Monthly Archives: February 2006

Public service announcement

The Register, an online journal that covers computer security issues, reported yesterday on the first Mac OS X “Trojan,” or computer virus. Mac users should be wary of anything that prompts them to enter their login name and password. Link to article

According to a February 8, 2006, article in The Register, computer security experts expect Apple computer users, long free of viruses, worms, Trojan horses, etc., to experience increasing numbers of security breaches in the coming year. This is partly due to Apple’s switch to Intel processors for new Macs, processors which are more familiar to malicious hackers. But it’s also due to Apple’s increased market share in the personal computing world, making them a bigger, and more tempting, target. Worst of all, Apple has had little or no experience dealing with malware, while remaining uncommunicative as to its security measures.

“The reality is that security work does comes from a trial by fire,” [independent consultant Dan Kaminsky] said. “And Apple really has not had that experience. It had not had the experience from some 20 years that Unix had and that Linux has absorbed. It has not had the experience that Microsoft had with its summer of worms.”

If you’re a Mac user like me, take note. Link

More on “lovemarks”

I’ve begun to hear more talk about what happens to kids who grew up as Unitarian Universalists, and then left our congregations. My older sister is one of those people, and in response to my series of posts on “Lovemarks,” she sent this long comment about the “new Unitarian Unviersalism”:

Your comments about the new Unitarian Universalism (UU) nailed it for me: I find UU largely offputting now. The jargon — seven principles? — the stuff — the chalice? — the almost lockstep political correctness — these elements of UU now are not the thoughtful, considering, curious UU I grew up with. UU has become a brand, and the brand is not one I particularly connect to, nor feel welcomed by. There was a certain mystery to the UU we grew up with, and I don’t think this came simply from being a wide-eyed child; for me the mystery was embodied in the amazing things we learned in Sunday school about art and science and our pal Jesus. In UU as I remember it, Jesus too had some mystery — not of the religious sort, but of the kind of mystery embedded in any very passionate person who believes in doing right, asking hard questions, teaching a new way of looking at the world, and then with clarity acts on those beliefs.

I look at UU now and I see a rather cookie-cutter multiculturalism, as if indeed we all are one big family, loving everyone everywhere. Really? What really gets me, and I’m thinking about particular upper-class communities here [in Indiana], is that all the do-goodingness seems to happen somewhere else. Instead of going to the other side of town, well-meaning Unitarian Universalists go to the inner city. Instead of interacting genuinely with people of different socioeconomic classes in the ordinary transactions of life, there is a dramatic intentionality to interactions: find someone noticeable, different, clearly other, and “help” them.

Clearly I’m focusing on class issues; it seems that caring about class, especially lower class white folks, is not cool in UU — race and ethnicity and sexual orientation are. I would argue that class issues are one of the most important things we can focus on right now. The split between those who have and those who do not is growing wider and wider. Yes it’s interwoven with race and ethnicity and sexual orientation, but at the heart of the great divide in this country is socioeconomic privilege, or lack thereof.

I will qualify this by saying I don’t think this willful blindness to class is unique to UU’s. I am seeing it right now in the institution where I work [part of the state university system]. An alternative spring break is planned here, as I imagine it is in innumerable places, to go “help” the “victims” of Katrina by working for Habitat for Humanity. This is worthy, of course, and who knows, I may even go myself. But I also think that projects like this are not enough. They are showy, contained, and somewhere else. After a week of doing good then we all come home, safe, back to life as usual. What if, I wonder, we spent a day every week “doing good”? There are houses here, in this town, that are riddled with lead paint, asbestos in the basement, mold in the walls. What about them? What if we spent an hour every day working on that? An hour a day simply “doing good”? Or every damn minute of every day no matter where we are or who we meet? Jesus did. That’s kinda why we liked him. And if I recall correctly, he loved everyone. Equally.

But, what do I know. I’m just a grumpy English professor.

Love, Jean

Yup. Just remember, the key point of my series of posts on “Lovemarks” was actually quite subversive. OK, Unitarian Universalism has been turned into a kind of brand name. So take that a step further, apply the latest thinking in marketing, and turn Unitarian Universalism into a “Lovemark.” With a lovemark, the consumer owns it, not the big corporation. This means we own Unitarian Universalism. Us. Not them.

(Can you imagine if Jean, or my younger sister Abby, lived near my church? I’d make them come and teach Sunday school, infecting another generation of kids with mystery, stories of our pal Jesus, and those impossibly high ideals we learned as Unitarian Universalist kids. Bwah-hah-hah-hah-hah!)

Beyond evolution

The latest issue of the print magazine UUWorld carries an article on Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow. Link You might want to read the article first, before reading my commentary on it.

Dowd and Barlow are Unitarian Universalists and itinerant preachers who preach the gospel of (drumroll please) evolution. Taking their inspiration from Brian Swimme’s “Great Story” of evolution from the beginnings of the cosmos through the evolution of life on our planet and culminating in human beings, Dowd and Barlow travel from place to place telling this “Great Story,” and telling people that religion can be founded on the story of evolution.

Not necessarily a bad start at theology, but the UUWorld article, and other things I’ve read about Dowd and Barlow, seem to indicate a number of serious problems with their thoughts. I’ll briefly point out some of the problems that come up in the UUWorld magazine, recognizing that I haven’t heard Dowd and Barlow directly, and recognizing that I’m filtering what I know about them through my own early attempts at ecological ethics.

1. Problems with meta-narratives

I’m always distrustful of grand, sweeping religious stories that claim to explain everything. Using the language of post-modernism, these grand, sweeping stories can be called “meta-narratives.” One thing meta-narratives seem to do is to blur important differences in order to further the agenda of the meta-narrative. Unfortunately, I think Dowd and Barlow are guilty of this. Here’s a quote from the UUWorld article:

Like Unitarian Universalists, the Great Story movement embraces both theists and atheists. Dowd has coined the term “creatheist,” to describe both religious orientations within the movement. He pronounces the word creatheist to refer to himself, a theist who “knows that the whole of reality is creative and that humans are an expression of this divine process.” And he calls Barlow a “creatheist — an atheist who knows the same thing.”

Back in 1974, in an article titled “Theism and Humanism: The Chasm Narrows,” Unitarian Universalist theologian William R. Jones pointed out that most liberal theists were a lot closer to humanists (or call them atheists if you will), than they were to most conservative theists. Jones said that the liberal theists could be called “humanocentric theists,” that is, while they believed in God they also felt human beings had the freedom and autonomy to make serious moral choices; life was not all about “God’s will” being done. However, while Jones pointed out that humanocentric theists and (humanocentric) religious humanists shared many characteristics, he also identified serious differences between them, including:

At the bottom of the humanist world view hovers the opinion that ultimate reality may not be intrinsically benevolent or supportive of human welfare. Recognizing that God’s benevolence is not self-evident and that every alleged instance of divine agape can also be interpreted as divine malice for humanity (cf. Camus’s inverted interpretation of Golgotha in The Rebel), humanism permits but does not dictate a human response of rebellion as soteriologically authentic.

It sure sounds to me as if Dowd and Barlow think that ultimate reality is on the benevolent end of the spectrum, which means their meta-narrative glosses over at least one crucial theological difference. Dowd and Barlow could learn from Jones, who does a far better job of reconciling humanists and theists while respecting their real differences. Dowd and Barlow could also benefit Jones’s ability to link theology to social justice and ethics.

2. Problems with ethics

If we look at Dowd and Barlow from the point of view of environmental ethics, another interesting problematic emerges. Patrick Curry, in his new book Environmental Ethics: An Introduction (Cambridge, U.K., and Malden, Mass., Polity Press, 2006), makes the case for the existence of at least three strains of ecological ethics:

  1. a “light green” ethics which is human-centered
  2. a “mid-green” ethics where “value is not restricted to humans but does not extend all the way to ecosystems”
  3. a “dark green or deep (ecocentric)” ethics which extends ethics to holistic entities, i.e., entire eco-systems.

By Curry’s standards, Dowd and Barlow’s “Great Story” seems to privelege human beings enough so that it would be considered “mid-green” or even “light green.” From my own dark-green point of view, Curry helps me understand why I have some discomfort with Dowd and Barlow: their theology seems unlikely to satisfy me. More to the point, I find that there is an existing ecological theology within Unitarian Universalism, open to the insights of science (as any ecological theology must be), that is in fact “dark green.”

In his discussion of ecocentric spirituality, Curry notes:

The understanding of the sacred that can make a positive and effective contribution to ecocentric ethics, then, is a valuing of Earth which is:

  • pluralist (while allowing commonalities, with other people in other places also valuing nature in other ways, to emerge):
  • local (while allowing connections with those others elsewhere);…

(I need hardly to point out that Dowd and Barlow’s “Great Story” is problematic when judged against these two criteria.) Curry identifies several current “deep green” schools of ethics which would tie in nicely with an ecocentric spirituality, including ecofeminism.

Ecofeminism is already widespread within Unitarian Universalism, already linked with spirituality and religion, and already deeply linked to our other historic justice concerns. I don’t see that Dowd and Barlow make a strong enough case for adopting their “Great Story” theology over ecofeminism; nor do I find that their theology has as much to offer in the realm of ethics as does ecofeminism.

3. Problems with their religious education proposals

One of Dowd and Barlow’s claims is that they are coming along and linking science to religious education. According to the article in UUWorld:

If children can learn at church that they descend from the stars and that their ancestors once swam in the sea, Barlow says, perhaps they’ll see there’s no fundametnal contradiction between having a religious understanding of the world — one that stands in awe of creation and finds meaning and value in existence — and embracing the profound offerings of science.

An admirable goal. It happens to be a goal that Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist religious educators have been following for at least the past six decades.

A quick review of historic Unitarian Universalist curriculum would have showed Dowd and Barlow that the New Beacon Series of religious education curriculum, overseen by Sophia Fahs, included many titles that incorporated science into religious education programs as early as the 1940’s (Fahs herself was incorporating science into religious education in her own non-denominational Sunday school as early as the 1920’s). In the 1960’s, there was the Beacon Science Series. You could argue that the most influential curriculum in our denomination’s history, About Your Sexuality, was deeply grounded in science. And still in print today is Peg Gooding’s Stepping Stone Year, with a great unit on science and cosmology. So really, Dowd and Barlow offer nothing new to Unitarian Universalists.

There’s a deeper problem here, though. In my own personal experience, I had lots of science in my Unitarian Universalist religious education. I have fond, albeit vague, memories of the Beacon Science Series. When I got into my teens, I heard plenty of sermons on the compatibility of science and religion. However, speaking from my own experience as a religious educator for over a decade, and as someone who was raised a Unitarian Universalist, I would have to say that grounding religious education in science is not sufficient. Science is based on lab work, reproducible results, close observation, etc. — if you want to set up labs in your Sunday school space, go right ahead. But science does not answer many of the questions and concerns children have, like: “Who was Jesus, anyway?”, “I felt sad when my pet died,” or “Why is there hatred in the world?” As the great Quaker theologian Rufus Jones once wrote,

“The poet may know of flowers which ‘can give thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears,’ but science discovers no such flowers in its field. Its flowers are amazingly complex, but they call for no handkerchief. Rufus Jones, Spiritual Reformers, p. xvii

Good religious education calls for a handkerchief.

Nor do I feel that Brian Swimme’s “Great Story” of creation provides very much substance for religious education. Someone once suggested I use it in a religious education program, and so I looked it over carefully, but it just didn’t stand up to existing Unitarian Unviersalist religious education materials.


Through their work, Dowd and Barlow are getting many people in Unitarian Universalism excited about doing some new theology. For that, they should be commended. I hope they will take into account existing theologies (and existing religious education materials) that mesh quite well with science, and indeed cover a far broader range of science than they do; they will be able to make their ideas go further that way. I hope, too, they move beyond their limited theological idea of incorporating the insights of science into religion, because that’s pretty old hat to Unitarian Universalists, and into a wider notion of an ecological theology.

They’ve made an acceptable start — now it’s time for Dowd and Barlow to do the hard work to crank it up to the next level.

The Shattered Tea Cup

I’ve been working on a series of stories for liberal religious kids, and have already posted two on this blog here and here. Yet another story from this work-in-progress:

The Shattered Tea Cup

Copyright (c) 2005 Dan Harper

Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a land called Japan, there lived a Zen Master. This Zen Master was very, very wise. People said that perhaps he was the wisest person in all of Japan.

The Zen Master was small and quiet, with gray hair and many lines on his face. He often smiled. He lived in a monastery that stood near the banks of a rushing river. There, he watched over all the monks who lived at the monastery, teaching them how to be good Zen Buddhist monks.

The monks chopped wood for the fireplace. They hauled buckets of water from the well to use in the kitchen. They listened to the teaching of the Zen Master, sitting in the great hall while the Zen Master gave Dharma Talks. Sometimes the best monks would challenge the teaching of the Zen Master in a tradition called Dharma Combat. Only monks who were truly enlightened could match the wit and wisdom of the Zen Master in Dharma Combat. And if one of the monks ever got the better of him in Dharma Combat, the Zen Master laughed out loud in pleasure.

But the most important thing that the monks did was to meditate. Every day, they sat on the floor of the great hall of the monastery, meditating in silence. No one said a word all day long. All you could hear in the great meditation hall was the sound of the rushing river, and the wind in the trees.

It was hard for the young monks to sit in silence for such long periods of time, but the Zen Master could sit for days on end, meditating in silence.

One of the younger monks asked him, “How can you sit for so long in silence?”

The Zen Master replied, “Stop worrying so much. Just sit.”


At that time in Japan, a very wise scholar lived far, far away from the monastery at a great University. This wise Scholar had written many books about Zen Buddhism, and in fact he had even lived as a Zen monk for a number of years. But while he was a monk he had never achieved enlightenment, and at last he had left the monastery to become a scholar. In fact, for all his wisdom and learning he had to admit to himself that, having never experienced enlightenment, he had never quite understood what enlightenment was.

One day, the Scholar heard about the wise Zen Master, who was perhaps the wisest person in all of Japan. “Ah!” said the Scholar to himself. “Someone who is as wise as that might be able to tell me what enlightenment is. I will go and visit this Zen Master.”

He called to his servants, “Get my donkey! I will ride to meet this wise man.”

His servants brought his little donkey, and off they trotted. After days and days and days and days of traveling, the Scholar got to the monastery. He and his servants were welcomed in silence by some monks. The Scholar stated his business, and he was led in alone to see the Zen Master.

While the Zen Master prepared tea, the Scholar said, “Zen Master, I have been trying to determine what Enlightenment is.”

“Do you think I can tell you?” said the Zen Master.

“They do say you are the wisest person in all of Japan,” said the Scholar. “Now, I have not myself reached the state of enlightenment, but I do know something about it. When I was a Zen monk, I sat and meditated for many hours. I have read the poems of the monk Ryokan, I have read what Boddhidharma said, I have read what Master Sheng-yen says, and many other writers and scholars. It seems that enlightenment is not a state where you know the oneness of the universe, but rather a state of empty mind. On the other hand….”

The Scholar talked on and on and on and on. He told the Zen Master what he, the Scholar, thought enlightenment might be. The Zen Master finished preparing tea. The Scholar kept on talking. The Zen Master handed the Scholar a delicate porcelain cup. The Scholar took the cup, paused to mention how beautiful the cup was, held it in both his hands — but he kept on talking.

The Zen Master began to pour the hot tea. The Scholar kept talking. The Zen Master kept pouring. The Scholar kept talking. The Zen Master kept on pouring, and the delicate cup grew uncomfortably hot. Then the cup overflowed, and some scalding water flowed onto the Scholar’s hands.

The Scholar started in surprise, the delicate cup flew out of his hands, and shattered on the floor beside him.

Upon hearing the cup shatter, the Scholar experienced enlightenment.

The Zen Master took all this calmly. “Here’s another cup,” he said. “Let’s have some tea.”


Notes on the story: In the book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (compiled by Paul Reps), you can find a story where a scholar visits the Japanese Zen master Nan-in (1868-1912). The Scholar talks too much, and Nan-in pours hot tea over the Scholar’s hands as a vivid demonstration of the necessity of keeping your mind open to new ideas. This story has taken on the status of a folk tale in contemporary American culture, and it is often used to tell people that they should shut up and listen to what the speaker has to say.

I have told variations of the Nan-in story a number of times in worship services, but I became uncomfortable with the way adults interpreted the story. Adults wanted the story to mean that children should be quiet and listen to authority figures. I tried to frame the story so that it became clear that it applied to adults as well: I would make the Scholar be the same age as I, and at the end of the story I would say that I felt more like the Scholar than the Zen Master. I began to tell the story as way to demonstrate the importance of meditation and of emptying one’s mind. But no matter how I told the story, the Scholar always came off looking like an idiot, and adults kept interpreting it as a story that was meant to tell children to be quiet and listen.

Then I read a dharma talk by Master Sheng-yen (1931- ), who tells the story of how one of his Zen masters, Xu Yun, acheived enlightenment. Xu Yun was holding a cup into which someone else was pouring tea. By mistake, the other person spilled some tea onto Xu Yun’s hand, he dropped the cup, and upon hearing it shatter he acheived enlightenment. Master Sheng-yen says that just as the cup shatters, the mind must shatter to become no-mind. By the way, Master Sheng-yen is a university professor and scholar as well as a Zen master, demonstrating that enlightenment and learning are not mutually exclusive.

Having the cup shatter seemed a much better ending to the story, so I retold the Nan-in story with this new ending. Of course, now it is no longer a Zen story, it is my story with Zen trappings.


I have just completed transferring all posts from this blog’s old site, at American OnLine, to this new site. A few glitches intervened:

  1. A big apology to the people who get notified of new posts to this blog via email. They found themselves with over a hundred email notifications in their in-box in the last 24 hours. Please accept my apologies — and sorry you have to delete all those email messages.
  2. No word yet on how this affected those who have an RSS feed. I had understood that backdating posts means no RSS feed — if I’m mistaken, my apologies to you as well.
  3. One or two posts got away from me, and appeared momentarily on the main blog before I corrected their dates. Sorry for any confusion.

But now the transfer is over — it’s been a mess for some of my readers — and a mess for me as I transferred the old posts one by one, by hand, from AOL’s kludgey blog system. Thank you for your patience.

One last thing — the old AOL site will stay up for a few more months, and then it will disappear.

Instant communication and religion

Back on Sunday, February 5, I mentioned the anti-gay hate crime in New Bedford during the worship service in the prayer. I wasn’t impressed with that prayer, so I tossed it into the file and forgot about it. Then excerpts from that prayer appeared on the Boston Globe Web site (thanks for the tip, Stoney). I’m grateful the reporter did some heavy edits to the prayer, because it reads much better now, but I have no idea where he got the text of that prayer.

All of which raises the issue about how religion is being changed by the communication revolution. What a minister says in a worship service today could wind up on a Web site tomorrow, and from there who knows where those words will spread. I have to admit, I’m slightly unsettled by this phenomenon. At the same time, it’s good to be aware of this phenomenon, and to start thinking of it as a fundamental part of the religious landscape.

Update: Turns out I did give the text to a reporter who called — I just misunderstood which newspaper he was calling from. Mystery solved: it was just my own lousy memory. Sigh.

Blizzard conditions

Ten people showed up at church this morning. One of them was a reporter from the New Bedford Standard-Times, reporting on Mayor Scott Lang’s call to religious organizations for a day of reflection and prayer this weekend, following the hate crime at Puzzles Lounge last week, and its aftermath; the reporter visited us because apparently First Unitarian was just about the only downtown church that held worship services this morning. The wind-blown snow made driving very difficult. I’d say we’ve had close to blizzard conditions all day: high winds and heavy snow.

Carol and I went home after church, had lunch, and sat around updating our respective Web sites. By four o’clock, I was getting a little stir crazy. “Let’s go for a walk,” I said. We could see blowing snow outside our windows, so we bundled up.

We walked down to the end of State Pier. Blowing snow kept visibility very low.Looking across the harbor, we could see some lights on the Fairhaven side, and I just barely made out the ghostly profile of the Unitarian Universalist church’s spire.

We didn’t walk around much; the wind was too fierce, driving the snow right into our faces, blowing cold air into our heavy coats. We mostly looked at all the fishing boats tied up, an unusually large number of them in port, riding out the storm.

I noticed something out in the water. “Look!” I said, “a seal.” Carol spotted two more, and then we saw another two right up next to the pier, and another two; maybe eight all told. The two up close to the pier poked their heads up, looking around, looking at each other nose to nose (it almost looked like they were kissing). Another one rolled in the water close by, and when I took a step forward to get a better look, it slapped its tail on the water and dove down out of sight. I’ve never seen so many seals in one small area in New Bedford harbor; perhpas they, too, are riding out the storm in a safe port.

Meditation, ukulele-style

After a month or more of unseasonably warm weather, temperatures have dropped back below freezing. Ordinarily at this time of year, 29 degrees would feel mild, warm even; but on Friday it felt bitter cold. The strong westerly breeze, damp and raw, didn’t help matters.

I walked across the harbor bridges to Fairhaven, all bundled up; and, if truth be told, feeling a little sorry for myself. It had been a week filled with too many little things to do, I had lost sight of the big picture, lost in the trivia of church work. And now it was cold, and it was supposed to snow. I walked along with my head down, brooding.

As I got to the gas station on Fish Island, for no reason at all I started to sing ‘ukulele songs. I’ve never been to Hawai’i — the closest I’ve come is reading the old James Michener novel, which isn’t very close — so I really don’t know what Hawai’i is like, except that it must be warm and friendly:

I wanna go back to my little grass shack in Kealakekua, Hawai’i,
I wanna be with all the kanes and wahines
That I used to know, long ago….

A truck pulled up beside me into the gas station and a man got out. The noise from four lanes of traffic running right next to me meant I could sing at the top of my lungs and he could barely hear me:

I can hear the old guitars playing
On the beach at Honaunau
I can hear the old Hawai’ians saying:
Komo mai no kaua i ka hale welakahao….

(Years ago, my ‘ukulele teacher told me that last line doesn’t mean anything at all, it’s just there to confuse the haoles.) Further along, a man stood on top of an old semi-trailer amidst all the junk and old machinery on Fish Island; a bulldozer rolled up to him, raised its bucket up, he stepped in and was lowered down. I kept singing:

When you love, ‘ukulele style,
With every note your heart will float
Far away to a tropic isle,
Where a ‘ukulele tune is softly played….

I kept walking along past the parking lot for Pope’s Island marina. The bright February sun crisply lit up every little piece of trash and broken shell along the highway. Ordinarily the trash would bother me, but I just kept singing.

Davidson Loehr’s angry letter

Davidson Loehr, senior minister at First Church Unitarian Universalist of Austin, Texas, wrote a letter to the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) back on November 30, 2005. In that letter, he lambasted the Pathways Church project, a Unitarian Universalist start-up church sponsored by denominational headquarters, for its complete failure to meet any of the initial goals of the project. Loehr said he believes that failure is tied to another problem with contemporary Unitarian Universalism, “the lack of a serious religious center.”

Now that’s a sweeping generalization, but Loehr does have a point about the wider denomination. My partner, Carol — who is unchurched — once pointed out that many Unitarian Universalist sermons sound like commentary on National Public Radio, which is to say, while hip and fun they are not particularly religious. At denominational headquarters, I am not aware of serious theological thinking affecting policy since Hugo Holleroth (who grounded religious education in existential theology) left there in the 1970s. Loehr elaborates on this problem later in his letter:

The center [of Unitarian Universalism] is political rather than religious, as it has been for decades. I’m not saying this as a crank; I’m saying it as someone who earned a Ph.D. in theology, with a good understanding of what religion is, and what it isn’t.

Rev. Peter Richardson has been instructive for me in this area, in pointing out that there actually once was a vision of a religion for the future that would still work, but that the UUA actively sabotaged it from the beginning. This was the vision of a religion grounded in the deep ontological commonalities of the great world religions — the “wisdom traditions” of the great religions — with its symbol of the circle of logos from eight or so of the world’s religions. While this seems the logical — even obvious — path toward a pluralistic future for any liberal religion, it simply can’t be done now, and may not be possible for a decade or more, unless there is a conversion of consciousness.

Actually, Ph.D. or no, Loehr is a little behind the times, intellectually speaking. That old idea of thinking that Unitarian Universalism could be a “a religion grounded in the deep ontological commonalities of the great world religions” has been seriously challenged in recent years. If you subject that idea to some simple deconstruction, you uncover tendencies towards an unfounded sense of superiority, reductionism, and imperialism. The unfounded sense of superiority comes into play in the assumption that we’re so much better than anyone else that we can find those “deep ontological commonalities” that somehow managed to elude the greatest religious thinkers up until now — it’s possible, but no one else in the world seems to recognize this superiority of ours. The reductionism comes into play in the assumption that religions can be reduced to relatively simple ontological “commonalities” that can be divorced from a lived religion, including liturgical practice and day-to-day embodied living of one’s religion — that’s a little too Cartesian and Western to be considered universally true. The imperialism comes into play when the previous two assumptions remain unexamined; and the imperialism can manifest itself as cultural misappropriation or worse.

A number of us who are a bit younger than Loehr are heading in a different religious direction. Some of us are looking within our own tradition for a religious center — and we’re finding it. I don’t want to speak for others who are doing this work, but I know I’ve been drawing on Universalist and Transcendentalist religious thought, filtered through American pragmatism (which has roots in Emerson) and ecological theology and ecojustice (with roots in Thoreau and Emerson) — and uncovering a deeply religious center for my religious praxis. This is in distinct contrast to Loehr’s stated aim to incorporate “eight or so of the world’s religions.”

I have a suspicion that what I’m seeing, in my differences with Davidson Loehr, is that he is very much within the modernist tradition of creating grand meta-narratives that attempt to encompass and explain everything. Those of us who find themselves immersed in post-modernism are far more wary of making grand claims about religion — for instance, we’re wary of saying that we can incorporate other religious traditions into our own. Instead, from a postmodernist perspective, I might say that I am a post-Christian: acknowledging that I am very much in the Christian tradition, but recognizing that in a postmodern globalized world we have to accept that we are influenced by other world religions; the difference being that we aren’t trying to co-opt those other religions, but rather to understand what impact they have on us.

So where does this leave us? I think we do have a religious center, which I’d call post-Christian. Other Christians might not accept us, but we know that we are in, and came out of, the Christian tradition. Looking back to our past, I think we started becoming post-Christian as early as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Hosea Ballou, diverging from the Christian mainstream, rejected by them, and growing into something new. By claiming our place on the margins as our religious center, by engaging in “theological archaeology” to find out who we were and who we are, by avoiding the construction of grand metanarratives about who we might be — I think we could become a far more viable postmodern religious tradition.

What do you think?

Original post revised in light of Scott Wells’s comment.