Epistemology of identity politics within Unitarian Universalism

“Standpoint epistemology,” according to philosopher and law professor Brian Leiter, is the Marxist idea that our social position influences our beliefs; if you are, for example, a member of the working class, your beliefs have been “distorted by the ideology propagated by a different, dominant class, which systematically distorted social reality in its own interests.” This is in distinct contrast to current “bourgeois academic philosophy” where “standpoint epistemology has, ironically, been turned on its head. Now the social position of the purported ‘knower’ — usually ‘race’ or ‘gender’ or ‘sexual orientation’ — is not taken to be a distorting influence on cognition, but rather an epistemic advantage, one which even demands epistemic deference by others.” A key point Leiter makes is that this kind of thinking is done by “well-to-do professors who never challenge the prerogatives of the capitalist class.” The full post, which is short, is here.

My sense is that much of the thinking about identity politics done within Unitarian Universalism follows a similar pattern. We Unitarian Universalists often do give epistemic deference to knowledge based on social position, particularly for social positions based on race, gender, and sexual orientation; recognizing, however, that we tend to assume that the social position of white, male, and/or straight persons is distorted, and therefore should be subjected to serious critique. Contrast this with the epistemological approach of some past Unitarian and Universalist thinkers: early Universalists grounded their epistemology in reason and scripture, both of which were assumed to be equally accessible to all persons; Transcendentalist epistemology assumed that all persons had access to the divine through their faculty of intuition; early humanists relied on the powers of reason which were accessible to all persons; etc. Current Unitarian Universalists tend to be critical of all these earlier approaches, since they were typically written down by white, straight, male thinkers.

I find three interesting points here. First, current Unitarian Universalism generally assumes that knowledge is not accessible by all persons equally; the knowledge of white, straight, and/or male persons is assumed to be in some sense distorted. Second, current Unitarian Universalism (as has been the case through most of its existence) tends to ignore class status; the viewpoint of working class white persons are grouped together with elite white persons like Donald Trump, under the assumption that the standpoint of all white persons leads to a distorted knowledge of the world — the standpoint of all white persons, that is, except for enlightened white persons (such as white Unitarian Universalists) who have questioned their white person’s standpoint. Third, many current Unitarian Universalists are now seriously critical of the notion that there exist some kinds of knowledge accessible to all persons.

I know I’m cynical, but I’m tempted to believe this complicated identitarian epistemology helps Unitarian Universalists maintain their comfortable belief in capitalism.

“The perilous whiteness of pumpkins”

Overwork and health issues have kept me away from this blog for a couple of weeks, but I now bring you an important scholarly article just in time for Halloween.

Back in 2015, two scholars published a peer-reviewed article in the academic journal GeoHumanities titled “The Perilous Whiteness of Pumpkins.” From the abstract: “Pumpkins in popular culture also reveal contemporary racial and class coding of rural versus urban places.” In other words, according to the authors, rural working class white folks dig pumpkins; urban middle class non-white folks, not so much; furthermore, this difference can lead to riots.

This could have been an interesting article, except I got lost in jargon-filled prose like this: “Spaces where actual pumpkins reside differ from spaces in which metaphorical pumpkins are segregated in the social landscape of modern U.S. cultures.” I’m honestly not sure just what that means, although maybe I just don’t get the jargon of the interdisciplinary study of geography and humanities.

But this next sentence I am quite sure I understand: “Actual pumpkins and the ideas of pumpkins intersect; both stay on the page for the remainder of this article.” I saw no actual pumpkins staying on the page for the remainder of the article. Or I suppose if I had seen the intersection of actual pumpkins, and ideas of pumpkins, it would have looked like this:

By the way, you will notice that this Venn diagram stayed on the page for the remainder of the time you were looking at this article. I have come to expect that sort of behavior from Venn diagrams, although to paraphrase Lord Berkeley’s question: If a Venn diagram is on the page, and no one sees it, does it stay on the page for the remainder of the article? The only reason I can indulge in such stupid sophomoric humor is that the authors of this article needed a remedial course in writing good prose.

Updated Sunday school teacher manual

I just completed a major re-write of A Manual for Sunday School Teachers in Unitarian Universalist Congregations.

Among other improvements, I completely rewrote Section 2, “Basics of Teaching and Learning,” based on my observations of what new Sunday school teachers really want to know. On Saturday, I’ll be leading a workshop on “Teaching 101” at Pot of Gold, the district religious education conference, and I’ll base this workshop on the revised Section 2 (with added hands-on activities).

I’ll post the table of contents below the fold.

Above: A Sunday school teacher coaching a middle schooler on how to use a power tool during a Sunday school class at my church. No, this is not your mother’s Sunday school!

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Universal concepts — or not?

Are the concept of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding universal and shared across different cultural and religious traditions? Or are there no important philosophical concepts that are shared among people in all cultural and religious traditions?

The interdisciplinary team of the Geography of Philosophy Project aim to find out. They’re taking an empirical approach, and just opened a Web site where they plan to report at least some of their progress. Not much there yet, but I plan to keep an eye on the Go Philosophy Web site.

(Thanks to.)

Progressive Confucianism

Progressive Confucianism is a new Web site, primarily in Chinese, though with a small amount of English-language content as well. I wish I read Chinese, because the material on Progressive Confucianism in English makes the concept sound pretty interesting, such as this passage:

“The idea that ethical insight leads to progressive political change, which in turn leads to greater realization of our potential for virtue, lies at the heart of Progressive Confucianism.”

(Thanks to.)

Global vs. local atheisms

In a post on the Indian Philosophy Blog, Elisa Freschi distinguishes between global and local atheisms:

“The Mimamsa school of Indian philosophy started as an atheist school since its first extant text, Jaimini’s Mimamsa Sutra. At a certain point in its history, however, it reinterpreted its atheist arguments as aiming only at a certain conception of god(s). In other words, it reinterpreted its atheism as being not a global atheism, but a form of local atheism, denying a certain specific form of god(s) and not any form whatsoever.”

I find this an extremely useful distinction, which in my experience is mostly absent in Western thought. In the West, our religious thinking has been dominated by monotheistic religion — Christianity and to a lesser extent Judaism — which have tended to force our thought into either/or, binary thinking: either I believe in the the monotheistic Christian (or Jewish) deity, or I believe in nothing. It is difficult for us to conceive of any other option.

In the Indian religious landscape, however, there is a multiplicity of deities. I suspect that kind of landscape allows a more nuanced approach to thinking about deities. In one example, Freschi quotes one Indian philosopher as saying: “I have refuted the inference to the existence of the Lord said by other scholars, but I have not refuted the Lord Himself” (Nayaviveka, tarkap?da, end of sambandh?k?epaparih?ra).

But I can see other possibilities that could also be interesting, such as refuting the existence of certain classes of deities. This brings to mind Xenophanes, a thinker from the pre-Christian West, who made some well-known criticisms of the class of anthropomorphic deities:

“Yes, and if oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms of the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds” (fragment 15, John Burnet translation); and

“The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair” (fragment 16, John Burnet translation).

Xenophanes also criticized the class of deities that not only looks like but behaves like humans:

“Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all things that are a shame and a disgrace among mortals, stealings and adulteries and deceivings of one another. (fragment 11, John Burnet translation)

All this raises an interesting line of thought: arguments supporting atheism in the Western tradition tend to argue against the monotheistic traditions of Christianity and Judaism. And indeed, Western atheists have developed some powerful arguments against these monotheistic deities. But because their arguments focus so narrowly on the specifics of Western monothesitic deities, I find their arguments less convincing when considering, for example, panentheism. (And no, that’s not a typographical error; see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on panentheism.)

The most interesting point here for me is that in an increasingly multicultural world — that is, in a globalized world where cultures previously separated by comfortable distances now find themselves living literally next door to one another — arguments against the Western concept of “God” might suddenly be revealed to be a local atheism. Similarly, arguments for the Christian or Jewish deity might well be a local theism.

Exodus: The Card Game

A few months ago, I wrote about prototyping “Exodus: The Card Game,” a game based on the wanderings of the Israelites. After lots of play with both kids and adults (and lots of changes to the rules), prototyping is finally done. I made 6 decks using the online printer Board Games Maker; the printing quality is excellent, and here’s what a deck looks like:

One of our curriculum goals in our Sunday school is to play more games. “Exodus: The Card Game” is designed to supplement an upper elementary or middle school unit on the Hebrew Bible. Once you learn the rules, play takes about 15-20 minutes, so it fits nicely into a typical Sunday school class time. And the rules are fairly simple and straightforward; I’m including them below the fold so you can get an idea of the game.

The only problem with this game is the price. I bought 6 decks, and the price including shipping and handling came out to just under $25 per deck — pricey for a card game. (If I printed 1000 decks the price would drop to about $6 per deck, but what would I do with 1,000 copies of this game?)

If you’d like to buy a copy of the game, email me and I can get you a single copy for about $27. (There’s a price break at 6 copies, which knocks approximately $2 off the price; next price break is at 30 copies.) If you’re going to the Pot of Gold religious education conference in Sacramento on Sept. 29, I’ll have a few extra copies of the game to sell.

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New book: Unitarians in Palo Alto

For the past five years, I’ve been researching Unitarians who lived in Palo Alto from 1895 to 1934, and writing short biographies of these ordinary Unitarians. I’ve finally collected these biographies and printed them in a perfect-bound paperback book, Available on Lulu.com either as a print copy for $10.84 (plus whatever Lulu charges for shipping and handling), or as a PDF download. The Introduction to the book appears below the fold.

Unitarians in Palo Alto, 1895-1934: A Biographical Dictionary
by Dan Harper
ISBN: 978-0-9889413-5-9

A biographical dictionary of Unitarians living in Palo Alto, Calif., from 1895 to 1934, most of whom were associated with either the Unity Society of Palo Alto (1895-1897) or the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto (1905-1934).

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Obscure Unitarians: Eliza Corbett Thompson Stebbins

Eliza (Elsie) Corbett Thompson Stebbins was born in England on April 6, 1879, and emigrated to the United States in 1884. She attended the University of California at Berkeley c. 1898-1901, but she does not appear to have graduated. In 1900, she gave her occupation as “Teacher of Music,” and lived in a boarding house in Oakland.

She married Horatio Ward Stebbins in Santa Barbara on February 14, 1906; Horatio was the son of Rev. Horatio Ward Stebbins, long-time minister of the Unitarian church in San Francisco. The younger Horatio, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, taught mechanical engineering at Stanford University. Presumably the younger Horatio was also affiliated with the Unitarian church, though the extant documents do not mention him. Elsie and Horatio had one child, Amelia “Amy” Adams Stebbins (b. June 11, 1912).

Elsie served on the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Church in Palo Alto beginning in 1916.

She died May 25, 1968, in San Mateo.

Notes: 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930 U.S. Census; University of California Reg-ister, 1898, 1901; “Marriages,” Christian Register, March 1, 1906, p. 249; Eliza “Elsie” Corbett Thompson, “The New England Mathers,” https://wc.rootsweb.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=mikemather63&id =I147333 accessed 11 September 2018); Bulletin of the Massachusetts In-stitute of Technology, Boston: Register of Former Students (Boston, Mass.: May, 1915), p. 470; California Death Index, 1940-1997, Department of Public Health Services, Sacramento.

Obscure Unitarians: “Mr. Wolff”

A “Mr. Wolff” served on the Committee of Ushers of the old Unitarian Church in Palo Alto in 1908. Who was this man, mentioned only once in the extant records of that long-defunct church?

A likely candidate is Franklin Fowler Wolff. The son of a Methodist minister, he was born in Pasadena in 1887, and rejected orthodox Christianity while he was in his teens. He studied mathematics, psychology, and philosophy at Stanford University, and received his A.B. in mathematics in 1911. He then did graduate study in philosophy at both Stanford and Harvard, returning to Stanford in 1914 to teach mathematics. But after only a year, he left academia to pursue his own studies, and changed his name to Franklin Merrell-Wolff. He eventually became known as a spiritual teacher, a mystic, and a writer.

This identification of “Mr. Wolff” should be considered tentative. Another possible “Mr. Wolff” is Marcus Wolff, who received his A.B. in economics from Stanford in 1906; however, he appears to have been living in San Francisco in 1908.

But if Franklin Merrell-Wolff did indeed attend a Unitarian Church while an undergraduate at Stanford, barely out of his teens, it would not surprise me — the Emersonian philosophy that underlies much of Unitarian theology could have had a distinct appeal to a developing mystic.

Notes: Ron Leonard, The Transcendental Philosophy of Franklin Merrell-Wolff (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1999).