A thought experiment

Some scholars of religion criticize the very category of religion. There are several possible critiques, including:

  • “Religion” as typically defined by Western scholars assumes Western religion as a norm, so that for example belief in a supernatural, transcendent deity is a defining characteristic of religion, even though significant numbers of Buddhists and Confucians do not require such belief.
  • “Religion” can’t be separated from the larger culture; there is no religion separate from art, politics, sport, etc.

So here’s a thought experiment. Let’s jettison, just for the moment, the usual definition of religion as something separate from the rest of culture, something that requires belief in a perhaps unbelievable deity, and something the must be associated with a hierarchical or otherwise organized institutional structure.

Once we jettison that definition, we can understand religion as something that is akin to art and politics: it is something that is integral to culture, something that cannot easily be separated out from culture. Using this model of reality, we can make more sense of some otherwise baffling phenomena. Celebrity culture in the West, for example, may be considered as a religious phenomenon: Oprah and Princess Diana are saintly figures in just the same way as the Dalai Lama and the Pope are, which makes it more understandable why they receive the kind of religious veneration as the Dalai Lama and the Pope. Sports may also be considered as a religious phenomenon, right down to the orgiastic frenzies, reminiscent of Bacchic rituals, in which those who are not followers of one’s own sect are physically assaulted. Art and music may also be understood as religious phenomena: we’re all familiar with analogies between rock concerts and religious rites; and, speaking for myself, I get as much religious inspiration by going to an art museum as I get in a worship service.

If religion must be understood more broadly in this way, how then are we to characterize Western-style organized religion? It is a subset of religion, a specific manifestation of the way our broader culture does religion. We might consider it a discipline; early Christians sometimes referred to what they did as a disciplina, and it is Christianity more than anything else which has narrowed our Western understanding of what constitutes religion. However, “discipline” is somewhat problematic because it implies that this kind of religion can perhaps be done by oneself, which is clearly not the case. We could also speak of institutional religion, as opposed to other religious activities such as art, politics, etc.; organized religion is a less accurate way of saying much the same thing, for to say “organized” doesn’t tell us that this is religion organized into institutions.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten with this thought experiment. What do you think?

Mencius says…

If you’ve been wondering why the United States is the way it is, here’s one possible answer from the Confucian tradition:

Mencius went to see King Hui of Liang.

The king said, “Venerable sir, since you have not counted it far to come here, a distance of a thousand li, may I presume that you are provided with counsels to profit my kingdom?”

Mencius replied, “Why must your Majesty use that word ‘profit?’ What I am provided with, are counsels to benevolence and righteousness, and these are my only topics.

“If your Majesty say, ‘What is to be done to profit my kingdom?’ the great officers will say, ‘What is to be done to profit our families?’ and the inferior officers and the common people will say, ‘What is to be done to profit our persons?’ Superiors and inferiors will try to snatch this profit the one from the other, and the kingdom will be endangered….

“Let your Majesty also say, ‘Benevolence and righteousness, and let these be your only themes.’ Why must you use that word — ‘profit’ ?”

Mencius, Book 1, part A, chapters 1-4, 6. Trans. James Legge.

Next up…

What is it with religious liberals and Garrison Keillor? So many religious liberals seem to believe he walks on water, even more than they believe that of Mary Oliver. They don’t like him because Keillor is a religious liberal himself, because he obviously isn’t. Is it because so many religious liberals have a strongly ambivalent attitude towards organized religion, and Keillor is notorious for his own ambivalent attitude towards religion? After all, when it comes to religion, Keillor is sometimes mean-spirited, sometimes nostalgic, and sometimes frankly affectionate, just like religious liberals.

Perhaps Keillor’s own ambivalence towards institutional religion makes so many religious liberals like him so much. I don’t know for sure, but I do know that I don’t care for him. Keillor strikes me as misanthropic, he has that weird affected accent, and his Lake Woebegone stories are such shameless rip-offs of Stephen Leacock’s wonderful early twentieth century stories of small-town life in the prairie provinces of Canada,— except Keillor’s stories are not as well-observed, nor as humane, nor are they nearly so funny.

Let me put it this way: the great Groucho Marx admired the comic genius of Stephen Leacock. Groucho Marx did not, however, admire the comic genius of Garrison Keillor. Nothing more need be said.

Good news from PCD

The Pacific Central District and the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) have a process for finding a replacement for the recently terminated district executive — first, find an interim:

The UUA and the PCD Board have decided to hire an interim District Executive for at least a year in order to assist with transitional issues until a settled District Executive is hired.

The hiring process for an interim is more streamlined than it will be when we hire the settled employee. The general plan is to post the job before April 15. Ideally, the job will start on July 1, 2011.

Questions, comments, or suggestions? Please contact us at: PCD-UUA-InterimDE AT pobox DOT com

from the March 30 district newsletter

This is welcome news from my perspective. With an interim, we all have a chance to improve the working relationship between the district and the UUA, to revise policies on performance reviews, etc. This will also give the district a chance to have at least two annual meetings before a permanent replacement has been hired, allowing (I hope) for greater participation by congregations in the district.


Late winter:
for Roger’s
birthday I
bought two books,
put them on
the kitchen
table. There

they sat, next
to the bills
waiting to
be paid, the
the tea pot,
and Carol’s
laptop. There

they still sit.
The sun is
higher, the
trees across
the street have
leaves, the bills
have mostly
been paid. The

days flow past
every one
eat, sleep, shit,
wash dishes,
water the
garden, and

early spring:
the two books
are still on
the kitchen
table, next to
the tea pot,
and the sun-
light, and us.

for Roger’s birthday, since we didn’t give him the books

Disaster preparedness for congregations

Recently, I’ve been thinking about disaster preparedness for our congregation here in Palo Alto. Fortunately, here in the Bay Area the odds are extremely low for blizzards, ice storms, typhoons or hurricanes; and tornadoes are rare (although we did have one tornado watch this part year). So I don’t have to worry about whether the steeple is going to blow down in a hurricane, as we had to in Massachusetts; nor do I have to know where the storm cellar is, as we had to in Illinois. But we do have to prepare for some potential disaster scenarios.

Two of the more common Bay area disasters shouldn’t worry us much in Palo Alto: we’re on the flats so we don’t have to worry about landslides, and we are far enough from the Bay that tsunami risks are low. However, our buildings are at some risk for flooding: we are in Flood Zone X, which is defined as “an area of moderate risk of flooding (roughly speaking, outside the 100-year flood but inside the 500-year flood limits).” Thus, while we should be paying attention to flooding, it’s not of the highest priority.

Our highest priority for disaster preparedness is, not surprisingly, earthquakes. The USGS “Shaking Map for Future Earthquake Scenarios” (click on the map for Mountain View) shows that our location, because of underlying soils, etc., could be expected to experience very strong to violent shaking (Mercalli Instensity VIII-IX) in an earthquake like the magnitude 7.9 1906 San Francisco earthquake. In other words, it could be bad, and we should be paying attention to preparing for this kind of disaster. So at the moment, I’m reading through the USGS publication “Putting Down Roots in Earthquake Country”.

I’d be curious to know if your congregation has disaster plans in place, and what preparations you have made. Feel free to hold forth in the comments.

No April fool from me

I thought about posting some kind of April fool post today. But how could I write anything that would be sillier than reality? How could I could invent anything as silly as the alleged discovery of two thousand year old lead codices with pictures of crosses and menorahs? How could I invent anything as silly as Muammar Gaddafi’s continued assertions that the Libyan people love him? For that matter, how could I invent anything as silly as liberal religion, which seems so proud of its liberal theology and so blind to its conservative methodology?