Monthly Archives: January 2008

Cranky for a reason

And you wonder why Mr. Crankypants is cranky? Because he’s 48, that’s why. A University of Warwick professor has done research showing that simply being middle-aged is depressing:

Using data on 2 million people, from 80 nations, researchers from the University of Warwick and Dartmouth College in the US have found an extraordinarily consistent international pattern in depression and happiness levels that leaves us most miserable in middle age…. The researchers found happiness levels followed a U shaped curve, with happiness higher towards the start and end of our lives and leaving us most miserable in middle age….

For the average person in the modern world, the dip in mental health and happiness comes on slowly, not suddenly in a single year. Only in their 50s do most people emerge from the low period. But encouragingly, by the time you are 70, if you are still physically fit then on average you are as happy and mentally healthy as a 20 year old. Link to press release.

This news bit comes via Will Shetterly, whose commenters point out that for some of us middle-aged folk, age 20 sucked too. For his part, Mr. C. wonders if the average 20 year old just doesn’t have enough experience to realize how depressing the world is — never questioning why it is we are all in this handbasket, nor asking where it is we are all going.

A little more nuance with that, please

The January, 2008, issue of Locus celebrates the 90th birthday of Arthur C. Clarke with a number of special features, including a December interview borrowed from BBC’s Focus magazine. The interviewer asks, “What is the greatest threat that we, as a race, are facing?” and Sir Arthur replies:

Organised religion polluting our minds as it pretends to deliver morality and spiritual salvation. It’s spreading the most malevolent mind virus of all. I hope our race can one day outgrow this primitive notion, as I envisaged in 3001: The Final Odyssey.

I think Clarke underestimates the threat of global climate change, nuclear weapons, and continuing population growth, but as he admits elsewhere in the interview, “I have great faith in optimism as a philosophy, if only because it offers us the opportunity of self-fulfilling prophesy.” There are a few other threats I’d throw in there before I got to religion — global poverty and associated malnutrition, the growing crisis around clean water supplies, violence against women, etc., etc. — threats that can physically kill you long before religion’s “mind virus” infects you.

Having said that, organized religion that “pretends to deliver morality and spiritual salvation” is indeed a dangerous thing; George W. Bush’s religion, which appears to have driven him to an ill-considered war in Iraq, is a case in point. Like Clarke, I am wary of religion that claims to deliver morality;– although I’m quite comfortable with a religion that allows consideration of moral issues in a skeptical but supportive community because it seems to me that moral issues are impossible to resolve on one’s own, and today’s market-driven society here in the United States allows precious few places where groups of people can talk through moral issues openly. Like Clarke, I am also wary of any religion that pretends to deliver spiritual salvation;– although I’m comfortable with a religion that simply states that all persons are automatically saved as a way of making the point that all persons are worthy of dignity and respect; but aside from that, I have no interest in a religion that claims to provide salvation only to a chosen few. (And yeah, I admit my bias, I like to think that my religion is one with which I can be comfortable.)

So I think Clarke makes one or both of the usual two errors that people make damning judgement of religion. The first error lies in damning all religion based on a small set of direct experiences with organized religion; and the second error lies in damning all religion based on portrayals of religion in the media. The first error uses too small a sample for adequate statistical analysis, and ignores exceptions that really must be considered before making such broad pronouncements. The second error is the classic error of relying on second-hand sources of questionable accuracy; if adequate first-hand observation isn’t possible, it’s always better to rely on serious peer-reviewed scholarly works, to get better data and a more nuanced analysis of that data.

Harbor seals

Sunday night’s storm left enough snow to make walking difficult on our habitual routes, so this afternoon I walked along the piers nearest our apartment. I walked out State Pier, past the crane belonging to the Cuttyhunk Ferry Company, dodged a pickup truck driving past the wire and rigging warehouse of New Bedford Ship Supply, watched the Martha’s Vineyard ferry head out of the harbor, dodged another pickup truck belonging to the state environmental police, and went down to the end of the pier to take a look at the harbor in the waning light of a cloudy evening.

When I got to the end of State Pier, I was following a Red-breasted Merganser quite close to the pier when I swuddenly found myself looking into the face of a Harbor Seal (Phoca vitulina) down in the water less than fifty feet away. It looked up at me, and I looked down at it. Another seal head popped up out of the water next to the first; two more seals rolled up out of the water farther out. The first seal dove under the water, and resurfaced again at a safer distance from the pier; I could hear the second seal breathing, a sort of huff–ffff sound as it exhaled sharply and then inhaled; then it dove under the surface and disappeared.

It is really remarkable to come upon such a large mammal in the middle of an urban environment. And seals are large, typically some five feet long and weighing over 250 pounds — in other words, about the size of a small American Black Bear (Ursus americanus). If I came across a Black Bear while I was walking around downtown New Bedford, I’d doubtless feel a tingling of fear and a little bit of awe; because seals stick to the water, I don’t feel fear when I see them, but the sense of awe is definitely there. I don’t feel that same awe when I look at a merganser or a gull — they’re too different, and I don’t feel much of anything when I look in their faces — but a seal has a real and recognizable face, and it’s pretty much the same size as I am.

I stood watching the seals for quite a while. At one point, I counted seven seals with their heads above the surface of the water, or just having gone under the surface moments before. I stood stock still, and after a while they began to ignore me, and they came in closer to the pier. I listened to a couple more of them breathing, huff-ffff. At last a deepwater lobster boat came close by going one way, and a small tugboat passed close by going the other way, and the seals moved further away from the pier. The light was beginning to fade, so I headed home.

Neither moral nor managerial

Mr. Crankypants here, and as usual he has something on his mind, which is this: Why is it that people in the United States assume that everything a minister says has to do with morality? — actually, morality and guilt. As if ministers are predominantly supreme moral and ethical arbiters. Speaking as someone whose alter ego happens to be a minister, Mr. Crankypants is uniquely placed to assure you that, on average, ministers are not that much better at moral and ethical distinctions than are non-ministers. It is true that ones would like a minister who is not going to molest one’s children nor rob one blind, but having an honest minister does not mean one should feel guilty every time one sees one’s minister.

Nor, despite what the acolytes of John Carver will try to tell you, are ministers essentially supermanagers and/or superadministrators. Trust Mr. Crankypants, most ministers have little formal training in management and administration, and even less skill. The effort to equate ministers with Chief Executive Officers is a lost cause, unless your congregation plans to pay your minister a salary equivalent to a CEO salary (we’re talking six figures for a chump CEO, and seven figures for a competent CEO for a nonprofit organization, just so you have no illusions about this). It is true that there are a few ministers with MBAs, but if your minister gave up a well-compensated position in the business world, you would be wise to be a little bit suspicious about why he or she decided to drop that seven-figure salary in favor of the pittance your congregation pays.

No,– in Mr. Crankypants’s experience, it is unwise to expect a minister to be either particularly moral or ethical (thus no need to feel guilty when you see your minister), nor to expect your minister to be particularly adept as a manager. At best, we can hope for minister who approximates to a holy person. But we’ll probably have to settle for someone who actually does maintain a daily spiritual practice, and who might be occasionally inspired (a word which literally means, O best beloved, infused with spirit, or Spirit). Ha! –too bad my stupid alter ego, Dan, is none of the above; except that he does maintain a daily spiritual practice.

Now that that is settled, Mr. Crankypants will head off to bed.

Wintry thoughts

It’s one of those winter nights: blowing snow, freezing fog, not a fit night for any creature to be out. It’s a good night to sit at home and think somber thoughts….

I had lunch today with another minister; she’s in her twenties, and like me has times when she despairs of Unitarian Universalism — the churches that go into complete denial when faced with the stark choice between changing and dying; the worship services that lack meaning and spiritual depth but which cannot be changed because “that’s the way we’ve always done it”; this denomination that continues to shrink relative to the growing population of the United States. Perhaps worst of all, she pointed out that Unitarian Universalists, for all our blather about social justice, give less money per person in charitable donations than any other denomination.

We talked about how you can accomplish “culture change” within the institution of the local church. Can change occur from within Unitarian Universalist churches? Or is there too much inertia within the system to allow for meaningful change? We didn’t come to any conclusions, but we agreed on the need for change:– it’s change or die, change or lose most of Generation X and the generations after them. I don’t care what you call that change — the term “UU Emergence” is useful only because it points people to the rich conversations that have already happened in evangelical and Jewish circles — but whatever you decide to call it, change has to happen.


Today, at last, I saw a thin skin of ice on some protected parts of New Bedford harbor. A tiny stream trickles out of a culvert between the public access boat ramp and a marine construction yard on the Fairhaven side of the harbor, and where it entered the harbor I could see the thinnest skin of ice, broken up into tiny shards by the small waves that ruffled the surface of the water. Yesterday, when Carol and I were walking around that boat ramp, we saw no ice at all.

Thirty or forty gulls stood around on the parking lot for the boat ramp, mostly Ring-billed Gulls, with half a dozen yearling and third-year Herring Gulls. Most of the gulls just stood around under the cloudy sky, facing all different directions. One of the Herring Gulls picked idly at something green. An adult Ring-billed Gull thought about challenging the bigger, younger gull for whatever it was, took a few desultory steps towards the green thing, but turned away as soon as the Herring Gull looked at it. I walked over to see what the green thing might be — the gulls got out of my way very reluctantly — and discovered that it was one of several slices of honeydew melon, almost translucent from having been frozen, well-pecked, dirty, not at all appetizing.

An American in Kenya

Charlie Clements, the head of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) here in the States, is making a trip to Kenya to assess needs for aid following the recent political crisis — and he’s blogging his Kenya trip here. As yet, he has not made contact with any of the Kenyan Unitarian Universalists — I even wonder if any of those fragile new UU congregations (the oldest was started in 2004) managed to survive the crisis intact.

Low tide

Carol and I walked over to Fairhaven late this afternoon. By the time we got to the public access boat landing, the tide was quite low.

“Want to walk down on the beach?” I said to Carol. The beach in question is perhaps 100 feet long, a short section of muddy, pebbly beach in between the paved boat landing and the piers of the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

“OK,” she said. “First one to find the prize wins.”

We walked the short section of beach. There were lots or broken bottles, and small bits of plastic that had washed ashore. But there were also lots of shells, a surprising number of shells for such a disturbed section of shoreline. Particularly common were shells of the Common Slipper Shell, but there were also plenty of Ribbed Mussels and Northern Quahog.

“Look at this oyster,” said Carol, poking at a six-inch specimen of Eastern Oyster with her toe. It was a good shell, but it wasn’t a real prize.

I saw one or two other Eastern Oyster shells, a few Atlantic Bay Scallops, and some barnacles. I was looking for Common Periwinkles, which you can find in some of the most polluted parts of the harbor, when suddenly I spotted something very unusual half-buried in the muck. I pulled it out and held it up to show Carol: “Look, a sand dollar!” I said. The organism was dead, but the shell — technically called a “test” — was intact and perfect.

She came over to look at it. “You win the prize,” she said. It really was a prize — to think that a sand dollar was living in a marine industrial landscape! Carol had me rinse it off so we could take it home; and now it is sitting in our kitchen sink, drying out.

How to do emergent theology

while there are still those people who want to do systematic theology, those people typically live in the world of academia, or wish they were living in the world of academia. Systematic theology has become theology for other theologians and scholars. From where I stand, it is theology that has lost its connection with the reality of my world.

So where do I stand?

  • In the Buzzard’s Bay watershed in southeastern Massachusetts. (Systematic theology ignores watersheds and bioregions because it grows out of assumptions that theology applies in the same way to every watershed.) We are a postindustrial landscape where parts of the landscape contain intense concentrations of toxic wastes. We are in a postagricultural landscape where sprawl eats up farms and cranberry bogs. All this shapes the theological tasks of healing and redemption.
  • In a diverse community of human beings who don’t always fit neatly into the binary American categories of race. (American systematic theology, when it recognizes race at all, has a tendency to divide human beings into black and white binaries.) The Native and African American communities blend together. The Cape Verdean community may be Black, or it may be Portuguese, depending on who’s doing the looking and the talking. A White person could be an Anglophone or a Lusophone or a “Hispanophone.” All this shapes practical theological anthropology in ways seemingly foreign to the academic theologians.
  • In a place where religious discourse is divided between by conservative Catholic rhetoric on the one hand, and conservative atheist rhetoric on the other hand. (Systematic theology never seems to touch on the realities of the religious discourse in which we engage in the workplace and the wider community.) Our few liberal religious groups have silenced themselves by morphing into social groups who do not talk about religion. All this shapes theological discourse — talking openly about liberal religion is a radical act because doing so is a refusal to accept the generally accepted rules of religious discourse.

So how do you do theology when you’re so far away from systematic theology? A few academic theologians give us ways to do theology that matters. I have found Anthony Pinn particularly useful. Pinn writes as an African American humanist theologian who sees through the usual stereotype that “all African American religion is Christian.” In his essay “Rethinking the nature and tasks of African American theology: A pragmatic perspective ” (American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, May, 1998) Pinn writes:

…[M]y effort [is] to move beyond a strictly polemical discussion of Black Theology toward a more constructive and pragmatic posture that is based on three pragmatic moves. The first movement entails my rethinking conceptions of religious experience in ways that recognize the multiplicity of religious experiences. Thus, theology is done with a knowledge of and acquaintance with the variety of religious expressions. In this regard, the reader will recognize the intellectual shadow of both William James and Charles Long within this first move. The second move seeks to think through theology as empirical and historical discipline. Understood in this way, theology becomes a way of seeing, interpreting, and taking hold of African American experience. This thesis is expressed through an examination of theology’s objective and goals, using in large part Victor Anderson’s notion of “cultural fulfillment.” The third move entails reflections on methodology within African American theology. I argue for a critical, pragmatic commitment that gives priority to experience (and the objective of fulfillment) over “tradition.” William R. Jones and Gordon Kaufman provide the framework for this third movement in my pragmatic critique of African American theology.

Recognize multiplicity of religious experience: know how religion is actually done in the world around you. Understand theology as empirical and historical: observe, then interpret, before you theorize. Give priority to experience: leave the academy behind and get out into the world.

I think all this feeds into “UU Emergence,” that is, getting religious communities to deal directly with postmodern realities. There is no grand narrative any more. Instead of timeless systematic theology, tell stories about who and where you are now. There is no one religious movement that will take over the whole world. Instead of universal religious forms, let locality shape liturgy. There is no single genius who can speak for all humanity. Instead of trying to find a top-down authority that knows all and sees all, observe and feel and describe and build networks of mutuality with others. There is no one book of theology that will solve everyone’s theological problems. Instead of trying to write universal systematic theology, write ephemeral blogs.

Maybe it all comes down to getting out and walking around the place you live (I do mean walk, and not drive). I think I’ll do just that, right now.