The joy of cars

It is fashionable among religious and political liberals to bemoan the existence of automobiles, particularly because their environmental impact. I do it all the time. Of course, if you’re like me, you’re familiar with various counter arguments that tell us why cars are not so bad as all that:– we know that suburban sprawl began long before the automobile age, and so doesn’t require automobiles — and that having automobiles was better than using horses for transportation purposes, since the exhaust put out by horses in cities is arguably more noisome and a greater public health issue than automobile exhaust, and the maltreatment of horses when they were used primarily as transportation is arguably an ethical problem as serious as that of sprawl.

However, I don’t see many of us paying attention to what might be called the cultural argument in favor of cars. This argument is presented quite well by Agatha Christie in her autobiography:

Oh, the joy that car [the first car she owned] was to me! I don’t suppose anyone nowadys could believe the difference it made to one’s life [to own a car for the first time]. To be able to go anywhere you chose; to places beyond the reach of your legs — it widened your whole horizon. One of the greatest pleasures I had out of the car was going down to Ashfield and taking mother out for drives. She enjoyed it passionately, just as I did. We went to all sorts of places — Dartmoor, the house of friends she had never been able to see because of the difficulties of transport — and the sheer joy of driving was enough for both of us. I don’t think anything has given me more pleasure, more joy of achievement, than my dear bottle-nosed Morris Cowley.

Yes, I hate suburban sprawl, and I dislike having to commute to work by car,– but I too, like Agatha Christie, love to drive. And I have found that it is no use to me personally to address the first two points without acknowledging that last point. What about you?

Humans at the center of the universe

Dad made an interesting suggestion this afternoon when I was talking with him. He suggested that calling oneself a humanist might tend to indicate that one assumes that human beings are at the center of existence. This might imply that those who are committed to environmental justice and ecological repair might prefer to call themselves naturalists (as in, a religious naturalist or theological naturalist).

Dad put it much better than that, but I think I’ve managed to communicate his basic idea. And I think he’s identified some of my discomfort with the term “humanism” — I don’t want to be associated with a theological label that puts humans at the center of the universe, because in my opinion a big part of the problem with Western culture is that it makes humans more important than any other kind of life form, an attitude that has gotten us into global climate change, denial of global climate change, release of toxics into the environment, etc.

What do you think? Does humanism put humans at the center of the universe? Is that a bad thing? I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’d particularly love to hear from someone who strongly identifies with both humanism and deep ecology, mostly because from my point of view those two positions would be mutually exclusive.

Midnight in New York

The movie theatre was in the middle of the block, and the line to get in already stretched to the corner. It was forty minutes before the movie began. We had our tickets already — the early show was already sold out by the time we showed up, so we had bought tickets for the seven o’clock — but we figured that if we wanted to get seats together, we had better line up with all the others. Pretty soon, the line was twice as long.

Someone walking by to get to the end of the line said, “All these people must’ve started seeing Woody Allen films when they were in college and here they all are.” But several people had brought children and teenagers, so that wasn’t entirely true. Someone else said that there are three hundred seats in this theatre, but usually only a couple dozen are filled. Not tonight, though. A man standing behind us talked knowledgeably and at length about other Woody Allen films: “Remember the scene where they’re standing in line to see the movie in ‘Annie Hall’? … Then Marshall McLuhan walks up, and says … And Woody Allen looks out at the camera and says …” A woman said, “I can’t remember the last time I stood in line on the first night of a movie.” The knowledgeable man said, “It already opened in New York and L.A. This is just opening night for the Bay area. But at least it still hasn’t opened in Pittsburgh.”

At last the line started moving. We found two seats together, at the very back, with an aisle seat for my very long legs. A couple, maybe in their late twenties or early thirties, asked if the seats beside us were open, and we said yes. He went off to get something or other, and she said to us, “Do you think we’ll be able to see back here?” “It’s a small theater,” said Carol. “Those must be the last two seats left together,” I said. “Well, it’s much better to sit together,” said the woman. They came and went a couple of times, and on the last time in, he murmured an apology, and she said, “It’s our first movie together.”

I won’t tell you anything about the movie; anything I could tell you would spoil it. Except I can tell you that although the movie claims to be about Paris, it’s really about New York, like all of Woody Allen’s movies; everyone speaks with a New York rhythm, except the Parisians of course, but they might just be tourists. Come to think of it, many of the people in the movie theatre sounded like they came from New York — not the Bronx or Staten Island, mind you, but Manhattan.

The way out of decline

The Unitarian Universalist Association is in decline by many measures: number of certified members, average Sunday morning attendance, enrollment in religious education programs. Now obviously this decline is an average across all congregations; some congregations are growing and thriving, while others are declining. So is there a way out of decline?

I don’t believe there is some magic bullet that will infallibly cure decline. Nor am I an ideologue who believes there there is one root cause from which all decline springs — that is, I don’t believe that we’re declining because of our polity, or because we’re not Evangelical Christian, or because we’re mostly white. As a historical materialist, I do believe that there are some broad demographic trends that are pushing us in certain directions. But I also believe that every congregation finds itself in a slightly different and therefore unique setting, with a unique set of pressures and opportunities. Specific techniques for growth that work in my congregation may not work for your congregation, and vice versa.

Having said that, there are at least three obvious principles that can help us reverse decline. Continue reading “The way out of decline”

Why I disagree with Jonathan Edwards (but like him for it)

I love reading Jonathan Edwards, the great eighteenth century evangelical New England minister, perhaps the greatest American theologian of that century. He writes well, good rational eighteenth century American prose filled with vivid images and solid common sense. And because he is such a clear writer, I can better understand why I disagree so strongly with his theological position. This passage, from his sermon “Knowledge of Divine Truth,” beautifully summarizes one of Edwards’s principle axioms, an axiom with which I could not disagree more:

There are many truths concerning God, and our duty to him, which are evident by the light of nature. But Christian divinity, properly so called, is not evident by the light of nature; it depends on revelation. Such are our circumstances now in our fallen state, that nothing which it is needful for us to know concerning God, is manifest by the light of nature in the manner in which it is necessary for us to know. For the knowledge of no truth in divinity is of any significance to us, any otherwise than as it some way or other belongs to the gospel scheme, or as it relates to a Mediator. But the light of nature teaches us no truth of divnity in this manner. Therefore it cannot be said, that we come to the knowledge of any part of Christian divinity by the light of nature. The light of nature teaches no truth as it is in Jesus. It is only the Word of God, contained in the Old and New Testament, which teaches us Christian divinity.

I couldn’t disagree more with Edwards; yet it is his clarity in stating this axiom that allows me to understand why I disagree with him. This leads me to conclude that there is no use in putting forth unclear arguments. If people disagree with you, they will figure it out sooner or later; better that they figure it out sooner. And better that they have a clear understanding of why they disagree with you.

This, I think, is why I have such a feeling of distaste for the Seven Principles. The prose is mushy, and seems to veil strongly-held beliefs behind weak assertions of generalized platitudes. Of course I believe in democratic process; but what do you mean by democratic process, and in what sense is this a religious and theological matter anyway? Of course I assert that every person has inherent worth and dignity, but do you make that assertion for the same reason I do? — are you making that assertion from the standpoint of natural law, or from the standpoint of Universalism that knows the power of God’s love, or what? The Seven Principles are unclear, and therefore easy to affirm but difficult to disagree with; this is their big weakness.

Reasons for decline

In yesterday’s post, I talked about the numerical decline of Unitarian Universalism, and asked why we are declining. Readers left thoughtful and interesting comments giving their ideas of why we’re declining. In tomorrow’s post, In Thursday’s post, I’ll suggest some ways we might reverse our numerical decline. Now are some of my thoughts about why the numbers of certified members of Unitarian Universalist congregations are declining:

(1) During the Great Recession, congregations have been facing budget shortfalls, and one obvious way to cut costs is to reduce the number of certified members. Congregations pay dues to the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and to their local district for each certified member; fewer members means less dues to pay.

(2) UUA salary guidelines are pegged to congregation size, so a congregation that is hiring a new staffer may have motivation to have fewer certified members in order to drop down to a lower salary range in the guidelines.

(3) People who come from no previous religious background may see no benefit in becoming members of a congregation, or may not understand membership.

(4) Membership is declining because there are fewer people in our congregations — more on this in this next set of comments. Continue reading “Reasons for decline”

Time to panic

According to a story released today on the UU World Web site, total membership in Unitarian Universalist congregations dropped again this year, from 164,196 members to 162,796 members. If I did my math right, this represents a drop of about 1.58%. (The story incorrectly states that these represent the numbers of adults, but some congregation allow legal minors to become full members; therefore, it is more accurate to simply say the number of members has dropped.)

Since U.S. population is growing at about 1% a year, that means Unitarian Universalism is shrinking even faster considered as a percentage of the total population. But there’s an even bigger reason to worry about the decline, because as UU World reports:

Registration in religious education programs fell for the fourth consecutive year. It dropped 2.1 percent to 54,671.

Religious education programs has been perhaps our most effective entry point for adults in their late 20s through early 40s — they bring their kids to Sunday school, then sometimes stick around after their kids grow up. Dropping religious education enrollments indicate that we are going to see dropping numbers of adults in the 25-45 age range.

If you’re not panicking yet, UU World also reports that:

Average Sunday attendance showed a decline for the first year, falling by 1,539 people. That’s a decline of 1.5 percent to 100,693 people.

A drop in Sunday attendance often precedes a decline in membership, since usually someone stops attending services months or even years before ending formal membership affiliation. The drop in attendance prompts me to predict that membership will continue to decline next year.

Why are we declining? I’d love to hear your comments first. I’ll summarize some of my thoughts on the matter tomorrow.

The rapture and Aegle marmelos

I don’t usually bother linking to my sermons, but yesterday’s sermon just happened to serve as a commentary on the misfired Rapture of Saturday. Here’s the link. As you will find out if you read the sermon, the end of the world actually begins, not with earthquakes in New Zealand, but with the fruit of Aegle marmelos.

A comparison to the way Isaac Newton handled a similar situation is perhaps inevitable in our culture.

Not raptured

It’s easy to make jokes about the end of the earth that didn’t come yesterday at 5:59 p.m., as predicted by Harold Camping. There were so many things wrong about Camping’s prediction — the convoluted interpretation of the King James Bible, Camping’s past track record with false warnings of doomsday, the inability to see how culturally conditioned such predictions are, the notion that only one person would have access to such a prediction, etc. — that it’s really tempting to mock him. I did it myself, multiple times, this morning at church.

But it’s not really funnyr. Lots of people believed Camping, and some gave away everything they had thinking they wouldn’t need earthly possessions after yesterday. And everyone I know is capable of fooling themselves, and it’s a rare person who doesn’t delude themselves about something in their life; it’s better not to mock others about something for which we ourselves can be mocked. Finally, Camping’s well-publicized failure has brought out the anti-religion fundamentalists who are now gleefully declaring that because Camping was wrong all religion must be bunk.

I found one of the nicest responses to Camping’s message buried deep in story on the National Public Radio Web site:

…people from more than one religion — and even a few atheists — admitted to being a bit introspective about the world on this particular weekend.

That was true for Maddie Calhoon, a Unitarian Universalist from St. Paul, Minn., who was at a gathering Saturday night that guests renamed a “rapture party.”

“We said, ‘We’re just glad we’re all together.’ And it was a joke,” said Calhoon, 24. “But of course it made me think about things, and about how I don’t reflect often about what I’d do if my time was coming to an end.”

Nice response to this craziness: go hang out with some friends and reflect on what’s most important in life.