Monthly Archives: January 2007

Possibilities for Post-Christian Worship, pt. 4

Fourth in a series. Bibliography will be included with the final post. Back to the first post in this series.

(C) Private devotions and small group worship in a post-Christian congregation, continued

(C.2) Small groups

Small group worship occupies a middle ground between private devotions and common worship. At its best, small group worship offers a continuing opportunity for renewal and reform. James Luther Adams (1976, p. 85) talks about this aspect of small groups when he describes the ecclesiola in ecclesia as a possibility for ongoing reform of voluntary associations:

In the modern period the ecclesiola has been the small group of firm dedication that sometimes promotes the disciplines of the inner life, sometimes bends its energies to sensitize the church afflicted with ecclesiastical somnolence, sometimes cooperates with members of the latent church in the world to bring about reform in government or school or industry, or even to call for radical structural transformation.

Small group worship can take on this positive, reforming aspect in post-Christian congregations. Feminist worship groups in the second wave of feminism (1960’s and 1970’s) may serve as an example of small groups helping to sensitize larger congregations to the possibility of ecclesiastical somnolence. Many such feminist worship groups worked on developing new worship language and new forms of worship that allowed men and women to be true equals (the wide-spread “Water Communion” in Unitarian Universalist congregations in fact originated with a small feminist worship group). Certain Neo-Pagan groups within a larger Unitarian Universalist congregation have operated in this way, challenging liturgical and theological assumptions of the congregation, particularly in the areas of feminism and environmentalism, while remaining fully connected with it. Outside Unitarian Universalism, we might consider the revolutionary role assigned to small groups (base communities) by practitioners of liberation theology.

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Odds and ends on books and blogs

I’m usually not a big fan of Internet quizzes, but I couldn’t resist “Which science fiction writer are you?” I knew I was going to be Ursula K. LeGuin, and that’s who the quiz said I was. Except of course that I’m not, because I don’t have her talent and skill.


New blog by a religious professional called Open the Doors: The Ministry of Welcome, written by the thoughtful and insightful Chance Hunter. Chance has just become the Welcome Ministry Coordinator at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, Georgia. I’m looking forward to hearing about his thoughts and experiences in congregational hospitality and growth in a program/corporate size congregation.


I miss going to the Seminary Coop Bookstore in Chicago, which remains for my money the best academic bookstore in the United States — at least for the topics I’m interested in: religion, ecology, philosophy, cultural criticism. Today I discovered to my delight that their Web site now allows you to browse The Front Table, the books they currently stock on the famous front table of their 59th St. store — there’s always one or two books on that front table that I decide to buy.


Will Shetterly, the Unitarian Universalist and science fiction writer who writes the blog “It’s All One Thing,” has recently stopped eating meat as part of his Three Steps To Save the World. Since that first post, he’s done a number of other posts on vegetarianism and veganism (link, link, and most recently link). He’s convinced me — this week I went back to being a vegetarian. I still eat eggs and butter, and I’m willing to eat small amounts of locally-raised organic meat, but today’s meat and fishing industries are way too polluting and non-sustainable.

Possibilities for Post-Christian Worship, pt. 3

Third in a series. Bibliography will be included with the final post. Back to the first post in this series.

(C) Private devotions and small group worship in a post-Christian congregation

(C.1) Private devotions

Private devotions, the act of an individual worshipper, appear to be as necessary as common worship. James Luther Adams (1976, p. 64) notes that individuals are not “wholly comprehended in the community or the state of the family or the other associations. Individuals possess an integrity and freedom of their own”; thus implying the possibility and even the necessity of a private devotional life. At the same time, Adams (1998, p. 122 ff.) is equally clear that an inner life of devotion is not enough. What, then, is the relationship between private devotions and common worship?

Liberal Quaker philosopher and theologian Douglas Steere (1992), speaking from a liberal Christian theology, beautifully describes the tensions between private devotions and what he calls corporate worship:

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Today, for the first time this year, I saw ice floating in the harbor. Even though today the temperature almost got above freezing, you can finally see the effects of the cold snap of the past week. There was a shelf of ice in a sheltered area on the Fairhaven side of the harbor. The wind broke off small pieces of it. Three gulls sat on one such piece, drifting along towards Pope’s Island, surveying the world as the piece of ice spun slowly around. On the other side of Pope’s Island, I watched two Harbor Seals playing in the deep water of the main shipping channel. With the cold weather, the seals have moved back into the harbor again. One stuck its head and neck up out of the water; through the binoculars I could see its dark eyes and its whiskers dripping water.

Possibilities for Post-Christian Worship, pt. 2

Second in a series. Bibliography will be included with the final post. Back to the first post in this series.

(B) What is worship for a post-Christian congregation?

What is the purpose of worship in a post-Christian congregation? The Unitarian Universalist Commission on Common Worship (1983) says of worship:

Though it is often defined as reverence given to a divine being or power, it need not have supernatural implications. The origin of the word “worship” is in the Old English weorthscippen, meaning to ascribe worth to something….

This is a start towards an understanding of why we worship, although it leaves unanswered the question of what that “something” is to which we are going to ascribe worth. James Luther Adams (1998) goes further, saying:

The free church is that community which is committed to determining what is rightly of ultimate concern to persons of free faith.

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Life in the city

The coldest day so far this year: it got down to three degrees Fahrenheit last night in New Bedford. It was thirteen degrees when I went out for a walk this afternoon, with a twenty mile an hour wind. A Harbor Seal surfaced in the channel just below the swing-span bridge. Lots of ducks huddling together in the water on the lee side of Pope’s Island. The Buffleheads are usually wary and fly away before I get within a hundred yards of them, but today they just paddled out a few more feet and stayed there, keeping an eye on me. A Lark Sparrow, its feathers all fluffed up, let me come within six feet before it flew up into the shelter of a pitch pine. Bitter cold winter days are the best days to see animals in the city: with so few humans walking around, and no dogs, the birds and some of the mammals become quite tame.


This past week I’ve stayed at home, studying and writing, and I haven’t moved my car in all that time. I was going to get some groceries for lunch, so I went over to the Elm Street parking garage to get the car. I noticed broken glass on the pavement and then realized that the front passenger’s side window was smashed in. Whoever had done it had rifled through the glove box and the junk I kept in the bin under the cheap car radio; they took a portable CD that was broken, and left twenty dollars in quarters. Go figure.

The police were polite but bored when I called: “We’ll send a cruiser out. Where will you be?” “How long will it take?” I said, thinking to myself, It’s cold out, I’m not going to stand around waiting for the cops to show up.” “Um, why don’t you leave us a phone number… Or you could come in and make a report…” I said I’d come in to the station, knowing I wouldn’t bother. Instead, I called my insurance agent and got immediate and friendly service: “Call this number, it won’t cost you anything, no paperwork.” I called the glass company, and the window was fixed within hours.


At lunch time, my car was getting a new window, and Carol was busy writing her next book. “I’ll buy you a sandwich,” she said. That sounded like a good idea. We walked two blocks up to Cafe Arpeggio, where Carol got some kind of Portuguese soup, and I got a sandwich. Lunch hour was in full swing, and the cafe was packed: people coming in and slowly shedding coats and hats and gloves; people standing up to leave, wrapping themselves with scarves and sweaters and coats. It was a great way to get out of the house on a frigid winter day.

Then this evening, Carol walked across the street to the monthly “After Hours” social event at the Whaling Museum, with music by a local blues band. I decided not to go — I can no longer tolerate loud music due to tinnitus. But I stood in the window for a while and entertained myself by watching the people coming and going.


Psychologist Howard Gardner has hypothesized that “intelligence” must be measured on more than one linear scale. There are, says Gardner, multiple intelligences; for example: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligences. Gardner also postulates a naturalist intelligence:

A naturalist demonstrates expertise in the recognition and classification of the numerous species — the flora and the fauna — of his or her environment. [Intelligence Reframed, Basic Books, 1999, pp. 48 ff.]

You could argue that this intelligence is not highly valued in our society. When the majority of the population was rural, the naturalist intelligence would have been highly valued. For most of us human beings, this is no longer the case:

…the naturalist is comfortable in the world of organisms and may well possess the talent of caring for, taming, or interacting subtly with various living creatures. Such potentials exist [in the roles of biologists and environmentalists, and]… with many other roles range from hunters to fishermen to farmers to gardeners to cooks.

Fewer and fewer people hunt or fish these days; farmers make up less than five percent of the population; many of us live where it’s impossible to have a garden; and cooking has been reduced to opening packages of pre-prepared food. Yet it is a human characteristic that if we have an ability, we will want to practice it, and there will be consequences if we don’t practice it. Sherlock Holmes needed opportunities to practice his highly-developed ability for criminal investigation (a combination, perhaps, of logical-mathematical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligences); without such opportunities, he reached for his seven-per-cent solution of cocaine.

For those of us who have some measure of it, the naturalist intelligence will find expression, even in the typical urban or suburban landscape where there is little in the way of biodiversity. In a debased form, it may be what drives some people to be able to identify the year and model of a Harley Davidson motorcycle glimpsed from a distance. My older sister keeps a horse and my younger sister has cats; the evening attendant at the Elm Street parking garage raises pigeons. I live in the middle of the city with almost no space for a garden; what saves my sanity is birdwatching and house plants; those two things, and I take an hour-long walk every day instead of going to the gym, for I would rather be outdoors in the worst weather than cooped up in a sterile gym.

I have fantasies about quitting ministry and going back to work as a carpenter. At least then I’d be working with wood, which even when cut is a living material. At least then I’d be outdoors much of the time.

Possibilities for Post-Christian Worship, pt. 1

First in a series. Bibliography will be included with the final post.

(A) What is “post-Christian”?

At the beginning of his monumental history of American liberal theology, scholar Gary Dorrien (2001, p. xx) briefly addresses the state of liberal theology today, saying: “Today the liberal perspective in theology encompasses a wide spectrum of Christian and, arguably, post-Christian and interreligious positions.” This statement of Dorrien’s raises the interesting question of what a post-Christian or interreligious position might look like, and the even more interesting question of what a post-Christian or interreligious congregation might look like.

I would state with some confidence that post-Christian and interreligious congregations do exist, and have existed for some years now. In 1971, Dana Greeley, who was president of the Unitarian Universalist Association from 1961 to 1969, wrote:

A question asked of Unitarians and Universalists again and again is “Are you Christians?” I have spoken and written many times on this subject, but I have no simple answer to the question. Most Catholic and Protestant Christians, until fairly recently anyway, would have said that we are not Christians. Most Jews would think that we are Christians. When I told one Unitarian friend that Anglicanism’s Dean Stanley referred to Channing as “the morning star of the second reformation,” my friend immediately concluded that Channing was heralding or prophseying a new era, and as Protestantism (resulting from the first Reformation) went beyond Catholicism, so the second Reformation would go beyond Protestantism; a post-Protestant, post-Christian era would begin. Numerous people believe that, or interpret Unitarianism that way. It is a plausible diagnosis, though Channing would never have thought of himself as the forerunner of a non-Christian faith. (For that matter, Jesus would never have thought of himself as the forerunner of a non-Jewish faith.)

In this passage, Greeley begins to develop one plausible definition for what it might mean to have a post-Christian position as a positive, affirmative religious stance. First of all, Greeley’s post-Christian position looks enough like Christianity to be perceived as such by non-Christians; whereas most avowed Christians would deny that the post-Christian is indeed Christian. Today, many Unitarian Universalist congregations could be characterized as post-Christian using this criterion. They retain certain outward aspects of Christianity, such as holding weekly communal meetings on Sunday morning — a distinctively Christian practice. At the same time, they do not fulfill some common criteria for determining whether or not someone is Christian. Speaking from a Unitarian Universalist perspective, Edward A. Cahill (1974) writes: “Christianity calls for the acceptance on faith of a precisely defined belief system,” in contrast to, say Judaism which requires “observance of rigorous social and ritualistic prescripts”; and both these traditions contrast with Unitarian Universalism which requires “the exercise of the free use of reason in an open atmosphere of mutual respect.” Neither Christian nor non-Christian, Unitarian Universalists might best be described as post-Christian.

Greeley’s second point provides a more positive definition of the post-Christian position. More positively, a post-Christian position can be seen as continuing in the tradition of the Protestant Reformation, by taking what is perceived as the best of the Christian tradition while rejecting certain aspects of the tradition which are seen as non-essential. Thus, the post-Christian position retains a connection with Christian tradition, but moves outside some common definitions of what it means to be Christian. We might expand Greeley’s definition to include positions that are derived from the moral, religious, and/or ethical teachings of Christianity but which retain an openness to other moral, religious, and/or ethical teachings.

It’s important to remember that some other definitions emphasize that the post-Christian position has lost what it truly means to be a Christian. For example, the term “post-Christian” may be used in certain Christian circles to indicate persons who lack basic knowledge of the Christian tradition; or “post-Christian” can refer to a society which was perceived as formerly being grounded in Christian values, but which had fallen away from Christianity and into secularism. However, in this essay I am using the term in its positive sense.

Next: What is worship for a post-Christian congregation?

Suburban sprawl makes you fat and old

Any eco-freak worth his/her salt knows that suburban sprawl is bad (destroys wildlife habitat, requires excessive use of automobiles, is ugly, etc.). So far, the average response of the average American to the eco-freaks has been: “So what? We love our sprawl.” Now it appears that living in the midst of sprawl is associated with being fat. Better yet, a study has found that living in the midst of sprawl can make you feel like you’re years older:

In 2004, Cohen and Roland Sturm of RAND asked more than 8,000 residents of 38 U.S. communities to list their health problems. The researchers also assessed the degree of sprawl in each resident’s community. “People reported more complaints — more health problems — when they lived in more sprawling areas,” Cohen says. The excess of physical problems such as arthritis linked to sprawl was comparable to the change that would occur if the entire population suddenly aged by 4 years, Cohen and Sturm concluded.

Now we eco-freaks have a new argument: sprawl makes you fat and old. Read more: link.