Another stupid UU joke

The Unitarian Universalist was out in his boat fishing when suddenly the Loch Ness Monster rose up out of the lake and attacked his boat. The Loch Ness Monster grabbed the bow of the boat in its huge mouth, flipped the Unitarian Universalist way up into the air, and opened its mouth wide, prepared to catch the guy in its mouth and eat him.

As the Unitarian Universalist fell towards that huge mouth filled with sharp teeth, without thinking he said, “Oh my God, help me!” Suddenly time froze. As the guy hung there in mid-air, a huge voice boomed out, “I thought you didn’t believe in a personal God on whom you could call in times of crisis!”

“Hey, give me a break, God,” said the Unitarian Universalist. “A minute ago I didn’t believe in the Loch Ness Monster, either.”

Visiting a Judean village, and “Act out the story!”

A couple of interesting things came up while I was teaching Sunday school yesterday.

1. At the 9:30 service, we’re doing a program based on the old Marketplace 29 A.D. curriculum by Betty Goetz; we’re calling our version “Judean Village 29 C.E.” The idea is that we have gone back in time to a Judean village in the year 29. The adult leaders are mostly “shopkeepers,” or artisans: we have a potter, a scribe, a candymaker, a baker, a musical instrument maker, a spice and herb shop, a maker of fishing nets, and a trainer of athletes. Not all shopkeepers are present each week; sometimes they’re off visiting another village, or visiting the nearby city of Jerusalem. There’s also a tax collector and a Roman soldier who roam around our village, shaking down the villagers for taxes. All the adults are in costume, which makes it a little easier to pretend we’re actually back in the year 29. Continue reading “Visiting a Judean village, and “Act out the story!””


Here in the Bay Area, we had two or three weeks of rainy, cool weather last month, and all the trees and flowers just sat there in their little plots of ground, waiting. Then it got warm, and all the trees and flowers started to release their pollen again. Except by that time they were behind schedule, and besides they were feeling cranky that they had had to wait so long to release their pollen (because after all the weather is supposed to be perfect here all the time, and even the trees and flowers get cranky when the weather isn’t perfect), and besides that we have had more rain than usual this year and all the plants are feeling frisky, and so the trees and flowers decided to double their pollen output. And my head is stuffed up, and I can’t breathe, and the over-the-counter allergy pills I take don’t work, and I feel even spacier than usual because my whole head is filled with pollen, not brains but pollen.

I can’t wait for summer when everything will dry out and all the plants will turn brown and wither and go dormant.

The oaks of Elkhorn Slough

A few days ago, I visited Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. I stopped at the visitor center to purchase a day use pass. The ranger who sold me the pass asked me to stop on my way into the reserve to bush off my shoes and dip them into a disinfectant bath. Seeing my surprised look, she said, “It’s to help control Sudden Oak Death Syndrome. You should do that whenever you go walking where there might be oaks. I know, it seems pointless, but I’m the kind of person who would still wash her hands during a cholera epidemic.”

When I was walking around the reserve, I didn’t even think about Sudden Oak Death Syndrome, although I did admire the many live oaks, with their long convoluted branches arching over the surrounding ground. Human beings are really good at ignoring and forgetting the huge problems which loom before us. I suspect this is the origin of apocalyptic literature, which is designed to force us into facing up to really big problems that are completely beyond our control: the book of Revelation was designed, with its striking and hallucinatory images, to get its original readers to face up to the overwhelming power and evil of the dominant Roman Empire. Apocalyptic literature is also designed to help us feel as though we can make meaningful moral judgments about overwhelming problems, and it is designed to give us hope that somehow things will turn out well, albeit in ways that we really can’t comprehend right now.

We still have political debate, writing, and other art forms cast in the apocalyptic genre today. Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” may be one example; and certainly some of the debate within the environmental movement tends towards the apocalyptic direction. Some of the debate about immigration into the United States and European countries vaguely resembles the apocalyptic genre, down to dire warnings and sometimes surreal logic. There is nothing wrong with apocalyptic literature — it can provide some needed comfort and hope — as long as we recognize that it is really a type of fiction or myth. You still have to wash your hands during the cholera epidemic, you probably should disinfect your shoes before walking among oaks, and when you get done reading an apocalypse you still have to deal with reality.

Cornel West and us

I’ve just been reading historian Gary Dorrien’s essay “Pragmatic Postmodern Prophecy,” which discusses Cornel West as an intellectual and as a religious leader. (This essay, from Dorrien’s 2010 book Economy, Difference, Empire: Social Ethics for Social Justice, is an updated version of a chapter from his 2008 book Social Ethics in the Making.)

Dorrien tells the story of West’s intellectual evolution, and his evolution as a public intellectual. Dorrien also gives succinct reviews of major critiques of West. Towards the end of the essay, Dorrien summarizes West, casting him as primarily a religious thinker:

He [West] never really changed, notwithstanding the Left critics who liked his early writings and claimed that he sold out later. From the beginning West was committed to a Christian liberationist vision of social justice and reconciliation, though some readers wrongly took his early writings to be Marxism dressed up as Christian though. West was not “really” a Marxist who used Christianity; it was more the other way around. He began as a liberationist social critic committed to building progressive multiracial coalitions, and he remained one. (p. 334)

I’ve never quite understood why Unitarian Universalists (and other religious liberals, for that matter) don’t spend much time thinking about West, but Dorrien’s summary helps me understand why so few of us seem to bother with West. It’s not his forthright Christianity; for although some Unitarian Universalists might be uncomfortable with West’s trinitarian Christianity, our own humanist theologian William R. Jones showed us back in 1974 how liberal “humanocentric” theists and liberal humanists have plenty in common, or at least enough to build alliances to fight oppression together.

Instead, I think it’s because West is firmly aligned with liberationist Christian theology, while we Unitarian Universalists mostly remain aligned with the old Social Gospel. West is a Christian socialist who’s not afraid of revolutionary ideas, not afraid of taking risks that don’t always work out, and he’s committed to rapid change. The Social Gospel, as it exists today, still uses liberal but not revolutionary ideas, plays down risk, and works towards slower evolutionary change. Unitarian Universalism (and many other liberal religious groups) are not going to be comfortable with West because his theology is further to the left than we are comfortable with. Unfortunately, this means we have cut ourselves off to some extent from one of the few religious progressives who is a public intellectual, someone who has engaged both the academics and the broader public in conversations about progressive religion.

I’ve long been interested in West because in my view he’s the most prominent intellectual still working in the long tradition of American pragmatism that stretches back to Emerson, Peirce, and Dewey. All of us who are American religious liberals really should have some understanding of the pragmatist tradition, since it has been so influential for our religious tradition. So I wonder if we could think about West as a sort of successor to Emerson: a public intellectual who writes essays that are both popular and deeply thoughtful — and on that basis, we might think of taking his theology seriously, even if we don’t quite agree with it.

An appreciation of Peter Gomes

In a recent appreication of Peter Gomes, William J. Willimon tells an anecdote with implications for ecclesiology:

One Sunday, as Peter say in the vestry and prepared for the morning service, a student usher entered and stammered, “There’s somebody preaching here this morning.”

Peter replied, “Of course, me.”

“I mean there’s somebody preaching in the pulpit. Now. Is that OK?”

“What?” Peter thrust his head into the sanctuary. Aghast, he saw an African-American woman in the pulpit ranting at the docile congregations, screaming over the organ prelude. Indignantly, Peter bustled over to her and hissed through gritted teeth. “You, come down here this instant. Yes, you.”

The intruder stared down at Peter.

“This instant!” he sneered.

Startled, she came down the steps and informed Peter that she had been commissioned to preach that day a word direct from the Lord.

“Look you,” said Peter, in love, “this is my pulpit. I have earned the right to preach in this place. No one is going to deliver any word from the Lord today except for the Reverend Doctor Peter J. Gomes. Now you go sit down on that pew and keep your mouth shut or I will call the campus police after I wring your head off.”

Peter reported that the woman sat there through the service — silent, with a beatific smile upon her face.

“As the prelude ended, I looked with scorn upon my congregation,” Peter confessed. “White, guilt-ridden liberals all, they would have sat there all morning, doing nothing while that woman continued her drivel unabated. They should thank God that their pastor is not some intellectual wimp.”

— “Harvard’s preacher” by William J. Willimon, The Christian Century, 5 April 2011, p. 11.

Would that all religious liberal congregations treated their pulpits with as much respect as Gomes treated the pulpit of Memorial Church.

A list of curriculum books in the New Beacon Series

The best organized series of Unitarian Universalist religious education curriculum, and certainly the series which maintains the highest quality overall, was the New Beacon Series in Religious Education, produced from 1937 to c. 1957 under the editorship of Sophia Lyon Fahs by the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. Ask someone who went to a Unitarian or Universalist Sunday school in the 1950s, and they’re almost certain to remember Beginnings and How Miracles Abound and The Church across the Street. Ask someone whose children went through a Unitarian or Universalist Sunday school in those days, and they would probably add the Martin and Judy books for preschoolers.

In the Palo Alto church’s Sunday school this year, we used the book From Long Ago and Many Lands from the New Beacon Series. It has been so successful that I’m thinking of continuing on with the next book in the series. I searched the Web for a complete listing of the New Beacon series arranged in order of the age of the students, but could find nothing. Below find just such a listing. Please leave corrections in the comments.

  Continue reading “A list of curriculum books in the New Beacon Series”

Because someone asked…

Yes, I sing Sacred Harp music every week in Berkeley. Yes, beginners are welcome. And a great place to check out this wild, raucous, loud, centuries-old genre of indigenous American music is the upcoming all-day singing on Saturday, April 23, in Berkeley — the 7th Annual Golden Gate All-Day-Singing. I know of several beginners who will be singing with us on April 23 — plus a former lead singer of a grunge-core band, a Grammy-award winning singer of medieval music, a K-6 music teacher, a church organist, a singer-songwriter, a couple of old folkies, two or three academics, and several dozen ordinary people.

Bernard Loomer reading list

I’ve been reading Jerome Stone’s Religious Naturalism Today, and through it I’ve gotten even more interested in theologian Bernard Loomer. Loomer is the theologian who probably introduced Unitarian Universalists to the web of life as a theological concept. But Jerry also points out that Loomer helped originate another concept that has proved invaluable in liberal religious social justice work:

[In 1976] Loomer also wrote a seminal article on the distinction between unilateral and relational power, which may be the first statement of the distinction between power-over and power-with…. [Religious Naturalism Today, p. 96.]

Jerry’s referring to “Two Conceptions of Power” by Loomer, published in Process Studies 6:5-32, 1976. I’m going to have to add that to my Loomer reading list, which already includes Unfoldings, two booklets of transcriptions of talks Loomer gave at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, and The Size of God, the long essay that revived religious naturalism when it was published in 1987.

By working through these relatively short works by Loomer, it looks like I can (1) gain a richer understanding of “web of life” as a theological and ethical concept; (2) take another look at a key ethical distinction around use of power; and (3) work through a key statement of religious naturalism that uses the concept of God without going beyond the world of nature. All this for less that 200 pages of reading!