvin’s ideas of worship. He believed in simplicity in worship in order to emphasize what it is most important. and to remove extraneous distractions. He believed that everyone in the congregation should be able to see and hear everything in the worship service. He insisted on congregational participation in worship, e.g., congregational participation in singing rather than just having worship leaders sing. None of this came up in the discussion of theology I had with my friend, but in my mind it was always in the background.

Another way of saying all this is that Unitarianism and Universalism began as reformations of the Reformed tradition that traces its roots back to John Calvin. We have gone off on our own, but there’s a clear family resemblance.

Ταυτ ειδως σοφος ισθι, ματην δ'’ Επικουρον εασον
που το κενον ζητειν, και τινες αι μοναδες.

— Automedon

Samuel Johnson includes this as the epigram preceding his essay “The Study of Life” (Rambler 180, Saturday 7 December 1751). Johnson provides the following translation:

On life, on morals, be thy thoughts employ’d;
Leave to the schools their atoms and void.

This is a nice commentary on the current disagreements in our society about whether science provides all answers. Clearly, these disagreements have been going on at least since the time of the ancient Greeks. Johnson, addressing the same problem in the eighteenth century, provides the following anecdote, in which no one comes out looking perfect:

“It is somewhere related by LeClerc that a wealthy trader of good understanding, having the common ambition to breed his son a scholar, carried him to a university, resolving to use his own judgment in the choice of a tutor. He had been taught, by whatever intelligence, the nearest way to the heart of an academic, and at his arrival entertained all who came to him with such profusion, that the professors were lured by the smell of his table from their books, and flocked around him with all the cringes of awkward complaisance. This eagerness answered the merchant’s purpose. He glutted them with delicacies, and softened them with caresses till he prevailed upon one after the other to open his bosom and make a discovery of his competitions, jealousies, and resentments. Having thus learned each man’s character, partly from himself and partly from his acquaintances, he resolved to find some other education for his son, and went away convinced that a scholastic life has no other tendency than to vitiate the morals and contract the understanding. Nor would he afterward hear the praises of the ancient authors, being persuaded that scholars of all ages must have been the same, and that Xenophon and Cicero were professors of some former university, and therefore mean and selfish, ignorant and servile, like those whom he had lately visited and forsaken….

“A man of learning is expected to excel the unlettered and unenlightened even on occasions where scholarly attainments are of no use; and among weak minds loses part of his reverence by discovering no superiority in those parts of life in which all are unavoidably equal.”

Alas, I still have no way of including the diacritical marks with ancient Greek — those of you who are classicists (which I emphatically am not) will notice that I had to include a couple in the above passage, but many more are missing. Sorry, classicists!

μετρον αριστον

— Cleobulus the Lindian

Samuel Johnson translates this phrase as “Mediocrity is best”, where we should take “mediocrity” to refer to “the quality or condition of being between two extremes… a quasi-technical term, with reference to the Aristotelian theory of ‘the mean.'” (OED)

Liberal religious dictionary: Sin

sin, noun. 1. An action which deserves universal condemnation, and which promotes evil rather than good in the world. Sin exists among politicians and other secular leaders who set policies with which we disagree; however, sin does not exist among religious liberals. The following sentence is a proper use of the word — When Governor Sanford cheated on his wife, it was a sin. However, when the speaker is a religious liberal, the proper construction would be as follows — When I cheated on my spouse, we went into couples therapy together so we could resolve our issues. (N.B.: For those religious liberals who agreed with Governor Sanford’s policies, his action was not a sin, but was instead evidence that he needed therapy.)

Do all religions share a common thread?

UU World magazine recently published “Do All Religions Share a Common Thread?”, a book review column I wrote in which I discuss God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter by Stephen Prothero, Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together by the Dalai Lama, and A Religion for One World: Art and Symbols for a Universal Religion by Kenneth Patton. You can read it online here.

You can comment over on that site, but realistically I am less likely to respond to your comment there. Therefore, if you want to engage me in conversation about that column, feel free to comment here.

Update, 2020: This article still appears on UU World’s list of top ten most accessed articles. Go figure.

Water communion, and the interconnectedness of all living beings

Story for water communion service at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto:

Each year we do this water communion service. When we share our water in the common bowl, it symbolizes that while we are separate people, we are also part of an interdependent community.

You probably know about the water cycle. When it rains, water falls from clouds onto the ground, and eventually it flows into a river, and all rivers flow down to the ocean. Water evaporates from the ocean and forms clouds, the clouds drift over the land, it rains, and the cycle begins again. You’re in the middle of this cycle because you drink about 2 liters of water every day, and then you sweat or urinate and put water back into the water cycle. So water is constantly on the move.

You probably know that water is made up of molecules, and that each water molecule is made up of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen. Water molecules are incredibly tiny, so tiny you cannot see them. If you had 18 grams of water, or a little more than half an ounce, that would be about 6 x 10^23 molecules. The molecular weight of water is approximately 18, and therefore 18 grams of water should have a number of molecules equal to Avogadro’s number, or 6.02 x 10^23.

This is a fairly large number:
602,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules —
which is the same as 6.02 x 10^23 molecules, or we can also say 602 sextillion molecules.

If you’re a child who weighs about 77 pounds, or 35 kilograms, then you have about 20 liters of water in your body (adults, you can multiply up to figure it out for yourselves). That’s approximately 20,000 grams of water, or 6.02 x 10^26, or 602 septillion, molecules of water in your body if you’re a child. And if you drink 2 liters of water a day, you’re replacing about ten percent of that, or 6 x 10^25 molecules, each day. So if you are 3,650 days old (that’s ten years old), about 2.2 x 10^28 water molecules have already passed through your body. And here’s what that number looks like:

22,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules have passed through your body in ten years.

Because water is constantly cycling around, and because every human being has such large numbers of molecules of water cycling through them, there’s a very good chance that each one of us has at least a few molecules of water that were formerly in the body of Socrates, the great philosopher. We each probably have some molecules of water that were once in the body of Jesus of Nazareth, and of the Buddha, and any number of great and wise people who lived in the past.

Thus when we say that we are all interconnected, that statement is quite literally true — we are all interconnected through the water cycle, not only with each other, but with all living beings past and present. Jesus, Confucius, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Eliza Tupper Wilkes who was the first Unitarian minister in Palo Alto — you might be literally connected with each of these good and wise people.

Tip of the hat to Steve Hersey for saying something much like this in the Watertown, Mass., UU congregation many years ago.

How to disestablish your congregation

If you’re part of any liberal religious community, your congregation is no longer a part of established power structure of the United States. We religious liberals are so far out of the establishment that the majority of U.S. residents don’t even know who we are. This is why so many people in the U.S. believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim — he’s actually a religious liberal (of the mainline Protestant variety), but more U.S. residents know what Islam is than know what liberal religion is, so since Obama is not a born-again Christian they assume he’s a Muslim. As for you, they probably think you belong to a cult.

Your liberal congregation has already been disestablished in pragmatic terms, so now it’s time to disestablish your congregation in terms of self-perception, and in terms of the way you organize. Here’s a handy checklist to help you accomplish this goal:

(1) Re-focus your energy on the core mission of liberal religious congregations: holding common worship services where we focus on that which is larger than our individual selves; raising our children in religious community; holding appropriate rites of passage when people are born, when they marry, and when they die.

(2) Recognize that what we stand for as religious liberals is extremely countercultural in today’s society: we distrust consumerism because it weakens and shrivels our best selves; we distrust the current economic system (which is supported by both liberals and conservatives) both because it is founded on consumerism, and because at present it is increasing the number of poor people in the U.S.; we reject the idea that born-again Christianity is the norm against which all other religion is judged; etc. These countercultural stands mean that we will never be fully accepted in the halls of established power. Continue reading

This includes us

If you’re an anti-Christian Unitarian Universalist, hold on for a bit, because this post applies to you, too. In an essay in the most recent Christian Century magazine, the Christian theologian Douglas John Hall writes:

“I remember a conversation early in the 1970s in which a small group of clergy in the city where I lived were discussing the question, “On the pattern of Revelation chapters 2 and 3, what do you think ought to be the ‘message of the Spirit’ to the churches of this city?” I found myself answering this question almost without knowing what I said: ‘The Spirit writes to the churches of North America: Disestablish yourselves!’

“I’m afraid my words fell on the ears of my hearers as though I had been speaking in tongues. But I continued to pursue that theme in many lectures and a whole series of books on the future I envisaged, with the help of many others, for a Christian movement that had seriously tried to disentangle itself from the ethos and assumptions of the imperial peoples of the West, with their explicit or implicit racism, ethnocentrisms, militarism, and ideologies of power….”

So says Donald Hall. And the same thing applies to the Unitarian Universalist movement: we need to disentangle ourselves from the ethos and assumptions of the ruling powers of the United States, to disestablish ourselves (actually, in our case, part of the task is finally to understand how little political influence we actually have, and to re-conceptualize ourselves on that basis).


Happy 90th birthday, 19th Amendment!

Yesterday marked the 90th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. Ninety years is a relatively short period of time: within memory of people I know, women did not have the right to vote in federal elections.

Unfortunately, by the time that women were gaining the right to vote, women ministers were finding it nearly impossible to find settlements in Unitarian or Universalist churches. There had been a period of a few decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when a few dozen women would get settlements in our churches. But by 1920, that period was over. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Unitarian Universalists began ordaining — and settling — women in significant numbers once again.

Maybe we’ve done better in politics than we’ve done in religion. In politics, the fact that we have powerful female politicians on both the left — Nancy Pelosi is a liberal powerhouse — and on the far right — Sarah Palin is a central figure of the Tea Party — is remarkable. In religion, however, most religious groups do not have gender equality among their clergy or equivalent leaders; many religious groups do not allow women to even serve as clergy at all. Sure, Unitarian Universalists have more women ministers than male ministers, but we constitute a tiny fraction of the U.S. population.

In her preface to a 1992 reprinting of Sexism and God-Talk, Rosemary Radford Reuther wrote: “The starting point for feminist theology, perhaps all theology, is ‘cognitive dissidence.’ What is is not what ought to be. Not only that, but what we have been told ought to be is not always what ought to be” [SCM Press: London, p. xix].

The feminist revolution is not even complete within Unitarian Universalism: men still dominate the highest-paying ministry jobs. In many other religious traditions, the feminist revolution has barely begun. Sure, I’m ready to celebrate the 19th Amendment: break out the cake and cookies! And while we’re celebrating that political achievement, let’s figure out how we can do a little cognitive dissidence in religion. Maybe we can figure out how to reach out to feminists in other religious traditions, to offer support if they need it, to learn from them so we can keep moving forward in our own feminist revolution, and perhaps to make progress towards a world where all religions recognize the equality of women and men.